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Promising digital SLR-type image quality from more compact proportions, the mirror-less interchangeable lens 'compact system camera' (CSC) market is undergoing a period of exceptional growth. It kicked off with Panasonic's introduction of the DSLR-styled G1 in late 2008, and was followed by the more obviously compact camera styled Olympus Digital Pen E-P1 mid 2009, which seemed to be what we'd all been waiting for. In 2010 we saw Samsung also enter the fray with its NX series (fielding both DSLR and compact styled models) and Ricoh introduced the modular GXR system on which both lens and sensor were swappable in tandem.
Sensing opportunity, it was less of a surprise therefore when Sony pitched in with the announcement of its own NEX series last summer, a sub-brand of the existing Alpha digital SLR series. The Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 were again mirrorless, again allowed the lens on the front of the camera to be swapped, and again claimed to offer DSLR image quality. In Sony's case this was down to a 14.2 effective megapixel resolution, APS-C sized Exmor HD CMOS sensor. This sensor is even larger than the so called Four-Thirds sensor used in the above Panasonic and Olympus models, so should produce even more detailed shots and cope better in dark enviroments. This is on top of the Four-Thirds sensor already being significantly larger than the chip in your regular compact. What's so amazing is that the NEX 3 and 5 have bodies even smaller than the micro Four Thirds cameras mentioned, and not much larger than said compacts. We reviewed the NEX-5 at the time but omitted its NEX-3 little brother, a 'wrong' we're righting here.
Sony generously sent us the NEX's twin lens kit, which includes the usefully general purpose 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom and, for those looking for the most compact set up possible - that we just managed to squeeze into a jacket pocket - also a bright 16mm f/2.8 'pancake' lens. This proves a good starter combo to provide a fair amount of compositional opportunity out of the box. Whilst the standard zoom range is par for the course for a kit lens, the pancake option is a useful tool for taking wide angle shots of particularly high quality, and with pleasing de-focused background effects (bokeh). It also incorporates a whisper quiet AF motor.
Existing Alpha DSLR owners perhaps downsizing to the NEX are further directed to the LE-EA1 lens adapter, which enables around 30 Sony existing A-mount lenses plus older Konica Minolta camera lenses (which shared the same mount - Sony bought up KM's camera expertise in 2006) to be used. At the time of writing there were two further NEX-3 kits that came with camera body and either the 16mm lens or 18-55mm zoom for around Â£450.
Whilst the 18-55mm lens is optically stabilised to protect against the blurring effect of camera shake when shooting handheld at the telephoto end (or in low light), the 16mm lens isn't, which is the case also with the lens options provided for the recently reviewed Panasonic GF2, which directly competes with the NEX models. You thus may have guessed rightly that Sony hasn't built its SteadyShot Inside anti shake mechanism into the NEX-3's body, unlike on its Alpha DSLRs. As a result if you're buying longer focal length lenses, a stabilised model is a must. As to that unstabilised 16mm lens, it's fast enough that stability shouldn't be a problem for most photography.
Incidentally, the camera looks more the part with the physically narrower 16mm lens attached - with the longer zoom the appearance is certainly 'lens heavy' from front and side on.
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