A Sony NEX-7 Rolling Review
In Hand and On The Road
This will be a "rolling" review. It's a pun, because I am beginning writing it as I leave for my annual drive from Canada down to Mexico, where I now live during the winter months. But it will also be the first time that I write a "rolling" review, in that new sections will appear as they are completed, rather than once everything has finally been written.
The NEX-7 is one of the most hotly anticipated cameras of 2011 – 2012. This is true because of its features, specifications and – as we'll see – its performance. After spending a day with the NEX-7 at the press launch event in San Diego in August I commented to a senior Sony executive that I expected that the camera would likely be so popular that they'd never be able to keep up with demand. We couldn't have anticipated the irony of the comment because of the floods in Thailand in October, which essentially destroyed the camera's production facility. As this is being written in late November, Sony has just announced that manufacturing has been moved to a Thai plant unaffected by the floods, and that production has just restarted. My guess is that cameras will now start to ship in small quantities in December and reasonable quantities by February.
Thus far, in addition to my initial report there have been NEX-7 reviews from DPReview, SteveHuffPhoto.com, Amateur Photography Magazine, TechRadar.com, Digital Camera Resource, Quesabesde.com (in translation from Spanish), PocketLint and others. More will appear on a regular basis as the small number of review samples around the world get into reporter's and review's hands. For this reason I have no intention of repeating a list of all of the camera's knobs, switches and feature / functions. These are well covered elsewhere. But until the NEX-7 starts shipping, even in limited quantities, it's likely that my reports here will be the first from a photographer using the NEX-7 in the field on a daily basis.
As this is first published I have just arrived in Mexico, where, as I now do each year, I'll be spending the winter. Last year I shot there with the Panasonic GH2 and Fuji X100. This year I'll be working with the NEX-7 and NEX-5n. No camera biases here (except for those that imagine that there are).
The Rolling Review
Articles and Segments below appear as they are written and published, but will be Indexed here for rapid access by repeat visitors. New entries will be announced both on the What's New page and on Twitter as they are published.
Second First Impressions
When I first reported on the the NEX-7 back in early September it had been after just a couple of days of use at the Sony press launch event, during which I also used and reported on the Sony A77, A65 and NEX-5n. Too many cameras and too little time to have anything other than first impressions. But now that I have a production NEX-7 for long term field use and testing I can start to take a better measure of it.
As I write this it's only been in hand for a few days, and preparing for my drive down to Mexico for the next 5 months has been taking most of my time. But I have had some time for familiarization, and done some shooting, though little during the four and half day drive down. Doing 4,000km in 4.5 days means driving, not shooting, and US Interstate highways aren't the most photogenic places I can think of.
Please note that I do not have an instruction manual yet, and so if there are any misunderstandings or errors until I do, I hope you'll understand. This is a sophisticated camera with a lot of features and customization capabilities so it's going to take a bit of time to sort it all out.
Dawn Fog. Tula, Mexico. November, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 18-55mm @ ISO 100
Getting Things off My Chest
I could likely start this rolling review with a litany of positive comments about the camera's excellent control system, great handling and top flight image quality. And I will get to those. But, my job as a reviewer is to tell you about the problems as well as the good things, so here, to start us off, are a few things that initially bug me about the NEX-7.
The EVF Gotcha
The new 2.4MP electronic viewfinder on the NEX-7 is nothing short of brilliant. (It's the same as the ones in the A77, A65 and accessory EVF for the NEX-5n). It's incredably sharp, very bright, and larger to the eye than most viewfinders on DSLRs (except for full frame models). Looking through it some people don't even realize that its an EVF rather than an optical view. The presence of an eye-detect mechanism makes its use almost transparent (no pun intended).
Is it perfect? No. With high contrast scenes the shadows tend to block up a bit, but it's not bad enough to in any way prevent accurate composition or shooting. The eye detect is also a bit slow to engage. One brings the camera up to the eye and there's a momentary pause before the EVF turns on and the LCD turns off. Not terrible. Just a bit annoying.
But one issue which came to light, so to speak, in my first day of working with the NEX-7 was that with the camera either over my shoulder or around my neck it never goes into sleep mode. The reason is that as the camera is hanging against ones chest or side the eye-detect is constantly being engaged. So, even with timeout set properly it never engages.
The solution would be simple. Just make timeout a function of touching the shutter release, and disengage the eye-detect from activating it. A firmware update should be all that's needed to address this flaw, and I hope that Sony takes the issue to heart – soon. A three hour walk in the woods eats up 70% of battery life after only a dozen shots. That was my clue that there was a problem. For now, unless you're only working on a tripod, my suggestion is to remember to turn the camera on and off with the switch rather than reply on the timeout setting.
The Playback Gottcha
Like the NEX-5n, and possibly other Sony cameras that I'm unaware of (I don't have any others at hand at the moment), playback is segmented between three separate views; Stills, MP4 videos and AVCHD videos. This means that you can only play back images or videos of the same type, one after the other. To change between the different types of files one must press Down on the control wheel while in playback mode. This display thumbnails of the correct files type. Now press Left and then the Center button. Next, choose the type of file that you want to view and press the center again.
This is lame. If you take a few stills, and then a video sequence of the same subject, and then some stills again, you have to cycle through quite a lot of button presses to see what your work. Why can't we just have the ability to display or playback the stills and videos in the sequence that they are shot? Other camera makes don't seem to have this problem. Why then does Sony?
Even more annoying is that the red video button can be accidentally pressed. Oops. This isn't the end of the world though. Simply press it again to stop. Now press the playback button and then the delete button.
Now it's freakout time. You press Play again but there are no stills. In fact the screen displays a big question mark with the words No Images underneath it. The hundred stills that you've also shot that day seem to have disappeared. Were they also deleted. The screen did say Deleting Files, with the plural "s".
Fortunately they actually haven't been erased. It jusdt seems as if they were. The problem is that since the last thing that I shot (accidentally or otherwise) was video, it's in the video playback mode, and therefore can't display any photographs that may also be on the card. You need to press the Left side of the wheel and then the Center button, and then choose the type of file that you want to view, and press the center button again. What a mess.
A Quick Fix
A simple solution that I've discovered is that if find yourself in the wrong playback mode simply press either the shutter release if you last shot video, or the video button if you last shot stills. One frame, or a second or two of video is all that's needed. Now press Play and you're in the desired playback mode. These machinations really shouldn't be necessary though.
Smiling School Girls. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. November, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 18-55mm @ ISO 100
Delete Files – Arggg!
Back in August at the press launch I hadn't had the camera in hand for more than an hour before I had my first fright. I took a shot of my feet by accident (which I frequently do for some reason), and went to delete it. When I pressed Delete the screen said Deleting Files. Notice the "S". Plural. Files, not File. I discovered to my relief that it hadn't deleted everything on the card, just the one file I'd requested, but it was a bit unnerving for a moment.
I mentioned this to a senior Sony technical person and he noted it with surprise, and said that he'd report it as a bug. The Firmware 1.0 camera that I now have still has it, but hopefully Sony will address this in their next firmware upgrade.
The NEX-7, like the NEX-5n has a quite nice HDR shooting mode. But, it's JPG, of course. I like to be able to do my own HDR shots and this means being able to shoot a quick bracket of at least three shots (if not more) at at least +/- 1.5 stops, preferably more. Inexplicably the NEX-7 can only bracket in 0.3 or 0.7 EV increments. Nowhere near w ide enough range
This simply isn't good enough for anyone doing serious bracketing, whether for HDR or any other purpose. Please Sony, fix this with a firmware update as soon as possible.
