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Conclusion - Pros

  • Improved interface with increased customization options compared to NEX-3/5
  • High resolution sensor with excellent High ISO performance
  • Very good JPEG output quality
  • Very good build quality
  • Versatile, high-resolution LCD screen
  • Easy to use but versatile iAuto mode
  • Interesting and effective extra features such as in-camera HDR and sweep panorama
  • Good, clear live view magnification (particularly useful for using non E-mount lenses)
  • Useful built-in user guide (Shooting Tips)

Conclusion - Cons

  • iAuto mode does not take full advantage of the large sensor's low-light capability. (ISO is capped at 1600)
  • Optional flash is underpowered (and adds bulk)
  • Auto HDR is only available while shooting in JPEG only modes
  • Operation is very different in photo creativity modes compared to PASM modes - may be confusing for ambitious novices.
  • No hotshoe
  • No EVF option
  • 'Bkground Defocus' feature can encourage the use of the wrong settings

Overall conclusion

Overall, the Sony NEX-C3 is a solid and sensible addition to the NEX line, and its new 16MP sensor provides better shadow dynamic range and correspondingly better detail reproduction in shadow areas.

Apart from the improved sensor, important feature additions and refinements that were made to the previous NEX model's firmware have carried over to the C3. The addition of more customization, in the form of assignable left and right buttons on the control dial and 2 more short-cut slots in the custom menu will be very welcome to anyone that wants to go beyond the C3's automatic exposure modes.

With the NEX series, Sony has created a series of interchangeable lens compact cameras that are intended to be easy for people upgrading from compact P&S cameras to use, while simultaneously offering the image quality and manual control that more experienced photographers expect. There can be no doubt that the C3 fulfills both of these requirements.

Image Quality

The NEX-C3's image quality is excellent. The new 16.2MP sensor employed in the C3 is capable of capturing images that rival the best APS-C format DSLRs on the market, and up to ISO 6400 image quality is impressive. Even at ISO 12,800, image quality is perfectly acceptable for online use and for small prints, and far ahead of most of the C3's Micro Four Thirds competitors.

Our experience of the original NEX-3 and 5 was blighted by those cameras' tendency to overexposure. We are pleased to report that we haven't seen the same issues with the C3, and in our experience images are generally very well-exposed regardless of the exposure mode in which they are taken, with a good amount of shadow detail, especially when utilizing DRO. We were impressed by the quality of the DRO implementation in the NEX-3 and 5 and it is even more useful in the C3, thanks to the reduced shadow noise of the new 16.2MP sensor. Even though in its Auto mode DRO can occasionally produce somewhat flat images, there is more shadow detail to work with than would be otherwise available and simple tone-curve adjustment can bring back some of the contrast while retaining good dynamic range.

Handling

Photographers who are mostly familiar with compact cameras should feel right at home with the NEX-C3's simple, minimalist operational ergonomics. More experienced users might be frustrated by the ultra-streamlined ergonomics but will appreciate the generous amount of customization available. Like its predecessor the C3 has an articulated screen that swivels up to assist when shooting from a low vantage point or downward for use when shooting from above, which greatly aids handling in certain situations, in both still and video shooting.

In both shooting and playback modes the C3 is quite responsive and speedy. Some of the menus are not as straightforward as we would like and certain configurations appear in places we would not expect. (settings for 'Sweep Panorama' are found under the 'Image Size' menu instead of being accessible from in the mode itself, for example). Once you become accustomed to the interface though, the C3 is quite easy to get along with. It is frustrating though that Sony has not taken the opportunity in the C3 to rework 'Bckground Defocus' aperture adjustment feature in Photo Creativity mode. While this exposes a certain amount of manual control to the novice, it isn't always strictly helpful (when it blithely suggests shooting at f/22-32 for best sharpness, for instance) and maintains an awkward disconnect between aperture control in this mode, and in the C3's explicitly manual aperture priority and M shooting modes. It ends up being not as useful as it could be, either technically or educationaly.

As far as the camera's physical handling is converned, the included 18-55mm kit lens (28-80mm equivalent) is small by the standards of similar zooms for DSLRs, but appears sizable when attached to the NEX-C3, making the camera about as long as it is wide. However, the lens itself is actually quite light and adds another handling point that makes it easy to keep the C3 quite steady when shooting. Unfortunately, with this lens on the camera the C3 becomes pretty much un-pocketable. Sony does produce a 16mm (24mm equivalent) pancake lens that is much smaller, but it is far from being a general-purpose lens.

The final word

The mirrorless interchangeable lens format segment is growing quickly. The majority of the C3's peers at the moment are based around the Micro Four Thirds mount (and many of these use a distinctly long-in-the-tooth 12MP sensor), but the NEX cameras are amongst the few that offer an APS-C sized sensor. As far as image quality is concerned, the NEX-C3 can slug it out with the best of its APS-C DSLR competition, which considering its sub-$700 (with kit lens) price point, is impressive indeed, and the same cannot be said of the majority of its Micro Four Thirds peers.

For auto mode shooters the NEX-C3 is easy to operate and provides a large range of creative control presented in an easily accessible way. Unfortunately, using the iAuto mode limits the camera to ISO 1600, reducing one of the benefits that a larger sensor camera should offer over a compact. Where the NEX-C3 really shines is its manual control modes. As well as full manual exposure control, it is easy to set up the C3's custom buttons and menus in such a way to suit most any shooting style. Because of the limited external controls on the C3, adjusting shot and exposure settings may take a few extra steps than it would on a DSLR, but almost everything you could need is there.

We wouldn't call the NEX-C3 a DSLR replacement by any means - its ergonomics alone mean that it has a very different appeal. However, its combination of high-end compact style handling and semi-professional DSLR image quality mean that it is a highly attractive option for anyone looking to move up from a compact camera, and potentially also to DSLR owners hankering for a smaller second camera.


Sony Alpha NEX-C3
Category: Entry Level Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
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Good for
Compact shooters looking to upgrade but don't want the bulk or complication of a DSLR, as well as DSLR owners looking for a smaller alternative.
Not so good for
People looking for a truly 'pocketable' DSLR alternative.
Overall score
74%
The NEX-C3, like its predecessors the NEX-3/5, is a well built, easy to use interchangeable lens camera. The NEX-C3 is capable of image quality that rivals the best of its APS-C DSLR competition while being significantly smaller and lighter. As well as effective handling and excellent image quality the C3's user-friendly iAuto mode as well as full featured PASM modes should satisfy most photographers.

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