Sony NEX-C3 Overview
by Shawn Barnett and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview: 06/08/2011
Full Review: 11/02/2011
After making a splash in 2010 with very aggressive NEX-5 and the more moderate NEX-3, Sony returned just over a year later to announce the more conservatively styled Sony Alpha NEX-C3. Aggression has merged with moderation to create a handsome successor that is smaller than its predecessors, and probably more broadly appealing. While the NEX-5 in particular was designed to emphasize its extremely small size, the NEX-C3 was designed to make such diminutiveness look easy, with soft curves and subtle accents.
Packed with unique Sony features like Handheld Twilight and Sweep Panorama, the Sony NEX-C3 adds a few new features, like Picture Effects filters, and an Intelligent Auto with simple adjustments that replace terms like White Balance with simpler descriptions like Color, which has a scale ranging from Warm to Cool. We've seen something similar in the Olympus Pen cameras.
Providing a smaller grip than either of its predecessors, the Sony NEX-C3 is at times a little more difficult to hold, especially compared to the NEX-5's steeper grip. However, when I adjust my grip, pressing the right side of the camera into my fingers rather than my palm, as I do with pocket cameras, I find the NEX-C3 is easy enough to hold in most situations. Using two hands is recommended for most of these smaller cameras, and you'll need the second hand to zoom the lens, so the left hand should already be employed most of the time.
The Sony NEX-C3's body is a duo-tone design, something borrowed from the low-end Alpha SLR line, but it works much better here.
Moving the shutter button back off the grip bulge allowed room for the Sony logo to appear in a more prominent position on the front, above the grip, upper left of the AF-assist/Self-timer lamp. The right and left microphones face forward (rather than upward as on the NEX-3) positioned on opposite sides of the lens mount, and the lens release button is in the same position as its predecessors. Note the silver Alpha logo in the upper right corner, while the A-mount cameras have the cinnabar (orange) logo.
The top deck is similar to the NEX-3, simplified with the removal of the left and right microphones, while the shutter button has moved back and the power switch surrounding it is now actuated from the side rather than the rear. Playback and Record buttons are in roughly the same locations. A large plastic, rubber-tethered port door just right of the shiny HD logo opens to reveal the Smart Accessory Terminal, meant to attach flashes, optional microphones, and viewfinders. An included flash mounts here with a thumbscrew, integrating well into the design.
A very tacky rubber forms the thumbgrip on the back. It's a little far to the right for me, but it's designed to keep the thumb off the top soft key, which usually acts as the Menu button. The sparse control cluster is made even more sparse with the omission of the left and right Drive and Flash mode icons, necessary because of the slight slimming of the NEX-C3 left to right. However, these two positions are customizable now, offering more interface flexibility, as is the lower soft button just right of the LCD and the button in the center of the wheel.
The Sony NEX-C3's LCD is the same gorgeous 3-inch, 921.6K display, and it tilts up and down the same as well. Lifting the LCD from its retracted position is more difficult than on the NEX-C3's predecessors, because the bottom of the panel doesn't stick out as much as it does on the other two. For some time I just pulled it outward using the top left notch, but I finally noticed that the door covering the HDMI port has a thumb-notch that extends all the way back to the LCD, and it's the easiest way to open the tilting LCD.
Sensor & Processor. The Sony NEX-C3 sports a newly-developed 16-megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, the same that appears in the A35, but different from the one that shipped last year in the A55, Sony's quick to point out. As with most new sensors, the new Exmor is optimized to produce low noise for greater image quality in low light. It also supports the company's image compositing technology. The new Exmor sensor is supported by a BIONZ processor, about which not much is mentioned other than that it's fast and is supposed to help maintain better detail and smooth gradations.
Dust. The Sony NEX cameras have a dust abatement and removal system, where they've included a charge-protection coating on the low-pass filter, and they also vibrate the low pass filter to shake dust free.
