The smallest Sony NEX-series camera to date—and the most compact camera featuring an APS-C sensor—the 16 megapixel NEX-3N is one of the company’s latest entry-level mirrorless models. The camera offers a few updates to its predecessor like a zoom lever and, importantly, a pop-up flash. But the NEX-3 also loses a couple of options, including the multi-accessory port of the older camera. While it doesn’t have WiFi or touchscreen like the NEX-5R, there’s a lot to like about the 3N—especially for those stepping up from a compact model who want a small, easy to use camera with interchangeable lenses.
For starters, one of the updates is that the NEX-3N comes with Sony’s16-50mm collapsible power zoom, a nicely compact lens with a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 27-75mm. We think this is a much better option instead of the standard 18-55mm lens. In addition to the lens and camera body, the bundle includes a rechargeable battery, micro USB cable and AC adapter for charging in-camera or via USB, a lens cap, body cap and shoulder strap and a printed basic user guide. Windows users can download Sony’s PlayMemories software.
Sony offers a number of different lenses for the 3N, as well as adapters to attach A-mount lenses to the camera. Other optional accessories include various carrying cases, you can also purchase an extra battery back, wall charger, remote control and battery-powered LED Video light. You’ll need the optional bracket to attach the latter since the camera doesn’t have a multi-interface shoe. Pick up a micro-to-HDMI cable for viewing images and video on an HDTV. You’ll also need an SD/SDHC/SDXC or Memory Stick PRO Duo media card.
Available in black or white, the NEX-3N feels pretty solid in the hand. A new textured grip makes it easy to hold although for the best balance, you’ll want to use two hands, with the left hand supporting the lens and in perfect position to use its zoom lever.
The NEX-3N weighs about 9.5 ounces with battery and media card installed and measures a slender 4 3/8 × 2 1/2 × 1 3/8 inches. Attaching the lens doesn’t add much bulk or weight, except when the lens extends during zooming.
Unlike the NEX-3, the latest model is not equipped with a multi-interface shoe, so you won’t be able to plug-in an external flash or viewfinder. Instead, you’ll use the 3-inch, tiltable 460,800 dot LCD. Even with automatic and manual brightness control, the monitor can be a little difficult to work with under high-noon sunlight. You can tilt the LCD, which can help with visibility but, more importantly, the LCD now flips up 180 degrees making it very easy to frame and snap self-portraits.
Also new to the 3N is a zoom lever surrounding the shutter button, better mimicking the compact camera experience. That’s all well and good, but we much prefer using the power zoom lever on the side of the lens, particularly during video capture since it’s so quiet. At the same time, when set to autofocus, the outer ring of the lens can be used to manually zoom but we found that this method was a little less responsive than using either of the two zoom levers. However, if you switch to manual focus using the camera’s internal menu, you can use the same lens ring to focus.
Control layout is fairly minimal, with pop-up flash, playback, shutter/zoom lever and on/off switch on the top deck. In addition to the 3-inch LCD, the rear panel is home to the direct movie button, 4-way controller/dial with access to display, ISO, exposure compensation and drive mode options. Two “blank” buttons correlate with what’s on screen. For example, the top button opens the Main Menu, while the bottom button accesses the built-in help/learning guide. The 4-way controller’s center button opens up the virtual mode menu. The latter cycles through two auto options, program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual exposure modes along with sweep panorama and scene selections. Among the scene modes you’ll find the standard portrait and landscape options as well as night modes such as hand held twilight. This night mode captures multiple images, combines them to a single photo and works quite well to cut down on image noise and to counteract slow shutter speed blur.
Like other NEX cameras, the 3N’s menu system can be confusing. While the icons representing different groups of settings are clearly identified—shoot mode, camera, image size, brightness/color, playback, setup—it’s not always easy to figure out (or remember) what options are available for each. But it gets easier the more you use the camera.
Once you overcome the somewhat challenging menu system, the 3N is pretty easy to use. In addition to its automatic and manual/semi-manual modes, the NEX-3N offers a number of other features. Creative Styles range from Standard and Portrait to Vivid, Landscape, Sunset with the ability to adjust contrast, saturation and contrast for each. Black and white is also available. For more fun and artistic images, check out Picture Effects with Toy Camera, Pop Color, Retro and Partial Color, to name just a few.
With the 3N, Sony expanded on its Auto Portrait Framing from just people to objects with the new Auto Object Framing. Basically, the camera analyzes the composition and suggests a crop for a better visual (set it on Auto so you can keep both the crop and the original). It’s kind of funky, though, and won’t suggest a crop for all images—only the ones that may need a little help.
While the 3N’s feature set is solid, its performance is less impressive than others in the NEX-series. Continuous shooting maxes out at 4 frames per second (with exposure and AF fixed at the first shot), otherwise it’s a very modest 2fps—certainly not speedy enough to capture fast moving action. The camera performs best under good light when it comes to autofocus, which isn’t surprising, but it’s not bad in darker conditions. And although not the fastest camera on the market, it’s fine for everyday shooting. As a bonus, the little flash can be angled to point at the ceiling for a softer bounced effect and the battery life is rated at a very respectable 480 shots per charge.
Of course, the 3N offers full HD video in AVCHD or MP4 at 1080 (60i and 24p) as well as 1440 × 1080 and 640 × 480 at 30fps, with stereo sound. Autofocus is enabled while shooting video and this is where the quiet power zoom of the 16-50mm lens really comes in handy. Video footage is good but not award-winning. However, you’ll find that family and friends will enjoy the movies you create with the 3N.
Overall, I’m pleased with the test shots. Exposures were accurate, although the 3N’s dynamic range sometimes needed a hand from Sony’s DRO (dynamic range optimization) feature, particularly in high contrast scenes. Images were sharp enough for good-sized prints and colors were nicely rendered. ISO ranges from 200-16000 and the 3N does a good job of maintaining detail at higher ISOs, although I’d cap it at about ISO 1600. Depending on the specific conditions, however, you can pull a good-enough-to-print image out of the camera at ISO 3200 when necessary.
Given its price point, small size, and power zoom lens, the NEX-3N offers good value for the dollar. It doesn’t have the performance, viewfinder option or WiFi of its more expensive siblings, but if those don’t matter to you, this little camera is a good option for those who want an interchangeable lens camera for casual photography or honing photographic skills.