Sony Alpha NEX-C3 camera offers sweeping options, low price tag
The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 is a prime example of how the definition of entry-level camera has changed. Sure, it’s the smallest and most affordable model in the NEX line of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras but, like its siblings, the 16 megapixel C3 is no slouch when it comes to features. In fact, the camera offers many of its siblings’ strengths, such as a full complement of exposure modes, a built-in help guide, and a number of Sony specialty options—like Sweep Panorama—but with a lower price tag.
Bundled with an 18-55mm, f/3.5-5.6 lens (or a 16mm lens) and a tiny, detachable flash, the C3 is available in black, silver, or pink. Sony, as well as third party manufacturers—and even Lensbaby—offer a number of compatible lenses.
Design and operation
Although the smallest of Sony’s NEX series, the C3 at 4 3/8 by 2 5/8 by 1 5/16 inches, is only a hair thinner than its nearest neighbor, the NEX-5N. It weighs about 10 ounces with battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC media card installed. But the camera’s compact size and weight is somewhat negated when the 18-55mm lens is attached. The camera is fairly well balanced with this combination, but the lens adds some bulk and weight.
A high resolution (921,600 pixel) 3-inch tiltable LCD offers flexibility when shooting and works well under all lighting conditions. There’s no built-in viewfinder, though.
Since the C3 doesn’t have a built-in flash, Sony bundles a small flash with the camera. It has a proprietary connection, which is a little difficult to attach. It’s good for illuminating subjects that are relatively close but don’t expect it to light up a room.
Operating the C3 is menu-intensive, especially since external controls have been pared down to the basics. In addition to the playback button, shutter button, on/off switch, and dedicated movie button on the top deck, the C3 is equipped with user programmable soft keys and a control wheel. The only three dedicated functions are menu, display, and exposure compensation.
The camera’s menu system can be confusing but each group, represented by an icon, shows a pop-up list of the settings that are available within. The menus are easier to navigate once you get used to where all the different features and functions are located.
Features and performance
Like other NEX models, the C3 has most of the same features as the higher end models—automatic, manual and semimanual exposure controls and a selection of scene modes such as the standard portrait, landscape, sports, and macro, as well as sunset and Handheld Twilight. The latter, which works fairly well, captures and combines a series of images to ensure a blur-free final image. Sweep Panorama is available in standard and 3D modes for effortlessly creating broad panoramas in camera. Auto HDR/DRO (High Dynamic Range/Dynamic Range Optimization) and an excellent built-in shooting tips guide are a couple of other bonus features.
Like other current NEX models, the C3 offers a Special Effects shooting mode that offers some extra-easy creative options including Toy Camera, Posterization (color or black and white), Pop Color, Retro, High Key, High Contrast Monochrome, and a handful of Partial Color options (red, green, blue, yellow). For portraits, the camera also has a special Soft Skin Effect that softens skin and reduces blemishes so your subjects look their best.
An interesting—and useful—feature for DMF (direct manual focus, the ability to manually fine-tune the AF) and full manual focus is Peaking. In brief, peaking uses a colored edge to outline what's in focus so you can make more accurate adjustments.
The C3 only offers MPEG 4 video at 720p (fine and standard), which is kind of disappointing. For Web and email, there’s a VGA option, too. The good news is that MPEG 4 video is much more user accessible and editable than the more common AVCHD.
Performance is quite good with fast start-up, minimal shutter lag, and fast shot-to-shot times. Autofocus, at least in still images, is responsive in bright and low light. Continuous shooting at full resolution isn’t anything special at 2.5 frames per second but there’s a 5.5fps high-speed option, although it locks exposure and focus at the first frame.
Image quality is above average, with nicely saturated colors and accurate exposures across the board, which earned Good and Very Good word scores, respectively. Sharpness was also rated as Very Good and, although at wide angle, the 18-55mm lens shows some distortion, the kit lens generally delivered crisply focused and well-detailed images.
Although the NEX-C3’s sensor offers a jump of a couple of megapixels from its predecessor, the NEX-3, the physically larger sensor can handle the extra pixels even at higher ISOs. Users can shoot comfortably up to about ISO 800 for the best results but images captured at ISO 1600 and even 3200 aren’t bad.
The C3’s video quality is pretty good for 720p, especially in good light, and earned a word score of Good, although clips are probably best viewed on smaller screens. Audio earned a word score of Very Good. However, autofocus isn’t the fastest (or consistently accurate) but color rendition is realistic and friends and family will be happy watching your movies.
Macworld's buying advice
The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 is a solid option for photographers who want a compact interchangeable lens camera with a good feature set and above average image quality. It has most of the same features as the higher end NEX cameras, so you'll get good value for the dollar.