The User Interface
The user interface on the NEX-7 is a hybrid, and in many ways unlike anything that we've seen before from Sony, or anyone else for that matter. Because the camera is so small (only 3/4" thick) there isn't much room for a Mode dial, and so there isn't one. As I've written many times before, camera design is the art of the compromise – size vs. weight vs. complexity vs. cost. With the NEX-7 Sony has built on the base interface of the original NEX-5 (arguably one of the worst ever), added many of the enhancements found in the NEX-5n (which was quite acceptable), and has added enough improvements to the user interface and handling that the NEX-7 is a real pleasure to use, and only occasionally gets in the way of its primary task, which is allowing the user to take photographs quickly and efficiently.
Previous Related Reviews On This Site:
The challenge faced by Sony has been how to improve on the NEX interface but also provide Pros and more advanced photographers with the direct controls and configurability that they need. The solution was to add three new controls (Sony calls this Tri-Navi), make them highly configurable, and also make just about every other control on the camera user configurable.
At their most basic level the two thumbwheels (unlabeled because their functions are changeable) control various combinations of shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation, depending on the Mode that the camera is in. The "Navigation" button beside the shutter release can be programed with a range of functions, each called up by a sequential press. The wheels then take on different adjustment capabilities.
Most importantly, the current function of the wheel is shown on the rear LCD or in the EVF. Immediately above is an illustration of the screen when the White Balance setting is called up, either from the Menu or via a preset on the Command Button. As can be seen, in this instance the left wheel selects a white balance preset while the right wheel along with the scroll wheel allow a colour matrix selection. Of course different operational settings will have differing controls using the same wheels, though sometimes only one, two or three, as needed.
Morning Practice. San Miguel de Allende, MX. November, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E 18-55mm @ ISO 100
My Personal Settings
There's little point in my spending a large amount of your time, or mine, in repeating what's in the pretty good Sony PDF manual for the NEX-7. It covers the programming options that are available in some depth. (Hopefully Sony will put the manual online soon. It can only serve to increase sales, so I can't see why they wouldn't).
Because there are so many different ways to program the camera, I'm going to list below how I have set mine up. The idea behind what I've done it is to group functions together in a logical configuration, so that once learned it's easy to quickly find what one needs. When you get your NEX-7 you may find that this works for you as well, or will set things up somewhat differently.
The illustration from the manual shows the major programmable controls. Here is how I have them set...
AF/MF Button – Toggle (pressing switches between AF and MF)
AEL – Toggle (pressing locks and unlocks Exposure)
Menu – Always set to Main Menu
Center Button (Soft Key C) – Shooting Mode
Right Key – Autofocus... Single or Continuous Focus
Soft Key B – Focus Mode... Center, Multi, or Flexible Spot
Navigation Button –
Position 1: Custom Settings
– Quality: Raw, Raw + JPG, Standard JPG, Fine JPG
– D Range Settings: HDR / DRO etc...
– Metering Mode: Multi, Spot, Center
Position 2: Creative Style: Standard, Vivid, Sepia, B&W etc...
Position 3: Not Set:
Watching and Knocking. San Miguel de Allende, MX. November, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E 50mm f/1.8 @ ISO 100
There are a couple of things that might not make sense to you until you have a camera and manual in hand. The first is that the Navigation Button, located beside the shutter release, calls up three different custom set-ups, one each time its pressed. But, any of these positions can be set as a Custom Setting, which allows three other different things to be controlled at the same time by the Left Wheel, the Right Wheel and the wheel around the center button. What one has set these they show up as legends under and beside these positions.
So, I have set Position One so that the Left Wheel sets image quality, the Right Wheel D Range settings and the Center Wheel the Metering Mode. Now, I mainly shoot in raw, and only go into JPG when I'm shooting HDR. (The reason being that the NEX-7 is crippled in its auto bracketing range – see my complaint above). It therefore makes sense to place HDR on the same screen as the selection between raw and JPG. I placed Metering Mode there as well, because it's the odd man out. I rarely change it from Multi, since I usually judge exposure using the on-screen live histogram.
Position 2 is set to Creative Style, something that I rarely use, again because I shoot mainly JPG. But, when shooting video I like to use Neutral mode with contrast turned down, as this makes later grading of the footage easier.
Position 3 is left unused because I have everything I need set to the other buttons. I see no point in duplicating settings that I already have elsewhere, since this could end up being confusing.
Otherwise, the main buttons control shooting mode, autofocus mode, and focus type, which group together logically. The center wheel's standard function is to set ISO, and I leave it that way, and similarly a left press calls up frame rate, while a lower press calls up exposure compensation. Whew.
Waiting for Mama. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. November, 2011
NEX-7 with E 18-55mm @ ISO 100
Dial Wheel Lock
Oh yes, not to be overlooked on the Setup section of the Menu screen is a control called Dial / Wheel Lock. This allows you to use the top Navigation Button to lock the Scroll Wheel and / or the two top Trinavi dials. I leave the Scroll Wheel set to its default function of ISO setting, and of the three I find it to be the one that is most easily moved by accident. Therefore I have Dial / Wheel Lock set to just lock the Scroll Wheel. To lock and unlock, simply hold down the Navigation Button for a couple of seconds. Nicely implemented.
On a less positive note, I find the position of the video release button to be excellent for recording video, but a complete pain otherwise. I must press it accidentally a dozen times a day, recording anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes of grass, sidewalk and my feet. No real harm done, other than it's an unnecessary battery drain. I wish that Sony had a control for locking it if not needed, as I am sure that there are a great many photographers who will rarely if every use the NEX-7 for video.
While on the subject of video – I am one of the ones who will use the NEX-7 for video. But I was completely dismayed to note that the camera's PDF manual has virtually nothing to say about shooting video. Here is the sum total of what the manual contains on the subject, with the exception of a brief appendix about the AVCHD format.
To record movies, press the MOVIE button to start recording.
Press the MOVIE button again to stop recording.
I intended on writing quite a bit about shooting video with the NEX-7, so stay tuned to future installments of this Rolling Review.
Intelligent Selection Changing (Focus)
I work a great deal with my legacy Leica M lenses. One of the things that I appreciate about the new NEX-5n and NEX-7 is Focus Peaking, which outlines in-focus parts of the image with a coloured edge, making manual focusing that much easier. But, especially when working with wide angle lenses and their considerable depth of field, it isn't always easy to know if you're exactly in focus.
When shooting with a Sony AF lens, and with the camera set to Manual Focus, turning the lens' focusing ring automatically puts the lens into an approximately 10X magnification mode. It stays that way for a predetermined length of time after one stops turning the ring. I have mine set to 2 seconds. But, with a non-Sony lens the camera has no way of knowing that one is turning the focusing ring.
The solution is to have one of the positions on the Navigation Button to call up Focus Settings. With a manual focus lens installed, instead of selecting Flexible Spot, Multizone or Center the on-screen menus wheels and buttons permit positioning of a focusing area as well as calling up a magnification level of 5.9X or 11X.
Please note that the above illustration, taken from the PDF user manual (which I finally have received) is for the way the screen looks when manual focus is selected with a Sony AF lens mounted. The screen appears somewhat different when a non-Sony MF lens is attached. The same capabilities are available though.
The point of all of this is to illustrate that the NEX-7 makes it quite easy to perform manual focusing both with Sony AF and non-Sony MF lenses, and if you make Focus Settings one of the settings called up by the Navigation Button near the shutter release, entering this mode is quick and efficient.
