The NEX-7 is Sony's answer to the need for a high-end Compact System Camera. But with the Alpha A77 at a close price point is this shrunken-down CSC all its cracked up to be? The WDC Sony NEX-7 review takes a look...
Sony NEX-7 review – Features
The NEX-7 looks to take Compact System Cameras up a notch or two. Its feature set is well beyond the competition, placing it as not only the most advanced but also the priciest CSC that money can buy.
The NEX-7’s headline features include 10fps burst mode, ISO 100-16,00 sensitivity, a 3in LCD screen mounted on a tilt-angle bracket and a built-in, 2.4m-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF).
With an APS-C sized sensor sporting some 24.3-megapixels the NEX-7 isn’t short on resolution and is able to capture 1080p HD movies too. The same APS-HD CMOS sensor as found in the SLT-A77 has been ported into the NEX-7 – and that can only be a good thing in our books.
Of course, as a CSC, the NEX-7’s mirrorless design makes it a far smaller camera than its SLT or DSLR cousins. Compared to other CSCs, however, it’s not the smallest going but is compact enough to keep overall size down when compared to similar specified DSLR cameras.
The NEX-series’ E-mount lens fitting accommodates smaller-than-DSLR-size lenses and a growing arsenal ought to make the NEX-7 all the more attractive. However, unlike Sony’s Alpha DSLRs, the NEX-7 doesn’t feature in-camera SteadyShot stabilisation – that’s instead reserved for the lenses where applicable. A shrewd move as Optical SteadyShot (OSS) stabilisation offers the benefit of stabilisation in live preview and won’t cause the imaging sensor to overheat.
Unlike any other current NEX model, the NEX-7 ditches the ‘Smart Accessory Terminal’ and instead opts for a built-in flash (GN 6; a button on the rear activates it) alongside a Sony/Minolta standard hotshoe to add a more powerful flash or other accessory as you so wish. It’s all about building the system up, and the inclusion of wireless flash capability means off-camera flash can also be accommodated for more complex lighting control.
For low-light shooting Sony’s Hand-held Twilight mode offers improved performance by capturing multiple frames and then selectively combining them for a low-noise image. Auto HDR and Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) also feature for maximising both shadow and highlight exposure in a single shot, while Sweep Panorama – a mode that allows for a panoramic shot to be taken by simply moving the camera in real time – also comes with a 3D option. Although Scene options and in-camera styles may not be the primary reason to buy a high-spec model such as this, the NEX-7 also features a range of Creative Styles and Picture Modes that can be customised to adjust contrast, saturation and sharpness.
Sony NEX-7 review – Design
The NEX-7 is, we have to say, a curious-looking beast. Arguably the NEX-series as a whole has never had design elegance as its forte but, in part due to the addition of the viewfinder and additional control wheels, the NEX-7 looks more prototype than final piece to our eyes. However, the lightweight magnesium alloy body feels sturdy in the hand and the camera is undoubtedly well made.
When the first NEX models made their way to market we loved most of what we saw, excluding the clunky menu system that was, by and large, interior to the camera’s virtual menus. The NEX-7 amps things up a great deal with the inclusion of an AEL/AF-MF switch and two rotational wheels to the top right of the camera’s rear, plus the left, right and centre d-pad and lower function button are all customisable.
The centre d-pad button opens a ‘Custom’ menu where it’s possible to set five main controls, selecting from AF/MF Select, Autofocus Mode, Autofocus Area, Face Detection, Smile Shutter, Soft Skin Effect, Quality, ISO, White Balance, Metering, DRO/HDR, Picture Effect, Creative Style, Flash Mode or no selection. The on-screen menu is a partial success, but as it’s only possible to define five options at the most there may be one or two settings that have to still be accessed via the menus.
Other manufacturers take the approach of putting far more settings into on-screen displays, such as the Panasonic Lumix G-series’ decision to include multiple screens where drag and drop options can be positioned in your preferred order. Sony’s on the right foot and moving forward to clean up the first generation of NEX-series menu issues, but there’s more that could be done still.
