9.02.2012

A continued appraisal of the Sony Nex 7 and the cult of the mirrorless.

The lunch special at El Arroyo Restaurant at the ditch.
Cheese enchilada with chili con carne, rice, refried beans and a beef taco.

I've spent the last few blogs talking about the relevance of apparently disconnected photographs so I thought I'd take a mental rest break and talk a bit more about a camera that I'm really enjoying, the Sony Nex 7.  Some photographers are making the claim that there's a giant, mirrorless camera revolution going on right now and I'm not sure I disagree with them but I think the new revolutionaries are missing an important element and that is the electronic viewfinder, a relatively new development in cameras aimed at advanced photographers and one that I think was instrumental in hastening the onset of the revolution.  I first experienced electronic viewfinders in the eyepieces of video cameras I used back in the 1990's. They were black and white and rudimentary but they worked well and they gave videographers lots of critical feedback concerning exposure settings.  My first brush with EVF's in serious still cameras was the EVF in the Sony R1 (an amazing camera) and while that screen can't hold a candle to the current screens on the market it worked well when I would go out into bright sunlight to photograph buildings and people for advertising projects. I also loved the amazing articulated LCD screen.

While I enjoyed the different Olympus Pen offerings and several cameras from Panasonic the Nex 7 seems to be a tour de force that rendered all the other mirrorless contenders irrelevant for me. Three reasons: 1. A really detailed and richly color accurate imaging sensor.  2. The best EVF currently on the market. 3. The logical and straightforward operation facilitated by the Tri-Navi system of two control wheels and one meta-menu selection button. Basically, from both a file quality and an operational standpoint the camera is the best of the breed.

I've spent about a month with the camera. At first I found the menu a bit daunting but in reality it's pretty well configured for a shooter who uses the camera in pretty much the same configuration most of the time. I operate mostly in the aperture priority or manual modes and what this really means is that I only have to master the two control knobs that sit on top and protrude to the back of the camera. When I shoot in manual one control changes the shutter speeds while the other control changes the aperture. You are free to over expose or under expose as you desire but you can always check your exposure against the camera's recommendation on an exposure scale visible in the EVF or on the back screen (if you are doing "stinky baby diaper" camera hold).

If you are shooting in the aperture mode the left most control knob changes the aperture while the right knob becomes an exposure compensation control. 

The third leg of the stool  for the Tri-Navi control is a button positioned on the top right of the camera, just in front of the right hand control knob; it's just to the right of the shutter button. This button, in its default configuration, calls up several control screens. One push gets me to a screen with which I can reposition the autofocus sensor anywhere on the entire screen. I mostly use a single autofocus point so having the facility to use it everywhere comes in handy. The screen adapts depending on which focusing method you have selected. If you have it by group the screen allows you to move whole groups, etc.

The next screen that pops up when you push the Tri-Navi button again, is the white balance settings screen which gives you fine tuning control over warm/cool and green/magenta (hue balance). This is great for critical images that can use a little tweak.  It also allows you to set the color to your taste for global shooting.  Another push of the button gets you into the D-range settings which gives you quick access to in camera HDR (either "auto" or in six strengths, from subtle tonal enhancement to technicolor vomit) as well as the camera's user adjustable DRO menu which holds onto highlight detail while boosting shadow detail and levels. You get can set "auto" or six different strengths here as well. Finally you have a creative styles menu.  This allows you to fine tune any set imaging style (vivid, portrait, standard, etc. ) by giving you control over contrast, sharpness and saturation.

I understand that the button that controls these menus can be reconfigured with different combinations that call up different setting controls but I think Sony made some good choices for me so I haven't changed anything yet.  My two most used controls are ISO settings and WB settings and when I start to modify buttons I'm sure these two will be configured in. I'm coming from the Sony a77 DSLT cameras so much of the menu uses the same nomenclature and logic. After about a week of intermittent use I felt pretty much at home.

