The Sony NEX-7: An In-Depth Review

by Jason Schneider

Sony NEX-7 camera with 18-55mm lens.

May 01, 2012 — The new Sony NEX-7 is clearly the flagship of Sony’s engaging line of svelte, APS-C format NEX mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact cameras. An impressive demonstration of the company’s technological prowess, the NEX-7 bristles with unique high-performance features, including a 24.3 MP CMOS image sensor, the world’s first OLED eye-level electronic viewfinder, and an ingenious 3-dial Tri-Navi quick control system. But what really defines the NEX-7 as a landmark camera and transforms it into an instant cult classic is that this full complement of cutting-edge tech is built into a gorgeous machine with the small, slim, sleek, ergonomic form factor of a classic rangefinder camera along with full DSLR functionality.

To start with the basic specs, the NEX- 7’s image sensor is a 23.5 x 15.6mm (APS-C-format) 24.3 MP EXMOR CMOS­—the highest resolution in its class—and it is comparable to those built into the latest enthusiast and prosumer DSLRs. It is integrated with a state-of-the-art BIONZ image processor that delivers outstanding speed and performance with a shutter-release lag time of a mere 0.02 sec (claimed to be the world’s fastest), and a burst rate up to 10 fps at full res (with focus fixed at the first frame). It also enhances the speed and accuracy of the camera’s contrast-detection AF system and its imaging performance at high ISOs. On the back of NEX-7 also is a brilliant 3-inch, hi-res (921k-dot) TruBlack LCD screen that tilts down 45 degrees and up 80 degrees to frame high- and low-angle subjects, and an ingeniously hinged built-in autoflash on top that nests to preserve the body’s classy contours and pops up manually at the touch of a button.

The impressive feature list continues with full 1920 x 1080 HD movie capability at 60p, 60i or cinematic 24p, in AVCHD or MP4, and with full manual control plus available auto modes; 3D Sweep Panorama and Sweep Panorama modes for automatically capturing 16:9 shots in 3D or 2D; 6-image layering, Auto HDR, Object Tracking AF, Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO), 11 Picture Effect Modes, and an Ultrasonic Anti-Dust System.

Amidst this profusion of cutting-edge tech there are two signature features that debuted in the NEX-7 and set it apart from all other current CILCs, including its NEX stable-mates. The first is a built-in, direct eye-level OLED (organic LED) electronic viewfinder that provides an amazingly clear, saturated, 100% view of the subject at a larger-than-life-sized 1.09X and, of course, displays the effects of any exposure adjustments or effects you select. This ultra-hi-res 2.4 MP viewfinder provides a truly lifelike viewing experience that comes quite close to that of a traditional optical viewfinder in a high-end DSLR, an amazing achievement.

And of course like all EVFs, in dim light it displays an image more brightly than what appears in the given light. The eyepiece is conveniently positioned on the left side of the back, like a rangefinder camera, so the shooting experience is an uncanny combination of rangefinder “feel” with SLR-like visual feedback. Outstanding! One small problem: The little -4.0 to +1.0 diopter adjustment wheel at the right of the eyepiece falls under the eyeglass-protecting rubber bezel once it’s installed, and adjusting the camera to suit your individual eyesight then becomes a real pain in the finger. Since precisely adjusting this diopter control is especially important with a high-magnification EVF, we hope Sony will reconfigure that pesky rubber bezel so it’s easier to remove.

The other defining feature that debuted on the NEX-7 is the ingenious and very useful Tri-Navi control system which consists of three separate programmable control dials that provide direct hands-on access to any three settings you frequently use. Press the Navigation button next to the smooth, predictable shutter release to toggle through the available setting modes, and set the ones you wish to assign to the right- (R) and left-hand (L) dials overhanging the rear deck, and the Control wheel on the back. For example, the L dial can be set to control Focus Area, shutter speed/aperture shift, etc.; the R dial can control exposure compensation, the position of the flexible spot meter setting, etc.; and the Control wheel can be set to control ISO, color temperature, etc. Once you get the hang of it, this system is far quicker than going through the (logically arrayed) menus, and provides a professional level of convenient image control options on the fly.

