The strange saga of the Sony Nex 7...

I'm sure I didn't mean to do it. I was at Precision Camera and I must have tripped and fallen.  My credit card slipped out of my hand and shot across the sales floor just as one of my favorite store associates was walking by with a black and gray box.  The card landed on top of the box, hopping like water drops on hot oil, and the sales guy must of interpreted this wild gesture as a funny way to demand some new, fresh product.  By the time I picked myself up off the floor and dusted off my Costco five pocket blue jeans my sales associate already had a sale rung up and was busy suggesting additional product while convincing me to sign a liability waiver holding them harmless from my latest accident.  I must have been too stunned and bewildered to resist so I left the store with a nice plastic bag in one hand and yet another invoice in the other.  

Somehow I made it to the refuge of my favorite coffee shop (Caffe Medici actually makes really good decaffeinated cappuccinos)  and opened the bag to sort out what had just transpired. In the bag was a box with a Sony Nex 7 and a black 18-55mm kit lens.  Next to that box was a Sony 50mm 1.8 lens for the Nex system.  And, finally, at the bottom of the bag was a horribly expensive Sony InfoLithium battery for said camera.  Oh well, who am I to argue with the currents and whims of the universe? If the photo gods have thrust a package upon me it would be churlish to resist.   I headed home for the hoariest of rituals: the charging of the battery. Followed by the next most painful ritual: The rationalization to the spouse.

As you know I have been a long time proponent and user of products in the micro four thirds camera segment. I have owned Olympus EP2's and EP3's, EPL1's and EPL2's and I've both bought dedicated lenses for the system as well as adapting older, manual focus Pen lenses and Nikon Ais lenses to the system.  When I reviewed the EPL2 I went so far as to put a $5,000 Leica Summilux 35mm lens on the front for while.  I got interesting looks from the local high priests of Leica and humorous grins from the Olympus camp.  I've used the Panasonic G3 (much to the dismay of Olympus diehards) and even the GH2.

For a while I tried to isolate what it was about the Pens (other than their contrarian position in the market) that made me so excited about the system.  I liked the lightweight and small profile of the cameras.  Most of the lenses were quite good.  I really liked the electronic viewfinders.  It was a great system for walking around looking for fun stuff to shoot.  And for the first time since I joined this profession and hobby I found a plentiful supply of people who not only shared my interest and passion about the Pens but also loved to get together to shoot them, talk about them and compare notes.  In a sense, the feeling of belonging was a branch of social marketing that I find pretty specific to the Olympus Pen users.

So I thought it was very strange when, after three years of use, my passion for the cameras started to dwindle.  The Olympus OMD came out this year and has been an enormous and well deserved success.  Every time I pick one up and play with it I'm amazed at how cool that camera is.  But for some reason I could never bring myself to buy one. I could never get myself to go down the road of fleshing out a more complete and comprehensive system.  Or to put together a system that would take the place of larger cameras as my working system.  Or, to replace all the other systems with nothing but the Olympus cameras. I'd play with my friend's voluptuous black OMD, all tricked out with the grip and the new 75mm lens and I'd be seduced for the moment but as soon as I handed the camera back all the seduction faded away.  

Then it started to dawn on me.  I liked the Olympus Pen products (and I'm including the OMD in that mix) mostly because they were the first on the scene with a great electronic viewfinder and the whole idea of "pre-chimping" and having pre-shot control of everything you shoot was such a powerful concept that it became the strong core of my attraction for those cameras.  The VF-2 was always a better implementation of an EVF than anything Panasonic had come out with in the same product space.

But the whole time that I was buying and using the Pen cameras for my personal work I was also working my way through the larger DSLR systems, looking for the holy grail of industrial digital cameras for the way I work (which may be totally different than the way you work....). Up until this year I've mostly worked with Canon and Nikon systems but while I respect the image quality these cameras are capable of I was looking for a combination of that capability married to a system with a killer EVF.  Sony came along and they seem committed to an EVF future.  I took a chance and once I started working with their EVF everything else just faded.  

Recently a friend dropped a Nikon 800e by the studio and suggested that I keep it for a while and write a review about it.  I kept it for a day but every time I brought it up to my eye I remembered everything I didn't like about shooting without the amazing electronic preview and everything I really liked about the Sony SLT cameras.  At that moment it was clear to me that the pleasure I got from the Olympus Pen gear was,  in part,  a direct result of my working style with the EVF.  Now the Sonys were supplanting the Pen cameras by dint of having an even better EVF.  I realized that the whole issue of size was, for me, secondary to the way the camera actually functioned.

Once I started to use the a77 (Sony) on a day-in-day-out basis my appreciation for the new method of viewing my subjects continued to increase.  I started picking up the bigger Sony from my equipment tool case rather than a smaller m4:3 camera on those times I went out to shoot for myself.  I've gone into Precision Camera five or six times in the last month with the intention of buying an OMD but each time I played with the competing systems as well and I would leave uncommitted.  I rejected the Fuji X Pro 1 because of all the focusing issues (which I experienced first hand) and mostly because I was amazed to find that the hapless engineers at Fuji didn't provide an adjustable diopter.  I rejected the Leica M9 (the camera I really want) because I can never justify the price in a recession that's affected the art class so dramatically...  I'd already played with the Nikon 1 system and I was frustrated at not being able to buy any decent prime lenses for it.