There is one other control that I find myself using when I shoot under low light. That's the switch on the back of the camera that chooses between AEL and AF/MF.  In the center of the switch is a button and when the switch is set to AF/MF you can push the button to toggle between manual focus and auto focus. When you choose manual focus turning the focusing ring of a Nex lens brings to bear both a magnification of the frame to facilitate fine focusing as well as the focus peaking indicators.  Your ability to accurately fine focus both manual lenses and what are usually AF lenses is very much enhanced. Buried in the menu is the ability to toggle or hold your switch between AF and MF. A toggle means on switch gives you one frame and then reverts to the preset configuration. Hold means it sits there on the configuration you've chosen until you hit the button again or turn the camera off and back on again.

With the inclusion of focus peaking into the Nex 7 it becomes, among the mirrorless offerings, the ultimate camera to use with legacy and current manual focus lenses from Leica to whatever. I've been using the camera extensively with several of my favorite Pen lenses and it's very easy to achieve accurate focus. Much easier for me that the process of enlarging the frame, fine focusing and then reverting to the shooting frame as on the Olympus and Panasonic cameras. The speed comes in not having to enlarge the frame but in being able to trust the focus peaking indications in the EVF. The only downside when using non-Nex lenses is the loss of image stabilization which, in the Sony Nex family, is built into the lenses.

El Arroyo corn chips.

In its basic configuration the camera is both a perfect "take anywhere" camera and a solid commercial tool. It's small size and all black treatment, with the kit lens, give the Sony Nex 7 a small and discreet profile. When I'm in the coffee shop or on the street the people that I meet and photograph seem to think it's just basic "hipster" photography and they are happy to be included, for the most part. But I've used the Nex 7 side by side with my DSLT a77 cameras and they are both equally good in getting professional quality shots of food, portraits and architecture. In fact, with an inexpensive lens adapter or one of the Sony adapters you can use most (if not all) of the Sony Alpha lenses on the Nex 7.  

The cheapest way to go with with an adapter from Rainbow or Fotodiox. These are pretty much the same product and are available for under $30. The allow you to focus right on out to infinity but you lose auto focus and automatic diaphragm control. If you use the camera in "A" it will still automatically figure out corresponding shutter speeds for you. You stop down or up up the aperture with a ring on the adapter that interfaces with the stop down lever on the Alpha lenses. It's nice not to have to buy duplicate lenses for focal lengths that you might rarely use on the Nex but which are used daily on the DSLT's. 

A pricier option for mounting Sony Alpha lenses on the Nex is the Sony LAEA-1 adapter. This unit will give you total exposure automation when using the Alpha lenses but it lacks any ability to autofocus any lenses (not usually a hassle given the value of focus peaking).  If you want full bore automation and you'd like to supplement the slower contrast detection AF of the Nex system with the aggressively fast phase detection AF of Sony's mirrored cameras you can get a Sony LAEA-2 adapter for under $300. This adapter contains a fixed pellicule mirror and the required electrical interfaces to give you full bore, fast PD autofocus with selected Sony Alpha lenses. The only lenses that won't AF with the lenses are the older lenses that use the little screw driver connection between bodies and lenses to effect AF.  It works well with the SAM lenses I've got.

But focusing on getting Sony's bigger AF lenses to work on the small body isn't nearly as cool, in my mind, as using adapters to couple weirder lenses to the elegant little black body. On my desk right now I have the camera set up with an adapter ring and an Olympus Pen 40mm 1.4 lens. It looks cool and performs very well once I've stopped it down one stop or more.  Michael Reichmann did a comparison between the Nex and the Leica M9 that's interesting.  His point? Now you have a choice of two top resolution cameras on which to mount your collection of M series lenses.  


So, if the performance of the camera was no better than similar offerings from Panasonic or Olympus then my transition to the Sony system (and this article) would be pretty much meaningless. But here's the deal, if you shoot the way I do you'll likely find the performance of the Nex 7 better. I shoot a lot of controlled stuff. I'm happy to be in control. It means I can use the sweet spots of the cameras I choose. And for the most part I'm selecting for high resolution and high sharpness with rich color and low noise.  And no matter how you slice it low ISO's and careful technique beat the image quality of most other working methods. One of the reasons I embraced and still use the Sony a77 for my portrait and food work (hell, almost all of my work) is the fact that the camera does ISO 50, 64, 80 and 100.  And if I read the charts and graphs on DXO Mark correctly the ISO's under 100 are not "pulled or faked" ISO's but provide meaningful reductions in noise with no change in dynamic range. Go look for yourself before you slavishly believe what you've read elsewhere...). 

