Traditionally known as DSLRs, interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) have always promised excellent image quality, speed, and versatility. But their enormous size and weight, lofty price tags, and intimidating design have forced casual photographers to focus on compact and superzoom point-and-shoot cameras instead, often leaving those bulky, confusing monstrosities to the pros. Enter mirrorless models, which scrap an optical viewfinder in favor of shrinking both body size and price tag, have provided the rest of us with a welcome mat to the world of powerful sensors, high-speed shooting, and swappable lenses -- with relatively little sacrifice along the way.
The 16-megapixel Alpha NEX-C3 builds upon the successes of its predecessor -- the NEX-3 -- sporting a slimmer body and redesigned APS-C sensor. It also adds a reported 20-percent boost in battery life, improved low light performance, and a slimmer, more attractive design. We spent well over a month using the NEX-C3 as our primary camera for product shoots, trade shows, hands-on videos, and vacations, and were blown away by its performance as both a versatile still snapper and a powerful video camera. It's important to note that while the C3 does capture 720p video, it can't shoot in 1080p, so you'll need to look elsewhere if you need full HD. Like all mirrorless cameras, there's also no optical viewfinder, nor is there a traditional hot shoe. Instead, Sony included the same propriety connector found on the NEX-3 and NEX-5, enabling connectivity with a dedicated external microphone and a limited variety of external flashes, including the compact strobe that ships in the box. While some photographers may find the NEX-C3 inadequate for their needs, we absolutely loved shooting with it, and we think you will too. Jump past the break to see why.%Gallery-128646%
- Affordable priceIncredible image qualityCompact, attractive design
- Limited lens selectionNo 1080p video captureProprietary accessory connector
If you currently own an NEX-3 or NEX-5, there really isn't any need to upgrade to the NEX-C3. As can be expected after a year on the market, the NEX series is now more polished, though most of these improvements are cosmetic. To say that the NEX-C3 looks awkward at first glance would be a bit of an understatement. The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens ($649, with body) appears gigantic when contrasted against the relatively petite camera, though it's still smaller than a DSLR equivalent. Popping on the 16mm f/2.8 kit lens ($599, with body) makes the C3 appear significantly better proportioned, but that fixed optic isn't quite as versatile as its zoom-enabled sibling, though it should work just fine for casual outings. Once you get past this initial awkwardness -- and trust us, you will get past it -- both lenses will feel just right.
Diving beyond the lens, you'll notice some cosmetic differences from the NEX-3. Sony constructed the body of three panels, which allowed it to shrink and reposition some of the components, as well as shake things up with two-tone coloring. The C3 is available in black, pink and silver, and all three versions include a magnesium alloy top panel, which houses the power slider, shutter and playback buttons, and video record control. You'll also find the proprietary hot shoe mount, AF-assist light, and stereo microphones, which have been repositioned from the top of the body (on the C3) to the front, located just to the left and right of the lens. This new placement presents an obvious advantage, since you'll be able to capture audio directly from your source in front of the lens.
Moving down the back of the camera, you'll find the same articulating 3-inch (921,000-pixel) display that Sony included with the NEX-3. The mount itself has been redesigned, however, allowing for the LCD to rest flush with the bottom and sides when in its docked position. You can also tilt it up at about an 85-degree angle, or down at 45 degrees, letting short folks like us capture overhead shots at, say, a concert, or in Times Square on New Year's Eve. Sony elected to exclude touch functionality, which seems reasonable for a high-end camera -- after all, this kind of photographer is more interested in having dedicated controls they can fine-tune on the fly, as opposed to a touchscreen that requires more patience, drains battery life, and picks up fingerprints. To the right of the display, there's a pair of variable buttons, toggling different menu options depending on the mode. There's also a multipurpose selection ring surrounding a four-way selector, with dedicated controls for display and exposure. And that's about it -- most of the buttons perform different functions as you switch through shooting and playback modes, with the onscreen menu clearly identifying each button's role.
On the right side there's an extended grip positioned towards the front, and a shoulder strap hook. On the left, you'll find a duplicate strap connector flanked by mini USB and mini-HDMI ports. Sony switched things up a bit on the bottom of the camera, separating the SD card and battery compartments -- necessary to cut back on the body's width. The dedicated SD card slot is located to the right of the tripod connector. A flashing red LED indicates activity, so you won't accidentally pop out your card while the camera is writing to memory. The battery compartment houses the same 1080mAh NP-FW50 battery that's used in the NEX-3, and includes a small cord pass-through, should you want to use a dedicated AC adapter ($120) instead.
