Sony NEX-7 Review
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Sony NEX-7 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good overall accuracy and saturation, with mostly minor shifts in hue and intensity.
Skin tones. Here, when adjusted for the correct white balance, the Sony NEX-7 did well, producing natural-looking lighter skin tones, though darker skin tones show a slight push toward red-orange. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Sony NEX-7 did push cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but shifts were relatively minor. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) With an average "delta-C" color error of 5.28 after correction for saturation, overall hue accuracy was slightly better than average for a compact system camera. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Sony NEX-7 offers 13 preset "Creative Style" options. You can adjust contrast, saturation (except for B&W and Sepia), and sharpness for any of the settings.
|Creative Style Options|
Mouse over the links above to see the effect of the presets on our Still Life target. Click on a link to load the full resolution image.
The Sony NEX-7 has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer, a feature we look for in cameras. Saturation also had little effect on contrast, which is ideal.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with the seven saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm cast with the Auto white balance setting and slightly warm with Incandescent, but good color with the Manual setting. About average amount of positive exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was overly warm and orange with the Auto white balance setting and quite disappointing. Results with the Incandescent setting were quite good, though, just slightly warm and yellow. The Manual setting was very accurate, but some may prefer Incandescent because it conveys a touch more of the warmth of the original lighting. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which matches the color temperature of our lights resulted in a slightly cool, bluish image. The Sony NEX-7 required +0.3 EV positive exposure compensation here, which is average for this shot. (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)
Excellent results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, color, and exposure.
|Manual White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony NEX-7 performed very well. +0.3 EV exposure compensation was required to keep the model's face reasonably bright in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. The average among the cameras we've tested is +0.7 EV, so the NEX-7 performed better than average here. Contrast is somewhat high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does an excellent job of holding onto detail in both the deep shadows and bright highlights, even without the help of Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO was off for these shots). Color balance was quite good, though Auto white balance rendered the model's face a touch warm, so we preferred Manual white balance here. Default exposure was quite good for our Far-field shot as well, again with pretty good detail in the highlights and shadows. The Far-field shot using Auto white balance had very good color. Overall, very good performance in harsh lighting.
Very high resolution, about 2,200 to 2,300 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, up to 2,400 from RAW files.
In camera JPEGs of our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,300 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and about 2,200 in the vertical direction (some might argue for over 2,300 lines, but aliasing artifacts begin to appear before then), with extinction of the pattern occurring between 3,400 and 3,600 lines. We were able to extract about 2,400 lines per pixel height in both directions from RAW files using dcraw. Adobe Camera Raw 6.6 showed similar results to dcraw, but produced more color moire. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images with very good detail, but some edge-enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects. Low to moderate noise suppression visible in the shadows and areas of low contrast.
Sharpness. The Sony NEX-7 captures sharp images with very good detail overall, though fine detail is somewhat soft at default settings even at base ISO, despite fairly obvious sharpening halos visible around high-contrast subjects such as the larger branches and pine cones in the crop above left (which was shot with a very sharp Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 SSM lens at f/8). Fine detail such as the smaller branches and pine needles show minimal edge enhancement, but appear a touch soft and feathery. Remember, though, that we're looking at a 24-megapixel image on screen at 100%, so results here are pretty good. See the bottom of this page for our analysis of printed results. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows low to moderate noise suppression in the darkest areas of the model's hair. Some individual strands are smudged together, though quite a few strands are still visible despite the low contrast subject. We saw similar results with fine detail in the pine needles. Still, pretty good results here especially considering the resolution. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony NEX-7 produces sharp in-camera JPEGs, though fine detail is a touch soft and sharpening halos are visible around high-contrast elements. Better detail with fewer sharpening artifacts can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files with a good RAW converter.
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image. Examples include (from left to right): an in-camera Fine JPEG, RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter SR version 4.0 software at default settings, the same ARW file converted with dcraw then tweaked and sharpened in Photoshop with unsharp mask of 150%, radius 0.6 pixels, and finally the same file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 6.6 and sharpened equally in Photoshop.