Mondrian Walkby. San Miguel de Allende, MX. November, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E 50mm f/1.8 @ ISO 100
One of Sony's claims is that the NEX-7 (as well as the other new 2011 Alpha and NEX cameras) have the fastest shutter response of any interchangable lens cameras, at 0.02 seconds (20 milliseconds). My experience is that with this new generation of cameras ones ability to capture the exact moment is no longer limited by ones gear but rather the responsiveness of ones eye and finger.
The shot immediately above was taken while I was set up to photograph the Mondrian type paint sample patterns on a building wall. I had my eye to the EVF and heard footsteps approaching from my right. Believing in serendipity, I waiting for whomever it was to enter my view through the eyepiece and then pressed the shutter. From experience with numerous different cameras over many years I can say that with a DSLR and its mechanical shutter and moving mirror it's unlikely that I would have captured the person in mid-frame. But the NEX-7, with its lack of a reflex mirror and shutterless first exposure was able to do so. This is really class-leading performance.
The Major Interface Weakness
Eve. San Miguel de Allende, MX. November, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E 18-55mm @ ISO 500
As good as Sony's new interface on the NEX-7 is, there is one major omission. That is, there is no way to group all of the camera's settings into what some camera makers call My settings, or have on the Mode dial as C1, C2, etc. This is, in my view, a huge hole in all NEX camera's user interface, and is particularly glaring in its absence on the NEX-7 because it is a camera aimed at the advanced amateur and Pro.
Adding such capability would be quite simple, since the camera is completely modal. There are almost no physical switches to be positioned counter to their intended function. This means that adding a C1, C2, C3 position to the Navigation Button selection would be quite straightforward. Again, I urge Sony to consider adding this as well as other suggestions that I and other reviewers are making, to a future firmware update.
NEX-5n Vs. NEX-7 Noise
Into the Valley of Death Rode the ISO 1600
Jump. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. November, 2011
NEX-7 with E 18-200mm @ ISO 100
There is nothing more fraught with peril for a camera reviewer than doing comparisons – any sort of comparisons. There will always be someone, somewhere on the forums that bitches and moans that the comparison is flawed, biased or otherwise a sham. But, no pain, no gain, and I was interested for my own purposes in seeing how these two cameras compared noise-wise, so here goes.
The point of the exercise is that the NEX-5n has an 16 Megapixel sensor, and which many regard as having very good high ISO noise characteristics. The NEX-7 has class-leading 24 Megapixel sensor, and thus smaller photo sites (pixels), and therefore will, in theory at least, display higher noise.
The test subject was a statue of Ganesh, holding a WhiBal gray card and a Macbeth Color Checker. Lots of highlight and shadow areas. Light was from an overhead skylight on a heavily overcast day. The NEX-5n and NEX-7 were set up side by side, each on its own tripod, and each camera had its own Sony E 18-55mm lens set at f/8 in Aperture Priority mode. Only the ISO setting was varied, and a wireless remote was used to take the exposures on both cameras simultaneously – to avoid any possible light level changes during exposure.
Ganseh. Test Subject - Full frame.
What you see below are screen grabs from the Compare Mode in Lightroom. The only adjustment to the raw files was to normalize white balance on all frames. No sharpening or other adjustments were applied. The NEX-7 frame is seen on the left while the NEX-5n frame is seen on the right of each sample. The NEX-5n goes to ISO 25,600 while the NEX-7 goes to ISO16,000, but these were left out of the comparison because they are not shared between the two cameras. The very small exposure differences at higher ISOs were due to what appears to be minor variations in metering between the two sample cameras.
One final comment. I did not bias the exposure "to the right", which would have improved the S/N ratio by at least a full stop, and most likely 2 stops. I was more interested in a comparison at a typical exposure rather than an optimized one.
I will reserve my own observations untill the end and present the visual evidence first without comment.
Resizing NEX-7 Files to 5n Size
It should be fairly obvious that if you have two sensors of the same size, one with 16 Megapixel and one with 24 Megapixels, the one with the lower pixel count will, all other things being equal, have lower noise. The reason is simply physics; the pixels are larger and therefore collect more photons. More photons means a higher S/N ratio.
Below I have taken the NEX-7 files and resampled them down to the same size as the NEX-5n files. Bicubic Sharper in Photoshop CS 5.1 was used. The argument goes that if a larger file is downsampled its noise will similarly be reduced along with its resolution.
|NEX-7 ISO 100 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 100 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 200 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 200 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 400 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 400 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 800 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 800 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 1600 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 1600 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 3200 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 3200 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 6400 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 6400 @ I00%|
|NEX-7 ISO 12800 downsampled||NEX-5n ISO 12800 @ I00%|
If you scroll back up to the top of the comparison samples, or click here, and then scroll down the ISOs you'll see that up to and including ISO 800 there is little to choose between the two cameras, even given their resolution disparity. At ISO 1600 and above, the NEX-5n starts to have a small but clear advantage in terms of noise performance.
But, and it's a very big but, now go to the top of the samples where the NEX-7 files have been downsampled to the same size as the NEX-5n. What you'll see, or at least what I and several other photographers to whom I've shown these agree on, is that the differences are reduced to a quibble, even at 100% on screen. In prints or any non-pixel-peeping use of the images, there is really little to choose between them, except maybe at ISO 12,800 where the 5n has a slight advantage on screen, if not in real-world prints. Like I said – a quibble.
What this means is that in practical terms, the NEX-7 gives the photographer the choice of higher resolution and larger prints, or comparable resolution and comparable noise characteristics when compared to the NEX-5n, and both are presented at the same size. I should add parenthetically then in real-world photography, when shooting raw and doing a bit of NR in Lightroom, all ISOs up to and including 3200 are completely usable for most any purpose.
If you'll allow, I'll also make a small editorial comment on the whole question of high ISO noise. In my opinion too many people on brand discussion forums make too big a deal about high ISO noise. I suppose that it's one of those things that lends itself to easy visual comparison, while topics such as dynamic range, colour gamut and fidelity are more complex, and less easily quantified outside of a lab. Fine then, if debating is the point. But in reality just about every current generation DSLR and CSC on the market today is capable of such good high ISO performance along with the assistance of a bit of raw file NR, that the debate is likely of greater interest to its participants than most photographers who are more interested in actually doing photography. Stick to ISO 3200 or less in raw, use a bit of post NR, and work with a fast lens. Black cats in coal mines will have nowhere to hide.
One day after publication of the above noise comparison between the NEX-7 and the NEX-5n, DxO Labs has published their test results on the NEX-7. They score it at 81, which is only exceed among all cameras tested by a handful of medium format cameras from Hasselblad, Phase One and Pentax, and among DSLRs the Pentax K5 and Nikon D3s, which score just 1 point higher (statistically insignificant).
DxO's numeric analysis almost exactly matches my subjective evaluation above, which, whether you're a DxO Mark "believer" or not, at least adds some additional corroboration to each of our analysis. Once again, the bottom line – when normalized for image size – the NEX-7 and NEX-5n have essentially similar noise performance.
2 December, 2011
Click on the above image, or here,
to play this 12 minute video on a seperate page
There are many photographer around the world who do not have access to retail stores so that they can evaluate a camera for themselves, particularly with regard to size, weight and ergonomics. With the recent statement by Sony USA COO Phil Molyneux that NEX-7s will start to become available in January, we thought that some readers would find it interesting to see how the NEX-7 compares in size to other cameras, namely the NEX-5n, Leica M9, Fuji X100 and Panasonic GH2.
