Sony NEX-7 review

Pros

  • Design
  • Control system
  • Image quality
  • Performance
  • Proving me wrong about CSCs

Cons

  • Price

In an opinion article last week, I stated that I didn't believe that compact system cameras would replace digital SLRs for serious photography, so with the inescapable power of Murphy's law, this week I find myself reviewing a CSC which could very well do just that. The Alpha NEX-7 is the flagship of Sony's compact system camera range, and straight out of the gate, I have to say I love this camera. I've tried and reviewed maybe a dozen different CSCs over the past four years, but this is the first one I've seen that I would genuinely like to own, and I could see myself using it professionally. Unfortunately, I'll have to start saving up for it, because it isn't cheap. Even shopping around online the NEX-7 costs over £900 body-only, and if I want the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens as well, I'll need to find just shy of £1,000. It's not quite the most expensive CSC on the market; Fuji's gorgeous X-Pro-1 takes that honour at £1,300 body-only, but the NEX-7 isn't far behind. By way of a comparison, a Canon EOS 60D with an 18-105mm VR lens will set you back around £980.

So what do you get for your money? Well for a start, you get plenty of raw pixel power. At the core of the NEX-7 is an APS-C CMOS sensor with a maximum shooting resolution of 6,000 x 4,000 pixels, or 24-megapixels. This compares favourably with most of the top-end APS-C DSLRs; the Canon EOS 60D and 7D are 18MP, the Nikon D7000 is 16.2MP, as is the Pentax K-5 and new K-30. To find comparable resolutions you have to look to Sony's own range, with the new SLT-A65 and A77 offering the same 24MP sensor.

The asking price also buys you an extremely well-made camera. The body is mostly metal and feels very durable, and all the external moving parts such as the controls, hatches, pop-up flash and tilting monitor are solidly mounted. Despite the fact that my review sample has done the rounds at other publications, the smooth black finish showed no dents or scratches.

As compact system cameras go, the NEX-7 is a fairly hefty beast, measuring 119.9 x 69.2 x 46.7mm and weighing 349g body only. By comparison, the Panasonic GX1 measures 116.3 x 67.8 x 39.4mm and weighs 318g, while the Olympus E-PL3 is 109.5 x 63.7 x 37.3 mm and 313g. It doesn't feel all that big though, and the square angular body looks slimmer than it really is. It's a very nice camera to handle, with a chunky front handgrip and a large sculpted thumb grip on the side and rear, making it easy to hold securely and operate with one hand. My only criticism of the handling is that there isn't much space between the handgrip and the lens barrel when using the kit 18-55mm lens. Using larger A-series lenses with the optional adapter could be a problem, but since I don't have the adapter I wasn't able to check this.

The control layout of many CSCs is limited by their comparatively small size, which can make them fiddly and difficult to use, but Sony has overcome this limitation with a control interface for the NEX-7 that is, in my opinion, the best on any current CSC, and better than most DSLRs. The key to its success is the use of 'soft' controls that change their function depending on the shooting mode. There are two buttons to the right of the monitor and a pair of thumbwheels just above the thumb grip that, between them, are used to control or adjust every aspect of the camera's operation. The wheels are used to adjust exposure parameters and the buttons do multiple jobs, including menu button, focus mode selector, delete button and more. Even the rotary bezel around the D-pad is a 'soft' control, and is used to change shooting mode, make menu selections, and adjust some menu settings. The control layout is sensible and easy to remember, and even looks cool, with the dual adjustment wheels making a striking design motif.

Most CSCs have only live monitor view, but the NEX-7 also has an electronic viewfinder, and it's a really good one. It is proximity activated, so as soon as you put the camera up to your eye it switches automatically from monitor to viewfinder. The viewfinder screen is an OLED display with an amazing 2.4 million dot resolution, so high that individual pixels are invisible. It provides a nice big screen, and it's certainly sharp enough for manual focusing. The monitor is also very good; it has a 3in screen, and is partly articulated so it can tilt downwards by about 30 degrees or upwards by about 80 degrees, useful for waist-level or over-the-crowd shooting. With a resolution of 921k dots, the screen is extremely sharp and Sony's TruBlack technology gives it excellent contrast. It's also bright enough to use outdoors, although it does pick up finger marks very easily.

Of course, it's all very well having a slick design and a nice viewfinder, but what photography enthusiasts are looking for is performance and results. In terms of overall performance, it is comparable with a good pro-sumer DSLR. It can start up and take a picture in about 1.5 seconds and in single-shot JPEG Fine mode, it has a shot-to-shot time of approximately 0.7 seconds, which is impressive enough by most standards. In Raw + JPEG mode it is a little slower; it can shoot the first six frames at the same speed, but then slows down considerably, with a shot-to-shot time dropping to over two seconds. There are two continuous shooting modes: one that shoots at 3fps which, in JPEG mode, can keep shooting until the card is full, and the other that shoots at an impressive 10fps, but which has to pause after 18 frames. Again, both of these modes are more limited in raw mode, due to the much larger files that are being moved around. Raw files are approximately 24MB in size, but the size of the JPEG files varies more than any other camera I can think of, with file sizes ranging from around 4MB up to 12MB.

Large file sizes are usually a good indicator that the camera is striving for maximum image quality, and this is borne out by the results, which are nothing short of spectacular. I've used a lot of APS-C digital SLRs over the years, including most of the current top-rated cameras, and in my opinion the NEX-7 is capable of better image quality than any of them. Note that I say "capable", because there are a couple of points to note. In terms of dynamic range, high-ISO noise control, colour rendition, metering and sheer pixel resolution, the NEX-7 can beat anything on the market, but it is limited somewhat by the available lenses. The kit 18-55mm lens is by no means bad, especially when compared to the mediocre optics offered by many of its rivals, but to get the best out of this camera you really need the Carl Zeiss T* lenses available for the full-size Sony Alpha DSLRs, which are extremely expensive and can only be used with the optional adapter.

