Sony NEX-7: First Impressions
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.
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.
- Tri-Navi. This is fancy marketing-speak which simply means that there are three dials on the camera.
The two unmarked metal thumb knobs on the top of the NEX-7 body are surprisingly versatile. They can be mapped to multiple functions, and have a nice clicky feel that makes them easy to use even when your eye is on the viewfinder.
But I’m not crazy about the third dial at all: a combination jog wheel/directional pad, as seen on many cameras like the Canon S90 (and the other NEX models, of course). I find it very annoying to delicately turn the wheel while trying not to apply any pressure.
- Focus/AEL switch/button. I found this control somewhat odd, but useful. It’s a two-way switch paired with a push button.
When the switch is set to the “AF/MF” position, the button triggers a focus-related function (and yes, it’s customizable too). I use it as a momentary focus-assist, which is very handy with manual-focus lenses: just press and hold to zoom in, focus, then release to compose and shoot. And the best part is that it’s extremely responsive.
This workflow just isn’t possible with traditional (optical) manual focusing techniques. And it’s far superior to the terrible live view zoom function on my T2i.
Flip the switch to “AEL”, and the button toggles exposure lock. It all works fine, but I’m not sure why there aren’t just two buttons.
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.
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 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:
Rolling shutter. The “jello” effect seems more pronounced than it is on my T2i. This is a shame, because the sensor is otherwise quite good.
AVCHD bias. Although the camera does support MP4, it only offers higher bitrates and 24 fps recording with AVCHD output. Final Cut Pro X directly imports AVCHD, but I really prefer the simplicity of managing MP4 files to dealing with the absurd AVCHD folder structure.
Low bitrate. The T2i records 1080/24p at around 44Mbps, while the NEX-7 maxes out at just 24Mbps. I noticed objectionable compression artifacts in simple tests long before I looked up the (disappointing) specs.
Lack of dedicated movie mode. This isn’t strictly a disadvantage. Constantly switching between movie and still modes on the T2i always feels like a hassle.
The ability to start recording video at any time is convenient, but it always uses the current still photo settings. I always want full manual control over video, while I typically shoot stills in aperture priority (Av) mode. This forces me to use the fiddly jog dial more often that I’d like.
An easy way to recall custom presets could neatly solve this problem.
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.)
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.
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.
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.