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

Science Introduction

The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 (MSRP $549) is a solid system camera that offers a great deal for graduating point-and-shooters. Its core performance was respectable in all areas—though obviously not of the same quality as a high-end DSLR.

Sharpness

Results were pretty consistent across the focal range.

We measured an overall average of 1366 lw/ph at MTF50 across all focal lengths, apertures, and areas 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 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.

Color Performance

The NEX-C3's punchy color tones are eye pleasing, but not entirely accurate.

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). Lined up against other entry-level system cameras, the NEX-C3 earned a weaker color score. The results are very similar to the NEX-5N, no surprise. However, it's important to remember in this regard that Sony's color profiles are user-adjustable.

Noise Reduction

The NEX-C3 boasts great noise performance for an entry-level system camera.

At ISO 200 and 400, the signal to noise ratio is identical. The results start to split at ISO 800, where the weak setting leans more toward the au natural style, applying less noise reduction. The differences get more obvious as the ISO range increases; with auto NR, noise stays a shade under 2 percent at ISO 12800, but juts up to 2.18 percent with weak NR.

Luminance noise is more significant than chroma noise throughout the ISO range. For example, at ISO 1600, we measured an average color noise of 0.91 percent, but 1.02 percent luminance noise.

Video Performance

The Sony NEX-C3 does an okay job with video.

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

For a camera that shoots just 720p, sharpness is solid. We measured 525 horizontal and 550 vertical lw/ph. In dimmer lighting, sharpness predictably falls off quite a bit, down to 250 horizontal and vertical lw/ph.


Other Tests

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