Is this the MILC we’ve been waiting for?
see also: To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade: Sony NEX-5N vs NEX-7
Time to come clean: I don’t currently own a digital camera. After (strategically) selling my DSLR last year, I’ve been shooting film whenever I’m out and about, and rent or borrow from friends whenever I need something heavy duty for a specific shoot.
It’s not that I don’t want one, it’s just that I could sense that the time was approaching when a serious mirrorless street camera would emerge to meet my everyday shooting needs, or a new full-frame would arrive. Whichever came first, I’d buy it. I needed a combination of full manual control, top-tier image quality even in low light, and something that succeeded as much in video as photography, since I do both pretty much equally. I thought that camera would be the Fuji X100, but it wasn’t quite for me when I had a chance to test it last Spring. Despite its elegant design and innovative features, it had some drawbacks I felt I couldn’t live with, especially in the video department.
With each new announcement I waited for that perfect feature set for my needs. The aging EP-3 sensor, the low-light problems of photos out of the GH2, the layout limitations of the NEX-5, all were deal-breakers for me.
When the long-rumored Sony NEX-7 was announced in August, I was elated. Could this be the camera I’d been waiting for to lure me back to the digital world? At least on paper, it sounded like a serious contender. With the same 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor shared with the A77, high resolution OLED EVF also shared with the A77, 100-16000 ISO, 1080P video recording at both 24 and 60fps in AVCHD 2.0 (a first for a stills camera), 10fps shooting, mic input, built-in flash and Alpha hotshoe, and an innovative three dial manual control interface, this sounded more like a flagship APS-C DSLR than a MILC half its size.
I was lucky enough to get hold of a pre-production model from Sony to use over the weekend (as well as the NEX-5N and A77, with writeups forthcoming), and got a chance to find out if this was indeed the camera I’d been waiting for. Because the image processing and firmware were not finalized, I was asked not to show any samples I took with the NEX-7, so I will only discuss ergonomics and overall user experience.
I’ll get right to it: the NEX-7 is a revolutionary leap forward in the race to put compact interchangeable lens cameras in the hands of serious photographers. It is the first uncompromised alternative to enthusiast and semi-pro DSLRs whose price point it shares, and could conceivably be a first camera for serious enthusiasts and pros, rather than a second, carry-everywhere addition to their existing system.
Ergonomics and Build
Everything about the physical experience of the camera feels polished and thought-out, and I had no major design complaints. The build quality is amazing and the camera feels great in the hands: like the X100 it feels like anything smaller and you’d feel cramped. The spacing and size of the buttons, rubberized grip, and satisfying clicks of the control dials, all felt like intentional and elegant solutions given the limited space available. I felt like one more function button could have been included in the bottom right below the scroll wheel. With the lenses all rather bulky relative to the body, making it somewhat front-heavy, you’ll probably find yourself carrying it by the lens with your left hand. This gives it a feeling of added protection, and is surprisingly comfortable and natural. The L-shape created by the lens makes it unfortunately difficult to maneuver in and out of a jacket pocket, so you’ll probably find yourself carrying it by hand or with a strap.
The absolute genius of the camera, and I’d love to shake the person’s hand who thought this up, is the blank slate of the Tri-Navi system. Whoever came up with this, Sony, just make them the boss, because they know what’s up. Without labels, the three dials can, with the touch of the front function button next to the shutter, cycle through a range of roles, from the default aperture/shutter/ISO controls to white white balance and focus control, and one customizable slot where you can assign your own controls (I’m hoping in the final firmware there will be more custom options). It also got me thinking, why don’t more cameras have a three dial system. You’re either a fan of Canon’s rear circle dial combined with front top dial, or Nikon’s thumb and forefinger grip placement, but it would be great to have all three. But I digress…
You know the system is intuitive if you can be up and running in minutes, without a manual, and that’s exactly what I found. After a ten block walk through midtown fiddling with the controls, I felt comfortable shooting in full-manual mode, and had a pretty good idea how most everything worked and where to find parameters not directly accessible by function buttons in the straightforward menu system. Note: the first thing I had to do is turn off the help guide, which immediately gives you a pop-up explanation of whatever your hovering over in the menu. It was incredibly annoying, and not fit for a pro-geared camera… we don’t need to know what white balance is.