You'll see the difference in the choices camera designers make if you put competing cameras on good tripods and make use of some of the slower shutter speeds. At ISO 100 the files from the Sony look better, in terms of color and dynamic range, that what I've seen from my old Canon 5D mk2 files at the same magnifications.

The heart of the Sony Nex 7, beyond looks and ergonomics, is that sensor. Many argue that cramming 24 megapixels into such a small space was a mistake and that Sony should have chosen a 16 megapixel sensor instead. If your overarching metric is low noise over ISO 1600 I guess I'd have to agree but if your tastes lean more to "just how good can a file be..." than I disagree. I guess different people are attracted to different cameras for a reason.

The 24 megapixel sensor in the Nex 7 is apparently the same on that sits in my a77 cameras and I find the performance in the Nex 7 to be outstanding. The noise is manageable up to 3200 and the lower ISO files are wonderful.


Lenses: This is an area where I don't have much depth of experience in the Sony Nex system. I've been told by anyone (except Trey Ratliff) who can grind out a review of the camera that the "kit" lens is unbearably bad but I haven't found that to be the case at all.  At all the middle apertures it seems sharp, well behaved and color rich. One disconnect is that camera users tend to focus on things (real photo subjects)  between 100 times the focal length of the lens and infinity and they mostly shoot three dimensional objects while lens testers tend to shoot flat, two dimensional, charts from three to five feet away... That basically means that testers and users are applying to totally different sets of demands to every lens. 

The 18-55mm is supposed to be sharp to very sharp in the center areas of the frame but is supposed to be icky in the corners and on the extreme edges. Really?  I find it convincing over most of the frame for the stuff I shoot and even at 100% enlargements (which are huge, relatively speaking, with a 24 megapixel camera) I see good detail and sharpness in the critical parts of the frame.  If you require a flat field lens you might be in the market for a macro lens. Unlike general purpose lenses they are constructed to shoot flat objects. That's why they uniformly test well in the tester world.  In his review of the camera Mr. Ratcliff seems to agree that the lens in question is in no way a "dog" of an optic...

I like the 18-55mm because it is a good universal lens but I also like it because, in black, it looks so good on the black Nex 7 body. But when I shoot portraits I have a new favorite. It's the Sony OSS 50mm 1.8. I couldn't find a black one but by this time I just don't care anymore because I like using this one so much I wouldn't want to take any chances on a different sample...

The lens is nicely sharp as opposed to "bitter" sharp. It feels like it's resolving more layers of stuff that I see on the "surface" of the files. I think of it as a portrait lens but many times I leave the house with just this one optic for the day. Some people gravitate toward wide angle lenses and some to short telephotos. I think the ones who choose wide angles have problems distilling their vision down to the essentials...(that was meant to be a joke.) I always want to get in tighter and tights.  Along the same lines one of the Pen lenses that seems to really resonate for me on the Nex 7 is the 70mm f2.  While the lens has some "old school" optical characteristics the focal length is very satisfying for portrait work.  The full 35mm frame equivalent of a 105 mm lens.

There are two things about the Nex 7 that are almost universally unloved.  One is the movie actuation button on the upper right side of the back of the body. It's mentioned everywhere. I've hit it a couple of times but it's so obvious that you've done so in the viewfinder that I can't think people are letting the movie recording go on for too long. Some have tried "fixing" the problem by glueing rubber grommets around the button to ward of their errant thumbs. I spent some time doing thumb exercises to prevent unintended thumb actuation. You'll have to find your own approach.

The second fault of the camera will most likely only resonate with people who use shoe mount flashes or need a universal hot shoe for radio triggers and the like. Here's the deal: All the current Sony cool cameras still use a Minolta hot shoe that came in to being when they launched their Maxxum AF cameras back in the 1990's. No one else uses it. No one. Sony should have changed this the minute they bought the company but sometimes Sony soldiers on with odd crap. You can still use many Sony cameras with a Sony Memory Stick. Kinda nuts. But for only $11 you can buy a Seagull branded converter  that turns your propriety Minolta/Sony hot shoe into a universal shoe. The converter has a handy lock so it doesn't slide off and it also gives you a PC plug on the side for sync cords. Remember those?  Order four or five and keep them in all your camera bags. Or reconcile yourself to the idea that you use flash with other cameras and creativity and ingenuity with the Nex 7....




