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Sony NEX-7: First Impressions

March 19, 2012

After a six-month delay caused by the tragic flooding in Thailand last year, Amazon abruptly informed me that my NEX-7 preorder was about to be fulfilled. The next day, it arrived at my doorstep.

Design and Build Quality

The first thing I noticed about the NEX-7 was that it’s very light, but feels very sturdy in the hand. The all-metal construction gives it a pleasantly solid feel, despite its small size.

The sizable handgrip is a welcome improvement over the slippery, flat front face of the NEX-3 – particularly with a (relatively) heavy lens like the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4. The NEX-7 fits very naturally in my medium-sized hands, but my pinky finger doesn’t have much to grip because the camera is so small. Folks with larger hands might find this troublesome, but I don’t mind.

Controls

Unlike the other cameras in the NEX line, the NEX-7 offers a very useful assortment of physical controls: buttons, dials, knobs, and toggles. Best of all, these controls are all highly configurable.

In particular:

Electronic Viewfinder

Much has already been said about the OLED viewfinder on the NEX-7, and rightly so. I didn’t know how much I would miss having a viewfinder until I tried to go without one on my NEX-3.

Personally, I had my doubts. I’ve been happily shooting through optical viewfinders for years; even with the tiny viewfinders on crop-sensor DSLRs, the responsiveness and clarity of physically looking through the lens became comforting to me.

To help close the gap, Sony clearly put a lot of effort into the viewfinder on the NEX-7, and it shows. The pixel density is very high – not quite “Retina display”, but close.

Of course, even a cutting-edge EVF is still subject to the greatest weakness of any live sensor view: what you see is limited by the capabilities of the sensor, which are far inferior to those of the human visual system. As lighting conditions change rapidly, for instance, the view will momentarily be unusable until you (or the camera) adjust the exposure. And in low light, motion becomes slightly stuttery as the sensor increases exposure time to compensate. Optical viewfinders aren’t subject to these kinds of problems at all.

However, this weakness is also an EVF’s greatest strength, for what you see is truly what you get. Not only are you looking through the lens, you’re looking through the sensor itself! It takes much of the guesswork out of dialing in exposure. This is useful because digital sensors are still less forgiving than film in this regard.

As a result, I no longer feel the need to auto-review (“chimp”) each shot to make sure I got what I wanted. That alone makes the EVF a major win for me.

Image Quality

The APS-C sensor on the NEX-7 is quite good, as most high-end sensors are these days. It is easily comparable to my Canon DSLR.

However, I’d gladly trade resolution for reduced RAW file size and improved overall processing speed. I’m not sure why Sony felt the need to crank the resolution all the way up to 24 megapixels.

Video

Video performance has become increasingly important to me lately, and the NEX-7’s capabilities are promising – on paper, at least.

I’ve only shot a small amount of video so far, but immediately noticed several drawbacks:

All in all, the NEX-7 will shoot perfectly usable video in a pinch. But for dedicated video projects, I think I’ll still reach for another camera.

It’s a shame, because the NEX-7 does offer some nice video tools that Canon DSLRs lack, like focus peaking and a live histogram. (Magic Lantern brings these capabilities to Canon cameras, but the implementation and performance are less than ideal.)

Lenses

To put it kindly, the E-mount lens selection (or lack thereof) is staggeringly lackluster.

Sony’s lens offerings are bulky, pricey, and unremarkable. The 16mm f/2.8 “pancake” stands out because of its low profile, despite its mediocre optics. The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom is merely par for the kit lens course – decent, but not great.

Third parties seem either hesitant or unable to help. The Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 looks great, but it’s too large to be a good match for the NEX form factor and it’s a bit pricey. By contrast, Sigma just announced a pair of inexpensive, compact primes that max out at f/2.8.

Lens Adapters

Fortunately, all is not lost. Thanks to the E-mount’s short focal flange (rear focal) distance, the NEX platform has become a popular host for a wide range of manual lenses.

My Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 will probably see a lot of action on the NEX-7. It’s not a perfect lens by any means, but I’m hoping it hits the sweet spot.

Conclusion

This post turned out a lot longer than I expected. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as the NEX-7 has made a bigger impression on me than I thought it would.

The NEX-7 comes impressively close to my idea of a perfect camera. Sony clearly put a lot of thought into building a compact camera that sacrifices surprisingly little in the way of usability and performance.

If nothing else, the NEX-7 will help establish a new high-end category for compacts with interchangeable lenses. Fuji’s X-Pro 1 is already another promising contender in the same space, and Canon has yet to throw its hat in the ring at all.

The next few years should be very exciting.