We were not able to evaluate every one of the NEX-7’s myriad features in detail, but we did put the camera through its paces for an extended period, shooting a wide variety of subjects with the Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 E-mount OSS standard zoom kit lens and a Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III VC long-range zoom in E-mount. Based on our still-picture shooting experience in all modes, we found the camera to be extremely responsive, firing virtually instantly when we pressed the shutter release. It also focuses quickly and very precisely using spot or multi-zone AF, the latter providing a “green boxes” viewfinder readout to indicate the camera-selected focus point(s). On occasion, especially with close-up and low-contrast subjects in dim light, the NEX-7 focuses somewhat slower than a DSLR using phase-detection AF, but we were still impressed with its accuracy, decisiveness, and freedom from “hunting.” You can actually add phase-detection AF to this camera via the Sony A-mount-to-E-mount LA-EA2 adapter (street price $318) that lets you mount Sony DSLR lenses. This would definitely give you an edge in sheer AF speed when shooting high-speed action and HD video.

With the Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) enabled, the NEX-7 delivers very accurate exposures with a full tonal range. Even with backlit subjects, the metering system accurately identifies and exposes for the subject in most cases. Auto HDR, which works only in JPEG capture mode, and not in RAW or RAW+JPEG modes, combines 3 exposures to deliver a noticeably wider shadow-to-highlight range—a great feature! The high magnification OLED electronic viewfinder is a delight to use and must be experienced to be believed—it may even convert some diehard anti-EVF shooters. We judged the SteadyShot image stabilization (as well as Tamron’s VC system) to be very effective in minimizing the effects of camera shake, allowing us to shoot at relatively slow shutter speeds (1/30 sec and even slower) even at medium telephoto focal lengths, a commendable performance.

In terms of overall image quality (we shot mostly in RAW + JPEG capture mode), this camera’s performance is spectacular, justifying Sony’s slogan, “DSLR quality in your pocket,” though this would literally be possible only if you mounted a flat lens, such as the Sony 16mm f/2.8. Performance at ISO 1600 is amazing, with surprisingly good definition, color saturation, and remarkably little noise. At lower ISOs, the detail and color captured by this camera, in still and HD video, is astonishing, exceeding any other CILC camera we’ve previously used. This is clearly a camera for serious enthusiasts and pros that want to shoot with something fetchingly compact and esthetic and far less obtrusive than their trusty high-end DSLRs, but refuse to compromise either on the feature set or in terms of outright imaging performance. 

In fact, there is only one thing about the NEX-7 that drove us slightly bonkers: the all-too-convenient HD video movie button! Yes, it’s cleverly placed to the right of the comfy thumbrest that complements the perfectly contoured mini-grip on the front of the camera, but that doesn’t prevent your fingers from accidentally hitting it and instantly starting HD movie recording at just the wrong moment. Yes, you eventually learn to hold the camera the right way, but that clever little red movie button ought to be recessed about one silly millimeter more to eliminate this problem. The upside: In viewing our accidental and on-purpose HD movie clips shot at 1080p, we can confirm that this camera’s HD video capability is prodigious—on a 52-inch flat-screen TV they looked just as good as Canon 5D Mark III movies that we viewed as a seat-of-the pants comparison.

In conclusion, the NEX-7 is a superlative machine that’s a joy to hold in your hands, to shoot with, or simply to admire as an object. It’s an elegant, versatile picture-taker that is destined to become an instant classic. And while its price of $1,349.95 with 18-55mm lens will definitely put a dent in your wallet, you most assuredly do get what you pay for, including pride of ownership. In the compact interchangeable-lens camera category, it’s in a class by itself.     

Jason Schneider is writes on all aspects of photography. He began his career at Modern Photography in the late 1960s. In 1987 signed on as editor-in-chief of Popular Photography, a position he held for nearly 16 years. Considered an authority on the history of camera design and technology, he has written three books on camera collecting, is an active contributor to leading photo magazines and Web sites, and is senior editor of Photo Industry Reporter.

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