Sony / Zeiss Sonnar E 24mm f/1.8
The growth of the Compact System Camera segment has lead to a resurgence of interest in fast prime lenses. Sony has responded to this demand on its NEX system with two new fast primes, the E 50mm f/1.8 and the Carl Zeiss Sonnar E 24mm f/1.8. The 24mm is the more interesting of the two, if only because it is the first Zeiss lens to become available in Sony E mount. At about US $1,000 it is also the most expensive E mount lens yet.
Back in August at the Sony Press Launch event I tried to do a quick and dirty comparison with the Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux, which I regard as the benchmark lens in this focal length. At about $6,500 it had better be. But, I screwed up the test, as I was working quickly, and didn't have a chance to repeat it until now. Here then is a carefully controlled comparison of these two lenses. Critical AF and manual focus; tripod, remote wireless release etc, etc. No sharpening or other image processing was applied in Lightroom. These are raws straight from the camera with Lightroom's standard import applied. Let's see how they compare.
Testing the Near Center
The image immediately above shows the full frame, taken in a church interior in San Miguel de Allende. The crop mark shows the area near the center of frame being compared.
Sonnar @ F/1.8 – Summilux @ f/1.4
Sonnar @ f/2 – Summilux @ f/2
Sonnar @ f/2.8 – Summilux @ f/2.8
Sonnar @ f/4 – Summilux @ f4
Sonnar @ f/5.6 – Summilux @ f5.6
Sonnar @ f/8 – Summilux @ f8
Sonnar @ f/11 – Summilux @ f11
Sonnar @ f/16 – Summilux @ f16
Near Center Analysis
You can draw your own conclusions. Mine are that near the center of the frame, from wide open to f/4, the two lenses are quite comparable with maybe a very slight edge to the Summilux. From f/5.6 onwards the Summilux pulls ahead regarding both contrast and resolution. But, this is extreme pixel peeping, and in 16X22" prints there is little to choose between them.
Testing The Edges of Frame
The crop mark in the image immediately above shows the upper right corner of frame.
Sonnar @ f/1.8 – Summilux @ f/1.4
Sonnar @ f/2 – Summilux @ f/2
Sonnar @ f/2.8 – Summilux @ f/2.8
Sonnar @ f/4 – Summilux @ f/4
Sonnar @ f/5.6 – Summilux @ f/5.6
Sonnar @ f/8 – Summilux @ f/8
Sonnar @ f/11 – Summilux @ f/11
Sonnar @ f/16 – Summilux @ f/16
The Leica has the edge in contrast and resolution from wide open to about f/4. From there to f/11 the Zeiss has the advantage in both regards. Again, this is extreme pixel peeping, and in large prints one would be hard pressed to see any difference. Frankly, its astonishing how close the two lenses are across the field.
Flare, Fringing, and Chromatic Aberration
Zeiss Sonnar – Leica Summilux
The Zeiss 24mm seems to suffer from quite a bit more flare and fringing than the 24mm Summilux, as can be seen in the above frame taken at f/2.8 with both lenses.
The Zeiss full frame immediately above, taken at f/4, is shown below at 100%. As can be seen, there is a significant amount of chromatic aberration. Fortunately though, removing CA from a raw file in post processing is trivial, so this isn't an issue about which I am overly concerned.
With CA Removed
Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 Sonnar Report Summary
Hot Dog Stand. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E Zeiss Sonnar f/1.8 @ ISO 100
I have held the new Sony Zeiss e Mount 24mm to a very high standard. The 24mm f/1.4 Summilux is a world-class benchmark lens, one of the finest fast wide angle lenses made. It is of course a full frame lens, while the E mount Zeiss covers APS-C. Also, the Zeiss is an autofocus lens, so in some ways we're comparing peaches and apricots. Also, there is more than a $5,000 price difference between the lenses.
Given all of the above, the 24mm Zeiss stands up to the Leica Summilux very well indeed. It bests it in some areas, holds its own in some, and falls slightly behind elsewhere. Overall this is a stunning performance. There is little vignetting, even wide open, and corners have very good resolution for a lens of this focal length and format. CA and flare is more of an issue with the Zeiss though.
Those photographers who have been clamouring for fast primes for the NEX mount are starting to have their requests met. With the 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss Sonnar Sony has produced a lens which photographers will find more than exceeds expectations. At $1,000 it isn't inexpensive, but then considering how well it holds up to the industry's benchmark, costing almost 6X the price, it actually is a relative bargain.
The sample which I have for testing from Sony will have to go back, but I already have an order in for the 24mm Zeiss with my dealer. Deliveries are expected to start this month (December).
One More Thing
Baby Jesus. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E Zeiss Sonnar 24mm f/1.8 @ ISO 1600
I almost forgot to mention; the 24mm Zeiss focuses really close – down to 0.25X. This means that unless one is shooting bugs or coins, it can serve as a semi-macro, along with its role as a 35mm focal length full-frame equivalent walk-around everyday lens. And with its fast aperture, shooting in available light at reasonable ISOs is made possible, making it a very versitile lens indeed.
Evening in the Jardine. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. November, 2011
NEX-7 with E 18-55mm @ ISO 160
Closing Thoughts On Lenses
While this report concerns the Zeiss E 24mm f/1.8 I have had the opportunity now to compare most of the lenses available from Sony for the NEX series with my Leica M lenses. I don't intend publishing any more results, but anecdotally here is what I see.
For the most part the NEX lens line are of decent quality and reasonably priced. Some are fast, some are slow, some have stabilization. Some are on the large side, while others are small and light. A good cross-section that will meet the needs of most users. But, with the exception of the Zeiss E 24mm f/1.8 reviewed on this page, none yet are near Leica M lenses in terms of resolution or contrast.
I hope that Sony continues to make more Zeiss lenses available in E mount. While at $1,000 the Zeiss 24mm is expensive, it really is currently the only Sony manufactured lens that is in the same league as the finest optics available.
Having said that, I currently do most of my shooting on the NEX-5n and NEX-7 with Sony's other lenses, because of their light weight, autofocus and stabilization. For me convenience often trumps absolute image quality. But to really see what the 24 MP NEX-7 can do, beg borrow or steal some Leica or Zeiss ZM lenses. You'll be amazed.
Legacy Wide Angle Lenses
A NEX-7 / NEX-5n Comparison
With the short lens flange to sensor distance of current Compact System Cameras, by mounting a suitable adaptor a wide range of legacy lenses can be used. On Sony's new NEX-5n and NEX-7 this is made very efficient and enjoyable due to the availability of focus peaking. This allows the photographer to choose a colour (I use red) and a level of intensity (medium), and then when an MF lens is used in-focus areas shimmer in red. Combine this with two stages of on-screen or in-EVF image magnification, and manual focusing with legacy lenses becomes a breeze.
Since the NEX-5n's introduction people have been quite happy with the image quality using M mount lenses. But when reviewers started testing the NEX-7 it was apparent right away that this new sensor was not as benign as the 5n's when it comes to working with some legacy lenses. There is significant lens cast visible with the NEX-7 and some legacy lenses, and it isn't minor. The reason for it is that the 24 Megapixel sensor has smaller photo sites, and oblique light rays, especially those from wide angle lens (more on this in a moment), show a magenta colour shift. The 5n has larger sensels and also a different microlens layout than the 7, making it much less problematic with some legacy lenses.
