Sony NEX-7 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Sony Alpha NEX-7
Resolution: 24.30 Megapixels
Sensor size: APS-C
Kit Lens: 3.06x zoom
18-55mm
(27-83mm eq.)
Viewfinder: EVF / LCD
ISO: 100-16000
Shutter: 30-1/4000
Max Aperture: 3.5
Dimensions: 4.7 x 2.6 x 1.7 in.
(120 x 67 x 43 mm)
Weight: 19.8 oz (560 g)
includes batteries, kit lens
MSRP: $1,350
Availability: 11/2011
Manufacturer: Sony
Manufacturer's page: Sony Alpha NEX-7
24.30
Megapixels
Sony E-mount APS-C
size sensor
image of Sony Alpha NEX-7
Front side of Sony Alpha NEX-7 digital camera Back side of Sony Alpha NEX-7 digital camera Top side of Sony Alpha NEX-7 digital camera Left side of Sony Alpha NEX-7 digital camera Right side of Sony Alpha NEX-7 digital camera

NEX-7 Review Summary: The top of the line Sony NEX-7 is a compact system camera that offers enthusiasts excellent control over camera settings, as well as a built-in high-resolution electronic viewfinder. The biggest news, though, is the 24.3 megapixel APS-C sensor that shoots at up to 10 frames/second with incredible image quality, plus Full HD video. The Sony NEX-7 is easily the best camera Sony's ever made.

Pros: 24.3-megapixel sensor with excellent image quality; Small body; Exceptional user interface; Full HD 60p video; Electronic viewfinder and flash are built-in.

Cons: No Mode dial; Flash sync is a touch slow; No UHS-I card support; Needs a better kit lens to match the sensor quality.

Price and availability: The Sony NEX-7 compact system camera started shipping in the US market from December 2011, after a short delay caused by widespread flooding in Thailand, though it's difficult to find in stock online as of this writing (mid-January 2012). Body-only pricing is set at approximately US$1,200, while a kit version including a special black variant of the Sony E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens is priced at around US$1,350. The LA-EA2 Alpha mount adapter with phase-detection autofocus capability costs about US$400, and was available from November 2011.

Imaging Resource rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

Sony Alpha NEX-7 Review

by , Mike Tomkins, Zig Weidelich, and Shawn Barnett
Preview Posted: 08/24/2011
Review Posted:

Sony NEX fans have been waiting for more controls to quickly adjust various exposure settings in a hurry, rather than dig into the menu, and I'm sure many had a wish list for this or that extra feature to make the existing NEX design just a little better. I say "just a little" because the satisfaction level with the existing NEX series is pretty high. But Sony took the NEX series to another level, adding not just more control, but also an OLED electronic viewfinder, a 24.3-megapixel sensor, and an impressively fast frame rate. The new combination of features exceeds what the average enthusiast digital SLR can do, and does it in a significantly smaller package.

Adding all these features required a slight size increase over other NEX designs, but not significantly so. It's a little taller, a little wider and a little thicker, but noticeably heavier than most other NEX cameras. Quoting the company's specs of 12.3 ounces (350g), that's almost a third heavier than the 9.5 ounce (269g) NEX-5N, which was announced at the same time. The feeling is very solid and high quality.


From the front, the appearance is very similar to the NEX-5, but with a more sculpted grip and a slightly taller profile. The camera also uses lugs for D-rings, rather than the wide metal lugs found on all the other NEX cameras. Pictured just left of the shutter button is the new Navigation button, which cycles through the options available to the user through the Tri-Navi camera control system.


The NEX-7 includes the same 18-55mm kit lens as in other NEX-series models, but dressed in black to better match the body. The NEX-7 is the first to be fitted with a conventional Sony-proprietary hot shoe rather than the Smart Accessory Terminal found on other NEX cameras. The power switch has moved yet again, this time ringing the shutter button as it did on the NEX-3, but facing the front. This matches what a great many SLRs do, so it's by far the best power switch location on the NEX so far.


The XGA-resolution OLED electronic viewfinder peeks out from the upper left corner, a great location to avoid nose smudges on the LCD, at least for right-eye-dominant folks. The 3-inch LCD has 921,600 dots of resolution, and tilts up and down like all NEX cameras. A clever switch/button combo changes between AF/MF function and AE Lock, and then there's the usual NEX control cluster below that. The Movie Record button takes up a better position than past designs, just atop the leather-like thumb grip.

It's the two dials nestled into the camera's top deck where the NEX-7's true value emerges for the enthusiast shooter. Used in combination with the NEX-7's rear dial and the front Navigation button, the three form a unique camera control system driven by visuals on the LCD, whose changes you can see applied to the scene in real time. We'll have (much) more to say about this new "Tri-Navi" interface below, in the Shooter's Report.

 

Sony NEX-7 Technical Info

by Mike Tomkins and Dave Etchells

Sensor and processor. The Sony NEX-7 features an impressively high-resolution 24.3 megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS image sensor, the same as that featured in the company's flagship SLT-series camera, the simultaneously-announced Alpha SLT-A77. This new imager is coupled to the latest version of Sony's proprietary Bionz image processing engine. Total resolution is some 24.7 megapixels, and the sensor's dimensions are 23.5 x 15.6mm, yielding a 1.5x focal length crop when compared with 35mm lenses. The NEX-7's sensor has a standard RGB Bayer color filter.

With a 3:2 aspect ratio, the NEX-7 can provide maximum image dimensions of 6,000 x 4,000 pixels at full resolution. Two further 3:2 aspect ratio resolutions are available: 4,240 x 2,832 pixels, or 3,008 x 2,000 pixels. The NEX-7 also provides a choice of three 16:9 aspect ratio shooting modes, each of which has the same pixel width as its 3:2 aspect counterpart, but with heights of 3,376, 2,400 or 1,688 pixels respectively.

The Sony NEX-7 offers a wide sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 16,000 equivalents, and includes an Auto ISO function. High ISO noise reduction cannot be disabled altogether, but provides three adjustable operating strengths: High, Normal, or Low.

Optics. Like all of the company's NEX-series cameras, the NEX-7 natively accepts only Sony E-mount lenses, although it can also accept an unusually wide range of lenses via mount adapters provided by Sony and third parties. As with its siblings in the NEX-series, the NEX-7 doesn't provide in-body image stabilization, and instead relies on optical image stabilization in the lens, if available.

Five Sony E-mount lenses are already shipping in the US market: a 16mm f/2.8 prime, a 30mm f/3.5 macro prime, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 stabilized zoom (available in a kit with the NEX-7 body), an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 stabilized zoom, and a 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 stabilized zoom. Two additional models are slated to ship imminently: a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 prime, and a Sony 50mm f/1.8 stabilized prime. The company's roadmap further calls for a Sony G-branded standard zoom, a wide angle zoom, and a mid-telephoto prime during 2012.

As well as Sony's own Alpha-mount SLR lenses (and the Minolta / Konica-Minolta Alpha-mount lenses which predate Sony's purchase of Konica-Minolta's SLR business), the NEX-7 can also be adapted to shoot with Alpa, C-mount, Canon EF-, EF-S, and FD, Contax G, Contarex, Contax / Yashica, Exakta, Fujica X, Hasselblad Xpan, Leica M, M39, or R-mount, M42 mount, Micro Four Thirds, Minolta A or SR-mount, Nikon F-mount, Olympus OM or PEN F, Pentax K-mount, Rollei, or T2-mount lenses. An impressive list indeed, although, it should be noted that each adapter will have differing limitations, and the majority will be manual-focus only.

Another item announced alongside the NEX-7 makes the NEX-series unique among mirrorless cameras in providing support for phase detection autofocus from a dedicated AF sensor. The LA-EA2 adapter will provide phase detection autofocusing with tracking, predictive control, and AF micro adjustment for all AF-capable Alpha-mount lenses, but cannot be used with a teleconverter. Available in the US since November 2011, the Sony LA-EA2 mount adapter is priced at around US$400.

