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Sony NEX-7 Six Months On

What Succeeded – What Failed?

Icon Chapel – San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. April, 2012
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 100

It's now been six months since I started using the Sony NEX-7. I received one for testing in November, 2011, just before leaving for six months in Mexico, and have been using it there all winter.  It was my primary camera over that period of time. I liked it so much that shortly after starting to work with it I ordered one for my long term use.

The NEX-7 has been a huge success for Sony. Delayed by the events in Thailand and Japan last year, and only now entering full-scale world-wide distribution, this 24 Megapixel APS-C camera is small enough to fit in a pocket (at least with pancake lens) yet able enough to produce large exhibition quality prints. But, it's not without its flaws. 

My daily use over a period of five months has lead to fairly intimate familiarity, and some six thousand frames later I think that I have a good sense of the camera's strengths and weaknesses. But, before discussing these I would caution that my usage and yours may not be similar. The types of shooting that I do and the lenses that I use are a function of my taste and shooting style, so don't assume that the issues that I raise will necessarily be similar to your own.


Autofocus

The NEX-7 uses contrast detection AF. It's pretty good for the breed, but simply is outclassed by Phase Detection AF. This is easy enough to compare by putting on the LA-EA2 adaptor for use with Sony A series lenses, which uses the same Phase Detection system as Sony's full-size cameras.

The biggest issue for me is that in moderate to low light conditions, and with longer focal lengths, AF sometimes seems to "stick" in an out-of-focus condition and then take several seconds to lethargically pull itself together. When focus lock is achieved, it is extremely precise, and most of the time one is unaware of any issues, but occasionally shots can be missed because it simply doesn't respond energetically enough.


Controls, and the Lack of User Functions

Generally speaking, the NEX-7's user interface is very good. The Tri-Navi system is brilliantly designed and allows rapid access to virtually all commonly used functions. Because of the camera's small size some controls are a bit finicky when trying to shoot quickly, but on the whole I am pleased with its operational control.

The camera's menu system though is the usual NEX disaster, and the sooner that Sony rationalizes it the better. The good news in this regard is that once the camera is customized one doesn't need to access the menus all that often. But when one does, the scatter-gun approach to menu layout used by Sony on their other (lesser) NEX models is totally out of place on such a high performance camera.

The camera's biggest failing, in my opinion, is its lack of any User Function Settings. Coming from any sort of serious camera one is at first puzzled as to where Sony has hidden them. Then, after exploring the menu mess and the user manual one realizes that the User Functions are not just hard to find, they're simply not there at all.

This means that in varying shooting situations every single setting needs to be individually changed. Say you're shooting a low ISO landscape with full manual controls, and all of a sudden a giant flock of geese fly overhead, requiring higher ISO, faster shutter speed, continuous autofocus etc, etc? Well, fuggetaboudit. With a proper camera just go from C1 to C2 (or whatever you've pre-set) and the camera jumps to a completely different functional set-up. With the NEX-7 one has to go through each and every control one at a time to change them. This gets lame very quickly.

Sony – if you do nothing else on your next-generation update, please let us have at least 3 User Custom Settings.


EVF

The NEX-7 has a very high resolution OLED electronic viewfinder. It may well be the "best" EVF currently (Q1, 2012) available. But, that doesn't mean that it is as good as one could want. Yes, resolution is excellent, smearing is minimal and brightness is very good. But dynamic range sucks. The dynamic range on all EVFs, from all manufacturers suck.

Now, don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean that it's in any way unusable most of the time. In fact, much of the time its eminently usable. But, when contrast is high shadow areas can become almost or even completely invisible.

EVF Simulation
OVF Simulation

Above is a simulation of what I mean. With the naked eye the girl and woman in the shadows, as well as the upper body of the girl in the foreground, are plainly visible. This is also the case when viewed through a typical optical viewfinder on a DSLR. The larger the prism (ie: full frame vs. APS-C) the clearer the view, but irregardless an optical viewfinder still allows one to see into the shadows. But with an EVF, such as the one on the NEX-7, the shadow areas of a high contrast scene such as the above can become completely invisible.

