Sonyu2019s new 16.2-million-pixel NEX-C3 may be the smallest compact system camera available but is that the only improvement on the original NEX-3? Richard Sibley finds out

Introduction

When Sony launched the NEX system, with the NEX-3 and NEX-5 last year, they caused a stir in the compact system camera market. Both cameras featured 14.2-million-pixel sensors, crammed inside the smallest compact system camera bodies available at the time.

The C designation stands for compact and shaving a few millimetres from the NEX-5, the C3 is currently the smallest compact system camera available, yet it features an imposing 16.2-million-pixel APS-C sensor.

A compact system camera with more than 16 million pixels is not in itself of overwhelming significance, after all Panasonic has achieved this using a smaller Micro Four Thirds size sensor. Instead, it is the technology behind the sensor that will be of great interest to many photographers. That is because the NEX-C3?s sensor is a tweaked version of the one used in the Sony Alpha 55, which means it also shares much of the same technology as the base Sony sensor found in the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K-5.

As we explored in our feature on the Alpha 55, D300 and K-5 and our article on ISO sensitivity in AP 30 April, this 16.2-million-pixel sensor has excellent noise control and a good dynamic range. Using it in a compact system camera shows how seriously Sony is about this area of the market, and if the sensor performs as it does in the other cameras, the NEX-C3 could offer some serious competition to the Samsung NX100 and Panasonic DMC Lumix DMC-GF2.

However, the original NEX cameras don?t handle particularly well if you make regular adjustments to the shooting settings. And while this was partially rectified with the introduction of new firmware for both cameras, if the NEX-C3 wants to be taken seriously by enthusiast photographers it needs to handle better than the two predecessor NEX cameras.

Features

Features

While its feature set is very similar to that of the NEX-3, the NEX-C-3 does have a few significant new attributes. The most obvious, of course, is the 16.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor. Once again, images are processed using a Sony Bionz image processor, which is capable of capturing and saving both raw and JPEG images. The new camera also retains the program, manual, shutter and aperture priority exposure modes, as well as a variety of scene modes. Both 3D and regular Sweep Panorama are featured, along with the on-screen Shooting Guide to help those learning photography.

Also aimed at those moving from compact, and even mobile phone cameras, are the new Picture Effects. There are seven of these ? Partial Colour, Retro, High Contrast Mono, High Key, Pop Colour, Toy Camera and Posterisation, which can be applied to JPEG images. Although interesting to play around with, they are clearly aimed at the ?consumer? market rather than at serious photographers. That said, don?t let them put you off the camera ? just ignore them.

The new Auto+ modes takes the standard automatic scene mode selection a step further. It allows the various multi-frame shooting modes to be used, where appropriate. For example the Auto+ mode can detect that you are shooting in dark conditions and use the Twilight Capture mode. This takes a series of six images, which it then combines to help avoid camera shake and reduce image noise. It can also automatically use multi-shot to apply an HDR effect when it thinks one is appropriate. Again, these features are aimed at the consumer, but enthusiast photographers will also find them handy for those times when all they what to point and shoot.

Of more use to serious photographers will be the increase in battery life to up to 400 images, a striking 20% more than the original NEX-3. Another useful new feature is focus ?peaking?. When activated in the menu, it aids manual focusing by highlighting the areas of the image that are in focus. Now, while peaking is a clever tool I can?t help feeling that it is a little redundant considering that manual focusing also has the ability to show a magnified section to aid precise focusing.

Overall, the feature set of the Sony NEX-C3 is impressive, with a range of functions that?s almost identical to that of the full-blown Sony Alpha range, all packed into a compact camera sized body.

Build and Handling

Build and Handling

You would naturally assume that the NEX-C3, being small and lighter than any previous compact system camera, would be awkward to handle. The battery compartment and memory card socket are now separate, helping keep the camera slim, while the on/off switch and shutter button are now combined into the same unit, much like on many DSLRs, which has slightly reduced the size of the handgrip. My original concerns were unfounded, and in practice the camera fits nicely in the hand and maintains a smaller, but comfortable grip. The camera feels particularly nice to use when coupled with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens. As you would expect the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens does rather dwarf the C3, but it is still easy to use and makes for a very interesting travel photography companion.

It isn?t all good news, though. For instance, the button layout is unchanged from the NEX-3 and NEX-5 and in our previous review of the NEX-5 (AP 5 June 2010) we found that the minimalist array of buttons may appeal to entry-level photographers, but those more used to having full manual control will be frustrated by the lack of direct control. In Sony?s defence, the company addressed the problem with a firmware upgrade that allowed two of the buttons to be customisable, so that the photographer can directly access two functions they used the most. In the NEX-C3 Sony has taken this a step further and there are now six buttons on the rear of the camera that can be customised. This really helps speed things speed up though, as only two of the buttons are labelled on-screen, you do have to remember which function you have allocated to the other four buttons. You quickly get used to this.

