Cameras

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Digital Camera Review

Sony's entry-level system camera is the best way for casual users to step up to a serious camera.

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Introduction

The best things come in small packages with comically large lenses. 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 wouldn'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 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).

Front

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Back

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Sides

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Top

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Bottom

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In the Box

Box Photo

• Sony Alpha NEX-C3 digital camera

• 18-55mm E-mount kit lens

• rechargeable lithium-ion battery (NP-FW50)

• battery wall charger

• USB cable

• shoulder strap

• clip-on flash

• CD-ROM

Kit Lens & Mount

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).

Like other E-mount lenses, the kit zoom lens has a metallic finish with a ridged texture on the lens barrel and manual focus-by-wire mechanism.

Like all NEX-series cameras, the C3 is equipped with an E-mount. The current E-mount lens selection is decent, with a handful of fast primes, a macro option, and a telephoto zoom. The roster is growing, and third-party lens makers are getting in on the action. A range of adapters for other lens-types are also available, including an A-mount adapter for long-time Sony users.

Lens Mount Photo

Like the rest of the NEX series, the C3 uses Sony's E-mount.

Sensor

The NEX-C3 is built around a 16.2-megapixel APS-C Exmor R CMOS sensor. We can't be sure, but we're guessing that it's a modified version of the chip found in higher-end cameras like the NEX-5N, Pentax K-5, and Nikon D7000, among others. It has a crop factor of 1.5x, so the 18-55mm kit lens is really a 27-82mm lens in 35mm equivalent terms.

Convergence areas of different sensor sizes compared

Display(s)

The NEX-C3 does not have a built-in viewfinder. But the LCD is a high-quality piece of work. It's a 3-inch wide-format display, with 921,000 pixels of resolution, mounted on a tilting hinge. No touch functionality, but you won't miss it. Colors are rich and punchy, lag is not a problem, and it cuts through bright sunlight effectively.

Flash

Like a growing number of mirrorless cameras, the NEX-C3 doesn't have a built-in flash. Instead, it ships with a clip-on unit for the accessory terminal. It's rated for 7 meters of effectiveness, which is respectable for a tiny flash. The interface supports controls like red-eye reduction, flash compensation, and slow-sync.

Flash Photo

The NEX-C3 has no built-in flash, but ships with this clip-on unit.

Connectivity

As most cameras tend to, the NEX-C3 has USB and mini-HDMI hookups. Pretty typical for an entry-level model.

Durability

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.

Image Quality

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 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.

Sharpness

The NEX-C3 produces sharp, detailed images with the kit lens, at least by the standards of entry-level system cameras. We measured an overall average of 1366 MTF50s across all focal lengths, apertures, and areas of the frame.

Results were pretty consistent across the focal range, though on the whole, wider settings were sharper. Predictably, the best scores came from the middle aperture settings (around f/8, depending on the focal range) and in the middle of the frame. Edge sharpness was decent. The poor scores at the minimum aperture settings really dragged down the overall rating, but that's the case with most cameras.

It almost goes without saying that better lenses would turn in much higher scores. The kit lens has enough other problems (look at that awful fringing in the crops below) to suggest that the sensor is doing most of the work. We shot around with the 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss-brand E-mount lens and the 50mm f/1.8 E-mount lens during the testing period; both of them blow away the kit zoom, for what it's worth. It's great that the scores are as high as they are, but the kit lens leaves most of the camera's potential untapped. More on how we test sharpness.

Science Section 1 Images

Image Stabilization

The built-in SteadyShot stabilization is quite effective. We saw a 40 percent improvement in sharpness when the SteadyShot optical image stabilization was activated. That's a solid result. Serious telephoto shots (with a longer-reaching lens) and dim lighting will still cause some problems, but it's a very effective system overall.

Color

The NEX-C3 reproduces punchy, over-saturated colors—not exactly accurate, but eye-pleasing. We measured a minimum average color error of 3.07 (under 3.5 is solid, under 3.0 is excellent), with 114.7 percent saturation (anything above 110 percent or below 90 percent incurs a penalty). The Portrait color profile turned out to be the most accurate setting, edging out Standard by a hair. More on how we test color.