Lately I've become aware of just how "last century" my way of thinking about cameras usually is. Here I am focusing manually and exposing manually even when I have in my hands a camera with enough computational power to do a lot of day to day stuff for me with a high degree of proficiency. So I let go of my control freak ways and set the camera to the dreaded "green zone." Sony calls this setting, "intelligent auto."  It takes away almost all of my decision making power. No compensation, no control over AF areas, etc. I walked around and shot stuff for about an hour yesterday afternoon just to see what the camera could do and.......I was fairly impressed. It's an alternative methodology for street shooting.  If you set the camera to use "eye start AF" the camera will start focusing the minute you bring the EVF up to your eye. The computer in the box examines hundreds of areas within the scene and makes a series of educated guesses, most of which turned out to be right. I find it very usable in good light. Where it falls down is if you need to focus on something that isn't necessarily in the center of the frame or the closest thing to the camera. 


And I figured that, while I was at it, I might as well play with and report on the various "picture effects" in the menu. The one above is called "posterized." It's pretty obvious and not one I'd use a lot. Especially not for portraits, unless I was trying to go all "Warhol."


I'm not a very organized tester so I don't even recall what this one (above ) is but it doesn't hurt my brain too much... (just figure it out; this is "pop color").


This one (above) is, of course, "toy camera." Hmmmm. Seems like we just went nuts with the vignette menu in Lens Correction...


And where would we be without "contrasty black and white."?


I skipped "soften" and "high key" but I did want to see what "retro" looked like (above).


Those settings are different from the menu called, "creative style" which includes what I would basically call "camera profiles".  We have all the usuals like, standard, vivid, neutral, portrait, landscape but there are also some called, clear, deep, light, sunset night scene, sepia, and black and white. But the one I am drawn to, as much for it's prosaic directness is "autumn leaves." Autumn Leaves does something to the camera to make it sharper, crisper and warmer in certain color areas.  Silly, but I really like it.


The real power of this camera is that it can be small, unobtrusive, and  and at the same time immensely powerful for real image making. No excuses image making. No more, "isn't this a great picture from such a tiny camera?" In the guts of the camera is an unhobbled 24 megapixel sensor that I consider to be state of the art. When the camera was tested by DXO in April they judged it to be among the top ten or eleven camera sensors they had tested to date.

If your technical and aesthetic skills are up to it the camera will match you. From ISO 100-800 it's all you might want in a digital file. I can see noise start to creep in after that but I still think it's usable up to 3200 with good results if you use noise reduction in Lightroom or PS. It will give you the flex to shoot just about anything you need, with two caveats: I wouldn't feel comfortable shooting field sports with it. The CD AF is good but when it comes to following fast action and offering some level of predicative AF I just don't think it's ready to go toe to toe with PD AF cameras like its sibling, the SLT a77.  If action runs parallel to the camera there's a lot to be said for its burst speed; it will do 10 fps for a second or so... But life on the big playing fields is too random and kinetic for the current AF tech in mirrorless (non-PD) cameras. This will all change this year as hybrid focusing system cameras hit the market. The Nikon V1 led the way in that regard.  

My second caveat is one that I don't care about but thought I would mention: If you shoot weddings you won't be impressing cousin Sheldon or uncle Frank with your shooting rig. They will most probably best you in both weight and cubic inches with their tog tools. We've stopped thinking about that in the advertising world. The machine either works or it doesn't.  

I used this camera recently on a shoot with the very art director who moved me from an Olympus E-3 to the Canon 5Dmk2 several years ago. We did a shoot and, plainly, the small, overly AA filtered, small pixel count encumbered E-3 just didn't resolve enough detail for a big output. When we shot with this little camera on the most recent shoot he was flat out impressed. 


A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of August, I took the camera out with me for a long and dusty walk. I ended up getting my sweaty hands all over the camera and I felt like it needed some more protection. Now, in the old days I always thought the little cases that fit over cameras, which were called, "Ever Ready" cases, were dorky and unnecessary. Oh judgemental me. How my point of view has changed. I went on line and started looking for a cool case, passed by the "must be gold plated" incredibly expensive Sony case and found a "no name" case on Amazon, here.