But there are wide angle lenses, and then there are wide angle lenses. Some lenses are of retrofocus design, which means that they are in essence reverse telephotos optically. This makes light travel through them at a less oblique angle. These lenses are also called tele-centric. Many legacy lenses though are of symmetrical design and these are the problem children. These are typically lenses which were designed for use with film-based cameras. Since silver halide particles don't live at the bottom of wells the way that the photo sites on sensors do, even if the light hits them at an oblique angle there is no colour cast generated. With the advent of digital, and in lenses designed for DSLRs in particular, all wide angle lenses are of retrofocus design and so not as problematic.
With this as background, let's look at a few lenses as representatives of their classes and how they perform on the NEX-7 vs. the NEX-5n. Quite a bit of heat has been generated on the forums about the NEX-7 and the lens cast issue, so we need to understand what's really going on.
Wall Washing. Atontonilco, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 100
Voigtländer Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6
This lens is of symmetrical design and presents difficulty to virtually any camera. It was designed for full-frame film and is one of the widest full frame lenses around. The new version comes in Leica M mount, and I recently reviewed it in comparison to the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5–f/5.6 DC HSM together with the NEX-5n. I am using this lens as an example of the symmetrical design paradigm, as it is the only one its type that I currently have available for testing.
Below are unprocessed frames, taken at the same time, with the 12mm on both the NEX-5n and NEX-7. Both cameras exhibit the expected corner vignetting, which is primarily a lens artifact, but as is easily seen the NEX-7 displays some considerable magenta shading as well.
NEX-5n ––––––––––––––––––––– NEX-7
Cornerfix To The Rescue
But, this isn't the end of the story. There happens to be a terrific little utility program called Cornerfix. It is a free download and is available for both Windows and Mac. Its use is simple. First you create a one-time lens profile that recognizes both the vignetting and lens cast characteristics of a particular lens and sensor combination. This is done by one taking a shot at about two stops over metered exposure, either through a piece of translucent plastic, or of a large white card.
This shot is then loaded into Cornerfix and a profile is generated. From then on one takes a raw file shot with this lens and sensor combo, exports it as a DNG (easy to do in Lightroom or Camera Raw/Photoshop), and then load that DNG into Cornerfix and correct it. A few seconds later you can re-save the corrected file, again as a DNG. Because it is a DNG (ie: still raw) there is no loss of image quality, and all subsequent processing in Lightroom, or whatever, is done as usual.
Below are these same two files after processing in Cornerfix. In this example I applied it to the 5N file as well, even though it didn't display any appreciable lens cast, becauseCornerfix also does a fine job of correcting vignetting.
NEX-5n ––––––––––––––––––––– NEX-7
There is no question that the NEX-7 is not as good at working with symmetrical legacy lenses as the NEX-5n. But, if the advantages of the NEX-7 appeal, there is no reason to avoid the NEX-7 with these lenses, because Cornerfix is a quick and simple solution for raw shooters. For someone shooting JPGs, it's a different story. In that case, stick with the NEX-5n.
Incidentally, the issue of lens cast is quite familiar to photographers shooting medium format digital on technical cameras, especially when movements are used. Capture One software is commonly used to correct this, using a feature called Lens Cast Correction, and Phase One MF backs even come with a piece of translucent plastic for creating theseprofiles. Cornerfix is simply a free universal solution for use with DNG files and just about any camera / lens combination that needs it.
Be aware though that appling vignetting adjustment, either via Cornerfix or any other software, will increase noise in the corners as the exposure is pulled up. This means that once you start shooting at high ISOs your corners can get very noisy indeed. So stick to low ISOs if possible.
As far as any reduction of resolving ability is concerned on the NEX-7 with legacy lenses, there is some, but it's not as bad as many have feared. We'll examine this issue more closely in my follow-up report, which compares the Leica M9 with the NEX-7 using M lenses.
Finally, it should go without saying, if you work in B&W then lens cast simply isn't an issue, and all you need to do is adjust for vignetting as usual with very wide angle legacy lenses and be aware of some softening at the coners and edges.
Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5–f/5.6 DC HSM with LA-EA2
The Sigma 8-16mm is a typical ultra-wide angle lens of retrofocus design. Below are shots taken with both the NEX-5n and the NEX-7 utilizing the new LA-EA2 adaptor. These areraws with no adjustment, taken at a focal length of 13mm at f/8. As can be seen there is no visible lens cast or even much vignetting. This should be the case with virtually all DSLR lenses when used on the NEX-7, so there is no issue here.
NEX-5n ––––––––––––––––––––– NEX-7
Leica Wide Tri-Elmar 16-18-21mm
One other type of lens is worth analysing; the retrofocus non-DSLR wide angle. The example that I have available is the Leica 16mm-18mm-21mm Tri-Elmar. Below are shots taken a few seconds apart on the NEX-7. These make it clear that there is no lens cast visible with this type of lens.
21mm – 18mm – 16mm
Indeed most Leica lenses since at least 1980 are retro-focus designs, and so like the WA Tri-Elmar tested above should not pose much of a challenge.
Notable exceptions are the Leica 28mm f/2.8, Leica 18mm f/3.8, Leica 24mm f/3.8 and Leica 21mm f/3.4. These so-called Compact lenses can all be problematic for a digital sensor. Other lenses which are also potentially of concern are many Cosina / Voigtlander wide-angle lenses, and the Zeiss ZM Biogons. (Thanks to Sean Reid of Reid Reviews for helping me research this issue).
For those that need further confirmation, above is a 100% crop from the top right corner of the 16mm frame (furthest to the right above). As can be seen, there is no lens cast visible.
The Bottom Line on Legacy Lenses
Yes, the NEX-7 does show more lens cast than the NEX-5n with symmetrical design legacy lenses. These are a relatively small but significant subset of available non-DSLR legacy lenses. In practical terms this means many popular Voigtlander lenses as well as Zeiss ZM Biogons, and certain compact Leica lenses as mentioned above, may show lens cast issues. If you have these or similar lenses and want to use them on a NEX-7, then download Cornerfix and spend a couple of minutes on each worthwhile frame processing them for lens cast. Just be aware that while Cornerfix can correct lens cast, it can not bring back the lost resolution in the corners that accompanies it.
If you're interested in a technical discussion on the difference between symmetrical and retrofocus lenses, this PDF essay by the Carl Zeiss company is invaluable.
9 December, 2011
Professional photographer Peter Sills has just completed a week-long assignment in Havana, Cuba. His usual weapon of choice is a Canon 5D MKII but for this shoot he also used a Sony NEX-7. You can read Peter's blog about his shooting experience here.
His experience almost exactly matches my own of the past few weeks doing documentary / street shooting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. His complaints about the NEX-7 also mirror my own; movie button to easy to press, separate movie and stills review modes (with accompanying panic when you can't find your shots), limited bracketing range, etc.
Creative Styles / EVF / Live View Display
There is a complex, sometimes buggy, but important relationship between the Creative Styles setting, the quality of the image in the electronic viewfinder, and a setting in the menu system called Live View Display. Let's explore what these are.
Standard – Portrait with -3 Contrast
The NEX-7's electronic viewfinder is the best that there is right now. (It is shared with the A77, A65 and the accessory EVF for the NEX-5n). But, in bright light the contrast can be too high and shadow areas tend to block up and become harder to see than would be the case with a DSLR viewfinder.
One solution is to lower the contrast in the viewfinder. But, there is no contrast control, you say. True, but there is a way. It's by choosing the Portrait setting under the Creative Styles menu and setting Contrast to -3.
Below, from the NEX-7 PDF User Manual is a list of available modes, each of which can have Sharpening, Contrast, and Saturation adjusted in a range of +3 to -3. Portrait mode is the setting with the lowest inherent contrast, and dialing in -3 pushes contrast even lower.
