Sony Alpha NEX-C3 review

24 Nov 2011

Sony’s new baby features improved performance over its predecessor, and the best image quality of any mirrorless system camera we've seen

Price when reviewed 
429
5

The NEX-C3 is a true hybrid of DSLR and compact camera. It looks like a point-and-shoot camera, but its 16-megapixel sensor is very similar to the one in the Sony A580, and the two cameras share many aspects of operation.

These include clever shooting modes that go beyond the usual scene presets and creative filters. It can stitch a panorama together from a burst of frames, and even create a 3D panorama, capitalising on the gradual displacement of the camera as it’s rotated. Another mode captures six frames, then aligns and merges them to reduce noise in very low light.

Standard scene presets are well presented, with sample photos and short, clear descriptions to explain their function. When adjusting settings in Auto mode, the camera uses expressions such as “brightness” and “background defocus” rather than more conventional terms.

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 - back

These features and the sparseness of buttons mean the NEX-C3 might appeal to point-and-shoot users more than experienced photographers. However, switching to program, aperture priority, shutter priority or manual mode transforms the controls into more conventional fare. Adjusting settings is initially laborious, but shortcuts can be assigned for quick access to up to eight settings.

It’s worth the effort, as the NEX-C3’s Auto mode doesn’t make the most of its sensor’s low noise performance. Automatic exposures are limited to ISO 1600, but the camera is capable of good results all the way up to 6400. The flash unit is detachable – and is likely to stay in the box – so indoor shots often demand very fast ISO speeds. The only way to access them is to venture away from Auto mode and adjust ISO manually.

The NEX-C3’s performance is a big improvement on the NEX-3, which kept us waiting for almost three seconds between shots on standard settings. The NEX-C3 gets this down to under a second. Continuous performance remains impressive at 5.5fps, with enough buffer for 17 JPEGs or six RAW shots before performance falls to the speed of the card.

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 - front

Autofocus speed is still weak, though. It’s hard for a contrast detect system such as this to compete with phase detect autofocus used in DSLRs, but Panasonic’s G Series manages it. The NEX-C3 is pedestrian by comparison, and in fully automatic mode, quite a few shots focused on the background, rather than our intended subject.

Otherwise, image quality is consistently excellent. Noise levels are as low as the best DSLRs at this price, and colours are rich and flattering. Photos from the 18-55mm lens aren’t quite as sharp as we'd like, though.

Neither could the 720p videos compete with the 1080p footage from Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GF3. The lens focused smoothly and silently – giving superior results to any DSLR – but the lack of control over the focus point for videos proved frustrating. We also noticed swirling moiré interference on dense, repeating patterns such as bricks and clothing.

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 - sample

It’s tough choosing between the NEX-C3 and the Panasonic DMC-GF3. The NEX-C3 takes superior photos in low light, while the DMC-GF3’s controls and videos are better. If push came to shove, though, we’d choose the Sony.

Details

Price ex VAT £358
Price inc VAT £429
Overall rating 5
Performance 3
Features & Design 4
Image quality 5
Value for Money 5

Basic specifications

Camera megapixel rating 16.0mp
Camera screen size 3.0in
Camera optical zoom range 3x
Camera maximum resolution 4,912 x 3,264
Camera optical image stabilisation in kit lens

Weight and dimensions

Weight 419g
Dimensions 115 x 100 x 60mm (WDH)

Battery

Battery type included Lithium-ion
Battery life (CIPA standard) 400 shots
Charger included? yes

Other specifications

Built-in flash? yes
Aperture range f3.5 - f5.6
Camera minimum focus distance 0.25m
Shortest focal length (35mm equivalent) 27
Longest focal length (35mm equivalent) 83
Minimum (fastest) shutter speed 1/4,000
Maximum (slowest) shutter speed 30s
Bulb exposure mode? yes
RAW recording mode? yes
Exposure compensation range +/- 2EV
ISO range 200 - 12800
Selectable white balance settings? yes
Manual/user preset white balane? yes
Progam auto mode? yes
Shutter priority mode? yes
Aperture priority mode? yes
Fully auto mode? yes
Burst frame rate 5.5fps
Exposure bracketing? yes
White-balance bracketing? no
Memory-card type SDXC, Memory Stick Pro Duo
Viewfinder coverage N/A
LCD resolution 921k
Secondary LCD display? no
Video/TV output? no
Body construction Plastic
Tripod mounting thread? yes
Data connector type Mini-USB

Manual, software and accessories

Full printed manual? no
Software supplied Image Data Converter SR, Image Data Lightbox SR, PMB
Accessories supplied external flash