Most colors are fairly accurate—greens, yellows, skin tones, and light blues are all pretty much spot-on. But deeper blues and reds are wildly exaggerated, throwing off the average accuracy.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

Lined up against the other entry-level system cameras in this comparison group, the NEX-C3 earned the weakest color score. The results are very similar to the NEX-5N, no surprise. The Panasonic GF3 is the obvious winner, followed by the Canon T3 DSLR and Nikon J1. Color is very subjective, so take a look at our sample photos and crops to get a feel for which camera suits your style. Also remember that the Sony's color profiles are user-adjustable.

Color Modes

Available color modes (or "Creative Styles" as they're called in the menu) include Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, and Black & White. Contrast, sharpness, and saturation are adjustable for each profile.

White Balance

The overall white balance performance is satisfactory, certainly effective enough for casual photographers to share their photos online and make some prints without weird color casts in their shots.

Automatic White Balance ()

Auto white balance generally corrects enough that ugly color casts aren't a problem. It performs very well under daylight and fluorescent lighting. Warm incandescent lighting is more troublesome—shots are slightly yellow—but that's the case with pretty much any camera.

Custom White Balance ()

In the easier lighting situations (daylight and fluorescent), using a custom white balance isn't much more effective than using the auto setting. It helps a great deal under incandescent lighting—enough to remove the yellow cast.

Once again, the Panasonic GF3 is the color-score champion, outgunning every other entry-level system camera by a healthy margin. Both its auto and custom WB scores are the best in the class. None of the cameras have such poor white balance that it gets in the way of good-looking photos, but the GF3 gets much closer to ideal levels than any of the others.

White Balance Options

Aside from auto white balance, six WB presets are available: Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Flash. Each is adjustable in seven steps (at zero by default, 3 levels in either direction). Custom white balance is obviously available, as is a direct Kelvin color temperature entry.

Noise Reduction

Noise performance is great for a low-end system camera. 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. More on how we test noise.

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ISO Options

Curiously, the NEX-C3 starts its ISO range at 200, rather than 80, 100, or 160. So it loses a stop at the bottom end, which would probably have improved the noise score slightly—up to the same level as the NEX-5N. The native sensitivity maxes out at an impressive ISO 12800. Settings are user-selectable in full stops, and an auto ISO mode is available as well.

Science Section 3 Images

Dynamic Range

The NEX-C3 handles the dynamic range exceptionally well for an entry-level system camera. It can handle nearly 8 full stops of the dynamic range at the lowest ISO setting, and still nearly 5 stops at ISO 3200 (the last clean setting on the sensor). In real-world terms, it's better at picking up details in shadowy areas and very bright areas than most cameras. More on how we test dynamic range.

Remarkably, the NEX-C3 earned the best d-range score in the comparison group. Bigger sensors usually mean better dynamic range performance, so we're not surprised to see it beat the Panasonic GF3 and Nikon J1, which both use smaller chips. But we're very surprised to see it outscore its bigger brother, the NEX-5N. The most likely explanation is the different noise-reduction profiles. Extra noise reduction tends to improve d-range performance. We test at the lowest NR setting available, and the NEX-5N probably applies less noise reduction than the NEX-C3 at their respective lowest settings.

Low Light Performance

Low-light shooting is not a problem for the NEX-C3. Sensitivities up through ISO 3200 are clean and detailed enough to use for sizable prints. SteadyShot optical stabilization helps take fewer blurry shots. The great dynamic range performance helps capture details in the murkiest areas of the frame. And with better, brighter lenses, the quality improves even more.

Noise Reduction

Noise performance is great for a low-end system camera. 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. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

Curiously, the NEX-C3 starts its ISO range at 200, rather than 80, 100, or 160. So it loses a stop at the bottom end, which would probably have improved the noise score slightly—up to the same level as the NEX-5N. The native sensitivity maxes out at an impressive ISO 12800. Settings are user-selectable in full stops, and an auto ISO mode is available as well.