Lens correction. When shooting in JPEG mode, the Sony NEX-7 includes the ability to automatically correct lens shading (vignetting), lateral chromatic aberration, and distortion in-camera, as images are captured. We don't currently have any information as to which specific lens models are supported for this feature, though the manual states only E-mount lenses are supported.

Focusing. Of course, when you're not using the LA-EA2 mount adapter, the Sony NEX-7 is limited to contrast detection autofocusing, just like any other compact system camera would be (with the sole exception of Nikon's 1-series cameras, which feature phase detect AF points on the main image sensor). Sony says that it has implemented a new autofocus algorithm that improves focusing performance and speed. The NEX-7's AF system offers 25-point autofocusing, and has a working range of EV 0-20 at ISO 100 equivalent, with an f/2.8 lens. As well as the 25-point mode, the NEX-7's autofocus system can be configured to operate either with a single point at the center of the image frame, or a flexible point that can be moved around the frame (within an 11 x 17 grid) to focus on a specific off-center subject. The NEX-7 provides both single-servo and continuous-servo autofocus operation. A built-in LED autofocus illuminator helps the NEX-7 to achieve a focus lock on nearby subjects in low ambient lighting conditions. Working range for this AF assist lamp varies depending on the specific lens in use, but with the 18-55mm kit lens, has a working range of 1.6 - 9.8 feet (0.5 - 3.0 m).

As you'd expect, it's also possible to focus manually with the Sony NEX-7, either after an autofocus operation has been performed (Direct Manual Focus, in Sony parlance), or without any prior autofocus operation. When focusing manually, Sony offers two Focus Magnifier zoom levels to aid in determining the precise point of focus, either 5.9x or 11.7x. Also included is the "focus peaking" display which was introduced in the NEX-C3. This makes it easier to identify the point of focus by highlighting the areas of strongest image contrast. When enabled, three highlight colors are available (white, red, or yellow), and the peaking function can operate at one of three sensitivity levels (high, mid, or low.)

Performance. The NEX-7 offers significantly improved performance over the NEX-5 in a couple of key areas. Sony claims prefocused shutter release lag of just 0.02 seconds (we measured 0.022s in the lab), which it says is not only five times faster than that of the NEX-5, but the fastest of any interchangeable lens camera.

Burst shooting is equally swift, with a maximum rate of ten frames per second (manufacturer spec) possible in the Speed Priority Continuous burst mode, which locks focus and exposure from the first frame. Burst depth in this mode is rated by Sony as 17 fine or 18 standard JPEG frames, 13 RAW frames, or 11 RAW+JPEG frames. In the lab, it performed even better with longer bursts.

Dust reduction. As with the NEX-5 before it, the Sony NEX-7 includes a two-pronged dust reduction strategy, with a charge protection coating on its low-pass filter that aims to prevent dust adhering in the first place, and the ability to vibrate the filter to shake free any stubborn particles that manage to adhere despite the coating. Sony describes the latter system as being new, although it hasn't detailed precisely what changes have been made. (We do note that it is now using the term "ultrasonic vibration" in its marketing materials for the NEX-5N, however, and given that the dust reduction cycle is no longer clearly audible, that suggests that it has probably increased the vibration frequency.)

The NEX-7's dust reduction system operates when the camera is switched off, which helps to reduce the startup time, while not relying entirely on the user remembering to manually trigger a dust reduction cycle. It is, however, possible to perform a cycle manually through the menu, if desired.

Sony NEX-7 OLED Viewfinder. A major feature of the NEX-7 is its OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) electronic viewfinder. In fact, this is the first rangefinder-style camera that we're aware of anywhere near its size that has a fully electronic viewfinder tucked up in the corner of the body with 'nary a bulge or dimple to mark its presence. Sony tells us that the significantly smaller size of the OLED viewfinder module is what let them shoehorn an EVF into the NEX-7 while still maintaining its very svelte lines.

For old-school types like ourselves, the charm of putting a compact, sleek rangefinder camera up to your eye is a pleasure in itself; the fact that the view through the eyepiece is so crisp, detailed and accurate is icing on the cake. You don't have to be an old-timer to appreciate this, though; we expect that the Sony NEX-7 will find a lot of very happy users among the new-school crowd as well.

Long time IR readers will know that we've never been big fans of electronic viewfinders (EVFs). Thus far the tonal range, clarity, brightness, resolution, and update lag/refresh rates of EVFs have generally made them poor substitutes for the tried and true optical versions. As technology continues to advance, though, many limitations of earlier EVFs are being addressed, and the OLED technology used in the "TruFinder" found in these latest Alpha and NEX models makes another large step in the right direction. Overall, we liked the TruFinder quite a bit, but there are still some limitations: See Dave's comments below in the Shooter's Report section for a more in-depth discussion.

Display. On the rear panel of the Sony NEX-7 is an articulated TFT LCD panel. Like that of its predecessor, the NEX-7's panel can be tilted approximately 80 degrees upwards, for waist-level or low-to-the-ground shooting, or around 45 degrees downwards for shooting over a crowd. The panel's basic specifications are also unchanged, with a three-inch diagonal, 16:9 aspect ratio, total resolution of 307,200 pixels (921,600 dots), and Sony's TruBlack anti-glare design. There's also still an automatic brightness control with five-step manual override, plus a Sunny Weather mode which increases brightness still further for better visibility under bright ambient lighting.

As well as its built-in LCD panel, the Sony NEX-7 is compatible with the company's optional CLM-V55 LCD panel accessory, a five-inch, 800 x 480 pixel display that attaches via the HDMI port, and includes a detachable hood to improve daylight visibility.

Exposure. The Sony NEX-7 offers a choice of nine basic operating modes, unchanged from the NEX-5: Intelligent Auto (iAuto), Programmed AE, Aperture-priority AE, Shutter-priority AE, Manual, Sweep Panorama, 3D Sweep Panorama, Anti Motion Blur, and Scene Selection. This last will automatically set the camera up for one of eight common scene types, as selected by the photographer. Available scene modes are Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports Action, Sunset, Night Portrait, Night View, and Hand-held Twilight.

As in Sony's recent cameras, the Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes are similar in that they capture six sequential frames with higher sensitivity / shutter speeds to prevent blurring, and then combine them in-camera to yield a single frame with reduced noise levels. They differ from each other in that Hand-held Twilight mode will generally opt for lower (but still hand-holdable) shutter speeds than in Anti-Motion Blur mode. The Sweep Panorama modes each capture a burst of images for as long as the shutter button is held down, then automatically stitch them into a panorama. (The 3D mode generates a single image with separate left-eye and right-eye views of the scene, as the subject passes across the field of view).

As with all compact system cameras, the NEX-7's performs exposure metering using its image sensor. The metering system in the NEX-7 assesses the metered scene as 1,200 separate zones, and has a working range of EV 0 - 20 at ISO 100 equivalent, with an f/2.8 lens attached. Available metering modes include Multi-segment, Center-weighted, and Spot. As well as locking the metered exposure along with the focus when using multi-segment metering, there's also a dedicated Auto Exposure Lock button. Exposure compensation is available within a range of 5.0 EV on either side of the metered exposure, in 0.3 EV steps, and the NEX-7 can also perform three-frame bracketed exposures with a step size of either 0.3 or 0.7 EV.

The Sony NEX-7 offers a generous selection of ten white balance modes, including Auto, six presets (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, and Flash), a direct color temperature setting (2,500 to 9,900 Kelvin), a color filter setting (15-steps of green to magenta bias, and 15-steps of blue to amber bias), plus a Custom white balance mode. There's also a white balance fine adjustment function available.

Available drive modes include Single-shot, Continuous, Speed Priority Continuous, Self-timer (with a delay of two or ten seconds), Continuous Self-timer (shoots three or five exposures, after a ten second delay), Bracketing, and Remote Commander (for use with the optional RMT-DSLR1 infrared remote control unit).

Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds are possible, and the NEX-7 also offers a bulb shutter function that will hold the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. Flash sync is at 1/160 second. An optional long-exposure noise reduction function is available for exposures shot with shutter speeds longer than 1 second.

