Review: Sony Alpha NEX-7 and Zeiss 24mm f/1.8

The NEX-7 is Sony’s latest mirrorless camera and it sits at the top of their NEX range. It’s an all metal, APS-C sized sensor equipped machine, intended for professionals. It features the same 24 megapixel sensor and OLED viewfinder from the Alpha 77 and Alpha 65. Essentially, the NEX 7 is almost identical in specification and performance to the Alpha 77, but packaged in a far smaller body.

What truly separates the NEX-7 from the other models in the NEX range is the use of Sony’s dedicated hotshoe mount (the same mount used in their SLR/SLT range), instead of the accessory shoe for use on the NEX-5N for little flashes, microphones etc (to name one example). This allows the NEX-7 to be used with Sony’s entire range of flashes for the Alpha system. Other differentiators of the NEX-7 to the rest of the NEX range is the OLED viewfinder and built in flash; all of which make this NEX more versatile for advanced users. For the first time, I have been able to connect a Sony mirrorless camera to my studio lights via the hotshoe mount, allowing me to shoot whatever my conventional SLR can do.

First Impressions

Sony’s NEX range is well regarded for its great build quality. They use metal in the construction of most of the models, making the NEX-5N better built than most competitors in its price bracket. All the E-mount  lenses have smooth and solid construction as well, rounding out the system rather nicely. The NEX-7, however, surpasses even the standards of the NEX-5N. It has an extremely solid build, combined with buttery smooth control dials. Speaking of dials; one of the criticisms (mine included) of the NEX-C3 and NEX-5N is the lack of dials and buttons. The NEX-7 solves this issue with the addition of two customisable dials on top and a customisable function button, allowing one to work faster and change settings quicker.  But more on that later… Despite the addition of a viewfinder, hotshoe mount, built in flash, swivel screen and extra external controls, the NEX-7 still manages to remain a small camera; not much bigger in fact than the NEX-5N. Considering it has the largest sensor size in any mirrorless camera available (sharing the APS-C size sensor with only the Samsung NX range, Pentax’s recently launched and very large K-01, as well as the yet unavailable Fujifilm X-Pro 1), this is quite a remarkable feat. The overall design is modern and simple. It has neat lines and a hard black paint finish over the thick metal body which is rather comfortable to hold, despite its small size. This is due to the well defined hand grip/battery compartment.

In use

I have had rather disappointing results with mirrorless cameras of late and I think that this has dampened my opinion of mirrorless cameras somewhat. So when I started shooting with the NEX-7, I wasn’t quite expecting the enjoyable experience that I have had. It was simple and fast to use. The added dials make a world of difference to changing settings with haste. There are two dials on the top of the body, placed next to each other. One controls shutter and the other the aperture and they are placed within perfect reach of your right thumb. The rotating directional wheel controls ISO. One does have some options to customise the functions of these dials as well. The NEX-7 has no dedicated physical mode dial. Instead, when the centre button in the middle of the directional wheel is pressed once, an on screen mode dial is instantly displayed and rotating the directional wheel also changes modes quickly. It might not be as good as a physical mode dial, but I didn’t find this hampering or annoying, since changing modes was still effortless and rapid. Unlike some other mirrorless cameras I have recently tested, there is no dabbling in the menu to try and find the mode function hidden somewhere.

