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Operation and controls

Like its immediate predecessors, the Sony NEX-C3 has very few buttons, and very little in the way of labelling to suggest what functions they might fulfil. This is because they are essentially 'soft' controls, which can be used to access a range of different functions. The C3 has further increased the flexibility of the user configuration by allowing the left and right keys on the control dial to also be user-configured. As such, it is important to keep an eye on the on-screen information beside each control, which indicates the currently-assigned function. This is a very different approach to that taken by most cameras, and although it might disorient some more experienced photographers, it may well help the NEXs seem less intimidating to beginners.

iAuto Mode

Sony says it is mainly promoting the NEX series as cameras aimed at point-and-shoot users, and its interface is certainly consistent with that general philosophy. The Intelligent Auto mode is pure point-and-shoot stuff and offers very limited creative control. But it does offer access to Photo Creativity mode where it is possible to take control over depth-of-field - or 'Bkground Defocus' as Sony calls it - which allows you to make the most of one of the camera's biggest features - its large, APS-C format sensor. Exposure compensation is also available in Photo Creativity mode as a 'Brightness' adjustment. Quick access to 'Shooting Tips' is accessed through the menu or one of the user-selectable soft keys, which can be quite helpful for photographers just starting out.

Sony has made some improvements compared to previous NEXs by making the C3 more easily adaptable for enthusiast shooters, through the addition of customizable external controls (see above) and a user definable 'custom' menu. However it is still clear that Sony is mainly targeting compact users who want a more capable camera but don't want to go so far as to purchase a DSLR, as such iAuto should be considered the primary means of controlling the camera. And in general it's pretty good - if you don't want to worry about anything other than framing your subject, then the camera will quite happily worry about everything else for you.

Disappointingly, iAuto mode in the NEX-C3 still only allows the use of Auto ISO, which has an upper limit of ISO 1600. Sony proudly advertises the camera's highest ISO setting as 12,800 (way above the level at which any compact camera could produce good images and a real advantage of a large sensor), which makes it all the more frustrating that iAuto mode limits you to a setting eight times less sensitive. Useful features such as Auto HDR are also unavailable in iAuto, and sadly the SLT-A55's clever Auto+ mode, which makes use of the multi-shot modes as needed doesn't make it into the C3 at all.

Focus Peaking

Disinterred for inclusion in the C3 is a feature Sony first used several years ago in the Sony H2: 'Focus Peaking.' This is a visual method for confirming the areas of highest contrast (and hence focus) when manually focusing the camera. With focus peaking set, a bright colored outline appears around the highest contrast regions of an image, denoting the current zone of focus. You can adjust both how thick an outline is applied, and its color, (from a choice of red, white or yellow), to ensure it's always easy to see.

Peaking works happily in conjunction both with magnified focus assist and, most usefully, when shooting movies. This option is also included in the version 04 firmware update for NEX-3 and 5 owners.

With 'Focus Peaking' enabled, the outlines of the in-focus regions are highlighted. In this case in red but you can select white or yellow if red clashes with your subject.

Here it's being used in movie mode to aid manual focusing while recording.

In low-contrast scenes, depending on the exact level of contrast, focus peaking is disabled. Instead, a green AF lock reticule is placed on the area of the scene which is in focus.

PASM modes

For DSLR users considering the NEX-C3 as a second camera or for enthusiasts accustomed to manual control, the C3 offers a complete complement of manual exposure control. And although the C3's physical interface is minimal, switching between shooting modes and adjusting parameters such as shutter speed and aperture are quite easy, and require only a minimal interaction with the menu system, especially after setting the custom buttons to your liking (see below for more information on customization).

Aperture and shutter speed are adjusted by rotating the control dial on the back of the camera. In manual mode, switching between shutter speed and aperture adjustments is controlled by pressing 'down' on the control dial, and the adjustable parameter will then be highlighted in orange. When in A or S modes the down button is used for accessing exposure compensation.

In keeping with Sony's general push towards results-oriented shooting functions in the NEX series, the aperture control in A and M exposure modes is presented as a background blur slider, and shutter speed in S and M modes as a subject speed slider.

Custom Buttons (PASM modes only)

Like the NEX-3 and 5 the C3 has two soft keys along the right side of the screen, with the bottom one (B) being user programmable. The left and right buttons on the rear 4-way controller are unlabeled, because they are now also completely customizable. This single feature addition does a lot to make the NEX-C3 truly usable as an enthusiast camera. In addition to directly programmable keys there is also a 'Custom' function setting that bring up an on-screen menu that can be set to show up to 5 user-selectable functions; this can only be assigned to the center select button (C) of the control dial. Below is a list of functions that can be assigned to each of the NEX-C3's programmable soft keys and custom menu.

Custom menu options
(up to 5 can be selected)
Left / Right Control Keys & Soft Key (B)
• Drive Mode
• AF/MF Select
• Autofocus Mode
• Autofocus Area
• ISO
• White Balance
• Metering Mode
• DRO / Auto HDR
• Creative Style
• Flash Mode
• Not Set
• Shoot mode
• Shoot tips
• Drive Mode
• AF/MF Select
• Autofocus Mode *
• Autofocus Area
• Prec. Dig. Zoom
• ISO
• White Balance
• Metering Mode
• DRO / Auto HDR
• Creative Style
• Flash Mode
• Flash Comp.
• MF Assist
• Not Set *
* Option not available for the (B) soft key

With all this customization you can set up the C3 to provide fairly swift access to almost any camera setting. A potential downside, however, is that all of these additions divorce the behaviors of the C3's manual and automatic modes of operation even further away from one another, potentially confusing habitual iAuto shooters that decide to experiment with the C3's PASM modes.

Menus and displays

The NEX-C3's menu system is almost identical to the NEX-3 and 5 (post firmware 04 update) with only one minor (but welcome) difference. Pressing 'Custom' on the earlier models brought up a side bar where you can click though the options you have added to your custom menu. On the C3 the 'Custom' button opens an on-screen popup with up to 5 custom-set shortcuts.

NEX-C3 NEX-5

This addition, while relatively minor, is helpful as it lets you see at a glance which custom options are available, compared to the NEX-3/5 where you would have to scroll through the list of options to find what you are looking for, or if it is indeed even on the custom list.

Playback

The playback menus on the C3 are identical to those found on the NEX-3 and 5. Images can be enlarged by using the center button on the control dial, then further magnified by using the scroll wheel. Pressing down on the control dial shows your images in groups of 6 and also allows quick access to movies through a tab on the left.

Images can be enlarged or viewed 6 at a time. Highlight and shadow clipping warning is shown along with histogram information by pressing up on the control dial.
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