Focus Performance

For a camera with a contrast-based autofocus, the NEX-C3 is quick, about on par with the snappy systems that have found their way into just about every other mirrorless system camera at this point. Speed and reliability decrease as the focal range extends and with stabilization activated, but that's the case with pretty much any camera, though low-light autofocus is much clunkier than what even cheap DSLRs (with phase-detection autofocus) can accomplish.

Video: Low Light Sensitivity

We were pleasantly surprised by the NEX-C3's low-light sensitivity. It only dipped below acceptable levels somewhere between 7 and 8 lux.

Chromatic Aberration

If the NEX-C3 has one weak spot in image quality performance, it's chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration is when red, blue, and green light follow different paths through the lens and onto the sensor; it manifests itself as ugly colored fringing along high-contrast areas, like the sides of the wedges in the cropped examples below.

The wedges at the center of the chart are fine, but all of the edge examples suffer from noticeable fringing at every focal length and every aperture setting. The results are in the same ballpark as the NEX-5N, and worse than all of the other entry-level system cameras in the comparison group.

The kit lens is the likely culprit, but most buyers will only ever use that lens, so it's a very valid concern.

Distortion

We measured 3.67 percent barrel distortion at the wide-angle setting, and almost 1.5 percent pincushion distortion at the telephoto setting. We always expect to see significant distortion with kit lenses, but it's rarely this exaggerated. It's one more reason to believe that these Sony kit lenses are super-cheap.

Motion

The NEX-C3 handles video motion fairly well. The tank engine leaves a bit of a trail and stutters a bit, and we can spot some static-y artifacting in the background. But aside from those quibbles, the motion performance leaves little to complain about. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Video Sharpness

For a camera that shoots just 720p, sharpness is solid. We measured 525 horizontal and 550 vertical lw/ph, almost enough resolution to match the 1080i-shooting Panasonic GF3. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

In dimmer lighting, sharpness predictably falls off quite a bit, down to 250 horizontal and vertical lw/ph. We only recently started running this test on still cameras, so we don't have any valid comparison points.

Low Light Sensitivity

We were pleasantly surprised by the NEX-C3's low-light sensitivity. It only dipped below acceptable levels somewhere between 7 and 8 lux.

Usability

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. Performance is zippy all-around, from focus times to burst shooting.

Automatic Features

It's a system camera with plenty of control available, but the NEX-C3 is designed for automatic operation. It's probably the most straight-forward, least-intimidating system camera we've seen.

Basically, it runs like a Cyber-shot ultracompact that happens to have a big lens strapped on the front—we mean that in the best way possible. It comes set to auto mode by default for a stress-free point-and-shoot experience. The scene presets, digital effects, and extra features like sweep panorama are predominantly automated as well.

Within auto mode, there's a Photo Creativity option. It contains adjustments for easy-to-understand settings like brightness, color, vividness, the self-timer, soft skin, effects, and a background defocus effect (a simplified version of aperture control). Basically, it's a novice-friendlier way to make adjustments that more experienced photographers can make instinctively.

Buttons & Dials

Not too many buttons to speak of here. There's a shutter, a power switch, a playback-mode button, a selection dial, and two assignable "soft" keys. It's clean and clutter-free, and lends itself to an easy point-and-shoot experience.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

A healthy amount of scene presets, digital filters, and extra shooting modes are available, all through settings in the Shoot Mode menu.

The menu system is too divided and disjointed for our tastes. Common shooting settings are divided into three separate sub-menus: Camera, Brightness/Color, and Image Size. Playback and Setup each get their own sub-menus, which makes sense.

On the plus side, this setup keeps menus from getting too long and cluttered. On the downside, it's easy to forget that, for example, drive mode and focus controls are in a different menu than ISO and white balance controls.

There's no quick menu system, but there are three assignable keys (the bottom soft key, and the left and right sides of the selection dial), which can bring up your favorite or most commonly adjusted parameters.

The aesthetics in the menu system are very clean, with lots of white space and crisp text. It's easy to read at a glance. Navigating the menu system is also simple, thanks to the selection dial, doubling as a directional pad when necessary.