I started playing with the Nex 7 when the shipments caught up to demand and at first I wasn't terribly interested.  The interface seemed wacky.  But over time I kept coming back again and again to play with the camera.  Finally something clicked and I understood the operating system and the interface.  The final sticks (that broke the camel's back) were the consistently good reviews across the web, coupled with the fact that you can add an adapter that will give you full, fast use of all the Sony Alpha lenses.  That, combined with the same capability that the m4:3 cameras have to use most other lenses in the market place, pushed me forward.

When I went to lunch with Ben today I started telling him all about the new camera.  He laughed. He thought I was making a joke.  When I insisted I was not joking he got very serious. His mother stepped in to assure him that his college savings account required two parent signatures for any withdrawals and he calmed down.  

It would be silly at this juncture for me to write a review of the camera.  I've only used it for several hundred frames.  I took it along with me today on a mid-afternoon walk and I was surprised at how quickly I learned the major points of the control. But I guess I should not have been too surprised as a lot of the menu implementation is the same as that in the SLT line.

Above.  A much more expensive hobby than photography...

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Sony Nex 7 let me give you a brief run down:  It's a relatively small, mirror-less camera which currently (along with the Sony a77 and a65) has the highest resolution, LED illuminated EVF on the market.  It takes dedicated Nex system lenses which are larger than the corresponding m4:3 lenses.  The camera has the same video engine as the a77 which makes it the state of the art in video for consumer cameras that do both disciplines.  And the other big feature that gets most of the headlines is the 24 megapixel APS-C sensor.  It's the same one used in the a77 but as there is no need for a mirror of any kind the Nex 7 handles ISO 3200 quite a bit better than it's rotund and mirrored cousin.

self portrait into a smudgy parking garage mirror.

The Nex 7 with kit lens is lighter than the OMD with grips and kit lens. I used the camera with the 50mm 1.8 lens all afternoon today and found the combo really nice.  If I had already made the step to the Olympus OMD I probably would not have been tempted, but there it is.

A 100% enlargement from the frame one above...

I've found a few of the downsides to the camera. Most have to do with the menu system.  Certain features only work in certain modes.  The dials are TOO configurable.  Stuff like that, mostly.  The one area in which the Olympus cameras trounce the Sony Nex 7 is in fast focus acquisition; the Sony is a slower camera to focus.  The battery life is pretty short as well. I expect I'll get right about 350-400 shots per charge once the battery has been through several more charge cycles.

The upside is that the files are incredibly sharp and detailed. And that includes all the stuff I shot today at ISO 800 (see images below in grocery store).  The image stabilization works quite well and I even channeled my friend, ATMTX, and shot some of the photographs below using the LCD finder on the back of the camera to sight and focus with. Horrors.  The camera handled everything I tried today but I really didn't push it much.  I'll know more about the camera when I've shot some studio portraits and also have done a few road trips with it.  

Are there any recent cameras on the market that can't do a great imaging job at ISO 100?

(tongue in cheek) Ahhh.  It's got those great Sony blues!

 Shot with modified "stinky baby diaper" hold.  Amazing auto ISO and IS.

Is there any modern camera that cake can't make look good?

 One of the features of the Sony Nex 7 is that it looks like a very nicely done hipster doofus point and shoot camera. I was able to shoot images inside several stores and no one batted an eye.  I loved walking around the chic grocery store/glamor bar on Sixth and Lamar snapping images of whatever caught my eye without the least hesitation.

I do think it's funny that I chose to buy the camera yesterday as it seems that Michael Johnston also handled one yesterday and mentioned it on his site today (the Online Photographer). I also think it's funny that my friend, ATMTX, wrote recently that he uses his Sony Nex 5 less and less these days in deference to his growing collection of Olympus cameras and lenses.  And one of my really good friends, Frank, seems to have found personal nirvana with his acquisition of the OMD.  We're all wired a bit differently I guess, and that's what makes this photography thing so much fun.

I put this building shot in for two reasons:  1. It shows off the  wonderfully sharp system and when blown up larger gives a good example of how well the camera and lens work.  But also, #2. A person from the UK wrote to tell me that he hates my building shots and that I live in a tiny, fly-speck of a town and I need to get out more.  This one (above) is just for him.

When I decided to move to the smaller Sony camera I made up my mind to "prune my optical equipment garden."  To that end I sold my Pen gear (all cameras with the older 12 megapixel sensors---not that earth shattering of an idea) and I am also contemplating selling off my collection of the original Pen manual focus lenses.  There was more inventory in the drawer than I remembered...  

Edit: quick on his feet, reader Corwin rescues my Pen lens collection by letting me know that there's actually a Pen FT to Sony Nex lens adapter.  I ordered one and I'll keep using the Pen lenses.  Only now I'll be able to use them with focus peaking. Major score.

Finally, the menus are much more similar between the two different Sony models I use in my work, the a77 and now the Nex7.  It's already much less confusing to go back and forth.  And I don't need to carry the manual around with me in my back pocket.  Well, I guess I'm off on a new imaging adventure. Thanks again for joining me in yet another Quixotic Quest...

I wonder if Cervantes would have been a camera collector?