Sony Alpha NEX-7 Review
Design & Features
The Sony Alpha NEX-7 is a medium-sized interchangeable lens camera. Its magnesium alloy body feels like it was cut from a solid block of metal, and virtually every component of the camera feels solid. The only thing that gives me a bit of concern is the pop-up flash mechanism -- we'll see how it holds up over time. The NEX's right hang grip is "just right" in terms of size, and its rubber texture gives you extra confidence.
Back when I reviewed the original NEX-5, I said that the camera needed more controls, or at least a shortcut menu. Let's just say that Sony may have overcompensated on the NEX-7. The camera's Tri-Navi interface makes changing some settings easy, and others frustrating. The "tri" in the name comes from the three dials involved in most camera operations: two on the top, and one on the back (which is part of the four-way controller). The navigation button on the top of the camera is also involved in all of this.
If you look toward the upper-right of the screenshot, you can see visual descriptions of what the camera's three dials handle (in this instance)
The function of these three dials depends on what you're doing. For example, in Program mode, the top-left dial is for Program Shift, the top-right for Exposure Compensation, with the rear dial adjusting the ISO. Now let's supposed I press the navigation button a few times until the white balance menu pops up. Now, the top-left dial selects a WB preset, the top-right lets you fine-tune in the blue-amber direction, and the rear dial does the green-magenta direction (or you can use the four-way controller to adjust it in all directions). The thing that confused me the most was the rear dial, due to the number of things it can do at the same time. Pressing it inward opens the virtual mode dial, turning it adjusts the ISO, and pressing in the various directions can toggle the info shown on the screen, change the drive mode, or adjust the exposure compensation. I turned or pushed the dial the wrong way on many occasions.
This animation shows you the submenus accessed by pressing the navigation button; the last screen is one I customized
But wait, there's more. The options that are accessed with the navigation button are customizable. There are four "slots", and you can choose from several preset functions for each, or go custom. If you go custom, you can have three functions per slot, each controlled by a different dial. Confused yet? In the end, words can't really explain the Tri-Navi system, so I highly recommend that you try it before you buy the NEX-7.
Enough about the UI -- let's now see how the NEX-7 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:
The NEX-7 is the second largest camera in the group. The Panasonic GH2 is a much larger camera, but that's because it has a more traditional, SLR-style design. The NEX is not giant, but don't expect to put it in your jeans pocket, either. It's more of a small bag or over-the-shoulder kind of camera.
I'm just aching to start our tour of the NEX-7, so let's get going!
Here's the front of the NEX-7, without a lens attached. NEX cameras use Sony's newly developed E-mount, which currently has a fairly small lens selection. Sony doesn't build image stabilization into the NEX bodies, so you'll want to look for a lens with "OSS" if you want this feature (the kit lens has it). All lenses have a 1.5X crop factor, so the 18 - 55 kit lens is equivalent to 27 - 82.5 mm. To release an attached lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount.
Right in the center of the mount is the NEX-7's 24 Megapixel "Exmor" CMOS sensor. This sensor is APS-C size, which is as big as you'll find on a mirrorless camera. APS-C sensors are 58% larger than Micro Four Thirds and gigantic compared to what you'll find inside the Nikon V1 or Pentax Q. In general, the larger the sensor, the higher the sensitivity and lower the noise. We'll see if the fact that Sony has packed a whopping 24 Megapixels onto this sensor affects its image quality later in the review.
All mirrorless cameras have a high likelihood of having dust collect on its sensor. Sony uses an ultrasonic dust removal system to literally shake dust away. That said, I had more trouble with dust on the NEX-7 (and also the NEX-5 a few years ago) than I usually do with cameras in this class.
One of the big complaints about the original NEX models was the lack of a built-in flash. As you can see, Sony took care of that issue on the NEX-7, putting in a pop-up flash with a guide number of 6 meters at ISO 100. If you want a more powerful flash, you can attach one to the hot shoe that you'll see in a moment.
Other items on the front of the camera include the AF-assist lamp, stereo microphones (straddling the top of the lens mount), and receiver for the optional wireless remote.
