Sony NEX-C3 £500

13th Sep 2011 | 16:21

Sony NEX-C3

Does 16.2MP, a flip out screen and 720p video recording come at a price?

TechRadar rating:

3 stars

Like:

Excellent performance at high ISO sensitivities; Fast autofocus;

Dislike:

Lens-heavy design; Hard to use in dark conditions; Orange AF illuminator is poor in dark conditions;

Overview

Compact system cameras (CSCs) such as the Sony NEX-C3 are all the rage at the moment. Their promise of DSLR-quality images from a lightweight compact camera form is certainly a tantalising prospect, for snap-shooters and enthusiasts alike.

As the Sony NEX-C3's system differs substantially to Sony's Alpha range of DSLRs, a new lens mount and range of optics have been designed specifically for it.

A small selection of E-mount lenses is available, including the 18-55mm kit lens supplied with this compact camera. Other lenses include an 18-200mm lens, a 16mm f/2.8 compact prime and a couple of wide-angle converters to be used with the 16mm lens.

Sony also offers a lens adapter for its A-mount DSLR lenses, which can greatly expand the range of compatible lenses, although the full-size Alpha lenses may seem a little bulky compared to the dedicated E-mount lenses.

Sony nex-c3

This could be interesting for those who already have a collection of Sony or Minolta autofocus lenses. However, only lenses with a built in focusing motor such as the SAM or SSM lenses will autofocus on a NEX camera with the adapter.

Sony caused a stir when it released its first NEX series cameras, the NEX-3 and NEX-5, because they're among the most compact interchangeable lens cameras to sport an APS-C-sized sensor.

This size of sensor is the same as found in many DSLR cameras. In theory, using a larger sensor size than many other compact system cameras should result in better performance at high ISO sensitivities for low light photography, and improved dynamic range for high contrast scenes.

Sony nex-c3

The Sony NEX-C3 builds on the foundations set by previous models by sporting a higher resolution 16.1MP sensor housed in a slimmer, lighter body than either the NEX-3 or NEX-5. As with those previous models, the sensitivity range remains unchanged at IS0200-12800.

Unlike in its DSLR cameras, optical stabilisation is built into the lenses, rather than the camera body, so those using Alpha lenses with an adapter may miss the luxury of Sony's Steadyshot system.

Build quality and handling


Sony nex-c3

Strikingly small is how the Sony NEX-C3 first comes across. The body is no bigger than many compact cameras and weighing just 225g for the body only, it isn't much heavier either.

Much of the bulk is in the 18-55mm kit lens, which results in a slightly lens-heavy feel to the compact system camera, not helped by the absence of a deep enough finger grip to help support the weight of camera and lens.

Supporting and steadying the NEX-C3 is quite unlike conventional cameras, but once you take the time to adjust your grip, it becomes quite pleasant to use.

Sony nex-c3

The plastics used in the construction are of high quality and feel quite sturdy, despite the light weight.

Sony has taken a minimalist approach to the NEX-C3's controls, with very few buttons keeping the rear clutter-free. The controls that are there are well placed, with the rotating dial providing access to adjustments in each menu.

The ability to customise the functions associated with the two 'soft' buttons to the right of the screen is a nice touch, providing quick access to your most commonly adjusted settings, such as ISO or metering.

Sony nex-c3

A one-touch video recording button is placed on the top right corner, which is occasionally a little to easy to accidentally press, causing the camera to record unwanted videos.

When the camera goes into power-saving mode, there's no indication that it's still switched on, apart from the position of the small power switch on top. This can occasionally lead to leaving the Sony NEX-C3 powered up, wasting battery power. It even produces the possibility of photographing, or even worse, videoing the inside of a camera bag or pocket. Some form of flashing light to signify that the camera is on would be very useful in preventing accidents.

The 1080mAh battery pack lasts well, providing power for around 350 shots during our testing.


Sony nex-c3

There is no viewfinder to speak of on the Sony NEX-C3. Composing images is done via the camera's 3-inch LCD screen, which can be tilted for use as a waist finder, or at around 45 degrees downwards for shots above head height.

Unfortunately the screen doesn't swivel, so it's less flexible when shooting portrait format images.

The 921,600 dot camera screen is bright, clear and has a very good anti-reflective coating, making it easy to view, even in very bright conditions. Menus are very easy to navigate and the text on screen is large and clear.

Focusing is blisteringly fast in good light, often locking onto a subject pretty much instantly. In low light it can be a different story. The camera will often struggle to lock on to a subject in the kind of lighting you'd expect to find in city centre establishments after dark.

The screen being unable to display an adequate image in very dark conditions compounds this issue. As a result, it can be hard to see what you are trying to focus on and how your shot is composed. The orange AF illuminator helps a little, but it doesn't seem to cover a wide enough area to be truly effective.

Sony nex-c3

Plenty of exposure options to satisfy both casual and experienced photographers are included on the Sony NEX-C3. Casual users will find the Intelligent Auto, Scene Program and Picture Effect modes provide plenty of control in an easy and accessible manner. All the usual scene modes for portraits, landscapes, sports and more specific scenes such as twilight and sunset are there.

The picture effect mode has a variety of creative modes, including some favourites including selective colour modes, a toy camera effect and high-contrast monochrome.

More experienced photographers will feel at home with the program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes.

A wide range of options for controlling contrast and dynamic range are also provided. The D-R Auto mode automatically analyses each scene and brightens shadows or retains highlights as necessary.

