In the middle ground between DSLRs and point-and-shoot lies a vast plain filled with all manner of tweener cameras, in all variants of shape, size, price, and quality. Until now, no one has nailed the whole package, but so far the smartest middle ground — smaller body and price, but without losing too much quality or manual control — has been Sony’s NEX line. The NEX-5N and NEX-C3 are excellent cameras, with big sensors in small bodies, but the NEX-7 is the flagship member of the line. The $1,349 shooter has a DSLR-sized, 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor, a built-in electronic viewfinder, a tilting LCD, 1080p video recording, and a solid set of manual controls.
It’s built to run with the big dogs, and priced like it too — can it keep up? And could you actually buy the NEX-7 instead of a DSLR? Read our full review to find out.
Hardware / design
The NEX-7 isn't quite as sleek as the 5N and C3, but it's still a seriously svelte camera. 1.7 inches thick at its largest point, it could fit inside most DSLRs with room to spare. This still isn't a pocket camera by any stretch, but it's thin and light enough (about a pound with the kit lens on) that you won't really notice it in your bag, and you can comfortably use it with one hand. The matte black, magnesium alloy body is smooth all over, save for the synthetic leather covering the right side that makes the camera much easier to grip.
The build quality is stellar
There’s a hotshoe on top of the camera, next to a well-hidden pop-up flash that I wish more companies would adopt. You hardly even notice the flash until you need it, but when it pops up you can move it forward and backward and point the flash up or down, so you can bounce the light a bit instead of just blasting it at your subjects. It’s a small improvement, and the hotshoe is still your friend if you really need more light, but this built-in flash is much more usable than most. There are also two unmarked dials that offer most of the NEX-7’s manual control (more on those in a minute), along with the power toggle and shutter button. On the bottom are the battery and SD card slots, hidden underneath a door — normally I don’t like when the two are combined, but in this case the camera doesn’t turn off when you open the door, so I don’t mind. Another door, on the left side, hides Micro HDMI, Mini USB, and microphone jacks.
Jutting out the back of the camera’s left side is an electronic viewfinder, one of the hallmark features of the NEX-7. It’s a half-inch OLED, filled with an insane 2.4 million dots, that shows both your subject and plenty of useful information as you shoot, but it has plenty of problems too. For one, the rubbery eyepiece covering is rigid and uncomfortable, and I found myself constantly moving around and trying to find a more comfortable position (fortunately you can remove it altogether). Second, the display may be incredibly sharp, but it doesn’t do a good job accurately representing the picture you’re framing — colors are too saturated and too contrasted, making everything look very dramatic but not exactly accurate. Higher contrast can be a good thing on an OLED display — since the display isn’t backlit, darks can be much darker and everything can have a realistic, natural glow — but the effect goes too far here. There’s also a considerable moiré effect through the OLED display (though it doesn’t show up as much in photos).
I wound up rarely using the viewfinder at all, but I hardly missed it because the NEX-7's LCD is so good. The 3-inch display is made up of a sharp 922,000 dots, and it recreates colors incredibly accurately. It's a 16:9 screen, which I like, though it inexplicably doesn't take advantage — you'll still see bars around your video as you shoot (you can change this in the camera's settings, and you should). It's also not a touchscreen, which is particularly odd given that the NEX-5N's display is touch-friendly. Normally I'm not a fan of touchscreens, but in this case it could help make more controls a little more accessible. Otherwise, it's the same excellent display as on the 5N — the screen also tilts like the 5N's, so you can angle the screen and always see what you're framing, even when you're holding the camera above or below your face.
There are a handful of E-mount lenses available for NEX cameras (and an adaptor for using Sony's A-mount lenses as well), but the NEX-7 kit comes with an 18-55mm, f/3/5-5.6 lens. Made of metal, it weighs about six ounces, and has a minimum focusing distance of 9.8 inches. (That number is distance from the sensor, which means you can get pretty close up to your subjects.) It's a nice, well-made lens, and my only real issue with it is that there's a very noticeable noise whenever you're zooming. I got to test a number of other lenses as well, and generally liked them all — particularly the $999.99 Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8, which churns out some remarkably soft backgrounds. The lenses cost between $249 and $999, and it's certainly not a bad selection, though if you've already bought Nikon or Canon glass it might be a hard sell to dive into Sony, too. At that price, it's an even harder sell.
