I've been trying to write this post for about two weeks now. Between work and a nasty stomach flu I'm only getting the chance to do it now. Regular readers of this blog will know that I recently traded in my Fuji X-Pro1 (which I wasn't overly fond of) for Sony's flagship Nex-7. I had a good opportunity to try out the camera in real world conditions during a rare rain free day a short while ago and I have to say that I was very impressed. The Nex-7 has been out for a while, and there are a good few reviews out there, so I'm not going to do a full review as such. Instead what follows is a collection of thoughts about how it is to use in real life. I'll show you some images, finished to how I would use them, rather than straight out of the camera. There'll be no charts and tests, just my opinion on what it's like to use the Nex-7 in real life.
Now, you may have read a couple of negative things about the Nex-7. Two things specifically: that the interface is terribly complicated, and that the pictures are very noisy. Let me address the interface issue first. While it's true that the interface is a little daunting at first, once you get the hang of things and understand Sony's thinking, it actually works very well. But you need to read the manual. The menu layout is a bit confusing at first, but the actual operation of the camera, once you have it set up right, is very easy and straight forward. In fact, it's actually quite clever. You can also customise the heck out of it too. The menus and navigation are very responsive too. There's no lag, and Sony clearly put enough processing power in the cpu to drive the menus without any lag unlike some other cameras I could mention.
Then there's the noise issue. Based on what I was reading, I was expecting that images would be a noisy mess, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There is a little noise at base ISO but it's about on a par with the Canon 5D Mark II - In fact I don't think it's as bad in the shadows as the 5D. (So in other words, negligible). At mid ISO's a little luminance noise starts to creep in, but again, it's nothing like as bad as what you may have read, and if you process your raw files with Lightroom you can remove it completely. What is not mentioned in these reports is how well the camera's sensor holds on to detail despite the noise (which really isn't that bad).
At ISO 1600, even with noise reduction in Lightroom, files are still perfectly fine (and I'm a real stickler for image quality). I am actually surprised at how good the images are every time I look at them, because I keep expecting the noise I've been reading about and it's just not that much of an issue. Above 1600 it starts to get a bit excessive all right, but even at 3200 you still don't loose much detail. To be honest, I almost never take pictures a that high a setting. Most of what I shoot is between 100 and 800. It's rare that I go to 1600 and I almost never go to 3200. So I guess if you primarily shoot at night this probably isn't the camera for you, but for the majority of subjects, the noise is not an issue.
When I loaded up the first card full of images onto my computer and looked at them onscreen (on a 27" monitor) I was blown away. I mean, I literally did a double take. A camera that small should not produce images so good. It's hard to describe what it is about it. It's something organic, rather than technical. It's like they have a sense of depth to them that just takes your breath away when you look at them for the first time. Images look "big" if that makes any sense. They remind me of what I would expect when shooting with my 5DII. Every time I go back to lightroom and import some new images or look at ones I've already shot, I'm still surprised by what I see on screen. Sony got a lot of criticism for putting a 24mp sensor in the Nex-7 but clearly it pays off.
Another thing about the images from the Nex-7 is the dynamic range. It's stunning. Images are really rich and full of depth, and the amount of detail you can recover from Raw files is really impressive. Those ARW files pack a lot of data into them. I had a shot (that I would have rejected), that was underexposed but the sky was still blown out. I increased the exposure by a stop and a half, and there was an explosion of detail from the otherwise black shadows, but even more impressively, I was still able to recover the sky (depute being pushed so far, and having being burned out to begin with). It's impressive stuff. It opens up the possibility to shoot in high contrast situations and still end up with a properly exposed image without it being full of noise and artefacts.
Lenses and adaptors
Another thing I had read in various places about the Nex-7, and the whole Nex range in general, is concern at the lack of good quality lenses for the system. It was also mentioned on several websites that the 18-55 kit lens was of particularly poor quality. This hasn't been the case in my experience. In fact I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the kit lens. Perhaps it was because my expectations were so low, that I found it ok, but it's certainly no worse than kit lenses for any other system, and it's much better than the 14-42 that came with my GH2.
While it is true that the Nex range has a limited set of glass available for it at the moment compared to other systems, there are a few key lenses available that are reportedly very good. There's the 24mm Zeiss which I've yet to find in stock anywhere, and the Sony 50mm 1.8 is also reportedly very good. I got the Sigma 30mm for mine, which is cheap, but it's very sharp. The lens falls down from a bad case of axial chromatic aberration, (or purple and green fringing for the lay person). You can fix this easily enough in Lightroom 4 but it leaves some halos. It's not a great lens, but it's not bad either, especially for the price.
Where the Nex system really comes into its own is when you use other system lenses with an adaptor. You can pretty much get adaptors for virtually every mount out there for the Nex. Coupled with a great system for aiding manual focus, you can pretty much use any lens on this camera with relative ease. I've been shooting with my Nikon 50mm lens using a Novoflex adaptor and it works a treat. Sony's focus peaking method for showing you what's in focus, coupled with a two stage zoom linked to one of the soft buttons on the back, make nailing focus on the camera a doodle. You can even focus really quickly with a bit of practice. Manually focussing with Sony's own lenses is great too, and their primes have focus rings directly connected to the mechanism (apparently), and you're not turning the focus ring for ages like you are on the X-Pro1.
A Post Processing Minor Issue
The one thing that's kind of a pain, and it's the only real issue I've come across yet, is that Lightroom doesn't have profiles for the Nex-7. When you use Lightroom for processing raw files the colours are a bit off. In some cases quite a bit off. I did find a set of profiles created by a third party, but they were actually profiled on a Nex-5 and modified to work, so they're not quite right. Anyway, it's a minor issue, but it's a pity Adobe hasn't profiled the camera properly.
Shooting From The Hip
I've saved the best for last. The thing that I really love about the Nex-7 is the flip up screen. It makes it really easy to shoot from the hip. It really does make for some interesting shots when you don't shoot at eye level. Also, because the autofocus is pretty good, you can even shoot in crowded street conditions, relatively discreetly and still shoot wide open with a narrow depth of field and get your subject in focus. I know many people shooting street photography like to shoot using the zone focus method, but that means shooting at f16 or higher. It's great to be able to shoot at f/1.8 or f/2 and still get the shot, even in a fast moving fluid situation. It really does change how you look at scenes too when you shoot from down low.
100% crop of the above image.
As you can tell, I really like this camera. It's fast, responsive and modern. I'll keep posting more thoughts as I continue to use the Sony and get to know it more, but its been a few weeks already, and I haven't found anything frustrating or annoying about it yet. It has been a joy to shoot with, and it's helped me think about photograph in new ways.
Here's a selection of images taken over the last few weeks with the Nex-7