My final, exhaustive, fawning, cynical, exuberant review of the Sony Nex-7.

When I shot with the Olympus Pen cameras I always liked the form factor but I always wished for more substantial image files. More dynamic range, more detail, and more richness. Now I understand that the OMD will satisfy those parameters to a much greater degree than my previous Pen cameras but the OMD came out after I'd already switched to Sony DSLT cameras and I decided to take a chance and test the best of Sony Nex cameras, the Nex 7.

Since there are some who might be new to my reviewing style let me state at the outset that I'm not going to give you resolution charts and I won't be trotting out a flawed understanding of physics and Nyquist frequencies. My comparisons to other cameras will be based on my personal, hands on experiences with the other cameras, not anecdotal story telling. I'm not necessarily recommending this camera or the lenses I use with it as the sole basis of your inventory with which to launch your professional imaging career. I have other cameras that I use for work and, while this one is a great imager it's not my first choice for long and busy assignments for reasons other than its imaging quality capabilities. You don't have to like what I like, in fact I prefer that everyone shun the Nex 7 so I can buy a couple more used ones. Finally, all the stuff I'm talking about in this review was purchased at retail from a local "bricks and mortar" camera store. I received absolutely nothing from Sony in return for writing this independent review, nor do I expect to get anything after the review is launched. Sorry my little paranoid friends, no quid pro quo here. I'll still have an itchy back when I've written the last word.

I'll confess at the outset that there was a learning curve that almost led me to returning the camera but after a couple of weeks pounding through the menu again and again the camera started winning me over.  For those unfamiliar with the Sony Nex 7 let me take a second a flesh out a description. It's a small, mirrorless camera with a fairly substantial grip for your right hand. Most of the camera body is quite thin and, coming from beefier cameras (even the Olympus Pens are thicker) it took me a while to come to grips, emotionally, with the idea that such a small camera could have a powerful sensor and could be stuffed full of high speed imaging processors.  

The Nex 7, like most mirror-less cameras, has a very short distance from the lens flange on the body to the imaging sensor. DSLR's (cameras with mirrors) have lenses designed for them that project the images back toward the sensor over a greater distance so that the mirror can take up space in between. Since the distance is much less in mirror-less cameras it's very easy to make adapters to use all manner of lenses originally designed for mirrored cameras. In fact, part of the popularity of the mirror-less cameras is their easy ability to accept just about any cool lens you can find that was designed for traditional mirrored cameras. 

If you own Sony DSLT cameras such as the a99, the a77, the a57, etc. you can buy a Sony adapter that will preserve the full exposure automation of the lenses while using them on the Nex 7 body. One adapter, the LAEA-2 will even give you faster, phase detection autofocus when you use it in conjunction with Sony's excellent line of DT and Alpha DSLR lenses. So, quick re-cap: mirror-less gives you the chance to use lots of really cool lenses that were designed for 35mm, conventional digital SLR cameras, Leica rangefinders and even medium format cameras, with the right adapters.

One of my early and prevailing gripes about lots of mirror-less cameras was the lack of a real viewfinder. The original Olympus Pen and a number of the Panasonic G series cameras came without integrated finders. You could use an optical finder dedicated to a single focal length or you could, in some cases, buy electronic viewfinders but most people seemed to make due with what is derisively known as "stinky-baby-diaper" hold. SBD is a learned operating flaw in which the camera operator holds the camera out at arm's length (in order to see to focus and compose) and jabs at the shutter button with his or her arms positioned to transfer the maximum amount of camera movement and shake at the moment of exposure. People learn to do this out of necessity with their cellphones and some younger proto-photographers seem unaware that there are better holding techniques available with "real cameras"  if only they had the use of a viewfinder of some sort.

In critiquing poor camera holds I am not trying to be clever or irrationally perjorative. The handheld camera is much more stable when it sits in the center of at least three anchor points. In the case of the traditional hold with the camera held up to the eye, the bend of the arms takes pressure off your shoulder muscles, each hand provides one point of a human tripod and the camera, pressed against your forehead/eye socket provides a third point of stabilization. A stabilized camera is better at resisting movement and is held with more stability which makes critical composition much easier. I think so many people use such poor technique that myriad cameras are dismissed as deficient when, in fact, it's mostly operator failure.

The Nex 7 has the state of the current art EVF. The little HD TV that lives inside the finder is lit up by LED and is 2.4 million pixels worth of information.  Yes, I think we all understand that it's not the same as an optical finder in terms of instantaneous response time and unlimited dynamic range but I would like to gently remind one and all that neither does the sensor in any camera have the same attributes as an optical finder and the EVF gives you a preview of the image in front of your camera that will much more correctly track the performance of that sensor. So, in fact, you are getting much more accurate preview imaging most of the time.

I've given in to the dark side. I have only a few film cameras left and they have optical viewfinders, everything else in my studio is now replete with an inboard EVF and I love them. When I go back to a direct, optical finder I feel cheated because I am unable to "pre-chimp" and unable to see the effects of filters, color shifts, contrast settings and so much more. In fact, I'm certain that it's only a matter of a few years until nearly all cameras come complete with electronic viewfinders. Not only for economic reasons but also because, once they become familiar, there's so much more and better information that can be used to take better photographs. To sum up, I am very happy with the new generation of Sony EVF's and plan on using EVF cameras extensively in the future. If you think you are not a candidate for this new technology borrow a Sony Nex 7 or Nex 6 or one of the DSLTs and try it out for a week. I predict that you'll fall in love with the extensive amount of information at your fingertips and the pre-visualization aid of seeing clearly the effects of your settings on the images you shoot.

So much for viewing. Let's talk about taking. 

