Sony NEX-7 £999

11th Nov 2011 | 10:20

Sony NEX-7

Does Sony's new CSC hit the NEX level?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Excellent image quality; Very good dynamic range; Intuitive control layout; OLED electronic viewfinder

Dislike:

AF struggles in low light; Limited range of E-mount lenses available; Setting up customisable controls may take a while to get exactly right

Overview

Just as many thought the race to squeeze more pixels onto camera sensors had ended, Sony announced a new flagship model for its NEX line of mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras in August 2011, with a 24.3Mp rear-illuminated CMOS sensor.

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 now sits right at the top of the company's compact system camera (CSC) range and is currently one of the most expensive CSCs available, costing around £1,000 for the body only, or around £1,130 with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

The NEX-7 appears to be aimed at demanding users who like the idea of a more compact camera, but don't wish to compromise on image quality or exposure control. Videographers may also look at this new Sony with interest because it's capable of recording Full HD movies with AF tracking and manual exposure control.

Although the cameras in the NEX series are certainly smaller and lighter than equivalent SLRs, this camera couldn't really ever be classed as pocketable – unless you have very large pockets. The lightweight magnesium alloy body on it's own weighs a svelte 291g, but because the camera uses a relatively large APS-C-sized sensor, the lenses are on the large side.

Using a large sensor has its benefits. The larger surface area allows larger photosites, which should improve the signal-to-noise ratio and the quality of images shot in low light.

A growing selection of E-mount lenses are available for the NEX series, covering focal lengths from 16mm to 210mm. A range of primes optics, including a 16mm f/2.8 pancake, are also on offer, which are ideal for those wishing to travel a bit lighter.

The NEX-7 lens mount differs from the A-mount found on Sony's Alpha range of SLR and SLT cameras, so an adapter is necessary to mount A lenses on a NEX body. This could be of interest to those who already own a collection of Sony or Minolta lenses, although only SSM or SAM lenses will autofocus using the adapter.

Features

Even with all those pixels crammed into the NEX-7's APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, the ISO sensitivity range hasn't been sacrificed. Sensitivities up to ISO16,000 can be used in very low light or to allow faster shutter speeds for freezing fast-moving subjects.

Sony's BIONZ processor provides the image processing clout to handle the huge amount of information captured, while controlling noise at the higher end of the sensitivity scale. This processing power also allows images to be taken continuously at up to 10fps with subject-tracking AF, which means the NEX-7 should be capable of shooting action.

Exposure programs to suit all levels of experience are included. The point-and-shoot automatic modes should help novices to concentrate on taking pictures, whereas more advanced users may feel more at home with the classic program, manual, aperture priority and shutter priority exposure modes. Meanwhile, the usual array of automatic scene programs give a certain amount of control for novice users.

Two sweep panorama modes automatically stitch images taken as the camera is moved from left to right across a scene. One of these also creates a three-dimensional effect, which you can see on compatible televisions via the built in mini-HDMI interface.

Exposure readings are taken by the image sensor using either Multi-segment, Centre-weighted or Spot metering modes.

Shooting high-contrast scenes can often be tricky, so Sony has included options that should help to retain good detail in both highlight and shadow areas of images. The D-Range optimiser works with single files brightening shadows and darkening highlights to compress the contrast range in an image. The same control can be applied to raw files in the supplied software after shooting.

For scenes with a much higher range of contrast than can be captured in a single frame, an automatic HDR mode takes several frames and combines them to produce a JPEG image containing a much wider range of tones.

As with other NEX cameras in the range, a tiltable three-inch 921k screen provides the view for composing images. This screen is very bright and incredibly clear, thanks to the high resolution and excellent anti-reflective coating. Unlike other models in the NEX range, a bright XGA resolution OLED electronic viewfinder is provided. This display is wonderfully clear and contrasty, and will suit those who simply prefer a viewfinder, and those who may struggle to see the LCD screen.

Full HD video recording is possible at up to 50fps in AVCHD format, or 25fps in MP4. Full manual exposure control and subject tracking AF are also possible during recording, which should suit enthusiasts and even more advanced video makers. A powered input for an external microphone located on the side of the NEX-7 adds the possibility of recording higher quality sound also.

A pop-up flash unit built into the NEX-7 provides enough illumination for fill-in at close quarters. When released, the flash unit extends around half an inch above the camera body, supported by a plastic articulated arm that looks vulnerable to impact. Interestingly, this flash unit can be used to command compatible Sony flashes wirelessly as well as just for fill. A proprietary Sony hotshoe is also included, as found on Sony's range of Alpha SLRs, which will allow a more powerful external flash to be connected if required.