Autofocus and metering. The Sony NEX-C3 uses contrast-detect autofocus only. It has two autofocus modes AF-S for single and AF-C for continuous focusing. There are three autofocus area modes, including Center, Multi, and Flexible Spot modes. You can also choose full Autofocus, DMF, which allows you to adjust focus after the autofocus operation, and Manual Focus. Focus is fast and fairly accurate.
The Sony NEX-C3 has the option of Spot, Center-weighted, and Multi-area metering.
Optics. Sony's E-series of lenses is all new, developed for the NEX-series digital cameras. Designed to respond more quickly than conventional SLR lenses, with the main purpose of enabling autofocus while shooting video. As such, they are fast and quiet when focusing, and their stepper-motor-driven aperture blades move smoothly to prevent sudden jumps in brightness as the aperture changes in the middle of a video recording.
Five Sony E-mount lenses are already shipping in the US market: a 16mm f/2.8 prime, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 stabilized zoom, an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 stabilized zoom, a 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 stabilized zoom, and a 30mm f/3.5 macro prime lens. Further lens models arriving later this year should see the lineup swell to seven models, including a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 prime in December, and a Sony 50mm f/1.8 stabilized prime also in December. The company's roadmap further calls for a Sony G-branded standard zoom, a wide angle zoom, and a mid-telephoto prime during 2012.
Interface. Sony has improved the interface somewhat, mostly by allowing four of the back buttons to be reprogrammed by the user, at least in Record mode. The menu is still confusing, and very deep, but conveniences that were added in the firmware update to the last two cameras persist in the NEX-C3, things like having the menu come up preselecting the last item modified.
Because there is no physical mode dial, changing modes is a slightly longer process, requiring the user to press the Menu button, then navigate to the Mode dial graphic in the six-icon menu, and then press the navigation disk's center button. Then a large mode dial appears on the right of the screen and turning the navigation disk turns the virtual dial to the desired mode. From there you press the center button again, and the camera returns to Record mode with the new mode selected.
Scene modes include Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports Action, Sunset, Night Portrait, Night View, and Handheld Twilight. Anti-Motion blur is a Scene mode available on the virtual mode dial.
HDR shooting. The Sony NEX-C3 also offers High-Dynamic Range shooting, found under the Brightness/Color Menu, oddly, where it seems more at home in the Scene Modes, or on the virtual mode dial.
Intelligent Auto. Sony has taken a similar approach to Intelligent Auto as other companies have, allowing the camera to either select the mode for you, or else to let you apply a lot of filters via its Photo Creativity tool.
Flash. While the NEX-C3 ships with a small screw-mounted flash that flips up on demand, Sony's created a new mid-size flash called the HVL-F20S, which also attaches via the Smart Accessory Terminal. The new unit requires no batteries, instead taking power directly from the camera's battery. As seen in the animation at right, the HVL-F20S flips up to power on, down to power off. Two internal mechanisms allow you to point the flash element forward or upward to bounce light off the ceiling or walls. A flash diffuser can also swivel into place to cover a wider area in either mode.
Photo Creativity. Accessible from the Intelligent Auto mode, Photo Creativity offers several effects with a press of the center button on the control wheel. With a click and a "swiff" sound, the rotating menu slides out, with each selected item jutting out from the rest, with text describing each mode. Modes include Background Defocus, Picture Effect, and Soft Skin Effect. You can also set the Drive mode, and access the simplified adjustments that Sony's offering instead of the more technical-sounding White Balance, Saturation and the like. Instead, you find Vividness (ranging from vivid to soft), Color (warm or cool), and Brightness (bright or dark).
You can even layer effects, using background defocus with vividness and brightness, and a picture effect like Toy camera, for example. Small icons line the left of the screen indicating the stacks of effects applied. All settings remain until you turn off the camera or "undo" them with the Undo soft button.
Picture Effects include Toy Camera, Posterization (color), Posterization (B&W), Pop Color, Retro Photo, Partial Color (Red), Partial Color (Green), Partial Color (Blue), Partial Color (Yellow), High Key, and High Key (B&W).
