Sony NEX-C3 Review

August 22, 2011 | Mark Goldstein |


The Sony NEX-C3 is the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable-lens camera with an APS-C sized sensor, offering DSLR-like image quality in a much smaller and lighter package. Successor to the NEX-3 model, the new NEX-C3 features a 16.2 megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, 720p HD video recording, 5.5fps burst shooting, 25-point contrast-detect autofocus system, 49-segment exposure meter, 3-inch tilting LCD panel with 921,000-dot resolution, new range of Picture Effects and extended 400 shot battery life. The Sony NEX-C3 is available now in silver, black or pink with an 18-55mm kit zoom and will cost about $650 / £499. In the US it will also be offered in black only with a 16mm lens for about $600, and in the UK for £589 with the 18-55mm and 16mm lenses.

Ease of Use

The Sony NEX-C3 is virtually identical in design to last year's NEX-3 model. Therefore a lot of the comments that we made in our Sony NEX-3 review apply equally to the NEX-C3.

The rectangular body shape looks to our eyes closer to the austere style of Ricoh's GXR system camera than the immediately appealing retro finesse of an Olympus Pen, or modernist curves of the Panasonic G series. Despite being 6% smaller than its predecessor and lighter at just 225g, the NEX-C3 still feels solid gripped in the palm, though with a lens attached it's too large for most jacket pockets. It now has a smoother, less bulbous grip which we prefer to the NEX-3's more blocky affair. With the supplied 18-55mmm kit lens attached the NEX-5 does look and feel top heavy, a inevitable consequence of the APS-C sensor, and that's without fitting an existing Alpha DSLR lens proper, compatibility offered with pre-existing optics via an accessory adapter.

The 3 inch LCD screen can be tilted back and forward - if not, unfortunately swung outwards at 90° - to allow for low and high angle compositions we might not have attempted without. While it still doesn't offer the High Definition video shooting of the NEX-5, 720p with stereo sound will be more than adequate for most of the NEX-C3's target audience. It also features a dedicated red camcorder-style video record button for instant thumb-operated video access, which is useful.

Sony NEX-C3 Sony NEX-C3
Front Rear

Sony is hoping to win one over on the competition by pitching the NEX-C3 as one of the world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera, at 225g and 33mm in depth counting its camera grip and lens mount. Low light sensitivity without flash also theoretically looks set to show rivals a thing or two by ranging from ISO 200 to a maximum ISO 12800 equivalent setting. Impressive stuff, and matching the sort of spec we're used to seeing on mid-range DSLRs.

There's no in-body image stabilisation offered by the NEX-C3 unfortunately, so this is via lens only, the optically stabilized 18-55mm zoom offered as part of a kit deal. Though we did get occasional softness, this appears to work well - at least as effectively as the in-camera or lens based anti-shake methodology deployed by rival brands.

For sure the provided lens is one of the most important components of the NEX-C3's set up, but with or without it screwed on to the front via Sony's E-mount (as opposed to the standard Alpha mount utilized by the rest of the DSLRs in its family) the camera design looks a little 'basic' compared to competitors - certainly when viewed from the front. Sony branding and grey plastic DSLR-style lens release button aside, all we find on the faceplate is a small porthole-shaped window for AF assist/self timer lamp, curved battery-sized and shaped handgrip with a lightly ridged surface for a firmer hold, and two small holes for the stereo sound.

The top plate looks similarly functional rather than fashionable. The NEX-C3 is turned on or off via a thumb-flick of a chunky, nicely rigid switch to the far right which surrounds the responsive shutter release button, rather than via the recessed button we usually find on cameras with a smaller form factor. Do this and it's a wait of 1-2 seconds before an image materializes on the LCD allowing the first shot to be framed - slightly slower than we expected in this regard, and no match for a DSLR proper. To the left of this switch is a dedicated playback/review button, and just below the switch, on the slope that melds into the back plate, the dedicated movie record button. Press this and the user is instantly recording video, whatever alternative shooting mode might previously have been in use; like the same control found on the Panasonic G-series and Olympus PEN cameras, this proves essential with regard to spur of the moment filming.

Sony NEX-C3 Sony NEX-C3
Front Pop-up Flash

Also positioned atop the camera is the unique clip-on flash/accessory port, and to the right of this is a small built-in speaker for reviewing audio in the field. Incidentally, should you already have a lens attached, screwing the flash into position proves a tad fiddly, although there is a tightening nut as on the NEX-5. Though the flash can be stored flat to the body to aid portability and adds hardly any additional weight or bulk, when in use the head needs to be manually raised at a angle of approximately 45°. With some competitor's models now featuring a built-in flash, the NEX-C3's solution is looking a little antiquated, even despite the flash unit being provided as part of the overall camera kit.

Press the shutter release button down halfway and, after a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment of focus/exposure adjustment, AF point/s highlight in green accompanied by a beep of affirmation to indicate that the user is good to continue on and take the shot. Do so, and in single shot mode to the sound of a satisfying shutter click, a full resolution JPEG is written to memory in about 2 seconds.

