Taken from : //www.macnn.com/reviews/sony-nex-c3.html

Sony NEX-C3

July 31st, 2011
Sony merges good image quality and features with a tiny camera body.

Sony was a relative latecomer to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, but when it arrived with the NEX line, it shot back with very small designs which were barely larger than compact cameras, although they sometimes controlled like it, too. The NEX-C3 is a second generation and brings a new 16.2-megapixel sensor, overall better performance, and an even smaller design. We'll examine in our review of the NEX-C3 if it's worth trading up from a point-and-shoot or as an alternative to rivals from Olympus and Panasonic. Sony was a relative latecomer to mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, but when it arrived with the NEX line, it shot back with very small designs which were barely larger than compact cameras, although they sometimes controlled like it, too. The NEX-C3 is a second generation and brings a new 16.2-megapixel sensor, overall better performance, and an even smaller design. We'll examine in our review of the NEX-C3 if it's worth trading up from a point-and-shoot or as an alternative to rivals from Olympus and Panasonic.

Body: ergonomics and ports

The original NEX-3 and NEX-5 were designed from the start as 'graduation' cameras: designs for those who were ready to go beyond what everyday compact cameras could manage but felt overwhelmed by the controls and size of a DSLR. Far from bulking up, the NEX-C3 goes even further in that direction: the body is actually more compact than before, thanks to a three-panel main body that cuts out some of the bulk inside. The result is a design that really does feel small. It makes our everyday shooter, a supposedly small Canon G9, feel big by comparison. While made of plastic, it's a very solid feel. Don't drop it, but do feel confident it will stay solid over its lifetime.

And as on the earlier models, that creates an interesting weight shift problem given the swappable lenses. While the 16mm f2.8 pancake lens is a good fit, even the standard zoom 18-55mm, f3.5-5.6 lens moves the balance forward and requires a small amount of compensation with your hand. Although we didn't get to try it, we imagine the 18-200mm lens might almost be too long and heavy compared to the body behind it.

Mostly, however, the ergonomic changes are for the better. Apart from creating a more handsome body -- the two-tone look of the black model is slightly reminiscent of classic film cameras -- it actually holds more comfortably than the NEX-3, although we'd still like the deeper grip of the NEX-5. On our medium-sized hands, the buttons and jog wheel are all within easy reach. Ironically, the one thing that didn't fit was the textured thumb rest on the back; we ended up wrapping our hands around the top.

The design also includes an appreciated relocation of the microphones to the front. Making the simple change helps capture the audio more directly and, at least most of the time, leads to clearer audio. We'll touch on more of this later.

Those looking for quick-access dials will still be disappointed. The back has the familiar, point-and-shoot style directional pad and jog wheel combo and little else besides two contextual buttons. On the top are just the shutter, playback, movie record, and power. Sony's decisions don't kill the camera's appeal, but if you're a DSLR (or even semi-pro compact) veteran used to having dedicated dials, you'll be wanting more.

Most of the ports are what you'd expect. Along with a standard mini USB connector for direct transfers, the new NEX has a mini HDMI output for full-size previews. The battery is a typical NEX pack, and the card slot merges both Memory Stick Pro Duo and SD (up to SDXC) support.

What you won't find, though, is a built-in flash or a standard hot shoe. Other cameras in this class go without a built-in flash as well, but many of these have a hot shoe and in some cases bundle a flash, too. The C3 can take an add-on flash, as well as an external stereo mic, a viewfinder, and other extras, but they have to use Sony's proprietary port. Space is tight on the top; still, we'd have liked if Sony had disrupted the bevelled top to make room for accessories besides its own.

And as you'd expect, the new NEX is using Sony's own E-mount lens system, not the more universal Micro Four Thirds. As much as Sony says new lenses are coming, the truth is that selection is limited. Sony's own line is limited to the 16mm pancake, 18-55mm standard zoom, and 18-200mm long zoom glass. If you need a true macro, a telephoto, a fisheye, or some other more specialty lens, you'll be stuck. Given the target audience, it's not as glaring an issue, but it's something to consider if you have precise needs.

Interface and display

Anyone who's used the first-generation NEX cameras after their firmware update will be very familiar with the NEX-C3. The interface is a near carbon copy.