Many people concentrate on the small size of the camera body and that is part of the charm for most. I think the charming characteristics of the Nex 7 are threefold for me. First, the 24 megapixel sensor is a game changer. When I use good technique, as opposed to random, handheld, insouciant shooting I come away with files that have enormous detail and wonderful tonality. How good is the sensor? Well, noted equipment guy, Michael Reichmann on Luminous-Landscape.com tested the Nex-7 against the Leica M9 and found the Nex-7 resolved a bit more detail. He questioned, given the strikingly similar moire patterns in the test images, whether or not the Sony Nex 7 really does have and anti-aliasing filter or if it's just a really weak one. That puts the Nex-7 in pretty rarified stratum as the Leica M9 is one of those milestone cameras when it comes to sharpness, resolution and great image files.

Many people hand hold a Nex-7 with an older legacy lens attached, get a less than stellar file and rush to blame the camera. Done correctly, with lenses like the Sony 50mm 1.8, the files are quite detailed and well rendered. Another benefit of the sensor and its implementation is the wide dynamic range measured by DXO Mark. For years the begging mantra was "give us less noise in the high ISO's." Well that seems to have been replaced with, "All I really need is great dynamic range." And so far this sensor and this camera delivers just that. So, the 24 megapixel sensor is still the highpoint for detail in the APS-C universe and it's a powerful lure. 

The second lure into the gravitation field of the Nex-7 is the ability to use an incredible range of lenses inside and outside the mirrorless universe.  It seems to be the go to camera for Leica M series lens junkies and for good reason. The newest ASPH Leica lenses perform well on this platform. I've experimented with the latest 50mm Summicron and I was impressed by the performance of the combo even at f2. I routinely use the camera with several of my favorite, older  Olympus Pen FT lenses with the 60mm 1.5 being my all time favorite.

I use the entire range of my Sony lenses for the Alpha DSLT cameras and I have never been displeased by the results. If anything the greater distance from the sensor to the mounting flange of the bigger lenses seems to give the camera some optical breathing room that makes the sensor seem even better.

The third charming characteristic will cause howls of disagreement in some circles so I guess it's subjective but I would say that the high resolution LED electronic viewfinder (EVF) is the third ingredient in the total package for me. The camera shares the attributes I've come to love about the a77 cameras: You get to "pre-chimp" everything you shoot. The amount of information presented in the finder makes the creation of most available light images remarkably straight forward. It's clean and clear and present.

So, here we have a package onto which we can graft something optically fantastic, like the Leica 35mm 1.4 ASPH, pre-chimp to our hearts' delight and burn into a state of the art sensor. What's not to like?

At the outset of the review I mentioned that I was initially stumped and dismayed by the menu. But that could easily be that I've become mentally overwhelmed by a decade of wildly different menus and wildly different interfaces across a whole panoply of digital cameras. Some far better than others. I like the menus in my a77s because they are linear and one dimensional. By that I mean that nothing extends in a vertical column that I must scroll down to see and they are linear in the sense that I can march across from left to right (the way I read) and access menus divided by somewhat coherent themes.  Not so with the Nex-7. When I accessed the menus I was confronted by six colorful and nonsensical icons. Okay, the mode icon was pretty self explanatory but the other five?  The setting menu is a good example. You go there to look for the card formatting menu but you have to go through a rotation of too many items to get there. I lose "format" geography on a regular basis. Not good if one is trying to work fast.

I'm still hazy on how to set different strengths of HDR (probably a Godsend since I'm then not tempted to use it...). I'm better with DRO but not by much.

But here's the honest reality, most of us who work with our cameras regularly probably go back and forth between two modes at the most and once we program our favorite settings into a camera we don't bounce around willy-nilly changing stuff.  I work in two ways. When I'm lazy I put the camera in "A," stop the lens down to f5.6 and use center set AF-s. That's it. I don't even use the AEL button, I use one of the Tri-Navi dials to "ride" the exposure compensation button at will. All the while pre-chimping the scenes in front of my camera and making allowances for the way I like to see stuff.

When I get serious I put the camera into the "M" mode and both the Tri-Navi dials come alive with real purpose. One controls shutter speeds while the other controls apertures. One thumb makes all the magic happen. That, and the ability to monitor so much through the EVF. I like the exposure scales along the bottom of the finder and I like being able to scroll quickly (via the DISP button) to histograms and levels, etc. In this mode I also take advantage of a little talked about Nex-7 button that actually puts me into the company of a generation of Nikon DSLR and SLR shooters. This button is just under the left most Tri-Navi dial and it is really a button inside a switch. The switch lets you choose whether the button in the center is for (AEL) exposure lock or whether the button will let you choose whether you are manually focusing or auto focusing. I always set it up as the focusing control button. And you can take it one step further and set it up to toggle between the two settings.

This is almost the same (but better!) as what my heavy duty Nikon using friends swear by. The set up their pro cameras so that the shutter button is separated from the focusing action. The focusing control is "re-mapped" to a button on the back of the camera which falls under most people's right thumbs. Hold down the button and the camera auto focuses. Let go of the button and it locks in place wherever you left it last. Focus lock with no slippage. At some point it's become second nature of my peers.

But as I mentioned I think Sony makes this control even better by letting you toggle it. You use the shutter button to AF and then hit the button on the back to toggle into manual focus. Boom. Now your focus is locked where you wanted it. Need to focus again? Hit the button again to toggle back to AF. Simple and as sure footed as a mountain goat.

There are many menu settings that I thought I would never touch which I now use routinely. When I walk around on cloudy days I switch to shooting Jpegs so I can select the black and white setting in the creative controls. When I shoot color Jpegs I find some of the creative controls to be aesthetically pleasing, like "clear" which increased contrast while making files slightly more high key and a bit "colder" feeling. But at the same time it makes them seem more crisp and delineated.

I stumbled onto one setting called "autumn leaves" and found it added a nice, warm vibrance to the few landscape images I try, in vain, to capture. I've actually used the "soft skin" setting on a few portraits and have been happy with the effect. My subject's appreciated the "assist" as well.

