Sure, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 can deliver stunning images. But can it respond fast enough in is it intuitive enough to make it a viable option for street photographers, documentary photographers and photojournalists?
I really stacked the deck against the Sony Alpha NEX-7 for its Street Photography Stress Test. That's because I was using the “wrong” lens for street shooting: The Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro, which covers the equivalent angle of view of a 50mm lens when using a a 35mm sensor/film camera. I prefer using a 28mm (equivalent) lens for street photography so for me, this lens is not what I'm used to. However, since many great street shooters from Henri Cartier-Bresson on use 50mm lenses, it's really not the wrong lens. But a 30mm Macro? Macro lenses tend to be slower-focusing than their non-macro counterparts. I'm going for performance here, but that's the lens I had on hand for this Sony Alpha NEX-7 Product Review.
To even the playing field, I put the NEX-7 in manual focus mode, and also set exposure manually, just as I do with any camera for a Street Photo Stress Test. Since all settings are set by the time I'm ready to shoot, that reduces processing time and, at least in theory, should eliminate lag time. Those cameras that continue to have lag time fail the Stress Test.
After shooting hundreds of images on the streets near Adorama, including a farmer's market in Union Square Park in Manhattan. I can report that the Sony Alpha NEX-7, when in manual exposure and focus modes, had no lag time. It reacted instantly. But wait, there's more...
Image quality is outstanding, even at ISO 1600. I was able to get acceptable results at ISO 3200, and even used ISO 6400 in a pinch. The camera displayed an above-average dynamic range, so those shadows under the eyes when shooting in broad daylight didn't look so bad.
I shot this at ISO 3200, not because I needed to, but because I wanted to see how the camera would do. I would rate this as similar to ISO 800 on older-generation cameras. Not bad at all!
I like that the electronic viewfinder is placed on the upper left corner of the camera back. This let me easily watch the scene with my free eye while focusing and composing through the finder with my right eye. The projected image is pretty good and the data displayed is just enough to let me quickly fine-tune shutter speed and aperture using the two thumb dials on the right side of the camera. My only complaint is the proximity sensor. There is a very brief gap as you bring the camera up to your eye when the finder is black, and I did miss a few shots that demanded split-second timing, but that was an exception. I do wish there was an option to keep the EVF always on to avoid this issue.
The NEX system lenses suffer from typical problem with most MILC lenses, which is the focus. The best way to shoot manual focus with this camera is to prefocus, use the smallest aperture you can get away with, and pray nobody steps out the zone of focus. When manual focusing, the center of the image is enlarged, obliterating the full-frame version. Set focus, press the shutter release halfway to regain the full-frame image, then you can shoot. It's a bit awkward, and I would prefer a lens like the Olympus 12mm f/2, which has a depth-of-field scale, or a Leica-like approach where a lens has a focusing tab. This is a structural weakness and I think it would be a good idea for Sony to develop specialized lenses that have absolute focus rings rather than relative focus wires that are typical of MILC lenses.
But wait—Novoflex to the rescue, thanks to its Leica M-Mount adapter for the Sony NEX series that will let you use any Leica lens (although you lose some automation). If you already own Leica optics, for an additional $270, problem solved.
I give the NEX-7 an "A-" and highly recommend it as a relatively low-cost street camera that will deliver the highest image quality of any APS sensor-based MILC tested so far.
More street photos!