The in-camera processing could also be a bit better. It works well for high-ISO shots and automatically corrects for lens distortion, but at lower ISO settings, it does reduce the level of fine detail somewhat. To get the best out of this camera you really need to shoot in raw mode and do your own processing in Adobe Camera Raw, and when you do, the results are spectacular. Take a look at the raw mode detail shot on the following page; from now on this is going to be the reference shot against which all other cameras will be judged.

The NEX-7's real party piece, though, is its low-light performance, and this is what really sells the camera for me. I do a lot of live music photography and I think it's safe to say I've never seen a camera that performs better in this role. Although it uses contrast detection autofocus - like all CSCs do - it's just as fast and reliable as any phase-detection system and works extremely well in low light. However, it is the high-ISO performance that really stands out. The NEX-7 has a maximum ISO setting of 16000, which is the highest of any digital camera I've ever used, and astonishingly it can produce useable image even at this setting.

Verdict

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 is a technological masterpiece, and proves beyond any doubt that compact system cameras can compete with and even surpass traditional DLSRs. It's expensive, but it offers superior build quality, an innovative control interface, class-leading performance and image quality that matches or beats even the best APS-C DSLRs. A truly superb camera, and one that sets the benchmark for other CSCs, and for APS-C cameras in general. I want one.

This is the usual test shot for ISO comparison. It is shot under tungsten studio lights using custom white balance and +1EV of exposure compensation.

f/8, 0.6 sec, ISO 100. At the minimum ISO setting the image quality is flawless, with perfectly smooth colour and tons of detail.

f/8, 1/4 sec, ISO 200. There's no visible difference at 200 ISO.

f/8, 1/8 sec, ISO 400. Image quality is still silky-smooth at 400 ISO.

f/8, 1/15 sec, ISO 800. At 800 ISO there is just a hint of noise reduction effects in the green area, but it's barely noticeable.

f/8, 1/30 sec, ISO 1600. There's a little more noise visible at 1600 ISO, but the overall quality is still excellent.

f/8, 1/60 sec, ISO 3200. At 3200 the noise reduction changes, producing a finer-grained noise pattern and retaining fine detail.

f/8, 1/125 sec, ISO 6400. At 6400 ISO the results look much the same as the previous shot, still a very usable image.

f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 12800. As the ISO sensitivity climbs towards the stratosphere the noise level does increase noticeably, but this is far from unusable.

f/8, 1/320 sec, ISO 16000. At an almost unbelievable 16000 ISO the image is quite noisy, as well it might be, but the overall colour rendition is still good and there's even some fine detail left. Astonishing.

This is the full frame at 16000 ISO. I've never used a camera that can shoot at this sensitivity, so I've nothing to compare it with, but I'd say that's pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, the 18-55mm kit lens doesn't really do the NEX-7 justice. At the wide angle end, it produces a lot of barrel distortion, while at the telephoto end it produces just as much pincushion distortion. (Photo taken wide open, resized to 640px wide).

Centre sharpness isn't bad, but I'd love to try this camera with my Carl Zeiss T* 16-80mm. Sadly I don't have the adapter.

Corner sharpness isn't too shabby either, with only a hint of chromatic aberration, but some of that is due to automatic processing.

Here's the usual shot of the door of 10 Cathedral Close for detail comparison. Click for the full-size version (although we've had to compress this from an 11.7MB jpeg to a 4.5MB one).

This is a crop from the image above. As you can see the level of detail recorded by the 24MP sensor is amazing.

Just for the sake of comparison, this is the same shot but taken in raw mode and converted using Adobe Camera Raw 7. As you can see, it has even more detail and slightly better contrast.

This is what dynamic range is supposed to look like. The NEX-7 captures both shadow and highlight detail.

Even in very dim lighting in the back room of a local pub, the NEX-7's extraordinary 16,000 ISO sensitivity produces a useable image with a shutter speed of 1/25th sec. You can see the strings on the guitar hanging on the back wall.

In daylight colour rendition is very natural.

The excellent dynamic range produces good results in high contrast lighting.

Smooth, bright colours at 6400 ISO.

This is the 18mm wide-angle end of the kit lens zoom range.

This is the 55mm telephoto end of the zoom range.

The NEX-7 features Sony's Sweep Panorama option.

Manufacturer and Model

Sony NEX-7

Image sensor

APS-C (23.5 x 15.6mm) CMOS

Max. resolution

6,000 x 4,000, 24.3 megapixels

Zoom

By lens

Focal length (35mm)

By lens

Maximum aperture

By lens

Shutter speeds

30 sec - 1/4000th

Auto-Focus

Contrast detection, 25 points

Manual focus

Yes

Exposure control

P, A, S, M, intelligent auto, 8 scene modes

Exposure metering

1200 zone evaluative

Image stabilisation

N/A

ISO range

100 - 16,000

LCD monitor

7.5cm (3in) 921,600 dots

Viewfinder

Electronic, 100% FOV, 1.09x mag

Flash

Pop-up, GN 6 (100 ISO)

Drive modes

Single, continuous, speed-priority continuous

Image formats

JPEG, Raw

Video

1,920 x 1,080 (50p, 28M, PS) AVCHD or MP4

Memory card slot

SD/SDHC/SDXC

Supplied memory

N/A

Battery

1080mAh InfoLithium

Ports

HDMI, USB 2.0, Mic-in

Dimensions (W x H x D)

119.9 x 69.2 x 46.7mm

Weight (body only)

349g body-only

Accessories

Body cap, neck strap, battery charger

Software

Sony Alpha NEX software disk

Warranty

12 months