Soft skin effect. Also new is the Soft Skin Effect, which removes or reduces blemishes and smooths skin texture. It also maintains sharpness in higher contrast areas, like eyes and mouth.
3D Sweep Panorama. Like past models, the Sony NEX-C3 offers 3D or 2D Sweep Panorama, which allows you to capture panoramic images with ease by just sweeping the camera across a scene. 3D Sweep Panorama makes images that you can view on a 3D television, and Sweep Panorama just captures the 2D version, which is nonetheless impressive.
Peaking function. One of the more valuable features for the enthusiasts likely to be attracted to the Sony NEX-C3 is the Peaking function, where the sharpest, high-contrast areas of the frame appear colorized, indicating the band or area of sharpest focus. You can choose among red, yellow, and white colors, and the range of focused areas that it affects. It seems to be that the Low setting offers the narrowest band, while High has a tendency to be more forgiving, marking areas that are noticeably out of focus in the final shot as in-focus. Many older digital cameras used to hyper-sharpen in-focus areas on the LCD to help verify focus, but this goes quite a bit further, invoking a technique also used in Canon and Sony's higher-end HD camcorders, as well as a few high-end HD monitors for video-capable SLRs.
Peaking is usable with Sony's autofocus E-mount lenses, but its true value is seen when using third-party manual-focus lenses, making for a quick and easy way to verify focus rather than zooming in to check with every exposure. Another benefit is that you see the peaking at the actual aperture, for a better representation of the available depth of field.
Video. Movie mode on the NEX-C3 is limited to HD, meaning 1,280x720 progressive, recording in MP4 encoding. Sony's optics are optimized for video, though, which means that it focuses quietly enough to record video while tracking focus, even on a rapidly moving subject.
Size and Weight. The NEX-C3 is less than a millimeter reduced in width than the NEX-5, but about 6mm narrower than the NEX-3. Its greatest thickness, measured from the grip, is the same as the NEX-3, but 6mm thinner than the NEX-5. And its height is the same as the NEX-5's, at 60mm, and 3mm shorter than the NEX-3. Weight is reduced from the NEX5's 17.7 ounces (502g) to 17.5 ounces (497g) with the lens, hood, card, and battery.
Storage. The Sony NEX-C3 is compatible with two memory card standards, each with various permutations. The first is the Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro-HG Duo/Pro-HG HX Duo, and like Olympus did with the Pens last year, Sony now also supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC media in the same slot.
Battery. The Sony NEX-C3 uses the same 7.2V 1080mAh lithium-ion battery with part number NP-FW50. Tested to the CIPA standard, the Sony NEX-C3 is expected to get 20% better battery life than its predecessors, capturing up to 400 shots on a charge.
Sony NEX-C3 size comparisons
Sony NEX-C3 vs Sony NEX-5
Sony NEX-C3 vs Sony NEX-3
Sony NEX-C3 vs Olympus E-PL2
Shooting with the Sony NEX-C3
by Shawn Barnett
The Sony NEX-C3 is remarkably small, with a decent grip and a smallish rear thumbrest. Some will find its very small size problematic, especially given the larger size and weight of the lens, but I found it just fine knowing what I was getting away with by carrying it. It's really a lot like taking a pocket long zoom digital camera and attaching a big lens to it (if you use the 18-55mm kit lens, rather than the 16mm). So it's a little awkward at first. But when you remember that you have a larger sensor--the same size as most consumer SLRs--in this insanely small body you really do feel like you're getting away with something.
As such, the Sony NEX-C3 was an ideal hiking camera. Out walking a nearby trail, I was able to bring along both the Sony NEX-C3 and the Olympus E-PL1 in a small satchel. Both cameras were so light, the bag felt like it was empty. Since I was out with an unannounced camera, I was careful to conceal it when it wasn't in the bag. It hid completely behind my palm with my thumb and index finger wrapped around the lens barrel. Since it's even smaller than the NEX-5, with fewer soft edges, it was comfortable to hold this way.