But the controls I use a lot are the ones that have to do with noise and dynamic range.  I like using the DRO (dynamic range optimization) control and I can generally see the results right in the finder. The control works by opening up the shadow areas. Since the Sony sensors trade off some shadow noise for resolution and dynamic range it doesn't make a lot of sense to use the DRO settings in conjunction with higher ISOs. DRO works best in situations like architectural interiors, landscapes and some still life work where you would normally be working on a tripod or at least with lower ISOs. I also use DRO in the Nex7 and the a77's when I'm shooting in bright daylight where shadows can go very deep. In almost all of these situations I'm consciously choosing to use ISO 100 or 200 for optimum quality.

It's easy for critics of the camera to pick one up, with the DRO automatic setting engaged, blaze away at ISO 3200 and then harp on noise in the shadows. The wise user understands that optimizing images by lifting shadow information (raising gain in shadow areas) is always a trade off. It's a good tradeoff in lower ISO regions when confronted with scenes that contain both bright highlights and deep shadows.  A bad tradeoff where noise is already in play.

For the most part I use my Nex 7 the way I used to use all cameras. I find it very quick and very easy to use when all controls are set to manual. With focus peaking engaged it's quick to focus and with manual exposure controls you can pan across a scene and not have shifts in exposure that are based on the changing reflectivity of the scene. With the two controls up top to give me thumb tip control of exposure settings the operation is faster than the lay out of typical DSLR cameras.

When you use manual focusing with Sony lenses in addition to getting a really great feature with focus peaking you also find that touching the focusing ring of the lens magnifies the focusing area and lets you really fine focus. Stop rotating the barrel of the lens and you go back to a full frame view.

The Nex-7 comes with a well implemented set of movie making tools including the ability to shoot at 60 fps in 1080i or 1080p. The video looks good and works well for short takes. There are reports that the camera heats up quickly during longer (over five minute) takes so this is not a substitute for people who like to video record events, speeches, etc. And there's the divide between users. Documentation video was never really the implicit design intention for this type of camera. I'm convinced the designers were looking to artists who would be making programming like two minute short programs for web use and presentations. People who use editing and create moving art. If you fall into the camp that uses video to document your kid's soccer game from beginning to end, or you are routinely being hired to record speech after speech at a dental conference this is definitely not the all purpose tool you'll want to press into service. Most of those uses are much better served by traditional video cameras.

When I pull video from the 7 into Final Cut Pro X I can do really nice things with it but it's always good to remember that all the video in still cameras intended for the consumer market is already "baked" when it comes out of the camera. That means all the settings and color are built in just like a jpeg file so your editing options when it comes to correction, tonality and sharpness are limited.  Most film makers have learned that "ugly video in camera means better video in post." What is meant by that also applies to still imaging with Jpegs. 

Experienced film makers set the controls on their cameras to reduce sharpness, contrast and saturation during the filming process. While the output from the cameras is not pretty it's also much easier to manipulate in editing. It's always easier and more effective to add contrast that to try and reduce it. It's much easier to move the sharpness up in post production but almost impossible to get rid of sharpening halos generated by in camera sharpening.  And, lower saturation looks better just about everywhere. But again, adding saturation is much easier than taking it away. I have my Sony Nex 7 set to "neutral" in the creative controls when shooting video and then I go into the neutral setting and customize it by reducing both contrast and saturation to minus one. It's much easier to end up with great files that way when you have control over post production in video.

The camera has a standard 3.5 mm stereo microphone input and the audio is good. My gripe is the same as I have with the bigger cameras in the Sony line up (excluding the new a99); there's no manual control of sound levels. This means you either get to trust that Sony did a good/great job with auto level controls or you satisfy your need for control by adding an outboard microphone mixer that can add a carrier signal to neutralize the ALC or you go one step further and just record your sound on a separate digital audio recorder and marry the sound track back to your footage in post.  I like working with the Nex in a total manual fashion when I do video but normally I reach for the a77 or a57 to do video since the cameras are larger and I can use in body IS for handheld work with any lens I choose to use.  So, the wrap up the video section: Yes, you can do very nice HD video recordings (and at a higher frame rate than most competitors) and you will have lots of control over the look and focus. The audio is good but not controllable. The run times are shorter than you might expect because of camera heating issues. This is not the camera you want to use to do a long interview in a west Texas desert in August.

There is a built in flash but I can't tell you much about it because I've never used it. Everyone who loves the Nex cameras has the same complaint when it comes to flash: The crazy people at Sony kept the proprietary shoe mount from the Konica Minolta cameras that are the ancestors of most Sony cameras. Sony cameras are the only ones that use this satanic connection point. That means you can't directly mount a standard flash to the shoe, or a standard radio trigger directly to the shoe. It also means you can't use a dedicated Sony flash on any other brand of camera.  So this is a major issue for all the people who like to attach flashes directly to their cameras.  

My bigger Sony a77's have a safety valve for professional photographers: there is a standard PC socket under one of the flaps on the side of the camera that will allow you to connect a flash with a standard sync cord. Just in case. Not so with the Nex 7. You'll have to Go Sony or get yourself an adapter. I've found an adapter I like that converts the Sony shoe into a standard, single post hot shoe that works universally with all standard flashes and triggers. It also adds a PC socket on the side for old schoolers how like to bang away with cable attached flashes. Finally, the accessory adapter gives you a place to slide in a Rode Microphone for run and gun video work. The adapters I've found are about $10 each and I ordered six from the supplier through Amazon so I'd always have one close at hand. I have three in my Think Tank Airport Security case and three in the equipment drawer. I'll probably order a couple more just in case.

Now that I've laid in a supply Sony has capitulated and started designed cameras like the Nex 6 with a hot shoe that can work with standard flashes and standard accessories. Just my luck.

