The included screw-in accessory flash HVL-F7S has a maximum guide number of 7 at 100 ISO, providing comparable power to most compact cameras. It's not the most powerful flash available, especially when compared to most accessory flashguns but it's quite compact and great for shooting relatively close subjects and portraits.

This portrait, taken at a distance of about 4ft and an equivalent focal length of 66mm, shows the flash's ability to light the subject evenly and without over-powered highlights.

Overall image quality

For those upgrading to the NEX-C3 from a point and shoot compacts, one of the most noticeable changes will be the increase in image quality. The step up to an APS-C format sensor alone provides the potential for greater depth of field control and the C3's new-generation 16.2MP CMOS sensor offers markedly superior low light performance over compact cameras with a 1/2.3" or 1/1.8" sensor, and indeed matches the best results we've seen from its APS-C DSLR competition.

The sensor in the C3 is very capable and produces excellent image quality at its low and medium ISO sensitivity settings and acceptably detailed images up to its maximum ISO sensitivity setting of 12,800. You'll have to control ISO sensitivity manually to reach those heights though, since like the NEX-3 and 5, in iAuto mode the maximum ISO setting of the C3 is capped at 1600.

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The AWB system in the NEX-C3 is very reliable in a wide range of lighting environments. Metering and exposure are generally spot-on, capturing images with good contrast and minimal highlight clipping. This is a welcome improvement over the NEX-3/5 with original firmware, which displayed a thoroughly unwelcome tendency to serious overerexposure. We have had no such problems with the C3.

Low Light / High ISO

At ISO 800 and above, the new 16.2MP sensor produces JPEG images that are virtually indistinguishable at a pixel level from those shot with the NEX-3 and 5, which is to say that they look very nice indeed.

Sony's new 16.2MP sensor does a great job right up to ISO 3200, and detail only really starts to suffer at ISO 6400 and above. This image, shot in poor light at ISO 3200 shows how well the C3 manages to control chroma noise without reducing too much sharpness or making the images look desaturated. Low contrast detail is a little soft but the retention of luminance noise helps to maintain high-contrast edges, aiding the impression of overall sharpness.

ISO 3200 JPEG (1/30s, f/4) 100% Crop

Higher up the ISO scale at 6400 and 12800, chroma noise is more visible but overall detail is still fairly well described, as you can see in the image below (taken at ISO 12,800). In this sort of situation though, assuming your subject is static, you might be better served by using the Handheld twilight mode.

ISO 12,800 JPEG (1/80s, f/5) 100% Crop
Overall we're very pleased with the NEX-C3's low light performance, and while we don't often find ourselves shooting at ISO 12,800 it can be a great safety net for impromptu social shots or in locations where flash is not allowed or practical.

Shadow Noise

The Sony NEX-C3's imaging sensor is of a new generation which produces very low read noise at base ISO. This lowers the noise floor that usually limits dynamic range and means that when working with the C3's raw files you can pull more information out of the shadows than you might typically be able to with 'conventional' sensors.

To illustrate this we are comparing the NEX-C3 with the NEX-5. We have taken the base ISO raw shots of our studio test scene and developed them in Adobe Camera RAW with a +3.0EV digital exposure compensation to lift the shadows. We've then taken crops from the darkest areas of our scene to compare the level of shadow noise on the both cameras. Applying the digital exposure compensation makes shadow noise more visible and at 100% magnification it becomes clear that the C3 produces slightly less shadow noise than the NEX-3/5, but more importantly, is capturing more fine detail in these areas.

The difference is subtle, but on close inspection the deep shadow areas are 'blocked up' in the file from the NEX-3, and it is clear that the NEX-C3 is able to describe more of the detail in the cotton reels - more than we'd expect from the pixel increase of 2MP alone.

Sony NEX-C3 - ACR+3.0EV Sony NEX-5 - ACR+3.0EV
100% crop 100% crop
100% crop 100% crop

The 'real world' advantages of this technology are obvious from the example shown above. Underexposure is easier to compensate for post-capture, and a lot of 'hidden' detail can be drawn out of shadow areas (either post-capture or using the NEX-C3's DRO feature) without worrying too much about noise.