DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Alpha NEX-7 Review: A Top-Notch Mirrorless Camera
by Jim Keenan -  11/23/2011

When we first encountered the Sony Alpha NEX-7, DCR editor Allison Johnson was putting a pre-production model through its paces under the auspices of Sony San Diego this past September. Allison gave the camera high grades and was particularly impressed with the performance of the viewfinder. Sony announced the NEX-7 in August 2011, with first deliveries to the USA slated for November.


Since then, floods in Thailand that caused Nikon to delay the announcement of what was expected to be the new D800 DSLR camera have claimed a second victim with the NEX-7 not reaching us this month. As I write this in late November 2011, the big New York vendors Adorama and B&H Photo show the camera on their websites, but with no arrival date listed. You can track down information on the NEX-7 on Sony's website, but "notify me" and "coming soon" are the closest you can get to an arrival date. Sony has reportedly now resumed production of the NEX-7 at another plant in Thailand.

While the cameras will not show up in your local store as planned, an NEX-7 has fallen into our hands for a more extensive field test than was possible during Allison's press junket. For those who don't know, the NEX-7 is the second generation of Sony's mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras, following in the footsteps of the NEX-3 and NEX-5. Sony has also rolled out new versions of those cameras with slight increases in resolution, but the NEX-7 is the model generating a lot of interest among the enthusiast photographer crowd.

The NEX-7's new Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensor is the same physical size as that in the earlier cameras, but receives a healthy boost in resolution to 24.3 megapixels from just over 14 (the new NEX-3C and NEX-5N are up to 16 megapixels). That sensor produces a 1.5x crop factor in 35mm equivalents and is paired with Sony's latest generation BIONZ image processing engine. The native ISO range is from 100 to 16000. In addition to the new built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) that so impressed Allison, Sony is also claiming a 20 millisecond (ms) shutter lag time. The 3.0-inch LCD monitor articulates through a range of 125 degrees. A built-in flash supersedes the clip-on version of the earlier cameras and an auto-lock accessory shoe permits advanced shooting applications: the shoe supports the full range of Alpha flashes and monitors, as well as adapters to accommodate studio lighting.

Sony NEX-7

The camera can capture full HD video via a dedicated one-touch video button and users can now manually focus during video capture and employ program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority or manual exposure methods as well. Stereo audio performance is said to be improved, "...with revised circuitry that lowers noise levels, especially when shooting quiet scenes."

The camera also features a new user control interface that offers "...extensive, direct control over creative settings via an intuitive new TRINAVI control interface, important for enthusiast and professional photographers." Automatic, scene, and manual exposure options are complemented by sweep panorama and 3D sweep panorama modes. Still image files may be captured in JPEG, RAW or RAW/JPEG combinations; video formats are AVCHD / MP4 (MPEG-4 AVC (H.264). Memory media compatibility includes Memory Stick PRO Duo/Pro-HG Duo/PRO-HG HX Duo as well as SD/SDHC/SDXC - there is no internal memory. The camera will be offered from Sony in kit form with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens or as a body only. When I began work on this review about 10 days ago the body-only price was listed on Sony's website as $1200 with the 18-55mm kit priced at $1350. Just today the website has updated those figures, and while the body only remains at $1200, the kit price has jumped to $1400. Here is a look at both ends of that kit lens focal range...

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
18mm

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
55mm

The camera can utilize any of 7 Sony E-mount lenses (along with fisheye and wide-angle converters for the 16mm lens) and there are manual and AF adapters for Sony A-mount lenses as well. Third-party manufacturers are producing adapters for Canon, Nikon, Leica, and Olympus lenses. Sony has also disclosed the E mount specification to Carl Zeiss, Cosina, Sigma and Tamron. Sony provides a shoulder strap, rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger, body cap, cleaning cloth, USB cable and CD-ROM software with each camera.