For beginners or those who seldom have to adjust settings mid-shot, this will mostly be a positive. Sony's focus with the interface is on demystifying much of the concepts that DSLR fans know but which might not register on someone used to shooting typical stand-in-front-of-the-building tourist shots. The menu system is very simple and has just six sections, including very blunt "image size" and "brightness/color" sections dedicated to some of the more common settings. If you're coming from compact cameras, these are not only fairly comforting but at times easier to understand. We've seen our share of 'simple' cameras with obtuse menus, so it's a relief to see this largely done right.

Sony's most distinctive trick here is a "photo creativity" mode. When switched over to Intelligent Auto, which normally auto-selects scenes, a center button hit will give you both common visual effects as well as simplified versions of more serious features. A "background defocus" option, for example, is really just controlling aperture but in a way a newcomer is more likely to understand. It's well executed and somewhat easier to understand than a comparable rival like Canon's Creative Auto, although we have a feeling most NEX-C3 buyers know enough about cameras to only spend a brief amount of time in this mode before moving on.

Veterans don't necessarily need to worry. Many of the detailed settings they'd expect from DSLRs and pro compacts, such as the drive mode, autofocus area and mode selections, exposure compensation, and metering are all tucked inside and fairly accessible. We also liked the amount of information visible on the display itself, including both a visual representation of the aperture and shutter speed as well as a live histogram to let you know if the shot might be off-balance. About the only quirk for most is a tendency for the menu to kick you back out to shooting mode every time you change a setting, which can slow you down if you want to make multiple changes in one go.

All the same, only a certain degree of concessions exist for pros in the control scheme. You can reprogram one of the two contextual buttons as well as what happens when you press the left, right, and center buttons on the directional pad. As such, if you're the sort to regularly change the ISO sensitivity levels, white balance, high dynamic range, or other elements, you don't need to wade through the menus to get to them. It's not as quick as in other systems, though: it requires first the button press and then thumbing through a menu. We'd ideally have a customizable dial or something akin to Canon's Q menu, where just hovering over an option and spinning the jog wheel is enough to change it on the spot.

The tilting display from the earlier NEX cameras makes a return appearance here, and as before it's a welcome addition. A very straightforward sliding mechanism lets you either face the display completely upwards or most of the way down. It's not a full-fledged swivelling display, but it can be very handy if you're shooting above the crowd in a concert or are taking a low to the ground photo of a flower or street scene. Whether or not you trust a $650 camera to a concert, or are allowed to take it into the venue, is another matter.

It's a beautiful screen to look at, most of the time. At three inches across and 921,000 pixels, the LCD's output is crisp enough to help you determine if the photo was properly in focus or if there was visible noise. Sony has chosen a widescreen display, which does crop some of the picture out when shooting at the 3:2 ratio of full-resolution photos but is also wonderful for shooting HD video or 16:9 aspect ratio photos.

Visibility is good in most lighting conditions. Bright sunlight does have a tendency to wash out the picture, although photos of the effect make it look worse than it is. The tilt screen does come in handy here by creating an impromptu shade. As a camera with no built-in viewfinder, this could nonetheless prove to be a minor problem.

Still image quality and performance

Even though it's supposed to be an entry-level camera, the NEX-C3 is a rare instance of a lower-cost model leapfrogging the higher end. At 16.2 megapixels, it's higher resolution than either the NEX-3 or the NEX-5. Sony touts it as a new CMOS-based Exmor sensor that should give it better performance in lower light and which won't produce more noise with the added resolution.

We were a bit worried that this would be an instance of taking a step sideways rather than up, but thankfully, the image quality is very good. Helped mostly by Sony's decision to use a full APS-C sized sensor, the same as what full DSLR cameras use, images are typically very detailed, sharp, and clean. We liked the color balance out of the box: it could capture subtler tones like the reds and greens of apples as we saw them just as well as it could get the bright colors of a purple flower or a neon-orange street meter, again without blowing it out of proportion. Skin tones looked realistic. There's a set of "creative style" filters such as "toy camera" (really, a Lomo camera) if you prefer to have the camera exaggerate the hues before the photo leaves the memory card.

JPEGs coming out of the camera are usually processed quite well, though there's also Sony's RAW format (which has support in newer Mac and Windows editing apps) if you so choose. We took some of our photos in RAW+JPEG mode and noticed that the JPEG processing was brighter but, like post-processed formats can, tended to clip the highlights and led to blown out highlights on very bright objects. RAW not only lets you recover more of that detail but gives you more control in the editing process. Be careful about shooting RAW+JPEG full-time. It not only consumes much more space but can slow down the camera during high speed shooting.

