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Superb images, flawed interface. NEX 5n is a better choice.
on March 4, 2012
This is a review of my new NEX-7, a lovely, precision made piece of pocket magic. I hope Amazon readers will indulge me if I first make a few observations about the great Sony Corporation, and then some thoughts about the future of of digital cameras in the age of the iPhone.
I have a longtime fondness for Sony dating from the 1970's when my job required constant international travel. This was before personal computers and the internet; I depended on my Sony Walkman, my Sony microcassette recorder, my Sony shortwave radios, and all the other jewels of miniature electronics Sony produced in those days with imagination and precision. Trinitron. The U-Matic 3/4" video players we used for education and training before Betamax and VHS. Unfortunately in recent decades Sony has not stayed on the leading edge of consumer electronics. The company grew large and subdivided, replacing a strong sense of design coherence led by Akio Morita, with management by committee. The secret of Apple, and the reason Apple surpassed Sony, is mainly that one individual, Steve Jobs, maintained a coherent personal vision of product rightness over a long period of time and a variety of platforms. Sony on the other hand divided into a conglomerate of disconnected businesses. For example, unlike Apple, Sony's foray into the content industry (movies, music) did not really feed back to enhance their hardware products. There is not one Sony company but several; the people who make the new Sony Tablet P or the Bloggie MP4 recorders probably have never met the camera team. The CEO of Sony in recent years, Howard Stringer, was not a digital visionary but a clueless corporate "Mister Businessman." As I write this Sony has lost billions for eight years and has just announced 10,000 more layoffs. The new CEO says his focus will be "One Sony." I hope so because the disconnects within the Sony group are evident in this NEX 7; it is excellent photographically but lacks integration in other important ways.
Sony was an early player in digital cameras and has remained strong, unlike their losing battle to stay in the television market or the MP3 market. In 2006 they committed to full-on competition with Canon and Nikon by buying out the Konica-Minolta line. Their DSLRs are first rate and they are the first to offer translucent non-moving mirror SLR's. Now with the NEX line of mirrorless, large sensor cameras, Sony has a hit and is hoping to lead the next phase of consumer photography. Or rather I should say, of ENTHUSIAST photography since as we all know, mass market photography today is increasingly dominated by the smartphone / iPhone with a vast array of third party software apps. More about that later. However, design by committee is evident in the Sony NEX 7; it gives the feeling that the features marked for incorporation came from a show of hands in a giant meeting rather than a unified concept. In sensors, Sony is pretty much the best in the world. Ditto for their marvelous manufacturing. But in user interface, in image processing and compression, in viewfinders, in lenses, in connectivity, wireless, software, in overall system architecture - they are uneven. Moreover, the camera group seems stuck in a past where cameras were in a silo by themselves. How sad that they seem unable to pull together Sony's amazing range of corporate skills in wireless, computers, etc., to focus them all on any one product.
OK, that's my history essay. Thanks for reading. Now on to testing the NEX 7. After having mine on backorder at Amazon for EIGHT MONTHS, it finally arrived a few days ago. I was also fortunate to capture one of the Zeiss 24mm NEX E-mount lenses, a gem (except it is overpriced and lacks image stabilization). I made a direct comparison with my Nikon D7000 for basic image quality and evaluated the other features as best I could, without yet having read every page of the 211 page (!) manual. There are three basics of digital photography: 1) image quality including JPEG efficiency, 2) handling quality including size, weight, speed, and ease of use and 3) connectivity, networking, and special techniques. I am leaving out cost; if that is your metric, I can tell you right now that you can buy a very good digital camera which will produce excellent photos for about one seventh what I spent for this baby with the Zeiss lens.
1. Image quality. I compared indoor both RAW and JPEG images from the NEX 7, 24 MP with my Nikon D7000, 16 MP. They certainly should be comparable since Nikon in fact uses a Sony sensor similar to that in the NEX 5n. I did this at ISO 100, 800 and 3200, trying to match the lenses between the two as comparably as I could, prime for prime, zoom for zoom. The results were mixed. With RAW images, the Nikon D7000 had a slight but definite edge, with more contrast and smoothness, especially in the shadows. (This implies the NEX 5n sensor may also be better than 7 at high ISO.) But with JPEGs it was the other way; at both high and low ISO, the NEX-7 images were distinctly superior to the Nikon in clarity and punch. The difference was greatest at ISO 3200. So it seems when JPEG compression is brought in, the Sony boys have a slight edge in the fine details of their algorithm for image compression. The differences are subtle; let's call it even. The NEX 7 produces beautiful, sharp, dynamic photos, really nice, and every bit as good as the best half-frame DSLR. So far so good.
2. Handling. So if the image quality is top grade, and the slim NEX 7 is so much lighter and smaller than my top of the line Nikon half-frame DSLR, and I am much more likely to take it with me when I travel, does it mean I'm ready to switch over completely? No, I'm not. For one thing, I have been shooting Nikon SLR's since John F. Kennedy was president. Nothing feels as comfortable and natural to me as having that funny clacking box held up to my eye, allowing me to see exactly what the lens will see. The NEX 7 comes with an EVF (electronic viewfinder) which means a little television you squint at through a lens as if it were a real viewfinder. This has been touted as a great advance but I find I don't like it. For one thing, the EVF display - in spite of being a state of the art 2.4MP OLED - is rough compared to a real life image. The picture has sparklies and the colors are off, and the proximity feature (viewfinder doesn't turn itself on until your eye is near the camera, to save battery) is disconcerting. And the information there is simply a duplicate of what can be seen on the much nicer, big LCD on the back, which has a handy tilt mount. With the LCD one can watch as the exposure is adjusted and see the changes in real time, which doesn't work so well using the EVF. The big display also helps more with focus; there is a digital zoom and a Sony feature called "focus peaking," visible color marking of the in-focus area that allows fine manual focus. This is my favorite feature and makes it much easier to use manual lenses from Pentax / Leica / Canon. This electronic assist for manual focus, which is also on the 5n, is one of the best reasons for buying a NEX.
3. Features and connectivity. The NEX 7 offers approximately 50 settings, ranging from gimmicks I am unlikely to ever use (camera fires the shutter when it detects a smile - will this work with my dog?) to those I use constantly (exposure comp, ISO, white balance) to those which sound intriguing but will need trying out to see if they really work (HDR, dynamic range). This all could have been organized more simply and some of the choices are head scratchers. For example: white balance and meter mode appear under the Brightness/Color menu, not the Camera menu nor the Settings menu. There are many such illogical, confusing choices. For example, there are an interesting set of "picture effects" which can emphasize one color, etc. These effects are fun to play with; I have uploaded a sample on the product page which picks out the reds in my neighbor's barn. But if I next want to try picking out the yellows in the scene rather than the reds, I must push or twist no fewer than six buttons and wheels, going back through the menus tediously to start over again with the next Picture Effect. Also, since there is no way to go backwards on these effects to the unaltered image, skilled photographers (the ones who would buy the NEX 7 in the first place) will prefer to apply effects like these in postprocessing rather than in the camera. So this entire feature set is more gimmick than useful. In general, the user definable wheels and buttons on the NEX only whetted my appetite for even more programmability. It would be much better if the camera would allow me to set up ALL my own menus the way that makes sense to me - for example gathering all the rarely used items in one menu so as to reduce clutter, and then another menu with a short list of items I use frequently. Instead, I'm left trying to figure out the obscure choices made for me by a Sony engineer sitting in a cubicle in Tokyo. Also, it is evident Sony did not try out the prototype on enough users before freezing the design. For example, a dedicated movie shutter button is placed where it is vulnerable to being pushed by accident, resulting in frequent unintended movie recordings, which must then be reversed through a nest of menus. This may sound minor but in fact is so irritating I may have to tape a piece of cardboard over the button. Numerous other reviewers have complained about this; it is a mistake and should have been caught before product release. And why do we need a separate shutter button for movies anyway? Other notes: Battery life is short compared to pocket cameras, especially when the EVF is on. Autofocus is a bit slow. Connectivity should have been higher on the list. No wireless, no GPS, and no ability to communicate with computer or phone except by ordinary USB download. Finally, there is a huge missing feature; after setting the 50 options, there is no way to SAVE the configuration. If you are not sure you remember what you set, your only choices are to go through all the menus again, which is tedious, or else 'reset all' in which case you must start from scratch next time.
Lens choices are an issue for such an expensive "pro quality" body. Available e-mount Sony lenses are mostly not up to the body in quality. The 18-55mm kit lens has a plastic lens barrel. It is also hard to understand why Sony chose to develop a new e-mount at all instead of simply using their established alpha-mount with its large existing lens portfolio. Apparently this was for lens compatibility with their video camcorders, but that has no relevance for me. There will be more lenses to come; Sony appears to have been somewhat taken aback by the success of the NEX series and is scrambling to catch up. In the meantime, it's a significant plus that numerous accessory mount adapters are available for non-Sony lenses, even old manual lenses from the 1970's - many photographers are buying NEX 3, 5 or 7 for this reason alone.
Summary: I am having a delightful time playing with the NEX 7 - but then I'm a gadget lover as well as a photographer. I enjoy the soft snickety-snick of the focal plane shutter. It's a sweet, complex toy and lots of fun, and a worthy successor to the Sony marvels of decades past. Build quality, an area where Sony is unsurpassed, is refined and precise. It produces images as least as good and in some cases better than my big, heavy Nikon DSLR, but is much lighter and smaller. It does not feel as natural to hold as an SLR, but it's going to be around my neck more of the time, and you can't take a picture unless you have your camera. The problem with the NEX is that the architecture does not feel as if it came from the mind of a single inspired designer. Rather there is a "pile of features," some brilliant and some gimmicky. I don't think the new wave of NEX type mirrorless cameras make DSLR's obsolete quite yet. Perhaps we would one days see a full frame camera similar to the NEX? One which would be designed from the get-go to make full use of the tens of millions of legacy full frame Nikon / Canon / Pentax / Leica lenses out there?
Overall, I'm a bit disappointed in Sony. I wish the NEX 7 could have been a breakthrough in user programmability, wireless connectivity, and interface design to go along with the innovative mirrorless mechanicals - but it is not. It adds more photographic capability only in conventional terms; bigger sensor, more pixels, smaller box, more features. Yes, there are more user choices for the buttons and wheels than usual but for the most part, the interface is like other cameras, only more so. And there are too many details to learn. The very fact of needing a 211 page manual shows it is too complicated. At this point in photographic history, conventional digital cameras are hitting a wall. As smartphones come with better and better internal cameras (the 8MP sensor on my iPhone 4S is as good as my digicam from a few years ago), the devices identified primarily as cameras need to meet them from the other direction, becoming more like cell phones. All portable devices these days should have wireless connectivity, it's a no-brainer. And what if the NEX 7 allowed for third party apps? The first brand to break out of the 'camera' silo and offer a programmable high end photography solution will be a true breakthrough. NEX 7, for all its niceness and precision, is not that breakthrough.
Conclusion: It is difficult to recommend the NEX 7 given its slightly uneven design, flaws in the interface, expanded size, high price and paucity of quality lenses. Its big feature is the EVF which I did not find to my liking. It seems to me the Sony NEX 5n is the sweet spot of the NEX line. It has most of the best features of the NEX 7 for about half the price. The EVF is optional as an accessory for the 5n. And it's smaller and lighter weight and has slightly less digital noise than the 7 at high ISO due to fewer megapixels. The touch screen on the 5n is also useful. And you may not need to use your whole vacation to read the 5n manual - it only has 82 pages.