The inclusion of any number of high-performance features such as the built-in viewfinder, new user control interface, rapid shutter response, built-in flash and accessory shoe as well as the DSLR class price tag are pushing the NEX-7 well toward the enthusiast end of the user spectrum. Let's get the NEX-7 into the field and see how enthusiastic we are about its performance.

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.



Sony NEX-7The 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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

Display/Viewfinder
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.

Sony NEX-7

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.

PERFORMANCE
It has a viewfinder that could be at home on a DSLR, a claimed shutter lag time that is DSLR-like, and a DSLR sized sensor and price tag. Is the NEX-7 truly a DSLR alternative? Let's see.

Shooting Performance
The NEX-7 powers up quickly - not DSLR quick, but pretty fast. I was able to get off a first shot in about 1.5 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times were basically as quick as you could re-acquire focus and shoot after the previous shot, a distinct (and near DSLR-like) improvement over the NEX-5 I reviewed last year. Sony claims up to a 3 frame per second (fps) continuous shooting rate, as well as a speed priority rate of up to 10 fps. Speed priority calculates exposure and focus based on the first shot of the sequence, while continuous can make use of the camera's continuous AF function.

In practice, the NEX-7 would make the 3 fps figure when facing less challenging situations - performance seemed to drop to around 2 fps when moving subjects were closing or opening distance on the camera rather than a more parallel course. Using a 16 gigabyte (gb) 95 megabyte per second (mb/sec) memory card produced 20 shot sequences before the camera buffer slowed at the 3 fps rate. The same card produced 20 shot sequences in speed priority mode as well.

Unlike many digital cameras, the NEX-7 does not display any indication that the camera is writing to the memory media following a long continuous sequence of shots. However, it allows you to continue taking photos as buffer space becomes available. If you continue to hold the shutter down when the frame rate slows as the buffer fills, the camera will continue to take single shots at slow intervals. Shoot a burst until the buffer slows and then release the shutter for a short time before depressing the shutter once again and the camera will shoot a burst for as long as it takes to fill the buffer once more - you may not get the number of shots you would with a clean buffer, but the camera will shoot at the continuous frame rate you have chosen until the partially filled buffer fills again.

AF acquisition time was a speedy 0.13 seconds in good conditions, but the camera predictably slowed noticeably in dim light. There is a focus assist lamp.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-P3 0.01
Nikon 1 J1 0.01
Sony NEX-7 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.01

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony NEX-7 0.13
Nikon 1 J1 0.21
Olympus E-P3 0.22
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 0.22

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony NEX-7 20 10.0 fps
Nikon 1 J1 28 5.1 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 20 4.2 fps
Olympus E-P3 13 3.3 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The built-in flash features a guide number of 6 meters at ISO 100, and combined with the relatively slow kit lens maximum aperture of f/3.5 translates into a flash range of about 5.6 feet. Of course, closing the lens down from its maximum aperture will lower this range even further, while moving the ISO setting up from 100 will increase the range. Flash recycle times were quick - right around 1.25 seconds under conditions (f/22 aperture, ISO 100 and a dark subject) designed to produce a full discharge. Partial discharge times were about the same.

Sony rates the NEX-7 battery life as 400 shots. As mentioned earlier, take precautions when using the camera with the default monitor/viewfinder setup. The battery level display is helpful in that it presents an icon with bars that disappear as battery level drops along with a numerical percentage of battery life remaining. The latter readout is probably the one I would trust more - right now the icon on my camera shows three quarters battery life while the numerical display reads 53%.

The NEX-7 has an annoying playback regimen. If you hit the playback button the camera will display the last image captured and only the same type of images as your last shot. For example, let's say you shot 20 video clips, then a single still, and hit the replay button. You'll be taken to the still, and the still is the only image you can review via the replay button. Or say you shot 200 stills, then a single video clip. The replay button brings up the video.

All of your images are on your memory media, but the NEX-7 compartmentalizes imagery into still, MP4 and AVCHD folders and displays only the contents of the folder containing your last image via the replay button - you can go into the "view mode" submenu in the playback menu to designate folders containing the other types of imagery for playback. On most cameras the replay button allows you to access images or video in the order they were captured and I wish Sony had done the same.