The NEX-7’s dual control wheel design is akin to the dual thumbwheel system you’d find on many higher-spec DSLRs. But unlike those designs the NEX positions these dials side by side instead of one to the front and one to the rear of the camera. It looks a little odd, though isn’t a problem in use as the position of your thumb sits naturally towards them. As the NEX-7’s viewfinder is placed at the polar opposite of the camera body it also prevents one’s face from being in the way of these dials when shooting. The one big problem we did find was the control wheel closest to the camera’s outer edge would frequently get knocked and then shift the exposure compensation by 0.3-0.7EV in either Programme, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes. While the NEX-7 offers a lot of button customisation it’s not possible to deactivate these control wheels – so keep a close eye on the display to ensure the settings are as you expect them to be.
But why the NEX-7 has no physical mode dial is one design decision that’s beyond us. A camera at this level that demands menu digging to shift between manual controls has missed part of its very purpose.
Also on the rear of the camera is a 3in, 921k-dot LCD is mounted on a tilt-angle bracket for vertical adjustment, but it’s the inclusion of the built-in 2.4m-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) that makes the NEX-7 extra special.
If you purchase the NEX-7 with the 18-55mm kit lens then it comes in a special black finish to match the body. A small detail, perhaps, but we do like refinements such as this.
Sony NEX-7 review – Performance
In use the NEX-7 has some features that separate it from other CSCs. Yet, in some other instances, the camera doesn’t feel as advanced as its price tag would suggest. For example: the inclusion of an AF/MF/AEL switch on the rear makes the camera all the more DSLR-like to use, and yet when the autofocus system is put to use it’s no more advanced than the lower-range NEX-5N‘s abilities. That’s not to say the NEX-7 has a bad AF system by any stretch of the imagination, but as it’s not as quick or accurate as the Nikon J1, Olympus E-P3 or Panasonic GF3 systems there are some question marks here.
The AF’s biggest enemy, however, is low light. Dim conditions, despite the inclusion of an AF-illuminator lamp, did throw the AF system off kilter on a number of occasions. The Flexible Spot AF, even when placed at the peak point of contrast difference on screen, wouldn’t always acquire focus. When set to Multi AF the camera would occasionally show a large green square around the majority of the screen rather than asserting any of its individual focus areas, suggesting a lack of sensitivity to low or subtle contrast.
On the upside an Object Tracking AF mode is fast to adhere to a subject and track focus accordingly – represented by a white square on the screen. Forget that this mode is on, however, and you may find the camera overrides the Flexible Spot focus in favour of Object Tracking, even when you don’t want it to.
As well as autofocus the NEX-7 offers a decent stable of manual focus options too, including manual focus assist that zooms in on screen and a new focus assist function called ‘Peaking Level’. The latter (and rather strangely named) mode shows the in-focus area on screen as highlights – either red, yellow or white – and gives real-time feedback that’s even aperture-accurate to show the focus area in relation to depth of field. It’s useful but could do with a few tweaks to improve its presentation, plus in low light any on-screen noise can confuse the algorithm.
Where the NEX-7’s performance does speed up is with its ‘Speed Priority Continuous’ 10 frames per second burst mode. Even when shooting Raw & JPEG Fine the camera can reel off a full 10 shots in one second without flinching (or a maximum of 12 JPEG Fine shots). However focus and exposure is fixed during the burst and if continuous autofocus and exposure adjustment are required during burst shooting then you’ll need to use the standard continuous shooting mode which, at around 4fps maximum, is slower but still more than ample. Think about the amount of data turning through the buffer from that 24.3-megapixel sensor and the NEX-7 doesn’t fail to impress.
The NEX’7’s 2.4m-dot EVF is a direct port from the Alpha SLT-A77 and it’s no ordinary viewfinder. Indeed we’re yet to see an EVF that’s better. Coverage is 100% and with a magnification of 1.09x, it feels far from tunnel-like. Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) is different to LCD technology and offers greater fluidity in playback, a wider ratio from black to white, brighter colours and consumes less power too. In this incarnation it’s also almost twice as resolute compared to any other consumer cameras’ EVF systems and this really shows in use.
