Sony NEX-7: First Impressions

adobe Dec 26, 2011

Sony has finally started shipping its NEX-7 compact system camera. Not being one of the big fish, I got mine the old fashioned way: I got on a waiting list and waited.

Patience paid off and I was graced with a UPS box a week ago containing a Sony NEX-7 body and a spare battery. No lens. I am still waiting for this to arrive. Fortunately, I had planned for this and acquired a couple of lens adapters allowing me to fit legacy glass on my shiny new NEX-7.

So while I wait for the Zeiss lens to appear on my doorstep, I shall write this first impression article based on legacy glass and my observations on how the camera and it’s files behave.

Delays, delays…
The floods in Thailand caused a lot of devastation for the locals as well as the corporations that housed their factories there. Originally scheduled for shipment on November 11, the cameras did not start showing up until the last week in December. Even then only in rarified numbers.

Unbelievably, this delay did have a positive side. The delay allowed software makers to prepare their raw converters for the day when the camera arrived. So when I opened the UPS box, I had versions of Adobe Lightroom and Phase One Capture One Pro raw conversion software ready to take on whatever this camera could produce.

Not reinventing the wheel…
Other websites have gone on ad-nauseum with the technical features of the camera and have all sorts of glowing reports about the breakthroughs Sony has in the NEX-7. They are all correct. The NEX-7 is all that and much more.

The NEX-7 was designed with features that appeal to both advanced amateurs and professionals alike. The shot above was taken with the in- camera Rich Tone Monochrome picture style. The camera fires three bracketed shots in rapid succession and combines them into one JPG image. Think of it as B&W HDR.

This shot was taken using RAW, processed in Adobe Lightroom 3.6, converted to monochrome using a preset, and exported to JPG. The difference? The second shot was taken at ISO 6400 and I dialed in -2 EV of exposure compensation to get that “lit by the monitor” look. ISO 6400 on this camera is barely usable, but a couple of factors can help mitigate this.
The first is image size. 24 megapixels is a huge image. It would take an array of 12 HD monitors (@1920×1080) to display these images in their entirety at 100% properly. Outside of the guy played by Hugh Jackman in the movie “Swordfish”, I know of no one with that kind of rig. The first trick to improving image quality (IQ) with this camera is reduce the size of the image in post. You will rarely need to display it full sized on the screen, so shrinking it makes sense and applies noise reduction and sharpening at the same time without loss of detail. The other trick is to convert it to B&W and noise looks like film grain and makes you look cool.
Control, control. You must show control!
The Tri-Navi interface on the NEX-7 adapts to whatever shooting mode you are in. This allows controls like exposure compensation and others to be assigned based on need. Users can customize this to some degree and I expect more customizability with subsequent firmware updates. In practice I have discovered that this arrangement, coupled with the groundbreaking electronic viewfinder (EVF) introduced with the Sony α77, allows me to view the effects of setting changes like ISO, depth-of-field, and exposure compensation prior to taking the shot. This feature alone make this a must-have camera.

Orange Geigers
This shot was taken with an Olympus Zuiko OM 135mm f/2.8 lens with a Fotodiox OM-to-NEX adapter. It was shot hand-held, in broad daylight. I was able to see the bokeh from the aperture and lighting changes from dialing in a -2 EV exposure compensation.
A Legacy in Glass…
One of the great features of the NEX line of cameras is their ability to use practically any manufacturer’s lens via an adaptor. Micro Four Thirds cameras share this ability. With legacy lenses mounted via an adaptor, the NEX-7 does not have any idea that a lens is even mounted on the camera. A quick setting change in the menu will allow the camera to “fire without a lens.” This misleading entry actually tells the camera that a non-electronically controlled lens will be on the camera. Using adapters, you can mount pretty much any lens you can imagine on the NEX-7 (or any other NEX camera).

NEX-7 + Zuiko OM 135mm f/2.8


Here you see a Zuiko OM 135mm f/2.8 (Olympus) mounted on my NEX-7 via a Fotodiox adapter. I like Fotodiox adapters for SLR glass because they provide a tripod mount on the adapter itself. No need to strain the E-mount with more weight than it was designed to handle. They are also very well-built and reasonably priced. There are Fotodiox NEX adapters for:
  • C-mount
  • Canon EOS
  • Canon FD
  • Contax G
  • Contax/Yashica (C/Y)
  • Leica M
  • Leica M39 (screwmount)
  • Leica R
  • Konica AR (Hexanon)
  • Nikon Rangefinder
  • M42
  • Nikon Nikkor (including G-type)
  • Olympus OM Zuiko
  • Pentax K/PK

You get the idea. Fotodiox also guarantees infinity focussing with all of their adapters. Hold it. Infinity what? All lenses regardless of brand have a certain registration distance that must be maintained in order for the lens’ focussing mechanism to work accurately. When you design an adapter to allow a lens from a different make/format to be mounted on your camera, the adapter must be designed to recreate exactly the registration distance that the lens expects. In this way the lens’ focussing mechanism can accurately continue to work on the new camera body. I encountered this with a cheapie Leica M-to-NEX adapter i bought off of eBay. The adapter is well made and fits snugly, but the registration distance is slightly off and allows me to focus past infinity (no, this does not mean that I can see into the future). All lenses mounted via adapters have to be manually focussed and stopped down and the camera must be set to Manual or Aperture priority. Except Sony Alpha lenses. Sony makes an adapter (two actually) for their line of Alpha mount SLR lenses that not only provides electronic aperture controls, but (in the case of the LA-EA2) also provides phase detection autofocus! That will set you back about $400, though.

Image provided by Sony
Peaking duck…
One other bit of fun that this generation of NEX cameras include is focus peaking. Long a staple of the pro video circuit, focus peaking is a tool that allows you to see what is in focus by coloring the in-focus bits in the image. Properly set, this means that a astigmatic wombat (such as yours truly) can focus these really fast primes and their paper thin focus planes with a lot more ease than other mechanoptical focussing systems.
Focus peaking
Focus peaking (look for the yellow bits)
And here is the result of that shot:
Joyeux Noël
Conclusions, for now…
The Sony NEX-7 is a strange beast. As a Percy Jackson fan (and general mythology buff), I would call this a chimera rather than a camera. Its image size, image qualities, and file malleability encroach well into the low-end of medium format. Its sensor size, interchangeable lenses and bokeh characteristics plant it squarely in DSLR territory. Its body size and handling is definitely in the compact camera arena. So what is it? Well like the mythical chimera, its all of the above.
With its massive amount of megapixels, the NEX-7 becomes susceptible to all of the foibles of medium format digital. Lenses must be of the absolute best quality or the sensor will out resolve them. The old axiom of “1 / focal length” for minimum handhold speeds is inadequate. I would say it is more like “(1 / focal length) + 2 stops” to maintain sharpness. Always remember that your tripod is the sharpest lens in your bag.
The dynamic range of the camera is nothing short of breathtaking. This camera is going to be able to capture some pretty spectacular imagery once you get to know it.