Lens Performance
The 18-55mm kit lens is about average in lens speed as kit lenses go, with maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/5.6 at wide angle and telephoto, respectively. Close focus distance is 9.8 inches. The 18-55 displayed some barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion at telephoto. Edges and corners were a bit soft at both ends, but image quality seemed on a par with similar kit lenses on other cameras I've reviewed.

Sony NEX-7

The NEX-7 offers three lens compensation settings that can be found in the setup menu: chromic aberration, distortion, and shading (vignetting). Of these three, only chromic aberration and shading are on by default - you have to enable the distortion feature via internal menu. Here's a look at our roofline shot at wide angle with and without distortion compensation enabled. The curvature produced by barrel distortion of the lens is largely removed with the feature enabled. Enabling distortion compensation may reduce the field of view slightly as part of the adjustment process, but the differential is slight and in my opinion worth the loss.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Distortion Compensation On

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Distoriton Compensation Off

A little chromic aberration (purple fringing) was present if you looked long and hard at extreme magnifications (400x), but the lens did a very good job overall in this regard. While Sony builds stabilization into their DSLR camera bodies, the NEX series requires "optical steady shot" designated lenses to produce stabilization, and the kit lens used in this review is one such lens.

In addition to the kit lens Sony also provided a Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 prime lens, and if you don't need the focal range provided by a zoom the Zeiss is a very nice choice. Virtually distortion free, the lens displays just the faintest hint of pincushion distortion which is corrected by enabling the lens distortion compensation feature. The lens is fairly uniformly sharp and largely chromic aberration free - you can find small spots here and there at 300-400% enlargements, but you'll still have to look hard to do so. The Zeiss is not stabilized, but shooting at shutter speeds in the 1/40 second range or faster while hand-holding should not be a problem with proper technique. You also don't want to use the lens hood on the Zeiss along with flash as the hood will cast a shadow on the image.

Video Quality
HD Video quality in the NEX-7 is quite good. The camera has a CMOS sensor, but rolling shutter effect is muted in all but the most exaggerated panning speeds. The dedicated movie capture button is handy and the camera performs auto focus and exposure continuously while recording, but users can now set exposure and focus manually should they desire to do so.

Download Sample Video

Audio recording is on by default but may be disabled; the built-in microphone has some susceptibility to wind noise but a wind cut feature lacking on the first generation cameras has found its way onboard. The camera will record the sounds of image stabilization and zooming in or out during video capture. I shot video clips letting the NEX-7 handle video exposure and focus as well as with manual exposure and auto focus and the camera is simple and easy to use for video work.

Image Quality
Default images out of the NEX-7 were pleasant as to color fidelity and sharpness. Considering its price and enthusiast-level manual control options I would expect most buyers will be more experienced shooters looking for something approaching DSLR image quality, performance and control in a compact and light platform rather than entry-level consumers picking up their first digital. But just in case someone with no intention of moving the mode dial off of intelligent auto grabs an NEX-7, here are some default captures.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image

But where this camera really shines is in offering options for folks who want to push beyond the automatic envelope. The range of adjustments offered shooters in the manual modes rivals that of many DSLRs. Tone mapping images to produce high dynamic range captures is a popular art form right now, and typically this is done by bracketing an image to produce a range of exposures and then combining them via software to produce a single image with detail in shadow, mid-range and highlight areas. The NEX-7 has a fairly modest bracketing option - 3 images at either 0.3 or 0.7 EV. It may not sound like much, but if you shoot a baseline exposure bracket with the 0.7 setting, then additional brackets at plus and minus 2 EV from the base setting, the nine shots now cover an exposure range approaching 6 EV. Here's an HDR shot of the interior of the 200 year old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, CA, produced in this fashion. I took the 9 shots and merged them using Nik Software's HDR Efex PRO program. (I'm not affiliated with Nik but like and use their products - there are other software manufacturers with HDR products as well).