However, just like the A77, the role of an electronic viewfinder can, at times, struggle to replace the more traditional optical viewfinder, the latter something the NEX-7 cannot accommodate by design. Issues that have plagued EVFs in the past include motion tearing and ghosting lag. As the NEX-7’s EVF receives a progressive signal – i.e. every line of the display is refreshed simultaneously – there’s no ‘tearing’ effect when moving the camera. Ghosting, however, isn’t eradicated. This is common with fast moving subjects where a ‘trail’ may be left in preview – not that it’s an issue for final capture whatsoever. Low light is the EVF’s other enemy. As the camera has to process the signal it can produce a very noisy real time preview in darker conditions, as would be expected. So while electronic viewfinders don’t come better than this (yet), the NEX-7’s EVF isn’t quite a match for an optical one, but it does sterling job nonetheless. In day-to-day use you’ll hardly notice the difference and, once accustomed, you’ll forget all about it unless you have a second camera with a decent OVF.
Either in the viewfinder or on the rear LCD screen it’s also possible to activate an electronic level to represent horizontal and vertical rotation on screen.
The 18-55mm lens that comes as part and parcel of the NEX-7’s kit purchase is colour-matched in black to sit all the better against the camera’s body. One thing we will say, however, is that the 18-55mm lens does feel a little underwhelming. The NEX-7 ought to have its own f/2.8 version to really produce the goods. As it is the forthcoming 50mm f/1.8 Sony and 24mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss lenses seem much better positionedo for higher-end users, though more lenses of this calibre are a must if the NEX-7’s ethos is to fly.
Battery life, too, relies on the same NP-FW50 li-ion battery as found in the NEX-C3 and NEX-5N models. This means its life is nothing near the Alpha A77’s. The inclusion of the viewfinder and flash means the quoted 335 shots per charge is almost some 100 frames less than the lower-spec NEX models, plus heavy use of the full feature set will drain the NEX-7’s battery in double-fast time. Demanding users may find this doesn’t quite live up to long-life expectation.
Image Quality & Movie Mode
Sony NEX-7 review – Image Quality
Sony NEX-7: Tone & Exposure
The NEX-7 uses a 1200-zone evaluative metering system, with a choice of either Multi segment, Centre-weighted or spot metering modes on offer. These perform well, creating accurate exposures, though assessment on screen can be tricky due to its high contrast. Images display a smooth tonal range, plus there’s the D-Range Optimiser (DRO) to rescue detail in the highlights and shadows of backlit scenes (though this is a JPEG-only shooting option).
Another impressive mode is Handheld Twilight. This Scene mode captures a series of images and combines them in camera for optimum exposure in low light with reduced image noise. The camera does a very good job of avoiding ghosting and shots taken in the right low-light conditions take huge benefit from this mode.
Sony NEX-7: White Balance & Colour
The NEX-7’s AWB (Auto White Balance) system was consistent, delivering pleasing results. In addition there’s the choice of Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent (four variations), Flash and Kelvin presets, though there’s no WB Bracketing. In-camera Creative Styles are also available to alter the intensity of the colours – these options comprise of Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, B/W and Sepia, all of which can be fine-tuned to adjustment for contrast, saturation and sharpness.
Sony NEX-7: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
This is what the NEX
-7 is all about – producing great big images just like the Sony Alpha A77. In Compact System Camera terms there’s nothing higher-resolution and, considering the bigger picture, even high-end DSLRs tend to not have a resolution quite this huge. If stock photography and high resolution are an essential to your work then the NEX-7 will certainly make your shortlist.
The camera’s native ISO 100-16,000 range holds up well from ISO 100-800 and even ISO 1600-3200 are very good. In context, though, and that resolution doesn’t make the NEX-7 the very best low light shooter. Quality’s still decent, but ISO 3200-6400 settings do suffer from sharpness loss and some image noise that see it less proficient than, say, the Nikon D7000 DSLR, while ISO 12,800-16,000 should only really be used as a last resort or for smaller-scale work. At lower ISO settings there are some examples of subtle colour nois
e in shadow areas as low as ISO 320.
