Sony NEX-7 Review - Thoughts After the Hype

Submitted on Jul 09, 2012, 7:16 a.m.
Inside Pha That Luang - Laos' most important national monument and temple.

After all the hype and a couple of months of steady use, here's a review and a few thoughts about Sony's NEX-7 digital camera. Before I start though (and in case you haven't already noticed), it's a remarkable time for photography as a whole. Technological advances in cameras are having an enormous impact on both professional and amateur photographic communities. We're seeing consumer-level cameras with sensor resolution and light sensitivity that is pushing digital photography well beyond what would have been possible with film not so many years ago. Or perhaps put another way - as little as three years ago, only professional-level digital cameras could produce images in low light with good image quality - good dynamic range, good blacks and little noise or other artifacts.

If anyone reading this post remembers the challenges of 'pushing' color slide film to 1600 ISO, you'll share my sense of wonder at what we are now able to achieve with modern digital cameras. And of course for those of you who have no idea what that means - well, it doesn't matter much. What's great is that nearly everyone can now take pictures of their fun, frivolous and cherished moments without having to worry too much about the previously challenging tasks of considering the amount of available light, and correctly exposing an image.

That said, there are still differences between cameras that matter. However, how they matter depends on how you feel about photography. For those who aren't overly concerned with photography as a craft - well, sit back and enjoy the ride because your cameras are only going to get better and do more remarkable things every year as newer and more impressive consumer-level models are released with better screens, better lenses, better sensors, rugged, networked and even waterproof features. For those who are still committed to photography as an artform and who want to provoke, engage, and change the way others see the world we live in - well, things are getting pretty good here too.

Which brings me to the title of this post and my own experiences as a former owner of a professional-level DSLR, and someone who is hoping for a certain kind of camera these days.

Although I don't make a living from photography, I was fortunate enough to have been around and inspired by some very talented photographers - some of whom were kind enough to give me a little advice. I'm also a bit of a geek, and was until recently a bit of a gear head where camera equipment was concerned. I had a Nikon D700 and three of Nikon's best lenses - the Nikkor 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. I loved the range and the speed of the Nikon D700. Speed in every sense - handling, shooting, settings. It took me a few months to get settled in, but once I had the handling down, I could pick it up and shoot in nearly any environment almost without thinking about the camera itself. I just knew what I wanted to do and did it.

I remember days of heading out to explore or just sit and watch and record the things that were happening around me. And I remember often feeling that those were some of the happiest moments of my life. It might seem a little odd then to return from such happy and reflective moments to the seemingly mundane review of a camera's features and technical specification - but there's a point to this.

The camera I was using at the time was a remarkable piece of engineering. It was crafted in a way that effectively made it disappear (at least on my side of the camera). I could take a picture, and the camera wasn't there. All that mattered was my point of view. Well almost. What eventually caught up with me and my happy moments was lugging around between 7 and 10 kilograms of camera gear and accessories, as well as a growing appreciation for a more candid and less obtrusive form of photography.

And so after reading some of the early reviews of the Sony NEX-7 I decided to unload my DSLR and lenses and wait for the next breakthrough in digital photography to arrive. I knew I was going to be making a compromise of sorts, but what I hadn't anticipated was how much I was going to miss my D700. The hype, the press, the anticipation surrounding the NEX-7 reached its peek when it was announced that Sony's factory in Ayutthaya Province Thailand had been closed because of flooding. Sony was forced to move its NEX-7 and Alpha manufacturing facilities to another factory in Chonburi - and this meant about a four month delay before cameras started hitting the shelves. From everything I'd read before actually holding the camera in my own hands, I believed the only major sacrifice I was going to make was in the downgrade from fast phase detect autofocus, to the slightly clunkier yet nippy contrast detect autofocus of the NEX-7. But I figured the weight trade off and reduced size would be worth it. I was nearly right - but not quite.

For me there are two major disappointments in the NEX-7. The first is overall handling. Sony and the army of early reviewers made a big deal out of the fancy tri-nav control system. And it's true that the tri-nav control combination is good, and certainly an improvement over the NEX-5N, but the controls on the Sony NEX-7 are not professional-level controls. The dial adjustment feels fiddly and cheap, as do the other buttons on the back of the camera. The two top-level controls while good, aren't as positive or as stiff as I would like them to be. The overall effect is that I cannot use the camera as swiftly or as positively as I would like to. Apples and Oranges you may say when compared to a D700 - but I know that it is possible to build a camera that has the best of both worlds - and that includes the positive handling of a professional DSLR. My second disappointment with the NEX-7 is Sony's lens line-up.

What Sony should have done was release three good quality fast autofocus primes (as Fuji have done with the X-Pro 1 - although I'm not buying into the Fuji story), a 16mm (effective 24mm), 35mm (effective 52mm) and 75mm (effective 105mm). A lens line up like this would have signaled a real commitment to the NEX range, and boosted the confidence of would-be NEX buyers. And of course at least one fast and decent mid-range zoom would have been the icing on the cake.

What I will give Sony credit for is this. They created a camera that has shown everyone what's possible. The electronic viewfinder is amazing. The sensor is excellent, and I don't feel any sense of compromise here between the NEX-7 and my D700 (there is a small difference, but not one that matters to me). Contrast detect autofocus is pretty good and Sony have also done something that borders on genius in releasing the LA-EA2 adapter which contains a translucent mirror and Sony's phase detect autofocus assembly. For any of you out there that will complain that the adapter and an Alpha lens makes the Sony bulky and awkward - all I can say is actually try it first. I have - and it's amazing what happens when you put this adapter on the body and attach one of the better Alpha lenses to it. It works really well.

What this means is that Sony - who I wouldn't normally have considered as a serious option for my photographic needs, have created a system that breaks down into a very small package with the NEX-7 and a small prime or pancake lens, and yet can expand to include a professional lens with phase detect autofocus when required. It's a very impressive solution.

So what does all of this mean? The Sony NEX-7 was close, very close to what I would love in a camera, but the fiddly handling, amateur controls, and mediocre build quality have left me disappointed and unable to use the camera in a way that removes the camera from the equation. It's a camera that's shown us the future, but has failed to realize that vision itself.

So what would be my dream solution? A tougher, better handling version of the NEX-7 - a fraction larger, a full frame sensor, a good selection of lenses, and until someone invents a way to put the equivalent of phase detect autofocus into a small mirrorless package - then the same adapter strategy that will let you put phase detect in front when you need it. Maybe Canon will get it right with its up-coming mirrorless announcements. A few more years from now it won't matter much because someone will have made the camera I was looking for. And then who knows what will happen next...