Performance and battery life
Photographers choose to shoot with ILCs not only because of the obvious flexibility they provide in the lens department, but also due to their speed, manual control capabilities, and large, high-quality image sensors. The NEX-C3 doesn't disappoint on any of these counts, offering compatibility with several E-mount lenses, snapping frame after frame with minimal delay, and capturing some of the sharpest, most vibrant images we've seen come out of any interchangeable lens camera, including higher-end DSLRs. The camera's image sensor is just one part of the equation -- you also need to have some serious, multi-element, high-quality glass. We don't see a need for current NEX owners to upgrade, however. Sure, the C3's 16-megapixel sensor offers a 14 percent boost over the NEX-3's 14-megapixels, but with the majority of images bound for the web these days, the only difference you're likely to see after upgrading is that your memory cards will fill up more quickly. Both cameras perform well in low light (at up to ISO 6400), and have an equally obnoxious amount of noise when shooting at ISO 12,800.
Because timing is key in photography, the camera's speed is critical to its overall performance -- an area where the C3 does just fine, especially considering its size. You can select between Single-shot Advance, Continuous Advance, or Speed Priority Continuous. In the first mode, the camera powers on and captures its first image in 1.8 seconds. Since we're only shooting individual images in that mode, you'll need to flip to continuous to fire multiples, at three frames-per-second. Jumping to the even faster Speed Priority Continuous mode, which fixes focus and exposure from the first shot, lets you shoot full-size images at six frames-per-second -- not too shabby for a compact mirrorless camera. In video mode, we were shooting in 720p at 29.97fps within less than a second of pressing the dedicated record button.
As we already mentioned, there's no 1080p video, as there is with last year's NEX-5, but that camera only offers one HD mode -- 1080p -- so we're happy to settle for 720p, considering that the majority of videos we shoot go directly to the web. We realize that some of you need to shoot 1080p, though, so it's unfortunate that this camera cannot. The HD video that we did shoot was sharp, vibrant, and properly exposed. Audio sounded crisp and clear, even in some very noisy environments. We also used Sony's external Compact Stereo Microphone ($130) when shooting in particularly noisy environments, which seemed to be particularly helpful, as long as we weren't trying to narrate from behind the cam (the mic can capture audio within a 120-degree field, which unfortunately excludes a photographer standing 180-degrees behind it).
We were pleasantly surprised by the camera's battery life, especially considering that the C3 uses the exact same battery as its predecessor. Still, Sony claims that it was able to boost longevity by 20-percent. We brought the camera on a four-day vacation, and were nearly able to get through the entire trip without a recharge. Our testing didn't necessarily represent typical usage, either, considering that we shot over 450 still images, including several dozen extended exposures of at least ten seconds each, passed the camera around many times to demo shooting modes, reviewed nearly every image onscreen at least once, and captured about ten minutes of 720p video. Overall, we'd feel confident using the C3 through several consecutive days of heavy shooting without bringing along a second battery (though they are available to purchase for $80).
On the optical front, the C3 comes with either an 18-55mm zoom or 16mm fixed kit lens, which you can also buy separately for $300 and $250, respectively. There's also an 18-200mm zoom ($800) available now and a 30mm macro ($250) shipping in October. Unlike point-and-shoot users, ILC photographers make long-term investments in a particular camera system, considering that lenses from one manufacturer are almost never compatible with a competitor's camera body. Sony has confirmed its commitment to growing its portfolio of lenses, so if you're hesitant to jump into the NEX pond because the water level seems to be a bit low, don't worry -- more lenses and bodies are coming, hopefully very soon.
One way to easily set yourself apart as an advanced digital photographer is to ignore the megapixel rating, and focus on image sensor size instead. Okay, perhaps you shouldn't completely ignore the megapixels, but there's a reason photos from a 12-megapixel smartphone camera don't compare to those you'll get with a point-and shoot with the same resolution. As you step up from smartphones to point-and-shoots to DSLRs, sensor size increases significantly, even though megapixel ratings may very well remain stagnant. It's these larger sensors than can capture images with much greater detail, especially in low light.
This new category of digicam typically uses a smaller sensor -- including Micro Four Thirds, in the case of Olympus and Panasonic offerings, or 1/2.3-inch, as you'll find in the Pentax Q. But Sony's NEX series packs an APS-C sensor -- the largest of the bunch, and the same size found on many full-size DSLRs -- enabling superior low light performance and higher-quality image capture. Camera lens size is also directly related to sensor size, which is why -- despite its incredibly compact body -- the NEX-C3's lenses are massive compared to those designed for the Pentax Q, which, while also an ILC, uses a sensor far smaller than the Sony cam.