Now, if you set Live View Display (under Settings) to ON, then the LCD and the EVF will display the image using the Creative Style that you have selected. To appearance of these is shown below.
Here is the critical point. If you shoot in JPG mode, then the JPG will have the characteristics of the Creative Style that you have set, along with its Sharpening, Contrast, and Saturation adjustments. Set Black and White, for example, and that's what you see in the viewfinder and LCD, as well as how the JPG will turn out.
But, if you shoot raw, then of course you get a raw file which is fully adjustable to however you want it, regardless of the Creative Style setting. The EVF and the LCD though will still show an image that has the settings, which means that if you set Portrait with Contrast -3, you will have a much less contrasty image on screen, making viewing more accurate in hard light conditions.
Just be aware that you have to have the Live View Display must be set to ON. If its set to OFF, the viewfinder shows you a Standard image regardless.
It's worth keeping in mind if you shoot video with the NEX-7 that setting the camera to Portrait with -3 Contrast will make your video images look flatter (video is like JPG), but will also make it much easier to grade (color correct). This is my preferred setting when doing video shooting.
Night Moves. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with E 50mm f/1.8 @ ISO 1600
There is a gottcha with the Settings Effect "OFF" mode though. It's intended to show you a bright visible image, regardless of the cameras settings, and that includes exposure. When OFF, if you're over or underexposing, deliberately or otherwise, the screen will always show you a decent image for framing and composition (except in manual exposure mode). But, if you have the histogram feature turned on the histogram does not show you a graph of the exposure that is set, but instead shows you a perfect histogram of the image that is being displayed.
This is clearly a bug, since I can't imagine what good a histogram of the viewfinder's enhanced view rather than the actual exposure would be to anyone.
Firmware 1.1 please Sony.
Resolution: NEX-7 Vs. Leica M9
For the past two years the Leica M9 has been a benchmark for high quality images. Its 18 Megapixel full frame CCD sensor is very highly regarded. The M9 is also the primary vehicle for Leica's unparalleled M series lenses – reason enough for many to spend some $7,000 for the body only.
But over the past couple of years a new generation of Compact System Cameras (CSC) has appeared on the scene, from Panasonic, Olympus, Sony, Ricoh, and soon others as well. Via a simple and relatively inexpensive ($50 – $250) lens mount adaptor virtually any Leica M mount lens can be used on these cameras, including of course the NEX-7, which is the subject of this report.
An interesting side note is that since these CSCs started to appear Leica M lenses have become almost unavailable from stock anywhere in the world. Backorders of from two to six months have been the norm. At a trade show in November, 2011 I asked a senior Leica manager what the story was. His answer was simple – demand. He also told me that during the past year Leica has almost doubled their lens manufacturing capacity, yet still can't keep up with demand. And, this is for lenses which cost between $2,000 and $10,000 apiece. Recession? What recession?
I therefore thought it would be interesting and informative to compare resolution using Leica M lenses on the NEX-7 and the M9. But before we jump in with both feet, a couple of comments...
– The DxOMark comparison at the top of the page needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Some people swear by DxOMark. Some people swear at it. But at the moment they are the only objective testing service that compares just about every serious camera on the market in a rigorous and consistent manner. Remember, DxO numbers are irrespective of resolution. Also, small numeric difference are a quibble.
– I ran a poll on this site's Discussion Forum back in October '11, as to whether readers owned an M Leica because they preferred rangefinder use, or simply because they wanted to use M lenses. This very unscientific and limited poll showed a roughly even split. Interesting result though.
Memorial. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH @ ISO100
The one thing that DxOMark doesn't compare is resolution. Their tests are essentially resolution independant. They measure a sensor's dynamic range, bit depth and noise, but not resolution. So this was one area that I was interested in discovering for myself.
I like conducting these test, but I hate publishing them. I'm a photographer, not a technician. This means that I can occasionally be a bit cavalier with my methodology, but on the other hand results must always jibe with my subjective analysis of real world images, or else I go back and retest. The reason that I hate publishing them is because no matter how I do them there is always someone on other forums (interestingly though – never here, where I can reply) who claims that I'm either biased or stupid because I forgot to take into account the torque on the framistat or Madonna's menstrual cycle.
Both cameras were manually focused using peaking and maximum magnification, and cameras were set to as-metered manual exposure, manual ISO, and manual white balance. A massive new RRS TVC-34L tripod with an Arca Swiss Cube head, and either a cable release or wireless release was used. The raw files were imported into Lightroom with no adjustments applied.
I debated the issue of sharpening. The M9 does not have an AA filter, and therefore theoretically, at least, requires less sharpening than the NEX-7. But, sharpening is something that one does by eye and by feel, so there is a totally subjective aspect that could skew the test. In the end, for better or worse, I left the images unsharpened.
I chose the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH for this test, doing exposures at f/1.4, f/2.8, and f/5.6. It's one of the highest resolving and most contrasty lenses I know of, and more importantly is one that I own and always have with me for repeated testing.
A Matter of Size
Then there's the matter is size – both frame size and resolution. The M9 has a full frame sensor, while the NEX-7 has a smaller APS-C. The M9 is 18 Megapixels, while the NEX-7 is 24 Megapixels. This makes doing comparisons quite difficult. Also, should the comparisons be at 100% size on screen, or on real-world prints?
Leica M9 vs Sony NEX-7 Relative Angle of View: 50mm Lens
Here is what I have decided to do, since I am more interested in real world results that are relevant to my photography rather than pure pixel peeping. I cropped the M9 images to the same field of view as the NEX. A typical such cropping is shown above. I then resized the NEX files from 24 MP down to 18 MP so that they matched in both field of view and resolution.
There doesn't seem to be to be any point in showing the corners of an image from one camera that can't be produced by another. Also, the 24MP images from the Sony are so much larger than those from the Leica as to made comparisons impossible. The net result is what you see below. The files have been "normalized" in both field of view and resolution so as to reproduce what one would see in same-sized comparison prints.
50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH
|Sony NEX-7 @ f/1.4 Center with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH||Leica M9 @ f/1.4 Center with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH|
|Sony NEX-7 @ f/1.4 Top-Left Corner with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH||Leica M9 @ f/1.4 Top-Left-Corner with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH|
|Sony NEX-7 @ f/2.8 Center with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH||Leica M9 @ f/2.8 Center with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH|
|Sony NEX-7 @ f/2.8 Top-Left Corner with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH||Leica M9 @ f/2.8 Top-Left-Corner with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH|
|Sony NEX-7 @ f/5.6 Center with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH||Leica M9 @ f/5.6 Center with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH|
|Sony NEX-7 @ f/5.6 Top-Left Corner with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH||Leica M9 @ f/5.6 Top-Left-Corner with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH
In virtually every example above, center and corner, and at three different apertures, there is a small but apparent advantage to the NEX-7 in terms of resolving power. Let's try and understand why.
What Am I Seeing?
50mm f/1.4 Summilux full frame @ f/8
I must admit that I wasn't too surprised at the above results. The NEX-7 definitely has a slight edge over the M9 when it comes to resolution. 24 MP vs. 18MP. But in an abundance of caution I decided to re-shoot the entire test on another day. The results were identical.
Just to be doubly sure, I then decided to do a different shot, just focusing on optimum image quality from the center of the frame at an optimum aperture. Heavy tripod and head, manual exposure, manual white balance, careful manual focusing with peaking and magnification on the NEX-7, and with an eyepiece magnifier on the M9. I even did focus bracketing on the M9 in the event of a misalligned rangefinder (which this, as well as my daily use shows is not the case).
