What the buyer wants – NEX-F3, Alpha 37 and more

SONY is sometimes accused of not listening to the Alpha or NEX owner when it comes to what features they include in new cameras, and what modifications they offer through firmware to existing owners. There are two points of view on firmware; some criticise updates, saying the product should have been released with the right stuff inside on Day 1 while other praise those makers who issue frequent and valuable firmware revisions because they ‘supporting the product’.

My view is the latter; if I own a camera, I really don’t care much what bells and whistles are added to its successor in hardware as I know the only way to get those is to buy the new model. But I do value firmware updates and I know that far more could be done to keep the firmware of older models in top condition. I guess they would have to issue a new camera manual and don’t want to improve the user interface or add functions not included in the original!

Sony does listen, but it listens harder to new potential buyers than to existing owners. It listens to the untapped market, to the people who buy someone else’s camera instead of Sony. After all, it’s already got the existing owners. It only needs to listen to them as far as the next camera upgrade goes for the proportion who will be likely to change frequently.

The new NEX-F3 is a perfect instance of listen to the unconverted market. They want an LCD which aims forward so they can film themselves; amateurs only get one take for their home porn movies and can be very disappointed to find they’ve cut the important bits off. I am, of course, talking about guitar porn, cookery porn, motorcycle porn and not the other kind…so Sony has made the LCD flip over the top.

They have in addition made this entry-level NEX 3 model use the latest 16.1 megapixel sensor, generally agreed to be the most versatile all-round sensor on the market, and accept the accessory FDA-EV1S EVF which doubles Sony profits on any camera sold, should be buyer decide later they want an eye-level electronic finder. The battery life has been extended by 18% to 470 shots per charge, and if you buy the higher capacity 1300mAh Japanese made third party cells in place of the Sony 1080mAh ones which cost six times as much, you win twice. Except that I’ll bet the NEX-F3 adds another layer of battery compatibility protection, just like the 5N and 7 did. The third party cell makers had to update their stuff fast and warn buyers that they needed a compatible type, people owning older clone cells found they didn’t work in the new cameras.

Since this camera is the first NEX (or any Sony Alpha/NEX) to offer in-camera USB connection recharging, the odds are not just high that clone cells won’t work. It’s what bookies call a dead cert. Being able to use your iPhone charger (just a different cable) or similar USB mains-plug or in-car 5v adaptor cuts down on all the rubbish we have to carry when travelling.

To keep the distinction between entry level 3 and better 5 to 7 models clear, Sony has restrained the video to 50/60i with final 25p (European) or 24p (US) output. The better models offer full 50/60p as their top quality. But Clear Image Zoom is included, which does a pretty good job for the everyday user of providing a 2X electronic converter with acceptable full resolution sharpness. There’s no microphone input and some new software which sounds horrible is bundled – PlayMemories Home. Sony, just because you got to use words like Play, Walk, Memories, Man, Stick, Station and so on in various products does not mean they have to be repeated in child-like product names for all eternity!

Sony has added the pop-up flash from the NEX-7 to the F3. Is this a good idea? I predict some deeply disappointed flashers.

It rises just so high above the camera, and it’s not absolutely identical to the 7; the position appears comparable. The new F3 will be sold with the usual single or twin kit lenses I’m sure, and not so often with the latest 18-200mm LE (lite version E?) zoom which has been launched at the same time. This lens is a direct counterpart to the Tamron 18-200mm VC III f/3.5-6.3 which I’ve been used since early March. Though Sony has stated that the OSS (VC) is not as efficient as the more expensive Sony SEL 18-200mm, my findings using the Tamron are that it’s modified to be very smooth during video as has the AF action, which is less volatile than other SEL lenses.

Now I’m sure this lens will be very popular – the Tamron version is sharp and quite beautifully finished, with Sony’s rubberette dust attractor grip absent and a slick metal barrel skin with broad easily cleaned rubber ribs doing the zoom and focus work instead. Tamron’s £499 lens looks like £699 where Sony’s £699 will look like £299 after you have handled it with bare skin for a few minutes. Sony should issue silk gloves with all their lenses.

But here is the downside of choosing such a lens as your kit zoom for the NEX-7 and presumably for the F3. The pop-up flash just doesn’t clear the lens well enough and to use flash with the 18-200mm you must buy the accessory FVL-F20S flash which lifts the light source high enough the camera to avoid what you witness below.

