NEX-7 Review

Big Deal, Little Package...

After nearly five years of faithful service, I finally retired my A700. The arrival of the A77 and its bevy of functional and performance improvements made it the go-to camera from day one. Another reason for the retirement had been unknowingly introduced in late 2010 when I added a NEX-5 as a second body for travel. Lugging two full-size DSLRs on vacation went out of style about a week after the NEX series was introduced and though it took me six months to “get with the times”, I am now a convert and a fan. 

By the title of this review, you may have already guessed that by “fan” I meant that one NEX camera wasn’t enough to qualify for true fandom. I ended up selling my A700 and a few older lenses and the proceeds covered the cost of a NEX-7. I hadn’t really considered the NEX-7 since I already had the NEX-5 and the A77 handled all of my DSLR chores. But the relentless stream of glowing reviews and Leica comparisons finally got me thinking of the NEX-7 as a lighter alternative to the A77 for travel to venues where I still wanted great image quality but the speed, long lens handling and visibility of the A77 wouldn’t really be an advantage. After the body decision was made I wanted to add at least one lens beyond the kit lens that came with my NEX-5 that would be able to exploit its 24MP resolution. I also decided that despite focus peaking making manual focus very easy, I wanted to go with an autofocus lens at first. After spending a few (or...maybe more) hours scouring the internet for tests and sample images I came to the surprising conclusion that while the Sony 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss seemed to be at the top of the food chain, the Sigma 30mm F2.8 EX DN was by far and away the best bang for the buck out there. It seemed like a joke to put a $200 lens on a camera like the NEX-7, but the reviewers and samples said “not funny”. So I ordered it. Following are my initial impressions of the new pair.

The NEX-7

Look and feel:

 Well....wow! Like most humans, I am attracted to pretty, shiny things and the NEX-7 offers plenty of both. Slightly bigger than the NEX-5 (about the size of the new Nikon V1 despite having a sensor with three times the area) and deceptively light. At a little over 10 ounces it’s actually a fraction of an ounce heavier than the NEX-5 but it seems lighter. Both cameras use magnesium alloy in their construction and feel solid but the extra volume gives the NEX-7 a perceived lightness. I’ve grown tired of the list of metaphors and similes  that are usedby reviewers to describe the feel of a well-built camera, so I’ll just say that it feels like a really well-built camera. The grip on the right is almost identical in size to the one on the NEX-5 but gives your middle finger a bit of an indentation to snuggle into. The little finger on my medium-sized hand misses the bottom of the grip but curls under the camera comfortably. Visually it’s less rounded than the other NEX models but that gives it sort of serious look. More tool-like than a fashion accessory (insert Tim Allen’s Tool Time grunting sound). It has the same excellent LCD as the NEX-5/5n with the same information display options and  tilting mechanism. No surprises, no disappointments. 

Wait...there’s more! If you call within the next 30 minutes, we’ll throw in a full XGA, 100% coverage electronic viewfinder mounted in the upper left corner and a cleverly articulated pop-up flash that looks like it was transplanted from Short Circuit’s Johnny 5! The viewfinder is very bright and clear with enough eye relief for use with glasses (mine, at least). It features the same crystal clear hi-rez unit found in the A77, A65 and the $350 FDA-EV1S accessory viewfinder for the second-generation NEX-3 and -5 series models. It also retains the truncated dynamic range of those displays. The tendency to clip highlights and block up deep shadows may be the only disadvantage when compared to an optical viewfinder and the clipping and blocking isn’t really that bad. The ability to see exposure compensation and picture effects in real-time before the shot along with focus peaking and focus- assist magnification more than make up for that minor niggle to me. The pop-up flash is fairly powerful for a pop-up but if it won’t light things up like you want, there is also an honest-to-goodness Minolta/Sony flash shoe on the top of the body that worked just fine with the camera mounted on either my Minolta 5600HS D or Sony HVL-F43AM flashes. Yes, I did mean to say that I mounted the camera on the flash. It seemed a proper description since the camera is actually smaller than either flash. The reviewers bemoaning the fact that Sony used its own flash mount instead of a “standard” hotshoe likely never used the Minolta/Sony mount in the past. I have used it since it was introduced in the late ‘80s and have always wondered why it didn’t become the standard. Slide. Click. Locked! Push button. Slide. Off! Works for me!

