Thoughts on the Sony Alpha NEX-7
Last weekend, I spent twenty-four hours in New York City. It was a flying visit, literally and metaphorically, as I was visiting the city on a working trip as a commercial pilot. I had the Sony Alpha NEX-7 mirrorless camera with me together with a single lens, the Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24 mm F1.8 ZA (just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?), which I had bought very recently for use primarily as a travel camera when I don’t need – or want – to bring a heavy full-frame Nikon dSLR with me. The dSLR is is my weapon of choice for studio, portrait, landscape or architectural photography, when I know am going to be shooting in low light, or for situations where the superior fast-focusing performance of the dSLR will be of relevance, such as sports or action photography. However, for use as a general-purpose walkabout/travel camera, when I am not sure whether I will definitely be doing much photography, when I want to travel light, when I want to be as unobtrusive as possible and photograph discreetly, or in places where I think that carrying a large, expensive looking dSLR might invite the wrong kind of attention, the little Sony is ideal.
I thought long and hard before buying the Sony NEX-7, as I was very attracted to two of the current offerings from Fuji: namely the X-Pro1 and the X100S. It’s hard not to fall in love with the X100S in particular – it such a beautiful looking object. However, there were two problems for me with the X100S. Firstly, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy a camera with a fixed lens, despite the fast 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent) being by all accounts an excellent performer. Although 35mm is a focal length I find very useful, if this is the only camera which I am going to take on a trip, then I know that there are occasions when I would find that single focal length frustrating. I know many photographers don’t agree – and I accept that working within constraints and limitations can feed creativity – but I really do want the option of changing the lens for one with a shorter focal length (say, 24 mm), as well as swapping it for a short telephoto lens in the 85 mm to 135 mm range on occasion. That’s not to say I would take multiple lenses on every trip, but the overall usefulness of the camera to me would be compromised without the option to do so. The second problem for me with the Fuji X100S (and this applies to the X-Pro1 as well, which is an interchangeable-lens camera), is that the video capabilities are pretty basic. Since video functionality is also important to me, this unfortunately ruled out both the Fuji offerings.
I spent a large part of my day in New York playing with the NEX-7, and when the day was done, I was very impressed with this little camera. I don’t intend here to give an in-depth, comprehensive review of the NEX-7 – there are many other sites doing a great job of that already, such as the excellent dpreview.com – but I wanted to share my subjective impressions of using the camera coming from a background of shooting exclusively with a pro-quality full-frame digital SLR.
The image quality delivered by the 24 MP sensor in combination with the Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens is simply outstanding – even shooting wide open at f/1.8 – and appears to lend credence to the reviews I have read which claim that the quality of images from the NEX-7 is better than any other APS-C sensor camera on the market bar none (yes, including dSLRs). I shot raw image files most of the day, and was very impressed with the quality of the files the camera produced. I was similarly impressed with the Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens – the only caveat to that is the rather unlovely bokeh the lens produces when defocused at f/1.8. It’s not terrible, but it for sure ain’t beautiful either…
Bokeh looks OK in the first of the two shots above, but in the second shot, the defocused highlights don’t look so hot.
I love the immense customisability of the camera: out of the box, it is poorly set up, but with a little thought, it is possible to set the camera up so that all important functions are only a button push away, with no requirement to delve in to the menu system on a daily basis at all.
The magnesium alloy camera body feels tough, well built, and pleasingly solid in the hands, and the large hand grip is very comfortable – unusual in a camera in this class and of this size.
The contrast-detect autofocus is a little sluggish compared to the blisteringly quick and accurate phase-detect autofocus I am used to with my Nikon dSLRs, but is fast enough for most street subjects – although I would definitely have reservations about using it for sports or action photography. Contrast-detect AF systems struggle with continuous and predictive autofocus in comparison to phase-detect AF systems which are capable of calculating from a single measurement how far to move the lens and in what direction to achieve focus, and I saw evidence of this during my testing in New York. On the plus side, contrast-detect AF systems are immune from the front- and back-focusing problems which can affect the phase-detect AF systems found in most dSLRs. I normally set up my Nikon dSLR cameras so that the autofocus is de-coupled from the shutter-release button by assigning AF to the ‘AF-ON’ button on the rear of the camera only. In this way, the shutter-release button simply trips the shutter, and autofocus is initiated with the AF-ON button. I find this a very flexible way of working and suits almost any subject I shoot, so I was encouraged to discover that I can set up the NEX-7 the same way, albeit with the frustrating limitation that it appears that the focus point cannot be moved around the frame.
Slower autofocusing aside, the focusing system on the NEX-7 is in some ways actually superior to the system I am used to with my dSLRs, in that when used in manual-focusing mode, the NEX-7 offers both a focus-peaking display in the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), and also a focus-assist function. ‘Focus-peaking’ means that when focusing manually, the camera detects and highlights high-contrast edges, which are generally the in-focus areas of the image. This is a tremendously useful aid when manually focusing – you can read more about it here on Sony’s Alpha NEX blog. ‘Focus assist’ means that as you turn the lens barrel to focus manually, you can optionally have the camera immediately magnify the area of the image you want to focus on, enabling you to see very easily whether you have focused correctly. Combined with focus-peaking, it makes focusing manually a breeze. This comes in to its own if you attach ‘legacy’ lenses (i.e. non-Sony ‘E’ mount lenses) to the NEX-7 using an adaptor, as in this case autofocus will not be available.
I also played around with the ‘face detection’ AF mode – not something I am used to from the Nikon full-frame dSLR world. In practice, trying to photograph my young children running around a few days before travelling to New York, I found the face-detection AF mode to work extremely well. Even shooting with the Carl Zeiss lens wide open at f/1.8, the face-detection AF nailed the focus on my children’s faces almost all the time – much faster than I was able to focus using the camera’s AF-point mode. The added bonus is that the camera sets the exposure of the frame based on the face or faces detected, more or less regardless of the background, so the exposure was bang-on every time.
Having come from a dSLR with an optical viewfinder, I was slightly apprehensive about living with an EVF (electronic viewfinder). In practice, I found the high-resolution EVF on the NEX-7 – similar in size to a full-frame dSLR – to be superb, and the ability to overlay a live histogram on the EVF image display while composing an excellent aid to optimising exposure. It also shows 100% of the view captured by the sensor, meaning that you can compose tightly with confidence. Other benefits of an EVF over the conventional optical viewfinder I am used to are that the EVF offers a real-time preview of your depth of field as you change the lens aperture, and it gives immediate and accurate visual feedback of how your image will look in terms of brightness and white balance, with the ability to move the AF point anywhere in the frame. In short, the EVF was a revelation – I loved it.
I was also wondering how the camera would perform at high ISO. Packing 24 megapixels onto an APS-C sensor means that each light-gathering site on the sensor is necessarily smaller than it would be with a sensor with a lower pixel density. This reduces the signal-to-noise ratio of the sensor output resulting in noisier images. In practice, although the high-ISO performance of the NEX-7 cannot compare with the full-frame NIkon D800 I normally shoot with, the raw files were pretty clean up to ISO 1600, although the noise present in the image files was definitely an issue at higher ISO settings. I often use Auto-ISO on my dSLR when doing street photography, and although the NEX-7 offers this feature, I missed the option to fine-tune the shutter speed at which the ISO is bumped up to the next level, as I can with my dSLR cameras. The NEX-7 is fairly aggressive in its application of Auto ISO, by which I mean it bumps up the ISO as soon as the shutter speed drops to 1/60 of a second. With the 24mm lens I was shooting with, this is unnecessary for many subjects and scenes – and since the camera doesn’t have the stellar high ISO performance of my Nikon SLRs, it results in noisier files than necessary some of the time. Another frustration with the NEX-7 in this regard is that for reasons unknown, Sony elected to limit the maximum ISO in Auto-ISO mode to ISO 1600. It would have been nice if this was a user-customisable maximum as ISO is far too conservative to have as a hard limit.
The responsiveness of the shutter impressed me – there was minimal lag evident when triggering the shutter – vital for street photographers – which is a result of the electronic, rather than mechanical, first-curtain shutter, which can be switched off if desired. I couldn’t see any benefits to switching it off – Canon’s Live View-capable dSLRs have been using the technology since 2007 – and it seems to work very well, and also reduce the shutter noise during the exposure.
Another feature I loved – and which I wish Nikon and Canon would introduce on their professional dSLRs for Live View photography – is a tilting LCD screen. Pictures made from unusual viewpoints are often more interesting than those made at eye level. With a conventional SLR, if you want to shoot at ground level, you pretty much have to lay on the ground to compose accurately with the LCD screen, as otherwise you just can’t see it. Similarly, if you hold the camera above your head, you’ll struggle to see your composition accurately. Withe NEX-7, you can shoot at ground level (or hold the camera above your head), and by tilting the rear LCD screen, you can compose the shot accurately without needing to climb a ladder or to lie in the dirt.
Compared to my Nikon D700 and D800, I found the NEX-7 to consume battery charge rather quickly, probably as result of the EVF and the LCD which together undoubtedly consume quite a lot of power. I was able to alleviate this to some extent by setting up the camera to be more frugal in terms of how quickly it entered power-down mode, etc., but if you are planning on shooting with this camera all day, a spare battery or two would be a good idea – particularly as it take three hours to fully recharge an empty battery.
The biggest weakness of the NEX-7 is often cited as being the fairly limited range of Sony’s native E-mount range of lenses, and the fact that the quality of some of them are not good enough to do justice to the excellent sensor in the NEX-7. However, this did not worry me unduly, as the range of E-mount lenses available is now expanding rapidly with more quality offerings from both Sony and Carl Zeiss – and in addition to that, it is possible to buy a lens adaptor for almost any lens ever made, which means that in practice, your choice of lenses is effectively unlimited provided that you are prepared to focus these lenses manually (a walk in the park using the focus-peaking and focus-assist functions I mentioned above). I have just ordered an adaptor from Novoflex to enable me to mount any of my Nikon lenses on the NEX-7. Additionally, Sony offer an adapter (the LA-EA2) which allows you to use the NEX-7 with Sony’s Alpha-mount lenses; the LA-EA2 adapter has a built-in phase-detection autofocus sensor, giving much improved AF performance over the NEX-7’s standard contrast-detect AF, although it is expensive.
In summary, the Sony NEX-7 is a great little camera – expect to see more shots here on the blog taken with it.
For now, here are three I shot with the NEX-7 in New York at the weekend…