Sony came to market with its first compact system camera duo in the NEX-3 and NEX-5 last summer, quickly securing the number one sales spot in the Far East, based largely on the fact that its system, when lens is removed, is truly compact.
This second-generation mirror-less Sony NEX, the NEX-C3, numerically replaces the year-old NEX-3, the baby of the range. Available with a black or silver body, it’s arguably the most approachable Sony compact system camera, or ‘CSC’, for anyone trading up from a pocket snapshot with the aim of gaining more ‘professional’ looking photographs. And of course, anyone who hasn’t already been swayed by direct rivals from the Olympus Pen, Panasonic Lumix G, Samsung NX or Pentax Q camera ranges.
Even with its manufacturer making a claim for the NEX-C3 as the world’s smallest and lightest in its class when first announced back in June, build quality is high and generally worthy of the brand. The black version we had in for review also lends the camera an air of sophistication.
The Sony NEX-C3 consists of a slender body a smidgeon narrower in depth at 33mm than Olympus’ E-PL3 (37.3mm), to which is allied a comparatively hulking great kit E-mount lens; in this case a DSLR-like 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom. Attaching the provided lens immediately makes the Sony NEX appear a little front-end heavy. Certainly it’s too much of a squeeze for all but the deepest of jacket pockets. The alternative is to go for the NEX-C3 kit that includes the 16mm ‘pancake’ lens if the ultimate in compactness is your goal.
The relatively minimal body-only proportions also mean that the Sony NEX-C3 once again omits a built-in flash. Instead, as with the NEX-3, there’s a covered port on the top plate provided for a small accessory flash that’s included in the box bundle we were testing -something it also has in common with Olympus’ E-PL3. It is however £50 cheaper, at £499, with bundled lens and flash than either that model or Panasonic’s latest competitor in the Lumix DMC-GF3.
Overall body dimensions for the Sony are 109.6 x 60 x 33mm, and the NEX-C3 body weighs a manageable 225g -officially 6% less than the old NEX-3. Again though, when attached, the supplied lens adds extra paperweight-like solidity, as well as a greater surface area to get a grip on when held in your palm. We do get an actual handgrip here too, ranged to the left hand side of the fascia. On this new model it has a gently rounded curve, in contrast to the flattened, squareish grip of the NEX-3.
Like its Olympus competitor, the Sony features an adjustable widescreen rear screen with limited angles of rotation -it tilts upwards or downwards. This, in the absence of alternative optical or electronic viewfinder, aids viewing in strong lighting plus makes low or high angle shots easier to achieve. Attached to the body via stiff, Meccano-like struts, its operation doesn’t feel as fluid as it could be however, an accusation we also levelled at the older NEX-3.
Like its predecessor, the operational on-screen function icons also make it appear as if the screen should be a touch screen -they’re large enough to warrant a finger prod -but it isn’t. However, with a resolution of 921k dots being the equivalent of a mid range DSLR’s spec, the screen display is usably clear even in sunlight and colours are rendered bright and vibrant with it. Despite this, the battery life is a better-than-average 400 pictures from a full charge, according to CIPA standards. Sony suggests it’s additionally 20% better in that respect than the performance of the NEX-3 and NEX-5.
As this is the junior model in the NEX range some functionality is curtailed however -for example, we don’t get the benefit of Full HD video. Instead, as with the NEX-3, 1280x720p clips in MPEG4 format are provided rather than 1920x1080 in AVCHD. In other respects though it’s a match for the best in its class, with a light sensitivity range that runs up to semi pro DSLR-like ISO12800. It's a match for the Olympus E-PL3 and E-P3 in this respect, and no change from its NEX-3 forebear. Plus, a headline stills resolution of 16.2 megapixels which is the joint highest among competitors (if pipped by Sony’s own NEX-7 at 24.3 MP) and from a larger APS-C sized CMOS sensor as found in a DSLR ‘proper’.
