Monday, June 18, 2012

REVIEW: Sony Alpha NEX-7–Yeah, it lives up to the hype

Sony NEX-7
Sony NEX-7 – Yeah, it’s really as good as everyone says it is

The Sony NEX-7 has been around for a while, and when I saw it in New York last fall I wasn’t captivated enough by it to give it a deep look. I tried to reach out to Sony, but they seemed uninterested in blogs like mine so I figured I’d focus on the much hyped Nikon 1 V1 and Fujifilm X100. Both of those cameras end up disappointing me, and the eagerly anticipated XPro-1 had brilliant image quality in yet another poorly executed end product. My dream of having everything I loved about the Fujifilm X10, yet with a better sensor had seemed to be an impossible dream.

While I won’t be replacing my X10 just yet, I’m impressed with the Sony NEX-7. I’m still in the camp that if you want a DSLR, get a great DSLR from Canon or Nikon, but if you want a compact camera then get X10. However, The NEX-7 is the camera I’d easily recommend over the Nikon 1 V1 (and J1), X100, XPro-1, and the Canon G1X.

Living with the NEX-7


Well laid out, but not has handy as you might think at first glance

While the NEX-7 isn’t as big as a full-blown DSLR, it’s big enough that it’s not going to drop in the door pocket of my SUV like some of the other cameras I’ve tested. The lenses are proper lenses, not some tiny pieces of junk like those found on the Nikon 1 V1.

The unit I tested also had the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens which surprised me with the fact that it didn’t suck like most kit lenses typically do. It seems to be well made with reasonable optics (not great, but usable) and features a very usable minimum focus distance. I also had the 50mm f/1.8 which cost the same as the zoom, but was much more frustrating to use due to its longer minimum focus distance (15.3 vs 9.84”). If I were buying one of these for myself, I’d definitely go for the zoom and pass on the 50mm. Here’s a sample image taken with both the 50mm and 18-55mm @ 50mm (both at f/5.0):

Mouse over to see 50mm, mouse out to see 18-55mm @ 50mm
Mouse out for the 18-55mm @ 50mm (full-size) and
Mouse over for the 50mm (
full size)

Controls & OLED Display


The grip, buttons and knobs are first class – no cheap feeling at all

This camera features an excellent grip and a very usable OLED display in the rear. I expected to be blown away by the OLED display, but I wasn’t. Perhaps I’ve become desensitized after staring at the new iPad display, but I didn’t perceive it to be any better in real-world use over the LCD’s in the latest Nikon and Canon cameras, nor was it to super to the Fujifilm cameras I’ve used. The controls have a good solid feel, but like many cameras in this class it’s lacking the controls I want where I need them, so often you are cycling through menus or buttons to get to what you need. This really hampers reactionary work, so this is definitely not a camera I would recommend to a photo journalist looking to downsize to something more discrete.

Flash Performance

I found the pop-up flash to be just as useless as most point and shoots, despite its interesting design. It still doesn’t go high enough to clear the hood on the zoom lens, and it’s a tiny nuclear bomb of light that hits the target like a laser instead of spreading wide to light the entire scene. Here’s what you can expect in your typical dark restaurant scenario:


Typical point-and-shoot like nuclear blast of light from the on-camera flash (0EV FEC)

Pulling the flash exposure compensation back is a challenge by default, but when you set it to –3EV it gets better but is still pretty hot due to the direct nature of the flash. Here’s an example which admittedly is being impacted by the white hoodie which acts as a reflector here, but you can see on the girl and toddler that the lights not quite as hot:


You can dial back the flash, but not enough (-3EV FEC)

Just like the Fujifilm X100 and XPro-1, this camera features a LCD viewfinder that matches what you see on the rear. However, it’s not as advanced as the brilliant Fujifilm design which also allows for true optical – there is no optical here. I also found the viewfinder to be frustrating as I’d often get my hand too close to it and end up causing the rear LCD to go black.