While the Nex 7 uses slower (but potentially more accurate) contrast detection autofocus I haven't had much problem focusing in even dim light. You'll have trouble with large, flat areas that don't have detail to focus upon but faces and day to day objects are no real problem. Likewise, the focus is not fast enough to follow focus in sports or with fast moving children so if that's your speciality you can stop reading and go find a camera with phase detection AF. If you are a Nex 7 owner and the combination of features makes you loathe to use or even own other cameras you can always purchase Sony's LEAE-2 adapter. It gives your camera the ability to use Sony's Alpha lenses for the DSLTs, including all the Zeiss glass and long, fast lenses and it gives you phase detection AF that's as fast as that in the a77, a65 and a57 cameras. The downside is that you'll gain a translucent mirror within the adapter that will rob you of one third to one half of a stop. Some people also believe that it robs a tiny percentage of potential sharpness in the files as well. (Unless you are on a tripod and shooting under optimum conditions I don't think you will be able to see any difference in quality with or without the mirror. Just my opinion).

The way I like to use the camera when I'm trying to work faster than the contrast detection AF will allow is to use the camera in manual focusing mode and depend on the focus peaking. I used to be pretty good at fast focusing in the days of manual cameras and this is no different. It just takes a bit of practice.

No review would be complete without a discussion of battery life. At least no review of a camera with limited battery life. I assume that the new batteries in cameras like the Canon 1DX and the Nikon D4 are so stout that one rarely even thinks about battery power in those camps...

If you shoot with a Sony Nex 7 you should get used to carrying around at least one extra battery that you'll more than likely use during the course of your day. While the conservative specs rate the battery at about 400 to 450 shots that doesn't really take into consideration the amount of overall time that the finder or LCD stay on and that's where the real battery drain happens. The batteries also drain quicker in RAW than in Jpeg because the processors are working harder. Worst case scenario? Constant video use.  If I use the camera in a studio setting and I'm banging through series of portraits I can generally get 700 or 800 shots before I exhaust a battery. Walking around shooting randomly is different because you're holding the camera in a "ready state" for most of the time.

Easy fix. I found several alternate sources of batteries for the Sony. One is from Maximal Power and the other is Wasabi Power. Both of the aftermarket batteries fit well and provide at least as much power, with full power remaining indications, just like the Sony batteries. I have four batteries in all. Two Sonys, two Wasabi Power batteries and I use them interchangeably. I think expensive manufacturer's batteries are very pricey. The Sony branded batteries are nearly $50 each while the Wasabi's are something like $12 each. I've used them now for several months and have no complaints. I have a small, soft case that I drop into the bottom of my camera bag or jacket pocket with three extra batteries. That means I'm ready for the unexpected.

So, lets talk about image quality. In short, I think the Sony Nex 7 sensor is the best sensor in all of the 24 megapixel and under sensors in the APS-C or "cropped" size. I have the same sensor in the a77 and I think Sony uses different filters in front of the sensor because, with the right lenses, it seems sharper overall. Since I do have a nerdy, tech-y side I confess to having put both cameras on stout tripods and shooting them with the same lenses (via an adapter in the case of the Nex-7) and found the smaller camera to be slightly better overall.

The one trade off that I've accepted that may be different for other users is where that intersection of sensor capabilities crosses paths and creates a ven diagram of appropriate sweetness which will be different for every user. I like working with lower ISOs when I know I can wring more visual goodness out of a file that way. I'm more likely to reach for faster lenses and use them closer to wide open than I am to jack up the gain via the ISO setting. The Nex 7 sensor gives and takes. At ISO 100 it gives you the kind of dynamic range that we begged for two years ago. Really amazing dynamic range in RAW files. But dynamic range in all cameras is at the optimum wide open and then drops in a steady slope as ISO increases. I am fearless with the Nex 7 in RAW all the way up to ISO 800. Then the calculus changes and I start to change mental gears, embrace some shadow noise and think of the camera as workable to 3200. But all the way up I lose the dynamic range that was, for a while, everyone's holy grail. 

You can shoot at 3200 and be fairly happy with the results if you do good post processing noise reduction. But all of a sudden you've changed the aesthetic parameters of the camera. Not every camera does everything well. The Canon 5D mk2 outperforms this camera by a mile at 3200 and 6400 but candle hold a candle to it at 100. It all depends on what you like to shoot and how you like to shoot it.

Studio portraits with ample light? The Nex is fabulous. Exterior landscapes? Dynamic range king.  Street Photography? Loads of detail and wonderful tonalities. Reportage at night in poorly lit spaces? Not so great.

Here's the real adaptation proposition for me: This is a camera that can do amazingly high resolution photography but which is small and light to carry around. Here is a camera that can do wonderful street photography but it appears unthreatening and inconsequential.  Here is a camera that can do something your Canon or Nikon can not do, it can have one of the world's greatest Leica M optics mounted on the front and out perform even Leica's own camera for sharpness and detail. And all for around a thousand U.S. dollars.

The cons of the camera have been discussed since it's arrival but it's only fair to hit them again:

1. Slow review of taken images. (just fixed in a firmware update).

2. People often hit the movie button by accident and wasted time filming unwanted video (just fixed in a firmware update).

3. Some image quality issues with wide angle lenses. ( I personally haven't been affected by this but it has also been addressed in the firmware update).

4. Slow to focus. 

5. Not enough dedicated Nex lenses. (true. but the ability to use so many other lenses is great and it's only a matter of time before more and more lenses make their way onto the market. )

6. Fiddly and fanciful menu. (guilty).

7.  Movie length limited by overheating after five to seven minutes.

8. Short battery life. (the only way around that is a bigger camera...).

9. High ISO not as good as some competitors. (Sorry but that's a trade off...).

And here, to my mind, are the pluses:

1. The best and most useful EVF on the market.

2. The ability to use some of the very best lenses in the world today, with adapters.

3. A small, agile and well designed form factor that easy to carry all day long.

4.  A high quality video implementation (where IQ is considered).

5. One of the best sensors on the market for sharpness, sheer resolution, rich color and tonality and high dynamic range. 