The NEX-7 focal-plane shutter has the same exposure specs as for the earlier NEX-5, but the NEX-7 has obviously been goosed up some to get its amazing 10 frames per second at full 24-megapixel resolution.

The most noticeable change in the NEX-7's exposure system is its use of an "electronic first curtain." This improves performance while reducing noise and vibration, and overall is a very welcome addition.

Sony NEX-7 Electronic First Curtain: Fast and quiet. A key technology in all Sony's August 2011 Alpha and NEX announcements is the "electronic first curtain" exposure capability. This greatly speeds the shutter release on live-view cameras, and significantly reduces shutter-generated vibration as well. A little explanation is perhaps in order.

In a conventional SLR, the focal-plane shutter is composed of two leaves or "curtains" that work together to control the exposure time. Think of your camera's sensor as a window with two window shades; one rolling up from the bottom, the other rolling down from the top. The first curtain starts the exposure by dropping down to uncover the sensor. The second curtain ends the exposure by dropping down to cover it again. After each exposure, the shutter curtains are returned to their original positions in preparation for the next shot. Very short exposures are made by having the two curtains move together, moving a small slit across the focal plane.

To help you visualize, here are a couple of animations showing the action described above, one for a longer exposure, the other for a short one; once the graphic loads, click the button to see the shutter animation. (These animations are from Photocourse.com; check out their excellent Textbook of Digital Photography.)

In a live-view camera, the shutter curtains are initially open, so light can reach the sensor to create the live viewfinder display. In live view mode with a conventional mechanical shutter, the bottom curtain has to be raised first, before the exposure can begin. This of course takes time, increasing the shutter lag before the exposure can begin. The closing of the first curtain can also introduce additional vibration, affecting image sharpness at some shutter speeds. (See our detailed discussion of the blur anomaly in the original Olympus E-P1 for an example. The same issue exists to a greater or lesser degree in most mirrorless cameras, though it's all but invisible in some.)

What's new in this latest crop of Sony cameras is that the "first curtain" function can be performed electronically, via a Setup option. Rather than having to raise the shutter curtain before the exposure, the NEX-7, NEX-5N, A65, and A77 all can begin the exposure electronically, manipulating voltage levels on the sensor array to enable light-gathering in a progressive wave, sweeping down the sensor's surface.

The most noticeable result of this is that shutter lag in live view mode is very brief: Sony claims only 20 milliseconds (0.02 second), a number closely matching the 22 milliseconds we measured electro-optically in our lab. The reduced curtain movement also reduces shutter-induced camera vibration, and makes for a much quieter shutter release as well: All Sony's new cameras with this shutter setup are unusually quiet in operation.

This isn't the first time we've seen an electronic first-curtain on an APS-C sensor: The Canon 40D SLR introduced the concept back in August of 2007, and as far as we know, Canon live-view-capable SLRs still employ the technology. There's a significant difference in what we call prefocused release lag, though, with Canon's SLRs in Live View mode measuring in the range of 80-90ms, vs the astonishing 20ms for the NEX-5N and NEX-7. A 20ms release time is actually quite a bit faster than even very high-end professional SLRs can manage. (The Nikon D3s is one of the very fastest, with a release lag of 43ms, measured on the same test equipment we used for the NEX-5N and NEX-7.)

Tilt level. The Sony NEX-7 includes a dual-axis level gauge, which helps ensure level horizons and prevent converging verticals in photos. The gauge is displayed in a style reminiscent of an aircraft attitude indicator, but with a separation of the roll and pitch indicators. When the camera is perfectly level, the pitch indicators and markings at the end of the roll indicator are illuminated in green.

Face detection. Even among SLRs, face detection during live view is a fairly common feature these days, and for compact system cameras its pretty much standard. The Sony NEX-7 goes a step further, though, in offering the ability to register the faces of eight specific individuals, who will then be automatically recognized and prioritized over other faces when determining focus, exposure, and flash output, as well as during post-exposure image processing. The NEX-7 is capable of simultaneously detecting and accounting for up to eight faces in any given scene, and also includes a Smile Shutter function with three-step sensitivity, which will automatically capture an image when your subject is smiling. Of course, face detection can be disabled, should you wish.

Flash. The Sony NEX-7 includes an auto-popup flash strobe, a first for a NEX-series camera. The guide number is 6 meters at ISO 100, and coverage is 18mm, with a maximum recycle time of around four seconds. In another first for a NEX-series camera, the NEX-7 also includes Sony's proprietary flash hot shoe, as seen on its Alpha SLRs (as well as on Minolta and Konica Minolta models manufactured before Sony acquired their DSLR business). The addition of the full-sized hot shoe and popup flash means that the NEX-7 doesn't include Sony's Smart Accessory Terminal, seen on other recent NEX-series models, and hence isn't compatible with accessories dependent upon this. Although the NEX-7 doesn't include a built-in sync terminal, Sony is offering an FA-ST1 sync terminal adapter which mounts on the camera's hot shoe, allowing connection to studio strobes.

The NEX-7 uses pre-flash TTL metering, and offers +/- 3.0 EV of flash exposure compensation, in 0.3 EV steps. Available flash modes include Flash Off, Auto Flash, Fill Flash, Slow Sync, and Rear Sync, and an optional red-eye reduction function is available. Some external strobes including the HVL-F36AM, HVL-F42AM, HVL-F56AM, and HVL-F58AM support high-speed sync and wireless shooting.

Creative. The Sony NEX-7 includes quite a range of creative controls to help photographers get the look they're after, with a minimum of time spent in the digital darkroom. A selection of eleven Picture Effect modes are available, five of them new since the NEX-5 (with one mode having been removed.) The new modes include Soft High-key (which replaces the NEX-5's High-key mode), plus Soft Focus, HDR Painting, Rich-tone Monochrome, and Miniature. The Posterization (color or black & white), Pop Color, Retro Photo, Partial Color (red, green, blue , or yellow), High Contrast Mono, and Toy Camera are all held over from the earlier camera.

In addition, the NEX-7 provides an enlarged selection of Creative Style choices as compared to the NEX-5, each of which offers +/- three-step control over contrast, saturation, and sharpness. New Creative Style modes include Neutral, Clear, Deep, Light, Night Scene, Autumn Leaves, and Sepia, in addition to the existing Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, and Black & White modes from the NEX-5.

A Dynamic Range Optimizer function aims to open up the shadows while maintaining highlight detail, and can be left under automatic control, or set to one of five preset levels. There are also several multi-shot modes, including Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur (both of which allows faster shutter speeds with reduced image noise), and an Auto HDR mode. This last creates a single high dynamic range image from three sequential shots, whose exposure level varies anywhere from 1 - 6 EV in 1 EV steps, controlled automatically or manually.

The NEX-7 also offers an in-camera Sweep Panorama function, which captures and stitches together multiple images as you sweep your lens across a panoramic scene. When set to Wide mode, Sweep Panorama can create a horizontal scene with a resolution of 12,416 x 1,856 pixels, or a vertical scene with a resolution of 2,160 x 5,536 pixels. In standard mode, the horizontal dimensions are 8,192 x 1,856 pixels, while vertical panoramas occupy 2,160 x 3,872 pixels.

3D Imaging. In addition to the standard Sweep Panorama function, the NEX-7 includes a 3D Sweep Panorama mode, which was added to the earlier NEX-5 model via a post-launch firmware update. Since the NEX-7 only has one objective lens, the stereo effect is created using some clever mathematics to reconstruct a 3D image as the subject passes across the lens' field of view. The result is saved as a single multi-picture object file that contains two separate JPEG images, one for each eye, allowing it to be viewed on 3D-capable Sony Bravia displays In Wide mode, 3D Sweep Panoramas occupy 7,152 x 1,080 pixels, while in Standard mode the resolution is 4,912 x 1,080 pixels. There's also a 16:9 mode, which saves a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel panorama suitable for full-screen HDTV viewing.

