Camera Review: Sony Alpha NEX-7

August 15, 2012

By Dan Havlik

It happens, from time to time, that I just can’t get my hands on a particular camera. Sometimes it’s because of a supply issue, such as the massive flooding in Thailand last year that swamped many camera factories around Bangkok, delaying shipments. Other times, it’s a demand issue, in that there is such a demand for a hot camera model, the test unit loaner pool gets depleted and I have to “take a number” and wait.

In the case of the 24.3-megapixel Sony Alpha NEX-7, one of the best reviewed compact system cameras (CSC) on the market, it was a little bit of both. Soon after it was announced last summer to much fanfare, Sony’s factories in Thailand were walloped by the flooding, causing product delays because of transportation problems. All of which meant that test units of the NEX-7 were few and far between.

What was most tantalizing about the Sony NEX-7, which houses a DSLR-size APS-C sensor in a slim and trim body, was that I had gotten a chance to shoot with it briefly, and could tell that it was an extremely intriguing little interchangeable lens camera. In fact, I liked it so much in my brief time shooting with it, I named it one of “8 Cameras That Rock” in PDN’s May issue.

It wasn’t until late June/early July of this year, however, that I got my hands on a testable unit of the NEX-7 and was able to take it for a full spin for a few weeks. Here’s what I thought of this little camera that created so much buzz.

Special Order
What’s so special about the Sony NEX-7? At first glance, it looks very much like the Sony Alpha NEX-5N, its consumer-oriented stablemate, which is a fine camera in its own right though with some real deal-breakers for serious photographers.

For one, the NEX-5N is so thin and light, professional photographers will likely be turned off by its overall flimsiness. The NEX-5N also has a baffling—to consumers as well as to pros—interface, which forces you to dive through menus (and hoops, it seems) to change basic settings. While that camera also sports an APS-C sensor, its resolution tops off at 16.1 megapixels. The NEX-7, as mentioned already, boasts 24.3 megapixels of resolving power, from a Sony-made chip that’s also used in Sony’s SLT-A77 digital SLR.

One of the main design differences on the Sony NEX-7, is the slightly larger rubberized handgrip that makes holding this camera a lot more comfortable than most competing CSCs out there. Until I got a chance to shoot extensively with the NEX-7, I’ve never fully understood the appeal of CSCs, i.e. mirrorless, compact cameras that use small interchangeable lenses. For one, CSCs’ image quality has only been on par to the lowest level DSLRs. And secondly, though they’re smaller than most DSLRs, they’re certainly not small enough to fit in your pocket with a lens attached.

While the NEX-7 hasn’t completely changed my feelings about mirrorless CSCs—I’d still take a small DSLR over most of them, any day—I’m coming around.

But first things first: Forget about the Sony 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens that comes with the NEX-7. It’s pretty mediocre (corner softness was noticeable throughout the zoom range) and you’ll likely be disappointed with the results. Instead, save the extra $150 you’d pay for the NEX-7 lens kit, get the camera body only ($1,200) and buy a good lens separately.

As an alternative, I shot primarily with a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 prime lens, which sells for around $1,000. Yes, that’s nearly as much as the camera body itself but if you want to get the most out of the NEX-7, that’s the way to go. (If you’re on a budget, then at least settle for the Sony 50mm f/1.8 lens for $299.)

Body Politic
While the NEX-7’s camera body alone is about the size of a smartphone—OK, maybe an older, bulkier smartphone—add on one of these lenses, and you’ve got a somewhat unbalanced package: long glass attached to a trim body. Though the NEX-7’s main body, aside from the handgrip portion, is less than an inch thick, the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens juts out 4.5 inches with its hood attached, creating a strange “Jimmy Durante” effect on the front of the camera.

I’ve noted this awkwardness before about Sony’s NEX cameras and if you’re considering getting one, the set-up takes some getting used to. But whether it was the bigger grip or the beefed up layout of the camera, the design didn’t bother me as much with the NEX-7. With a light hand strap attached (see our May review of the HoldFast Camera Leash) the NEX-7 makes an ideal little street photography camera, feeling a bit like a stripped down version of a Leica M9. (And if you have some Leica M-series lenses lying around, you can buy an adapter to use them with the NEX-7.)

The NEX-7 is worlds faster overall than the M9, though, and that’s not just because it can autofocus. The entire system felt downright speedy to use whether I was adjusting settings using the new Tri-Navi control set-up (more about this later), scrolling through images or digging through menus. (Unfortunately, even with the Tri-Navi exterior controls, you still do some digging through menus.)

The camera is powered by Sony’s latest Bionz image processor and it felt as speedy as a mid-level DSLR. When you prefocus, shutter lag is virtually non-existent—Sony rates it at 0.02 seconds, and I’d say that’s about right. Not once did I feel the camera struggling to keep up.

If you really want to go nuts, switch the NEX-7 to Speed Priority Continuous, and the camera will fire away at 10 frames per second (fps) with focus and exposure locked at the first frame. Usually, I find these specs to be inflated on compact cameras because oftentimes the tiny buffer will choke and you’ll have to wait a few seconds between bursts before you can shoot again. The NEX-7, however, quickly recovered between bursts and I was able to shoot fast-moving sports sequences of runners, bikers and tennis players without pausing.