Two Technologies Finally Ready for Prime Time
The physical interface is complemented by the maturation of key technologies, heretofore simply outmatched by their DSLR counterparts, entering, if not perfect parity, close to it. I’m talking here specifically about the convergence of significantly fast and accurate contrast detect Autofocus technology, as well as the crystal clear and bright 2.4 million dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder.
First, thanks to a release time lag of just .02 seconds (the world’s fastest, according to Sony), and a new image processor, the autofocus times and accuracy are practically at phase detection AF quality. Secondly, while the EVF on the pre-production unit was not finalized, I was told the A77 was the exact same, and that was incredibly good, so sharp and detailed you could be forgiven for forgetting it’s digital. It’s such a unique experience to look through it, that I loved to hand it to people and tell them to hold it up to their eye, just to see their expression of delight and surprise. It’s the first time I felt an EVF doesn’t compromise on necessary clarity, and the refresh rate is sufficient that it doesn’t lag in low-light, all while offering the benefits of real-time feedback on major camera functions. Of course, nothing is as accurate as looking through a bright, full-frame (or medium format) optical viewfinder, but this was close enough that the added benefits a live histogram and the the ability to use two forms of critical focus assist, in the form of manual focus instant zoom and peaking, while keeping your eye at the viewfinder made up for it.
While the field is crowded, I personally was looking for a small package with the largest sensor possible, which for me meant ruling out Micro Four Thirds (though I almost broke down with the GH2 and its incredible video capabilities). And while the Samsung NX200 has a lot of nice touches, it’s video capabilities weren’t up to snuff.
Probably the NEX-7′s biggest competition is the FujiFilm X100, which has several advantages. Whatever engineering black magic was required to create a 23mm f/2.0 smaller than any interchangeable MILC pancake lens out there, and many times smaller than the Zeiss E-Mount 24mm f/1.8 singlehandedly gives it gobs of bonus points. The hybrid EVF/OVF is a stroke of genius. Also, though the NEX-7 is no slob, the X100’s retro styling still causes my heart to quicken. But for all its triumphant coups and progressive flourishes upon its release last Spring, the X100 still feels like a first generation experiment. From its finicky rear dial, which seems to require tweezers to operate, to its useless manual focus to its labyrinthine menu system, the X100 feels like a work in progress. I eagerly await its successor (as well as the rumored MILC, if that’s really in the works), but at the moment, the NEX-7 feels like the more refined solution (though keep in mind, the X100 costs the same for body and lens as the NEX-7 body only).
Next Steps for Sony
The achilles heel of the NEX line is the woeful lack of lenses. First priority for Sony should be filling out its E-Mount lens range.
The first mover advantage of the Micro Four Thirds system has produced a surprisingly mature lens family. Of course, the advantage of these mirrorless systems is the short flange back distance enables couplings with pretty much any lens system (imagine the NEX-7 with that diminutive Leica glass.. a guy can dream, right?). I tried the Novoflex F-Mount adapter, which worked great, and Sony’s own LA-EA2 NEX-to-SLT adapter, which works as promised, allowing full Phase Detect AF on the NEX series cameras, but this only makes sense if you’re already invested in the Sony system. But adaptors will remain niche (probably ideal for filmmakers), and most customers will demand capable, autofocus compatible native lenses. The 16mm pancake is a start, but I’d love to see a range of pancake primes, especially a truly compact 24mm (the Zeiss 24 f/1.8, while awesome, is simply too bulky for a jacket pocket camera) to truly realize the discreteness potential of the the small body.
With the NEX-7, Sony not only makes almost no mistakes (besides the arguably overindulgent megapixel count), it brings a perfectly implemented and radical new approach to manual control on a small body that is incredibly well-conceived. This is the most compelling offering yet among MILCs for demanding photographers looking for the sweet spot of portability, image quality, customizability, performance, and straightforward control.
Nathan Lee Bush is a fashion and fine art photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his site and blog.