Yeah, yeah… I said I wasn’t going to do a write up on the kit lens on the Sony NEX 7, but after the shoot at the Old Howard Smith Paper Mill I felt I had to speak up for this little gem. I’ll be honest, I never really gave it a chance when I got it along with my NEX 3. I played with it a bit when I first got it then quickly put it on the shelf, because hey, real photographers don’t use kit lenses, right? Well damn, is my face red.
When I was packing up for the trip, I threw it in the bag because, well because I over pack every single time. I blame my time in the scouts, be prepared and all that, although others will say it’s because I’m a hoarder that just happens to take my hoarding on the road. I make hermit crabs look under packed. I figured I might play around with some of the features on the NEX 7 that you need an E-mount lens for like the HDR and Panorama functions, but I never thought I’d use it for any of the serious shoots. I didn’t get a chance to try the Panorama feature, but I did take a few HDR shots. The built in HDR mode worked very well, but at the end of the day I just don’t really like the look of HDR so I don’t expect to be using it much.
Well, shoot number one happened to be a dance number and considering I was shooting along side two DSLRs using autofocus, I had to keep up with the action or miss shots and in such dim light manual focus just wasn’t going to cut it. Out came the 18-55mm; I figured the slow, hunting autofocus all the NEX 7 reviews claimed I’d be facing was better than nothing. I actually had to force myself to keep shooting over the part of my brain dropping its jaw over how well the little guy acquitted itself.
Was the AF on the NEX 7 as fast as what I’ve been used to on my Canon 50D? Surprisingly, yes and no. Compared to some of the really expensive lenses (70-200 F2.8L) or fast primes (Sigma 30mm f1.4 or 85mm f1.8) it was clearly slower, but it was no slouch. It hunted less than either the Tamron 28-75 f2.8 or 17-50mm f2.8 would have in the same circumstances, especially the latter lens, and was comparably fast. Finally, compared to the sluggish AF of the 85L it was positively blazing, and I’d always been satisfied with what the 85L gave me.
The fact that it hunted in low light was one of the big complaints about this camera and lens combo. I found that as long as I aimed at an area of contrast it wasn’t bad at all, and when it did hunt, it didn’t hunt far like some SLR lenses I’ve used, going back and forth along a major chunk of the focal range, it just kind of vibrated a bit around the focus point and then locked. Another complaint I’ve read is that it will also hunt and miss focus entirely; I’d say this happened about one in twenty times trying to lock focus under dim natural light, and when it missed focus, it missed by a lot. Which isn’t too bad, at least I could easily tell that I missed focus instead of thinking I nailed it looking at the LCD and finding out later at home I actually missed a bit. I found very few shots in which it looked like it focused but was slightly off.
The built in image stabilization was also a pleasant surprise; it’s comparable to the IS on my Canon 70-300 but without any of the hum I’m used to hearing when it kicks in. I didn’t do any test as to how many stops of effective stabilization it provides, suffice to say it works well.
In terms of image quality, the kit lens is clearly having a tough time satisfying the NEX 7’s 24mp sensor, but that’s not a huge surprise; but for a $200 lens it held its own well. I’ve definitely seen sharper lenses, but I’ve seen many more that where softer, and you really have to ask yourself: how sharp is sharp enough? Put it this way, in one situation, it resolved that nearly invisible peach fuzz hair, finer and smaller than eyelashes I didn’t notice in real life. That’s sharp enough for most of my purposes. I won’t be using it to take pictures for billboards, but I don’t think I’d have any problems printing a 16X20 of any of the days shots.
At the end of the day I was forced to admit, this lens deserves a space in my NEX 7 kit. The NEX 7 provided decently fast AF with this lens, and while it may not take advantage of every one of the NEX 7s 24mp, it’s sharp enough for most purposes. Modern cameras have replacement cycles measured in months instead of years and most of us have gone right along with it, always demanding more sharpness, more megapixels faster AF… more, more, more. I admit, I’m a recovering pixel-peeper, it took me a long time to realize that way lies madness. You can drive yourself crazy, constantly comparing 100% crops and MTF charts (if you don’t know what those are, stop Googling it right now, you’ll save yourself pre-mature grey hairs not knowing). I bought the NEX 7 for its size, ergonomics and usability. It’s combination of features like the EVF, adaptable lens mount and multiple control knobs make it the flexible, jack of all trades camera I wanted it to be. The fact that the kit lens is decently sharp with nice snappy autofocus is just icing on the cake. It’s all about the right tool for the right job; when I have time for manual focus, of course my Leica M lenses are the ones I’m going to reach for, but for action shots or those occasions where a zoom is just more practical than a prime I won’t hesitate to trust that the Sony 18-55mm will deliver.