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Is this premium MILC the best one yet?
Is the Sony Alpha NEX-7 the best APS sensor Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Compact camera on the market today?
The Sony Alpha NEX-7, which was introduced at about the same time as the Fujifilm X Pro 1, is clearly aiming for serious enthusiasts and professional photographers who demand a small, stealthy little camera that can deliver superior image quality and minimal lag time.
Sony Alpha NEX-7 key features:
• APS-C 24.3MP CMOS sensor
• Up to 10fps burst mode
• New BIONZ image processor
• 3-inch, 921k dot LCD monitor
• Sony E-mount lenses
• P/A/S/M modes for video and stills
• 25-point sensor AF
• Object tracking
• 6-image layering captures 6 images and combines for improved sharpness
• Intelligent AF
• Dynamic Range Optimizer
• 11 picture effect modes
• OLED viewfinder
• Full HD movies at 60p/60i/24- at 1080p resolution, AVCHD codec.
• Price: $1,200 (body only)
The Sony Alpha NEX-7 is the third model to be introduced into the Sony interchangeable-lens compact camera lineup. I've used the NEX-3 and NEX-5N and although they delivered superb image quality, their limited feature set hard-to-access manual controls made them less of an option for serious photography. So, when Sony unveiled the NEX-7 (at a price of around $1,200, its chief competition is the Fujifilm Pro X 1, which costs $400 more), I was intrigued. If they could make the controls as intuitive as a high-end DSLR, and if the sensor lives up to Sony's high standards, they might have something.
I spent a couple of weeks putting a NEX-7 (equipped with a Sony 30mm f/3.5 macro lens) through its paces. Here's what I found out.
In the hands
The first thing I noticed about the Sony Alpha NEX-7 is its solid look and feel, and the placement of the eye-level viewfinder on the upper left corner of the camera back—right where you'd expect to find the finder on a traditional rangefinder camera. For right-eyed shooters, this lets you compose in the super-sharp 2.4 million dot resolution EVF while watching the scene with your left eye, which is helpful for documentary and street photographers. The EVF has Minolta DNA: A proximity sensor automatically switches the camera from the LCD finder to EVF as you move the camera up to your eye. The problem? It will activate the EVF if the finder is close to anything—your shirt, other items in your camera bag, etc. So when not in use, turn the camera off to prevent battery drainage.
There is also a large flip-out 3-inch 921k-dot resolution flip-out LCD monitor, and the information it displays is not necessarily the same as what you see in the electronic viewfinder. In fact, the LCD display includes considerably more information, including tiny prompts that indicate what the camera's unmarked buttons and dials control in whatever mode you're in at the moment.
What are these big, unmarked knobs and buttons for? It depends and that's why they're called “soft controls.” Confusing? Yes at first. Powerful? Definitely. Read on to learn more.
Then there were the dials, knobs and buttons. The NEX-7's features are controlled via a trio of generous-sized, easy-to-turn thumb dials at the upper left corner of the camera's back and a thumbwheel control switch, something Sony calls “triple dial control”. By default they control aperture and shutter in manual mode, although they have no labels. There are also several other “mystery” buttons on the camera's back. In fact, as indicated above none of the buttons or dials on the NEX-7 are labeled! We'll talk about why later.
The camera's minimalist top plate includes a flash hot shoe (using the proprietary design that precludes the use of generic shoe-mounted flash and accessories), a pop-up flash, two of the three control dials, the on/off switch surrounding the shutter release and a small, unmarked mystery button, the first of several to be found on the NEX-7. This button cycles through the camera's key functions. Press it once, white balance controls appear in the LCD. Press again to control color intensity, yet again to adjust color balance, and so on. Don't like the choices of which features you can control from this button? Not to worry, you can change that. As I said before, we'll talk about that later.
The back of the camera has a mix of labeled and unlabeled controls. There's the aforementioned EVF, with a diopter dial for the hard-of-seeing, a flash-pop-up button, a preview button, a control that toggles between AF and manual focus (if you have the camera default set for AF, you can press the button to switch to quickly adjust manual exposure) as well as autoexposure, a “soft button” (read: unmarked) that accesses the menu, thumbwheel dial whose purpose varies depending on mode, and another soft button that functions as a delete key when in preview mode but otherwise is up for grabs.
Dynamic range holds up well in this ISO 1600 image. It's worth reading the NEX-7's manual to unlock some of its more obscure but useful features, and to customize the soft buttons for faster access to the many key features.
Manual focus (when the camera is set to manual) is controlled via the focus ring on the lens, and an enlarged detail can be displayed on the EVF or LCD monitor. I found the LCD monitor to be fairly bright, although as is typical with most LCD monitors, the image is hard to see in direct sunlight. That's when I recommend using the electronic viewfinder exclusively. I found the front grip to be comfortable and was able to easily handhold the camera for a while without tiring.
Now, about those unlabeled dials: They are contextual. In other words, their purpose depends on what mode you are in or which features you are using. This may seem like a recipe for ongoing confusion, and indeed the choices that can be made could be overwhelming. This is a case where it is too complex to boil down here; suffice to say, this is an occasion when you definitely should read the user manual to find out what you can do. A bit of research can help you customize the “soft buttons” and dials to bring the features most important to you front and center.
Deep, rich colors and virtually no grain at ISO 800!
The menu interface is divided into six areas: Shoot Mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, and Setup.
