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Sony Alpha NEX-C3 review: Sony Alpha NEX-C3

Sony Alpha NEX-C3

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography | PCs and laptops | Gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
7 min read

Now in its second generation, the NEX line has proven to be popular; I generally liked the NEX-5 (we never reviewed the NEX-3) thanks to excellent photo quality and an attractive, compact design, though I still think the line is a bit expensive for people seeking to upgrade from a point-and-shoot.


Sony Alpha NEX-C3

The Good

Compact and attractive, with a tilting LCD and excellent photo quality, the <b>Sony Alpha NEX-C3</b> has some compelling aspects.

The Bad

With the 18-55mm lens the camera becomes substantially less compact, there's no EVF option, and the video capabilities are more limited than I'd expect for the price.

The Bottom Line

A lot of people will like the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 for its excellent photo quality and a now more usable design, but it can get unexpectedly heavy with the zoom E-mount lenses and it's still a bit more expensive than many point-and-shoot upgraders will like.

The C3 incorporates an unnecessarily higher-resolution sensor than both the earlier models, bumping from about 14 megapixels to 16. It's not, however, the same 16-megapixel sensor that's in older models like the SLT-A55. At least the photo quality doesn't suffer from the resolution increase, and given the different sensors in the C3 and the NEX-5, the photos look surprisingly similar, even at high ISO sensitivities.

The camera's noise profile is quite good up through ISO 400. Photos still look clean at ISO 800, though you can start to see some mottling from the noise-reduction algorithms; by ISO 1600, detail degradation becomes visible and hot pixels start to appear. It does a solid job at ISO 3200--not clean, but still usable in many circumstances. (Since I'm still waiting for software raw support, I can only comment on the camera's built-in noise reduction.)

It delivers a very nice tonality and tonal range right out of the camera, and renders very good color, even in its default settings, which tend to push the saturation a bit. I remain peeved that Sony doesn't offer any neutral alternatives to its Standard Creative Style, though. Notably, the camera does an excellent job with reds; though the hues may be slightly off (which is common in digital cameras), it retains exceptionally good detail rendering in high-saturation, bright exposures. Sony balances the default sharpness settings very well. Even fine details don't look oversharpened, but the overall JPEGs come out of the camera sharp enough to go straight to prints.

My comment on the lens from the NEX-5 review still holds: "At its widest angle, the 18-55mm kit lens displays some of the worst barrel distortion we've seen for a nonsnapshot camera in a while. Goodbye, straight lines." And the lens' chromatic aberration is quite noticeable. For all its other flaws, the kit lens renders soft, smooth out-of-focus highlights.

Its performance is pretty good as well--almost identical to the NEX-5--but it's still not quite as fast as the GF3. It powers on, focuses, and shoots in slightly less than 0.7 second. It can focus and shoot in 0.4 second under good light, which increases to a modest 0.8 second in low-contrast light. It takes the same 0.8 second to take two sequential shots, regardless of image format. Typical burst performance is pretty lackluster at 2.5 frames per second. It does have a faster continuous-shooting mode (Speed Priority) which fixes exposure at the first shot, but this isn't a camera you buy to shoot action. It should be fast enough to keep up with kids and pets, as long as they're not too hyperactive.

Video support drops to 720p MPEG-4 recording from the NEX-3's faux HD of 1,440x1,080 pixels. That doesn't bother me so much. The video quality is fine for typical consumer recording, and the lack of manual exposure controls doesn't encourage experimentation anyway. There are no serious artifacts like rolling shutter, but the low-resolution video doesn't look great scaled up on a large TV screen. In more recent tests I didn't have as much of a problem with wandering autofocus as I did during my early experience with the camera, but I did have a lot of trouble telling if it was actually focusing on the subject, especially outdoors in bright sunlight. And since it turned out that it hadn't focused accurately, that's a nontrivial problem.

Olympus E-PL2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Samsung NX100 Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Sony Alpha NEX-5
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS
17.3mmx13mm 17.3mmx13.0mm 23.4mmx15.6mm 23.5mmx15.6mm 23.4mmx15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 3.0fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
18 JPEG/ 6 raw
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
(7fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
None Optional plug-in EVF
201,000 dots
(98 percent coverage)
None None
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; 1/160 x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment 49 zone 40 segment
Flash Yes Yes No Included optional Included optional
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video 720p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps
720/60p @ 17Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1080/60i AVCHD
Audio Mono; mic input Mono Mono Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
921,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 280 shots 320 shots 420 shots 400 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.5x2.8x1.6 4.2x2.6x1.3 4.7x2.8x1.4 4.4x2.4x0.9 4.4x2.4x1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 12.7 9.3 12.2 10 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash)
Mfr. price n/a $499.95 (body only, est) n/a n/a n/a
$599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $499.99 (est, with 20-50mm f3.5-5.6 i-Function lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.00 (est, with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses) $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $599.00 (with 50-200mm lens) $599.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) $649.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date January 2011 July 2011 October 2010 August 2011 July 2010

Overall, I enjoy shooting with the NEX-C3. It's thinner than its predecessor, with the same width and height, but because anything other than a small prime lens tends to overwhelm the tiny body, you generally have to hold the camera in your left hand under the lens. Because it's so narrow, it's a bit difficult to hold and shoot single-handed, despite the small grip.

Since I've always found the NEX interface a bit cumbersome and too menu-driven, I was pleased to see that Sony had added the ability to customize the buttons for quicker access to settings like ISO sensitivity, metering mode, and autofocus mode. To me, that makes a huge difference in usability. And Sony makes a tweak that addresses one of my pet peeves about cameras: when a setting is grayed out, it never tells you why. With the C3, you select it and up pops an explanation. The camera also adds peaking (edge highlighting), which makes manual focusing a lot easier. This next generation still doesn't have a built-in flash, but it ships with the same small add-on flash that uses the proprietary connector. The add-on microphone uses the same connector, but there's still no add-on EVF.

A lot of the NEX-C3's operation is still menu-driven.

Sony didn't, um, overwhelm the C3 with new features. There's a new Photo Creativity interface in its intelligent auto mode that provides friendlier ways of accessing advanced settings, such as background defocus, color vividness, and brightness, than we've seen in a lot of cameras. Sony also adds Picture Effects, with the same sort of filters we're used to seeing from other cameras, including selective-color R, Y, G, or B; toy camera (vignetting); and posterizing, pop art (vivid color), and retro (faded). You can layer the effects together before shooting, which is nice, but you can't adjust the quality or intensity of the effects like you can with Olympus' models, and I found the results rather ho-hum. It also pulls in the Soft Skin effect from the Cyber-shots.

Additionally, it retains almost all the features of its predecessor, including multishot modes like Auto HDR, Sweep panorama, and Handheld Twilight. The latest iteration of HHT mode automatically combines six exposures to obtain better exposures in low light than you might otherwise get. It does a nice job, and there's less performance overhead than the older algorithm, making it a lot more useful.

Compact and attractive, with a tilting LCD and excellent photo quality, the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 has some compelling aspects. But with the 18-55mm lens the camera becomes substantially less compact, there's no EVF option, and the video capabilities are more limited than I'd expect for the price. A lot of people will like the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 for its excellent photo quality and a now more usable design, but it can get unexpectedly heavy with the zoom E-mount lenses, and it's still a bit more expensive than many point-and-shoot upgraders will like.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim)
Shutter lag (typical)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3
Olympus PEN E-PL2
Sony Alpha NEX-C3
Sony Alpha NEX-5
Samsung NX100

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Sony Alpha NEX-C3

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 8