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image

Sony offers a remote commander control as an accessory that allows you to trip the NEX-7 shutter remotely, and any way to make the captures with minimal camera contact is of benefit. The commander would also come in handy if you opt to enable the NEX-7 HDR shooting feature. With HDR enabled, the camera captures three images with a single push of the shutter button; one image underexposed, one overexposed, and the third at what the camera determines to be the proper exposure. Two images are saved, the "proper exposure" and an image composed of the three captures overlaid. When using HDR you have the option for an automatic setting strength or you can manually select levels from 1 to 6, with 6 offering the strongest effect. Here's a couple captures of the mission interior at level 6; both are made in the default "standard" creative style setting, but "MAX" has had contrast, saturation and sharpness increased manually.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
HDR +6
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
HDR Max

Suffice it to say with the HDR option capturing three images that a tripod or some other form of camera stabilization will be a necessity in virtually every case. The NEX-7 also offers a dynamic range optimizer (DRO) feature that can be enabled to help optimize the gradations of the recorded image in each area of the picture. There is an automatic setting and manual settings offering 1 to 5 levels with 5 being the strongest. The big advantage of DRO over HDR is that there's only a single image captured, so this feature lends itself more readily to handheld shooting. Here's a look at the mission and fountain with DRO disabled and again at the maximum strength level of 5.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
DRO Off
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
DRO +5

The NEX-7 creative style settings offer standard, vivid, neutral, clear, deep, light, portrait, landscape, sunset, night scene, autumn leaves, and black and white color palette options - here's a look at the standard, neutral, vivid and sepia settings.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Standard
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Vivid
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Neutral
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Sepia

As you can probably tell, color palette day took place on the cloudy, overcast, dark and dreary morning. And here's one reason to shoot in the manual modes, if only to be able to pack a little more punch into images when lighting or weather conditions are conspiring against you. I took another shot of the diner at the standard color setting but then adjusted saturation, sharpness, and contrast to the maximum for the second shot.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Standard
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Max saturation, sharpness, contrast

Easy and efficient panorama shooting modes have been a Sony trademark for some time now, and nothing changes with the NEX-7. Sony recommends shooting panoramas at the wide-angle end of the zoom lens, and with just an ocean horizon to contend with it took me only one try to capture this beach scene.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image

Auto white balance was used to capture all the images this review and did a decent job across the range of light including daylight, heavy overcast/cloud, open shade and flash. The NEX-7 shot a little warm under incandescent lighting. In addition to the auto setting the NEX-7 offers daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, four varieties of fluorescent, flash, temperature and custom white balance options.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Multi metering (the default) was used for most of my shooting and did a pretty good job overall, particularly was scenes of average brightness or with roughly equal areas composed of light and dark elements. The NEX-7 was fairly typical in its exposure for primarily lighter scenes in that it wanted to underexposed them a bit too much for my taste - particularly sandy beaches during direct sunlight and also our ISO studio shots. More and more in my personal shooting I'm going with manual exposure for scenes are primarily light or dark in order to produce an exposure level that's pleasing to my eye, and the NEX-7 lends itself well to this sort of shooting. The NEX-7 also offers center weighted and spot metering options.

While the NEX-7 carries an APS-C sized sensor like the first-generation Sony mirrorless cameras, resolution has increased fairly significantly to 24 megapixels from the 14 of the first cameras and the 16 megapixels of their follow-on models. All else being equal, adding resolution to the same size sensor generally produces worse ISO noise performance. Latest generation DSLRs that I have reviewed (Nikon D7000, Canon 60D) increased resolution on their APS-C sensors but managed to improve noise performance by use of later generation processors and other technologies. Here's hoping Sony can conjure up a similar performance, because the resolution of the NEX-7 is a good bit higher than the 16 and 18 megapixels, respectively, of the Nikon and Canon.