6. Excellent controls for aperture preferred and manual use.

7. Very useful and well implemented focus peaking for precise and quick manual focus.

8.  Electronic first shutter for fast response and lower noise. Also lower shutter wear.

final assessment: There is no such thing as the ultimate camera or the ultimate system if you live in the real world where price, performance, usability and flexibility all mix with parameters like imaging performance. Buying and using cameras and cameras systems is as much a process of compromise and consensus as most politics. And everyone will have a different combination of features they enjoy and quirks that annoy them so there is no point to even trying to find a "winning" combination. If I lived in a world of diminished or non existent expectations I suspect I'd be happy to have any camera that works well. Regardless of its quirks, appearance or lineage.

I live in a different world that straddles several different considerations. On one hand I earn most of my living making images that I can license to end users. I am a photographer. I will continue to work as one until the market either dissolves or changes so much that what I do becomes unrecognizable or untenable. As such I handle lots of different assignments and work, with a range of tools, under different pressures and expectations than does a hobbyist.  And yet I am a hobbyist at heart. After a long week of assignments I can think of nothing more fun and fulfilling than to walk through a city with a camera in my hand, looking for something visually titillating to shoot and share.

I've worked with cameras as large as single sheet, eight inch by ten inch view cameras and everything smaller. For most of the 1980's and 1990's it was the medium format film camera and since the late 1990's every permutation of digital camera. And now, in 2012, the lines between professional and amateur cameras (and photographers) are inexorably blurring. There are no more hard and fast guidelines as to what works for work and what works for pleasure. And so we're constantly experimenting to see what works for what.

While I know I can get great files out of smaller cameras I also know that bigger batteries and bigger platforms with faster focusing can be an aid to getting quality work done on long days with fidgety subjects. That's why I used Canons big cameras and Nikons big camera in the past. But over time there's a process of distillation that I can feel happening and the Sony Nex 7 was the first ultimate shot across the collective bow.  Here is a camera that, as far as IQ is concerned, can hold it's own against nearly anything out in the market today. I'll assume that the full frame cameras with their bigger pixels hold modest advantages in overall quality but only at the margins of performance. 

By the margins of performance I mean the areas I'm not normally required to shoot. The biggest difference between "pro" full frame cameras and cameras with smaller sensors will be seen in the image quality as the ISO increases. Or the ability to create images with just the slightest sliver of sharp focus while still taking advantage of normal angles of view. But most of us shoot how we drive. We get in and go from point "A" to point "B".  We may want the performance of a Porsche or Ferrari but the reality is that we wouldn't want to drive either of those cars down the freeway at rush hour. Just wouldn't. And all the performance would be meaningless.

As a professional I've seen the vast majority of imaging work head toward the web. It's the great technical equalizer of images and in a way that's good because it means you have to have a concept and a unique point of mental focus to make images that stand out. Just being ridiculously sharp or technically perfect is essentially filtered out by the monitors the images are viewed on and the compression of web experience.  But what it really means is that in my profession I have more choices I am able to bring to bear in projects.

The Nex 7 was the shot across the bow because it basically says, "here we are, ready to go high resolution with gusto. Here was are ready to use premium glass. Here we are for $1200."  The value proposition is good. The joy of using the camera is palpable. Used correctly, in most situations it can challenge much more expensive and bulky cameras in the final display.

The bottom line for me is this: I like working with the Nex 7 and get images that are better than any I got from Canon 7D's, 60D's and other cameras in the same price range. It feels good to use. I like the EVF. It has its share of quirks and I'll work around them. It won't be my last camera but it will be the one I take out today and shoot for myself and it may be the one I shoot portraits with in Abilene Texas tomorrow. It's a good tool and it's been made better by the latest firmware.

It's quirky and a bit eccentric. That makes it a good fit for me.  

If you buy one go ahead and get the kit lens, rumors of it's mediocrity are vastly overstated (and it looks good on the camera). But whatever you do be sure to grab the Sony Nex 50mm 1.8 because it's really great. Choosing between a  Nex 6 and a  Nex 7? You're on your own. The 16 megapixel sensor in the 6 is supposed to be really good and the dials are more conventional. I've made my choice and I'll stick with the 7 for now. I'm used to the way it operates and that's half the happiness when it comes to using your camera well.  


Savoring a Sunday Commercial Shoot.

Me shooting a Nex 7 into a mirror at Caffe Medici on Congress Ave.

It's Sunday and the first really cold, wonderfully Fall like day we've seen in Austin so far. At 6 am everyone should be tucked into their warm beds, fast asleep and enjoying a temporary and happy state of short term hibernation. That would not be my fate. The alarm clock on my cellphone chirped and prodded me awake and I stumbled into the bathroom to brush my teeth and splash cold water over my face. The dog looked up from her comfortable chair across the room from my warm bed and then put her head back down with a look that said, "Too early even for dogs." She promptly went back to sleep.  We haven't turned the heater on yet but the temperature last night got all the way down to 43 degrees (f). I noticed, as I left the bedroom, that my dog still had, as a blanket, the old black sweatshirt I'd gotten up to cover her with in the middle of the night.  She seemed cozy and warm.

I padded down the long hallway and looked out the windows at the moonlit landscape. I sat in the dining room and put on my socks and shoes. Then I headed out to the studio to print off a finalized shot list for today's adventure. I didn't bother to turn on the overhead lights, a motion sensor turned on a small LED panel that illuminated the path to my desk.  After the list came off the printer I headed to the car.  I had loaded it last night. Three monolights with all the trimmings, large umbrellas, a trio of stout light stands, the old, wooden tripod and a case of cameras and lenses. Safe enough in the driveway. Safe enough behind the rock wall that divides the front yard from the street.

