A Viewfinder Darkly

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Sony NEX-C3 Test

July 9 2011

by Philip Northeast

Sony’s new NEX-C3 combines small size with the big performance of a DSLR according to DxOMark lab tests.

The Sony NEX-C3 is the latest in the line of digital cameras aiming to combine the small size, ease of carrying, and use of current compact digital cameras with the versatility and image quality of a DSLR.


Sony NEX-C3 with 16mm lens fitted and 18-55mm zoom to the side

Sony say the NEX-C3 is “ the world’s smallest, lightest interchangeable lens camera with APS-C size sensor.”

Sony manage to keep their NEX series cameras compact by not having the moving mirror and pentaprism for an optical viewfinder system like DSLRs. The big performance comes from one of Sony’s latest high performance APS-C sensors. This new CMOS digital sensor has a 16 megapixel resolution and the DxOMark lab tests show that other aspects of image quality have not suffered because of the increase in resolution.

“Building on the success of last year’s  NEX launch, the new NEX-C3 model takes the idea of ‘small camera body, SLR-quality photos’ to a whole new level,” said Kristen Elder, director of the alpha digital imaging business at Sony.  “This camera’s brand new, large CMOS sensor and user-friendly interface will allow all photographers, regardless of experience level, to produce unique, custom-styled photographs.”

NEX-C3 Silver rear

LCD screen and rear controls of Sony NEX-C3

Normally relies on typical digi cam method of using the rear LCD screen for composing and taking photographs.  There is a Sony accessory optical viewfinder for NEX series cameras for use in bright light or when the camera needs to be held securely to minimise blurriness due to camera shake.

Key New Features

The main difference between the new NEX-C3 and the NEX-3 is the new sensor 16 megapixel digital sensor.

Looking at the DxOMark overall scores in the sensor tests the new NEX-C3 has a combined DxOMark score of 73 compared with its predecessor, the 14 megapixel NEX-3, which managed 68 in the lab tests.

NEX-C3, Pentax K-5, NEX-3  DxOMark

NEX-C3, Pentax K-5, NEX-3 DxOMark sesnor test comparison

This is not a huge gain, but simply increasing the number of megapixels on the same size digital sensor produces an increase in digital noise, while  colour depth and dynamic range can suffer. The DxOMark results show that when Sony produced their new sensor, the gains in these key areas were greater than any potential losses due to squeezing in more megapixels.

Sony’s claim that the NEX-C3 can offer “SLR like photos” is backed up by the DxOMark tests. Comparing the Sony with two DLSRs with APS-C sensors show the NEX-C3 is their equal or better in terms of sensor performance.

dslr compare

DxOMark test comparison with Sony Alpha 55 and Nikon D3100 DSLRs

It is likely that the sensor in the Sony Alpha 55 is the same as in the NEX-C3, and is the same as the Pentax K5 shown in an earlier comparison, despite differences in the results.  These differences are  because DxOMark test use the RAW image data from the camera and this shows that the way each camera collects and manages the RAW data influences image quality.

In the important area of digital image noise the lab test shows an improvement in the NEX-C3 over the old model.  Compared to two other big sensor interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras, the Samsung NX10 and the Olympus PEN EP2, the Sony NEX-C3 has an edge in the DxOMark tests.

DxOMark noise

DxOMark noise test mirrorless camera comparison

Comparing the overall DxOMark senors scores for the three mirrorless reveals the Sony NEX-C3 also a significant lead in its dynamic range. This gives photographers more flexibility with exposure in difficult high contrast situations such as bright sunlight and dark shadows.  Using digital photo lab programs such as DxO Optics Pro photographers can take advantage of the extra dynamic range  to improve the quality of their RAW images.

DxOMark mirrorless sensor test comparison

DxOMark mirrorless sensor test comparison

More than Sensor Performance

The sensor is obviously important but is  only part of story of a camera.

For a camera where size is one of the main drivers in the design philosophy the size of the Sony lenses becomes an issue.  There is a compact lens the Sony 16mm F/2.8 E-mount available from site supporter Adorama that keeps the camera and lens slim enough to easily slip in and out of pockets and purses.

Apart from Sony’s current range of four lenses made for the smaller E mount for mirrorless cameras,  using the optional adaptor allows all Sony and Minolta  full size autofocus lens to fit on the NEX-C3.

One area where the NEX series cameras do suffer is they are too slim for a conventional hot shoe or inbuilt flash. Sony include a special separate flash that uses a special smart accessory mount.

Unless you buy the optional clip on optical viewfinder holding the NEX-C3 steady could be a chore in low light or with longer focal length lenses. The NEX-C3’s low noise attributes helps here as photographers can use higher ISO settings so they can use faster shutter speeds to reduce the effects camera shake.

Pricing and Availability

Sony says the new NEX-C3 will be available this August in silver, black and pink with an 18-55mm kit zoom lens (model SEL1855) and will cost about $US650.  It will also be offered in black only with a 16mm lens (model SEL16F28) for about $US600.


Specifications Summary

Specifications Summary


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