The Sony NEX–7, A Retrospective Review
For a brief period the NEX–7 was Sony’s flagship mirrorless offering, until the A7 series came out. I’ve had the NEX–7 for over a year and the experience as been both maddeningly frustrating and incredibly wonderful. The NEX–7 is a camera that produces amazingly detailed, rich and vibrant images, yet it has a terribly designed operating system that is at times both perplexing and frustrating.
When I first got this camera I wrote my initial thought and first impressions of it. I had planned to write a full review but I never got around to it. Now that its been discontinued and the entire NEX line has been absorbed into Sony’s Alpha range, I thought that I would finally do that full review, but as a retrospective look back on my time with the tiny but powerful little Sony.
I had problems with the NEX–7 from the moment I turned it on. I couldn’t format a card or even take a photo. The camera was powered on and most of the functions were working, but several just refused to do anything, including the important ones like taking a photo. After several hours of searching online, and on the verge of having to return it, I found the culprit. I had to reset the camera to factory settings, which was kind of a weird thing to have to do to a brand new camera. Apparently it had something to do with the internal battery running down or some such thing. Once I figured that out, it was relatively plain sailing for a while.
My first few shoots with the NEX–7 were great. It’s a very responsive little camera for the size of it. Having just replaced my Fuji X-Pro1 (which was still on the original firmware) with the Sony, it was nice to not have to wait every few seconds while the camera catches up. The Sony is very responsive, even taking several shots in a row doesn’t cause the camera to lag. The menus on the other hand are a giant mess. Luckily anyone buying the replacement, the A6000 will never have to deal with this as they’ve finally done away with the horrid mess that is the NEX menu system. The only good thing about it is that once you have the controls configured you rarely have to delve into the menus, and virtually all the controls on the NEX–7 are customisable.
In my first few weeks with the camera, I found that while I was getting some great images with it, there were a couple of things that were driving me mad about it. For a start the colour balance was way off. Images had a very strong purple tint. While it was fixable with the raw file, I didn’t want to have to be correcting the white balance on every single shot. Also, the colour temperature has a weird scale when brought into Lightroom. The slider can go into the 7000’s when warming up an image to a point which would be in the high 5000’s on other cameras. Finally after doing battle with the menus I managed to set a custom offset on the preset white balance settings to correct for the over-purpleness. I don’t know if this was an issue with all NEX–7s or just mine, but I have seen some images taken from other people online with the same purple hue, so maybe it is a setup problem.
A few other problems came to light while using the camera over the first few months. The first is the difference between the calibration of the lcd and the EVF. The lcd seems to have a much more blue/green hue while the EVF has a much warmer tone. There is a substantial difference between the two. The EVF in my opinion is the more accurate of the two, while the LCD appears to be way off. This is kind of a pain, but it seems to be an issue affecting a lot of mirrorless cameras in my experience. It just seems especially bad on the NEX–7. The LCD in general is a bit odd. I don’t know what it is about it that makes it seem worse than the LCDs on my other cameras. The screen certainly has the necessary specifications on paper, but whatever Sony is doing to display the image from the sensor seems to overly process it or something, because it always looks grainy and harsh. When compared to the LCD screen on my X-E1 for example, which has similar tech specs, it just looks awful. It’s not a major issue, and after a while you learn to ignore it, but I wish I understood what was going on here.
The other thing I found difficult to get to grips with initially, was the grip (pardon the pun). The camera’s small size is a little too small for my hands, and the body’s height means that when holding it I find that my little finger will be away from the bottom of the camera and looking for somewhere to go. This to me is quite uncomfortable, but luckily I solved it quite easily by getting the excellent Gariz half case for the NEX–7. With the Gariz case on the camera, the balance and grip is so much better.
Another minor thing that I’ve noticed about the camera, is that the battery takes ages to charge. It takes about twice as long to charge as the battery on my X-E1
If it seems like I’ve been overly negative about the Sony so far it’s only because I wanted to get the issues out of the way before talking about the camera’s many good points. The biggest and most important of those good points is the image quality. The NEX–7 is capable of producing absolutely superb image files. When I took the first card load of images and loaded them into my computer I was blown away. I hadn’t even taken particularly interesting subjects but the results looked like something I would have taken with my Canon 5DII. There is a smoothness to the tones that is hard to describe. It’s very film like. The dynamic range on the files is particularly impressive too. You can pull an amazing amount of information from the highlights with the raw files, and you can push shadows quite a bit too. Although the shadows can become noisy, they lack the banding and fixed pattern noise that you can get when pushing files from the Canon 5D II.