Files were imported into Lightroom with no sharpening or other modification. They were then exported as 16 bit TIFFs into Photoshop CS 5.5. The Leica file was cropped to the same image area as the NEX-7, and then the NEX-7 frame was resampled downwards from 24 megapixels to 18 Megapixels to match the M9.
There is no question (to my eyes at least) that the Sony sensor out-resolves the Leica using the same lens. The 50mm Summilux f/1.4 ASPH is one of the finest lenses of its focal length. What we are seeing is that this lens can out-resolve the M9's 18MP sensor, because the 24MP Sony sensor clearly shows better resolution of fine detail even though the M9 does not have an AA filter, and the NEX-7 does.
This result shouldn't be a surprise, because when I visited the Leica factory two years ago I asked Leica's chief lens designer if sensors were out-resolving lenses yet, and his answer was – no not yet. It would appear that the NEX-7's 24MP sensor shows this to be the case.
"The quality of a downsampled high-pixel-count camera will almost always exceed that of a camera with a native resolution
the same as the output medium, just so long as the resampling is optimised for the downward process".
AP. Dec 10, 2011
– Bob Newman : Profession of Computer Science
University of Wolverhampton
The above comparison got a lot of flack because of its particular methodology, though I remain confident that what I was testing had relevance, as described. But several people asked if I could redo the tests using different lenses so that the camera's field's of view would be matched, this providing a more real world comparison, and removing the need to crop the M9 image.
I have now done this in a small seperate report titled NEX-7 vs. M9 – Part Deux. The results are almost indentical to those in my first resolution comparison above.
Shadow Play. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 16-50mm f/2.8 DT & LA-EA2 @ ISO 100
I can hear the sturm und drang now. Michael is a Sony fan-boy. How can you take his test seriously? Well, actually, because of my enthusiasm for Leicas I've been accused of being a Leica fan-boy over the years as much as anything else. The point is that I am confident that the test above is accurate. I also carefully tested two other Leica lenses, the f/4 Wide Tri-Elmar at its 16mm setting, and the 24mm f/1.4 Summilux. Both lenses exhibited the same resolution results as seen with the 50mm Lux.
Please note that I not comparing handling, viewing, focusing, shooting speed, exposure accuracy, or any of the other parameters that DxOMark has already done.
I've owned and made my living as a photographer for four decades, with every M series model except the M5. I've written extensively in magazines for several decades, and here for the past 12 years, about things Leica. So yes, if I'm a fan-boy I guess paint me a Leica fan-boy if anything.
But in recent years, though I continue to shoot with my M9, it's the lenses that I am most enamoured of. I find myself no longer taken with rangefinder style shooting, though I always get a visceral pleasure from handling and working with my M9.
With the advent of the latest generation of CSCs, first the Panasonic GH2, and now especially the Sony NEX-7, I have a new platform for my M lenses, and I'm enjoying them greatly. It's a very different way of working from an RF camera. I'm not claiming necessarily better, or worse. That's a determination that photographers will have to make for themselves.
Maybe at some point in the future I'll write about these differences. But in the meantime, if you have an M9, some great Leica M glass, and want to explore this new way of shooting, the Sony NEX-7 is a superb and relatively inexpensive (compared to an M9) second camera to enjoy them with.
A WTF Update
As I expected might happen, it wasn't long after the above M9 vs. NEX-7 comparison appeared that I started to get emails from people complaining that by cropping the M9 frame I was reducing it to about 12MP and therefore W.T.F? Good question. But no one questioned the fact that I also ressed down the 24MP NEX-7 file as well. Oh well.
Here is how I have replied to those who've questioned my methodology...
There is no way to make these two different sensors, of differing size and differing resolutions match. But, in the real world, we sometimes have to.
What I was interested in testing was to take a photograph to see how these two cameras would compare, using the same lens from the same location at the same time. How would their resolving power differ. What effect would the lack of an AA filter on the M9 have? What would the results look like? The test I did is the answer.
If you ask a different question you'll likely get a different answer. But that wasn't what I set out to do.
Closing Thoughts on the NEX-7 – For Now
This final entry will conclude my rolling review of the Sony NEX-7, at least for now. As this is being published the first NEX-7s are arriving in the hands of those in the US who placed early pre-orders, and apparently Sony will start shipping larger quantities in January. DPReview has published their comprehensive report, and describe the NEX-7 as being the best APS-C sensor camera on the market.
The only major topic which I have not yet covered is the camera's video capability. I will be doing this in a separate report in the new year.
Waiting for Sunset. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 100
I'll start this conclusion chapter with my bottom line summary. The NEX-7 is the most exciting camera that I've had the pleasure of using in the past five years. Here are just a few highlights...
– Image quality is excellent – exceeded in DxOMark ratings by only a half dozen other cameras, and of these all but one were medium format.
– It has an APS-C sized sensor, making it among the largest in the CSC category.
– At 24 Megapixels it has the highest resolution of any CSC camera, and is only currently matched by full frame DSLRs in this regard.
– The user interface is highly customizable and reasonably efficient (excepting the Menu system, and lack the of any User Custom Settings)
– Electronic first shutter provides an extremely responsive shutter release
– The EVF is the highest resolution and highest contrast of any on the market
– The combination of focus peaking and magnification makes using legacy lenses very easy and attractive
– An articulated LCD is effective and only lacks the ability to face forward
– Has a powered microphone port for video recording
– Built in flash can act as wireless trigger for larger Sony units – Correction: This was supposed to be the case, but isn't. Sorry for any confusion.
– Autofocus is adequately fast for most applications
The NEX-7's small size, compared to any DSLR, and even some other CSCs, means that travel or other types of photography, where light weight and small size trump ultimate featuritus, are well served.
The sensor on the NEX-7 leaves little to be desired. If you want to make big prints or to do extreme cropping, a high resolution 24MP sensor is the answer. Short of the 36 Megapixel sensors coming on some 2012 full frame cameras, and even larger ones on a handful of medium format cameras, this is the highest resolution sensor available, and in the smallest and lightest form factor. Quite a trick.
At around $1,200 the price isn't even that out of reach for many.
John's Bike. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 18-55mm @ ISO 500
The availability of the LA-EA2 adaptor allows Sony's complete line of 30 some A series lenses, including all their excellent Zeiss and G series optics, to be used with phase detection autofocus. Other available lens adaptors make possible using legacy lenses, many hundreds if not thousands of them from almost every manufacturer.
The current dedicated "E" lens line has some gaps, but Sony is moving ahead with quite a few new optics, many of them fast primes, including the excellent Zeiss E 24mm f.1.8 and the E 50mm f/1.8 OSS. We are also starting to see E series lenses from other lens markers, such as Tamron and SLR Magic. Lens availability is a stick that some Sony bashers are using to diss the NEX line, but in reality the lens gap with MFT is closing quickly and I would expect that within the year there will be an appropriate range of native E mount lenses available.
I'll be covering the NEX-7's video capability in a seperate future article. But it needs to be noted that Sony's E mount also exists on two dedicated video cameras, the VG-20 and the FS-100. For someone that invests in the NEX series E mount and wish to expand their video horizons, these two cameras offer a migration path.
Hints & Tips
My suggestion with the NEX-7, as well as other non-optical viewfinder cameras, is to turn off instant review. If you want to review a shot just taken, simply press Play. By leaving instant review off you'll only have a momentary flicker as the mechanical shutter resets. Having ones view of the subject interupted for a couple of seconds by a review image is counterproductive in most situations. With a fast SD card the NEX-7 saves very quickly, and so when needed a playback is only a quick button press away.
