Sony Nex 7 Rolling Review: Part I – First Impressions

This is part one of my ongoing review of my new toy, the Sony NEX 7. Over the next couple months Iíll be posting my thoughts on the camera paired with various lenses, I didnít buy it to get into Sonyís E-Mount lenses, itís primarily to compliment my Leica film kit so Iíll be talking about it with those lenses in mind. Sonyís own lens offerings arenít amazing so far, I may pick up their new 50mm this summer, but thatís about it. Thereís been a lot of controversy over this camera in the rangefinder circles; it was hoped that the NEX 7 would be the Leica killer, a camera the average user could afford that overcame all the little issues weíve all be complaining about with other mirrorless cameras. Itís got a nice big sensor, gorgeous EVF, lots of manual control nobs and buttons, built in flash, articulated LCD and offers tons of different ways for the user to customize control. On paper itís almost the perfect camera, but conflicting results with wide angle rangefinder lenses had many people worried. Iíll get to that later, but first letís start with first impressions.

Right out of the box, the NEX 7 felt like a quality piece of equipment, the metal housing is very sturdy feeling, nothing like the plastic body of my NEX 3. The LCD doesnít feel like itís going to break every time I flip it out, it slides out smoothly with no wiggle or play. The buttons and knobs are well machined and seated in the housing and you donít feel like youíre stressing the frame when you press them. Itís the Porsche to my NEX 3ís Honda Civic, everything just feels classy and sleek. I was surprised how comfortable such a small camera felt in my huge mitts, the rubberized front grip is nice and deep and the rear of the camera had a bit of a thumb grip as well.

The pop out flash feels a bit flimsy, but it hides away, flush to the body nicely. One nice though about the in camera flash that Sony probably didnít intend really sets it apart from any on board flash I can think of; the little arm it flips out can be pulled back with one finger to bounce the light off the ceiling. It takes a bit of finger gymnastics to pull off, but itís really helped out in a few situations already.

Ergonomically, the buttons all fall nicely in places where my fingers can reach them without contorting my hands in weird ways; my only complaint is the video record button right under where my thumb sits. If I was big into video Iíd probably love the positioning, but Iím not, so I can see myself accidentally engaging the video when I donít want to. Iím loving the two metal control dials placed under your thumb on the top right of the camera that can change function depending on what mode youíre in. Sony even included a lock button so that you canít accidentally change their settings once youíve got them set where you want them.

One thing we all wanted in a mirrorless camera for our Leica glass was more manual control and the NEX 7 doesnít disappoint in that department. Right out of the box, the buttons are all configured for use with auto-focus Sony lenses, which makes sense, but isnít nearly optimal if youíre going to be using the camera with manual lenses most of the time. Luckily you can re-assign the functions of almost all the buttons, and they all have contextual settings as well that change how your buttons and dials work under different shooting modes. I can see some people getting frustrated with this, I have to admit, this is the first camera where I actually read the instruction manual. Getting the hang of setting up and customizing all the controls was a bit daunting due to Sonyís less than stellar menu layout, but after using the camera for a while itís made operation faster than on any digital camera Iíve ever owned. Sony did a pretty good job of anticipating a huge range of different setups people might want, but why they didnít go the extra step of allowing every button to be customized to any function I donít know. They were almost there, the Sony menus, while confusing, allow about 90% of all the different permutations of button setups. Maybe future firmware will change this, but itís really a small complaint, itís still more customizable than any of my DSLRs.

The Electronic View Finder (EVF) is just gorgeous, this is what Iíve been waiting for, this is why I bought this camera and I couldnít be happier. Well, ok of course I could, but within the limits of current technology Sony turned it up to 11 with this one. Itís crisp, clear and sharp; I havenít seen any ghosting or tearing of the image I saw in previous EVFís. Some people have complained that it gets grainy in low light, but thatís to be expected when you bump up the ISO in dark conditions. I have pretty bad eyes, in really dim conditions Iíll take the NEX 7ís backlit EVF over squinting into a dim optical viewfinder any day. Iím also in love with having all my cameras settings and displays in the viewfinder. I wear glasses, so I usually canít see the edges of the frame in any viewfinder, which means I have to shift my eyes around the viewfinder and off my subject to try and see any exposure information displayed outside the frame on most cameras. Having all this information overlayed on the display is a god-send for me, not to mention having access to the histogram, frame lines and electronic level. Oh yeah, did I mention that, the NEX 7 has a built in two-axis level you can display on screen, amazing.