The LCD wasn't as good in bright light as I'm used to, mostly because of the very reflective outer glass, so the tilting screen came in handy. I shot high up and down low with relative ease, though when shooting vertically from down low, which I do often, I had to guess and hope I was framing correctly, which wasn't always the case. Some of my shots were ruined because I cut off feet or tops of heads, especially when framing shots of my toddler.
I attached the small flash that comes in the kit, and it came in handy without adding a lot of weight. I made several images that I decided might look better with a little flash, and it was easy to just flip up this little accessory and see what happened. I found it powerful enough for fill inside about 20 feet. Because it doesn't flip up very far, you can expect to see some red-eye, as in the shot at left.
Optics. I was very happy with the Sony NEX-C3, all I wanted was some variety in the lens department. The new 30mm f/3.5 shows Sony's commitment to adding lenses to the lineup, as does their list of projected lenses, due by 2012. What I needed on that hike (and had with the Olympus) was an extra-wide-angle zoom lens, and a light and small telephoto. The Sony 18-200mm lens is still smaller than most SLR lenses, but it is a little big on the NEX-C3.
Controls are similar to past models, and I still find it a bit fiddly having to go into a menu for certain aspects that should have their own buttons, especially when there are so many steps and screen changes along the way. But that's one of the tradeoffs when cameras get this small, and the programmability of four of those buttons means that I can at least make the Sony NEX-C3 work the way I want it to.
Revisiting the Sony NEX-C3 after playing with the NEX-5N and a slew of other compact system cameras since, I still find it a tight little design that's as nice to hold as it is to use. Several of my old shots with the C3 were a little softer than I liked, but I didn't say much about it because of its prototype status. I'd been thinking that the 18-55mm lens our sample came with wasn't as good, but looking at our Still Life target at the lowest common ISO (200) shows the NEX-5N to be a little sharper than the NEX-C3, a distinction that becomes more apparent as ISO rises. We shoot the Still Life target with our laboratory standard Sigma 70mm f/2.8, a remarkably sharp lens. And while both are what could be called sharp, the 5N's ISO 100 and 200 shots clearly redefine sharp when put next to the NEX-C3's images.
30mm. Since I was concerned about the 18-55, I did a little more shooting with the new 30mm f/3.5 Macro lens, and found that to be more fun. Zoom lenses, for all their practicality, tend to make me lazy, so I like the challenge of shooting with a prime. While it's about as long as the kit zoom, the 30mm Macro sports a lot less glass, making it both lighter and a little less impressive. Its objective lens is only about 14mm across, yet it's surrounded by a shiny bezel that looks a little like an extension of the lens. That seems a little bit like cheating, and for fans of big glass optics, it's a bit disappointing, but it's not the first time we've seen it.
I liked the 30mm, but noticed some rainbow lens flare when shooting with the Sun hitting the lens. Our copy did not include a lens hood, and a quick glance online doesn't show a hood available. Because most of the Sony SEL lenses have the same 49mm cap size, they also seem to use the same hood bayonet mount, so the 18-55mm hood works, though I doubt it would have helped in the shots that included the rainbow.
Sweep Panorama. One of our favorite Sony innovations is Sweep Panorama, and the NEX-C3 does fairly well even in these relatively low-light shots. It's a bit of a trick each time I do it to get the right speed, capturing enough images to cover the range before the buffer fills. If you don't sweep fast enough, you end up with a gray bar on the right or left of the file (depending on the direction you sweep), but if you go too fast, especially on a dreary day like this, you end up with blurry images.
First I held the camera horizontally and did a standard sweep. Dimensions are 8,192 x 1,856 pixels.
Next I switched to Wide mode and got a really wide sweep. This one was difficult to get given the low light, so you'll notice it's a little more soft and there's a black bar on the right, indicating that I didn't go fast enough. Dimensions are 12,416 x 1,856 pixels.