Build quality and handling

Sony nex-7 review

The angular magnesium body of the NEX-7 looks and feels every bit the professional piece of kit. The matte black paint finish looks understated, yet tough enough to deal with life's knocks. Although the camera body itself is really slim, a deep contoured finger grip with a soft rubberised coating provides an excellent balanced grip of the camera.

Controls are laid out in an extremely well-thought-out manner. Two knurled dials on the rear give direct access to aperture, shutter and exposure compensation. A function button next to the shutter release changes one of these dials to allow the AF mode, D-Range Optimiser and Picture Style to be changed very quickly. Another direct control can be toggled between selecting manual focusing and AF, or to lock the exposure.

Sony nex-7 review

This is all complemented perfectly by the customisable control wheel and a pair of function buttons on the rear, which can be assigned a function of your choice. This level of control and customisation should suit advanced photographers particularly well. A one-touch video recording button is also provided, and its placement is easy to reach without getting in the way or being activated accidentally.

The NP-FW50 1080mAh battery, which is standard across the NEX range lasts well, providing plenty of power for a typical day's shooting. Using the electronic viewfinder rather than the screen appears to wring a little extra life out of the battery, which lasted around 400 shots during testing.

Performance

Sony nex-7 review

Once you've spent a little time getting familiar with the controls and features, the NEX-7 is a rewarding camera to shoot with. Multi-segment metering yields accurate exposures in a wide variety of conditions. As with all evaluative systems, scenes with high contrast may cause wayward exposures, which is easily corrected with the innermost control dial, which provides direct access to exposure compensation in program, aperture priority and shutter priority exposure modes.

Using the auto white balance setting tends to leave a noticeable, yet not too disturbing cast under overcast conditions or artificial lighting. The warm cast left under incandescent lights is quite pleasant, keeping the atmosphere in the shot, while the cool cast encountered in overcast conditions may require the use of the appropriate white balance preset for the best results.

Conventional wisdom dictates that more pixels squeezed into the same space will result in noisier images, but technology has come on in leaps and bounds in this area, thanks to rear-illuminated CMOS sensors and improved noise reduction. Images taken with teh NEX-7 between ISO 100 and 400 show few signs of noise and are packed with detail. Even when the sensitivity is increased to between ISO 800 and 1600, noise is difficult to spot, apart from on very close inspection of mid-tone and shadow areas.

Higher sensitivities up to ISO 6400 are very usable under the right conditions, with gradually increasing levels of noise. The noise at these sensitivities has a fine granular pattern to it, which won't be too prominent in prints up to A3 in size.

Beyond ISO 6400 the noise starts to become more prominent and blotchy, especially in shadow and partially focused areas of images. Colour saturation also drops, and a slight magenta cast can be seen at the maximum sensitivity of ISO16000 (NB that's sixteen thousand, not sixteen hundred). There's much more noise present at this sensitivity, but A4 prints should still be acceptable for the right subjects, and the noise will be barely noticeable when shared on the web at low resolutions. Overall, the performance in this area is very good, striking a good balance between resolution and noise.

Autofocus is incredibly quick in good lighting conditions, and is almost instant in good daylight. The subject-tracking feature may not be able to keep up with a Formula 1 car, for example, but it's adequate for day-to-day subjects, such as pets.

Unfortunately, the AF system really struggles in darker conditions, and can take quite a while to focus. Even if you've selected a particular AF area, the focusing system will default to a wide area if the light levels drop too low, which can impact the system's accuracy.

OLED Electronic Viewfinder

An OLED display as found in the electronic viewfinder of the NEX-7 is formed of a film of organic compounds which emit light when an electronic current is applied, just like normal LEDs.

This technology requires no back light so it can display very deep blacks and a higher contrast ratio than LCD displays as a result. This technology also allows higher resolution displays to be made. The EVF in the NEX-7 is XGA resolution, which is roughly 1024x768 pixels.

The high resolution makes confirming focus easier due to display being clearer. This is the best EVF we have yet encountered.

Image quality and resolution

Our results from the labs data have been compared against the Panasonic Lumix GH2, Olympus E-P3 and Nikon V1, all top of the range compact system cameras from their respective manufacturers.

The results show that all four cameras produce good results, but the Sony NEX-7's raw (after conversion to TIFF) results for both noise and dynamic range show that it's a cut above the competition.

Resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony NEX-7, we've shot our resolution chart with the Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens mounted.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 200 the Sony NEX-7 is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here to read the full article.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 100

JPEG image resolution

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 100

ISO 100, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 20 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 16000

ISO 16000, score: 20 (see full image)

Raw image resolution

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 100

ISO 100, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 resolution iso 16000

ISO 16000, score: 20 (see full image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

JEPG Signal to noise ratio

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

Sony nex-7 jpeg snr

JPEG images from the Sony NEX-7 have better a signal to noise ratio than the Nikon V1 and compare well with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 and Olympus E-P3. This means the NEX-7 produces a cleaner signal with less image noise than the other cameras.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Sony nex-7 raw snr

Raw images (after conversion to TIFF) from the Sony NEX-7 have a better signal to noise ratio across the sensitivity range than the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2, Nikon V1 and Olympus E-P3.

