Sony NEX-F3 vs NEX-5N vs NEX-7 Mirrorless Comparison

May 20, 2012

Sony Alpha NEx-F3 vs NEX-5N vs NEX-7

Sony has announced the NEX-F3, a new mirrorless camera in the NEX lineup that replaces the NEX-C3 that was announced on June 8, 2011.  Sony NEX-F3 now utilize a new and improved sensor, somewhat resembles the one that on the NEX-5N. That means very high image quality, especially in high ISO. The NEX-F3 now comes with a built-in flash and high-res 180 degrees flip LCD for self-shot portraits. So if you are after purchasing a new mirrorless camera and you are coming from point-and-shoot, the NEX-F3 is certainly a camera for you.

In this article I want to compare the Sony NEX-F3 vs NEX-5N and NEX-7.  All are excellent Compact System Cameras, but they have their differences. The Sony NEX-F3 is an entry-level mirrorless camera. Sony aimed this camera towards people who come from point-and-shoot cameras.  Above the F3 their is the NEX-5N. This is of the best low-light mirrorless camera performer in its class. A camera that was able to beat even some of the most regarded full frame DSLR cameras in terms of high ISO performance. At the top of the line you can find the NEX-7, Sony’s mirrorless flagship camera.  Although the price between the F3 and the 5N is not large (approx. $50), the price difference between the NEX-7 and the NEX-F3 is twice as much.

However, some people might be convinced to purchase the Sony NEX-5N over the NEX-F3, and some would even pay twice to get a premium professional-grade mirrorless camera. Before choosing on of the three, it’s important to understand the key differences between those three CSC cameras.  I will start with an introduction of the F3, Sony’s latest mirrorless, and I will continue with a comparison.


APS-C Equals Bulkier Lenses?

The Alpha NEX-F3 features a 16.1-megapixels APS-C size sensor. You might ask yourself, what is an APS-C sensor? – For those who don’t know, APS-C represents the size of the sensor, which in the case of the F3 it measures 23.4 x 15.6 mm. Other APS-C sensors are roughly the same size. This size is small than full frame and larger than Micro Four Thirds (approx. 17.3 x 13.0 mm). Micro Four Thirds sensors are 40% smaller in area (2.0 crop fator) than APS-C (1.6 crop factor) and 75% smaller than Full Frame Sensors (also referred to as 35mm).

The larger the sensor, the more light the sensor gathers, which leads to better image quality overall.  That also results in a better low-light performance, which is measured in ISO steps.  Technology innovations certainly helped Micro Four Thirds comes a long way in terms of image quality at high ISO. However, physics still wins and you can expect larger sensor to outperform smaller ones.

The Sony NEX-F3 comes with a APS-C sensor, one bigger than Micro Four Thirds.  The problem with large sensors is that they require large optics to project the image over the whole parts of the sensor. Of course no one who buys a compact mirrorless camera really wants to have a bulky lens. The whole idea behind mirrorless cameras is their compactness.

In order to make myself clear, late’s take a look at some E-Mount lenses, mounted on the Sony NEX-F3:

Sony NEX-F3 with various E-mount interchangeable lenses

Sony NEX-F3 with various E-mount interchangeable lenses (click to enlarge)


In the above image you can see the Sony NEX-F3 with various lenses (from left to right: 16mm, 18-55mm, 55-210mm, 30mm; all E-mount lenses). You can see that some of the interchangeable lenses are small, other are much bigger. The small one is the Sony E 16mm f/2.8 wide-angle prime lens, whether the biggest lens is a Sony E 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 telephoto zoom lens.  The 55-210mm certainly looks weird on the NEX-F3, because it’s really a large lens compared to the compact body of the F3. Most of you will probably start with the 18-55mm Kit lens (second from the left), which is not as compact as a pancake lens (16mm), but not bulky as the 55-200mm.

Let’s look at another comparison, now comparing the Olympus PEN E-PL2 with 14-42mm and 45-200mm lenses, versus Sony NEX-F3 with 18-55mm and 55-210mm lenses.


Sony, Olympus camera and lens comparison

Lens size comparison (click to enlarge)

Although the camera depth are different and the focal length are not 100% equivalent, you can get to see what I am talking about. The smaller the sensor is, the smaller the lenses that can be produced. So if you purchase a Micro Four Thirds camera, you will find that some of the lenses (depends on the optics design) are a bit smaller than the E-mount lenses, but not a huge difference as you might expect.

Some people might opt buying a Micro Four Thirds, others will pick of NEX because of their larger sensors.  The thing is that their is a differences in size between APS-C mirrorless and DSLR cameras.  The next image tells the whole story..