A lot of online reviews and commentary complain about the level of nose in the NEX–7 files, even at low iso, and while it’s true that there is a degree of noise in the images but there are a couple of things that mitigate this. For a start, the noise is quite grain like and not overly unpleasant, especially when you shoot raw and process the files with Lightroom. Secondly, the files show about the same level of noise as my Canon 5D Mark II, which is also quite noisy at lower ISOs. Thirdly, a small amount of luminance noise reduction in Lightroom will mostly eliminate any noise. The additional resolution of the sensor more than compensates for any loss of detail encountered from using noise reduction (and it is minor anyway). The noise never really bothered me, because as I said, the levels are similar to my 5D Mark II.
At medium ISO, it’s still pretty good. Up to 1600 ISO the camera is more than capable, and again, a little luminance noise reduction in Lightroom addresses most noise issues. I can shoot up to ISO 1600 and get fairly clean images with the NEX–7 and some basic NR in Lightroom. After that the image quality starts to degrade significantly, but I rarely shoot above 1600 anyway. I know that this is a requirement for some photographers, and in those cases the NEX–7 is (or should I say was) probably not a good choice.
(Images above taken at ISO1600 from a moving train)
The only issue that I found with the image quality is that if your image is underexposed, flesh-tones can start to look muddy and false, even if you bring the image back up in raw. Saturation clearly suffers in underexposed areas. Now I know the obvious reaction to that statement is “just get it right in camera” and that’s absolutely true, but there are times when shooting in a high contrast situation that you might need to bring up shadows, or you might have just missed something and the shot is otherwise recoverable. Again, it’s not a major deal, but it is an observation. Because the camera is so good at maintaining highlight detail, you can afford to push it a bit on the bright side anyway.
While the menus on the camera are awful, the controls themselves are actually quite good. The NEX–7 uses what Sony calls its “Tri-Nav” navigation system. This basically means that there are three controls which can control much of the cameras operations. There are two main dials on the top of the camera and one dial on the rear. In Aperture priority mode, which is the mode I use the most, one of the two top dials controls aperture, while the other controls exposure compensation, and the rear dial controls ISO. On the top of the camera there’s a function button and you press this to cycle through various option sets. Each set of options is in turn controlled by these three dials. It’s a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, you can control most of the cameras options without having to go into the menus. The biggest downside to this “Tri-Nav” system is that it’s very easy to accidentally turn one of the dials as they’re quite loose.
Lens wise, I have three lenses for the NEX–7. The 18–55mm kit lens that came with the camera, the Sigma 30mm lens and the Sony 50mm f/1.8.
I’ll be honest, the 18–55mm Kit lens is not great. It’s soft at the edges and it’s slow, but then it’s not expensive so you get what you pay for. You can get good images from it in the right situations and with some care. Stopped down to f8 it’s pretty sharp, but there’s still a lot of softness at the edge of frame. Having said that, I have taken some good photos with the lens, and in a pinch, it’s acceptable if not ideal. It’s certainly nothing like the Fuji 18–55 XF that comes with some the Fuji kits.
The Sigma 30mm Lens I have is the first generation of this lens. Sigma have since reissued it with a different design, but the optics are still the same as far as I know. The 30mm is a superb lens especially for the price. It’s very sharp and has very little chromatic aberration. It focuses fairly fast and has great contrast. The only downside to it is the fact that it’s only f2.8, however it’s sharp at f2.8. You can get the current version of this lens new for $169 which is a steal given the quality of the lens.
The Sony 50mm f/1.8 is another good lens, but it has a few serious issues. Image quality wise it’s mostly superb. It has nice bokeh and it renders lovely smooth tones. It’s really nice glass. It is a little soft at 1.8 but it’s still useable sharpness wise. Stopped down to f/2 its very sharp and at 2.8 it’s even sharper. The big problem that I have with this lens is that it suffers from severe chromatic aberration and fringing. Wide open, and even stopped down there is severe red, purple and blue fringing, especially on high contrast edges. Even with Lightroom’s advanced colour fringing tools it can be difficult to fully correct some times. This is a real shame, because otherwise this lens produces lovely images. There is a really nice smooth quality to pictures taken with it that’s hard to describe, and if it wasn’t for the fringing you would think that the images taken with the 50mm f/1.8 came from a much more expensive lens. Incidentally the 50mm also comes with built in optical image stabilisation which works pretty well. It does what it claims to do, and there’s not much more I can say about it other than it’s very helpful when shooting video.