JPEG dynamic range

Sony nex-7 jpeg dr

This chart shows that the Sony NEX-7's JPEGs capture a wide tonal range across the sensitivity range, showing a far greater tonal seperation than the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2, Nikon V1 and Olympus E-P3.

Raw dynamic range

Sony nex-7 raw dr

This chart indicates that the Sony NEX-7's raw images (after conversion to TIFF) capture a wide tonal range across the sensitivity range, beating the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2, Nikon V1 and Olympus E-P3 by a wide margin.

Sample images

Images straight from the camera have good dynamic range

Images straight from the camera have good dynamic range (see full image)

The neutral colour setting produces more subdued images

The neutral colour setting produces more subdued images (see full image)

The large aps-c sensor results in reduced depth of field, so narrower apertures are required for landscapes than with smaller sensor cameras to get everything in focus

The large APS-C sensor results in reduced depth of field, so narrower apertures are required for landscapes than with smaller sensor cameras to get everything in focus (see full image)

An automatic hdr mode takes multiple shots at different exposures and merges them in-camera, retaining more detail in highlights and shadows

The automatic HDR mode takes multiple shots at different exposures and merges them in-camera, retaining more detail in highlights and shadows (see full image)

The standard 18-55mm kit lens is quite prone to flare, even when using the supplied hood

The standard 18-55mm kit lens is quite prone to flare, even when using the supplied hood (see full image)

The 24.3mp files are sharp and contain plenty of detail

The 24.3Mp files are sharp and contain plenty of detail (see full image)

The aps-c sensor enables the background to be defocused more easily than with a smaller sensor camera

The APS-C sensor enables the background to be defocused more easily than with a smaller sensor (see full image)

ISO sensitivities up to iso16000 are great for low-light shooting, although the af system struggles to keep up in dark conditions

ISO sensitivities up to ISO16000 are great for low-light shooting, although the AF system struggles to keep up in dark conditions (see full image)

With care, the camera can take good images in quite challenging conditions

With care, the camera can take good images in quite challenging conditions (see full image)

The built in flash is useful for fill-in at close quarters, but the articulated arm appears quite fragile

The built in flash is useful for fill-in at close quarters, but the articulated arm appears quite fragile (see full image)

ISO test images

Sony alpha nex-7 iso100

Full ISO 100 Image

Cropped 100% sections

Sony nex-7 review

ISO 100 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review

ISO 200 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review

ISO 400 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review

ISO 800 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review iso 1600

ISO 1600 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review iso 3200

ISO 3200 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review iso 6400

ISO 6400 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review iso 12800

ISO 12800 (see full image)

Sony nex-7 review iso 16000

ISO 16000 (see full image)

Verdict

Sony nex-7 review

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 is a difficult camera to pigeonhole. On one hand, it's an advanced camera with many features that will tempt those looking at the current crop of advanced consumer digital SLRs, such as the Canon EOS 60D or Nikon D7000. Having easy access to manual exposure control and a tough yet lightweight magnesium body are just a couple of the stand-out features. On the other hand, there's only a limited range of lenses currently available for the system, and the poor autofocus in low light may pose serious issues, depending on the camera's intended use.

Being aimed at experienced photographers, it will be interesting to see if Sony expands its range of E-mount lenses.

A lightweight CSC with a 24.3Mp sensor may be ideally suited to landscape photographers, but the lack of a suitable wide-angle optic may be just as off-putting as the camera is tempting. This is a real shame, because the lightweight design of the body and the excellent resolving power of the sensor should make this an ideal application for this camera.

We liked

The tough magnesium body is lightweight and reassuringly robust for the most part. Experienced photographers will love the quick access to manual controls, customisable function buttons and rich, detailed images provided by the Exmor CMOS sensor. The quality of the video recorded is also excellent, and serious videographers will love the manual control and ability to attach an external microphone.

We disliked

For a serious camera, the autofocus in low light is slow and inaccurate. Experienced photographers may also find the limited range of E-mount lenses off-putting, depending on their intended use for the camera.

Final verdict

Despite the occasional shortfall, the NEX-7 is a very pleasant camera to use, especially when you've customised it to your particular way of shooting. The built-in OLED viewfinder is a real bonus, providing a bright, clear view, and having a hotshoe and input for an external microphone both add to the flexibility of the system. Overall, the NEX-7 is a very interesting camera due to its high specification, and it should win over some purely because of that.

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