Interface and controls
Plenty of manual control, but there's a learning curve
Here's where the NEX-7 gets divisive. NEX models have typically had few manual controls, so changing even your shooting mode requires digging into the camera's menu. The NEX-7 offers the most control of the lineup, mostly thanks to the addition of two unmarked scroll wheels — they're located right by your right thumb, spin smoothly and comfortably, and make changing settings incredibly easy, but you have to tinker with them to figure out what they do. Sony does a decent job of showing you on the LCD which dial does what, but it's not a perfect system — in Auto, for instance, neither dial does anything at all. (Why can't one wheel act as a mode dial?) But what they do do is let you quickly change exposure, shutter speed, aperture, and more when you're shooting in a manual or priority mode. The NEX-7 is among the easiest cameras I've ever seen for shooting in manual mode, since you can change shutter speed and aperture with the two dials and ISO with the scroll wheel on the back; tweaking settings is incredibly simple.
There’s also a dedicated button for recording video located right by your right thumb, which immediately starts recording when pressed. Next to the shutter button is a navigation control that also locks and unlocks the scroll wheels (they still spin when locked, but nothing happens), and standard menu and playback controls. There’s also a clever toggle that lets you set the exposure or manually focus for a single shot, by holding down a button while you frame and focus — release it, and everything goes back to how it was. It’s a really smart feature, giving you manual control when you want it on a camera that’s designed to be automatic in most of its functions, even though having to hold a button and turn the focus can be a little kludgy. Of course, exposure and focus can also be locked permanently through the camera’s menu. All the controls are easily accessible with your right thumb, and they’re easy to feel out with your finger since most are different sizes and shapes, so you can control the camera without looking at the controls. Those are interspersed with a couple of unmarked function buttons, which like the dials do different things in different modes, but can also be customized to your liking.
If you're content to pick a mode and live in it, the handling is great once you figure out which dial and menu controls what. But it's a new learning curve every time you change your shooting mode, and to change any more complex setting requires some on-screen menu time. I'm more willing to excuse that on the NEX-C3 and 5N, which are mid-range cameras meant for people not used to manual controls, but the NEX-7 is in a high-end competition, and in a race for the perfect shot it's going to lose to a DSLR with more easily accessible controls.
The on-screen menus are better than most camera interfaces, though that's not exactly a high bar, and it's still not a great system. Most basic things are easily accessible through the Camera menu, but things like changing the LCD brightness, customizing function buttons, or changing metering modes are all pretty buried. Sony's good at explaining what various options mean and do, but there are a lot of them to navigate through. Some of this can be negated if you take the time to set the dials to do what you want, but there's a lot of configuration involved if you want to avoid the menus.
There aren't a lot of quirky things you can do with the NEX-7 — you pretty much just shoot photos. The omnipresent scene modes are here to help you shoot in snow, or photograph fireworks, along with a couple of cool panorama modes, HDR, and a setting devoted to reducing motion blur in low light, especially at the telephoto end. (Specific, yes, but it does work pretty well.) I was a little surprised not to find art filters or photo effects, and users stepping up from a point-and-shoot, who might be used to having countless different artistic ways to show their photos, might miss them.
Performance and quality
You'll never notice it's not a DSLR
Normally in reviews of smaller cameras, I have to constantly caveat. "It takes great pictures — for a compact camera. It's really fast — for a camera this size." I don't have to do that here, because I'd put the NEX-7's image quality up against any mid-range DSLR out there. Its 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor is the same size as the one inside most DSLRs, and big sensors almost always mean better pictures. You get 6,000 x 4,000-resolution pictures by default, and though they average a huge 8MB per picture (considerably larger if you shoot in RAW), they look fantastic. Photos are sharp throughout the image, which excellent color reproduction and accuracy. Of course, quality is somewhat dependent on the lens you use, but the sensor and processor seem to be more important here — even with the 18-55mm kit lens I was thrilled with the pictures I took.
The NEX-7 keeps firing great pictures even when lighting is terrible — even at its highest ISO setting (16,000), pictures are still usable. Noise is virtually invisible until ISO 3200, and even at 6400 pictures still look relatively sharp — 12,800 is noisy no matter how you look at them, but not so bad that you should avoid using it. 16,000 should be used only in serious lighting emergencies.
I had but one minor complaint as I was shooting: in Auto, shutter speed is abused in order to get more light into the camera. In low-light situations the camera would still occasionally shoot at f/4.0, but would drop the speed to 1/10 or something close. Most cameras push shutter speed last, and the NEX's way of doing things means you might get blurry photos in poor lighting. Even though its ISO performance is so good, Auto ISO only goes up to 1600 — I'd love to have the option to keep shutter speed a little faster, and push ISO and aperture a little harder. Fortunately this is a minor problem, and there's a simple solution: shoot in a manual mode.