Nikon D3100 vs Sony NEX-F3 comparison

Sony NEX-F3 alongside Nikon D3100, both with 18-55mm lenses

You can clearly see that one of Nikon’s most compact DSLR camera with 18-55mm VR lens, is much more bulkier than the Sony NEX-F3 with the 18-55mm Kit lens. The reason of course is the absence of reflex mirror and optical viewfinder. Both of those cameras have the same APS-C size sensor.  That’s important to know, because as you can see, the fact that the NEX camera doesn’t utilize a reflex mirror, actually does reduce the overall size of the camera + equivalent lens quite significantly.  Because NEX cameras are mirrorless cameras, Sony can create smaller lenses, but their is a limit to how compact those lenses can get.

So in general, I would probably prefer getting a camera with a bit larger sensor, and enjoy (in most cases) a better image quality. Sensor size does matter and if you’ve read my Sony NEX-5N high ISO impressions,  you can see why I am so impressed with Sony’s APS-C sensor.

So yes, APS-C mirrorless cameras do have larger lenses, but they aren’t much larger than the Micro Four Thirds ones. It’s not a huge difference as people say.  However, if you take a look at the Panasonic G X Vario PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, you can see that with a good technology behind it, Micro Four Thirds lenses can become even smaller. I don’t know it will reflect future lenses, and whether we will get to see a compact 18-200mm lens, but it certainly shows the strength of Micro Four Thirds cameras and their relatively smaller sensors.

Another advantages with larger sensors is that you can get a shallower depth of field compared to cameras with small sensors (also depends on the lens). Some of you might be tempted to get a NEX for that reason alone, but I recommend looking at the whole package, because there is a lot there to discover.

So I hope that after reading this section, you can see that APS-C mirrorless aren’t that bulky at all, and they have their advantages.


Composing Image via LCD vs Electronic Viewfinder

The Sony NEX-F3 doesn’t have an electronic viewfinder. In fact, the only NEX digital camera that comes with EVF is the NEX-7.  People coming from P&S are used to compose their photos via the back LCD. In my opinion, there is nothing like shooting via a viewfinder. The problem with P&S cameras is that they have crappy viewfinders and therefore many prefer to shoot via the LCD and not via the EVF.  Having said that, it really depends on the quality of the LCD.

NEX-F3 camera Tilt up LCD display

The F3 screen flip 180 degrees for easy self-shot portraits

The Sony NEX-F3 comes with a 3-inch  920K-dots rear LCD that tilts up 180º. This is great, because you can now take self-shot portraits with ease. Doesn’t matter what I write here, most enthusiast photographers will certainly prefer shooting with a viewfinder, which means many will prefer getting the NEX7, or any other mirrorless cameras that comes with an EVF.  Just note that I am talking about EVF (electronic viewfinder), not OVF (optical viewfinder).  An EVF is actually an LCD screen inside the camera that projects the image onto that screen.

Compact System Cameras cam a long way, and EVFs are in a very high quality. The Sony NEX-7 utilize a 2.4M-dot OLED EVF. The same EVF used in Sony SLT A77 and A65 SLT cameras. Shooting with an EVF give you a more intimate connection to the subject you are shooting. It very useful when shooting in daylight where the sun’s luminescence doesn’t make composing images much easier when using the LCD screen.

If you decide to purchase the Sony NEX-F3, you still have the option to purchase an optional add-on EVF, that attaches to the accessory port of the camera. The Sony FDS-EV1S Electronic Viewfinder is quite expensive (approx. $350), which costs over half the price of the camera itself.  It’s maybe worth paying extra and get the Sony NEX-7 instead. Just note that this EVF and the World’s first XGA OED Tru-Finder viewfinder. It has 100% field of view, high contrast and very rich colors and deep blacks.  Right now you can’t get a better EVF than this. If you purchase the Sony NEX-F3 and really feel a need to get an EVF, at least you know that you have the option.

For the beginner and amateur photographer, I don’t think it’s a big problem not having built-in EVF. Hwever, it really depends on your shooting habits, so you will be the judge whether it’s worth getting this pricey item or not.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the F3 screen doesn’t tilt down, only up like in the 5N. It means that overhead shooting won’t be as easy as having a tilt-down screen like in the 5N.


Built-in Flash

nex-f3 built-in flash

NEX-F3 Built-in Popup Flash

The Sony NEX-F3, unlike the 5N, comes with a built-in flash (the NEX-7 also has a built-in flash). The question that you might ask yourself, whether you really need it. Remember, you can always purchase faster lenses and APS-C cameras can shoot at high ISO with very low noise. However, Sony aimed this camera to beginners, those who are coming from P&S cameras, so a flash had to be implemented. I just wonder if the camera would have been much smaller if Sony didn’t opt for built-in flash. Nevertheless, some will find it useful, others wouldn’t have to use it at all.

That leads me to talk about the camera size.


