[UPDATE @ 10/31/11: camera is going back. See this post for an explanation...]
For quite some time, I’ve been looking for a small (pocketable) camera to complement the battery of professional cameras I have for work. It struck me this weekend how silly it is that I have to go to my studio, choose the gear I want out of the old vault I use as an equipment cabinet, and find the perfect bag to carry it all in, just so I can take a few snapshots at any random family gathering.
There are a lot of choices out there, and I was somewhat stymied when it came to making a choice. I pay close attention to the high end of the market, but less so to the mid-range developments. But one factor swayed me, and it’s this: I wanted something that would offer exceptional low-light performance. Some of the very small cameras (such as the Canon Powershot S95) purport to have that, but upon further research, the very small compacts are somewhat limited by having a small sensor in them. I’m not referring to megapixel count (which wasn’t part of my criteria); I’m talking about the physical size of the sensor. I’m something of a snob, having spent years shooting on the highest-end pro bodies with their 35mm full-frame sensors. The light-gathering characteristics of these sensors is head and shoulders above the capabilities of the smaller sensor cameras.
So when the “Micro 4/3” camera systems started appearing, I was curious. But their sensors are still not very big, and the cameras have been largely aimed at casual consumers. But one of the new cameras from Sony grabbed my attention. It is the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 (specs here and reviews here and here). I won’t go into great detail on its tech specs, but the short list of things that made it attractive are:
- interchangeable lenses
- available wide angle “prime” lens (16mm ƒ2.8, which is roughly equivalent to a 24mm lens in “normal” parlance)
- very good high ISO capabilities
- APS-C sensor
- no built-in flash
- RAW still capture
- 720P video
So I finally ordered one this week. The price was $550 from Amazon.com with the 16mm ƒ2.8 lens, and with no tax and my Amazon Prime membership, that’s all it cost. And it’s now in my hands. Here are my first thoughts, sorted in the order they tumbled out of my head this morning.
- I have resisted using small cameras in part because I have big hands and I find the controls to be awkward, especially in comparison to my pro cameras. The NEX-C3 is no exception. But there’s no way around that I want something that’ll fit in my pocket.
- The LCD display is spectacular. It’s one of the 3″ 920K pixel screens, and the image is so clear it’s a delight.
- The UI is typical Sony: obtuse, poorly thought out, and confusing. Sigh.
- Despite the awful UI, I think I have customized the buttons to the point that the most-used functions are pretty accessible
- Did I mention the UI is abysmal?
- I love the wide angle perspective. It’s just about perfect. Maybe even a bit too wide, but I actually shoot most of my events with a 16-35 lens on my pro bodies, so this is a very familiar view. And I can always crop. I like that there’s no zoom, too. It brings me back to my favorite camera I ever had, my Leica M6 with the 35mm lens. Although because of the awkwardness of dealing with a rangefinder film camera, that camera died on the vine. It’s now in the hands of a collector/enthusiast, and I really don’t miss it. It spent the last 5-6 years of its life on a shelf in my closet quietly mocking me.
- The camera handles nicely, and the swing-out viewfinder feels like a bit more than a gimmick; it’s very sturdy and may prove to be a useful tool. Time will tell.
- My chickens are not nearly as intimidated by it as they are my big cameras, although (as you can see below), they still don’t like to be photographed.
- The battery life is as yet undetermined, but it feels like it drains a little more quickly than I’d like, but that is probably a result of my spending a lot of time just playing with it. Time will tell.
- The RAW photos drop right into Apple’s Aperture editing software, and look beautiful. There’s lots of shadow detail, the images look clean and sharp, and there’s very little noticeable distortion, which is impressive in a super-wide lens like this. The optical design of non-zoom lenses is quite a bit simpler than zoom lenses, so this isn’t a big surprise, but it was nice to confirm, nonetheless.
- The camera has a ton of dorky “special effects” modes, most of which are completely uninteresting to me, with the exception of the camera’s purported ability to do panoramic shots in camera automatically. This will be interesting to see with the 16mm lens, and might turn out to be a really useful tool somewhat more than a gimmick.
- Finally, I abhor reading user manuals, and it bugs me that there’s a whole bunch of features (even very basic ones like how to change ISO) that are so badly designed in the UI as to be completely opaque without a read of the manual. I suppose I am going to have to spend a few hours with my nose in the book.
- Despite all the whining, I actually like the camera. It has a quirky but friendly personality, and I’m optimistic that it’ll be a keeper.
Check out a few sample photos below.