Video. The Sony NEX-7 also offers Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) video capture capabilities, and according to Sony, is the world's first interchangeable-lens camera (along with other Sony models simultaneously announced) able to record Full HD off the sensor at 60 frames per second. (We've seen cameras previously which recorded 60 interlaced fields per second at Full HD resolution, but these either clocked the data off the sensor at 30 frames per second and then split each frame across two interlaced fields, or they clocked the data at 60 frames per second but discarded alternating fields, to be compliant with the original AVCHD 1080 60i specification.)

The NEX-7's Full HD video is recorded using AVCHD Version 2.0 compression, with Dolby Digital (AC-3) audio, and a wide range of progressive-scan and interlaced frame rates are available. When set to NTSC mode, the available progressive-scan rate are 60 fps (28 Mbps) or 24 fps (24 Mbps or 17 Mbps), and you can also opt for an interlaced 60 fps (24 Mbps or 17 Mbps). If you switch to PAL mode, the options are the same, except that the 60 fps rates are replaced by 50 fps equivalents, and the 24 fps rates by 25 fps ones.

It's also possible to record at a reduced bitrate resolution of 1,440 x 1,080 pixels (12 Mbps) that's still 16:9 aspect ratio (using rectangular pixels), or a standard-definition 4:3 VGA (640 x 480 pixel, 3 Mbps) resolution. 1,440 x 1,080 mode is available at 30 fps for NTSC, or 25 fps for PAL, while 640 x 480 mode is 30 fps regardless of region. All are captured using MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) compression with MPEG-4 AAC-LC audio. Note that no 720p recording mode is available on the NEX-7.

Unlike many competing cameras, the Sony NEX-7 provides full control over movie exposure--even allowing adjustment during recording--with a choice of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, or fully Manual recording. It also allows Tracking autofocus, as well as use of Creative Style and some Picture Effect modes during movie capture. Recording is started and stopped with a dedicated Movie Record button on the NEX-7's rear panel, and audio is captured by default with a built-in stereo microphone. There's also an external stereo microphone jack, compatible with microphones including Sony's own ECM-CG50 Shotgun Mic and ECM-ALST1 Stereo Mic. A built-in monaural speaker caters to movie playback, and has an eight-step adjustable volume setting.

Playback. To let you immediately judge composition, exposure, and the like, the Sony NEX-7 provides an optional Auto Review function that can display images on-screen for two, five, or ten seconds immediately post capture. After capture, Playback mode lets you review single images, with optional shooting information, RGB histogram, or blinking highlight/shadow warning. In addition, images can be enlarged up to 16.7x to confirm fine details. Two index views are available, showing either six or twelve frames at once.

Connectivity. The Sony NEX-7 includes a USB 2.0 High Speed data connection, allowing for transfer of images and movies to a personal computer. Two operating modes are available for the USB connection, either USB Mass Storage Class, or Microsoft's Media Transfer Protocol. Catering for high-definition video output, the NEX-7 also provides a Type-C Mini HDMI connection, with support for Bravia Sync, Sony's brand name for the Consumer Electronics Control standard. This allows certain playback functions such as switching between images to be performed using the attached display's remote control unit. There's no standard-definition video output on the NEX-7, though, so photographers who've yet to switch to a high-def display will need a third-party device with which to view images on a standard TV.

Although the NEX-7 doesn't have a dedicated power input, it can accept external power via the AC-PW20 AC adaptor kit. This includes a dummy battery which feeds power to the camera from the AC adaptor, with a small flap in the battery compartment door providing ingress for the dummy battery cable. With the exception of the aforementioned flash hot shoe, and jack for an external stereo microphone, there is no other external connectivity on the NEX-7.

Storage. As well as Sony's proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo and Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo flash cards, the NEX-7 can also write images and movies to Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types. The Sony NEX-7 doesn't take advantage of high-speed UHS-I cards, but it is compatible with Eye-Fi's WiFi-capable SD cards, although "Endless Memory Mode" is not supported. 2D images can be saved either in Sony ARW 2.3 raw format, or as standard JPEG files (DCF Ver. 2.0, Exif Ver. 2.3, MPF Baseline compliant). 3D images are saved as Multi Picture Object files (MPF Extended compliant).

Battery. The Sony NEX-7 draws power from a proprietary NP-FW50 lithium-ion battery pack, which is rated by Sony for 430 shots to CIPA testing standards when using the LCD display, an improvement of 30% over the battery life of the previous NEX-5 model. When using the built-in electronic viewfinder, rated battery life falls to 350 shots.

 

Sony NEX-7 Shooter's Report

by Dave Etchells

I had an opportunity to shoot with a prototype NEX-7 at a press event Sony held in San Diego, and we've since been able to test a full-production sample back at IR headquarters. Just to get it out of the way at the outset, I have to say that the NEX-7 is my new favorite camera: I can't say enough about how great the new "Tri-Navi" interface is (although I'll certainly try to below), the image quality is truly exceptional, and Sony addressed many of the foibles of the earlier NEX-series user interfaces, although some still remain. It's one heck of a package, and as such, I'm afraid this is going to be an unusually long Shooter's Report.

Since the biggest single change in the NEX-7's controls is its "Tri-Navi" interface, I'll begin there. In my opinion, it's a pretty significant advance in camera control, and there's a lot to describe, so this will be an unusually long review section.

Ergonomics

While pretty compact, the NEX-7's grip design is comfortable even for those with larger hands.

I'll start with how the NEX-7 generally feels in the hand, which is very good indeed. I found the front grip quite comfortable, despite the camera's small overall size: The shape of the grip encourages your middle finger to lay down parallel to the camera body, and there's enough space there for even relatively large fingers. Held like that, your index finger is perfectly positioned over the shutter button, and drawing it back slightly positions it directly above the top-panel function button. (Here's an example of the subtleties of camera design: The function button is located towards the front of the grip, rather than centered front to back on the grip as the shutter button is. It turns out that it's positioned right on the line that your index finger most naturally follows when withdrawing from the shutter button. Further back on the body would have meant a more awkward reach and a cramped feeling: One of those things you don't think about, but that can make the difference between a camera's being a pleasure or pain to use.)

The most natural grip position leaves your thumb perfectly poised between the two top Tri-Navi control dials.

On the back panel, the slight protrusion of the thumb rest leaves your thumb roughly centered between the two top Tri-Navi control wheels, and it's a short, comfortable reach to hit the dedicated movie recording button. The reach down to the rear-panel control dial isn't as easy, really requiring a two-handed grip on the camera. We didn't find this a problem, though, as the most frequently-accessed functions were mapped to the top dials, and we almost always find ourselves holding cameras with both hands anyway.

The rear dial really requires you hold the camera in front of you, but the two-handed grip the NEX-7 naturally encourages makes this fast and easy.

With all the buttons and dials located on the right side of the camera, your left hand can be dedicated to providing support and adjusting the zoom or focus settings. In practice, this made accessing all the right-side controls very natural and fluid. We also found it relatively easy to manipulate the various settings with our eye held to the eyepiece: The combination of the front function button and the Tri-Navi controls on top and back let us adjust things like HDR settings or white balance tweaks without losing sight of our subject. Very nice.

Enthusiast's Prayers Answered: The Sony NEX-7 "Tri-Navi" Interface

As wildly successful as the NEX-5 was, it's no secret that many enthusiast users were frustrated by its "beginner-friendly" user interface. With the NEX-7 aimed squarely at the enthusiast crowd, Sony went out to develop an entirely new user interface better matched to enthusiast's desires. Calling the result the "Tri-Navi" interface, I think they've done a pretty good job.

At the core of the NEX-5's interface problems was a simple paucity of buttons. Feeling that too many buttons would confuse the novices and digicam-upgraders the NEX-3 and NEX-5 were aimed at, Sony gave users only three to control the camera with. That was probably fine for the point & shoot set, but it made accessing the cameras' many capabilities a teeth-gnashing, thumb-reddening exercise. (Everyone at IR had sore thumbs the day after the NEX-5 arrived, from incessant fiddling with the single control wheel.) With the NEX-7, Sony has decisively addressed this problem, adding two more control dials on top of the camera and extra button and lever on the rear panel.