The BIONZ processor contributes a lot to the NEX-7's low-light prowess, and it also deserves credit for the NEX-7's speed. The camera turns on almost instantly, and can capture a photo just about a second after you flip the power switch. You can shoot continuously just by pressing your finger down repeatedly, and get about three shots per second with virtually no shutter lag (I got the same speeds on Class 6 and Class 10 memory cards) — there's also a continuous shooting mode that will shoot 10 frames per second while you hold your finger down on the shutter, up to about 20 frames. In general, the camera is amazingly fast, and I never once felt bogged down or delayed by the operation of the camera, except for the occasional bottleneck caused by the lack of manual controls. To be fair, it does feel a hair slower than a DSLR, but I never found the NEX-7 to be too slow.
Contrast-detection autofocus is rarely something I'm happy to see on a spec sheet, and the NEX cameras all use it — it works fine, but it's consistently a little slower than phase-detect autofocus, which measures the image's light instead of its contrast, and works both faster and more reliably. That said, I can't complain about the NEX-7's autofocus capabilities, since it's among the fastest contrast-detect cameras I've used; it consistently found focus in about a quarter of a second, as long as lighting was good. Sony also cleverly designed the camera to check its focus every few seconds, so it's often already in focus when you want to shoot, which makes it feel even faster. In low-light, as with most cameras using contrast-detect autofocus, it slows down to a half-second or more, but still does a solid job of finding its subject and focusing well.
Every camera manufacturer should take a page out of Sony's book here. You get all kinds of options when shooting video: the NEX-7 can record in 1080p and 1080i at 60 frames per second, or 1080p at 24fps. You can shoot in AVCHD or MP4, though MP4 video is an odd 1440 x 1080 resolution. You can also shoot video in a variety of different manual modes, meaning you can change shutter speed, aperture, and the like both before and during video recording. The effect of doing so is really noticeable, but it's pretty great to be able to adjust your video on the fly. You can also autofocus and zoom while recording — you'll hear a bit of noise from the lens in your video, but it gets drowned out if there's any other noise. It's also possible that a smoother lens could solve the problem, but all the lenses I tested with left audible noise.
By the way, video also looks terrific. A lot of non-DSLRs that I've tested tend to oversaturate blacks, giving video an overly-contrasted look that's just slightly off, but I got none of that from the NEX-7. Colors are extremely crisp and accurate, and even small details come in clean and clear. I wasn't impressed with the camera's image stabilization while shooting video, since anytime I moved the camera shook quite a bit. But in general, as long as you're not sprinting after your subject or following something moving very quickly, video looks stunning. The dual mics create a nice stereo effect, though you'll get a lot of wind whooshing in the background.
The NEX-7's battery life is excellent, which surprised me in a camera this small. I took more than 500 shots and nearly more than an hour of video after receiving the camera on a Thursday afternoon, and didn't need to charge the camera until Monday morning. It never hurts to buy an extra battery, but you won't need one except in the rarest of cases.
If you're buying a camera soon, look long and hard at the NEX-7
The lower-end NEX cameras are excellent, but they’re designed for a user wanting something between the simple point-and-shoot and the enormous and complex DSLR. The NEX-7 isn’t such a compromise: it’s not quite in DSLR territory without more manual control, but it’s probably close enough for most people. It’s also so customizable that it could potentially be as easy to control as your DSLR, if you take the time to tweak it. Plus, it takes wonderful pictures and videos, and is adaptable to almost any lighting situation. Even the lens selection is excellent, provided your budget is high enough.
But the NEX-7 is priced like the high-end camera it is, and for some users it could be overkill. One of the best features of the NEX-5N and C3 is simplicity — unexperienced users can pick up one of those cameras, and start taking excellent pictures with no work or know-how. The NEX-7 is easy, too, but it forgoes a bit of the simplicity and minimalism for power and control — consider that tradeoff (and the price premium) carefully especially before you buy the NEX-7 over the NEX-5N, which has a similarly impressive spec sheet. There’s also a tradeoff with more expensive cameras: DSLRs with optical viewfinders will still give you more accurate framing for your photos, and they offer more in the way of speed and manual control. Plus, there’s a whole world of full-frame cameras out there, and if you’re interested in buying a D4 or a 1D X down the line, it’s worth considering which ecosystem you want to invest in now.
That said, I’d buy the NEX-7 over any Micro Four Thirds or mirrorless camera currently on the market. The APS-C sensor is a big advantage for the NEX-7, as is its speed and manual control. For most users, especially those who have never used a DSLR and are looking to step up in quality and control, the NEX-7 should absolutely be on the short list for your next camera. It’s certainly on mine.