Sony Alpha 3000 review

The mirrorless Sony Alpha 3000 cuts a lot of corners to hit its low $400 asking price, but there are no compromises in image quality.
Photo of Sony Alpha 3000

Have you grown out of your point-and-shoot, but can’t spend a fortune on an interchangeable lens camera? Sony’s Alpha 3000 ($399.99 direct with 18-55m lens) is the least expensive mirrorless camera you can buy. Sony made some compromises to deliver the 20-megapixel APS-C model at this price point, but image quality isn’t one of them. We’re impressed with the quality of its images, and the fact that it includes an eye-level electronic viewfinder at this price. On the other hand, the low-resolution rear LCD and limited burst-shooting capability are a bit of a letdown. If you have a bit more money to spend, consider a more refined mirrorless camera like our Editors’ Choice, the Samsung NX300 or Sony’s own NEX-6. But if you’re on a tight budget and want the the ability to change lenses along with the image quality that a big image sensor delivers, the Alpha 3000 is worth a serious look.

Design and Features
Most entry-level mirrorless cameras are designed to resemble beefed-up compact cameras. The Alpha 3000 takes the opposite approach, looking more like a scaled-down SLR. This is the same aesthetic that Panasonic chose for its G and GH bodies, including the top-end GH3. The A3000 measures 2.3 by 4 by 1.5 inches (HWD) and weighs in at 9.9 ounces with no lens attached. Adding the kit lens increases the depth by about two inches and ups the total weight to just over a pound. Compare this to Sony’s smallest interchangeable lens camera, the NEX-3N, which measures 2.3 by 4.4 by 1.4 inches and weighs 9.5 ounces; its collapsible kit lens increases the depth to about 2.8 inches and the weight to 13.6 ounces.

The SLR body style means that the camera has a deep, comfortable handgrip that’s absent from many mirrorless cameras. There’s some sacrifice in compactness here, but it’s a worthy trade-off, especially when you pair the camera with a telezoom like the 55-210mm E-mount lens. A pop-up flash is built into the body, as is an eye-level EVF, and there’s a multi-function hot shoe so that you can attach an external flash or another accessory as needed.

The control layout is a little sparse when compared to an SLR, but is on par with other E-mount bodies. Up top you’ll find the Finder/LCD button (there’s no eye sensor, so you have to toggle between the two manually), a mode dial, the image playback button, and a power switch that surrounds the shutter release. On the rear there’s the movie button, two programmable function buttons, and a control wheel that doubles a four-way joystick with a center select button. By default the bottom button is set to bring up an in-camera guide that explains some photographic concepts and provides shooting tips. If you’re comfortable behind the lens you’ll want to reprogram this to activate a feature you’ll use more often, like Sony’s Auto Object Framing, which works to improve the composition of images, or the Clear Image Zoom function, which can effectively double the reach of your lens.

The tile-based menu system is familiar to experienced NEX shooters, but if you’re moving up from a compact camera it will take getting used to. When you enter the main menu you’ll be greeted by five icons: Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, and Setup. There are a ton of features that can be customized, but menu organization is sometimes unintuitive. For example, you’ll need to go into Image Size to control the direction in which you move the camera to grab a panoramic photo; but make sure you’re in Panorama mode, or that option will be grayed out.

The 3-inch rear LCD boasts a wide 16:9 ratio, just like the displays on other Sony mirrorless cameras like the NEX-5T. But it only packs a 230k-dot resolution, and looks noticeably pixelated. It can’t match the 460k-dot display that Olympus packs into its entry-level PEN Mini E-PM2, and it doesn’t incorporate the touch control that both the E-PM2 and NEX-5T offer.

The 0.5-inch, 768k-dot EVF is the best one you’ll find in a $400 mirrorless camera, but that’s because it’s the only EVF you’ll find in a $400 mirrorless camera. Compared with other offerings it’s not very sharp, and gives you a bit of a tunnel vision effect when peering into it. There’s a diopter, so you can tune it to match your eyesight, and it will get the job done when it’s too bright to use the rear LCD for image framing.

The Alpha 3000 does support peaking as a manual focus aid; that system outlines in-focus parts of an image in red, yellow, or white to make manual focus quicker and more precise. But if you’re serious about using the EVF, you’ll be better suited with one that is a bit sharper—especially if you plan on using third-party manual focus lenses. The NEX-6 has a built-in OLED EVF, and the Panasonic G6 has an LCD EVF. You buy an add-on EVF for the Sony NEX-5T, and all Olympus PEN models support the VF-4. Since the Alpha 3000 is a budget-priced camera, it’s not surprising that its EVF isn’t top-quality.

Performance and Conclusions
Starting up and firing its first shot in about 1.9 seconds, the Alpha 3000 records a minimal 0.1-second shutter lag, and can rattle off short bursts of photos at 3.5 frames per second. Its performance isn’t too off from the Sony NEX-3N, which starts in 2 seconds, takes just a bit longer to shoot with a 0.2-second lag, and can shoot short bursts of photos at 4fps.

The Alpha 3000 keeps up its 3.5fps rate for 5 Raw+JPG or 8 JPG images; there’s no mode available to shoot in Raw only. The NEX-3N is limited to 3 Raw+JPG images before it slows down, but can go a bit longer in JPG, capturing 10 images in that file format at a clip. The 3N focuses just a little bit faster than the Alpha 3000 in dim light; 1.2 seconds versus 1.5 seconds.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness and distortion characteristics of the bundled 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. It’s a lens that has been paired with many an E-mount body, but more expensive bodies are now shipping with the compact 16-50mm retractable zoom. The 18-55mm covers a field of view that’s roughly equivalent to a 28-80mm zoom on a full-frame camera, a wide-angle to short telephoto range. The lens is optically stabilized, which makes it possible to get sharp images when using longer shutter speeds.