At the heart of the Tri-Navi interface are three control dials; the two new ones mounted edge-on at the camera's top, plus the rear dial familiar from earlier NEX models. Together they form a very convenient and flexible user interface that turned out to be even more effective in live shooting than was conveyed in pre-release presentations. In our NDA briefings, Sony made quite a big deal out of the Tri-Navi interface, to which we frankly had a somewhat jaundiced view: After all, we've heard many times about some "revolutionary" feature or interface that turned out to be considerably less so in practice. In the case of the Tri-Navi control scheme, though, once we got down to live shooting with the camera, we realized that the hyped presentations actually didn't do it justice.

Tri-Navi Interface. The two dials on the top right of the camera (seen here edge-on) and the familiar control dial on the rear panel form the heart of the new "Tri-Navi" user interface. Shown here in Aperture Priority mode, the two top dials control aperture and exposure compensation (Av and Ev), while the rear dial manages ISO and the center button switches between exposure modes. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

By default, the two top dials control exposure; aperture, shutter speed, or exposure compensation, depending on the exposure mode you're working in. You can cycle through a total of five different sets of control parameters, though, simply by pressing the Navigation/Function button located on the camera's top front panel, just to the right of the shutter button.

Many Options. You can quickly choose between five different sets of controls for the Tri-Navi interface. In the shot above, the DRO/HDR set has been chosen, with the top left dial controlling HDR exposure range, the top right dial exposure compensation, while the rear dial selects the type of tonal adjustment desired (DRO, HDR, or off).

As noted, you can cycle through five different sets of options for the Tri-Navi controls. Exposure settings are always at the top of the list, but the others are programmable. The diagram below shows the defaults for the other four option sets.

Option Round Robin. This illustration (courtesy Sony US, from their NDA briefing deck) shows the default sequence of options, accessed by successive presses of the Navigation/Function button. This particular shot shows the D-Range settings seen in the photo above, in their place in the rotation. You can choose from a total of six options, to fit into the four non-exposure "slots" in the rotation. (Click the picture to see the larger version of this image; it just didn't crunch down to 500 pixels wide all that well.)

Sony's done a great job of making the Tri-Navi interface configurable. You can select from a total of six different options for each "slot" in the round-robin of choices accessed via the Navigation button, and one available option is "none." If you select None for one or more of the option slots, it shortens the selection cycle accordingly. For instance, if you didn't often use the D-Range or Creative Style settings, you could eliminate them from the rotation, so you'd only have three options to cycle through to get to any one of them. This may seem like a small point, but it impressed us with the thought Sony into the interface design. Sometimes less is more, and recognizing this speaks to a deeper understanding of how people actually shoot than we often see expressed in many product designs.

The default assignments for the three Tri-Navi dials change depending on the shooting mode you're in. Here's a table listing assignments for each dial in each major camera mode:

Sony NEX-7 Default Tri-Navi Dial Assignments
Shooting Mode
Left Dial
Right Dial
Rear Dial
iAuto No Function No Function No Function
Program Auto Program Shift Exposure Compensation ISO
Aperture Priority Aperture Value Exposure Compensation ISO
Shutter Priority Shutter Speed Exposure Compensation ISO
Manual Shutter Speed Aperture Value ISO
3D Sweep Panorama Right/Left direction Exposure Compensation Right/Left direction
2D Sweep Panorama Right/Left-Up/Down direction Exposure Compensation Right/Left-Up/Down direction
Anti Motion Blur No Function Exposure Compensation No Function

Here are the dial assignments for each of the optional settings groups:

Sony NEX-7 Optional Tri-Navi Dial Assignments
Settings Group
Left Dial
Right Dial
Rear Dial
Focus Settings Focus Area Select Left/Right focus position Up/Down focus position
White Balance White Balance Preset A/B color adjust G/M color adjust
D-Range (DRO) Level (1-5) Exposure Compensation DRO Off/DRO/HDR
D-Range (HDR) EV Spread Exposure Compensation DRO Off/DRO/HDR
Creative Style Creative Style Selection Amount (+/-3) of parameter selected by rear dial Sharpness, Saturation, Contrast
Picture Effects No Function Select among options for current Picture Effect Choose Picture Effect (Miniature, Partial Color, etc.)
Custom (see below) (see below) (see below)

In Custom mode, you can assign any of 9 functions plus "Not Set" to any of the three dials. The only restriction is that you can't assign the same function to more than one dial. The nine functions that can be assigned to the control dials via the Custom option are:

  • Exposure Compensation
  • Autofocus Mode
  • ISO
  • Metering Mode (pattern)
  • White balance preset (Auto, Daylight, etc.)
  • DRO/Auto HDR mode (Off/DRO/HDR, but also Off/DRO Level 1-5, Auto HDR/HDR EV spread 1-6)
  • Creative Style preset
  • Picture Effect
  • Quality (JPEG Fine/JPEG Standard/RAW/JPEG+RAW)
  • "Not Set" (in case you don't want to assign any function to that dial)

In actual practice, we found ourselves most often using (and loving) the basic exposure adjustments available in the Tri-Navi settings by default. As we became more familiar with the camera, though, we ventured deeper into the Tri-Navi world and were deeply appreciative of how quickly and easily we could do things like white balance tweaking or HDR setup that formerly would have required an extended trip into the menu system.

Thanks to the flexibility of the Tri-Navi system, the NEX-7 is a camera that richly rewards extended use and familiarity: As easy as the various options are to get to, it can take a little time to wrap your brain around all that's available. As you spend time with it, though, you come to really appreciate the power it puts at your fingertips. In some ways, the extent to which the NEX-7 rewarded time spent with it harkened back to its distant roots in the Minolta line, particularly the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D.

I think I first realized just how impactful the Tri-Navi interface was during a long day of shooting with both the NEX-7 and Sony Alpha A65. While the A65 has a great user interface (very much in the upper tier of digital SLRs I've shot with), as the day wore on, I found I had to force myself to take an equal number of pictures with the A65. It was almost like when I was first transitioning to digital, and the immediacy of the digital experience made it hard for me to continue with my film bodies, even though at the time film held the quality edge. (This was in the distant prehistory of digital photography.) The Tri-Navi interface was such a liberating, creatively productive interface that I was loathe to return to the more conventional DSLR world after using it. (Fair warning; once you try it, Tri-Navi may well spoil you for any other camera.)

Lest I sound entirely like a commercial for Tri-Navi, I should point out that there are still areas where there's room for improvement. They're all relatively minor niggles, but a typical example is the screen for tweaking color balance. In this mode, the upper left wheel selects the white balance mode (Auto, Daylight, etc.), the right wheel controls the Amber/Blue adjustment axis, and the rear dial controls the Green/Magenta axis. My niggling complaint comes in there being no way to quickly restore the tweak adjustments to their neutral values; you have to adjust the setting of each axis back to zero using the dials. At the same time, the function button below and left of the rear dial is completely unused. Why not use it as a "return to zero" button? (It has exactly this sort of use when setting Flexible Spot autofocus.)

Sony NEX-7 Viewfinder

After the Tri-Navi interface, the aspect of the NEX-7 that most affected my shooting was its OLED viewfinder.

On the positive side, the NEX-7's viewfinder really sets a new bar for EVF excellence. (The same viewfinder element is used in the Sony Alpha A77 and A65 models.) It has a reasonably high eyepoint, so is usable with eyeglasses, despite the huge image it presents. If you've become accustomed to the relatively tiny images projected by typical APS-C DSLRs, the NEX-7 will amaze you the first time you look through its eyepiece. The viewfinder image itself is huge, yet there's still room around the edges for very clear data readouts.

Long time IR readers will know that we've never been big fans of electronic viewfinders (EVFs). Thus far the tonal range, clarity, brightness, resolution, and update lag/refresh rates of EVFs have generally made them poor substitutes for the tried and true optical versions.

