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Sony Alpha NEX-7 review: Sony Alpha NEX-7

Sony Alpha NEX-7

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
7 min read

Editors' note, December 20, 2012: The NEX-7 was awarded an Editors' Choice in February 2012, but the more recent NEX-6 has surpassed it in most ways, and at a lower price. Thus we've decided to revoke the award for the NEX-7 -- which still remains an excellent camera -- and pass the torch to the NEX-6.

sony-alpha-nex-7-body-only.jpg
8.1

Sony Alpha NEX-7

The Good

The <b>Sony Alpha NEX-7</b> delivers excellent raw photo and solid video quality in a package that's beautifully and functionally designed, yet relatively compact. Though expensive for an essentially nonprofessional camera, it doesn't seem overpriced.

The Bad

As with many competing products, the camera's JPEG algorithms need some optimization, some aspects of operation feel a little laggy, and it's missing some useful features.

The Bottom Line

With a lot to like and just a little to dislike, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 comes up a winner, albeit an expensive one.

It may not be the ne plus ultra of interchangeable-lens cameras, but Sony's Alpha NEX-7 comes closer than almost any I've seen thus far. For this class of camera, the NEX-7 has almost everything: built-in flash, an OLED EVF, a large sensor, a tilting LCD, and relatively serious video features. Its innovative two-dial system takes the predominantly screen-based NEX operation and moves a chunk of it back to the hardware controls, where enthusiasts want it. It's got excellent photo and solid video quality and generally fast performance. And while the price is high for a nonpro model, given the package it doesn't seem ripoff-high.

As with many competing cameras the NEX-7's JPEG image processing could stand some optimization, but overall it delivers the photos you'd expect for the money, especially when coupled with a really nice lens like the Zeiss 24mm f1.8. (I tested with that, the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens, and the consumer 50mm f1.8 OSS lenses.) The higher resolution of the NEX-7's sensor helps to compensate for the overprocessing, as the extra pixels help retain detail in the face of heavy luminance noise reduction (NR); that's one reason the NEX-7's JPEG photos still look much better than, say, the Olympus E-P3's. The irony is that the NEX-7's images have particularly well-controlled noise without any NR.

Sony Alpha NEX-7 photo samples

See all photos

If you scrutinize the JPEGs, you can see some haloing on edges between dark and light (on text, for example) starting as low as ISO 400, and details become visibly mushier at ISO 800. The raw files, however, can look really good as high as ISO 1600, subject matter permitting, and remain quite usable as high as ISO 3200. Low-ISO-sensitivity shots look very good, natural with no oversharpening or artifacts.

On all other counts--exposure, color, sharpness, and so on--the photos look quite good. There's plenty of recoverable detail in dense shadow areas, but it doesn't seem like there's a lot in the highlights. Sony offers a variety of Creative Styles for color handling; the default Standard pushes saturation and shifts hues more than I like and Neutral looks a little too flat, but neither is too egregious and since you can adjust the contrast, saturation, and sharpness for each, they're definitely workable.

The video looks very good in decent light as well, sufficiently sharp with solid tonality and exposure, though cinemaphiles will probably take issue with the moiré and aliasing. I didn't see any rolling shutter, however, and casual shooters should find the low-light video quality acceptable.

While it's not superfast all around, the NEX-7 delivers good-to-excellent shooting speed overall. Under optimal conditions, it has class-leading shot lag, focusing and shooting in a mere 0.2 second. In low light that increases to a still-excellent 0.5 second. JPEG shot-to-shot time clocks in at a respectable 0.6 second, but that jumps to about 0.9 second for both raw and flash--meh for raw, good for flash. The camera bursts at about 3.5 frames per second with full autoexposure (odd, since it's rated at only 3fps). That's adequate for kids-and-pets-type action that doesn't involve sports, but more importantly, the EVF refreshes quickly enough to make burst shooting and panning comfortable. The autofocus adjusts quickly and quietly when shooting video.

In practice, I found the camera fluid to shoot with but with some mildly annoying performance lags. For instance, if you shoot with autoreview, as I frequently do, it takes a little longer than desirable to render the shot. There's a slight delay when autoswitching between the LCD and viewfinder. I hate the way Sony insists on initializing a database when you insert a card that hasn't been used in the camera before; I plan to format it anyway, and that always hangs me up. While this won't affect a lot of people, it will if you shoot with multiple cameras. I'm also disappointed with the low-light focusing system. If you enable the AF assist the camera automatically expands the AF area to almost the entire scene; that speeds up focus but it usually results in focusing on the wrong thing. If you disable AF assist, it hunts annoyingly before it finally locks focus.