Shoot Mode covers the settings you'd find on a traditional physical camera top dial—PASM, as well as Intelligent Auto, scene modes, anti-motion blur, sweep panorama (rotate the camera and it will shoot and stitch together a panoramic image, and 3D sweep panorama (captures 3D images viewable on a 3D compatible TV monitor).
The Camera menu goes deeper, accessing things like Auto/Manual focus switching (I wish that particular feature didn't require so many button presses to get to). Drive, flash mode, various autofocus modes (including object tracking and autofocus field) are controlled and adjusted here, as are Face recognition, smile shutter and numerous other features.
Image Size adjusts image size (24, 12, or 6MP), aspect ratio (the choices are 16:9 or 3:2; surprisingly, 4:3 is not available), and image quality including RAW, RAW+JPEG, JPEG in Fine and Standard. You can also change panorama, 3D panorama and movie image size and quality settings in this menu.
Brightness/Color controls some key features—Exposure compensation (including the ability to change the amount of increments of compenastion), ISO and White Balance. Metering mode, flash output, picture effects and other features are also adjustable here, although you can also get to most of them via the soft button atop the camera to the right of the shutter release.
The lens I used in this test was the Sony 30mm f/3.5 macro, a fine lens but probably not the best for determining responsiveness, since Macro lenses are not known for being the fastest focusing lenses generally. Sony has a small but growing selection of lenses for the NEX system. There are currently seven, including kit zooms and more specialized lenses such as the 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens and the Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8, as well as a number of lens adapters for Nikon, Canon, Minolta/Sony Alpha and even Leica lenses made by third parties.
Just as with this sushi platter, the NEX-7 offers a wide variety of options. Nibble away, and don't skimp on the wasabe! Shot at ISO 800, window lighting only light source, with 30mm f/3.5 macro lens.
In the field
It took me about five minutes with the manual to figure out the basic default functions of the dials and soft buttons, and was operating the camera intuitively in manual exposure mode and manual focus (my preferred shooting setting) within minutes. Although many controls are contextual and not identified, small on-screen icons indicate their purpose in any given mode. For example when in “P” mode, the left thumbwheel lets you change the aperture and shutter speed, which automatically shift in tandem, while the right knob adjusts the exposure value, which goes up to + or – 5 EV. In manual mode, they operate the aperture and shutter speed, respectively. Meanwhile, the bottom soft button shifts to center-magnification mode for manual focusing while the upper soft button accesses the menu and the thumbwheel adjusts ISO. This may sound complicated, but after a few minutes of shooting it became second-nature for me.
A neat feature in Preview mode? Press the button nestled in the thumbwheel to enlarge the image, then rotate the thumbwheel to enlarge the image even more, or to zoom out. This was a great feature for checking grain and focus, and I used it quite a bit.
From the Street Photo Stress Test: In manual focus mode, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 performed admirably, with virtually no lag time.
As you can see in the Street Photo Stress test, this camera reacts quickly when in all-manual mode, exhibiting practically no lag time, so by that measure, it passed with flying colors. Autofocus was fast and decisive, but there was still a slight delay. The buffer cleared quickly and never caused any delay between shots when I used a Class 10 memory card. Because of the camera's high resolution, I recommend using a Class 10 card to avoid any slowdowns in image transfer to the memory card.
The image in the electronic viewfinder was sharp and accurate, and there was just enough information without it overwhelming the image space.
ISO 100: This shot shows off the camera's wide 13.4-stop native dynamic range and color depth at ISO 100. But the quality of the 100% detail, below, is amazing.
ISO 1600: The NEX-7 proved itself a very capable low-light camera, and turned in the best low-light high-ISO performance of any MILC I've tested to date. Larry the Sushi Chef at Sushiana, a new sushi place in my hometown of Highland Park, NJ, is preparing a raw fish delicacy, so of course I shot this in RAW! Details hold up very well in the 100% detail, below, with very little noise.
Image Quality Tests (Courtesy DxOMark Labs)
Overall Score: Excellent (81 out of 100)
Color Depth: Excellent (24 .1 bits)
Dynamic Range: Excellent (13.4 stops at ISO 100)
Highest usable ISO: 1600
According to DxOMark's unbiased lab tests, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 offers the best image quality of any mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact camera on the market that has been tested to date (we eagerly await the results of the Fujifilm X Pro 1), and easily beats all Micro Four Thirds cameras. In fact, its image quality is comparable to that of the Nikon D7000, Pentax K-5, no mean feat considering that the individual pixels are smaller on the sensor. The 13.4-stop native dynamic range helped in harsh midday sunlight while the color depth is excellent. Measured ISO is consistently around 1/3 stop lower than the indicated speed, and the Dynamic range stays above 10 stops through ISO 1600, an excellent performance.
DxOMark Lab test results used with permission of DxO
Don't want to deal with the hassle of manual settings? No worries: In iAutoexposure, the NEX-7's metering system handled tough lighting situations with aplomb.
Conclusion and Recommendation
The Sony Alpha NEX-7, by virtue of its nimble performance on the street and its stunning image quality, rises to the top of the heap of mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact cameras. Yes, you pay a premium for it, and yes, its interface is at first bewildering, and requires some quality time with the 200-plus page owner's manual to really get a deep understanding, but it's worth that steep learning curve to tap into this camera's flexibility, extensive range of features, and power. This is a camera that is well-suited for photojournalism, street photography, wedding candids, and other events that require a quick, stealthy camera that will deliver top-notch results in lower light. If you are OK with a electronic viewfinder, and have the requisite deep pockets, this camera is well worth considering.