cameras

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Review

The Sony NEX-C3 is the best way for casual photogs to step up to a serious camera.

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Introduction

The Alpha NEX-C3 is Sony’s entry-level compact mirrorless system camera, and the best way for casual photographers to step up from a point-and-shoot or smartphone to a proper sharpshooter. Its sleek body and simplified control scheme are designed to feel comfortable for novices, but the big 16.2-megapixel APS-C sensor packs a punch, in line with traditional DSLRs from Canon or Nikon.

Sony has an aggressive replacement schedule, so we won’t be surprised if the NEX-C3 gets replaced sometime this summer, but until that announcement comes, and even in anticipation of a C3 price drop, let’s take a look at what makes it the best bang for the buck in the mirrorless category. The Sony NEX-C3 is available now in silver and pink shades for an MSRP of $599.99, including an 18-55mm kit lens (street prices are significantly lower).

Design & Usability

The NEX-C3 looks like a beefed-up Cyber-shot point-and-shoot—a signal to casual photographers that this serious camera isn’t really so complicated or intimidating.

The juxtaposition of a big, metallic lens on the C3's thin, slick body looks more futuristic and forward-thinking than the conservative, retro-leaning designs used on just about every other system camera. The C3 is built from some solid components too, including a tilting, 3-inch, high-res LCD, and a 16.2-megapixel APS-C sensor, similar to the chips used in a number of well-regarded, higher-end cameras.

The NEX-C3 is not rated to withstand shocks or any amount of water.

The typical NEX-C3 retail configuration includes an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 E-mount kit lens—that’s the setup we tested. A version with a 16mm f/2.8 prime lens is available as well, though it costs more (and it’s a little too chunky to really be considered a pancake lens). The NEX-C3 is not rated to withstand shocks or any amount of water. Best to treat it with kid gloves. Despite the plastic build, it feels like a quality piece of hardware, though we wouldn’t want to push the limits of its ruggedness.

If you’re after an easy point-and-shoot affair, the NEX-C3 works like a charm. The control scheme is clean and clutter free, with easy-enough access to settings and menus if you should need them—though it’s still too skimpy for most hands-on shooters. The chunky lens throws off the balance, and a bigger, textured grip would improve one-handed operation, but two-handed shooting is comfy as is.

Features

Extra features are limited to a handful of fairly common digital effects and multi-shot scene modes.

While they're not terribly expansive, all of the NEX-C3's extra features are at least useful. There is no standard hot shoe, but there is an accessory terminal, which will most commonly be used with the bundled clip-on flash. Buyers will also benefit from Sony's resistance to GPS or WiFi, which mercifully keeps the cost down.

Buyers will also benefit from Sony's resistance to GPS or WiFi, which mercifully keeps the cost down.

We measured a top shot-to-shot speed of 5.2 frames per second in fixed autofocus (Speed Priority) mode. That’s a touch quicker than most entry-level system cameras. With continuous autofocus activated, we measured a still-respectable 2.5 frames per second.

For creative control, there is a healthy amount of scene presets, digital filters, and extra shooting modes. The NEX-C3 offers an auto mode too, as well as PASM manual modes and extras like Anti Motion Blur, Sweep Panorama, and 3D Sweep Panorama.

Performance

Image quality is excellent across the board.

Judicious noise reduction, sharp details, and fantastic dynamic range performance make for one of the best all-around IQ scores we’ve seen at this price point. The mediocre kit lens stifles the resolution scores, particularly in terms of chromatic aberration, and all of the color profiles are noticeably over-saturated by default—but taken on the whole, it doesn’t get much better than this in the entry-level segment.

Noise performance is great for a low-end system.

The NEX-C3 produces sharp, detailed images with the kit lens, at least by the standards of entry-level system cameras. It also reproduces punchy, over-saturated colors—not exactly accurate, but eye-pleasing—and noise performance is great for a low-end system. Shots are crisp and detailed up until ISO 3200. Noise reduction starts to smudge details around ISO 6400 and especially at ISO 12800, but we never found grainy noise to be a problem at any setting.

Conclusion

Regardless of the sales intentions, the NEX-C3 is a fantastic value for the money.

The market for entry-level system cameras is in full bloom. Casual photographers who want something better than their old point-and-shoot or smartphone have dozens of affordable interchangeable-lens models to choose from. If you’re after an easy point-and-shoot affair, the NEX-C3 works like a charm. The image quality is excellent, on par with cameras that cost a few hundred dollars more. The stripped-down, approachable control scheme is streamlined for simple pointing and shooting, yet clever enough for some hands-on adjustments, too.

We do have some complaints, but these are more to do with the NEX line in general, not just the C3 specifically. The C3 is mirrorless, but not much more portable than a DSLR, since its lenses make it too big for a pant pocket. We also have a sneaking suspicion that Sony clipped the C3's wings, so to speak. It looks like it's built around the same sensor as the NEX-5N (the relevant test scores are almost identical), but continuous shooting is slower and it can't shoot full HD video. Are these really limitations of a lesser sensor? Did they really need to give it a slower processor? Is it a marketing angle to sell more 5N units, which we can assume have higher margins?

We recommend the C3 for any casual photographer who wants to step up to a serious camera.

Regardless of the sales intentions, the NEX-C3 is a fantastic value for the money. It's the most logical, familiar way for point-and-shoot users to step up to a more serious camera without starting over with a more advanced, intimidating control scheme. Based on Sony's typical update schedule, the NEX-C3 will probably get replaced sometime this summer by an incremental update, and the NEX-C3 price will almost certainly fall off to make room for the new kid. We recommend the C3 for any casual photographer who wants to step up to a serious camera.

Comparisons

Sony NEX-C3 Vs. Nikon J1

Sony NEX-C3 Vs. Sony NEX-5N

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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