Sony NEX-7 Review
The Sony Alpha NEX-7 is the flagship of the company's NEX line of mirrorless system cameras.
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The Alpha NEX-7 is Sony's mirrorless flagship, topping their NEX line of system cameras. It features a 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, a 10-frame-per-second continuous shooting mode, a built-in XGA OLED viewfinder, a tilting 3-inch rear LCD, and a unique "Tri-Navi" control setup.
With all its bells and whistles, the NEX-7 offers a level of control seldom seen in this segment of the market. Therefore, it sits comfortably atop many enthusiast's wish lists. The NEX-7 is kitted with Sony's standard E-mount 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, and currently comes in black for an MSRP of $1399. That's a lot of pocket change, so this Sony will definitely need to step up the image quality to make it worthwhile.
Design & Usability
While the design takes some getting used to, the NEX-7 puts limitless control at your fingertips.
Picking up the Sony Alpha NEX-7, it's immediately apparent that Sony has spared no expense. The grip is plush, with contours that align extraordinarily well with the hand. Where smaller NEX cameras pair small, awkward grips with the system's DSLR-sized lenses, the larger body of the NEX-7 allows for more precise handling, even with longer telephoto optics. The protruding rear thumb rest helps too, offering enough purchase to allow single-handed control with even the 55-210mm lens attached.
The Sony NEX-7's external design provides just about everything you could ask for in a compact mirrorless body: an electronic viewfinder, three control dials, customizable controls, a built-in flash, a full hot shoe, a tilting rear LCD, interchangeable lenses, and a large grip. The largely unlabeled, fully dynamic control setup takes some getting used to (each button and dial has its function called out on the rear LCD, rather than painted or etched onto the body), but with the abundance of manual controls you've got everything you need to perfect exposure.
The viewfinder is a 0.5-inch XGA OLED monitor with a resolution of 2359k dots. That's a massive number, but in practice the monitor doesn't offer a huge improvement over some other EVFs we've seen. Still, given the design constraints of a compact mirrorless body, it's perfectly acceptable. And unlike most viewfinders, it's fully integrated into the shape of the body, just as with Fuji's X-Pro 1 and X100.
One puzzling aspect of the NEX-7's design is the menu system, which is exactly the same as on previous NEX cameras. The problem is that the NEX-7 seems designed to appeal to a much more advanced user than the NEX-3 or NEX-5. Yet for some unfathomable reason Sony assumes that NEX-7 users would rather slog through a dumbed-down point-and-shoot-level interface. While the ability to customize some quick menus and keys provides some relief, Sony really should have designed a menu more in line with what's found on their Alpha-series professional cameras, leaving the simpler NEX look to simpler NEX cameras.
The NEX-7 has just about every feature you could ask for in a mirrorless camera.
Looking at the NEX-7, you're struck with visions of Sony's designers gathered around a table and feverishly drawing up an unlikely wishlist of features: electronic viewfinder, built-in flash, articulating LCD, high-resolution APS-C sensor, multiple control dials, full hot shoe, dedicated mic input, HDMI and standard USB ports, and a big grip. Miraculously, the NEX-7 ticks off all these boxes, offering the most complete package of any compact mirrorless camera we've seen. Better yet, they've managed to do it in a body that's only slightly larger than our previous favorite, the Olympus PEN E-P3.
It's hard to ignore Sony's accomplishment here, especially when the gorgeous external design is paired with a high-resolution 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. The NEX-7 can also fire off shots at 10 frames per second with an electronic first curtain shutter, which is not only more responsive but also allows the camera to be dead quiet when necessary. The NEX-7 also benefits from 1080/60p video, though only in AVCHD 2.0, which can be a bit of a pain to work with. Oh, and did we mention the focus peaking? The list just goes on and on.
The Sony NEX-7 employs the now-familiar E-mount, which has a limited but growing number of first-party lenses available. The range covers everything from the 18-55mm kit lens to a 24mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss prime, as well as a 30mm macro, telephoto zoom, and a couple portrait lenses. While Sony has yet to fully flesh out their system with the kind of high-end lenses that Panasonic, Olympus, and even Samsung have introduced to their mirrorless lineups, the NEX-7 can use both Sony-produced and third-party lens adapters to attach lenses from practically any legacy mount. Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Leica, Pentax... the list is near endless. The best of the bunch is probably the LA-EA2 Sony adapter, which uses their translucent SLT technology to provide phase detection autofocus for any Sony A-mount lens.
The NEX-7 performs very well overall, though it desperately needs a better kit lens.
The Sony NEX-7 pairs its 24.3-megapixel sensor with a BIONZ image processor to provide generally excellent image quality and up to 10 frames per second in continuous shooting. Unfortunately, it comes kitted with a rather lackluster 18-55mm E-mount lens that doesn't do the sensor justice.
In our lab testing we found the NEX-7's greatest asset was its ability to handle noise, with shots all the way up to ISO 16000 looking better than we've seen from other mirrorless cameras. In the lab, the NEX-7 also demonstrated remarkable color accuracy and greater dynamic range than previous NEX models. The one area where we saw disappointing results was resolution, where the NEX-7 lagged a bit behind some of the competition due to its mediocre kit lens.