As technology continues to advance, though, many limitations of earlier EVFs are being addressed, and the OLED technology used in the "TruFinder" found in these latest Alpha and NEX models makes another large step in the right direction.

Less Info than A77. We liked the huge amount of information you could display in the Sony A77's EVF, so were a little disappointed by how much less the NEX-7 had on offer. Not bad, but not the wealth of info found in the A77. (The histogram and grid displays seen here are optional.)

Big, Sharp, Accurate

The first thing that strikes you about the TruFinder is how big it is. If you're used to shooting with normal subframe SLRs, you're in for a pleasant surprise the first time you look through the one. It's really more a size you'd expect to see on a high-end full-frame SLR selling for thousands of dollars more. It's also incredibly sharp; the first EVF we've seen with XGA (1,024 x 768) resolution; a staggering 2.4 million RGB dots. It also shows 100% of the frame area that the camera will capture; another feature more commonly associated with very high-end professional cameras.

Other Improvements, a couple of gripes

One of our biggest EVF gripes has been poor handling of highlight detail: It's often impossible to see what's going on with sky detail if you're shooting a landscape. The TruFinder has some of the best highlight handling we've seen to date, but unfortunately gets into trouble at the other end of the tonal scale, with a tendency to plug dark areas of the image badly. (Why can't Sony use the DRO dynamic range optimization technology that's a standard feature in their cameras to make an EVF that'll display a more useful tonal range?) Also, even at maximum brightness, the TruFinder isn't nearly as bright as a sunny day, so we found that our eyes sometimes took a few moments to adapt when we first looked through it when the surroundings were very bright.

We did feel that the TruFinder's update lag and refresh rate were considerably better than we saw on last year's Alpha A33 and A55 models, although it's still not quite up to the zero millisecond lag provided by an optical finder.

Finally, of course there are the things no optical viewfinder can do: For one, provide a true preview of the shot you're about to capture (including white balance and exposure), and for another offer an enhanced in-finder information display. This last was another minor disappointment, though: Where the SLT-A77's EVF information display was incredibly rich, that in the NEX-7 has been stripped down quite a bit. You can enable a pretty complete information display on the rear-panel LCD, but that same display isn't an option in the EVF. That said, it's pretty quick to cycle through the different control options via the function button next to the shutter button, and doing so shows you the current settings in the process.

Bottom line, while we still like the visual experience of looking through an optical viewfinder, Sony's new TruFinder addresses a number of traditional EVF issues, and brings such a host of other benefits that we'd be happy to make the optical/EVF switch with it.

Optics

Optics are really the weakest link in the NEX product line: The 18-55mm kit lens is OK, but decidedly unspectacular, and even primes haven't been very impressive. (The new Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens is very good, but it also carries a list price of a thousand dollars. See our review on SLRgear.com.) When Sony announced the SLT-A77, the A-mount world got a beautiful 16-80mm Carl Zeiss zoom at a list price of $850; why not something like that for the NEX line? With the resolution the NEX-7 is capable of, it's a shame not to have a high-quality mid-range zoom to use with it.

Manual-focus assist. The NEX-7 is a great camera to use with manual-focus lenses. Besides the optional high viewfinder magnification, there's a handy feature called "peaking," that shows a colored border around sharply focused edges.

On a positive note, we loved how easy it was to achieve accurate focus manually, with the combination of the high resolution LCD and EVF, plus the optional high-magnification focus-assist display available in manual-focus mode. We also found the "peaking" function to work quite well - This option puts a colored border around sharply-focused objects, and makes it quite easy to find the correct focus setting. You can choose the highlight color and also adjust the sensitivity. These features will be particularly welcome to the huge community of enthusiasts who mount foreign manual-focus lenses on NEXs via the myriad mount adapters available.

One other minor niggle in the Sony NEX-7's user interface, though: As noted, the camera can optionally switch to a high-magnification viewfinder display to help with manual focus. The camera also has a "DMF" focus mode, in which the camera will first focus automatically, and then let you tweak the focus manually. We find this very handy when working with difficult-to-focus subjects, but were annoyed to find that the high-magnification display wasn't available in DMF mode. (?!) Why on earth not? - The whole reason you'd use DMF mode is because you want to achieve more precise focus than the AF system is capable of: Why then handicap the user by not offering a magnified viewfinder image to focus with? We've raised this issue with Sony, are crossing our fingers (but not holding our breath) that a fix for this might make it into a future firmware update.

Unique modes

The exceptional shooting speed attainable with Sony's high-speed CMOS sensor technology enables a lot of special multi-shot exposure modes. Sony pioneered these several years ago, and while other manufacturers are starting to copy some of them, from what we've seen, Sony's implementations work the best.

I'd have a hard time saying just which multi-exposure mode I like the most. Handheld Twilight and Anti-Motion Blur work at low light levels, Sweep Panorama is great for taking in huge swaths of your surroundings in brighter light, and Sony's HDR (High Dynamic Range) options are among the best we've seen for taming subjects with a huge brightness range.

Handheld Twilight mode
Conventional shot at ISO 16,000

The NEX-7's Handheld Twilight mode is incredibly useful in dim lighting. The shots and crops above were captured with a prototype sample in really dim lighting; It was dark enough that I had to squint a little to read the labels on the wine bottles. The camera actually chose a slightly smaller aperture in the conventional ISO 16,000 (!) shot on the right, but even allowing for that, the version shot in Handheld Twilight mode is amazingly clean.

Handheld Twilight mode is a Sony-specific feature I find myself using very often. The idea is that the camera very rapidly captures 6 shots, and then micro-aligns them and "stacks" them together to produce a single final image with much-improved noise, and much less blur than you'd get trying to hand-hold an exposure as long as the 6 shots combined. Basically, if the lighting and aperture called for a 6/10 second exposure, Handheld Twilight mode would grab six 1/10 second shots. Combine that the very good SteadyShot image stabilization available in some of their lenses (the 18-55mm kit lens is one of them), and you can shoot handheld down to crazy-low light levels. Other manufacturers have begun to copy this feature, but so far they haven't seemed to be able to micro-align the shots with each other the way Sony does, so the resulting images are more blurred. Extremely impressive, and very handy whenever you're in a low-light situation.

Anti-Motion Blur does much the same thing as Handheld Twilight, but the aim is more to provide short shutter speeds and somewhat brighter light levels, and it also looks for any motion in the scene. If it finds a part of the subject moving, it uses its image from just one of the frames, boosting the brightness to match the rest. The result is that moving subjects are noisier than their static surroundings, but much less blurred. Anti-Motion Blur works well for crowd scenes at night: Think rock concerts and the like.

Other companies are beginning to experiment with "sweep" panoramas, but in our experience Sony's Sweep Panorama feature works the best. You do need to watch for moving subjects, though: Note the ghostly, chopped-up image of a person on the right side of this shot.

Of course, the big crowd-pleaser is Sweep Panorama: Start at one edge of the very wide (or tall) subject you want to shoot, hold down the shutter button, and "sweep" the camera across the scene. The NEX-7 will snap a large number of shots and assemble them into a single panoramic image. The results are quite spectacular: The stitching of the individual frames is generally pretty good (you'll occasionally find a few stitch errors, but not too often), and you don't get the perspective distortion that an ultra-wide angle lens would produce. This is probably the special Sony feature I use more than any other: My wife and I enjoy hiking, and Sweep Panorama is great for taking pictures of waterfalls. (Panoramas don't just need to be horizontal!)

Image Quality

Fancy features are nice, but ultimately a camera's worth comes down to its image quality. Fortunately this is an area where the Sony NEX-7 excels. We were particularly impressed with its resolution and sharpness; all the more so because it's visibly sharper than the SLT-A77, which uses the same sensor.

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100
Sony A77 at ISO 100

While both cameras share the same 23.4 megapixel sensor, the NEX-7 slightly edges out the SLT-A77 in the sharpness department. It's not dramatic, but the difference is clear in the crops above, taken from our Still Life target, shot at ISO 100 with both cameras. We found this level of difference quite consistently, so it's not a matter of differences in focus.