A good investment with growth opportunity


20 minutes before sunset on a cloudy day
Click for original (this has minor debris removal and cropping, original is untouched)

What I really like about this camera over the competitors is that Sony has made a great selection of E-Mount products in the NEX lineup that give you room to grow. There’s long, wide-angle, pancake, fisheye, etc… lenses as well as high quality Carl Zeiss lenses like the 24mm f/1.8 Sonnar.  This is a platform that grows with you, so you won’t be left out in the cold as easily as I fear will be the case with some of the other manufacturers highly proprietary designs. In fact, if you don’t mind manually focusing, Bower makes an adapter which allows you to mount your Canon EF lenses to the NEX-7.

Bookshelf Test

I found this camera to underexpose by about 1 stop compared to my other cameras so I shot all of these in M(anual) mode at +1 EV. These are all the in-camera JPEG’s with no modification. Click to view the originals for a fair assessment of image quality as artifacts appear in these small thumbnails that do not appear in the original file. I was VERY impressed with the results – this is competitive with any DSLR on the market.


18-55mm lens - f/5.6 @ 50mm, 6s, ISO 100, DRange Auto, AWB


50mm 1.8 lens – f/5.6, 8s, ISO 100


ISO 12,800 is usable for casual photos

HDR Result


HDR Mode +/- 6

This camera has built-in HDR support (JPEG only and discards exposures). The best it can do is shown above which is quite good, but one frustrating fact is that when you are in HDR mode you can’t use the timer. As a result your finger press can introduce shake that can ruin your long exposure. A remote release or great care is required to avoid camera shake at the start of the first exposure.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
Mouse over to see the non-HDR and mouse out to see the HDR Auto version

I found the auto HDR setting to be very conservative, but the auto-alignment was brilliant. Hand-holding was never a problem for reasonable light exposures.

Conclusion

The battery was good for a day which was a big improvement over other non-DSLR cameras I’ve looked at. The performance of the Anti-Blur mode (JPEG only) was outstanding. It’s the mode you use when you are in the dark restaurant or pub and you want to get that family shot. Of course, it doesn’t help you with the the fact that there might not be a lot of light on your subjects faces, but at least your subjects won’t be hopelessly blurry.

I was impressed with image quality with the kit lens and availability of lenses (including third party), I find this to be a good choice for those looking for something smaller than a traditional DSLR – for casual use. I was also pleased with the pano feature which works much like the Fujifilm X10, but is more forgiving and fun to use (click here for samples). Video is also excellent, but sadly I didn’t get much time to test it so I have no meaningful samples to share.

My only real gripe about this camera are the annoying menu system and its lack of quick access to things like white balance and macro mode. I also hated that I didn’t have a easily accessible way to zoom the live view like I would on a DSLR. YES, I can realize I can reprogram buttons but the fact is I don’t see any candidates I’d want to reprogram. I just want more buttons for faster access, and its crappy menu system doesn’t help either.

If you are hell bent on going with a more compact alternative to a DSLR, then I think you’ll be happy with the Sony NEX-7.

Order your NEX-7 today at B&H and help support this blog!

Too expensive for your budget? How about this option…

If the NEX-7 is out of your budget, you might want to consider the NEX-F3 which is on sale now. It’s a fraction of the cost, comes with the excellent 18-55mm lens and is only $598!

The cool thing about the NEX system is that it seems to be well thought out and executed, so you could buy the F3 and then grow into the 7 down the round. Your lens and accessories would still work so you could get the body only for the 7 and you’d be back in business.

Real-World Sample Images

You can find the latest images that I’ve added at http://ronmart.zenfolio.com/nex7 as well as my article entitled “Sony NEX-7 Panorama Images Added”. Here’s a few that I’ve done so far that are worth mentioning. None have any post-processing and all link to their original in-camera JPEG’s:


I was pleased with the detail from hand-held shots in low ambient light


My wife thinks these are creepy, but this and others in the gallery give you an idea of how the lenses compare. These were all done hand-held in admittedly tough wind conditions.


This was really dark in real-life – I was shocked at how well the NEX-7 did here


Using Landscape mode and Shade White balance, rich colors were possible


This is a tough shot because my son is bouncing around like a head banger
Using the Anti-Motion / Blur feature, I stopped him his tracts and got a good clean shot.
That’s very impressive for this price point.