As I opened the door to the car and the interior lights jumped on I noticed an armadillo lumbering away from my front yard. He'd already dug enough holes looking for grubs and it was time to head back to his hidden lair. In my neighbor's front yard nine deer, from tiny spotted babies to horn bedraggled bucks, stood around eating grass and ornamental plants.

I drove off to get a cup of coffee and something to eat at Starbuck's to help me on my journey to my Sunday project; a photo shoot for a Spa out near Lake Travis. Hot whole wheat bagel with low fat cream cheese and a half caffeine, half regular grande coffee in the new and unstained cup holder of the studio Honda and I was ready to drive the curvy, four lane strand we call Bee Caves Rd.

At 7 am on the button I switched off NPR and got out of the car and stretched my legs. The cold air was so novel and bracing that I just stood and soaked it in for a few minutes, then I started to load up my little luggage trolley with equipment and headed into the Spa.

The owner was there and a cleaning person. We got to work arranging flowers and moving equipment. I set up a small studio in one of the treatment rooms and I would use a simple process green background, one light in a big 60 inch umbrella and round, silver reflector to create portraits of all the employees as they dropped by the spa all during the day. I dedicated a Sony Nex7 and the seductive 50mm 1.8 Nex lens just for that recurring task. With a Wein infra-red trigger wedged in the adapter in the hot shoe it was so easy to just pick up the whole package and shoot.  We did a dozen+ portraits over the course of the next nine hours. Just simple images for the web. I shot against the green background so the art director or I could easily drop the background out and paste in simple pastel colors and use the images on a newly designed website. We shot the portraits in between the main events.

When the art director showed up we started shooting interior scenes in earnest. I used a Sony a77, set to raw and sporting either the 16-50 2.8 Sony lens or the 10-20mm Sigma lens to create wide tableaus of the public spaces. It was past dawn by then and the soft morning light from the west trickled through the windows and curved around the furniture and flower arrangements. I used the camera on a wooden tripod so I could shoot at low ISO's and still use f5.6 or f8.  Every now and then I'd need to add some fill to an area, light up the far recessed of a hallway or spill light out of an open down. I'd grab an LED panel, one that has color temperature controls and continuously variable power control and simply place it where it was needed and visually match the colors to the existing light. Amazingly simple and elegant. A wonderfully efficient way to finish off the construction of static, architectural shots. Amazingly, the colors match very well.  I carried around two of the Fotodiox 312 AS panels I've often written about. After today's shoot I'm ordering two more and pressing them into more and more situations where I'm not at the mercy of the sheer, overwhelming power of direct sunlight. It makes shooting in interiors to easy. And fun.

After shooting half a dozen unpeopled interiors our staff and models started to show up and we proceeded with greater dispatch. We had a full dance card and I had every intention of not just checking shots off a list but of creating some art that would bring smiles to the faces of the spa owner and the members of the ad agency who would be working with my photographs.

We shot a couple getting massages. We shot them separately and together. We propped with flowers and candles and perfect little accessories. We shot people getting manicures and pedicures and facials and stuff I don't even understand.  And all the while we worked to make sure that the images we took would work in the constraints of a 16:9 format that was the template for the revolving "hero" shots on the homepage of the new website, under construction.

With the monolight in a small room for portraits the rest of our interior work was lit with one or two of the small panels. We were lucky that the Spa faces out over a golf course and indirect daylight flowed in and mixed effectively with the well designed interior light coming from interesting fixtures and well placed spots.

Late morning we headed outside onto an expansive deck and shot couples lounging, an impromptu catered lunch for five woman and lots and lots of images of the clear, deep blue Texas sky, cleared of haze and hesitation by the cold north winds that swept through only hours ago.  On the deck and under the covered portion of the deck I used powerful monolights with Varistar modifiers to fill in and bring the scenes into striking range with the radiant sunlight splashing over the backgrounds.  We worked the deck hard. We took a lot of images with variations and variations. I'll toss the ones I don't like in the edit but it's going to be a hard edit because there's so much to choose from.

I worked a with longer lenses on the patio so I could put the far backgrounds out of focus. My favorite two lenses for this kind of work were the Sony 85mm 2.8 (which is nicely sharp wide open) and the slightly shorter but equally snappy and sharp Sigma 70mm 2.8 macro.

It's never enough just to shoot the wide scenes and the establishing stuff, good coverage also calls for ample details that help give the flavor of a place. The flower arrangement on the painted, weathered chair, a plate full of macaroons and chocolate tarts,  half drunk bottles of white wine against crisp white tablecloths and the little clusters of dark grapes next to irregular shapes of chocolate on small, elegant bread plates.  They all add up to a feeling and a texture that feels like the last stages of an event you've just stumbled upon.

We break for lunch to eat and drink our morning props and consider the list of afternoon images.

Now we're back indoors shooting wide panoramas with models having their hair combed out or blow dried, LED panels pushing accents of light into the parts of the scene where I want eyes to wander. The camera's large LCD screen pre-chimping, via live view, what we'll see in the final shots.  Today I decided not to trust autofocus but to use the power of Sony's pre-chimping live view to magnify my target subjects in each set up and painstakingly set the best focus. It felt like I was wrestling back control from the machine and from the relentless inertia that pushes us to abdicate the use of our brains in this process and just depend utterly and unwittingly on the caprice of our cameras focusing systems, even though we've all been let down by them from time to time. No? Then you are either very lucky or lying your butt off.

Around 3 pm our art director left, exhausted. The lure of family and a few hours of recreation before hitting the office tomorrow called hard. The client and I soldiered on looking to augment our initial list and push for more.