JPEG shot at top with blown highlights on the petals; RAW below with more detail

Regardless of how you shoot, one thing you'll very likely enjoy either as a newcomer or a pro is the shooting speed. It took just under two seconds to power up and have the first shot on the card; it's often ready before you are. The autofocusing system is very close to that of a DSLR, too, and in a well-lit environment will be ready to shoot again almost as soon as you've given the shutter a full press. We suspect that a Panasonic GF2/GF3 or one of Olympus' 2011 PEN cameras will beat it, but we had no real complaints; it's actually slightly addictive since it encourages you to snap off spontaneous photos.

Continuous shooting with the camera in normal situations is fairly slow compared to more modern DSLRs, even as it's quick compared to compacts. With continuous drive on but nothing else changed, we could get about three frames per second while keeping autofocus and autoexposure active. Sony claims up to 5.5 frames per second in a "speed priority" mode, but the truth is that it's fudging this figure by locking in exposure and focus taken during the first shot. It's good for sports shots from the bleachers, where the focal distance is likely to stay the same; we liked having autofocus for most other situations, and therefore it's more likely that you'll get the same speed as a basic DSLR, not the mid-tier that Sony implies.

Light sensitivity is quite good, too. Other than the JPEG default tending to produce that overexposed effect we didn't see in RAW, the camera was well-behaved from its ISO 200 minimum. In low light, ISO 1,600 or 3,200 is the practical ceiling with detail loss more visibly showing at 3,200. We'd recommend against ISO 6,400 or the maximum 12,800 altogether unless you you're desperate for a stable shot in the darkest of scenes and don't have a flash.

When noise does appear, it tends to be more of a film grain effect than the chromatic splotches you'll sometimes get. Detail was still fairly good for us when we increased the sensitivity to ISO 1,600 and 3,200. We should note that we had the noise reduction set to "weak" to reach a happy medium between lower noise and faithfulness to the original shot.

Quirks for us centered mostly on white balance. Occasionally, the white balance would skew towards blue when left in auto, seemingly with little reason within the scene itself. It's possible to dial this out through editing. Shooting in somewhat dim but not dark conditions seemed to require higher ISO levels than we're used to, often wanting 1,600 for a stable shot where we're used to 800. It may be an instance of differences between claimed and real sensitivity levels.

Special features on the C3 are very typical for the class and include the aforementioned automatic HDR mode, which composites multiple shots, as well as anti-blurring and exposure bracketing. We most appreciated the sweep panorama mode. Many cameras now have this, but Sony's mode actually requires tilting the camera on its side and gets the vertical resolution that most panorama modes miss. There's a 3D panorama mode that 'cheats' by pairing up shots to produce the stereoscopic effect.

Video recording and quality

Starting video capture is as simple as ever on the C3, much as it is on the NEX-3 or NEX-5. All three have a movie recording button that lets you start up in whatever settings you're using. Like with still images, starting video takes between one to two seconds to start, so a sudden moment won't catch you off-guard.

Output is relatively modest in resolution next to the latest wave of cameras. The C3 records in a 720p, AVCHD (H.264) format at 30 frames per second that, while opening on just about any computer or device, doesn't stack up well against the 1080p, 30FPS or 720p, 60FPS shooting we've seen lately. Even so, there was very little in the way of artifacting or ghosting, so as long as your computer or TV can properly show 720p, you'll be contented.

As we mentioned earlier, the front-facing stereo microphones produce better sound than some cameras in the class simply by pointing them in the right direction. There's none of the muffled or low-fidelity sound you'd get from either side-mounted mics or a mono microphone. A catch: because the microphones are in the front, they're more likely to pick up wind noise since they're less likely to be sheltered.

We noticed a slight instance of the "tower of Jell-O" effect from a rolling shutter, where the line-by-line sensor capture doesn't quite keep up with fast movement. It wasn't pronounced and should be acceptable in most shooting conditions. We also didn't mind the absence of continuous autofocusing during movies, since current-generation cameras that do it are usually slow enough to leave the intended subject out of focus for too long.

The weight bias between lenses and cameras may be the most glaring hiccup, though this is as much a virtue of sub-DSLR cameras as anything Sony might have done. Because you have to twist zoom and focus rings on a lens that's by far the biggest and heaviest part of the camera assembly, you often can't change your zoom or focus without wrecking the video: it wasn't uncommon to see the shot wobble as we tried to get a closer shot. Movie making is ironically an area where point-and-shoots often do better both through the sensor differences (many use traditional CCDs that reduce or scrap the rolling shutter effect) and because of their electrically powered zooming and focusing.

