The original NEX cameras stood out for their incredibly compact design and innovative appearance. The NEX-C3 picks up exactly where these two cameras left off, adding just a few small updates to the original concept. The C3 has a similarly small and slim body with the highly prominent lens that characterises Sony's NEX cameras (our test model came with the 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens). The camera is still fairly discreet though, and fits easily into a small bag or a large jacket pocket. The curve of the grip handle has been slightly reworked to help you keep hold of the camera a bit better. However, the C3 still isn't as nice to hold as the NEX-5 with its deep-set handle.
The C3 has the same VGA LCD screen (921,600 dots) as seen in previous models, with a vertical hinge that flips the screen out from the camera body and a second hinge that lets you tilt the screen backwards and forwards. The screen is sharp and accurate, but it could be smoother when used indoors or in low-light conditions. Plus, the default brightness could be a little higher so as to keep the screen clear and legible in bright sunlight. That said, there is a super-bright mode for lining up shots outdoors, but the colour fidelity goes crazy as a result and and your battery power will be gone in a flash. Otherwise the LCD reproduces relatively accurate colours (delta E 94: 5.4), even though there's still room for improvement.
The NEX-C3 can take a little while to get used to, and you'll have to use the graphic user interface to get to most of the options and settings. However, you can always assign the settings you use the most to the three customisable buttons (see inset), which allow you to tailor the camera's controls to your own needs and tastes. However, it's fairly safe to assume that most of this camera's users will only ever really use it in fully automatic mode, both for taking photos and recording videos (there's a separate video record button, by the way). For those users who do want to have a go at playing around with the settings though, there's a beginners' contextual help function for on-hand advice as and when required, plus a handy guide to help you get creative with your shots.
Speaking of creativity, Sony has loaded this NEX camera with a selection of creative filters, as seen in many Olympus models. Used in both shooting and playback mode, these filters are an easy and fun way of creating effects like black and white, pinhole camera or pop art.
ResponsivenessStarting up in around half a second, it's clear that Sony's engineers have made a conscious effort to make this NEX more responsive than the previous models. The autofocus works very quickly—in most situations it takes under a second to focus, often taking just half a second. That's really quite good, even if the Panasonic G3 is slightly faster.
The burst mode is perhaps the only slight disappointment. Shooting at around 2.5 fps with the autofocus and exposure metering functions active, the NEX-C3 is slower than an entry-level SLR. In the fast burst mode though, (without AF), the camera shoots at a decent speed of 5 fps.
Picture QualitySony just gets better and better at handling digital noise with CMOS sensors, particularly since the arrival of its Exmor range of sensors. The 'new' 16-Megapixel APS-C sensor in the NEX-C3 isn't as new as all that, since it's already been seen in some of Sony's other cameras, such as the Alpha 55. Although the C3 sensor doesn't use Exmor R (backside illuminated) technology, it still does a pretty good job at high ISO settings. You can snap away at 3200 ISO or even 6400 ISO without too much trouble. Although you can push on all the way up to 12800 ISO, the pictures will be less suitable for large-format prints.
The 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens has a fairly standard focal range of 27 to 86 mm (in 24 x 36 equivalent). The lens is, however, still a little disappointing when it comes to sharpness. While things are OK in the middle of the frame, the edges are a little softer at wide-angle settings, and at telephoto settings there's plenty of room for improvement across the whole frame. Plus, distortion isn't corrected on the fly, with barrel distortion (at wide-angle settings) and pin-cushion distortion (at telephoto settings) clearly visible. Chromatic aberration is, however, effectively removed.
The optical stabilisation system isn't particularly convincing either. The camera only gets a sharp shot of Barbie at 1/25 of a second, whereas Panasonic's G-series compacts with a 14-42 mm lens or Olympus' Pen cameras do a better job.
The automatic exposure function in the NEX-C3 works well, but in freehand panorama mode pictures are slightly overexposed.
The NEX-C3 films 720p HD video, leaving 1080p to the NEX-5 and its future replacement (in an attempt to keep a clear distinction between different models in the range, no doubt). The 1280 x 720-pixel resolution still offers a decent definition, though. Plus, the files will take up less room on a memory card and won't require the latest super-fast computer for post-editing. There's a fairly limited choice of settings (only exposure correction is available while filming) and you can't take a still photo while filming.
Video is captured at 30 full frames per second and sound is recorded in stereo, which makes videos filmed with the NEX-C3 really rather pleasant. The continuous autofocus works well and is fairly fast and quiet. Our only real complaint is that the 10 Mbps bitrate could be a little problematic for filming fast-action scenes.
- Picture quality: noise management, depth of field
- Compact design
- Good 720p video mode (optical zoom, stereo sound)
- VGA LCD screen with vertical tilt
- Fast autofocus, sweep panorama mode
- Battery life is a bit disappointing
- Noisy shutter-release
- Not many lenses to choose from
- No built-in stabilisation or flash (separate accessory included)
- Handling could still be better
With its compact, lightweight design, responsive electronics, vertical tilt screen and large-format 16-Megapixel APS-C sensor, the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 has got a lot going for it. It's just a shame that the 18-55 mm lens is still a bit disappointing. The battery life could be better too.