At one point I knew we were both in the zone when we decided we wanted to show the spray of a shower, lit from below. Lights on the floor of the shower.  Being drenched by the powerful spray. Undaunted we put the LED panels into clear, plastic trash bags and put them, face up, on the floor of the shower, directly in the spray. The streams from the shower head were back lit and bottom lit and looked like serene science fiction. I wiped off the exterior of the bags and checked the LED panels. No harm done. We went off in search of more water features with which to tempt our LED's fates.

Finally, we done everything we could think of, had filled three eight gigabyte SD cards with images and done things with lights that most people never think of.  Around 5 pm I packed the gear into the car and headed back to the studio. The envelope with cards is locked in the filing cabinet and is in line, after two other clusters of cards, to be ingested tomorrow. I'll edit them over the course of this busy week and have a nice set of images on a Smugmug web gallery later in the week.

I was happy to work on Sunday, it opened up my schedule for a trip to Abilene this coming Tues. and Weds. The maiden long voyage (comparatively) for the new studio car. Apparently new studio cars bring their own sandwiches. Just thought I'd share a different kind of Sunday story.

Hope your week looks fun and productive. Nice to be swamped and challenged.


Oh. Oh. The Making of the first completely digital James Bond Movie.

I know not everyone will care about movie making here at the VSL blog but I am a big Ian Fleming & James Bond fan. If you like the movies you may find this great article about making the latest "Bond" film with all digital movie cameras very interesting:


Definitely not shot with consumer DSLRs but a really engaging look at how the movie industry works.

The movies generally are campy, action-y and over-produced (but incredibly fun) but the books, mostly written in the 1950's, are a whole other story. They are written with ample visual description and are now like a time machine allowing readers to see a world before our time through the eyes of a brilliant and cynical observer. Go grab an old Ian Fleming novel and lose yourself for an afternoon. Guilty pleasure but pleasure indeed.

Yes, it's true. I shoot my lamb chops on the floor.

Several years ago I was commissioned to write an article for Tribeza Magazine about four different Mexican restaurants in Austin with four vastly different approaches to that cuisine. The grande dame of both fine Mexican dining and just flat out "fine dining" is without a doubt Fonda San Miguel.  A superb restaurant with a world class art collection on display, a dining room that is world class art, and food that crosses over genres effortlessly.

While the other restaurants presented me with their variations of enchiladas and chile relleƱos the chef at Fonda San Miguel led with this plato of wonderful, delicate, moist lamb chops accompanied by a side of savory scalloped sweet potatoes. We were working in a sun drenched atrium and the floor was a perfect color complement to the food.

I like setting up lights and making a spectacle when I'm shooting.....sometimes. But there's also a time to just calm down, use what is at hand and let the subject do the talking.

Nikon D2X. 16-85mm.


Once on this Island. A studio shot.

Shot with a Hasselblad camera and a 150mm Zeiss Planar lens. Film: Agfapan 100 apx. Printed and then scanned from the print.

The thing I liked most about the images I made of this show, besides the beautiful and energy filled faces, is the way the curtains on the left and the background behind the actor on the right are rendered. I used a giant softbox with extra diffusion very close in to the actors and kept the power on that flash head as low as possible. I was shooting at f5.6 or around there. I lit the curtain with a small softbox and put the curtain far enough back so that it was lit separately from the actors. There's a third set of lights on the far background, modified by grid spots.

In my mind, at the time I was shooting this, the construction of the out of focus background elements was as important as the lighting on the main subjects.

Re-visiting the idea of the long tail. Buying valuable knowledge in an inexpensive book.

I wrote my first photography book back in 2007 and it was published in 2012. That seems to mean that the information in the book is five years old and, like cheese, it must be past its expiration date by now. But oddly, it continues to sell briskly on Amazon. I think it's because while the model numbers of the flashes and cameras and radio triggers change faster than a presidential candidates position the core stuff, the real information has hardly changed or been rendered obsolete. The basics are still the basics even though publishers are always trying to repackage the basic information with new visual candy. The book has been ranked as high as #19 on Amazon in its early days, and, for the last few days, it's been in the top 20 to 30 thousand books on Amazon.  Pretty amazing to me when I consider that there are over 8 million titles to choose from in their sales catalog.

Most interesting to me when looking last night at Amazon's tally of the four lighting books I've written is that all four of them, at that moment in time, were still in the top 100 books about photographic lighting. What this tells me is that people are looking for the concepts and details more than they are au currant illustrations. It also shows me the power of creating intellectual property with a long tail. Last year my publisher wanted to revise this book but I think it still has some legs. It's got forty five star reviews and I still get e-mails from people around the world who find the contents valuable.

I am a firm believer that books are the best value proposition for self education on the market today. They are infinitely re-readable. Unlike streaming workshops on the web one can stop and mull over a concept and then go on reading. A book will sit in the back pocket of your camera bag or on the back seat of your car and wait for you to come back to it. The batteries won't run down. You can look at illustration photographs side by side. You can pass it along. You can write notes in it. You can rip out the pages and tack them to your wall. You can share it.  And when you come back to it time and again it always seems a little different. The market and products may shift and change but the basics are more robust. All of that for the price of four or five vente mochas at Starbucks. Seems reasonable to me.

If you aren't familiar with the book above it's my stab at explaining why I thought we were destined to evolve our shooting styles from big, heavy lights to smaller, battery powered flashes and it also provides a guide of what kind of gear to buy and how to use it to your best advantage.

The Fuji X-E1 is an interesting camera.

My friend Paul and I had lunch on Tues. We are both camera-a-holics. We should both be in some sort of rehabilitation program for obsessive camera buyers. But there it is. Until someone does an intervention I count myself as incorrigibly curious and always ready to jump into the other pasture where the grass seems greener and more lush.

Niether of us own or have used the X-E1 yet but we are already putting together our basic, new systems in our heads. I have a good tolerance for zooms, especially ones with short lengths and with the word "ashperical" printed really big right inside the filter ring. Paul will naturally hold out for either the Zeiss glass that's said to be coming or, at the very least the cherry picked, single focal length lenses from Fuji.