ISO 100 and 200 appear identical to me in terms of noise performance - in fact the 100 shot appears to suffer from a bit of camera shake as some areas of detail such as the bear's nose, the AutoZone coin and the red spade on the playing card deck are a bit fuzzy. ISO 200 and 400 are also extremely close to my eye - close enough that for use in print work I don't believe that there will be any noticeable difference.

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 100
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 200
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 400
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 800
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop

ISO 6400
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 12800
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 16000
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
ISO 16000, 100% crop

The jump from 400 to 800 is the first where the additional sensitivity brings with it a clearly elevated noise level. The increase is slight overall, but it is clearly present where the same cannot be said about the earlier jumps. There's a bit more unevenness in shadow areas and the white background is showing a faintly mottled appearance. ISO 1600 shows a continued increase in background mottling and unevenness in shadow areas. Fine details are beginning to suffer in some areas, notably the inscription inside pen case. ISO 3200 shows another downturn, with fine details across a much wider spectrum of the image becoming compromised, including the AutoZone coin, the candy box and the small image on the Sunpak case. ISO 6400 offers only more of the same, as fine details continue to suffer and modeling in shadow areas increases fairly dramatically. The small image on the Sunpak case is rapidly turning into a smudge and the AutoZone coin is losing detail as well.

ISO 12800 looks to me to be the most dramatic single step deterioration to this point - fine details are becoming smudged across most of the frame and noise in both light and dark areas is clearly on the rise. ISO 16000 is a setting of last resort as its speed is the only thing it has to offer - colors are fading a bit and fine details are just a dim memory in most areas.
I would be very confident shooting the NEX-7 up to and including 400 ISO that noise would not be an issue in large prints, and with noise reduction applied to the images 800 and 1600 should produce good results as well, although not in the 100 to 400 class for overall quality. I'm on the fence over whether 3200 is suitable for small print or internet work only but would probably lean that way unless there was no other option than to produce a large print at 3200. ISO 6400 is a small print/internet setting only, and I'd add 12800 to 16000 as settings that are only suitable when nothing else will work.

Additional Sample Images

Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image
Sony NEX-7 Sample Image Sony NEX-7 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
The NEX-7 is the Sony interchangeable lens mirrorless for folks who'd like to shoot with a DSLR but don't want the size and weight penalties associated with that sort of platform. Just to make sure they didn't limit their audience, Sony included typical point-and-shoot features such as a smile shutter, face detection and registration, automatic and scene shooting modes. But they also included a boatload of enthusiast level hardware and performance features that clearly move this camera toward the DSLR end of the performance spectrum and audience.

The NEX-7 boasts a terrific viewfinder and minimal shutter lag. The built-in flash drops from a 7 to a 6 guide number, but recycle times are dramatically improved. Auto focus performance in good conditions is quick. A peaking feature assists users with manual focus. A new user interface and control layout is designed to give advanced shooters quick control over many settings affecting image quality and capture. Power up time, while not DSLR quick, is still pretty fast. Single shot-to-shot times are dramatically improved over the first-generation NEX-5, approaching DSLR quick. Near-DSLR performance in many categories doesn't come cheap - it will take a DSLR-sized payment to put an NEX-7 under your Christmas tree, if you can find one by then.


I found the location of the lens release button awkward to use and the TRINAVI control and user interface takes some getting used to. I'm not sure what Sony was thinking in cooking up a playback routine that compartmentalizes images by their type and requires menu access to playback anything but the last image type you captured. The automatic viewfinder/monitor switching system has the potential to dramatically shorten battery life if users are not careful.

Were I in the market for a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and Nikon had not produced the V1, my order for an NEX-7 would go in immediately. Heck, I may get one anyway - it's a fine camera. The main thing stopping me is that 2.7x crop factor on the V1 that turns my 600mm Nikon telephoto into a 1620mm... for all the rest of you, if you're in line for an NEX-7 stay the course and you won't be sorry. The cameras will get here one of these days and you'll be happy you chose to wait.

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