I got some sort of lightning deal price and the case came out to a whopping big $10. I love it. I keep the bottom of the case on the camera and it enhances the feel of the system. I pop the top on when I'm heading out for a long walk to give the camera some protection from the heat, dust, rain and the perspiration of its intrepid owner.  Never thought I'd own one. Now I'm thinking about getting them for all my cameras....







Last week I was a guest at the first preview of the new Mort Topfer Theater at Zachary Scott Theatre. I took along the Nex 7 and the kit lens. I was seated up in the middle of the house and I took images of some of the short previews. This one is for the upcoming show, Rag Time. I was shooting at ISO 400 and nearly or at wide open on the lens. I include this because I was happy with the 100% crop below.  You can click on any of these to see them bigger, in their own windows.


To sum up this chapter of my flowing and intermittent reviews of the Sony Nex7:

Better overall image quality than all the other digital cameras I've owned up to this point in time. Slightly better high ISO image quality than my workhorse Sony a77's.  Not a high ISO champ but certainly better than the middle of the pack. 

If I'd shot with this camera before trying the a77's I would probably have been quite happy going with two Nex 7's, a small shoebox full of lenses and nothing else. I can do and have done demanding and professional work with this camera!  I can hardly wait to see how Sony improves it.













13 comments:

Art in LA said...

Thanks for the detailed NEX-7 appraisal! I've had a NEX-3 for a couple of years now and I'm a big fan of the mirrorless revolution. The NEX-3 has become my primary go-to camera given it's light weight, big sensor and lens flexibility. I still have an Sony A700 (and smallish A55), but I'm not a fan of big, hulking cameras anymore unless I'm shooting my kids' sports.

The NEX-3 *requires* the "stinky diaper hold". However, I do find that I do a lot of old-school Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) waist-level shooting nowadays with the LCD panel flipped up ... a little more discreet when I'm out and about.

I'm almost ready to pull out my credit card for the NEX-7 since it seems perfect -- EVF, solid ergonomics. But, the cheapskate in me tells me to wear out what I have ...

My one mirrorless wish - in-body stabilization ... probably the one reason I'll keep an A55/57/65 body around.

Kyle Batson said...

I really wanted to like the NEX-7, and I still do to some extent, but it had enough problems when I had it, that I ultimately returned it. I really like the Tri-Navi system, the EVF and the sensor; I have a Sony a850 and having a 24mpx sensor in such a small body is fantastic. Ultimately, it was the eye piece that did me in. I haven't heard any other complaints about it in any other reviews, so my particular combination of nose size and brow size must be the problem. When I put the camera to my eye in a comfortable position, it was right at the limit of the eye-sensor, so the EVF and LCD would constantly blink on and off. I had to move my eye closer to get it to stop, but then the hard plastic would really dig into my eye socket. That, combined with the lack of in-body stabilization made me bring it back. I still like the system, though. As soon as they make it a bit more comfortable, and flesh out the lens system I'll give it another look. In the mean time, I really am loving my OM-D.

I also really loved playing with the 24mm Zeiss. Would love another excuse to use that lens.

Carlo Santin said...

Thanks for the detail on your experience with the camera Kirk. I'm really interested in this one. Strictly in terms of image quality, how would this sensor compare to the one in the Nikon D3200? The little Nikon is quite a bit cheaper than the Sony, I'm wondering if it provides similar output.

kirk tuck said...

I think the Nikon d3200 is capable of the same kind of performance but I have found that it needs more sharpening than the Sony. The color palette right out of camera is much different as well. A bit more muted.

AndyK said...

Autumn Leaves = B+W Redhancer ?

Steve J said...

Are there any truly bad cameras out there? My reasons for choosing a camera seldom come down to ultimate IQ (these days) as long as there is enough DR to cope with a few awkward scenes without losing the highlights and I can push the ISO when I need to as a lot of what I like shooting happens when the lighting is unpredictable.

More of concern to me is how natural the camera feels when I use it. That of course is very personal and has a lot to do with my eyesight, hand-size, previous "hand memory" and subject matter. The ability to be creative has something to do with how confident you feel which in turn means adjusting settings rapidly and with predictable results whenever you need to.

