Sony’s NEX-3 and NEX-5 cameras promise SLR performance from a compact-sized body, and toss in a special shooting mode that allows you to view photographs in 3D on compatible televisions.

Measuring 24.3mm thick and weighing just 229 grams, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are equipped with Sony’s Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensor and provide ISO sensitivity ranging from 200-12,800 at 14.2 megapixels. The three inch LCD on the rear of the body features a high resolution 920,000 pixel screen that uses “TruBlack” technology, something Sony says will make viewing the screen in sunlight finally possible. The screen can also be tilted 80 degrees up and 45 degrees down allowing you to change your angle as you photograph.

Feature-wise, then, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are very similar, with the key point of difference being the respective video modes: the NEX-3 offers 720p HD shooting while the NEX-5 provides full HD 1080i support.

Longer lenses like the 18-55 (3.5-5.6) will be available for the NEX-3 and NEX-5.
Longer lenses like the 18-55 (3.5-5.6) will be available for the NEX-3 and NEX-5.

For many consumers, these compact interchangeable lens cameras make ideal training wheels for an eventual digital SLR purchase.

Sony isn’t the only one in this sector, however. Olympus and Panasonic are onboard with the Micro Four Thirds format, while Samsung took its NX camera, with full-size SLR APS-C sensor, to shelves last month. While everyone is competing quite aggressively, some features mark the Sony NEX camp apart. One of these features is 3D photography.

 

3D Panorama

We reckon this more gimmick than anything else, but with an option for 3D photography coming in August via firmware upgrade, it might just be enough to sway potential buyers away from competing marques. The features draws on technology developed for Sony’s existing “Sweep Panorama” mode, which allowed you to fire shots in a circular view to capture a panorama. The “3D Sweep Panorama” mode in the NEX models does the same but captures an image for use on new 3D TV sets. Our test was shown on a Sony 3D TV, but we expect this to work on most 3D-enabled televisions.

It achieves this by slicing two slivers, an eye distance apart, out of each image and then stitching the two sets of images together. This produces a 3D image without needing to shoot it on two cameras. The 3D mode is not implemented for video, with Sony saying the feature runs only on the stills panorama mode.

Another differentiator of the NEX compact SLRs (if we can categorise them as that) is lens compatibility. While Sony offers three different lenses for its NEX cameras – a 16mm (f2.8) pancake, 18-55mm (f3.5-5.6) kit lens, and 18-200 (f3.5-6.3) – an optional adaptor allowing the use of existing Sony Alpha A-mount lenses will soon be available. While Panasonic and Olympus have similar offerings for Four-Thirds lenses (as well as older mounts), this is an area where Sony have a big leg up on rival Samsung and its NX series cameras.

Despite the lack of flash, Sony provide a flash accessory for the NEX cameras.
Despite the lack of flash, Sony provide a flash accessory for the NEX cameras.

We haven’t had an extensive play with the cameras, but our initial impressions are positive. They feel well balanced and purposeful in the hand, the control layout is well designed and it’s certainly quite easy to take photos. The absence of an inbuilt flash is a mistake, however. While the camera supports up to ISO 12,800 for low-light photography, there’s only so much a sensor can do at night or in a dark room without a flash and, more importantly, at this end of the market, customers expect one.

Available from late June, Sony has pegged pricing at $849 for the NEX-3 single lens-kit and $1049 for the NEX-5 single lens kit.