You may also be unimpressed by the uncorrected complex barrel distortion of the 18-200mm Tamron at close range, demonstrated here by photographing an A2 printout of an Adobe lens correction target. Actually, the Tamron profile included in the latest Adobe Camera Raw does a nearly perfect job of straightening up this lens at average scenic distances. This profile should also work with the new Sony lens. What’s good about the Tamron is that its lens identity is recognised by ACR and the correct profile auto-selected.

What you are looking at above is the shadow of the lens, at 18mm, with the lens hood removed and the NEX-7 internal flash used. It is possible the NEX-F3 will be a very small amount better than this.

Here is what happens if you carelessly leave the lens hood on! An A2 target is much the same size as a two-face close-up wide angle portrait, or a typical pet shot or party shot; times you use flash. The shadow does not get smaller further away, but you can dispose of it by using focal lengths over 150mm. Wow!

In other words, Sony has listened to what the public wants – pop-up flash and a superzoom they can afford – but in such a compact body, with no pentaprism-shaped top to allow a good ‘lift’ when the flash is popped up the result will be more than a few unhappy beginners. That is some shadow by any standards.

The Alpha 37

And so to the second consumer-focused launch by Sony this month, the also-16-megapixel Alpha 37. You can think of it technically as a NEX-F3 in an Alpha SLT format – same ISO 16000 top but with 100 at the bottom thanks to the SLT pellicle mirror, same 5.5fps regular motordrive, similar 450/500 shots per battery charge depending on whether you use the power hungry EVF or the economical rear LCD.

You can see here how much extra height the GN10 pop-up flash gains compared to the GN6 of the F3 or NEX-7. It should clear many lenses even with hoods attached, and may well prove usable combined with the new SAM lens for the Alpha range – a slightly more compact 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 using a type of SAM motor which is claimed to be silent and which allows DMF. Remember that earlier SAM designs with the audible motor have not allowed DMF and have even been quite picky about exactly how you set MF instead of AF. The presence of DMF in the new lens indicates that the SAM internal motor focusing may be a lot closer to SSM than to some basic flavours of SAM. I like the idea of this lens, 18-135mms can be surprisingly good though the f/5.6 long end maximum may actually be slower than many 18-200mm or 18-250mms when set to 135mm (they tend to be f/5 at that point).

Is it a Tamron? Probably not. Tamron lens locks move forward to lock the zoom action. Sigma lens locks, though traditionally placed on the left side, move back towards the camera to lock the lens. Sigma has flavours of HSM which allow DMF and others, like the HSM on their 18-250mm OS, which don’t. I look forward to reports on exactly how the 18-135mm works and whether its superior SAM makes it a hidden bargain.

And also, of course, whether the pop-up flash casts interesting shadows!

There is not a lot more to say about the A37 except that it shares most limitations imposed on the F3 such as the video format and bitrates, that it has the usual bells and whistles including an auto portrait crop framing mode, and resembles an A55 body size updated to be more ergonomic. It also has an updated A55 type EVF, not to be confused with the OLED Tru-Finder of the NEX-7, A77 and A65 but identical to the A57. There is a spectacle friendly EVF mode, which as far as I can tell reduces the image area to match the A55 (which wastes loads of its screen as a blank surround). The big improvement made by the A57 was to deploy the full area of the 1440k-dot screen instead of using it as a milky luminescent border for a small image. The downside is that spectacle wearers find the full area hard to see edge to edge.

The rear screen is 2.7″ not 3″, since this is a very compact body, and uses the double hinged up/down tilt mechanism without rotation or forward facing options.

I did not expect to see GPS in this model, but after several expeditions with the Alpha 77 I am beginning to doubt whether onboard GPS as provided by Sony is much help at all. There have been far too many entire shoots where not a single frame has GPS data. It is something I find extremely useful but it’s only useful if it works most of the time. It’s odd to see USB charging introduced in the F3 but not present in this model. Lack of communication between product teams?

The pricing of the A37 will be very competitive indeed.

With all these various May launches – NEX-F3, 18-200mm LE, Alpha 37, 18-135mm SAM – there’s clear evidence that Sony listens first to mass market dealers and to potential new adopters of large sensor interchangeable lens cameras, those moving up from compacts. Everyone who has ever passed an Alpha or NEX fitted with an 18-55mm lens to a compact zoom user will know the reaction – that the zoom doesn’t even begin to zoom, by their standards. They can’t believe you can not frame a face from twenty feet away.

All Sony’s advances are geared to making these larger format cameras more satisfying to the upgrading user.

Now we just wait for them to produce 2012’s models designed to keep the upgrading Alpha and NEX user equally happy.

– David Kilpatrick

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