Like I said, I donít plan on using the camera with Sony lenses, but I figured Iíd give it a whirl for a bit, just to get a feel for how Sony built the camera to behave. Overall I like the autofocus with the kit lens, much faster than on my NEX 3. Itís still no match for my DSLR, but contrast detection AF just isnít in the same league as the phase detection systems you get in SLRs right now. Itís definitely not suited to sports or any fast action photography, but for everyday purposes itís fast enough. Iíll revisit this topic when I pick up the new fast 50mm, but for now I canít see myself using the 18-55mm enough to form more detailed opinions.

As much as I love the camera, it has itís quirks and problems. The first known issue, which I was hoping theyíd change with the NEX 7, is how much of the really cool in camera image processing options are disabled if youíre shooting RAW. Sony did a great job with adding things like a panorama mode, built in HDR and dynamic range optimization, but in order to use these functions you have to be shooting in JPG mode; you canít even be in JPG+RAW mode. I can understand why they did this, by definition all these functions alter the image after itís been taken and a RAW file is literally RAW sensor data, thereís no such thing as processed raw data. This was the same way it worked on the NEX 3, but I was hoping since the NEX 7 was aimed at the pro and advanced amateur market they would have allowed you to shoot RAW+JPG so you could get a pano or HDR jpg straight out of the camera, but still have the original RAW files that were used to create that image to play around with later.

Another issue that I knew about going in is how Sony implemented switching between the rear LCD and EVF. Hereís how youíd expect it to work: thereís a sensor at the eye cup that detects when youíre looking through it, so take it away from your eye and the rear LCD comes on, put it back to your eye and the EVF comes onÖ donít touch the camera for X seconds and it goes to sleep and you have to half press the shutter to bring it back to life. And thatís how it works, almost anyways. For some reason, some genius engineer at Sony decided that even if the camera is asleep, putting your eye to the EVF should wake it up and it shouldnít go to sleep as long as you have the camera to your eye. Makes sense, kind ofÖ if youíre looking through the EVF you must be actively using the camera, and for the sake of speed, if you bring the camera up to your eye you obviously want the camera to be on. Makes sense on paper, but in practice itís terrible because the sensor just goes by light levels; if it gets darker it must mean an eye is looking through the EVF, but it canít tell the difference between the EVF going dark because itís pressed against your eye, or because itís resting on your chest on a strapÖ you know, like 90% of all photographers on the planet carry their camera. I really donít know how this got past QA, itís like they thought every photographer carries a table around to set their camera down on when theyíre not using it. In a real world shoot, it means the camera almost never goes to sleep when youíre walking around with it hanging on your neck and it chews through batteries like a fat kid at a pie eating contest. There have been a lot of complaints about this issue and Iím really hoping it gets fixed in the upcoming firmware update. This kind of issue seems to be cropping up more and more in high tech gizmos; just because we have the technology to make touch screens and smart sensors, doesnít mean they should be included regardless of whether they actually work better than a good old manual control button.

Besides those two main issues, there isnít a lot to complain about; thereíre always little things you would want to change, buttons moved slightly, menu options rearranged, but overall itís a very solid camera. Thereís been a lot of controversy over how the 24mp sensor handles high-ISO noise and wide angle rangefinder lenses, but Iíll get into that in later posts, so stay tuned for more updates in the coming months. Overall, I can see the NEX 7 having a permanent home in my everyday photo bag.

Sony Nex 7 Rolling Review: Part II Ė 18-55mm Kit Lens Performance ->