Will the Alpha NEX-C3 keep Sony in the compact system camera lead?
Three years ago in September Panasonic launched the concept of a 'Compact System Camera' (CSC) - or hybrid, mirror-less, even EVIL (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens) camera, when it unveiled the Lumix DMC-G1. Olympus and Samsung followed suit, but Panasonic continued to control the CSC phenomenon. Then Just 13 months ago Sony joined the party with its new Alpha NEX platform and the NEX-5 and NEX-3. NEX was an overnight sensation and immediately outsold Panasonic in Japan and most other key markets around the world.
Today, Sony looks to consolidate its success by introducing the replacement for the cheaper of the two original NEX models, the NEX-3, with the NEX-C3. Apart from a design that incorporates less angular shoulders, the NEX-C3 is outwardly similar in appearance to the discontinued NEX-3. The C3 is now even smaller and lighter than the NEX-5, which was noticeably more diminutive than the old NEX-3 in the first place. Indeed, Sony claims that the C3 is the smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera... with an APS-C sensor, which suggests that Panasonic and Olympus retain the kudos for having the smallest and lightest digital CSCs for now as their sensors are smaller than APS-C. And the C3 gets the 16 megapixel APS-C sensor that has been getting rave reviews in various other Pentax, Sony and Nikon guises, replacing last year's 14 megapixel Exmor sensor.
Other new features include an in-camera Picture Effects mode, which will also be made available to existing NEX-5 and NEX-3 users via a firmware update later this month. It sounds rather similar to Art Filters introduced by Olympus a couple of years ago. Surprisingly, the C3 still makes do with 720 resolution HD movie mode instead of 1080, which some competitor models already offer. The same style 7.5cm Xtra Fine tilting LCD screen is offered, and the temptation to improve it by making it swing out as well as tilt has been resisted. Considering Sony's icon-based user interface, I'm also surprised that Sony hasn't introduced a touch screen. But you do get up to 7 frames per second shooting and the rather clever Sweep Panorama automatic stitching mode, plus in-camera HDR and low light 'twilight' modes.
A new macro lens and flash
Incidentally, Sony has also announced a new 30mm f/3.5 E-mount macro lens, and a new HVL-F20S travel flash. The latter still fits by the unusual and rather fiddly screw-on mount system that is unique to the NEX system.
What is the secret to NEX success?
The success of Sony's NEX system so soon after launch was quite a surprise to the camera industry. Despite its brand image, competitive pricing, and a rapidly expanding system range, Sony failed to deliver on its goal of displacing either Nikon or Canon in the DSLR stakes. This probably fuelled Sony's acceleration into compact system cameras. And while most journalists liked the radical styling of the NEX range, many of us were less enthusiastic about the practicality of the controls and user-interface. With a relatively large sensor, lenses, especially the huge 18-200 super-zoom, look rather unbalanced attached to the tiny NEX camera bodies. On the other hand, sensor performance and features like Sweep Panorama are impressive. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have placed a NEX model at the top of my list of CSC recommendations. But what do I know? NEX has been hugely successful, especially in Japan but the industry opinion is that it's largely down to the NEX style factor.
And another view that I am hearing more and more is that CSCs are getting too small. A lot of people want the benefits of a mirrorless camera, like a more slim camera body design and lighter weight, and smaller and lighter lenses, but in a package that is not too small that it alienates the owners of larger hands or stubbier fingers, or becomes poorly balanced with larger and heavier lenses - especially legacy lenses that are popularly used with CSCs via lens adapters.
Sony may say that if you want a larger camera, get an Alpha DSLR. But that's missing the point. CSCs are less compromised in fundamental areas like autofocus performance in live view and movie modes. Sony's new Alpha α35 DSLR, also launched today, does have some tricks to improve the DSLR live view experience, but these are more work-arounds to issues imposed by legacy lens limitations. Sony doesn't yet offer an electronic viewfinder NEX model or even an optional electronic finder, but photographers are beginning to realise the many benefits that high quality EVFs in CSCs from Samsung, Panasonic, and Olympus can offer.
In the UK in the last 12 months CSC sales grew by nearly 200% while DSLR sales grew by only 7%. Nearly 1 in 4 interchangeable lens cameras sold is a CSC and some are predicting that will be 50% by this time next year. With a rapidly growing sector like the CSC, Sony will obviously want to hang on to its great initial success. The new Sony NEX-C3 is almost certainly just a small part of Sony's CSC plans for the next year. In this golden age of camera evolution, we the camera buying public can only revel in the highly competitive nature of the market that is spurring on the development of ever more interesting designs and features.
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