Why are we so interested? Well, the chip and the lenses are the deal with Fuji. I've read a number of reviews of both this camera and it's older, more expensive and more problem laden big brother and while there are a bunch of nits to pick with some of the operational characteristics of the camera the universal consensus seems to be that the sensor is magnificent and that most of the lenses rise close to the top of the heap compared to what is available from everyone else. Leica excluded, of course.

The body is well styled and beautifully and simply designed. It seems like it would be a good take anywhere camera. The use of an EVF means that zooms lenses aren't an issue as regards the finder. The black finish and the black lenses harken back to the Leicas they seem bent on imitating and referencing. But mostly I think I am interested in the camera because the implied quality of performance seems to rival a Leica M9 at a price point about 1/6th or less of the price.

While I am currently infatuated and satisfied with my Nex-7 (especially after the firmware update) I can't help but wonder just how much better the overall performance of the sensor really is. And everyone with a Nex 7 is always in the waiting mode for more and better dedicated lenses from Sony.

Two things slow me down from actually putting in an order for this camera. The first is the feedback from owners who've shot both Sony Nex 7's and Olympus OMD's who have also auditioned this Fui camera. The EVF is not up to the level of quality and implementation of those cameras. I'm not sure I want to go backwards now that I have finders I really like.

The second thing that holds me back is the fact that the camera currently really has to be viewed as a Jpeg only proposition. That may change now that Adobe has raw files to work with but Fuji introduced a new RAW format with a new way of de-mosaicing the output from the sensor and it seems that the only way to consistently get good conversions is to use Fuji's slow and flawed software.  I've been down that road before with the S3 and S5 cameras and I won't load Fuji's software product onto my little computing machine again. But as I've stated, all that may change as the products mark time in the market and in the hands of third party software developers.

If you are transitioning from dinosaur DSLR cameras into a new century of photographic tools and you are ready to toss aside the heavy iron and start making images with mirrorless EVF cameras you should go into a store and check one of the X-E1's out. If they've fixed the focusing issues of the X-Pro-1 and maintained the quality of the sensor it might just be one hell of a photographic imaging device. And what they didn't get right out of the gate might be tweakable in firmware updates.

Fuji's has always made cameras and camera sensors that intrigue me and have enabled me to turn out beautiful files. And their lenses are also well regarded. I hope that these cameras are the spearhead of a whole new family of cameras from Fuji. I can hardly wait to put one through its paces.


Why I'm adding another Nex 7 to my tool box.

I've always liked the Nex-7 for silly reasons. I like the way it looks. I like the fact that it packs such a dense and information rich sensor in such a small package. I like that it actually accepts and uses my Pen FT lenses well. I like the fact that I can put just about any lens in the world on the front of it. I like the fact that I can put my collection of really good Sony Alpha lenses on the camera and keep auto aperture and even effect fast AF. But there were several downsides to the camera that kept me from joyously recommending it to friends and family. One was much web discussion about the camera's sensor having some incompatibility issues with the outer regions of wide angle lenses and another caveat was the really slow review function. The time from shooting and image until it wrote in the LCD or in the EVF seemed glacial. 

I've toyed with the idea of getting a second body because I've had really good image results from the camera and I really liked the way it handled after I got conversant with the menus and the controls. I was on the fence though since the cost of another body might make me re-think my budget for other goodies such as the a99 and the VG-900. But, on the other hand, I love to buy and use cameras in pairs. I'm sure it comes from my old film days when having a second loaded camera was like a safety net in fast moving events and having a redundant and intimately familiar back-up was a nice safety blanket. Most of use started carrying around two cameras because it was easier, during assignments, to assign one prime lens to each body rather than stopped to cap and un-cap lenses and replace other lenses back into their padded bags and pouches.

Nowadays having two identical cameras means not having to change lenses in dusty locations (that's everywhere) or not having to change lenses at all. And in an age of ultra-battery dependance a second camera that shares a battery and a charger is a bonus. I was hesitant. I liked the symmetry of two identical cameras and it's worked out well when I use my two a77 cameras together on a shooting day. But some of the issues above slowed down my purchase of a second Nex-7.

But that was before yesterday....

Yesterday I downloaded the firmware update for the Nex-7, followed the instructions, restarted my computer in the ancient 32 bit mode and did the upgrade dance. Now my Nex-7 camera slams that review into the finder almost instantaneously. The review is state of the art. And my test with the kit lens point to much improvement in the outer periphery of images taken with my kit lens at its widest focal length setting. For all the clumsy fingered the update also enables one to disable the movie button so there are no accidental triggerings to complicate one's life. For me now the camera has achieve an almost platinum level standing with me. The few gripes I have are easily rendered moot. I wished that the batteries lasted longer but then I realized I could just buy three more and not worry about it. I wished the kit lens were faster but I just started using faster primes.
Now I've shot several jobs with the Nex7 and find the image quality, especially at ISO 100 and 200 to be nothing short of superb and I think a second camera is the correct next purchase.

I'm sure someone will ask me about the upcoming Nex 6 but I'm one of the users who will gladly trade away a slight improvement in high ISO noise performance for the rich, dense information I get from the 24 megapixel sensor. And I don't relish moving away from the Tri-Navi dials now that I've learned to use them almost unconsciously. Better two slightly older cameras with the performance I really like than one new camera with its attendant new learning curve.

Yes. I know this all sounds "cult-y" but there you have it. Sometimes a camera works for you and sometimes you have to drag it kicking and screaming to do what you want. I'll take the easy path where I am seduced overtime by the totality of a camera's charms rather than dazzled by a single metric of promise.

Order one today.

Kinky Friedman. Texas writer, musician and perennial gubernatorial candidate