Then I switched to vertical orientation and returned to Standard width by selecting "Down" in the sweep direction menu, and sweeping right. That allowed me to get the top of the house and some more of the trees in the shot. Dimensions are 3,872 x 2,160 pixels.
Finally I kept it in vertical mode, but switched to Wide, which gave me a little more of this grove of trees. There are slight errors in among the trees, a very common outcome in Sweep Panorama shots from most companies that offer them, but the detail is pretty good overall. Dimensions are 5,536 x 2,160 pixels.
DRO and HDR. The NEX-C3 has Dynamic Range Optimizer and High Dynamic Range modes. At first I thought the C3 was confined to Auto modes, but that's thanks to an interface quirk. While you're selecting the Auto HDR mode, for example, the second soft button in the lower right has changed to Option. Pressing this button allows you to use the rear dial to choose from five levels of DRO adjustment, or six levels of EV for HDR. It's harder to tell in these thumbnails, but there's a difference in the brightness of the house and the detail in the clouds in both the DRO and HDR shots below.
|Program||DRO Auto||HDR Auto|
It's a little frustrating that you can't use a two-second self-timer in HDR mode, the one place I needed it more, with my slightly wobbly tripod. I'm not likely to use either mode, but if I did need a little more help with dark shadows against bright skies, I'd go straight for HDR Auto. See our test shots for more on the various settings for both modes.
Movie. As we already said, Movie mode is limited to 720p Fine quality at best, and encoding is MP4, not the more compact AVCHD standard. Nevertheless, the NEX-C3's movies will more easily play on computers without special software. Movie quality is pretty good, with good contrast and detail. Other video options include a 720p at Standard quality, and 640 x 480. See our Video page for more detail on the NEX-C3's video capabilities.
Menu. I'll have to momentarily rant about the Menu system, too. One aspect, the main screen, containing six icons, is poorly conceived. Too many of the items you want to set are in separate menus, where normally they'd be under the Camera icon. ISO, for example, should not be under Brightness/Color; this menu shouldn't even exist. The only reason I can think of for including Image Size and Brightness/Color menus as separate icons is because six icons filled out the wide screen better than just four. Remembering where I should search for a given setting among these three icons is a constant nuisance with all of the NEX cameras I've used. Add that certain settings become unavailable in certain modes, and the NEX series menus can be pretty frustrating.
On the positive side, Sony made many improvements over the initial iteration of the NEX menu, including menus that wrap around when you've reached the end, and a general tendency to return to the last menu item selected, so it's easier to return directly to your last modified item for more changes, or to disable them altogether.
Minor usability issues aside, though, there's no question that the Sony NEX-C3 is a very competent little camera, one that's attractive and very small.
Sony NEX-C3 Image Quality
Most digital SLRs and CSCs will produce a reasonable ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do compared to other cameras at ISO 1,600, 3,200, and 6,400. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1,600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.
NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. All cameras in this comparison are always shot with the sharpest lens we have on hand.
Sony NEX-C3 versus Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 versus Panasonic GF2 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-5 at ISO 1,600
Up against its 14-megapixel successor, the NEX-C3 resolves more detail, but does it in the same spirit as the NEX-5, making the family resemblance obvious.
Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.
Sony NEX-C3 versus Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-PL2 at ISO 3,200
At 3,200, the Sony NEX-C3 holds noticeably more detail compared to the Olympus E-PL2, the latter also losing grasp of color a little more.
Sony NEX-C3 versus Panasonic GF2 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
Panasonic GF2 at ISO 3,200
Likewise against the Panasonic GF2, the Sony NEX-C3 flexes that large-sensor muscle, retaining more color and greater detail.
Sony NEX-C3 versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 versus Samsung NX100 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
Samsung NX100 at ISO 3,200
Samsung's NX100 suffers dramatically at ISO 3,200, which shows clearly in these crops. The images speak for themselves.
Sony NEX-C3 versus Sony NEX-5 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-5 at ISO 3,200
Again, here, same family, different resolution, yielding more detail from the NEX-C3.
