Sony NEX-7 24.3Mp APS-C compact system camera
Review Sony’s NEX-7 is its flagship Compact System Camera that’s been graced with advanced features to justify the high-end price tag for a pocketable interchangeable lens model. Indeed this 24.3Mp APS-C shooter with a built-in OLED electronic viewfinder plus tilting LCD and full manual control, is certainly going to give some DSLRs a run for their money.
Pro appeal: Sony's NEX-7
DSLRs costing over a grand that is, as the NEX-7 18-55mm kit costs £1129 or £999 for body only. Considering that the NEX’s little brother, the excellent Sony NEX-5N, is on sale at half the NEX-7’s price, is its pro appeal worth the extra money? For a start, the NEX-7 is built almost entirely in black magnesium alloy and without question gives it solid, professional yet sleek look.
In contrast to most CSCs it sports a deep, ergonomic handgrip on the front that makes the small camera body feel incredibly balanced and safe in the hand. The control layout comes very close to the flexibility and immediacy of a DSLR, with two new dials appearing on the top plate to enable full and direct manual control of shutter speed and aperture. Several customisable buttons are also cleverly squeezed on the faceplate and on the rear.
Dialling it in
Another enhancement is an entirely new control system Sony refers to as Tri-Navi or Triple-Dial-Control. It short, it uses the two aforementioned dials in conjunction with the rear navigation dial to give you instant access to three function settings at a time.
In manual and default mode these are aperture, shutter speed and ISO but the three dial system can be customised to easily change the parameters of any of five different settings - Focus, White Balance, D-Range, Creative Style and Picture Effect – through a soft key that lets you cycle through them.
Solid construction and thoughtful layout
It’s certainly a clever design and makes the NEX-7 one of the easiest models to operate in manual and semi-manual modes. Certainly a selling point for any advanced photographer, but it can be quite counterintuitive at first as these physical controls typically change function according to what shooting mode you are in. Sony has tried to make operation more user-friendly by providing a visual on screen guide that illustrates what each dial and button is currently set to do. Even so it takes some playing around before mastering the new control system.
Alongside the Sony NEX-5N that I reviewed recently , there are a couple of other changes worthy of note. The direct movie recording button has moved from the top plate to the rear and placed adjacent to the right edge of the camera immediately above the thumb rest in a position where it can now be easily pressed by mistake. The other is the addition of a toggle on the back that lets you lock the exposure or focus.
The electronic viewfinder is the real big deal here
Adding to its cost and setting this model apart from any previously released NEX, or any other CSC, is the provision of a XGA OLED electronic viewfinder. The 1.3 cm eye-level EVF is truly amazing. With a resolution of 2,359,296 dots and 100 per cent frame coverage it gives a clear, finely detailed view with high contrast and beautifully rendered colours.
With such a viewfinder I found I seldom used the rear screen. Still, this 3in, 921k-dots LCD is a very fine viewing tool. It features Sony’s TruBlack technology that greatly reduces reflections give this screen superb image quality and level of detail. While not fully articulating, the screen can be tilted down 45 degrees and up 80 degrees – handy for tight spots and overhead shooting.
The APS-C CMOS sensor clocks up a 24.3Mp resolution
At the heart of the NEX-7 lies its 24.3Mp CMOS sensor that being the larger APS-C format gives this camera a clear image quality advantage over any Micro Four Thirds model or Nikon 1 CSC for that matter. Indeed, the sensor delivers huge amount of picture detail and beautifully balanced images. Compared to the 16.1Mp NEX-5N, which mounts a sensor of equivalent size, the NEX-7 squeezes many more megapixels into the sensor surface but thankfully, this does not seem to negatively effect ISO performance in its normal 100-1600 ISO range.
However the NEX-7’s sensitivity extends to ISO 16,000 and has an excellent noise performance all the way up to ISO 1600. Unsurprisingly, noise issues appear above that. In this respect, the cheaper NEX-5N outperforms its bigger brother notching up maximum ISO of 25,600 and delivering a better noise performance at the higher end. That said, the NEX-7‘s low light performance is still of a very high standard and images are clear with good levels of contrast.
The kit lens doesn't really do it justice, but there are optics options aplenty
For the review I was provided with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, which is certainly not the best optic available to the NEX range. The limitations of the lens are much more noticeable on the NEX-7’s sensor that they were on the NEX-5N, with marked softness at the edges and some barrel distortion.
18-55mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 27-83mm
In terms of performance the NEX-7 is a bit of a mixed bag. The large sensor and Sony’s latest Bionz processor offer unprecedented speed in a camera of this class. Switching on is virtually instant, shutter lag is a mere 0.2 seconds and the camera has continuous shooting speed of up to 10 frames per second. In operation the NEX-7 is as fast as it comes and it gives you the feeling of shooting with a DSLR, and a fast one at that.
No fiddly clip-on flash to lose – this pop-up one is built-in
Things fall apart with the 25-point autofocus system that remains very compact-like. The contrast detection system works fast and accurately in good lighting conditions but it does struggle a lot in dim light and in tracking fast moving subjects. On the positive side though the NEX-7 is one of the few compacts that offer a good and easy to operate manual focus with useful aides such as the Peaking function, which highlights the edges of your focusing target to ensure razor sharp focus exactly where you need it. A great tool for portraits and macro photography.
Another area where the NEX-7 asserts its supremacy is video performance. Video capture is just brilliant. Smooth, totally silent focusing and with full manual control the NEX-7’s video mode lets you record full HD footage – 1080p at up to 50fps in AVCHD formats – producing some of the best video results I’ve seen. MP4 at 1440 x 1080 is available too and the frame rates depend on territory with 60fps in the US.
Smaller than you think and pricier too
The NEX-7 also features a pop-up flash unit with a guide number of 6 as well as a number of creative effects and 3 different panorama modes, including a 3D one. As these are the same as the NEX-5N I won’t repeat myself here. Likewise, I also covered a number of available accessories, such as the LA-EA2 lens adaptor. Battery has a life of 350 shots when shooting using the EVF and 430 when using the LCD.
The NEX-7 is certainly a great little compact system camera and one that comes closest to the performance and features of a DSLR – something I am quite sure endear it to many advanced and enthusiast photographers. Certainly the electronic viewfinder and the three dial system alone merit all the credit they can get.
The camera is not flawless but is commendable, as it arguably delivers the best image and video quality of its class. But this comes at a price and in this respect I’m unconvinced that is particularly good value for money, especially when up against its stablemate, the NEX-5N – an alternative for users that can live without the EVF and the smooth manual operation of the NEX-7. Yet for creative, advanced photographers that want a flexible, powerful and intelligent CSC, its features will be of greater value and likely worth every penny. ®
Catherine Monfils  is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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