Sony's IDC 4.0 software produces images with slightly stronger sharpening halos around high-contrast subjects, while rendering fine detail softer than the camera's default JPEG processing. We weren't able to extract much more detail by fiddling with IDC's noise reduction and sharpening settings. The dcraw conversion on the other hand showed more fine detail with fewer sharpening artifacts, but also revealed more noise as you'd expect (since it doesn't apply any noise reduction, though the darker sky rendering also makes noise more visible). The Adobe Camera Raw conversion shows similar amounts of detail compared to dcraw, though color and contrast are more similar to the JPEG's, making noise less visible. ACR also applies some subtle default color noise reduction that draw doesn't. Either way, it's clear that using a good RAW converter can render fine detail better than in-camera JPEGs while simultaneously reducing sharpening artifacts, though the camera does a pretty good job.
ISO & Noise Performance
Very good noise performance with the NEX-7's 24-megapixel sensor up to ISO 1,600, though somewhat strong default noise reduction at higher ISOs.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400|
|ISO 800||ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200|
|ISO 6,400||ISO 12,800||ISO 16,000|
The Sony NEX-7's images are quite clean and detailed at ISO 100 and 200, and even ISO 400 looks quite good. There are some visible demosaicing errors in the hair above the mannequin's forehead as well as a hint of moire patterns in the jacket at low ISOs, though that's pretty common and not really something to be concerned with. Some noise "grain" is noticeable at ISO 800, as well as a small amount of smudging in lower contrast areas, but the camera did a good job of holding on to fine detail here. There's some stronger smudging of fine detail at ISO 1,600, but the NEX-7 still did very well at this ISO. At ISO 3,200, fine detail more noticeably suffers from higher luminance noise and more aggressive noise reduction, though some detail remains. Chroma noise starts to become more noticeable at ISO 3,200 as well, but it's not too bad. As you might expect, detail disintegrates further ISO 6,400 and especially at 12,800 and 16,000, where chroma noise also becomes much more noticeable. Overall though, these are very good results and noticeably better than the Sony A77 at higher ISOs, which also uses a similar if not identical 24-megapixel CMOS sensor. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.
A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, usually using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. We know this; if you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us. :-) The focus target position will have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very high resolution with good dynamic range. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
Sunlight. The Sony NEX-7 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. We preferred the +0.3 EV exposure here, as the mannequin's face was a little dark at default exposure. Contrast is a little high, but highlight detail is actually very good. Despite the apparent brightness, there are very few clipped highlights in the model's face and shirt. There were some pretty deep shadows though, and noise is a little high in the shadows but a lot of fine detail is intact. Overall, pretty good results here. Still, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible. See below for results with Dynamic Range Optimization and High Dynamic Range features enabled.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
Dynamic Range Analysis
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera Sony NEX-7 JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At the base ISO of 100 (the optimal ISO) with DRO and HDR settings turned off, the graph shows 11.9 f-stops of total dynamic range, 7.52 f-stops at the "High" Quality level, and fairly gradual roll-offs at both the highlight and shadow ends of the tone curve, though there is a slight discontinuity near the shadow end. These are are pretty good results, especially total dynamic range, though not quite as good as the best APS-C sensors to date. The 7.52 f-stops at the High Quality level is a function of the slightly higher than average noise, a natural result of the higher pixel density compared to 16-megapixel APS-C models. Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored when comparing to other models.
RAW. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a RAW (.ARW) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting. (Slightly better results are likely possible with manually tweaking, but we weren't able to do much better.) As can be seen, the score at the highest quality level increased from 7.52 to 9.38 f-stops, which is almost a two f-stop improvement, while total dynamic range increased just over one f-stop, to 13 from 11.9. The High Quality results are very good, though not quite as good as the best APS-C sensors we've tested, hampered somewhat by slightly higher noise levels from the NEX-7's denser sensor. (The Nikon D7000 for example scored 10.1 f-stops at the highest quality level, while the Pentax K-5 scored 10.2 f-stops.) It's also worth noting here is that ACR's default noise reduction settings reduced overall noise somewhat (see the plot in the lower left-hand corner) relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG, which would tend to boost the dynamic range numbers for the higher quality thresholds. Total dynamic range however is excellent, one of the highest scores we've recorded to date.
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony NEX-7's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the NEX-7 did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. Overall, very good results here. (This is a really tough shot; the Sony does a much better than average job handling it.)