You won’t be trading in your Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X anytime soon for the NEX-7, but it’s still impressive.

Dialing It In
Much has been made of the NEX-7’s new Tri-Navi controls and to say it’s an improvement over previous NEX cameras is an understatement. The positive reviews for the Tri-Navi set-up are actually more indicative of how irritating the previous, primarily menu-based systems have been on this line of cameras.

Where the NEX-5N, for instance, barely has any external control, forcing you to hunt and peck through animated menu screens to change basic settings, the NEX-7 has two unmarked control dials on top of the camera and a command dial on back.

If that doesn’t sound revolutionary, it’s not. The two dials on top are well placed ergonomically, however, and they’re programmable, letting you change settings such as ISO and aperture just by turning them with your thumb. When you crank the dial, the settings are shown live on the NEX-7’s 3-inch (921,600 pixel) fold-out screen. It’s a super-sharp display, by the way, that’s great for composing shots from different angles, even in bright light.

Though the command dial on the back of the camera is a bigger stretch with your thumb, you can also set it to shift an important setting. After configuring the camera the way I wanted, I quickly grew comfortable with the Tri-Navi layout and was able to change settings on the fly.

While all of this is an improvement, there are still hiccups. For instance, if you want to change the mode you’re in, you can’t do it with the external controls and still need to go into the menu system. That’s unfortunate.

In a separate but related usability issue, the NEX-7’s small, unobtrusive electronic viewfinder (EVF) is one of the better ones I’ve tried. The EVF employs OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) technology with 2359K dots of resolution, giving you a relatively clear image of what you’re shooting. DSLR shooters used to crystal-clear optical viewfinders, however, will still probably find the darkness of the small EVF lacking.

The split second it took for the sensor in the NEX-7’s eyecup, which switches off the LCD and turns on the EVF, to detect that I had put my eye to it was noticeable. I also found that the eyecup sensor tended to accidentally turn off the rear display if, for instance, your hand passed in front of it.

Similarly, while I liked how easy it was to turn on the excellent HD video mode—full 1080p at up to 60 fps for super-smooth footage and stereo sound from a built-in mic—via the one-touch video button on the thumb rest, it was also easy to accidentally turn it on.

Image Quality
The promise of CSCs has been image quality that’s comparable to DSLRs but in a smaller, more portable package. For the most part, I’ve felt these cameras have been something of a letdown. Photographers in North America seem to have largely felt the same way, as mirrorless cameras have not sold nearly as well here as they have in Japan and other overseas markets.

The Sony NEX-7 could begin to change all that. While Sony doesn’t solve the portability issue with this camera, it’s able to sidestep it completely by making a very competent picture-taking machine that I’d feel comfortable swapping out for my DSLR for some assignments (as long as I had a more substantial lens to shoot with).

Overall image quality was excellent. Colors were luscious but not oversaturated, dynamic range was impressive and while using the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8, which converts to approximately a 36mm lens on the NEX-7 because of the APS-C sensor’s 1.5x magnification (or “crop”) factor, I got pro-level sharp centers and blurred backgrounds making this a very decent portrait setup.

In short, when paired with the right lens—along with the seven or so NEX lenses for the camera, adapters let you pair the camera with a range of glass from other companies—the Sony NEX-7 produced a very crisp image that most people would easily mistake for something coming from a top-tier APS-C based DSLR.

Better yet, with the considerable amount of resolution the NEX-7 offers from its 24.3-megapixel sensor, photographers won’t have to worry about losing detail when significantly cropping images or blowing them up for poster-size campaigns. And despite stuffing all those pixels onto what is still, in the end, just an APS-C sized chip, the camera does not struggle with noise problems at up to ISO 3200. Above that, however, we felt that images from the lower resolution NEX-5N looked cleaner and had less noise. (Though you can shoot at up to ISO 16000 with the NEX-7, we suggest you don’t go there.)

The Bottom Line
While I really enjoyed my time shooting with the Sony NEX-7—it was definitely worth the wait—it’s not the camera that would replace my favorite DSLR for most assignments. It does, however, present one of the best arguments—along with the 16.3-megapixel Fujifilm X-Pro1, reviewed in last month’s issue—for pros to take the compact system camera category more seriously. The NEX-7 won’t fit in your pocket, especially with one of Sony’s honking lenses attached, but it is a light and friendly portable camera that shoots crisp, high-res images and full HD video on par with some of the best prosumer DSLRs out there. It’s also downright fun and unobtrusive to shoot with. I only had about a month with the NEX-7, while at the same time testing at least half a dozen other cameras, but I found myself continually looking for it in my camera bag, even when more expensive pro DSLR rigs were available. The reason? It’s blazingly fast, very quiet and produces images of surprisingly high quality. The NEX-7 could become your new go-to “candid” camera.

Portable and comfortable camera design; very high image quality on par with prosumer level digital SLRs; lots of detail from the 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor; extremely quick and responsive to use; blazing 10 fps bursts with only brief buffer blackouts between sequences; Tri-Navi control configuration makes it easy to switch settings on the fly

Cons: While the small electronic viewfinder is better than most we’ve tried, it will still make you miss an optical viewfinder; inferior kit lens; you still need to go into menus to change modes

Price: $1,200 (body only);

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