  Fujifilm X-Pro 1 Olympus E-P3 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Sony Alpha NEX-5N Sony Alpha NEX-7
Sensor (effective resolution) 16.3-megapixel X-Trans CMOS
n/a
12.3-megapixel Live MOS
12 bit
16.1-megapixel Live MOS
12 bit
16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS 24.3-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
12 bit
23.6mm x 15.6mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/25600 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12800 ISO 200 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 25,600 ISO 100 - ISO 16000
Continuous shooting 6fps
approx 15
3fps
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
9fps
17 JPEG/11 raw
3 fps
10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
3fps
unlimited JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optical
90 percent coverage/
EVF
0.47-inch
1.44 million dots variable
n/a
Optional EVF
n/a-inch
1.44 million dots
100% coverage
1.15x/0.58x
Optional EVF
0.5-inch
2.4-million dots
100% coverage
1.09x/0.73x
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 35-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 30-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 60 min; 1/180 x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 8 minutes; 1/250 sec x-sync (flash-dependent) 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 256 zones 324 area 324 area 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Flash No Yes Included add-on Included optional Yes
Image stabilization Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift Optical Optical
Video 1080/24p H.264 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 1080/60i QuickTime MOV @ 20, 17Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
1,230,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 330 shots n/a 430 shots 350 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.5 x 3.2 x 1.7 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 4.8 x 3.5 x 1.7 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7
Body operating weight (ounces) 15.9 13 15 (est) 9.3 (without flash) 12.4
Mfr. price $1,699.95 (body only) n/a $999.99 (body only) $599.99 (body only) $1,199.99 (body only)
n/a $899.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $1,299.99 (with 12-50mm lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,349.00 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens) $1,099.99 (with 14-42mm lens) n/a n/a
Ship date February 2012 August 2011 April 2012 September 2011 November 2011

I really enjoy shooting with the NEX-7, partly because it's a perfect size with a comfortable grip--not so small that it gets overwhelmed by the lenses, as smaller NEX models do, but small enough to be less conspicuous than a dSLR for street photography--and partly because Sony has fixed most of the things I have historically disliked about the NEX interface, generally because it has enough buttons to allow you to program away the interface.

It's got two context-sensitive thumb-operated dials and three remappable buttons, one of which can cover three functions. I like the switch-plus-button that allows you to toggle between AF/MF settings and autoexposure lock. Although some of the top and back buttons are hard to find by feel when you're looking through the viewfinder, overall everything can be customized for the most streamlined personal shooting experience possible.

The viewfinder and the flash stand out as well. The OLED EVF is large, bright, high-resolution enough for manual focusing, and refreshes quickly. Like some of Panasonic's ILCs', the NEX-7's pop-up flash can be tilted back for bounce or effect.

The enjoyment comes to a dead stop when you have to go into the menu system to change something that you don't use on a regular basis, however. The neatly organized top-level icons belie the unsorted anarchy below. I swear some of the options move when I'm not looking. In part, that's because Sony throws everything that doesn't fit into one of the other five categories into Setup.

There are no particularly whizzy or novel software capabilities in the NEX-7, just the usual essentials and Sony standbys. These include options like full manual controls in video mode and peaking for manual focus, as well as 2D and 3D Sweep Panorama. In fact, it's missing a couple of features I'd expect from a camera in its class, including options for resolution-reduced raw files and the ability to save groups of custom settings.

Conclusion
An excellent camera for advanced photographers that's fun and fluid to shoot with, the Sony Alpha NEX-7's few flaws don't seriously detract from an otherwise winning package.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
JPEG shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Sony Alpha NEX-7
0.9 
0.9 
0.6 
0.5 
0.2 
Canon EOS 60D
0.2 
0.6 
0.5 
0.5 
0.3 
Sony Alpha SLT-A77V
0.5 
0.6 
0.6 
0.6 
0.3 
Olympus PEN E-P3
0.6 
0.8 
0.7 
0.6 
0.3 
Sony Alpha NEX-5N
1.2 
1.1 
1 
0.6 
0.3 

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sony Alpha NEX-7
3.5 

sony-alpha-nex-7-body-only.jpg
8.1

Sony Alpha NEX-7

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Image quality 8
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