As you'd expect in this price bracket, there is the option to also shoot Raw files, or even more usefully for those who wish to hedge their bets Raw and JPEG images in tandem. These settings are accessed within the Image Size folder and are found within the Quality sub folder. You also get Fine or Normal compression levels offered for JPEGs.

Not everything on the NEX-C3 is located exactly where you might expect it to be found. For example ISO settings are discovered within a Brightness menu option that from the look of the icon that denotes it initially appears to be for adjusting screen brightness only. One would reasonably expect ISO adjustment to be found within the Camera folder with the other key shooting options. And so there's a fair amount of familiarisation with the NEX-C3's quirks required up front.

Sony NEX-C3 Sony NEX-C3
Tilting LCD Top

Just like Olympus and Panasonic, the Sony NEX-C3 now offers a range of eleven creative Picture Effects, including posterisation, partial colour, retro, high-key, mono and toy camera. These effects can also be applied when using the Intelligent Auto shooting mode. The new Soft Skin mode automatically retouches portraits, removing any minor blemishes and wrinkles for a more conventionally good-looking appearance.

The Shooting mode gets its own virtual dial though - so at least selecting the options here, including standard P,A,S,M, 9-strong scene mode, intelligent auto and Sweep Panorama, prove easier. Even in Intelligent Auto mode users still have the ability to get hands on to a degree thanks to the new the Photo Creativity mode. This provides easy-to-understand control over a number of key parameters via a series of interactive on-screen sliders, with the real-time preview on the LCD providing instant feedback to the beginner target audience.

In addition to controlling the background defocus, with a half moon shaped indicator appealing on-screen to the side of the scroll wheel, defocus at the bottom of the arc, 'crisp' at the top, you can also change the vividness, brightness and colour of the image, plus add a Picture Effect or the Soft Skin Effect, and set the self-timer and burst shooting options. You can even apply more than one option at a time and go back and individually change them if you wish. One important proviso about the NEX-C3's Intelligent Auto mode is its rather inexplicable limitation of the ISO speed to a top setting of ISO 1600, which artificially limits the usefulness of the camera in low-light.

The NEX-C3's external backplate is a pared down affair, the majority of it taken up by the 3-inch widescreen ratio angle-adjustable LCD that stretches from base to top plate. To the right of this is a trio of controls - the top and bottom buttons unmarked until the screen is activated, at which point their purpose is detailed alongside it. The top-most control is revealed as the 'menu' button, a press of which brings up the shooting icons - six in total - the contents of we've already briefly touched on. Instead of the screen-full of text you might expect to be presented with upon press of the menu control, from top left to bottom right of screen, presented instead are Shoot Mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback and Setup icons.

The user moves through these options and makes selections via the scroll wheel just below the menu button, which has its own central (and again unmarked) set button. As mentioned this wheel is quite responsive to the touch, which, on a positive note, means that tabbing through options is a swift process, but on the other hand it's easy to slip past the setting you actually wanted when hurrying through them as a photo opportunity suddenly presents itself.

Sony NEX-C3 Sony NEX-C3
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Set at two points around this scroll wheel/pad are a means of adjusting the display (top) and the exposure compensation (bottom). The left and right positions can be configured to suit your way of working - I chose to assign the ISO and Autofocus Mode to these two buttons. In addition, the button below the navigation wheel and the center button can also be assigned to a custom function of your choice, making the NEX-C3 much less cumbersome to use than the NEX-5 and NEX-3 when they were first released (a later firmware update provided similar functionality for those models).

By default the bottom button on the camera back provides a means of calling up the on-screen shooting tips, via which Sony no doubt hopes to provide a crutch for new users trading up from a bog-standard point and shoot compact. Examples of textual advice, complete with small pictorial thumbnail alongside, include 'increase the ISO sensitivity to make the shutter speed faster', and then, the thoughtful addition: 'higher ISO sensitivity may make noise stand out.' Hand holding for those who want it then, while more experienced users can reconfigure the button to something more useful.

Peaking is a new feature that provides a level of hand-holding for manual focus users. When turned on to one of the three levels (low, mid, high), this essentially draws a coloured line (red, white or yellow) around the areas of highest contrast in the image when you're manually focusing the camera. Used in conjunction with the magnified focus assist, this makes it a cinch to focus accurately on a specific part of the subject, something that the majority of digital cameras have struggled with. It can even be used in the movie mode, again providing a real boon to your creativity.

At the base of the NEX-C3 we find a screw thread for a tripod directly beneath the lens mount, and, in the nether regions of the grip, separate compartments storing the rechargeable battery and the optional memory card - here Sony reaching out to a wider audience by offering SD/SDHC/SDXC compatibility alongside its own Memory Stick. Unfortunately using a tripod with the NEX-C3 now blocks the re-located memory card slot.

While the right hand side of the NEX-C3 - if viewing it from the back - features a continuation of the ridged grip but is otherwise devoid of ports or controls, the left hand flank is where users will find separate covered ports for HDMI connectivity and USB output. Only the USB cable was provided with our review sample; there's no standard definition AV output.