Did I mention that it is pretty and shiny?

Controls:

 Yes there are. Many. In addition to the three major controls and playback button familiar to all NEX users, the NEX-7 adds its unique Tri-Navi system consisting of two top-mounted dials accessable by your right thumb and a function control button near the shutter button on the front. It also adds another switch-selectable button on the back that controls AM/MF andauto-exposure lock. Can you say “Mini DSLR”? All of the buttons except the three new ones are fully customizable and even in their default settings are well-thought out and easy to learn. I shoot in aperture priority most of the time and having the two top dials controlling aperture and exposure compensation and the rear dial adjusting ISO out of the box leads me to believe that Sony brought in a few folks from the photo group to help out on the interface this time around. Diving into the menu finds it much the same as my NEX-5 with a few more settings and options thrown in to make DSLR user smile. (Auto-HDR up to +/- 6 stops). I mentioned the button customization before but since this is an area made up of personal choices, I’ll skip the details and just say that you can make just about anything accessible with one click or a dial-spin. It has a wide choice of focusing options with positionable spot focus, magnified assist and the annoying but sometimes useful face recognition. The recognition engine includes Sony’s new “registration” feature that allows you to store specific faces in memory so the recognition feature can pick that face out of a group. Pretty cool (if slightly creepy). Like other reviews I’ve read, I wish the two dials on top could at least be reversed and the instant movie button disabled, but these are minor failings and will probably be addressed in later firmware updates.

Performance:

 Click.....bzzz! in a little over a second it is on! Focus is snappy and accurate in good light and hunts a little when light is scarce. Sort of what I expected. The first few snaps were just that; snapshots. Reviewing said images was fast and responsive. the zoom function on review pops in and out and pans quickly enough that you don’t really notice it. It just works. With the electronic first-curtain enabled, the shutter makes a soft click when triggered rather than the double “clack, clack” of the NEX-5. It is actually louder than the very quiet A77 but only slightly. (Less mass to muffle it?) Since I don’t own a timer that doesn’t have a second-hand and a wrist band, I can’t tell you much about the shutter lag except that without some sort of very sensitive timing equipment, it is undetectable. Normal shot to shot recovery times are brief enough to be unnoticeable and the 3 fps continuous burst seems more than adequate for what I will use this camera for. The 10 fps speed priority setting is nice to have, but I didn’t base my purchase on it being available. After spending most of the evening playing with menus, snapping a bunch of meaningless test shots and chimping incessantly, my battery is down to 73%. That seems pretty good and the three batteries I now own between the two cameras should hold me for a day’s worth of real shooting. The video works and the output is nothing short of amazing. Again, not what I bought it for but now that I have two of the best video-capable still cameras on the market, I may have to dip my toes into the video waters (I keep saying that but never seem to push the little red record button...at least not intentionally!)

A note on manual focus:

The NEX series is probably the most manual focus friendly cameras available. With focus peaking available in manual and DMF mode, finding the in-focus spot in an image is easy and fast. Focus peaking? What’s  that? Focus peaking is a tech trick borrowed from high-end video cameras (where Sony has a lot of experience) that creates a high-contrast sparkling halo around the areas of the image with the sharpest focus (yellow edges around the minute marks visible in the image to the left) to allow for rapid and accurate manual follow-focusing, On a still camera it makes manual focusing about as simple as you can ask for. If you’ve ever used a Lensbaby, you know how hard it is to locate and place the in-focus sweet spot in the right place. With focus peaking it’s not just less difficult, but actually easy. Adapters are available for almost any mount that ever existed making used lenses from any era an option. With the NEX series’ growing popularity, more and more interesting and reasonably-priced manual lenses are popping up for the E mount. It sure is a great time to be a photographer!

Back to the NEX-7. Since image quality is very lens dependant, I’ll fold that into the lens review below.  

Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN

Small. Simple. Tiny, silly-looking lens element. f/2.8. No “IS”, “VC” or ”VR” in the name or inthe lens. No hood. Cheap. Mediocre image quality. All true...except the last. What a find! Sigma cut more corners than a former child star driving herself home from a party but but still managed to produce a compact prime lens that turns in bottom line performance better than units costing several times as much.

Look and Feel:

The plastic body is light but feels well made with a metal mount. The fly-by-wire focusing ring is smooth and responds well. The autofocus motor is very nearly silent. I had to press my ear to the camera to hear anything and even then it was very faint. The lens element is really small with tiny aperture blades right behind it. Focusing is internal, so nothing changes on the outside. The filter threads are 46mm like the Lensbaby so I can use the same step up ring for the 52mm one-size-fits-all NEX polarizer.  Bottom line: Looks inexpensive. Feels better than it looks. Will not be mistaken for a Zeiss or a Voigtländer unless the person making the mistake has a dog leading them around.

Performance:

Well....another wow! I expected sharp, contrasty images because of the research I did prior to purchase and I was not disappointed. The corners are slightly soft at f/2.8 but sharpen up by about f/4. F/5.6 to f/8 seems to be the place to go for the best performance but even atf/2.8, the overall image is crisp with serious zooming needed to reveal any real softness.Besides, f/2.8 is most often used to soften a background and a little blur in the corners of an out-of-focus background doesn’t impact image quality at all. There is some chromatic aberration in very high contrast areas but it is easily overlooked in a normal print under 12 x 18 and disappears with a minor adjustment in Lightroom or Elements.

As I mentioned, focusing is silent and while it doesn’t compare to an SSM lens mounted on the A77, it is quick and accurate. These samples don't do justice to the image potential so I added a link to the main images that will take you to a full rez copy if you want to have a look A quick shift back to the NEX-7 image performance. While it is not touted as a high ISO champion, shots taken at anything up to ISO3200 need little or no noise reduction (in-camera NR set to low). ISO 6400 starts crumbling a bit in the shadows but even ISO12800 is usable for web and smaller prints after some cleanup. ISO16000 is pretty ugly but if it is 16000 or miss the Sasquatch sprinting back to the deep woods, I’d take the shot. ISO 100 - 400 is just plain amazing.  

Update: Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN

Well, Father’s day has come and gone and my loving family sent me enough checks and Amazon gift cards to add the Sigma 19mm to my E-mount lens armory. These sub-$200 lenses are like potato chips! Nobody can own just one!   The 19mm lens is so close to the 30mm in build and general appearance that if it wasn’t for the small hood included, you would be hard pressed to tell which one was mounted on the camera. Happily, except for the field of view, it is difficult to tell which is mounted by looking at the image quality. The Sigma 19 is another diamond-in-the-rough. Pretty in its Spartan utility and obviously not a $1000 lens by its looks, it out-performs its purchase price by a huge margin. Like the 30mm, it lacks image stabilization and really needs a tripod for maximum sharpness. However, even hand-held it produces excellent sharpness at f/2.8 and by the time you reach f/5.6, the sharpness extends to the edge of the frame and really impresses. The same caveats about lateral chromatic aberration towards the corners apply but vanish with only minor correction in Lightroom. I have added sample pictures below along with the crops. I can only say that if you plunked down the (in my opinion) very reasonable cost-to-value price of any of the NEX cameras, the Sigma 19mm and 30mm lenses are a no-brainer accessory purchase. After I got the 30mm and had a week or two to test it out, I actually picked up the 19mm before I ordered a polarizer. It was all matter of perceived value.

Conclusion:

   That pretty much wraps this up. As you may have gathered from my narrative, I really like this camera! It handles well, performs as you would expect a professional level instrument to perform and was, in my opinion, worth the money. I also feel that the little Sigma 30mm and 19mm lenses were a real bargain.  

If it is within your means and the compact format appeals to your shooting style, the NEX-7 is highly recommended as either a second camera or even as a competent primary, depending on your needs.


Sample Images

Happy shooting!