Taken on the go while walking back to the car
Macro mode sometimes just works

Macro mode was hit or miss. Here’s an example of a miss where the camera made an audible focus lock sound, but the net result was a total fail (which happened a lot):


Macro mode can let you down if you aren’t careful


50mm 1.8 lens - it works well as a portrait lens


Thanks to a shorter minimum focus distance, the 18-55mm outperformed the 50mm for this shot


Lots of detail even at ISO 1600


Horrible shot, but what’s noteworthy is that at ISO 640 there’s still plenty of detail in the netting


Another horrible ISO 6400 shot, but the detail on the strawberry is impressive (ISO 1600 version)


Shallow depth of field was much easier than with a point and shoot

Disclosure

I was provided with a loaner unit of this camera and lens which I intend to return. If you make a purchase using links found in this article, I may make a commission.

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10 comments:

Nick Palomba said...

As you know I did some testing as well on this camera: http://nicktoday.com/day-sony-nex7/

I really liked it; so much so that I kept it. I have the 5 as well and the 7 is a major step up. The menuing system to me is pretty easy once you play with it for a while and it's much better than version one.

The antiblur I agree is one of the best features on the camera.

Alex said...

"My only real gripe about this camera are the annoying menu system and its lack of quick access to things like white balance".

There are custom options which enable quick access to controls such as white balance.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you mean by no live view zoom and hard to find WB? There is a magnification zoom that you can assign to various buttons, and you can assign WB to various buttons, too.

This camera is made to have user controlled custom controls, and, once you do that, diving into the menu is rarely needed.

Ingmar Rieger said...

Hey Ron,

you criticize that there is no Zoom in Live View and no direct access to the White Balance. The NEX-5n has both of this and ass far as I know that NEX-7 should also have both this functions. Zoom should be available when in manual focus and you should be able to configure White Balance to the custom function buttons.

Ron Martinsen said...

Alex, Anonymous, & Ingmar:

Yes, I'm aware that there are custom options - that wasn't an oversight. The reality though is that I don't see anything I'd want to overwrite to make room for it. My uber-point here is that I think Sony needs more buttons, and honestly things like WB should be more easily accessible. When I compare to Canon and Fujifilm products, I find them much easier to operate and get to the things I need so you can take this as a criticism of the menuing system (which many reviewers have panned).

This camera is great in many way, but the controls remind me of the Nikon V1 where too much was lost in the name of simplicity. However, I find this MUCH easier to use than the Nikon 1 V1 thanks to the very well designed knobs and top level menu (nested under the menu key are the ones I hate).

I am also aware that I can zoom the lens , but what I'm talking about is a DSLR equivalent to Live View Zoom where you can easily (notice, I say the word easily - that means without digging into that blasted menu) zoom in to see what you are manually focusing on.

It's fair to argue I'm being too harsh because I'm new to the camera and those are things that you all have obviously gotten used to. However, things won't get better if nobody complains about it. I think the competition is superior in these two areas so I call it out.

Thanks for supporting my blog reading this article!

P.S. Sorry for the delay in approving your comments (I get lots of spam comments). Also note that duplicate responses are deleted, but I showed a version of your comment.

alex tyler said...

nex-7 is just outstanding... holding a tough stand in dslr category...

Anonymous said...

Ron, thanks to your excellent review, I bought the Nex 7 w/kit lens. This camera is fun and I find myself taking more pictures than 6 months ago. My D90 and its17-55 lens were getting dust in my room. Too heavy for me. However, I've gotten used to the quality of my original Nikon set. I am disappointed to realize the poor choice of semi pro lens for this camera. After over a year in the market...shame on you Sony! I hate the idea of an adapter for lens that are not designed for the camera. A poor alternative provided by Sony. Unless you have a better idea that I do not know yet.

Ron Martinsen said...

Anonymous,

Embrace the adapter and forgive yourself for not being perfect. Just have fun shooting then use some Nik software on your favorite shots and call it a day. Life is too short to stress - just have fun with your photography!

Anonymous said...

Ron,

Just a heads up, you can turn on manual focus assist so whenever you're in DMF or MF mode, simply turning the focus ring will put you into 7X (or with the touch of a button 14x) "Live View" zoom. Not sure if it can get much simpler than that, and no blasted menu.

Jordan Johnson said...

I the fact that this Nex final has more manual controls, and amazes me with its professional quality! Great blog sir!