Detail: Sony NEX-C3 versus Olympus E-PL2, Panasonic GF2, Panasonic G3, Samsung NX100, and Sony NEX-5
Sony NEX-C3 Print Quality
Great 20x30-inch prints from ISO 200 to 800; ISO 3,200 shots are good for a 13x19-inch print; ISO 12,800 makes a good 8x10.
ISO 400 shots also look good at 20x30 inches, though detail in reds is slightly soft.
ISO 800 images have quite surprising detail, still at 20x30 inches. Some ares are very slightly softer than ISO 400, like reds, but not at all bad.
ISO 1,600 shots are usable at 20x30, but shadows and red areas are softer. Reducing to 16x20, though, brings quality back to quite good.
ISO 3,200 images have good detail, but shadows start to show zones in places, and reds are softer still. Reduction to 13x19 inches helps with most of this, with very good detail.
ISO 6,400 files have excellent detail at 13x19 inches, but with noisy, inky shadows. Reduction to 11x14 helps, but the image has also darkened by this setting, as saturation has risen.
ISO 12,800 images exhibit sufficient high-contrast detail, but lower contrast detail is pretty soft at 11x14 inches, and shadows are rough. But printing at 8x10 makes a pretty decent image.
Overall, the Sony NEX-C3's images prove that this is a camera you can rely on in low light. It outputs 20x30-inch prints with great color and excellent detail from ISO 200 to 800, which is pretty impressive.
In the Box
The Sony NEX-C3 ships with the following items in the box:
- Sony NEX-C3 body
- 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 w/lens hood or 16mm f/2.8 lens (depending on kit)
- HVL-F7S Flash
- Body cap
- Lens caps
- NP-FW50 Lithium-ion battery
- BC-VW1 Battery charger with power cord
- USB cable
- Shoulder strap
- Quick Start manual
- Warranty card
- Extra battery pack
- Protective case
- Large capacity, high-speed SDHC/SDXC or MS Pro Duo memory card. 8-16GB or larger makes sense if you plan on shooting lots of HD video. Look for a speed grade of at least Class 4 for HD video capture.
Sony NEX-C3 Conclusion
When Sony set out to revamp and more clearly delineate its consumer NEX camera, they did so by making it about as small as the more enthusiast-targeted NEX-5. Now that we've seen the launch of the NEX-5N and NEX-7, we see quite well where the NEX-C3 sits in the lineup. It's designed to appeal to the discerning consumer who wants a handsome, small, tight compact system camera that can go anywhere and bring back quality images and videos.
The Sony NEX-C3 is a lot of fun to shoot with, and its sporty design looks great hanging around your neck. It's also comfortable to use with a wrist strap, being just a little smaller than most super zoom digital cameras. We liked the tilting LCD, and the grip is good, with a texture that provides good hold. The menu continues to give us trouble, particularly with its odd split among six icons when four would be better. But we're content to live with it, especially given the improvements to the menu's overall behavior.
720p video worked well enough, with stereo audio to boot, and autofocus was pretty smooth and accurate in most situations. Sweep Panorama and Handheld Twilight modes make short work of formerly difficult photographic problems, and the Peaking function makes manual focus considerably more accurate than most other methods that we've seen.
Overall, the Sony NEX-C3 is a great consumer compact system camera that we think will serve a broad base of users. Image quality is very good among compact system cameras, with remarkable ISO performance from 200 to 1,600, producing images that look good printed at 20x30 inches. We did have some problems with the kit lens, with soft corners and noticeable chromatic aberration, and image quality was not quite as good as the images from the NEX-5N, despite the matching 16-megapixel resolution. It turns out that the lens looks better on the 5N because that camera corrects for the lens's shortcomings; the 5N also produces slightly sharper JPEG images with less noise. So enthusiasts and picky types should take note and consider the NEX-5N, available for about $100 more. However, that doesn't take away from the NEX-C3's quality build, great images, and low price, which combine to make it a Dave's Pick.