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Using the NEX-C3/Handling

The NEX-C3 is a well-built and solid camera that feels good in the hand. Even though the body isn't much larger than a typical high-end compact camera, with a lens attached it creates a very natural two-handed shooting position. The C3's slightly rounded front hand grip and rear thumb pad make it possible to shoot one-handed comfortably, and when used with the articulated screen pointing downward, it's possible to get decent shots from a higher vantage point. Overall we feel that Sony has done a good job of creating a user experience that is not only unintimidating enough for novice shooters but also flexible and customizable enough to satisfy enthusiasts.

The NEX-C3 is certainly small but still fits pretty well in the hand (though, in common with many compact cameras, its controls aren't easily accessible while in the shooting grip). As soon as you add a lens, such as the 18-55mm kit zoom pictured here, the size of the total package starts to creep up.

Specific handling issues

There are very few things about the NEX-C3's handling that we actively dislike. Operational control is well executed in both iAuto and PASM modes. As we've said previously, the new level of customization available on the C3 means that if you have an issue about where the placement of a certain feature is, it's quite easy to set it to a key or custom menu. That said, we did find two issues that hindered an otherwise pleasant shooting experience.

Direct Manual Focus (DMF) allows manual adjustment to the focus after the camera has already found a focus point using AF. To use this feature, first you half-press the shutter button to lock the AF. While continuing to hold the half-press, focus can then be fine-tuned using the focussing ring on the lens. As soon as you move the focus ring, the screen zooms in to the AF point picked by the camera to assist in manual focus.

This is a useful feature, but there are two issues which keep it from being truly effective. If the camera fails to find focus, it won't then allow you to adjust the focus manually as you would normally be able to. You are then left with the choice of either trying to acquire AF again, or switching to Manual Focus mode. This is particularly frustrating because it is precisely in this sort of situation that manual focus override tends to be most useful.

The second problem is that MF assist zoom in DMF mode isn't particularly well-implemented. If the camera does find an AF lock the MF assist will zoom into the region of focus. This is all well and good, but if it happened to pick a focus spot that is incorrect (when shooting in multi-point AF mode), then while it is technically possible to readjust the zoom position with the 4-way controller, doing so while keeping the shutter half-pressed without either accidentally pressing the shutter completely or letting go (and thereby forfeiting your previous AF lock) is nearly impossible.

Performance

Overall performance

Regardless of which shooting mode you're in, the NEX-C3 is an able and responsive camera. From power on to first shot is a little less than 2 seconds. The NEX-C3's autofocus system is relatively quick, although not the fastest contrast detection system that we've ever used (that honor belongs to recent Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds models). We've found that, given good light and contrast the AF system is quite reliable. White balance works well in a variety of lighting situations and even produces good skin tones under notoriously troublesome tungsten light. The metering issues that hindered the NEX-3/5 in their original firmware have now been resolved. The C3's Multi-Metering mode consistently delivers a good exposure in most environments.

Continuous shooting modes

The NEX-C3 has three continuous shooting modes: 'Continuous Adv.', 'Speed Priority Cont.' and AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing). In 'Continuous Adv.' mode, the camera will continuously shoot images at approximately 2.5 fps, with 'real time' focus and metering. In 'Speed Priority Cont.' the C3 will shoot at a higher frame rate of approximately 7 fps but focus and exposure are locked from the first frame for all subsequent images. In both of these modes, live view is still available but cuts out for a fraction of a second when each frame is captured.

In AEB mode the C3 captures three sequential images at 0.3EV or 0.7EV apart. The first image is correctly exposed and the subsequent two frames are over- and under-exposed respectively. In our tests using the 18 - 55 mm kit lens we've found the actual frame rate to be quite close to Sony's specs, and in some cases slightly faster:

To generate the timings shown below, we shot with the camera's burst mode set to Continuous Adv. (nominally 2.5 FPS) and Speed Priority Cont. (nominally 7 fps) , with a SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card.

Continuous Adv. (nominally 2.5 FPS)

SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card
  Measured Max frames
JPEG 2.6 fps Until card full
JPEG + RAW 2.3 fps 6
RAW 2.3 fps 6

Speed Priority Cont. (nominally 7 FPS)

SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC card
  Measured Max frames
JPEG 6.3 fps 12 at full speed, then 1.4 fps until card full
JPEG + RAW 6.2 fps 6
RAW 6.4 fps 6

Maximum framerate in Continuous Advance mode is close to Sony's indicated rate of 2.5 fps, but in Speed Priority Continuous mode the C3 gives a measured framerate roughly 0.7fps slower than the indicated maximum of 7fps. It's also important to note that the Speed Priority Cont. mode is limited to 12 frames (when shooting in JPEG only) before the buffer fills up, and the continuous shooting speed drops right down to about 1.4 fps.

Autofocus performance

Like all mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, the NEX-C3 relies on contrast detection to determine focus. In general this method is not as fast as the phase-detection systems found in DSLR cameras but in recent years the gap has closed dramatically. Unlike phase detection, contrast detection focussing systems must 'hunt' back and forth to establish maximum contrast, which denotes accurate focus. In low-contrast, low light scenes, this hunting takes longer, and as such, shooting with the C3 in this sort of environment can be time consuming and in some cases AF is simply not possible.

The NEX-C3 has a built-in AF illuminator but its settings are limited to 'Auto' and 'Off'. This means that in situations where the camera determines that there should be enough light to focus the illuminator may stay off, even if focus proves impossible to acquire due to low subject luminance or contrast. However, in sufficient light and when presented with a reasonably contrasty scene the NEX-C3 is able to find focus quickly. It is not quite as fast as the likes of the Olympus E-P3 or Panasonic GF3 but offers a virtually identical performance to the NEX-3 and 5.

Face Detection works well at locating and tracking multiple faces in a scene. In Auto Face Detection mode, the camera highlights the prioritized face with an orange box around the face that is closest to the camera and nearest the center, and this subject will then be given focus priority. In Child and Adult priority face detection modes the NEX-C3 does a good job at separating adult and children's faces to give priority focus to whichever you choose, but is nowhere near 100% accurate.

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