Sony A3000 Review - The Sony A3000 has a foot in both the DSLR and CSC camp, with DSLR-esque design yet the inner workings of a CSC.
The combination looks to offer previously cautious buyers an entry into the NEX system but in a more familiar package. The question is, is it anything other than an NEX-3N in a body kit, and is it any good?
Sony A3000 Review – Features
The Sony A3000 is something of an anomaly. Although it looks like a digital SLR, it has the same lens mount and control interface as Sony’s NEX-series compact system cameras. Priced at just £349 complete with an 18-55mm kit lens the A3000 is considerably cheaper than the previous entry-level model of the NEX range, the NEX-3N.
The SLR styling means that A3000 differs from Sony’s other E-mount cameras in several respects. Obviously it is considerably bigger and heavier, but it also has an electronic viewfinder and a built-in flash, features which are only available as add-on accessories for the NEX cameras.
The other major feature that the A3000 has that none of the other E-mount cameras have is its powerful 20.1MP Exmor CMOS sensor, borrowed from the Sony SLT-A58. Apart from the top-of-the range NEX-7, the other NEX cameras all share a 16.5MP sensor. However it’s a fairly safe bet that the next round of NEX cameras will all feature this new sensor, so the A3000’s advantage is only temporary.
It’s lucky that the A3000 does have those few things to brag about, because it doesn’t have much else. Even compared to other low-cost entry-level models the A3000 is distinctly light on features. A quick glance at the main exposure mode dial on the top plate (another nod towards DSLR styling) will reveal that the A3000 offers only the most basic shooting options; intelligent auto, program auto, aperture and shutter priority and full manual exposure, as well as scene modes and a sweep panorama option.
The electronic viewfinder is one of Sony’s XtraFine field-sequential displays, and is very sharp, although it does have the psychedelic colour fringing typical of that type of display when zooming or panning. It’s just as well that the viewfinder is good, because the monitor is a bit lacklustre.
It only has a resolution of 230,000 dots and has a very poor viewing angle compared to most other current cameras. Unlike Sony’s SLT cameras the A3000 has no internal image stabilisation, relying instead on E-mount lenses with built-in optical stabilisation.
One interesting feature is the hot-shoe. It may look at first glance like a traditional flash shoe, but this is Sony’s Multi Interface Shoe, which can also be used to attach an accessory microphone. Unlike older Sony DSLRs this hot-shoe will work with non-dedicated third-party flashguns.
Sony A3000 Review – Design
The overall design of the A3000 is utterly generic; an unremarkable small DSLR with a large sculpted handgrip and a large thumb rest area on the back. It’s within a few millimetres of being exactly the same size as its three main rivals from Canon, Nikon and Pentax, however the initial impression upon first picking up the A3000 is that it feels very light and insubstantial, and the numbers bear this out.
It’s about 80g lighter than the Canon EOS 1100D, 90g lighter than the Nikon D3200 and 170g lighter than the chunky Pentax K-500. It’s a relatively cheap camera, but unlike most other cheap cameras this one feels cheap. The plastic body panels sound hollow when tapped and flex slightly when squeezed, which makes the camera feel fragile and flimsy, a feeling which is only exacerbated by the large and easily breakable plastic hatch on the left of the body, covering the card hatch and USB port.
Considering that it’s going to be sitting on the same shelf as some very well-made rivals the A3000 is not going to make a good first impression.
The Sony A3000’s control design doesn’t do much to help with the feeling of quality either. The shutter button has a distinct bounce to it, and makes a slight but disconcerting pinging noise when pressed. The top panel buttons feel cheap and poorly mounted, and the position of the EVF/LCD button half way up the side of the viewfinder turret defies all logic.
Oddly the A3000’s rear controls feel much more sorted, possibly because they’ve been borrowed from the smaller NEX cameras with which it shares its control layout. It has the same large rotary-bezel D-pad and two context-sensitive soft buttons, whose function in any given mode is denoted by on-screen labels.
It’s a control interface that has divided people; some people just can’t get on with it, while others, your author included, find it intuitive, versatile and easy to use. If Sony really is trying to capture an audience that has rejected the NEX models, keeping the same control system seems like an odd choice.
Sony A3000 Review – Performance
It’s unreasonable to expect an entry-level camera to have the same performance as more expensive models, but even considering its price the Sony A3000 struggles. From a cold start it takes approximately three seconds to start up, focus and take a picture. That might may sound quite fast, but most comparable cameras can do it in around two seconds.
Shooting in JPEG Fine mode it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.3 seconds, which again doesn’t sound that slow until you compare it with other similar cameras, which can do it in around one second. At least it can maintain that speed in JPEG mode. Switching to Raw+JPEG mode, after just two shots the shot-to-shot rate drops to approximately 2.2 seconds.
