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.
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. 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.
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.
Sony NEX-7 24MP Camera Specifications :
- 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
- Shutter speeds : 30 sec - 1/4000th
- Auto-Focus : Contrast detection, 25 points
- 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
- 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
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.
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.
Price : £924 (body-only)