The NEX-7 proved to be extremely responsive, rattling off 10 shots per second in our continuous shooting test. While we don't test response time in an official capacity, we observed that the electronic first curtain shutter greatly reduced shutter lag in everyday shooting. Video also looked great, with Sony getting the most out of the 1080/60p capability offered here. But we'd caution you to completely ignore the 1080/60i and MPEG-4 modes, as they are significantly worse.
An excellent addition to the Sony NEX family
Prior to the NEX-7, every mirrorless camera was an exercise in compromise; smaller size meant a lack of deep control and diminished image quality. The NEX-7 manages to get rid of most of the tradeoffs, building off the design philosophy of earlier NEX cameras but squeezing in just about every piece of hardware you could ask for.
That isn't to say that the NEX-7 is perfect. Its focus system is still slow compared to similarly priced DSLRs (including those from Sony) and its 18-55mm kit lens has poor edge sharpness and distortion issues across the zoom range. The menu, instead of aiming to please NEX-7 users, is re-purposed from outdated, entry-level NEX models. Given that the camera (with lens) comes at a MSRP of $1349, the 18-55mm kit is a disappointment too. Practically every other camera kit in that price range offers a better lens, and it's a shame NEX-7 users are shortchanged, given how good this camera can be with better glass.
In terms of all-around performance, though, the NEX-7 is quite simply the best mirrorless camera we have tested to date. Its combination of control, image quality, responsiveness, video capability, color accuracy, dynamic range, hardware features, and superb handling make it the kind of camera any photographer—professional or amateur—should love to have in their bag.
In test after test, we found that the NEX-7 surpassed our already high expectations. Its massive sensor combines superb color accuracy, great high ISO performance, and superlative dynamic range. The image sensor also produces great sharpness when used with a good enough lens. The 18-55mm kit lens is not a completely unreasonable option, given the price, but it's a bit like putting bicycle tires on a Ferrari—the camera just deserves better. With a number of lens adapters and quality E-mount lenses, there's raw performance capacity here that the kit lens can't tap into.
Sony has kept their tendency towards oversaturation in check, providing great color accuracy.
The NEX-7's JPEG engine produced impressively accurate colors. The camera's best color mode, the "neutral" creative style, returned a color error of just 2.45, with saturation levels right around 91%. Users will probably want to pump up the saturation in post-processing to avoid flat-looking shots, but the potential for realistic rendering is there. The other color modes, as expected, boost saturation (and thus color error) well above the ideal, but still kept color error under 4.0 (anything under 3.0 is quite good).
The Sony NEX-7 offers the option to shoot RAW files, letting you make your own color adjustments later, as well as numerous JPEG color modes. These include landscape, portrait, standard, vivid, neutral, deep, clear, night scene, autumn, light, and sunset. We found that the clear, deep, night scene, neutral, and standard modes kept color error under 3, while the others tended to push saturation in key areas (greens in landscape mode, for example) that resulted in more pleasing images but higher mean error.
Noise Reduction & Detail Loss
Sony's aggressive noise reduction habits are alive and well, but shots are printable up to ISO 6400 with little work required.
The Sony NEX-7, like other Sony DSLRs and NEX cameras, does not allow you to completely deactivate noise reduction. In the system menu, you are allowed merely to select from one of three strengths: low, normal, or high. While the feature is titled "high ISO noise reduction," shooting in RAW and JPEG shows that there is some level of reduction taken even at ISO 100. Overall, though, we found the low level of noise reduction to be effective in producing printable shots at ISO 6400 and lower, with higher NR settings keeping noise lower at the expense of fine detail.
Sharpness & Resolution
Do yourself a huge favor and replace the kit lens immediately.
The 18-55mm kit lens does not display great overall sharpness at most focal lengths or aperture settings, though the center of the frame is as sharp as you'd expect across the aperture range. Unlike many kit lenses for compact mirrorless cameras, the 18-55mm E-mount pushes the minimum aperture past f/22 to f/32 at the maximum focal length. While this flexibility is admirable, anything past f/22 is all but unusable outside of the center of the frame. At the largest apertures we found a similar problem, with sharpness falling off dramatically at the edges. With middle apertures (f/8-f/14) the images look softer, but the sharpness falloff is far less dramatic.
Great shot-to-shot speed and response time are somewhat limited by a mediocre focus system.
The most interesting mode for you speed junkies is going to be the speed priority continuous mode, which allows the NEX-7 to hit a blistering 10fps shot-to-shot rate. We tested the NEX-7 using an electronic timer and found that it hit a near perfect 10fps steadily throughout its burst. It accomplishes this by using an electronic first curtain, eliminating the need for a mechanical shutter to both cover and uncover the image sensor. This drastically reduces the shot-to-shot time in addition to making the camera more responsive as a result. If you need a camera for capturing fast-moving action, the NEX-7 is just about as fast as you're going to find...with one caveat.
The autofocus system of the NEX-7 is slower than we've seen on competing mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus E-P3. It doesn't track subjects as well as phase detection AF systems and it's not as quick in acquiring focus on the initial shot. In short, the NEX-7 can be blazingly fast, provided it doesn't have to focus. Our advice is to try and frame your shot so the subject is moving parallel to the camera, rather than straight at or away from you. That kind of shooting is just too much to ask of the focus system.