Although the handling has been addressed, I still feel that there is easily room to fit another couple of buttons on to the camera without spoiling the minimalist design and intimidating feel of the camera. One of these buttons could even be placed discreetly on the front of the camera.

As mentioned earlier, that the new C designation in the NEX-C3?s title stands for compact hints that Sony may plan another line in the NEX range in the future. With the body of the NEX-C3 being polycarbonate, like the NEX-3, and not magnesium alloy, like the NEX-5, we will surely see a more advanced body at some point in the future.

Metering and Autofocus

Metering

With the NEX-C3 primarily aimed at point-and-shoot photographers the metering must produce good exposes without having to perform major in-camera or computer editing adjustments. Like other Sony system cameras we have tested, the evaluative metering of the NEX-C3 does produces well-exposed images. In fact, there was just a handful of images where I needed to adjust the exposure compensation or switch from evaluative to spot or centreweighted metering.

When the metering is combined with the sensors dynamic range and in-camera colour and contrast, the NEX-C3 produces images that require little or no editing.

Autofocus

We have seen Panasonic make major developments in contrast detection autofocus recently, with super fast systems found in the Lumix DMC-G2, GH2 and G3. The AF of the Sony NEX-C3 is not as fast as these cameras, though it does appear to be slightly faster than the previous NEX cameras.

For portraits and candid shots the NEX-C3 is fast enough to cope with small to moderate movements, but to successfully capturing faster subjects will take careful pre-focusing and a pinch of luck.

When there is time to take an image, the manual focusing magnification and new peaking features make it easy to get the sharpest possible focus.

Noise, Resolution and Sensitivity

Noise, Resolution and Sensitivity

At the lowest sensitivity of ISO 200, the NEX-C3 is capable of resolving up to 28 in our resolution chart test, which is on a par with other 16+ million sensors we have seen. This high resolution is still visible at ISO 800, and even ISO 12,800 the resolution is still high at around 22.

Noise is well controlled, which is typical of what we have seen previously from the various incarnations of this sensor. However, noise reduction does start to cause a softening of JPEG images at around ISO 800. Mild colour noise is visible in dark shadow areas at ISO 3200, and is prominent at the highest ISO 12,800. This maximum sensitivity should really be treated as an extended mode and used only when really needed.

What is particularly gratifying is that when shooting at ISO 200 and 400 images can be underexposed in camera to preserve highlight details, and then the in-camera dynamic range optimiser set to its highest setting to brighten shadow details, without introducing image noise. When doing this, colours are accurate and an impressive amount of detail can be recovered.

Underexposed -2EV

Underexposed -2EV with in-camera DRO applied

Underexposed -2EV and edited in Adobe Photoshop

Raw images look similar to those from the Alpha 55, with detail recoverable at higher sensitivities and colour noise easily reduced, if you are prepared to have a little more luminance noise in the images.

White Balance and Colour

White Balance and Colour

It is a similar story to the NEX-C3?s evaluative metering where the AWB function is concerned. Generally it produces good results and those who are happy to just point and shoot probably need never change it. I did find that the daylight white balance produced more favourable results in early morning sunshine, with the AWB somewhat neutralising the warm glow.

Colours of the in-camera JPEG images are typical of Sony cameras, bright and quite vivid and ideal for those who don?t want to spend too much time editing images. The Vivid mode will probably be a little too harsh for most people?s tastes. However, the Black and White mode is excellent and images have a nice high-contrast look to them.

LCD, Live View and Video

LCD, Live View and Video

The NEX-C3?s 3in 921,000-dot widescreen LCD is unchanged from the previous generation of NEX cameras. It is tiltable, rather than fully articulated, which is really useful for dynamic low-angle images, and is possibly why I took far more landscape orientation shots than I usually would.

In very bright sunlight I still feel that at optional EVF viewfinder would be beneficial. Although the screen can be used, it could be brighter in the summer sunshine.

Video capture in the NEX-C3 is the same as the NEX-3, with it only being 1,280×720 pixels, rather than the full 1,920×1080 pixel resolution of the NEX-5.

Verdict

Verdict

Although Sony clearly had the consumer market in mind when it created the NEX-C3, enthusiast photographers shouldn?t dismiss the camera. The fully customisable buttons really help improve the handling from the first generation NEX cameras, though another couple would be an even better improvement. However, it is quality of the images from this little camera that steals the show. The 16.2-million-pixel APS-C sensor produces great images straight from the camera, which is exactly what you want in a small compact system.

With a total of ten NEX lenses available by the end of next year, a new more powerful flashgun and Sony embracing third-party lenses and adapters, NEX cameras have real potential to become a secondary system for most photographers. If only they would add a couple more buttons and an EVF.