The NEX–7 plays well with non-Sony lenses too. Because of the e-mount’s short flange depth, it’s easy to add adaptors for lots of different mount systems The camera also offers some useful tools for manually focussing. It was one of the first cameras to make focus peaking a mainstream feature, and with it manually focussing is a lot easier, although there are still some quirks with the system. I have a Nikon F mount to E Mount adaptor and manually focussing with nikon lenses, I’ve found that the focus peaking is sometimes a bit misleading. You often need to roll the focus back and forward in and out of the focus zone order to get it right. It works best with fast lenses which have shallow depth of field, but I have found that more often and not, you need to check it by using the zoom in feature.
Over the years that I’ve had it, I’ve shot a lot of street photography with the camera. The NEX–7 is a great tool for street photography, and has a couple of features that really help you out when shooting candidly on the street. The first is the simple virtue of the camera’s speed. While focussing isn’t the fastest, the camera itself is fast. Changing functions, taking shots, using the menus, all have little or no lag. When you press the shutter button, there is virtually no shutter delay. This is a real help when shooting in fluid situations, where you’re moving and people are coming at you. Some of my other mirrorless cameras on the other hand have ridiculously long shutter delays, and can often lead to a perfectly framed subject having actually walked out of shot by the time the camera decides to catch up with your actions. I’ve never had this issue with the Sony.
The other big feature that is a real benefit to street shooters, is the flip up screen. The lcd on the back of the camera is fully articulated, and you can flip it both down and up. I often use it in a horizontal position, with the screen facing straight up. This looks almost like a mini hasselblad (perhaps thats why Hasselblad produced its own re-badged albeit ridiculous looking, and ridiculously priced version of this camera) This makes shooting at waist level easy and less of a guess. Shooting from the hip like this is a great way to give a different perspective on your images too, and I find that you can get some great shots this way.
Another feature that I use occasionally when shooting street shots is face detect autofocus. For some, using such a feature is heresy but it actually works. It’s not the fastest mind you, but it does offer some unique opportunities. With the camera held low, and in a fluid environment, it’s still possible to shoot wide open with a very narrow depth of field and still have your subjects face in focus. This goes against the standard approach to this kind of street photography, which is to use zone focussing. Zone focusing requires your lenses stopped down, and this means you have a wide depth of field which keeps everything is in focus, and takes away from the impact you can achieve with a narrow depth of field. While the face detection isn’t perfect, it’s another tool to use in your arsenal and helps you capture different and unique images.
The camera also shoots descent, but not great video. It suffers from a degree of aliasing and moire. These issues aren’t as bad as some of the first generation DSLRs to shoot video, but it’s bad enough, especially compared to the current generation. With careful planning and framing you can mitigate these issues to a degree. A lot of reviews have pointed out the awkward position of the movie record button and how easy it is to press by accident. This is an issue, but for me it’s not that big a deal. Over the time I’ve been using this camera I think I only hit the record button by accident about 5 times. The biggest issue with the NEX–7 and video is the relatively low bit-rate AVC codec. Still, with the right combination of lens and careful approach you can get some good video from it. Here’s a little shoot I did as an experiment one day with a nikon macro lens and some lego!
As I’ve had the camera for nearly two years, and I’ve used it pretty extensively, I can give you a good idea of its durability. Overall it’s survived well, although there has been a few issues. The viewfinder eyecup was constantly falling off right up to the point where I lost it. I ended up making a replacement myself using sugru. The rear screen has also suffered some blotching resulting from issues with the coating being scuffed. I’m sure someone will point out that you should use a screen protector, but I don’t have one on any of my other cameras and I’ve never had this issue with any of them. (I’ve had many much longer than I’ve had the NEX.) It’s not a huge deal, and it doesn’t affect the usability, but it’s something to be aware of.
Despite some of the niggling issues that I’ve reported on the NEX–7, it has served me well over the last few years. I’d like to say that I love the camera but I don’t. I don’t hate it either though. It’s a good tool, but I often find that, despite the fact that its capable of producing superb image quality, the experience using it can be frustrating. Having said that it’s hard not to appreciate the impact this camera has had on me as a photographer. I’ve taken some great shots with it and I still use it regularly. The unique form factor when the screen is tilted straight up and I’m shooting from the hip has helped me get unique shots that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Many of the issues I’ve reported have been fixed with the A6000. The only two things that really bother me about the camera is the quality of the image on the rear screen, from both a colour calibration perspective, and whatever Sony is doing to the image that makes it look so bad, and the issues with the white balance. While I’ve mostly fixed the latter, I still find that it’s often off, and because of the weird scale it can be difficult to correct in post.
If you can pick up a second hand NEX–7 I would find it hard to decide whether or not to recommend it. If you’re aware of the issues and willing to work around it, you can get great images from it. Having said that, the A6000 seems like such an improvement when it comes to some of the NEX–7’s more serious failings, that you would probably be better going for that instead. Then of course there’s the A7 range, but that’s a whole other post!
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