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows five of the seven contrast settings, including the default and two extremes. It's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
Sony's contrast adjustment has very little effect on color saturation, which is always a plus. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, so it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well.
Outdoor Portrait DRO Comparison
Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony NEX-7. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"), or turn it off. As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.
The above thumbnails and histograms show the effects of the various levels of DRO on our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with no exposure compensation. Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see from the thumbnails and associated histograms, DRO had only a slight effect on the highlights in this shot, though few highlights were clipped to begin with. The bulk of the difference between different levels of DRO is found in the shadows and darker midtones. The stronger the DRO level, the more boost is applied to darker areas. Boosting shadows does reveal more visible noise, but the NEX-7 does a good job at holding on to detail in the shadows, as opposed to blurring it away with strong noise reduction. The default Auto DRO setting did a pretty good job here.
Above, you can see the effect of DRO settings on our Far-field shot. The default Auto setting produced a good exposure overall, despite the harsh lighting.
High Dynamic Range. The Sony NEX-7's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one nominally exposed, one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Lighter areas from the underexposed image are combined in-camera with darker areas from the overexposed image to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera then saves a single composite image, as well as the nominally exposed image. The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If it can't micro-align successfully, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. For best results, the subject should not move or blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select 1 EV ("weak") to 6 EV ("strong") difference in exposures.
Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see, the highest settings produce images that looked flat and unnatural with this scene, however Auto and the lower manual settings did a pretty good job at boosting shadows. reducing highlights, while still retaining enough contrast.
Above, you can see the effect of HDR settings on our Far-field shot. As mentioned above, merging multiple images to generate a composite HDR image is really meant for completely static images. Here, you can see some ghosting in the flag, leaves, people, etc., caused by motion between the captures, so watch out for that when using this feature.
Low Light. The Sony NEX-7 performed well in our low light test, producing bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc) at all ISO settings. The NEX-7's metering system struggled a bit at very low light levels though, so we used manual exposure for these shots as we often need to do. Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 1600, though as expected, at higher ISOs there are moderate to high amounts of fine luminance noise and some blotchy chroma noise. Auto white balance did a very good job here, producing a fairly neutral, just slightly cool color balance at all ISOs and light levels. There were a few bright pixels at higher ISOs and lower light levels, and some minor horizontal banding visible at very high ISOs, but that's not uncommon.
The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to just below the 1/4 foot-candle light level unassisted with the Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and AF assist isn't supported when using the A-mount lens adapter. With the E 18-55mm f/3.5 kit lens, the camera focused down to a slightly lower light level without AF assist despite the "slower" (dimmer) lens, and in complete darkness with AF assist enabled.
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their larger sensors, compact system cameras like the Sony NEX-7 tend to do better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
Astonishing print quality, with surprisingly good prints as large as 30 x 40 inches.
ISO 200 shots also look good at 30 x 40, with only a slight bit of softening here and there that is difficult to see.
ISO 400 images are quite good at 24 x 36, and tack sharp at 20 x 30.
ISO 800 shots look good at 20 x 30 inches.
ISO 1600 shots are usable at 20 x 30, but look better at 16 x 20.
ISO 3,200 shots look good at 13 x 19, with only minor softening in the red channel. Noise in the shadows looks overly blurred thanks to the camera's default efforts to reduce noise.
ISO 6,400 images are a little too soft at 11 x 14, particularly in the red channel, but in enough other areas that they look better printed at 8 x 10.
ISO 12,800 images are soft and fuzzy at 8 x 10, but look remarkably good at 5 x 7.
ISO 16,000 shots are good, but shadow areas look strangely blurry. 4 x 6-inch prints look pretty good though.
Astonishingly good printed performance from the Sony NEX-7. Just amazingly big prints with truly sharp detail. It doesn't quite achieve the heights of the considerably more expensive Nikon D3X, but it does well enough that we're not complaining for less than a third the price. As we noted with its sibling the A77, with the Sony NEX-7, if you're in a hurry, just grab a shot at wide angle, and then go back to crop out whatever your subject was later: One way of thinking of it is that you can "digitally zoom" after the fact up to 4x or more, and still have adequate detail to make a nice-looking 8x10 print. Really exceptional.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Sony Alpha NEX-7 Photo Gallery.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Sony Alpha NEX-7 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.