Another feature that separates the NEX-7 from Sony's other interchangeable lens cameras is its articulating LCD display. The screen can pull away from the back of the camera, and tilt upward 90 degrees, or down 45 degrees. This allows you to shoot over the heads of people in front of you, or take photos on a tripod without straining your neck. Naturally, the LCD can also be put in the "traditional" position shown below.
And here's the LCD in its usual spot. The screen is 3 inches in size (diagonally), and has an aspect ratio of 16:9. While this is lovely for shooting movies, it's not-so-great for stills, as you end up with margins on one or both sides of the image you're composing. The screen has 921,600 pixels, so everything is incredibly sharp. I found outdoor visibility to be quite good, and in low light, the image on the screen brightens up nicely, so you can still see your subject.
And then there's the NEX-7's extraordinary electronic viewfinder. This is the world's first OLED EVF, and it packs an incredible 2.4 million dots into a screen just 0.5 inches in size. This EVF is easily the best I've ever seen, with amazing sharpness, brightness, and color. There's no annoying rainbow effect either, which you'll sometimes find on other EVFs.
The viewfinder is activated when you put your eye to it -- if you want to switch between the LCD and EVF manually, you'll need to change an option in the setup menu. You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using a hard-to-reach diopter correction wheel on its right side. My only real complaint about the NEX's viewfinder is that the eyepiece can pop off if you bump it, so be careful.
Now let's talk buttons. As you can see, there are buttons for popping up the flash, entering playback mode, locking exposure or switching between auto and manual focus, and recording movies.
There's also the four-way controller / scroll wheel, which plays a big part in the Tri-Navi interface I told you about earlier. On either side of that are two "soft buttons", whose function varies depending on the shooting mode. The function of most of these buttons can be customized, as well -- but more on that later.
The first thing to see on the top of the camera is the hot shoe, which uses the same proprietary mount from the Minolta days. You can attach any Sony flash and everything will work automatically. The nicer flashes have AF-assist lamps and support for high speed flash sync. Most Sony flashes can also be used to control other flashes wirelessly (the built-in flash cannot be used as the master). If you're not using a Sony flash, you'll probably have to adjust the exposure manually, and the maximum shutter speed you can use is 1/160 sec.
To the right of the hot shoe is the flash (closed, obviously), followed by the two dials that play a major role in the Tri-Navi system that I told you about earlier.
Above those is the power switch (with shutter release inside) as well as the navigation button, which opens up a sort of shortcut menu. The power switch isn't "stiff" enough for my taste -- you can turn the camera on accidentally with just a tiny bump.
On this side of the NEX-7 you'll find its I/O ports, which are protected by a pair of plastic doors. The ports here include mini-HDMI, USB, and stereo mic input.
The 18 - 55 mm kit lens is at its wide-angle end in this photo.
There's nothing to see on the other side of the camera. The kit lens is at the full telephoto position here.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the NEX-7. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount (in-line with the lens) and the battery/memory card compartment. The compartment is protected by a fairly sturdy reinforced plastic door. As I mentioned earlier, the memory card slot supports both MS Pro Duo and SD cards of various flavors.
The included NP-FW50 battery can be seen at right.
|Live view (histogram not shown here)||The electronic level shows both tilt and pitch|
Being a mirrorless camera, it should come as no surprise that you'll compose all your photos on the LCD or EVF. The "live view" implementation on the NEX-7 is excellent, aside from the aforementioned fact that the widescreen LCD isn't really suited to 4:3 photography. What you will get is a bright and fluid view of the scene, super fast autofocus, a live histogram, your choice of grid lines, and the ability to zoom in on your subject for accurate manual focusing. Two other interesting features include an electronic level (for both pitch and tilt) and the ability to display "peaking level". The peaking level feature (only available when manually focusing) highlights the area of the photo that's currently in-focus. You can choose the "intensity" of the peaking feature, as well as the color used.
The only mode dial on the NEX-7 is this virtual one
Now I'd like to talk about the various camera features that you'll access via the menu system. All camera features -- plus a virtual mode dial -- are accessed via the "gateway" menu you see above. I'll say a bit more about the menu options later, but first I want to go over what you'll find on that virtual mode dial:
If you want a "set it and forget it" experience, then set the virtual mode dial to the Intelligent Auto position. There, the camera will pick one of eleven scene modes automatically. It can even tell when you're using a tripod, in order to keep noise levels down. If you want to select a scene mode yourself, there's an option for that, too.