It appears that the Sony NEX-7 uses a weaker low-pass filter in front of its sensor than does the A77, or perhaps it's the lack of a transmissive mirror. Whatever the reason, the result is an amazing level of crispness and detail in its images. The A77 figuratively knocked our socks off with its resolution and detail, but the NEX-7 kicks it up another notch.

The downside of the weaker or absent low-pass filter is that you can get aliasing in subjects with fine repeating patterns. Given the NEX-7's 24 megapixel resolution, though, such repeating detail has to be pretty fine indeed to alias. (The fix, by the way, is to shoot in DMF focus mode, and slightly defocus the subject before snapping the shot.)

When it came to color accuracy, the Sony NEX-7 was slightly better than average for a compact system camera, but not dramatically so: There were some minor hue shifts in a swatch of colors, ranging from cyans through purples to reds and yellows. Saturation was higher than neutral at 111% on average, but again, that's in line with most other cameras in its general class. - And it must be noted that you can pretty easily tweak the saturation up and down to suit your personal preferences. (For our part, despite the lukewarm-sounding technical observations above, we found the NEX-7's color very appealing.)

The Sony NEX-7 also does very well in the area of image noise: We expected to see a noticeable jump in image noise, what with the tiny pixels of its 24 megapixel sensor, but it's really quite well-behaved, to the point that we'd put it in the top tier of APS-C SLRs, even those with somewhat lower sensor resolutions (16-18 megapixels, for instance). It doesn't do quite as good as the NEX-5N at very high ISOs, so there's some cost to the smaller pixels, but the difference isn't large, and overall we approve of Sony's decision to go with the 24-megapixel sensor in the NEX-7.

Sony NEX-7 Shooter's Summary

In case you hadn't noticed, I really liked the NEX-7 shooting experience. The Tri-Navi user interface literally was a revelation: The true measure of its game-changing nature is how hard I now find it to shoot with cameras having conventional control arrangements. In a very real sense, the Sony NEX-7 has spoiled me for other cameras.

The new TruFinder EVF is another breakthrough in terms of resolution and improved tonal gradation, even if there are still some areas for future improvement.

And then, of course, there's the photos themselves: The resolution, low noise, and appealing color left me very pleased with pretty much everything I shot. (Well, at least everything that was a decent picture to begin with: Let's just say that none of the non-keepers were the camera's fault.) The bottom line is simple: The Sony NEX-7 is my new favorite camera.


Sony NEX-7 Image Quality

Below are crops comparing the Sony NEX-7 to the Canon 60D, Nikon D3X, Panasonic G3, Samsung NX200 and Sony A77. Though we normally start with ISO 1,600 here, we thought we'd start with the base ISO to show the best each camera can do.

NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. All cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses.

Sony NEX-7 versus Canon 60D at ISO 100

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100
Canon 60D at ISO 100

The NEX-7 does very well against the Canon 60D, which is not a huge surprise at ISO 100 considering what happens when you pit a 24.3-megapixel sensor against an 18-megapixel design. Both look great, but the Sony resolves noticeably more. You can see hints of a thread pattern in the Canon 60D, but it's much better defined from the NEX-7.


Sony NEX-7 versus Nikon D3X at ISO 100

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100
Nikon D3X at ISO 100

The Sony NEX-7 does surprisingly well against the $8,000 full-frame Nikon D3X at ISO 100. The Sony's noise is a little higher as is default sharpening, but both resolve tons of detail. In terms of fine detail, the D3X suppresses the slight colors found between the dark tiles, but the NEX-7 preserves them (see the Pentax 645D images to see what we're talking about; the offset printing process leaves some bright colors between the tiles, something we had to verify when the 645D picked them up and the D3X did not). The pink swatch below the red swatch is rendered more accurately in the D3X image, while the NEX-7 is too purple. We give the edge to the D3X, but it's pretty close.


Sony NEX-7 versus Panasonic G3 at base ISO

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100
Panasonic G3 at ISO 160

The NEX-7 outresolves the Panasonic G3's 16-megapixel sensor, but not by much. The Sony's color is just a little more accurate, too. Both struggle with the pink swatch, however.


Sony NEX-7 versus Samsung NX200 at ISO 100

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100
Samsung NX200 at ISO 100

The 20.3-megapixel Samsung NX200 is the closest compact system camera to the NEX-7 in terms of resolution, and it shows with similar resolving power. However the Samsung's JPEG engine isn't as refined when it comes to noise reduction, especially in the red channel. Default sharpening is also on the high side. This is a very poor performance on the otherwise excellent NX200, rendering the red swatch this soft, while the pink swatch below it shows fine thread.


Sony NEX-7 versus Sony A77 at ISO 100

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100
Sony A77 at ISO 100

Here, you can see that NEX-7 produces slightly sharper and more detailed images than the A77, despite theoretically using the same sensor. It's also using the same lens for these shots. In a recent interview, a Sony executive couldn't characterize a probable cause for this, suggesting that it might just be that both cameras were developed by different teams.



Most digital SLRs and CSCs will produce an excellent ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do compared to other cameras at ISO 1,600, 3,200, and 6,400. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1,600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Sony NEX-7 versus Canon 60D at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600
Canon 60D at ISO 1,600

ISO 1,600 confirms the reason we do these crops, as the Sony NEX-7 starts to struggle with detail at this setting thanks to aggressive noise suppression, particularly in the mosaic crop. Still, the NEX-7 maintains more high-contrast detail than the 60D, but not a lot. Both struggle with the red leaf swatch.


Sony NEX-7 versus Nikon D3X at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D3X at ISO 1,600

The Sony NEX-7 really struggles to keep up with the Nikon D3X here, with aggressive noise reduction blurring away more fine detail than the D3X, particularly in the red leaf fabric. Remember that the D3X, though, is a full-frame sensor.


Sony NEX-7 versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600
Panasonic G3 at ISO 1,600

The NEX-7 pulls farther ahead of the Panasonic G3 at ISO 1,600 with its higher resolution more than compensating for the G3's slightly less aggressive noise reduction. It also bears mentioning that the NEX-7 is an APS-C sensor compared to the Panasonic G3's smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor.


Sony NEX-7 versus Samsung NX200 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600
Samsung NX200 at ISO 1,600

Here again, the Samsung NX200's sensor is let down by its JPEG engine, leaving more luminance noise and much more chrominance noise behind, while blurring the red leaf fabric more than the Sony. Both maintain reasonably good high-contrast detail, though the NX200 shows more sharpening halos. Both are APS-C sensors.


Sony NEX-7 versus Sony A77 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600
Sony A77 at ISO 1,600

Again, we can see the NEX-7 does noticeably better than the A77 at ISO 1,600, despite using the same sensor. The loss of light through the transmissive mirror may be making the A77's noise reduction work harder at keeping noise levels in check, and/or there might be a different low-pass filter, tough to say.



Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.

Sony NEX-7 versus Canon 60D at ISO 3,200

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200
Canon 60D at ISO 3,200

Except for color, it seems both cameras render similar levels of detail at ISO 3,200, though the NEX-7 does a better job with the red swatch. The Canon retains a little bit more subtle color, if it's a little pumped by comparison. Fairly close.


Sony NEX-7 versus Nikon D3X at ISO 3,200

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200
Nikon D3X at ISO 3,200

The Nikon D3X's lower noise and less aggressive noise reduction leaves more fine detail and subtle color variations intact than the NEX-7, and as usual the Nikon does a much better job at rendering the red leaf pattern, a Nikon specialty.


Sony NEX-7 versus Panasonic G3 at ISO 3,200

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200
Panasonic G3 at ISO 3,200

Here, we can see the Panasonic G3 can't keep up with the NEX-7 in terms of detail or color, though its high contrast detail is still pretty good.


Sony NEX-7 versus Samsung NX200 at ISO 3,200

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200
Samsung NX200 at ISO 3,200

Again, the Sony's more sophisticated noise reduction and JPEG rendering preserves more detail and leaves less noise than Samsung's JPEG engine.