No substitute for a long test drive IMO, but that is increasingly difficult these days unless you have a well stocked bricks and mortar outlet within reach. Luckily I do which is why I am a very happy owner of an Xpro1 having had the opportunity to test just about everything else to my heart's content. But I could quite see why someone would go for an EM5 or a NEX7, and I could quite see why they would not as well.

We are so lucky to have choices, and isn't it grand that the manufacturers are now trying so many different approaches? The EM5, NEX7 and Xpro1 could not be more different in terms of controls.

Trevor M Johnson said...

The NEX-7 also has a 'lock/unlock mode' activated by pressing the front button for a couple of seconds, which prevents accidental altering of settings, for example ISO. However, this feature comes into the useful/not useful category, depending on what you are doing with the camera.

John said...

Curious to hear what you did with your Nikon V1. I bought one just after your post on it and really have fallen in love with it over the last year! I shoot primarily with Nikon D3s and D800 for work and feel so liberated with the V1 and its tiny lenses.

I've found myself asking the question you have asked on this blog many times - in terms of output quality, are the 16, 24, 36mp slrs complete and utter overkill given where most images end up?? There are absolutely clients where the large, clean and crisp files are required. But for the majority of the work I do, a D3s 12mp raw file is already more than I need.

I was shooting a PGA event in North Carolina a couple weeks back and lugged around the D3s and D800 with the 200-400mm f4 lens - a beast that produces some fabulous image quality, but with a sore neck and body. I wondered if my client, or most clients for that matter, would notice the difference if i had put my 70-200 2.8 on the V1, giving me about the same zoom range. I felt so much more nimble, flexible and creative when roaming with the V1 and not bogged down in equipment. There is an opportunity cost to the weight of the gear. The silent operation at a golf event is also a huge benefit.

I say this on this thread because for me the draw to the V1 is the smaller format system, not just the body, that comes with the smaller sensor. I sort of feel like the NEX7, with larger and heavier lenses, sort of defeats the purpose in a way? Yes, the quality is better than the V1, but aren't you back to lenses in the same size range as our slrs?

thoughts?

john

Mike Mundy said...

As long as the Sony R1 was mentioned . . .

I really disliked that camera! Thought the folding LCD screen was hokey, the JPGs were bad and the camera itself was decidedly unergonomic.

But I'm really liking my Costco-purchased E-PL1!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, I'd be curious to know your thoughts on the Zeiss 24mm

FotoEdge said...

I chose the OM-D, mainly for the built-in 5 Way Stabilizer. I do wish the EM-5 had the NEX-7's Viewfinder, Navi-Controls, Fully Adjustable LCD... but then again.. I had these wonderful Oly & Pany Lenses already... I hpe that Sony would be the one to buy Olympus, if they needed to be acquired to survive.. Both of these companies represent the future of Imaging to me. Thanks for your insights. Let's keep building on these smaller systems!

Kevin Hanson said...

Thanks for writing about your time with the camera. I can't lie, I also own it :-) The standard zoom is fine, if you know its strengths and weaknesses so when you hear people complain its because they... just don't know the sweet spots.
Two issues for me (well, three) exist.
1 - I wish the lenses were not endless focus lenses - ever tried to make a night shot, long exposure and have no clue if your focused infinity or 2m or somewhere not where you're wanting to focus? Or am I missing something?
2 - focus itself is too laggy and too unsure at times. I've set it to be what the masses suggest are its quickest settings, but it is still not near a razor for last second street shooting, candid shots... miss ratio is 50/50.
3- available lenses - I start to really really want to fly to japan HQ and challenge the person making the product development roadmap decisions.... and I'm tired of waiting for 8 months for my 24mm Zeiss... I'm in Europe and since april its been on order. Ok thats not 8 months, but my anger adds up to 8 months.
4 - ok a freebie, the menu is cockeyed put together. Luckily the combo of the backwheel and front tri navi buttons let you get to the serious things.. but that damn menu....

Otherwise, yes this is a ripper of a camera:-)

kirk tuck said...

I don't own one yet and haven't played with one. I think it's awfully pricey....