Two of my favorite features on the NEX-7 are found on the mode dial: sweep panorama and anti motion blur. For sweep panorama, you just pan the camera from left to right (other directions work too), and the camera instantly stitches together a huge panoramic photo. There are two sizes to choose from: normal and wide, and this feature works in 3D as well as 2D.
|This photo is even more impressive because both the subjects and the photographer are moving (on Splash Mountain at Disneyland).||Bryant Park in New York City|
Anti motion blur (and its related feature, handheld twilight) takes six exposures in less than a second, and combines them into a single image. The resulting image is generally sharp and blur-free, which wouldn't be the case otherwise. I was able to take some pretty amazing low light photos using this feature, as you can see above. Those photos were taken at ISO 6400 and 5000, respectively, but you'd never know it by looking at them.
Naturally, the NEX-7 has full manual exposure control as well, including a bulb mode. I've already told you about the customizable interface, and there are plenty more manual controls still to be discussed in this review.
Those manual controls (and more) can be found in the NEX's main menu, which is accessed from the gateway screen I showed you earlier. The menu is divided up into five categories (not including the virtual mode dial): camera, image size, brightness/color, playback and setup. While the menus are very pretty -- and feature help "tool tips" for most options -- navigating them is a big pain. Each submenu is just one big long list, which means you'll spend a lot of time spinning that rear dial (there's a reason why most cameras have tab-based menus). Something else that bothered me is that, at least for some menu options, the camera kicks you out of the menu entirely after you make a selection, instead of just backing up a step. So, if you were planning on changing more than one setting, you'd have to reenter the menu system.
With that said, here's the list of the most significant menu options related to still shooting:
- Drive mode: here's where you access the burst modes, AE bracketing, self-timer, and remote control choices; more on burst mode later
- Autofocus area: choose from 25-point auto, center, or flexible spot
- Object tracking: as its name implies, this is used for keeping a selected subject in focus
- Face detection: not only can the NEX-7 detect faces (up to eight in a scene), it can register specific ones; when those people show up in the frame, they will be given focus priority
- Smile Shutter: ripped straight from Sony's point-and-shoot cameras, this feature will have the NEX-7 wait until someone in the frame is smiling; the sensitivity is adjustable, so you can really make people smile for the camera
- LCD/Finder display: what level of detail is shown on the LCD and EVF
- DISP button: choose what screens you can toggle through using the Display button (LCD only)
- Image size/quality: choose from large (24M), medium (12M), or small (6M) resolutions, plus JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG; a RAW image will take up about 27MB, while a Large/Fine JPEG is just under 10MB
- ISO sensitivity: the NEX has a range of 100 - 16000; there's also an Auto mode, which tops out at ISO 1600 in P/A/S/M mode, and higher in the automatic modes
- White balance: choose from numerous presets, set the color temperature, or use a white or gray card in custom mode; more details below
- DRO/Auto HDR: improves image contrast in two different ways. DRO breaks the scene into small areas and adjusts the contrast for each of them separately; HDR combines three exposures into a single photo; more below
- Picture Effect: seems like every camera has to have these in 2011; notable special effects include toy camera, pop color, partial color, HDR painting, and miniature
- Creative Style: a style contains image parameters which include contrast, saturation, and sharpness; there are many presets on the NEX-7 (standard, vivid, portrait, sunset, black & white), all of which can be fine-tuned to your heart's content
- Finder/LCD setting: choose manually, or let the eye sensor switch between the two automatically
- Peaking level/color: mentioned earlier, this highlights in-focus areas of a photo when manually focusing; choose the intensity and color used
- SteadyShot: if you're using a lens with image stabilization, here's where you turn the feature on or off
- Lens compensation: reduces shading (vignetting), chromatic aberrations (purple fringing), and distortion; the first two are on by default, the third is not
- Function settings: choose what you can adjust using the navigation button on the top of the camera
- Custom key settings: choose what the AF/MF, right directional, and two soft buttons do
- Help guide display: whether "tool tips" describing each option are shown in the menus
I want to illustrate the DRO and HDR features for you now. As I mentioned above, the D-Range Optimizer feature handles contrast by breaking the image into smaller segments, and adjusting each section individually. You can leave it on Auto (the default), adjust it manually from level 1 (low) to 5 (high), or shut it off entirely (though I don't know why you'd do so). The test below shows you what happens as you increase the DRO level:
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|DRO Lv 1
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|DRO Lv 2
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|DRO Lv 3
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|DRO Lv 4
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|DRO Lv 5
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As you can see, the biggest effect of increasing the amount of DRO is brighter shadows. There's a small increase in noise as you crank up the DRO, but it's nothing horrible. This feature appears to do little-to-nothing for highlight clipping, though.