It's worth noting that not just EVFs, but LCDs as well suffer from this lack of on-screen dynamic range, with blocked-up shadow areas. For this reason I don't expect pros and some serious amateurs to relinquish their optical viewfinder equipped DSLRs in the foreseeable future. I expect that in the years ahead we'll see increasingly usable EVFs, but these may not satisfy all photographers, and especially those who are cognizant of their limitations.

Shadow Girls. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. April, 2012
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 100 (12,000 equivalent in LR4)

Above is the final image that I saw with my eyes, but couldn't see through the EVF. The camera had been set to ISO 100 for bright daylight shooting
and the zoom was at about 100mm (200mm equiv). The moment wasn't going to last for more than an instant, so I simply lifted the camera up and fired a frame.

The severely underexposed image (by about 7 – 8 stops) was then heavily cropped, and was processed with Lightroom 4, as best as I could.
It's noisy, but ultimately is an image that I'm very pleased with. A great subject always trumps ultimate image quality.


Lenses

One of the most commonly heard criticisms of the NEX system, and especially the 24MP NEX-7, is the lack of high quality "E" mount lenses. I own and use all five current lenses, but don't completely agree with this statement.

In my view the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 is the cream of the crop – fully able to extract the best from this camera's sensor. Second best is the 50mm f/1.8, which is no slouch, and is a lens that always mounts on the camera first when I work in low light conditions.

The 16mm pancake, macro and the kit lens are nothing to write home about. Adequate is the best that I'd say of them.

But the 18-200mm stabilized zoom is very good. Not great, but quite good, especially considering its size, weight and cost. This is the lens that goes on the camera 80% of the time in bright daylight, and unless I need a fast aperture lens it stays on the camera all day, mainly because of its versatility. I tend to use it in Aperture Priority mode, set at f/8 or f/11. A wider aperture than that and it gets too soft, and when smaller than that diffraction becomes at issue. There is some noticable chromatic abberation and distortion, but Lightroom 4's correction and profile deal with it quite well.

With the LA-EA2 adaptor all full frame and reduced frame Sony A mount  lenses can also be mounted, and will work with full phase detection autofocus. Many of these lenses are world class, and putting aside the issue of size and weight for the moment, this addresses the needs of anyone looking to put top grade primes and large aperture zooms on their NEX-7.

One thing to keep in mind is that Sony faces a huge problem with the NEX series, because the cameras are so small. Smaller than just about any mirrorless camera available, including Micro Four Third and others with much smaller sensors. This small body size makes most lenses seem quite large when mounted, even though they of necessity need to cover the full APS-C sized sensor.

It seems to me that a good compromise is reached by using those E mount lenses that one needs when small size and light weight are paramount, and then mounting the LE-EA2 with some top Zeiss primes or G series A mount lenses when performance is the top priority.


Video Button

As Henny Youngman would say – Take the Video Record button; please!  I know that I've moaned about it in the past (as has every other reviewer, and countless owners), but after shooting hundreds and hundreds of video clips of my feet and the sky by accidently pressing the video record button in the course of ordinary handling, I am at my wit's end. It's hard to imagine that anyone at Sony actually used this camera for photography prior to final production or this would have been fixed prior to manufacture.

The fix would be easy. Make the button locking, requiring a deliberate double press to activate. That there hasn't yet been a firmware upgrade yet addressing this issue is very disappointing.


10 FPS

 Blow Up. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. April, 2012
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 100 (12,000 equivalent in LR4)

I'm a bit of an old-school photographer when it comes to shooting fast action (at least when it's predictable action). I much prefer to shoot the frame at the exact peak moment, rather than simply fire off a high speed burst and hoping to catch the action at the right moment. But this means knowing ones camera's response time as well as ones own, and becoming very adept at shooting the type of action involved, be it pole vaulting, diving, auto racing, etc.

For this reason I've never been that interested in cameras that can shoot high frame rates. Even in the 1970's when I was shooting professional sports, and had a 10FPS capable Canon SLR, I rarely used the motor drive. 

But the fact that the NEX-7 can shoot  24 Megapixel raws at 10 FPS, is quite something. In this mode AF locks after the first frame, which may be a limitation for some.

