Hop on a sightseeing tour in your local town, and undoubtedly, at least one person probably has a camera in Sony's NEX line. The mirrorless line has been wildly successful, and the Sony NEX-7 represents its top-notch contender. Let's see if the NEX-7 can stand its ground -- after all, comparing to the Leica we reviewed a few days back is quite the challenge...
Note: As always, click on the photos for full-sized JPEGs.
The Really Good Stuff
A 24MP sensor is among the top of the pixel range in today’s digital cameras. But having an APS-C sensor is a big deal in a small camera. In fact, the whole reason that manufacturers adopted the mirrorless format: there’s more room for a larger sensor without a big mirror in the way! And we like that...because bigger sensors translate to a better ability to capture detail in those shadows or in the dark. Most consumer DSLRs are APS-C cameras, but this is all fairly new for such a small camera.
Two identical thumb knob dials on the back of the camera allow quick and easy adjustment of both shutter speed and aperture, in case you want to shoot in manual or ‘semi-manual’ modes. I find these can be bumped accidentally if the camera is being bumped around in a bag, but they don’t accidentally get bumped with normal use (and it should be turned off in the bag, right? So who cares?).
A big, bright screen and self-explanatory, if long, menu system allow for fairly easy menu adjustments. And overall, the ergonomics of the NEX-7 are quite good. I have no issues pressing any of the buttons correctly on the first try; and the camera isn’t as oddly weighted as it might look in photos -- I don’t even notice it. In fact, the size and weight of the camera is fantastic. It’s small enough to whip around in a split-second and grab a photo to the side, yet big enough to feel like you’re actually doing something when you use it.
Just because the OLED viewfinder is “organic” doesn’t mean that the feed from it looks life-like or optical in any way, but I have no complaints aside from the fact that it’s still electronic: it’s a really fantastic EVF. The quality is certainly there, and in many cases, I prefer using it to the screen -- perhaps just because I’m used to holding cameras to my eye, or perhaps because the quality of it is really quite pleasant.
One thing I'm finding with these cameras is that in an entire week of on and off use, I haven't had to recharge the battery once! Now I haven't been shooting hundreds and hundreds of images, but that's still impressive.
The Not-So-Good Stuff
At the heart of it, this still feels like a point-and-shoot with a bigger lens. And it is. But part of me was still hoping for faster response and faster autofocus akin to that of a DSLR. That might be a tall order, but some of these cameras do it...just not this one. Autofocus racks all the way in one direction -- or so it seems -- and only then quickly to the correctly identified focus position.
In AF-C (continuous) mode, the camera constantly goes in and out of zoom when I’m taking portraits. I didn’t get the chance to shoot sports with it (I’m not attaching a 400mm lens to this), but if AF-C means “in and out of focus quickly,” I’ll stick with the far more functional and quite superb AF-S mode. With a camera like this, I wouldn’t expect anyone to need an AF-C mode anyway...
With AF-S mode, focus is usually accurate, with a miss just under 10% of the time. That’s not too bad, considering you likely have enough time to release the shutter button, refocus, and shoot again for your basic snapshots. But still, no DSLR-like focus here.
I'll take just a moment to point out that this does have a built-in flash in addition to the shoe mount. While the flash feels sturdy (as does the pop-out screen some might find useful at a concert, etc.), I'd worry that it would break off if bumped from the side. However, a lot of manufacturers are using this kind of a pop-up flash, so maybe testing shows it's more durable than it looks. Still can't help but think of WALL-E every time it pops up, though.
In the end, if we spend hundreds of dollars on a camera because it has a nice lens or turns on quickly, what’s the point if the image quality flat out stinks?
This one doesn’t let down, however. While the screen on the back of the camera gets my hopes up, colors fall a little flatter when pulled up on the monitor. But they’re more realistic on a real monitor. And they’re still quite well produced. Images are nice and big, and quite sharp.
However, my biggest complaint is that there is still some visible noise at 100 ISO in areas not hit by a direct light source. Any time you see noise, it’ll start in the shadow areas first, but even in fairly light sections of shadow area, noise begins to creep in. This is the drawback of not quite making it to full frame (coming from the Leica review earlier this week). Thankfully, as soon as you enter lighter areas of the image, the noise vanishes.
That said, while it’s not an award-winner, there’s a good amount of detail to be recovered from the shadows. 24MP is a lot to fit on any size sensor, which is why this performance isn’t absolutely stellar. But for all those pixels to be packed together on what’s really a medium-sized APS-C sensor, Sony did a nice job:
These cameras are for those willing to carry around just a little extra weight for the benefit of far superior photos to that of your iPhone -- let’s face it, there’s only so much a couple-millimeter sensor can do.
The NEX-7 shouldn’t disappoint in terms of image quality. And its menu and button layout will never drive you crazy -- it’s all done quite well (I’ll give you some not-so-good examples later this month). The best part is that it’s all self-explanatory. Making my earlier comments on autofocus in AF-C mode may have been placing a tall order on these little guys while I’m coming from shooting on a Nikon D3. But I can’t help but hold out for similar, snappy performance from a mirrorless camera.
Most importantly, the camera takes a photo as soon as you press the button -- none of that wait five seconds while it debates letting you take a picture crap. This is becoming more common in consumer point-and-shoot cameras, but it’s always good to know when you can count on that quick response.
I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for. Step down a notch to the NEX-5 series, and I think you’ll find a few things just don’t quite live up, while it will still be a darn good camera for the money. That said, the NEX-5R and NEX-6 did just come out and should have much-improved autofocus, as they mix the current system with a phase detection system more akin to what pro DSLRs use. That might be worth the sidestep alone, especially considering they’re half or two thirds of the price, respectively.
A lot of these cameras are the first iterations of their respective lines. The mirrorless industry is still new. The NEX-7 is probably among the best for the money right now (you won’t regret getting it, even if there might be one camera in an upcoming review that I’d likely get over this one for the money), but with the 5R and the NEX-6 out, too, you have options. You’ll be happy with this one if you need a camera now. Get the updated model when it comes out and you won’t be disappointed either -- it’s that simple.
I had the privilege of using the Zeiss 24mm f1.8 on this camera. Seeing as it’s quite an expensive lens for such a seemingly small system (Zeiss is known for its incredible quality as well as its expense), it all goes to show mirrorless is the way of the future in the consumer market.
The lens itself performed excellently, as it’s clear it pushes the limits of the sensor. And at that point, what more could you want from your lens? A wide aperture of f1.8 lets you shoot in low light while the normal viewing angle gives a realistic, undistorted feel to your photos. All in all, it’s a great ‘walking around’ lens.
That said, this camera and lens combination comes in at around $2400 after tax (body $1200, lens $1000 before tax). I'm not sure that's justifiable. At that point, you can begin considering a full frame DSLR and lens kit. But then we wouldn't be so compact, now, would we?