Sony NEX-7 versus Sony A77 at ISO 3,200

Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200
Sony A77 at ISO 3,200

As we saw before, the NEX-7 image has less noise and better detail than the A77 image at the same ISO.



Detail: Sony NEX-7 versus Canon 60D, Nikon D3X, Panasonic G3, Samsung NX200 and Sony A77

Sony
NEX-7
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon
60D
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
D3X
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Panasonic
G3
ISO 160
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Samsung
NX200
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sony
A77
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. High-contrast details are often sharper as ISO rises, so they're worth a look as well. Base ISO detail looks pretty good from all six cameras, with all of them easily resolving the lines inside the larger letters, though the NX200 looks way oversharpened compared to the rest. At ISO 3,200 you can see some decay in quality from the NEX-7, though not quite as much as the A77. At ISO 6,400 the Sony NEX-7 doesn't do as well as the Nikon D3X (as expected) and even the Panasonic G3 gives it a run for the money, but it does better than A77 and much better than the NX200. In terms of color, the Canon, Nikon, and Samsung maintain the red better than the Sonys and Panasonic.

 

Sony NEX-7 Print Quality

Astonishing print quality, with surprisingly good prints as large as 30 x 40 inches.

ISO 100 shots look quite good at 30 x 40, with razor sharp detail and good color.

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. In many cases the NEX-7's prints are slightly sharper than its sibling, the A77's. It is not a big enough difference to bump the NEX-7 higher or the A77 lower in print sizes, but just as we pointed out with the crops above it is still worth noting. As we noted with 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.

 

In the Box

The Sony NEX-7 ships with the following items in the box:

  • Sony NEX-7 body
  • E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens zoom lens (in kit version; other kits may be available outside the US market)
  • Body cap
  • Front and rear caps for lens
  • NP-FW50 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack
  • BC-VW1 battery charger (separate power cord included in some markets)
  • USB cable
  • Shoulder strap
  • Body Cleaning cloth
  • Application Software for Alpha Camera CD-ROM
  • Alpha Handbook CD-ROM
  • Instruction manual
  • Warranty card

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Extra battery pack
  • LA-EA1 or LA-EA2 mount adapter (if you want to use Alpha-mount lenses)
  • Protective case
  • Large capacity, high-speed SDHC/SDXC memory card. 8-16GB or larger makes sense if you plan on shooting lots of HD video. Look for a speed grade of at least Class 6 for HD video capture.

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Sony NEX-7 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Exceptional resolution and crispness in images
  • SUPER body & user interface: The TriNavi interface is our absolute favorite UI, ever. Period.
  • Built-in flash; a first for the NEX line
  • Excellent image noise, even at high ISO levels
  • Maximum ISO of 16,000 (good quality to 3,200)
  • Very responsive; never had the feeling that we were waiting on the camera
  • Fast AF performance; competitive with SLRs
  • Very fast release lag when pre-focused
  • Good shot to shot speed and excellent buffer depth
  • Exceptional continuous-mode speed with AF disabled
  • No "blackout" period after burst capture; can resume shooting immediately
  • True (100% frame-accurate) main-sensor live view system
  • New OLED TruFinder is best EVF we've seen to date
    • Very large, spacious view
    • Extreme resolution
    • Holds highlight detail better than most
  • Tilting rear LCD panel very handy for high or low shots
  • Exceptional manual-focus usability
    • High-magnification focus-assist view
    • "Peaking" in-focus indicator works great
    • Currently the best camera for foreign-mount manual focus lenses, bar none (at least as of this writing)
  • Shallow back-focus depth (flange to sensor) and excellent Sony support of third-parties means lots of lens-mount adapters: Use with most any manual-focus lens you might have.
  • Very good video capability
    • Full HD resolution at up to 60p (AVCHD 2.0)
    • Both AVCHD & MP4 formats
    • Very good video quality
    • Control over aperture and shutter speed in Video mode
    • Very quiet AF operation during movie recording
    • Little rolling shutter artifact
    • External mic input
  • Well-done digital level gauge (clear advantage of an EVF)
  • "Sunny Weather" brightness setting on LCD is first time we've really been able to see LCD images in bright sunlight
  • Sweep Panorama feature works well, is very useful for wide or tall subjects.
  • Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes are real breakthroughs in available-light system-camera photography
  • Quiet, unobtrusive shutter sound (no mirror slap)
  • Great overall build quality; a joy to use
  • Only way to change modes is via the menu system
  • Best-of-breed EVF still doesn't match optical viewfinder for highlight/shadow visibility (Why can't we have DRO to extend dynamic range of the EVF image?)
  • Continuous-mode with AF enabled isn't as fast as it might be; at the lower end of typical SLR frame rates in its price range (but not at this resolution!).
  • Magnified focus-assist viewfinder display not available in "DMF" auto/manual focus mode
  • Fixed screen brightness in magnified live view can make it difficult to check focus on highlight and shadow areas
  • Reduced info in viewfinder display vs. A65/77 TruFinder readouts
  • High-ISO noise isn't quite as good as that of the NEX-5N
  • Kit lens is disappointing; Sony needs a high-quality E-mount medium zoom
  • Relatively slow flash sync (1/160s)
  • No body-based IS; lens-based only
  • Minor lag in viewfinder update during continuous shooting can make it harder to track rapidly-moving subjects
  • Settings menus are too modal: You can't change some settings without first putting camera in the mode to which those settings apply. (Annoying!)
  • Sunny-Weather LCD brightness setting does lose highlight detail (hard to avoid, though, given how bright it is)
  • Modal playback showing only stills or videos (but never both together) is inconvenient (!)
  • Non-standard flash shoe means few third-party flash accessories
  • Very good body/grip design, but the small body can still be tiring when shooting with large lenses
  • Doesn't take advantage of faster UHS-I SD cards

Click here to visit B&H's website

Back when we first saw the original Sony NEX-5, we knew Sony had something big on their hands. When we posted our review of the NEX-5, WOW, were we ever right: The NEX-5 was the most popular camera on the entire IR site for months on end.

Now comes the Sony NEX-7; the camera many of us wish had shipped first, instead of the NEX-5. The NEX-7 is a NEX body designed from the ground up for the enthusiast photographer. We understand Sony's deciding to wait on the NEX-7, though, until they could ship it with the incredible 24.3 megapixel APS-C sensor and super-fast BIONZ processor it's built around.

This same 24.3-megapixel sensor wowed us in the Sony A77, but in the NEX-7 it's even better, producing some of the best images we've ever seen from an APS-C camera, regardless of price.

There's a whole lot to the NEX-7 besides a nifty sensor, though, including the best EVF we've seen to date, a hot shoe for the first time on an NEX body, greatly expanded movie recording capabilities, and Sony's breakthrough "Tri-Navi" user interface.

It's hard to overstate just how big a breakthrough the Tri-Navi control system is: The NEX-7 is by far the most fluid camera we've used to date. Perhaps the truest measure of our affection for Tri-Navi is how difficult it's become for us to step back to shooting with any camera with a conventional control design. It's really a night-and-day difference; don't shoot with an NEX-7 unless you're prepared to buy one.

As we write this, Sony (along with many other electronics manufacturers) are working to recover from the devastating Thai floods of September, 2011, which literally submerged their main Alpha/Cyber-shot camera factory. The most recent word is that they've converted a mobile audio factory that escaped the flooding to camera production, with first production there already underway. The net result is there were at least some NEX-7s available to fill preorders in the US during December 2011, but that will probably be followed by a shortage of unknown duration. Accordingly, if you're reading this in January of 2012 and decide you want an NEX-7, you'd better run out and grab one as soon as possible.

The bottom line: Sony NEX-7 is one of the most exciting cameras of 2011, and a real breakthrough product in a number of key areas. We predict this will be one of the most popular cameras Sony's ever manufactured. If you've been considering a camera purchase anywhere near its price range, you owe it to yourself to give the Sony NEX-7 a serious look. A resounding Dave's Pick.

 

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