More experienced photographers tend to shoot in manual mode whenever possible, giving them full control over aperture and shutter speed. The C3 has that capability (more on that in a bit), but it also performs quite well when you let the camera handle all the calculations, if that's what you prefer to do. Like its predecessor, both cameras offer the usual aperture and shutter priority modes, in addition to a Program Auto mode, which lets you dictate other settings as the camera selects aperture and shutter speed. There's also Intelligent Auto, which automatically chooses the best settings based on a variety of characteristics in your scene.
During our weeks of testing, we shot in nearly every condition imaginable, capturing photos in bright daylight during a hike, mixed indoor lighting at trade shows and in an office setting, high-speed at a Broadway show, and even 15-second exposures under the stars, lighting our subjects with smartphones as you'll see in the sample images gallery. Even in low light, the majority of our shots came out sharp and bright, even when captured at ISO 3200. Despite the zoom lens's maximum aperture limitation, which doesn't allow it to capture as much light as high-end DSLR optics, we never needed to use the flash. Having the flexibility to bump up the ISO all the way to 12,800, along with built-in optical image stabilization, helps to make up for the lens's mediocre maximum aperture.%Gallery-128644%
Considering that the camera has a limited selection of dedicated hardware buttons, a well-planned user interface is key. Fortunately, we found Sony's UI to be intuitive and comprehensive, though certain frequently used menu items -- namely, the memory card format tool -- are buried several levels deep. In addition to the advanced shooting modes we already covered, the camera's Intelligent Auto mode replaces the typical auto mode included with most point-and-shoots, selecting the ideal settings based on your surroundings. If you're trying to shoot a close-up subject, the camera will switch into Macro mode, for example. Take it outside at night, and you'll be shooting in Night View. Each mode adjusts aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to capture the most sharp, accurate images.
Another feature aimed at ILC newbies is the ability to press the center select button while in Intelligent Auto to launch the Photo Creativity interface, which lets you adjust advanced settings using a easy to understand graphical interface. To select shallow depth of field, for example, jump to Background Defocus mode, then turn the selection wheel towards Defocus, which is also illustrated with a human figure juxtaposed against a blurry mountain peak. Turning the wheel in the other direction will make your entire subject Crisp -- in this mode, both the figure and mountain peak are sharp. Other modes include Picture Effect, with Toy Camera, Posterization, and Retro options. There are also similar graphical menus for adjusting Vividness, Color, Brightness, and speed modes. Like nearly every menu option throughout the camera, each mode and sub-mode includes a sentence-long description -- the Color menu, for example, explains "Creates a warm, soft mood, or cool, refreshing look."
The first mirrorless ILC hit the market in 2008. Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G1 was the first to use the Micro Four Thirds system, which offers compatibility with a wide variety of lenses from both Panasonic and Olympus, which also has its own series of mirrorless cams, including the recently announced PEN E-P3. This universal lens mount allows photographers to switch between both camera systems without replacing their entire collection of lenses, so you can use your Olympus lenses with the new Panasonic GF3 when it becomes available, for example. The tradeoff, however, is that these cams use a unique sensor, which is significantly smaller than the APS-C sensor used in the NEX-C3. The result is mediocre low light performance and a noticeable difference in overall image quality.
You may also remember the recently announced Pentax Q, which takes the title as the world's smallest interchangeable lens camera. In order to achieve this small size, Pentax opted for a 1/2.3-inch sensor -- the same size used in many (much more affordable) point-and-shoot cameras. We weren't allowed to take home any sample images after our hands-on, but even images we reviewed on the petite LCD appeared to be noisy when shot at higher ISO settings. Unfortunately, we don't have high hopes for this camera, and if you're wondering if the tradeoff in size is worth opting for the Q instead of the NEX-C3, we can say with confidence that it most certainly is not.
We have an opportunity to test an enormous variety of gadgets each year, including dozens of point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras. Seldom, however, do we come across a device that we undoubtedly plan to purchase ourselves. The Sony NEX-C3 is one of few exceptions -- in fact, we're even considering outfitting every member of the Engadget team with one of these compact, versatile ILCs once they hit stores next month. We feel that the camera is priced very competitively (starting at $599, with the 16mm kit lens), and you're not likely to miss the few features it omits -- namely 1080p video capture and a universal accessory hot shoe. That's not to say that we overlooked these lacking capabilities, however, and this exclusion contributed to our decision not to rate the C3 a perfect-10. Sony's NEX-3 left us with high expectations for its next generation mirrorless cam, and our level of enthusiasm for this latest camera remains unparalleled. If you've been looking to upgrade from a compact point-and-shoot, or want to trim a significant amount of fat from your DSLR kit, then there's no better option than the NEX-C3.
Update: We've added links below to download all of the original, untouched sample images included in the gallery above. Enjoy!
Update 2: In our video review, we mentioned that the NEX-C3 does not include a Memory Stick slot. The camera's SD card slot can accommodate Memory Stick media, however.