Above, for example, is a shot that is part of a 10FPS bust, taken just at the moment that a paper-mache effigy of an unpopular politician exploded, during Easter Sunday celebrations in San Miguel. For this type of shot there is no way to anticipate the peak moment, there is no need for tracking AF, and all that's required is a fast burst.


Image Quality

Weathered Couple. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. April, 2012
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 320

Not much new needs to be said about the NEX-7's image quality. The camera ranks #10 on DxOMark, making its sensor the highest rated among mirrorless cameras and besting quite a few other more prestigious, and more expensive cameras. Remember though the DxO's ranking are irrespective of resolution or other important characteristics.

Six thousand frames later I have to say that I am still impressed by what this camera is capable of. Like any high resolution sensor (it would be 54 Megapixel if Full Frame) it thrives on great lenses and great shooting technique, and disappoints when the optics mounted are not the best, and sloppy technique is used. But when a great lens, high shutter speed or tripod, optimum aperture etc., are employed, you'll smile to the 20 X24" prints that this camera can produce.

High ISO

 Clown. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. April, 2012
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 1600 

A lot of photographers (gear heads?) are fixated these days on astronomical ISOs. If a camera can't produce a grainless ISO 24,000 image they hold up their noses at it. We'll, real-world, for most photographers this is more about bragging rights than an ability to capture worthwhile images. Sure, a few photojournalists need crazy high ISO when shooting in difficult situations, and when a slow zoom lens is used of necessity in low light, high ISO is nice to have. The NEX-7 is not the camera for those situations.

But, if your needs are more customary you'll find that you can shoot very clean ISO 1600 images and make large noise free prints, as shown in the clown image above. Yes, you'll need to learn how to use noise reduction properly on your raw files, and also how to then sharpen properly, but this is the work of just a few moments once you know what you're doing.


The Bottom Line

To my mind there isn't a camera that packs more punch in a small lightweight package than the Sony NEX-7. For anyone looking for a light weight camera system, especially for travel, its hard to beat the NEX-7. With an appropriate adaptor it can take just about any lens ever made, including those from Canon, Nikon, Leica, etc. The EVF is state-of-the-art, it shoots HD video with full manual control if desired, and there's even a built-in flash. Yes, there are some really annoying interface issues, but nothing that a firmware update can't fix if Sony has the will to do so.

This is the mirrorless camera that other manufacturers have to reckon with, and for the moment is, in my opinion, one of the best available choices in a compact system camera for the serious photographer.


A Word or Two About Sony

As this is first being published it is being reported that Sony has lost money for the fourth year in a row, and is about to lay off 10,000 workers. Here is a New York Times report that is worth reading to understand what's going on with the company.

What does this means for photographers and cinematographers interested in the brand? Actually, I think that it's good news. Sony has made it very clear that digital photography and video are cornerstones of its recovery strategy. These areas are therefore ones which will receive increasing emphasis by the company, and with the need for continuing innovation the key to growth and market share expansion I expect that brand loyalists will be pleased with what they will see from Sony over the coming few years.

April, 2012

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Concepts: Single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Aperture, Viewfinder, Frame rate, Photographic lens, Photography, Digital single-lens reflex camera

Entities: San Miguel, Sony, Sony faces, Canon, San Miguel, DxOMark, Leica, Nikon, Mexico, Thailand, Japan, optical viewfinder, user interface, ISO, shutter speed, Easter, Michael Reichmann, Lightroom, Henny Youngman, New York Times, LE-EA2, SLR, E

Tags: camera, Sony, mirrorless camera, image, Sony NEX-7, optical viewfinder, phase detection, mount lenses, dynamic range, low light, shadow areas, low light conditions, video record button, Megapixel APS-C camera, small, LA-EA2 adaptor, high performance camera, sensor, bright daylight, peak moment, primary camera, aperture, good news, light weight camera, San Miguel, shutter speed, user functions, manual control, proper camera, high resolution, small size, image quality, ones camera, bright daylight shooting, typical optical viewfinder, usual nex disaster, 18-200mm stabilized zoom, menu, longer focal lengths, full-scale world-wide distribution