The OLED viewfinder is identical to the one used in the Sony Alpha 77 and 65. It is an extremely bright, smooth, sharp and responsive viewfinder and is one of the best in the industry. As near as makes no impact, I cannot tell the difference between it and Nikon’s V1 viewfinder. It is truly a usable alternative to optical viewfinders, but has a few more benefits. The viewfinder can be set up so that it shows how the camera will record the exposure, making reviewing a taken image less necessary since you are already seeing what the shot will look like at your selected exposure settings. This made me spend less time in playing back or reviewing pictures, leaving me to just carry on with the task of shooting. However, there are certain times when having the viewfinder set up this way is not ideal. For instance: when shooting with studio lights where the exposure of what the camera sees during composition, compared to the actual exposure when the flashes will fire is not the same. This can lead to the viewfinder being very dark, often to the point where nothing can be seen through it; making it impossible to compose. In this case, it’s best to switch off the live view display effect. In effect, this makes the electronic viewfinder behave the same way as an optical viewfinder. There are other benefits to the electronic viewfinder as well, such as shooting in low light. When composing and manually focusing, one needs a lot of detail in order to be accurate. In low light, optical viewfinders can only show what is there in terms of light coming through the lens.This means that you won’t get much because of the darkness. Having a digital viewfinder that previews the image at your desired exposure settings allows you to increase the sensitivity of the viewfinder so that you can see what is normally too dark for the human eye to register. In bright sunlight, viewing the screen on the back of your camera can be difficult; making navigating the menus, or even reviewing a picture difficult as well. An electronic viewfinder allows you to do all this in the actual viewfinder which is a feature I found myself using a lot. The ability to toggle between image preview and review without taking my eye away from the viewfinder became invaluable when shooting a model. If I was not completely happy with a change in the model’s pose upon review of the images, I could toggle between live view and reviewing the image where the pose was right; allowing me to recreate the same angle I was shooting from as before and make sure that she was positioning her body exactly as needed. It’s like having the ability to place reality over an image so that the two can be perfectly aligned and corrected as desired.

The sensor is an APS-C sized 24 megapixel sensor and is, to date, the highest resolution in that size. I found images to be extremely sharp (largely due to the 24mm 1.8 Zeiss lens used.) The low light image quality is not the best as far as crop sensor standards are concerned. I suspect that it is a result of the extremely high resolution. A lower resolution sensor would help to decrease grain (noise) at high ISO’s, but that said, the NEX-7 doesn’t perform badly; especially considering how high the pixel count is. Due to the NEX-7 sharing the same sensor as the Sony Alpha 77 and Alpha 65, image quality is identical and so further opinions can be found by reading reviews on those two cameras.

Conclusion

In my view, mirrorless cameras are designed to be compact versions of SLR’s. Despite there being some great mirrorless cameras out there, few can be true alternatives to SLR’s for working professionals. They simply can’t do everything that an SLR can. Though they do come close, they usually lack a vital function or two, or even more. The NEX-7 is one of the few mirrorless cameras that can be a true alternative to an SLR, without any drawbacks. While the system, or lens range is currently smaller than most SLRs, when used with Sony’s LA-EA2 adapter, the NEX becomes compatible with all of Sony’s Alpha mount and Konica Minolta mount lenses. It is even compatible with the screw drive autofocus lenses. The LA-EA2 is essentially a mirror box featuring Sony’s Translucent Mirror and offers phase detect autofocus (as found in practically all SLR cameras) on any NEX camera in the range.When used with the NEX-7, it practically turns it into an Alpha A77, albeit a smaller one.

Controls are well laid out and comprehensive without being cluttered and it features all of the needed controls for a demanding professional (such as an exposure lock/focus lock button). The function button next to the shutter trigger toggles through advanced settings like saturation and contrast control, from focus point selector and scene magnification, to fine tune manual focusing.

Overall, the NEX-7 exudes quality and is clearly designed for demanding photographers. With the price tag being in the region of many high-end SLR’s such as Canon’s 7D, it is priced for pro’s as well and would be a worthy consideration if SLR performance is the utmost requirement out of a compact camera. Even though that small package comes at a cost, it is worthwhile if size is important.

Carl Zeiss Sonnar E 24mm 1.8

The Carls Zeiss 24 1.8 is a perfect companion to the NEX-7. It has probably the best build quality of all of the E mount lenses. It is weighty in the hand, showing its strong build. Simply put, it is extremely sharp and has the creamiest out of focus boket I have seen in a lens in a long while. Even at wide open apertures, it is still a remarkably sharp lens. It has a great minimum focusing distance of 0.16m, making close up photography easily possible. I am a huge fan of prime lenses, but since I shoot mostly portraits, I personally tend to prefer longer focal lengths such as 50mm or 85mm. For my requirements, 24mm is too wide, but the quality of the 24 1.8 was so great that I could not help but love this lens and, in fact, never took it off the camera and used it entirely instead of the standard 18-55 kit zoom that came with the NEX-7 as it performs beautifully with the 24 megapixel sensor. The 24mm Zeiss turned out to be quite a surprise to me.

Author Bio

Armani Quintas

Originally from Nelspruit, a photographer and camera salesman based in Johannesburg. Studied visual communication at The Open Window School of Visual Communication