Instruction Manual

The NEX-C3 ships with a short instruction manual. It covers the basics of operation and some of the shooting modes, though not in as much detail as the full version, available only as a PDF on the included CD-ROM (or for download). Any camera that costs this much should ship with a thicker manual.

Handling

The Cyber-shot-esque design might look slick and approachable, but the NEX-C3 isn't particularly easy to handle. The grip is a small bump with a little bit of texture, and there's a textured rubber thumb rest on the back. The setup provides a bit of leverage, but it still feels a bit slippery, and the huge lens throws off the balance.

Handling Photo 1

That huge lens also makes the NEX-C3 much too large to carry in anything besides a huge purse or backpack. Unlike smaller mirrorless system cameras, which use smaller lenses, there's no chance that this will fit into any pocket.

Handling Photo 2

Buttons & Dials

Not too many buttons to speak of here. There's a shutter, a power switch, a playback-mode button, a selection dial, and two assignable "soft" keys. It's clean and clutter-free, and lends itself to an easy point-and-shoot experience.

Buttons Photo 1

The stripped-down control scheme is designed to not intimidate entry-level users.

For users who want a more hands-on experience, it's possible to cobble together a reasonably nimble custom setup using the assignable soft keys and left and right sides of the selection dial. Settings like ISO, drive mode, focus mode, and others can be tied to those buttons. It isn't perfect, and enthusiast shooters will probably be better-served by a camera with more physical controls, but it's workable.

Buttons Photo 2

Display(s)

The NEX-C3 does not have a built-in viewfinder. But the LCD is a high-quality piece of work. It's a 3-inch wide-format display, with 921,000 pixels of resolution, mounted on a tilting hinge. No touch functionality, but you won't miss it. Colors are rich and punchy, lag is not a problem, and it cuts through bright sunlight effectively.

Image Stabilization

The built-in SteadyShot stabilization is quite effective. We saw a 40 percent improvement in sharpness when the SteadyShot optical image stabilization was activated. That's a solid result. Serious telephoto shots (with a longer-reaching lens) and dim lighting will still cause some problems, but it's a very effective system overall.

Shooting Modes

The NEX-C3 offers an auto mode, PASM manual modes, a large handful of scene presets and digital effects, and some extras like Anti Motion Blur, Sweep Panorama, and 3D Sweep Panorama.

Focus

For a camera with a contrast-based autofocus, the NEX-C3 is quick, about on par with the snappy systems that have found their way into just about every other mirrorless system camera at this point. Speed and reliability decrease as the focal range extends and with stabilization activated, but that's the case with pretty much any camera, though low-light autofocus is much clunkier than what even cheap DSLRs (with phase-detection autofocus) can accomplish.

Manual focus with non-viewfinder cameras is usually more trouble than it's worth, but we actually found it to be easy and potentially useful on the NEX-C3. The high-res LCD is the main factor—it's crisp and responsive enough to display minor shifts in focus. And by default, a focus assist magnifies the image by 7.5x on the screen. We still always prefer an optical viewfinder for manual focus, but this really isn't bad at all.

Recording Options

Resolution maxes out at 16.2 megapixels in a 3:2 aspect ratio. Three sizes are available in both 3:2 and 16:9 ratios, though there are no native 4:3 or 1:1 options.

JPEG and RAW formats are both supported (including JPEG+RAW simultaneous capture). Normal and Fine JPEG qualities are available. Fine JPEGs usually weigh in around 5 or 6 MB, while RAW images easily hit 17 MB.

Other Controls

A handful of advanced-level image adjustments are available.

Contrast

Contrast can be adjusted for each color profile. Seven levels are available.

Saturation

Saturation can be adjusted for each color profile. Seven levels are available.

Sharpness

Saturation can be adjusted for each color profile. Seven levels are available.

Long Exposure NR

Long exposure NR can be adjusted in the Setup menu. It controls the noise reduction settings for shots with shutter speeds longer than 1 second. The options are on or off.