The 18-55mm lens and battery life

Our test unit came with what's no doubt the most popular option for a lens, the 18-55mm, f3.5-5.6 model. Despite the reputation of kit lenses -- especially one that costs just $300 by itself -- we were quite pleased with what Sony packs in. All of Sony's E-mount lenses are made of polished, silver-hued metal, so from the start it feels good in the hand and looks dignified regardless of the color scheme of the camera body.

The 18-55mm lens at minimum (top) and maximum (bottom) zoom

Performance with the lens is speedy. Focus was quick at either end of the aperture range and regardless of most light conditions; chromatic aberrations (the "purple fringing" sometimes seen in high-contrast scenes) were virtually absent. A minimum 10-inch focal distance won't let it work as a true macro lens, but it's good for most up-close shots and produces a nice, softened background near the f3.5 aperture. The 55mm zoom range, like on virtually every standard mirrorless interchangeable camera or DSLR, is good enough for most street photos and mostly hits the wall during concerts or wildlife photography, when you can't get any closer on foot.

Shutter noise is the only real reservation. Sony uses a very quiet autofocus motor; the actual photo capture has a high-pitched whine. Human ears won't have a problem since it's not grating, but animals and insects are likely to bolt away after the first shot if they're close enough.

The C3 brings an at least theoretically 20 percent higher battery life, or about 400 shots. Not having a NEX-3 to check, we couldn't vouch for the increase. That said, it's definitely a long-lasting camera. Capturing 1GB of photos and video only knocked the battery by about 20 percent It's entirely possible that mimicking this pattern could lead to three or four days of photography before a battery recharge becomes a wise idea.

Wrapping up

There's no question that the NEX-C3 won't replace a DSLR for some photographers. High-speed photography, rapid settings changes, and other tropes of pro (or serious amateur) work will work best with a bigger and not necessarily cheaper camera. Nikon's D3100 calls out as the most likely threat here, not the least of which is that Nikon and Sony often share sensors. The edge for Sony comes in the size: a NEX can fit in easily in a coat pocket or carry-on luggage where a D3100 or its peers might need a separate bag.

Sony's timing isn't ideal. We'd say the C3 is mostly safe against the Panasonic GF2 and GF3 given the NEX camera's newer sensor. Against the Olympus E-PL3 Lite shipping from September onwards, though, this latest NEX may face trouble. For a bit more, you get a tangibly faster camera with a more advanced autofocus system, more video options (including 60FPS shooting), and a lens system that's not confined to one vendor. Olympus even bundles in a hot shoe flash that Sony could really stand to include.

What might keep you at bay is your own development as a photographer. If you hope to go from novice to seasoned shooter with one camera body and lens system, you may stop early. It's not that the C3 can't handle some serious shooting, it's that there are cameras with more headroom. Should you decide you really like macro photography or you're tasked with covering the college sports team, the narrow choice of lenses and the speed limits could be significant. At least until there are more lenses available, the C3 works most effectively, and as a general-purpose street camera or a sidearm for when a DSLR is too big or equipped with a different lens.

And yet, with those limits in mind, we really liked shooting with the C3. As small as it is, the camera produces good quality with little adjustment. Whatever you might think about the speed of the interface, it's simple and does a good job of making photography accessible without leaving experienced photographers stranded by the side of the road. Most surprising was its tendency to punch above its weight class for noise. Many mirrorless interchangeables flounder past ISO 800, but the NEX-C3 has just enough extra performance to go a notch further.

We'd go so far as to call the C3 a fun camera: it encourages experimentation and casual shooting. We always wanted to take the C3 with us, and the size meant we could. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 were leaning in that direction but, through early quirks, larger sizes, and older sensors, felt like they were just short of a sweet spot. The C3, as much room as it may have for improvement, is now small enough and yet powerful enough that it can well be worth getting instead of a similarly-priced DSLR in some circumstances.

- Good image quality, including in some low light.

- Very compact but comfortable body.

- Attractive display with off-angle tilting.

- Responsive; fast relative to compacts.

- Simple menus with some power underneath.

- Better-placed stereo microphones.

- Capable kit lens.

- Solid battery life.

- Programmable buttons even on a 'rookie' camera.

- Sweep panorama, exposure bracketing, other multi-shot modes.

- Control won't fully satisfy pros.

- JPEG tends to clip detail; RAW fixes it.

- Occasional odd white balance issues.

- Not always best value vs. DSLRs or some MFT cams.

- Slightly noisy 18-55mm kit lens.