Hands-On With Sony's New Alpha A37 and Alpha NEX-F3

Sony Alpha NEX-F3
Today, entry-level interchangeable-lens cameras got a little bit more interesting. Sony unveiled the latest entry-level models in its Alpha SLT and NEX lines, and both cameras offer unique features for the money. The two new models will be available starting in June for $600 as a kit, each with an 18-55mm lens.

The 16-megapixel Alpha SLT-A37 is the new lowest-cost model in Sony's translucent-mirror SLT line, replacing last year's Alpha A35 and sitting below the Alpha A57 and Alpha A77. It has a smaller-than-most DSLR-like body with a front-mounted scroll wheel for shutter and aperture adjustments. In addition to having an ISO range of 100 to 16,000, the A37 comes with body-based stabilization, a phase-detection autofocus system that reacts quickly in burst-shooting and video-capture modes, and both an eye-level electronic viewfinder and a tiltable 2.7-inch LCD screen.

Sony Alpha SLT-A57
Like most other members of the SLT series, it has a very fast burst mode for a camera in its price range. The A37's continuous-shooting speed caps out at 7 fps at 8-megapixel resolution or 5.5 fps at full 16-megapixel resolution, each with the camera's phase-detection autofocus enabled.

The A57's video capabilities also stand out from the $600 DSLR competition, as the camera shoots 1920-by-1080 video at your choice of 60 interlaced fields per second or 24 progressive frames per second, with full manual exposure controls at your disposal for video. Like practically every other Sony camera, from the Cyber-shot point-and-shoot line on up, the A37 has some impressive in-camera AI, including a motion-controlled panorama mode for both 2D and 3D images and exposure-bracketing/image-stacking modes for low-light and HDR shots.

Sony Alpha A37: Without Auto Portrait Framing
There's also a newer feature called Auto Portrait Framing that analyzes headshots and automatically crops them based on the rule of thirds. The idea is that the camera will automatically create a "perfect portrait" from any headshot snapped in Auto mode. It creates a cropped copy of the original shot, and then allows you to choose between the two.

The new entry-level mirrorless model is the Sony Alpha NEX-F3, which will replace last year's NEX-C3. One key difference between the two models is that the new NEX-F3 has a built-in pop-up flash, whereas the older NEX-C3 used a detachable flash. Battery life has improved from 400 shots per battery charge for the NEX-C3 to 470 shots per charge for the NEX-F3.

Sony Alpha A37: With Auto Portrait Framing
Despite having a much more compact frame than the A37--the NEX-F3 is practically pocketable if you detach the lens--it shares many of the Alpha A37's features. The NEX-F3 has a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, manual controls in video mode, ISO that reaches up to 16,000, and fancy shooting modes for everything from panoramas to portraits. The NEX-F3's tilting LCD adds yet another feature to the mix: an auto self-portrait mode, which displays a self-timer countdown clock when the shooter adjusts the LCD to face forward.

In my hands-on tests, I spent most of my time with each camera in its burst-shooting mode, primarily because the results were so impressive. If card space isn't a concern, the convenience of being able to rattle off multiple images with a single press of a shutter button is significant--and not just for fast-action scenes.

Of the two new cameras, I preferred the way the Alpha A37 handled, if only because its control layout provided quicker access to shooting modes and manual adjustments. To make the NEX-F3's smaller size possible, Sony had to ditch a lot of physical buttons; as a result, the NEX-F3 requires more menu navigation to access scene modes and setting adjustments.

Sony Alpha NEX-F3 sample shot

In my brief hands-on tests, the NEX-F3's self-portrait mode worked as advertised. It definitely represents a step up from shooting an arm's length self-portrait, if you're into that sort of thing. The cameras' Auto Portrait Framing feature and range of creative image filters worked well, but I had a couple of gripes with each of them. The portrait-cropping automation works only in Auto mode, so you can't use the feature when you're manually exposing the shot, and you can apply the creative filters only as you're shooting, so you can't retouch photos that you've already shot.

Sony Alpha NEX-F3 sample shot

Sony tends to make its cameras a bit more feature-packed than most, and these two cameras reflect that approach. Thanks to their quick burst modes, video capabilities, and unique extras, they will definitely be two of the better values at the $600 level of the interchangeable-lens market. The Alpha NEX-F3 sacrifices dedicated control buttons for size, while the Alpha A37 is bulkier but better-built for manual adjustments. With either model, you'll get an entry-priced interchangeable-lens camera that carries higher-end features than its price suggests.

Update 5/17/2012: Along with the two new cameras, Sony also announced a couple of new lenses for the SLT and NEX lines. The SAL18135 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 is a new A-mount telephoto lens for the SLT series; it will cost $500 by itself starting in July, but it will also be part of an $800 kit package with the new Alpha SLT-A37. The new E-mount NEX lens is the optically stabilized SEL18200LE E18-200mm F3.5-6.3 OSS, which will be priced at $850 for the lens only. In other news, both new cameras will come with Sony's PlayMemories Home for organizing and sharing photos and video; the PlayMemories Online service also recently launched for viewing and sharing photos on Sony's PlayStation 3 game console.

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