At 18mm f/3.5 the lens just misses the 1,800 lines per picture height cutoff we use to classify images as sufficiently sharp. It scores 1,744 lines using a center-weighted test, but as is typical with entry-level zoom lenses, the edges are a bit soft at 1,350 lines. Stopping down to f/5.6 improves performance; the average sharpness is 2,052 and the edges top 1,600 lines. Barrel distortion, which causes straight lines to appear to curve outward, is very noticeable at 4 percent. Sony uses in-camera correction to straighten JPG images captured by its 16-50mm lens, but that’s not available for the 18-55mm; you’re going to have to deal with heavy curvature at the wide angles, or apply some corrections  in software.

Zooming to 35mm eliminates the barrel curvature, but introduces some pincushion distortion (2.4 percent), which makes straight lines appear to curve inward. Sharpness at the maximum f/4.5 aperture is 1,735 lines, again with a sharp center and edges that are a bit soft (1,154 lines). Stopping down to f/5.6 improves things a bit (2,042 lines across the frame, 1,470 lines at the edges), but you’ll get the best performance at f/8. When you narrow the aperture to that setting you’ll get images that average 2,129 lines, with edges that are a very respectable 1,700 lines.

At 55mm the maximum aperture narrows to f/5.6 and the pincushion distortion drops to 1.3 percent, a figure that’s just a bit noticeable in field conditions. The sharpness here is 1,713 lines, with just a slight drop-off at the edges (1,629 lines). You’ll get a bit better performance at f/8; the center-weighted sharpness is 2,069 lines, and the edges are just shy of 1,800 lines. It’s not the best kit lens we’ve seen; the Samsung 18-55mm that ships with NX cameras is sharper at all but 18mm, and in-camera correction eliminates barrel distortion at 18mm if you shoot JPG—but if you shoot Raw, it’s also an issue with the Samsung lens.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can hurt image quality when shooting at higher sensitivities to light, expressed numerically as ISO. The Alpha 3000 keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 3200, which is a very respectable score for a camera of this type. At ISO 6400, which is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 3200, the noise is only 1.6 percent, just barely over our threshold. What’s more impressive is the amount of detail that the Alpha 3000 is able to resolve at these settings when viewed on our calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. Fine lines are still visible in JPG images at ISO 6400; it’s not until you push the camera to ISO 12800 that smudging is evident. If you’re willing to shoot images in Raw mode, which requires you to process them in software like Adobe Lightroom before printing or sharing them on the web, you can squeeze some more detail out of ISO 12800 shots, and even shoot at the maximum ISO 16000 setting. But there is a noticeable amount of grain at both of those settings.

You can record video in either AVCHD or MP4 format. When shooting in AVCHD the maximum quality is 1080i60, which plays back at 30fps. If you prefer a more classic cinematic look, 1080p24 is also supported. AVCHD delivers the best quality, but if you’re shooting for the web you may opt for MP4—the Alpha 3000 supports 1080p30 video in this format.The footage is sharp and crisp, and the Alpha 3000 refocuses with ease as the scene changes. But there is a noticeable rolling shutter effect in footage that presents as distortion that resembles the rubber pencil optical illusion when panning—the bottom of objects advance through the frame more quickly than the top. The built-in mic picks up voices loud and clear, but also manages to introduce unwanted background noise onto the soundtrack. You can clearly hear the zoom lens moving in and out, but if you opt to keep the focal length the same during the shot, the sound of the lens refocusing is not audible.

There’s no mic input, but the hot shoe has data connections so that you can use an external stereo mic from Sony. There’s also no external battery charger included; you’ll need to charge the battery in-camera via an included micro USB cable and AC adapter. If you opt to add a second battery it’s wise to buy an external charger so you can charge  and shoot simultaneously. In addition to SD, SHDC, and SDXC cards, Memory Stick PRO Duo memory is also supported.

When you consider the image quality it’s able to deliver, the Alpha 3000′s price is decidedly aggressive. It skimps on bells and whistles to get there—the rear LCD is not on par with other mirrorless camera, there’s no Wi-Fi, and its burst shooting capability is limited. It does have an EVF, which is absent from other entry-level mirrorless cameras; it’s not on par with the displays we’re used to seeing on higher-end cameras, but that it has one at all is impressive. If you want something that will deliver image quality that’s on par with an SLR on a budget, the Alpha 3000 is a solid choice. If you can spend $100 more, we give slight preference to the Sony NEX-3N, which is a bit smaller, ships with a compact zoom lens, and has a sharper, tilting rear display—but it doesn’t include or support an eye-level EVF.

You’ll need to reach deeper into your pockets to get a mirrorless camera that’s similar to the Alpha 3000, but doesn’t skimp on the quality of the rear LCD or EVF. The Sony NEX-6 fits that bill, and adds Wi-Fi and a more advanced hybrid phase/contrast detect autofocus system; but it’s priced at $900 with a lens. Our Editors’ Choice in this category is another camera on the pricey side, and although the $800 Samsung NX300 doesn’t offer an EVF option, it does deliver excellent images, the same type of hybrid focus system as the NEX-6, and one of the best Wi-Fi implementations we’ve seen on any camera.

Dimensions 2.3 x 4 x 1.5 inches
Interface Ports micro USB
Megapixels 20 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.29 seconds
LCD dots 230000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 1744
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 16000
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.9 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 27 mm
Weight 9.9 oz
Lens Mount Sony E
Video Resolution 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 16
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 82 mm
Shutter Lag 0.1 seconds
Sensor Size APS-C (18 x 24mm) mm
EVF Resolution 768000 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

The mirrorless Sony Alpha 3000 cuts a lot of corners to hit its low $400 asking price, but there are no compromises in image quality.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc