BUILD AND DESIGN
At the time they were introduced, Sony described the NEX-3 and -5 as the "world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital cameras." No such claim is made for the NEX-7, which has picked up a fraction of an inch here and there along with a couple of extra ounces. Still, with dimensions of 4.75 x 2.75 x 4.75 inches and 20 ounce weight in shooting configuration (kit lens, battery, memory media and camera strap) the NEX-7 clearly embraces the small size/lightweight mantra that is one of the major selling points for cameras of this genre.
The magnesium alloy construction of the first generation cameras has been retained in the NEX-7, which bears a strong overall resemblance to its siblings - essentially a rectangular body but with an oversized handgrip at the right front portion of the camera. The camera looks to be well constructed of quality materials.
Ergonomics and Controls
The raised handgrip on the NEX-7 is more pronounced than the earlier cameras and affords a firm and secure grip for one-handed shooting, thanks to some reasonably tacky rubberized material that wraps completely around to the back thumb rest area. Even though the NEX-7 has picked up a bit of added width in the body, there can still be a tight fit for fingers between the handgrip and lens barrel. Folks with big fingers should try the NEX-7 before purchasing to see if they can live with the clearance.
The tip of my right index finger fell naturally to the shutter button and my thumb rested comfortably on the camera back. Combined with the electronic viewfinder, the overall excellent feel afforded by the handgrip made shooting the NEX-7 a pleasant experience. One gripe - the lens release button is on the small side and located adjacent to the handgrip, which makes lens changing a somewhat awkward proposition. If anyone at Sony is listening, moving this button to the outside of the lens mount near the camera bottom would make it easier to access and free up a little additional room in the handgrip/lens barrel region.
One of the major distinctions between the earlier cameras and the NEX-7 is the new TRINAVI control interface which consists primarily of two control dials on top of the camera and a conventional control wheel on the camera back. There's also a navigation button situated discreetly adjacent to the shutter button, its purpose being to provide rapid access to various shooting settings for folks using manual exposure options.
Sony describes this interface as "intuitive" and for users moving up from an NEX-3 or -5 the retention of some features such as the soft keys will seem familiar, but the NEX-7 is several orders of magnitude more control-rich than the first-generation cameras. While I was able to pick up the camera and navigate (slowly) to various settings via the internal menus, getting the hang of the external control set to maximize shooting efficiency required some time with my nose in the user's handbook. Let's take a closer look at some aspects of this new interface.
If, like many folks, you prefer to shoot in automatic or scene modes, you may want to just skip ahead to the menus and modes section. Like many compact digitals, the NEX-7 handles virtually all the settings for automatic or scene mode captures, leaving the user very little in the way of inputs. It's when you switch into the P, A, S, or M shooting modes that the fun begins.
The soft keys (the two unmarked buttons above and below the control dial on the camera back) may have different roles depending on the shooting context: for example, when the NEX-7 is first switched on the upper button brings up a menu screen while the lower button gives access to autofocus area settings. Here's a look at that initial screen.
Looking closely at the same screen you will notice two rectangles towards the upper right-hand corner with the designations "AV" and "EV" - this refers to the functions of the left and right control dials on the top of the camera: the left dial changes aperture while the right changes exposure compensation. Pushing the menu soft key produces the following screen.
You can then scroll to the various menu selections via the control wheel and open submenus as necessary. If we had pushed the lower soft key (auto focus area) instead of menu we would have been taken to this screen.
One characteristic of the NEX-7 interface is that when settings are available for selection their location on the screen is an indicator of which control affects the setting. Icons appearing towards the upper left of the main screen are controlled by the left control dial; the upper right of the main screen by the right control dial. Items appearing on the upper right border of the main screen are handled by the upper soft key; items in the middle right border area by the control dial and the bottom right border by the lower soft key. In this case the AF area modes appear towards the upper left of the screen, which indicates that the left control dial will allow you to choose alternate AF modes. Had these icons been located towards the right top of the screen the right control dial would have been in play. Here's what the white balance screen looks like.
If you look closely at the upper left of the screen you can see the camera set for auto white balance; the right portion of the screen contains a color adjustment feature. By turning the left control dial we can change from auto white balance to a different setting. Turning the right control dial, we move the vertical indicator from 0 to A4 and because the horizontal scale is located in the right middle border area the control wheel can be used to change that setting from 0 to M4.