Having said that design-wise the NEX-C3 is not a massive departure from the NEX-3. Some controls and features have shifted around slightly, such as the integral stereo microphones moving from the top plate to the faceplate. Otherwise the playback button remains handily located on the top, alongside the shutter release button, encircled by the on/off switch.
At the back, the layout is near identical but has lost some button markings, with only display and exposure compensation controls flagged up as such. This is because when the screen is active the use of the buttons alongside it is highlighted with explanatory text. Buttons swap their actions around, depending on which mode you're in. This has enabled Sony to get away with having very few buttons and maintaining a minimalist design.
Less function-dedicated buttons does, at times, make it harder to get to the settings you want however. The NEX-C3 like its forebear requires a period of familiarisation before you can start confidently shooting. Sony claims to have re-vamped the on-screen user interface, though to our eyes it appears much the same, even if terms like aperture have been replaced with the more friendly ‘background defocus’.
The NEX-C3 also takes on other compact cameras with a new Picture Effect menu, affording access to: partial colour, retro photo, pop colour, high contrast monochrome, posterisation, high key and toy camera digital effects filters. Alongside these creative options, Sony’s much trumpeted 3D Sweep Panorama and auto HDR modes make a re-appearance -both compositing together images from a sequence of shots. Again though, you’ll need a 3D equipped TV to view the 3D panoramic shots. Plus, while we get HDMI and USB 2.0 output, there’s no standard AV port.
As we expect from Sony, on default settings JPEG images are richly coloured and indeed richly detailed straight out of the camera. The same is true for video footage too, focus adjusting almost without you noticing if you change framing or positioning, which is how it should be. Even when shooting in bright sunlight, with auto HDR kicking in, we were able to achieve even and realistic looking exposures. The camera maintains highlight and shadow detail in the same shot, to get something closer to what our eyes were actually seeing at the time. If we were being picky, we'd note that the images shot in HDR did have a distinct digital look at times.
There are familiar bugbears such as pixel fringing if you examine shots closely, and it isn’t really worth straying above ISO6400 in terms of low light performance. But the NEX-C3 keeps such aberrations remarkably well under control. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the settings that work best for you, or simply leave the camera on subject-recognising iAuto mode, it is just possible to just point and shoot.
The pitch from the Sony NEX range is the same as its compact system camera competitors in that DSLR quality is being offered in a less cumbersome form. Our major issue with the Sony NEX range and its standard zoom kits however is that the combination of slender body and large lens makes the whole system feel somewhat inelegant. Physically smaller optics than the one provided here (such as the 16mm) are available if you do really want a combo that will fit in a jacket pocket.
A set up that combines both zoom and pancake lens with NEX-C3 body was retailing for £589 at the time of writing, and if you can stretch to that, it would make for the most sensible starter option, offering the most affordable and practical combination of portability plus creative versatility. But we also then get into the inevitable discussion about whether £600 spent on a CSC might be more worthy of being put towards an actual DSLR with kit zoom (such as Nikon D5100 or Canon 600D) if quality rather than portability is the chief concern. As ever, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
For us the NEX-C3 lacks the charm and rock-solid build quality of the retro Pen range from Olympus, while it’s not as user friendly as Panasonic’s Lumix G Micro Four Thirds family. Still, if ‘smallest possible’ is your over-riding aim then the NEX-C3 delivers that without too much compromise -and with two million more pixels than its 14.2MP NEX-3 predecessor. Even if, to pick holes we’d have preferred the flash to be on-board, rather than clipped onto the top.
Ultimately the new NEX-C3 compact system camera is more refinement than revolution in comparison with the original NEX-3 of 2010, adding a couple of million extra pixels, better battery performance, fun digital effects filters, and minor control layout changes. None of which make a huge difference. Still, approaching this model afresh, it is a very capable camera in its own right for existing snapshot users looking to up their game, delivering consistently sharp and colourful results.
Product photos by Lars-Göran Nilsson