NEX-C3 vs NEX-F3 – Size Difference

I should have probably mentioned it first, but anyways, the F3 is larger than the C3 it replaces.  Larger doesn’t necessarily means a bad thing. In fact, I personally prefer  bit larger camera over a very compact one. Why you ask? – because it’s easier to hold, especially if you have large hands and mounting relatively large and heavier lenses. So in my opinion, it doesn’t ruin the whole idea of Mirrorless cameras being compact. The F3 is still a very compact camera compared to the most compact DSLR camera.

Sony NEX-F3 vs NEX-C3 comparison

Sony NEX-F3 vs NEX-C3 side by side comparison

On thing you notice about the Sony NEX-F3 when you compare it to the NEX-C3 is that the shutter button is at the front on top of the grip, instead on the top plate of the camera like in the C3.  In terms of ergonomics, it’s the perfect place to put it, but this is something that you should get used to it. We are used to put our finger at the top of the camera. Anyways, I need to try it to tell you how comfortable it is.

Sony NEX-5N: 16.1MP / 110.8 x 58.8 x 38.2 mm / 269 grams / No Flash
Sony NEX-C3: 16.2MP / 109.6 x 60 x 33 mm / 225 grams / No Flash
Sony NEX-F3: 16.1MP / 117.3 x 66.6 x 41.3 mm / 314 grams / Flash
Sony NEX-7: 24.3MP / 119.9 x 66.9 x 42.8 mm / 400 grams / Flash


High ISO Image Quality (Sample images analysis)

Let’s admit it, the reason why you are looking to buy a mirrorless camera is image quality. Even if it’s not the main reason, you do care about it. If the image quality was average, you might have preferred going with a DSLR instead. But let’s remember that the Sony NEX-F3, NEX-5N, NEX-7, all utilize an APS-C sensor, and that means great image quality. The 5N has already proven to be one of the best cameras in this category, and you are probably interested to know how good the F3 is in this category.

I’ve visited dpreview, and luckily has already posted some high ISO sample images. I”ve also visited Imaging Resource to compare F3 vs 5N side by side to see how good the F3 image quality really is. I already know that the Sony Alpha NEX-5N image quality is amazing, and I wanted to know if the NEX-F3 performs the same, if not better.

After observing the sample images at various ISOs, I can to a conclusion that the high ISO performance of the NEX-F3 is very close to the 5N, just a tiny bit behind. Don’t get me wrong here, the NEX-F3 high ISO performance is excellent, it just that I observed  a tiny-bit better result on the NEX-5N and I was pixel peeping quite a lot.

The 5N outperformed the NEX-7in high ISO, and that’s most probably due to the high amount of pixels on the NEX-7. Even so, the NEX-7 image quality, considering its 24.3MP resolution, it’s absolutely gorgeous. So in short, you can shoot in low-light and high ISO and get some incredible shots. Even at the maximum ISO you can get some very useful image for small prints.

Sony NEX-F3 ISO starts at ISO200 instead of ISO100 as the other cameras. I was interested to see if this has any significant implications on the image quality. I compared the Sony Alpha NEX-F3 versus NEX-5N, the F3 at ISO200 and the 5N at ISO100 – I think that you shouldn’t really care about it, because there isn’t any noticeable differences. The only reason you should care is where you want to lower the ISO one stop in order to get use slower shutter speeds. But all in all, I wouldn’t worry about it at all.

Video quality is also excellent. Although the F3 doesn’t shoot at 60p (progressive), only 60i (interlaced), still image quality is excellent on all cameras.


Key Features Side by Side Comparison

Now let’s take a look at a side by side comparison table, where we compare the key features of the three NEX cameras:

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Which Camera You Should Pick?

If you are coming from point-and-shoot and searching for an excellent mirrorless cameras that can produce excellent images and videos and doesn’t cost too much, the NEX-F3 is one of the best choices out there. The NEX-5N shown its strength as the master of low-light, although the NEX-F3 low-light performance is almost identical to the 5N, if not the same. The NEX-5N has a touch-sensitive screen, and some of you might consider it useful and handy.

The Sony Alpha NEX-F3 has a 180 degrees flip screen for easy self-portrait shots. The 5N on the other hand, doesn’t come with built-in flash, but can reach up to ISO25600 and can shoot at 10fps compared to the 5.5 fps on the F3. The NEX-7 is Sony’s flagship mirrorless and it costs as such (twice as the F3). For that price you will get in-camera OLED high-res EVF, 243.MP ensor, 1080p60 (progressive), 10 fps and all in a durable magnesium alloy body.

For beginners who come from point-and-shoot, I highly recommend getting the NEX-F3. You can stat with the 18-55mm kit and grow from there, depends on your needs.

Buy Sony NEX-F3 from B&H Now!

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