Use the Lock feature for the ISO dial. It is all to easy to accidentally knock the ISO off its setting during normal handling. A similar lock feature needs to be applied to the video button so that it isn't accidently triggered six times a day.
I have turned off the Autofocus light. Some quick tests early on showed that it did little to assist autofocus except in extremely low light, and in almost all situations (except daylight, when it isn't needed) it indicates to others that you're taking pictures. For documentary and street shooting, and even just at a family occasion, a light that flashes on the front of the camera every time you compose a shot is very counter productive. Do your own test, of course, but if like me you find the light not to be of much help, turn it off.
The – Argggg – Menu System
Sony has done a commendable job in improving the NEX control and menu system since the original NEX 5. That camera was so hampered in this regard that it was risible. The 5n is a vast improvement, but with the NEX-7, while we now have a control dial interface that is quite excellent, the menu system simply isn't up to the quality of the rest of the camera. In fact, it's quite horrid.
Let me give you an example. Take the AF/MF button (please). To be able to use it as a one press (instead of having AF on the shutter release) you have to first venture into theMenu, select the Camera icon, then scroll to AF/MF select. Press the center button, then turn the scroll wheel to MF. Now, return to Menu, and then go to the Setup section icon. Go to AF/MF control (yes, same name but it's a different one), press the center button and select Hold. Got that? Once done, you have now decoupled autofocusing and the shutter release. This is a way of working that a lot of photographers use regularly, myself included.
But, if you'd now like to return to having autofocus on the shutter release, and instead have the AF/MF switch between autofocus and manual focusing, you need to re-enter theCamera menu, switch AF/MF to AF, and then also return to the Setup menu and set the AF/MF control to Toggle.
Oh, and did I mention that AF Area and AF Mode are also in the Camera Menu, while AF Illuminator and MF Assist are in the Setup menu? Please Sony! Pretty please. Get someone to rationalize your NEX-7 menu system. It really is a dog's breakfast at the moment.
Not a single review has yet had anything nice to say about the NEX-7's menu system, and no doubt as cameras begin to arrive in knowledgable users hands we'll hear more about this on discussion forums.
We can only hope that Sony takes head of our comments and dedicates their "A" team of interface designers to completely revamping and rationalizing the NEX-7 menu system. The recommendations are not all out there. Maybe we can hope for a major firmware upgrade by mid-2012.
The Need for Personalized Settings
At the risk of repeating myself, I'm going to say it again. The NEX-7 desperately needs user customizable settings. This is a sophisticated and complex camera, with a wide variety of special modes and settings. Switching between them, in part because of the poorly designed menus, is a frustrating process that is time consuming and requires a lot of memorization of where things are and how to get to them.
As good as the NEX-7 is, and in my view it is probably the most most exciting camera that I've seen in years, until it is given custom user settings it will fail to live up to its promise. These are only a firmware upgrade away, so please Sony, let us have them soon.
Ignoring the Memo
Something needs to be said about the competitive environment and how other companies are and will be responding to the CSC challenge. Panasonic, Olympus, Nikon, Ricoh, Pentax and Samsung have all identified the potential that exists in re-inventing the interchangeable lens camera. (Fujifilm is also reported to have something coming soon). Remove the bulky and expensive mirror and prism assembly, develop a new lens mount that allows for smaller and lighter lenses, and innovate in terms of features and interface. That's the formula.
Most interestingly, how companies are dealing with this challenge is indicative of how much each has to lose in defending its current market turf. Panasonic and Sony are relative newcomers to the prosumer / pro marketplace and so have little to lose. Sony acquired Minolta's DSLR business and is strongly invested in both full frame and APS-C DSLRs, but with its new A65 and A77 has shown that it is willing to innovate and challenge the market leaders in all segments. The NEX camera line competes with Sony's own DSLRs but the company doesn't appear to be afraid of tacking all segments. The philosophy seems to be, if someone is going to eat our lunch, it may as well be ourselves.
Nikon has recently jumped into the CSC fray with its new "1" system and "CX" lens format. Initial reports show this to be an interesting alternative, but choosing to use a quite small sensor (2.7X vs MFT's 2X, and APS-C's 1.5X) has two consequences. The first is that shallow DOF selective focus becomes harder to achieve, and all other things being equal image quality will always be in favour of a larger sensor. Nikon's offering makes some sort of sense, because as a market leader in DSLRs they have turf to protect. But their decision to go with a quite small sensor does limit the "1" series' appeal for more advanced users. Nikon thus protects its high margin DSLR line but disappoints enthusiasts.
Pentax has carried Nikon's approach to an extreme with its "Q" series of CSC. With a sensor just 1/13th the size of APS-C, depth of field is extremely deep, with the only advantage being that "Q" mount lenses can be made very small indeed. The "Q" is more of a novety item than a serious tool.
As this is being written Fujifilm's entry in the CSC sweepstakes remains to be seen, but with their remarkable X-100 as an opening gambit, watch out. Olympus' very future is in doubt, and Ricoh and Samsung are marginal players at best in this segment. That leaves Panasonic and Sony as major competitors in the CSC segment. Both companies are powerhouses in consumer electronics, and that is indeed what the camera industry has become.
Street Portrait. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. December, 2011
Sony NEX-7 with 18-200mm @ ISO 800
Canon has apparently not yet received the memo. Or, if they have, they have chosen thus far to ignore it. As a market leader in DSLRs they clearly have turf to protect. Those cameras and lenses carry higher margins than CSCs, though top of the line CSCs, like the NEX-7, clearly can be quite profitable if they become successes. The lesson that if someone is going to eat your lunch it may as well be you, seems not to resonate with Canon. But as all of the other companies scramble for position in the new CSC marketplace it is highly unlikely that can will sit on their hands for too much longer. The real question will be whether Canon decides to play it safe and follow Nikon with a very small sensor, or attack Sony, potentially Fujifilm, and to a lesser extent Panasonic and Olympus with a 2X or larger sensor.
But there is no question that the traditional DSLRs segment has lots of life left in it. It's a big "but" though, and its my belief that while pros and advanced amateurs in various fields (fashion, advertising, sports, wildlife, landscape) will continue to appreciate and demand the advantages that DSLRs have to offer, consumers and prosumers looking for versatility and image quality will increasingly be turning to CSCs. Smaller size, lighter weight and lower cost are the ingredients that appeal. And if a camera can also offer a large sensor (APS-C or MFT) than there is no serious compromise in image quality or availability of shallow DOF.
I'll close this out with a personal anecdote. Because of this web site, my workshops, seminars, writing and teaching, I meet and communicate with a lot of pros and advanced amateurs. We chat about photography, the industry, gear, and related topics. A year ago I hardly knew any that owned or even stated an interest in owning a CSC. But this is changing at a very fast clip. A great many are now saying that they've bought a Panasonic, Olympus or Sony Compact System Camera, and with the success and appeal of the Fujifilm X100 are hoping that an interchangeable lens version is under consideration from that company as well. I even know some serious photographers who are selling their DSLRs, and who are looking at advanced CSCs like the Panasonic GH2 and Sony NEX-7. Those that own legacy lenses also find these very appealing, since they can take virtually any lens ever made via adaptors.
Are we at the beginning of a new revolution? The entire world of photographic technology has been in a state of revolution for the past decade. The emergence of the CLC is simply another step in this evolutionary process. And with products like the Sony NEX-7, the category isn't going to remain an under-appreciated one for much longer.
November / December, 2011