The Sony NEX-7 has an interesting lineage: it’s the top model in the second generation of Sony’s NEX interchangeable lens camera system, a group of cameras focused on good image quality without the bulky controls and steep learning curve of a digital SLR. The NEX-7 has eschewed the light-on-buttons mentality of the previous NEX-5 and NEX-3 models, though, with three multipurpose control dials and a range of dedicated buttons. We think the controls theoretically make the NEX-7 easier to use in manual mode than older models, but the coming-together of the camera’s interface and hands-on controls needs some more work. See also: Group test: what's the best compact camera?
Sony NEX-7: Design and features
The NEX-7 is very roughly a ‘rangefinder’-style camera, with an optical viewfinder that is offset from the camera lens mount. Since it’s an electronic viewfinder, there’s no need for a bulky mirror box and optical prism of the kind you’d find in a digital SLR. The body of the camera is extremely well constructed, easily on par with a semi-professional digital SLR like the Nikon D7000: it’s milled from solid aluminium for the most part, and the rubber and plastic inserts are of high quality. See also: Learn to take better photos with an online simulator
The vaguely rectangular shape of the NEX-7’s rear panel lends itself to an easily recognisable layout of controls. Below the viewfinder is the NEX-7’s tilting 3.0in LCD screen, which can pivot up and down to allow shooting from the hip or with the camera in the air. Look right from the viewfinder and you’ll see a flash pop-up button, playback button and auto-exposure/autofocus switch-button combo, with a dedicated movie button on the camera’s thumb grip. Down from there are two context-sensitive buttons, and a scroll wheel with a central button and four-way directional pad built in.
The top of the camera is where innovation is hidden away. A multipurpose hot-shoe and pop-up flash sit next to two knurled aluminium dials extending from the top rear of the camera — these are the crucial components in the Sony NEX-7’s manual control layout. The power switch is built around the shutter button, and there’s a third multipurpose button alongside it.
The electronic viewfinder in the Sony NEX-7 is excellent. It’s by far the closest approximation we’ve seen to a full-size SLR optical viewfinder, and being an OLED panel it suffers from few of the frustrating inadequacies of the LCD-based electronic viewfinders found in the Panasonic G3, Sony Alpha A35, Samsung NX11 and similar cameras. Its clarity and detail levels are excellent with a 2,359,296 dot resolution — count ‘em — and there’s little to no loss of detail in dark or bright areas in the majority of shooting.
There’s a sensor that switches to the EVF once you raise it to your eye, making the experience almost seamless — we only found it an issue when we accidentally covered it with a thumb during browsing images on the rear screen, blacking out the LCD temporarily until we realised. It’s also important to note that the eye-cup around the electronic viewfinder is quite large — larger than the Sony product photos make it out to be — and it extends some way from the rear of the camera. We found that if the diopter setting was correctly adjusted, we preferred to shoot the camera with the eye-cup detached.
Sony NEX-7: Control layout and menu usage
The extra controls on the NEX-7 over previous models go a long way to make the camera easier to use in manual shooting modes. The two top-mounted multipurpose dials are best used for independently adjusting shutter speeds and aperture values in Manual mode, but will both work if you’re browsing through stored photos or if you’re in a more automatic shooting mode.
Coming from a digital SLR background where each dial has a concrete purpose, the contextual nature of the Sony NEX-7’s buttons was initially perplexing for us. The same is true of the rear panel’s scroll wheel and soft buttons — they’re not labelled, and their uses change depending on which shooting mode or which menu segment you’re in. The learning curve of the Sony NEX-7 is quite steep, and we think it will take users some time to adapt to the unique layout.
One other niggle in the control department: the top dials are a long way from the scroll wheel on the back of the body, and are at least a centimetre above the thumb grip on the camera’s back. Reaching for them with your thumb can feel like a stretch sometimes, and the left-hand dial especially requires a bit of effort to find when the NEX-7 is up to your eye.
The menu system, like other Sony NEX cameras we’ve used in the past, could be better. It’s organised into two tiers of shooting and setup, but an endless stream of sub-menus means it’s easy to forget how to change an option you found once before, and some menu options aren’t available unless you have other menu options enabled or disabled. DPReview has an excellent run-down on what it calls a ‘labyrinthine’ menu system — read it for pictorial demonstration of the possible confusion you’ll face. A few months after the Sony NEX-5’s initial release, a major firmware update altered its menu system to be more user-friendly, and we’d suggest this as a viable option for Sony to make the NEX-7 a little easier to navigate.
Sony NEX-7: Image quality and performance
Images from the 24.3 megapixel Sony NEX-7 are some of the best we’ve seen out of any camera in the digital SLR category. They’re slightly better than the output of the Nikon D7000 we mentioned earlier, with more detail visible in JPG photos thanks to the NEX-7’s superior megapixel count and slightly better performance at high ISO noise control. We didn’t have a chance to test the RAW photo output of the NEX-7.
Here’s a 100 per cent crop from one of the Sony NEX-7’s 6000x4000pixel images:
This image was shot at ISO 100 to ensure the highest level of detail possible, with a shutter speed of 1/50sec, at f/8 aperture, and 55mm focal length. The level of detail here is impressive: the dots in question are very small, appearing on the surface of a sheet of Livescribe smartpen paper which is only around 7.5mm x 125mm in size.
This photo shows off the level of detail in a standard NEX-7 photo: you can see there’s plenty of dynamic range with only the brightest highlight areas blown out. The camera has made the smart choice of correctly exposing the tea boxes that were focused on, despite the bright light and dark areas at the top and bottom edges of the frame respectively.
One excellent feature of the 24.3MP sensor in the Sony NEX-7 is its excellent ability to handle noise, and low chroma noise levels, at almost all ISO settings. It’s very clean and detailed from ISO 100 to ISO 800, and ISO 1600 all the way up to ISO 6400 have very acceptable and manageable levels of digital noise, increasing as the ISO increases. ISO 12800 is good, but there is clear evidence of smudging and noise removal when you look closely at the camera’s JPG images. As is the case with all digital cameras (yes, even the best), the highest ISO setting — ISO 16000 — is largely there for bragging and marketing rights and should only be used as a last resort, with significantly increased digital noise and noise removal marking from ISO 12800.
We think the camera’s excellent sensor is the cornerstone of the Sony NEX-7’s appeal. It’s able to capture great levels of detail in everything but the lowest lighting environments. Video quality is also excellent, with the most detailed (and storage-intensive) option being 1080p 60fps output. We found the NEX-7 to be easily equal to the Nikon D7000 which is our current benchmark in this area. There are lesser options that conserve storage space, but we’d prefer to shoot at the highest quality settings and lower quality when processing the video on a powerful computer.
The main issue we had with shooting the Sony NEX-7 in automatic mode was that the Auto ISO setting wouldn’t go above ISO 1600, despite the camera being able to reach ISO 16000. ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 are even reasonably clean of digital noise, so it’s baffling as to why Sony would restrict them from the NEX-7’s Auto ISO mode.
Sony NEX-7: Conclusion
Sony’s NEX-7 camera is a great piece of technology, with some excellent specifications backed up by great build quality. The menu system needs some work though, and the controls aren’t as refined as the ones on a traditional compact or digital SLR — although they’ve had decades of previous products to build on. The NEX-7 is an ambitious and generally successful attempt at an innovative camera for Sony.