Sony NEX-7: Sharpness & Detail
Sharpness is one area where the Sony NEX series (not just the NEX-7) can fall into difficulties. With the large sensor size images are susceptible to softness at the corners when shooting at wideangle settings. The 18-55mm lens, for example, exhibits notable barrel distortion at the wide end that shows during composition but also results in a sharpness fall-off towards images’ edges. There is in-camera Distortion Correction for JPEG shots but this is at the further expense of corner/edge sharpness.
More advanced in-camera features such as disto
rtion, shading and chromatic aberration correction are available for each different E-mount lens, though these can only either be left to ‘Auto’ or switched off.
Centre frame, however, and the NEX-7’s shots are rather special. Low ISO settings mean more detail can be resolved and that massive resolution comes into its own where detail’s concerned.
Sony NEX-7: Raw & JPEG
Due to the NEX-7’s delay there’s no current Adobe Camera Raw update to read the Raw files (v6.6 should have this covered in the immediate future), but the included Image Data Converter v4 software lets you process Raw files on either Mac or PC. A word of warning, however, even a powerful machine processing these files makes slow work of making adjustments.
Raw & JPEG files are similar, though the JPEG versions have sharpness and higher contrast boosted in processing. The Raw files are also ‘as shot’ which means they can be slightly more distorted than their JPEG counterparts, though this will only show to any notable degree at wide-angle settings (and assuming Distortion Correction for JPEG is switched off).
Sony NEX-7 review – Movie/Video Mode
The NEX-7 is able to record 1080p at 50fps at a huge 28Mbps data rate, or 50i at lower 24/17Mbps data rates – the latter of which is in keeping with direct Blu-ray output. 25p at 24/17Mbps is also available as well as MP4 output captured at 1440×1080. Movie autofocus is very smooth to shift between one subject and another. It does so far more slowly than when shooting stills, but avoids over- and under-focusing because of this. Full manual control also features and these can adjusted whilst recording – this includes shutter, aperture and ISO settings as well as exposure compensation.
In short the NEX-7 has a very capable movie mode indeed. Our only complaint is the placement of the one-touch button towards the camera’s edge as it can be unknowingly pressed.
Value & Verdict
Sony NEX-7 review – Value
Consider NEX-7’s bigger brother SLT, the Alpha A77, and there’s little the separate the two models in terms of features. The SLT will set you back some £1150 body-only (it’s £1669 with the 16-50mm lens) while the NEX-7 demands a pricey £1049 without a lens (£1129 with the 18-55mm). The A77’s extra £100 outlay does give you a better focusing system, continuous autofocus in burst mode and a weather-sealed body so, despite it being a very different model in a very different category, it’s hard to not be tempted by the A77’s features.
The NEX-7 is the first CSC to retail for in excess of a thousand pounds. Yet it isn’t comparable to any of the lower-spec CSCs out there. For the time being the NEX-7 is a proposition like no other and, save for a few design misgivings, there’s plenty here for the cash.
Sony NEX-7 review – Verdict
The NEX7’s design is an interesting mix: we’re keen on the variety of controls, yet the ongoing lack of a mode dial and awkward placement of some controls does let the overall design down. Yet with customisation available to a range of buttons it’s easier to command this NEX than any other model in the series – and that can only be a good thing.
The OLED electronic viewfinder, as pulled from the Alpha A77, is a superb piece of kit and the very best you could hope to have for a Compact System Camera. However, it does milk battery life (which already isn’t all too good at 335 shots per charge).
Image quality is good, yet the ultra-high-resolution sensor does have its limits at higher ISO settings and wideangle lenses have issues with corner sharpness and distortion. This can be remedied with the use of more premium lenses, but there’s a general lack of those available at the moment. Indeed the NEX-7’s 18-55mm lens is the same standard as found boxed up with the rest of the NEX range (excluding, of course, the NEX-7’s black paint job).
With high expectations the NEX-7 succeeds on many levels, but with the CSC market highly competitive this high-priced model does also finds its limitations where focusing and design are concerned. Saying that, the NEX-7 is an impressive mix of features, high-resolution image quality and excellent 1080p movie mode. For some it’ll be the perfect camera, though with an ‘indefinite delay’ due to production problems you may want to get those pre-orders in to be among the first to own one…