Here's another example with the creative style settings screen - icons for the actual style are located at the upper left and can be scrolled through using the left control dial; sharpness, saturation and contrast icons are located along the right edge of the screen and can be scrolled through using the control wheel - changes to the settings for sharpness, saturation and contrast are displayed at the upper right of the screen via the horizontal graph and are adjusted by the right control dial.
Finally, here's a look at the navigation button (next to the shutter button) that allows you to rapidly toggle through various settings: exposure, focus, white balance, D range, and creative style are the default settings. You can also add picture effect and custom settings to the list via internal menu.
Finally, the NEX-7 offers a great deal of latitude for users to customize the functions assigned the left and right control dials, control wheel and soft keys.
Menus and Modes
While the TRINAVI control interface may take some getting used to, menus in the NEX-7 are intuitive, if somewhat lengthy at times. As we've seen earlier pressing the menu button takes you to 6 internal menus: shoot mode, brightness/color, camera, playback, image size and set up. Depending on your shooting mode, items in these various menus that are accessible may vary from all to virtually none, with available items appearing in black print while the others are grayed out. When you scroll to an available feature a pop-up screen offers a brief description of that feature's function (and the description option may be disabled in the setup menu).
Somewhat lengthy? The "camera" menu contains 15 items, while "set up" has 54 with the format command residing around position 49.
Shooting modes are what we have come to expect from a more fully-featured compact digital camera, with intelligent auto and scene shooting modes, an anti-blur mode, panorama and 3D panorama mode options as well as program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes.
The NEX-7 features a 3.0-inch LCD monitor with a 921.6k pixel composition; the monitor may be articulated through a range of 125 degrees: 80 degrees up and 45 degrees down. Area of coverage is 100% and the monitor is adjustable for brightness through five steps manually as well as automatic and sunny weather settings. Additionally, the monitor can be enabled to display real-time image adjustments, a histogram, a grid display to assist in image composition and, in manual focus mode only, a peaking feature that enhances outlines to assist with manual focus.
In our studio test the monitor registered a 499 nit peak brightness level and a contrast ratio of 648 to 1, just missing the 500 nit threshold we like to see as a minimum for peak brightness, but well into the 500 to 800 desirable range for contrast ratio. In practice, the monitor was one of the better performers in bright outdoor light, both for image composition and review when set for sunny weather or maximum manual brightness. It can still be difficult to use in certain combinations of bright outdoor conditions, but the articulating monitor and variety of brightness settings are a big help in this regard.
One thing is certain, and that is I wouldn't even know the camera had a monitor if I didn't need to refer to it for image review or to change settings, because the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is simply outstanding. It's a half inch XGA OLED (organic light emitting diode) of 2359k dot composition with diopter adjustment for varying eyesight levels and a field of view of approximately 100%. It's large, it's bright and it means you don't have to worry on the brightest of days outdoors about monitor visibility. Unless you're trying to capture a subject where an awkward position or some other consideration requires using the monitor for image composition, the viewfinder is the only way to shoot this camera.
But as good as the viewfinder is, there is a situation with its usage that can potentially impact battery life. The default setting for the NEX-7 has the camera switching automatically from monitor to viewfinder when the camera is raised to your eye. You can also enable only the viewfinder or only the monitor via internal menu, but the problem arises when carrying the camera switched on and in the default setting. With the camera hanging around your neck the viewfinder detects proximity to your body, assumes it's your eye and keeps the viewfinder powered up. Even if your power settings have put the camera to sleep, the viewfinder will power up once it detects proximity. You could find yourself on an all-day shoot where you actually take very few images but exhaust your battery life.
I couldn't understand why, after walking for several minutes without shooting the camera the monitor would come on when I began to raise the camera to my eye - it was the viewfinder remaining powered up and the NEX-7 switching to the monitor when the viewfinder moved out of proximity to my body. While the low battery scenario did not happen to me, the potential is there and it appears the only way to circumvent this (without carrying the camera in an awkward fashion so as to not bring the viewfinder into proximity with anything) is to switch the NEX-7 off during lengthy periods between shots.
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