Sony’s Compact System Camera Has Enough Skill to Perform on Broadway

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Sony Alpha NEX-C3. Photo courtesy of Sony
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The Sony NEX-C3 is an absurdly small camera considering what’s packed inside.

It’s hard to appreciate how tiny it is if you’re using it with the protruding zoom kit lens, which makes this slender camera look like a metallic toucan. It’s front heavy and a bit awkward, almost like it hasn’t fully grown out of puberty. Call it the Lea Michele of digital cameras.

You’ve got to hand it to Sony’s hardware designers, though. The Alpha NEX-C3, like its predecessors the NEX-3 and NEX-5, houses a DSLR-size APS-C (24×16mm) CMOS sensor inside a camera body that’s not much bigger than a smart phone. All these NEX models are so-called Compact System Cameras (CSC), a broad category of consumer-level cameras that accept small interchangeable lenses, but lack the mirror of a traditional DSLR. I shot with NEX-5 last year using an equally slender, 16mm f/2.8 lens and loved both the image quality and the great portability.

The new NEX-C3, which starts shipping next month, looks similar to its predecessors but is smaller — 4.3 inches wide, 2.4 tall and 1.3 inches thick. At just 8 ounces, it’s also lighter. Despite its more petite profile, the NEX-C3’s large sensor boasts 16.2 megapixels of resolution (up from 14.2MP on the older models) and a host of new features designed for photography novices who want to take pictures like the pros.

I got some early hands-on time with a final NEX-C3 camera at a Sony event last week where we shot a dress rehearsal of the long-running Broadway musical Chicago. Ideally, I like a lot more time with a camera before I file a review, but shooting the musical was more challenging than expected, especially considering we weren’t permitted to use any flash. Over the course of the day, I got a good sense of how well the NEX-C3 performs in difficult circumstances. Regular shooting conditions should be a walk in the park.

Though I would’ve liked to have tried it with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens or the brand new 30mm F/3.5 macro, I shot with it using the 18-55mm (f/3.5-5.6) kit lens, which helped me zoom in on the action happening on stage. Along with adding to the overall bulk of the camera — it’ll never fit in your pocket — the average aperture range and slow focusing speed of the kit lens made getting sharp shots of the kinetic song-and-dance numbers difficult.

But despite the tough stage lighting — all bright spotlights and colored gels — and the fast, choreographed dance movements, I was able to get a handful of nice photos of the performers. That’s impressive. Equally so was the NEX-C3’s ability to shoot relatively clean images at high ISOs in low light without a flash. I got excellent shots at ISO 1600 that had less noise than what I’d see with some entry-level DSLRs. This was all the more admirable considering the bump up in resolution means the pixels are smaller. At times, skintones were blown out from the bright spotlights, but with this camera and lens combo, that’s to be expected. (Some of this is fixable in Photoshop or by fiddling with the Exposure settings on the C3, which are listed simply as “Brightness” adjustment. More about this below.)

Beginning photographers will appreciate how Sony has tried to make the NEX-C3 comprehensible to those who don’t know the difference between an f/stop and a stop sign. Automated settings on the NEX-C3 let you adjust “background defocus” rather than changing the aperture. Instead of trying to figure out what the right White Balance or Saturation is, you can change Color from warm to cool or Vividness from vivid to soft.

While I liked all this in theory, I’m still not crazy about Sony’s interface to get to these adjustments. There are only a few buttons on the camera, and these are unmarked. To figure out what they do, you have to look at the corresponding menu. And, like the previous NEX models, the C3 is heavily menu-dependent, so you have to dig pretty deep to find the adjustments. Want to fiddle with the ISO? Patience, Grasshopper, patience. The same goes for changing modes; while there’s a blank command dial on back, it corresponds to a virtual model dial on the screen. Oy.

If you can decipher how to change settings — and can I pretty much guarantee that if I bought this for my mom, she’d have me on 24-hour tech support — there’s a lot to like in the NEX- C3 for beginning and even more advanced users.

Art filters are all the rage in digital cameras these days and the C3 has a bunch of them, which Sony calls “Picture Effects”: Pop Color, Toy Camera, Retro, etc. I used Pop Color and Toy Camera while shooting the performers in the dress rehearsal and liked the effects they produced: Pop pumped up the reds and saturated the dark colors but tended to further blow out the highlights. Toy Camera added some funky vignettes.

There’s also a decent Auto HDR feature that takes six shots at a time and scrunches them together into one image, which, theoretically, has a more balanced exposure. Worked pretty well. Even better is the 3-D Sweep Panorama, though I can’t vouch for the 3-D part since I don’t have a 3-D TV. The regular Sweep Panorama feature has been on Sony’s cameras for a few years now, however. It makes creating a expansive wide shot as easy as pressing a button and sweeping the camera in front of your face. Now this is a function my mom would love!

There are also some low-light modes including an Anti-Motion Blur and a Handheld Twilight feature which both combine six shots into one to improve image quality when shooting in the dark. For capturing the performers in Chicago, Anti-Motion Blur was the one to go with, since it raises the ISO to help freeze movement.

While the design of the NEX-C3 is similar to the previous models, it has some subtle changes, including a more curved body with textured ridges on the hand grip that make it easier to hold. There’s also a convenient tilting 3-inch LCD screen that helped me compose from tough angles while photographing the performers. Since I was sitting toward the front of theater at a low angle, all I needed to do was tilt the screen down and hold the camera over my head to get a straight-on shot.

As a video camera, the Sony NEX-C3 is pretty decent, offering a good 720p HD mode with quiet and accurate continuous autofocus that helped me track the dancers and singers as they Bob Fosse’d across the stage. A full 1080p HD mode would’ve been nice though.

WIRED Incredibly small and light, considering the large sensor and bevy of features inside. Excellent low light performance with DSLR-like low noise images at high ISOs. Tilting 3-inch LCD screen for composing over-the-head “Hail Mary” shots is helpful. Takes 400 shots on a single charge, so leave the battery charger at home. Comes in silver, black or pink.

TIRED Loses much of its portability with even a basic zoom kit lens attached. Too many menus to dig through to change functions. More experienced photographers may find the simplified settings condescending. HD video mode only goes to 720p.

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