Sony nex-c3

For times where the contrast is beyond what can be captured in one frame, an automatic HDR option takes three exposures and blends them to capture a much wider range of tones. For those who prefer to tinker with RAW files afterwards, three consecutive RAW frames can be recorded at different exposure values automatically.

These options work best with a tripod, but hand-held HDR is possible, so long as the light levels are bright enough and the camera is held steady.

High definition video recording at 720p resolution can be taken at up to 30fps. This feature is a little disappointing, since full 1080p resolution HD footage is rapidly becoming the standard for cameras at this level.

The Sony NEX-C3 also includes a sweep panorama mode, which merges several shots automatically in camera, and a 3D photo mode, that requires a compatible 3D television to view the results.

Performance

Sony nex-c3

Multi segment, centre weighted and spot metering modes are provided on the Sony NEX-C3, along with exposure compensation, covering a range of two stops above or below the metered value.

Multi segment metering performs well under a wide range of conditions, although it can be fooled by predominantly bright or dark subjects, so it pays dividends to check the histogram in challenging conditions.

A tiny detachable flash unit is provided with the camera, which folds flat against the top of the lens when not in use. Pulling the flash body up raises it about an inch above the lens.

Sony nex-c3

The flash isn't very powerful and recycle times are slow at best, often resulting in flash being absent from the exposure if taking a few shots at a time. Flash exposures are generally well balanced with the ambient conditions and pictures taken with the portrait scene mode a have pleasant warmth to them.

Auto white balance does a reasonable job of correcting colour casts under a wide range of conditions. Under artificial light results are very well corrected, but when shooting in the shade, or at dusk or dawn, the results can often be a little cool if not overridden with one of the presets or a custom reading.

Images straight from the camera are sharp, and fine details are reproduced very well. Flare can be an issue with the supplied 18-55mm kit lens, especially if strong light sources, such as the sun, are in the frame.

Sony nex-c3

The image processor in the Sony NEX-C3 does an excellent job of producing decent JPEGs, and there's little to tell the difference between them and RAW files processed in Sony's image editing suite.

Colours can be a little subdued using the standard picture style, but there are plenty of other presets to choose from and user customisable settings to give images a lift if required.

Recent advances in sensor technology have spawned cameras able to cope exceptionally well at high ISO sensitivities, and the NEX-C3 is no exception.

Images taken at sensitivities between ISO200 and ISO800 show no significant signs of noise, and should be more than suitable for large prints.

Sony nex-c3

Increasing the sensitivity to between ISO1600 and 3200 results in a little noise becoming visible in the shadows, but the amount of detail retained is excellent and the images have a fine texture to them that will lend itself to printing well.

Even at the maximum sensitivity of ISO12800, the noise levels are very low. A little softening due to noise reduction can be seen, but images still retain a commendable level of detail, although colours do tend to shift a little towards magenta.


Image quality
 and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony NEX-C3, we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 200 the Sony NEX-C3 is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 200

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 20 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 18 (see full image)

Sony NEX-C3: RAW Images

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 20 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 20 (see full image)

Sony nex-c3 resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 18 (see full image)

Noise and dynamic range

Our lab tests confirm what we have seen in real-world images from the Sony NEX-C3 with low noise levels – even at very high sensitivities – and good dynamic range being recorded.

When the Sony NEX-C3 is compared to the competition it holds its own against Panasonic's GF3, showing very similar, if slightly inferior noise performance at high sensitivities.

Dynamic range is very good when compared to the competition, with the Sony capturing a range of 10.81 EV at ISO200. It's a close competitor for the Olympus PEN E-PL2.

These graphs were produced using data generated by DXO Analyzer.

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO software.

Signal to noise ratio

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

Sony nex-c3 snr

JPEG images from the Sony NEX-C3 show a good result for signal to noise ratio at high sensitivity settings only just beaten by the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3.

Dynamic range

Sony nex-c3 dynamic range

This chart indicates that the Sony NEX-C3's JPEGs just have the edge over the comparison cameras, except for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3.

Sample images

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

Dynamic range is very good straight out of the camera, especially at low ISO settings.

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

The auto white balance setting sometimes leaves images with a cool colour cast.

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

Levels of detail recorded are commendable. Images are sharp and high in contrast straight from the camera.

Sony nex-c3

See full-res image

The supplied 18-55mm lens is very prone to flare with strong light sources in the frame

Verdict


Sony nex-c3

Although the Sony NEX-C3 may not be a camera for everyone – mainly due to the unconventional form factor requiring a flexible approach when first getting to grips with it – those who have the patience to get used to the slightly lens-heavy design will be rewarded with excellent quality images, even at very high ISO sensitivities.

A few weaknesses came to light during testing, such as difficulties focusing and composing images in very low light conditions, and the slow recycle times of the supplied detachable flash.

These aren't even really issues that can be worked around, so it may be worth exercising caution if these are weaknesses that may spoil your enjoyment of the camera.

With the street price already being discounted from Sony's recommended price of £500 for the 18-55mm kit to around £440, this camera is competitively priced in a hotly contested marketplace.

We liked

The performance at high ISO sensitivities is excellent.

Autofocus is lightning quick in good lighting conditions.


We disliked

In very dark conditions it can be difficult to compose images using the screen

The orange AF illuminator isn't very effective in very dark conditions.



Verdict

Despite the odd handling niggle, the Sony NEX-C3 has proved itself to be a very capable camera with some innovative features to suit photographers of all experience levels.

The image quality alone will make this camera worthy of consideration, and so long as you are aware of potential weaknesses, it could prove to be a compelling choice among current compact system cameras.

Sony compact system cameras
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