Saturday, 14 April 2012

Sony NEX-7 review

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Sony introduced the NEX mirrorless range early in 2010 with the intention of attracting beginners stepping up from a compact. These customers, the company suggested, had little interest in the maker’s traditional DSLR range, and would prefer the smaller, lighter and easier to use NEX models instead. While that might well be the case, adopting the same APS-C sensors as their DSLRs and with a short 18mm flange back distance, allowing the use of practically any lens with an appropriate adaptor, it’s not much of a stretch to see how those cameras might benefit professional users. While Canon and Nikon continue to push the DSLR for professional use, with the introduction of this model, Sony appear to be hedging their bets between systems.

And, it’s not a bad strategy. Indeed, the NEX-7 shares many of the same features and therefore capabilities of the Alpha SLT-A77, including the 24-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor with 1080/50p/50i/25p* video, incredible 10fps continuous shooting and remarkably detailed OLED electronic viewfinder. All of this Sony has achieved in a body reminiscent of a rangefinder, with the EVF installed in the top-plate to the far left without any unnecessary disruption to the body’s angular lines. Although it’s good, very good, it’s not the equal of an optical viewfinder, just yet. But, it has good contrast and colour while being ergonomically superior to using a loupe over a screen on a rival DSLR for video capture.

If the EVF is remarkable so to is the camera’s layout and ‘Tri-Navi’ controls consisting of two metal-alloy dials on the top plate and a third, more conventional direction-pad on the rear. While the two top-dials aren’t configurable, aperture values, shutter speeds and EV shift alternate with the shooting mode selected. They also alter other settings, for instance WB, AF modes, still/video image profiles, and more when used with a function button placed next to the shutter release. The direction pad is configurable, though likely best left to select sensitivity (useable up to ISO6,400 though offering a maximum of ISO160,000 in stills, ISO3,200 in video). Between them, the Tri-Navi dials are a triumph of simplicity, and vastly superior to the NEX-5n even though the three additional soft keys, primarily for the selection of the exposure modes and menu access are present on both.
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While the exposure mode is selected by just a button push and a quick flick of any one of the Tri-Navi dials, the main menu isn’t particularly intuitive or, easy to navigate and selection requires multiple button pushes. Certain features aren’t grouped logically, adding to the problem of navigation generally. The NEX-5n is the same, but the touch sensitive panel of that model helps with selections. Oddly, the NEX-7 dispenses with that but retains the same highly detailed pull-out 16:9 aspect 3-inch LCD panel that’s essential for waist level stills and video capture. By default, movies occupy only a part of the screen, which seems an odd choice but at least there’s an option to utilize the whole of the screen’s real estate, even if it isn’t immediately apparent from the menu.

The large built-in handgrip is the best of the mirrorless models, including the Panasonic Lumix GH-2, the nearest rival in terms of stills and video capabilities. A dedicated video capture button perilously placed on the thumb-grip to the rear is easy to activate accidentally but doesn’t detract from the exceptional video capabilities and high quality capture. Like the GH-2, the NEX-7 has full manual control of Av, Tv and ISO during video capture. Combined with the optional Focus Magnifier as well as the outstanding live focus peaking option, critical manual focus is easy to achieve using either Sony lenses or third-party optics with a mount adaptor. Autofocus is possible during video, and there are several choices available over the expected centre and multi-point options including face detection and focus tracking but in low light levels, whether for stills or video, the contrast detection based system struggles. Faster lenses mitigate this but AF operation is slightly behind the current Olympus PENs and Nikon 1 bodies.

Be that as it may, operation is swift, and shutter lag, when pre-focused, is lower than the Nikon D3s. Stills image quality is excellent but you’ll need the very best in optical quality and focus accuracy to achieve the sensor’s potential. In camera JPEG processing reveals slightly aggressive noise reduction even at lower ISO’s, reducing small structure detail somewhat but that’s not an issue when shooting Raw. The NEX-7 is capable of delivering hugely detailed files unmatched by rivals using an APS-C sensor, though the standard kit lens isn’t a particularly strong performer. Sony desperately needs to widen the E-series range adding more high-quality primes such as the superb Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 Sonnar T*. While that is neither small nor cheap, it’s a great match for what it is, arguably, Sony’s finest camera to date.



Samples





London skyline, Primrose Hill, London. Sony NEX-7 and Zeiss 1,8/24 T* (35mm equivalent).





Regent's Park Road, London. Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 at f/1.8 - some slight longitudinal CA is noticeable in the out-of focus highlights but the lens is otherwise an excellent performer.

*Please note the Sony NEX-7 is region specific, so you can't switch a PAL version to NTSC to access 1080/60p/60i/24p unfortunately. If you work with both standards you'll need to source two bodies - please use our links below.

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Body only prices at:

Jessops (£999 inc VAT)

WEX UK (£995 in VAT)

Adorama ($1,119.99)

Amazon ($1,199)

B&H Photo $1,198 (Pre-order, released in limited quantity)

Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8T* (35mm-e):

Jessops (£849.95 inc VAT)

WEX £849 inc VAT

Adorama ($1,098)

B&H Photo ($1,098 back-ordered)



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