Now, about that HDR feature. In all cases, the camera combines three exposures into a single photo. You can let the camera automatically choose the exposure interval (which is the default setting), or you can adjust it yourself, from 1EV to 6EV. The camera shoots so quickly that no tripod is needed in most cases. Instead of a contrived test photo, here's a real world use of HDR:
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For those who don't recognize it, the building pictured above is 1 World Trade Center in New York. I wasn't overly enthusiastic with the original photo, as everything was dark, save for the glass on the building. So I threw the camera into HDR mode and let it do its thing. The camera saves not only the HDR image, but a photo taken with DRO turned off, as well. As you can see, the difference between the two photos is huge. You can see more details on the building (under construction), trees suddenly appear, and one of the fountains that make up the 9/11 Memorial becomes more recognizable. This is definitely a feature that I could see myself using frequently if I owned the NEX-7.
White balance options include the usual presets, a custom option (for use with a white or gray card), and the ability to set the color temperature. All of these can be fine-tuned, in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions. The only thing missing here is the ability to bracket for white balance.
Believe it or not, I'm done talking about the NEX's shooting options, and am ready to move to video recording. The NEX-7 is a movie lovers dream, as it can record Full HD video at 60p -- an accomplishment very few cameras can claim. It does this using the AVCHD Progressive format, which may not be supported by all devices or video editing suites. Sound is recorded in Dolby Digital stereo, and you can get higher quality audio by attaching the optional stereo microphone. To simplify all of the video resolutions available on the NEX-7, I've put together this table:
The maximum recording time for all of those is around 29 minutes. While AVCHD movies look great on your HDTV, editing and sharing them isn't so easy. Heck, just finding them on your memory card is a pain. Thankfully, Sony also supports the MPEG-4 codec, which is much easier to work with. The bad news is that there are two resolutions available with MP4: 1440 x 1080 and 640 x 480 (both at 30 fps).
The NEX-7 gives you access to the same bells and whistles that are available for still shooting. Want to use the Picture Effects (like toy camera or selective color) in movie mode? No problem. The camera can focus continuously, keeping subjects in focus as they move around, or if you adjust the zoom. If your lens has image stabilization, that'll be active as well. If you want to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO, that's also available -- even while you're in the midst of recording.
You cannot take a still image while recording a video.
I have three sample videos for you. The first is a quick cable car clip, taken at the 1080/60p setting. That's followed by two videos I took while playing tourist at the Disneyland Resort. They were taken at 1080/60i and were converted and deinterlaced using Final Cut Pro X. If you go frame-by-frame in the Dumbo clip, you will see some interlacing artifacts. If you want to view or convert the original MTS files yourself, you'll find links for those below.
The NEX-7 has a rather unremarkable playback mode, with no editing features to speak of, for either stills or videos. Something that drove me nuts on the NEX-5 and remains the same here is that the camera separates stills and movies (even down to the codec level). What that means is that you can't flip through photos and videos at the same time. You have to either go to the playback menu or to the thumbnail screen (and the bar on the left) to switch between stills, AVCHD movies, and MP4 movies.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, if you press "up" on the four-way controller, you'll get a lot more, including histograms and "blinking" over and underexposed areas of your photo.
There's no delay when moving between photos on the NEX-7.