Overall image quality is very good. While the NEX-C3 offers compact camera proportions, the benefits of the larger APS-C sensor are clear to see. Using the ‘Standard’ colour profile setting JPEG images are natural and lifelike straight from the camera. Of course, you can choose to ramp the saturation up a level or two as you see fit through the Creative Style customisation options, but for a faithful and neutral reproduction of subjects the default ‘Standard’ setting sees the NEX-C3 score highly.
We found the NEX-C3’s 49-segment metering system to be generally accurate, although just occasionally there is a tendency for it to err on the side of caution by underexposing in high-contrast situations so as to retain highlight detail. Thankfully, you can counter this by employing the Dynamic-Range Optimizer to boost shadow detail without sacrificing highlights, and in addition there’s also /- 2EV of exposure compensation available should you feel the need to intervene more robustly.
The NEX-C3 features an automatic High Dynamic Range function that works by taking three successive shots and then blending the results together into a single image. You can choose the how many EV stops there are between each of the three shots up to a maximum of 6EV, or you can let the camera decide for you. We found that shooting HDR images handheld generally yielded acceptably sharp results. Just be careful not to overdo things, or your image will end up looking unnatural.
We had access to both the 14-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom and 16mm f/2.8 prime while testing the NEX-C3. Both of these lenses resolve detail very well – allowing surface textures to really shine through in your images – although we were surprised to find edges weren’t always the sharpest, especially towards the edges of the frame and when using the kit zoom at its widest. As with saturation and contrast, you can choose to increase JPEG sharpening levels using the Creative Styles customisation menu, so it’s not necessarily a major issue.
As might be expected, the 16mm lens suffers from fairly noticeable barrel distortion, as does the 18-55mm at its wideangle extreme. Fringing on high-contrast borders is another issue that we spotted with some regularity. Other than this though both lenses were able to produce very good results in the vast majority of situations. Using the 16mm at f/2.8 generates a very satisfying background bokeh too, making it a handy portrait lens.
It’s worth noting that Sony Alpha DSLR lenses (along with older Konica/Minolta lenses) can be attached to the NEX-C3 via an optional LA-EA1 mount (approx £180). As with all Sony APS-C sensors, there’s a 1.5x crop factor to take into account, and of course you will lose any pretension to compactness.
Low light performance is another area where the NEX-C3 shows its APS-C credentials, with overall performance that’s easily on a par with regular DSLRs, and far beyond that of even the best-performing compacts. At its base sensitivity setting of ISO 200- the NEX-C3 delivers noise-free images, which remains the case until ISO 800, even though some slight softening of detail does occur around this point.
At ISO 1600 and even 3200 there is some further softening of detail but viewed on regular computer monitors at less than 100%, images remain perfectly usable, with only minor image noise visible. Even at ISO 6400 images still remain usable at lower sizes.
Leaving the NEX-C3 to its own devices on Automatic White Balance we’re pleased to report no significant issues, with colour temperature proving consistently accurate.
While much of the NEX-C3 remains exactly the same as its predecessor, the addition of a newly developed 16.2MP Exmor CMOS sensor does raise overall image quality up a notch from what we’ve previously seen. Add to this the introduction of digital effects filters and a reduction in overall size and the NEX-C3 holds plenty of appeal. That said it’s a shame that Sony hasn’t seen fit to raise the bar with regards to the new model’s movie recording abilities, while the fiddly flash attachment remains something of a fudged solution too. For these reasons the NEX-C3 doesn’t quite make 9/10. Judged solely on its still-image capturing abilities though, we’ve no hesitation in recommending it.