High ISO NR

High ISO NR controls the noise reduction settings for shots at ISO 800 and above, based on what we can tell from our testing. The options are Auto or Weak. It can be controlled in the Setup menu.

Speed and Timing

The continuous-drive and self-timer options are pretty typical of current standards, but still very effective and useful.

Two continuous drive modes are available, one with continuous autofocus, and one with fixed autofocus (Speed Priority). Both of them function in RAW mode as well as JPEG, and capture full-res images.

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.

Standard self-timer options are available, including 2 second and 10 second settings, as well as a 10-second, 3-shots option. Smile Shutter is also available.

Focus Speed

For a camera with a contrast-based autofocus, the NEX-C3 is quick, about on par with the snappy systems that have found their way into just about every other mirrorless system camera at this point. Speed and reliability decrease as the focal range extends and with stabilization activated, but that's the case with pretty much any camera, though low-light autofocus is much clunkier than what even cheap DSLRs (with phase-detection autofocus) can accomplish.

Manual focus with non-viewfinder cameras is usually more trouble than it's worth, but we actually found it to be easy and potentially useful on the NEX-C3. The high-res LCD is the main factor—it's crisp and responsive enough to display minor shifts in focus. And by default, a focus assist magnifies the image by 7.5x on the screen. We still always prefer an optical viewfinder for manual focus, but this really isn't bad at all.

Features

Extra features are limited to a handful of fairly common digital effects and multi-shot scene modes, all of which are useful. No standard hot shoe, but there is an accessory terminal, which will most commonly be used with the bundled clip-on flash. Sony resisted the urge to include GPS or WiFi, which mercifully keeps the cost down.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

A healthy amount of scene presets, digital filters, and extra shooting modes are available, all through settings in the Shoot Mode menu.

Recording Options

The NEX-C3's maximum video resolution is 720p at 30 frames per second. It can also capture VGA-quality video. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

Aside from a dedicated video button, the NEX-C3 doesn't have any specialized video controls.

Auto Controls

Auto mode is really the only video mode. It adjust for exposure and autofocus reliably and fairly quickly.

Zoom

Since this is an interchangeable-lens camera, the zoom controls and ratio are entirely dependent on the lens.

Focus

Autofocus and manual focus are both supported.

Exposure Controls

Manual exposure controls are limited to exposure compensation and scene modes.

Audio Features

Audio features are extremely limited. Audio can be turned on or off, but there's no wind-cut option, no level monitor, and not even a headphone jack.

Conclusion

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 can choose from at least a dozen affordable interchangeable-lens models. We're almost at the point of overload; which $600 camera do we choose?

At least in the USA, traditional DSLRs by Canon and Nikon are still the most popular options, but Sony's mirrorless NEX series is starting to make a dent. It's no surprise, either—when they make cameras like the NEX-C3, they deserve to be at the top of the heap.

The NEX-C3 has everything that casual photographers need. The image quality is excellent, on par with cameras that cost a few hundred dollars more. Colors are punchy, details are very sharp, and performs well in a huge range of lighting conditions. The stripped-down, approachable control scheme is streamlined for simple pointing and shooting, yet clever enough for some hands-on adjustments. Some fan-favorite modes are tossed in for good measure, including a few digital filters and a sweep-panorama mode.

Most of our complaints have to do with the NEX line in general, not just the C3 specifically. It's mirrorless, but not much more portable than a DSLR. The kit lens makes it way too big to fit into anything smaller than a roomy purse, whereas some Panasonic, Olympus, and Nikon models are compact enough for a jacket pocket. The bulky lens throws off the balance a bit, and makes it more difficult to handle. And while the control scheme is great for shooters who just want to aim and click, enthusiasts usually want more buttons than the C3 (or NEX-5N, for that matter) offers.

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?

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 having to start 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. (The original NEX-3 was announced in May 2010, the NEX-C3 in early June 2011.) Whatever comes next is likely to be an incremental update, and the NEX-C3 price will almost certainly fall off to make room for the new kid. Now is as good a time to buy the NEX-C3 as any, and we recommend it for any casual photographer who wants to step up to a serious camera.

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