Some other reviews have praised the A3000 for its fast focusing, but in fact we found that it’s surprisingly slow to focus at all ranges and focal lengths. The problem doesn’t seem to be the sensor; it’s the slow motor in the kit lens, which really takes its time when changing from near to distant subjects.
At least it doesn’t get much slower in low light, where it will focus reliable in surprisingly low light. In total darkness the A3000 relies on its red LED AF illuminator, but this only has a range of about three metres.
The A3000 has a continuous shooting mode in which it can shoot at 2.5fps, but only for a very limited burst; five frames in JPEG Fine mode, or three frames in Raw+JPEG mode
One thing we’ve always liked about Sony cameras is the InfoLithium battery technology. Sony batteries have a chip built in that monitors the battery level, giving an accurate measurement or remaining capacity, which is displayed on the monitor as a percentage. This is much more useful than the usual three-bar meter, and lets you accurately judge how much shooting time you have left.
In the case of the A3000 it’s a lot; Sony claims 460 shots on a full charge, and our testing bears this out.
Sony A3000 Review – Image Quality
The A3000 features a powerful new 20.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, the same as the one found in the SLT-A58, while most of its closest rivals have much less resolving power. However increases in sensor resolution don’t come without a price, so let’s take a closer look at how the A3000 measures up.
Colour and White Balance
Overall colour reproduction is very good. Like all Sony cameras the A3000 offers a range of Creative Style options for colour balance. In the default standard option blues and greens are very neutral and accurately reproduced, although it did seem to us that reds were coming up with a bit too much orange.
Other results were as expected; vivid is more saturated, portrait is warmer, landscape enhances greens and blues, sunset enhances reds, and B/W removes all colour.
Automatic white balance also works well, coping with most natural lighting situations, although it did leave an overcast day looking a bit colder that it might. Manually selecting the cloudy white balance produced more pleasant results. The only time the auto white balance failed was under intense orange sodium vapour lighting at night, and to be fair most cameras would have failed that test too.
It’s rare these days for a high-spec camera to have exposure metering problems, so it’s no surprise that the A3000 performed well here too. Unlike DSLRs, which have a separate light metering sensor, the 3000’s metering is done via the main imaging sensor, evaluating 1200 zones to produce very accurate exposures under virtually all situations. We found that it coped well with low light, high contrast and shooting into the sunlight, all situations that could potentially cause problems.
That 20.1MP sensor certainly has the resolution to capture plenty of detail. In Raw mode it produces more fine detail than any other camera we’ve tried recently; in fact the only camera we’ve seen which beats it is Sony’s own NEX-7, which has a 24.3MP version of the same sensor and costs nearly three times as much. The sharp detail extends from corner to corner on every frame, no small feat for a low-cost entry-level model.
We mentioned that a price had to be paid for that superior resolution, and unfortunately here’s where it gets paid. The A3000 has a maximum sensitivity of 16,000 ISO, which sounds very impressive if you haven’t been keeping an eye on the camera market recently.
While that maximum handily beats the 6400 ISO top setting of both the Canon EOS 100D and Nikon D3200, the new Pentax K-500 can go as high as 51,800 ISO and still produce usable pictures. Unfortunately the A3000 can’t match that performance; in fact even its 16,000 ISO maximum is barely usable, and images shot at just 3200 ISO shot a lot of distortion and artefacts from the noise reduction, particularly around bright reds.
At 1600 ISO and below however, the image quality is excellent.
Kit Lens Performance
The kit lens supplied with the A3000 is the same 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens supplied with the other E-mount cameras. It’s definitely a cut above the average as far as kit lenses go, producing images that are nice and sharp from corner to corner at all apertures and focal lengths, with minimal optical distortion and no visible chromatic aberration.
If only it would focus a bit faster it would be one of the best kit lenses on the market.
Sony A3000 Review – Verdict
We’re all in favour of diversity in the digital camera market. The greater the variety of cameras available, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find something that entirely suits your needs. That said however, the Sony A3000 seems to be a niche camera without a niche to fit into.
As an entry-level model the A3000 is bettered by all of its rivals in terms of features, performance and value for money, including cameras from Sony itself. It must be noted that it’s a simple easy-to-use camera that produces good results, and as long as you’re not in a hurry it works very well.
It’s not too expensive, and with a few dealer discounts coming up to Christmas it could conceivably do quite well. However the preference is certainly for the similar NEX-3N instead.
Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of sample images captured on the Sony A3000 review. For a wider range of images, including a full collection of ISO shots, head on over to the Sony A3000 review sample image gallery.