For many reasons this isn’t a review, among them that until recently I was advancing film manually and as such don’t have a strong understanding of the DSLR/MILC/etc. market. Recent DSLRs offer a wealth of features, and alongside them a wealth of convoluted buttons and pictographs. A manual film camera has two options: aperture and shutter speed. This highly simplifies shooting for the user. Your ISO is locked in. Aperture is set through a physical dial on the lens with a giant arrow pointing at a number. Shutter speed is set through a little dial. Inside the viewfinder is a light meter. That’s all you need to understand the camera.
Playing around with an automatic film camera gets more confusing. Suddenly tiny and bizarre icons enter the picture, and you’re controlling your settings from a tiny LED readout. This is even the case for many DSLRs. You scroll a tiny wheel to set your primary setting. To change something secondary you hold an arbitrarily labeled button and scroll. To change something else you press the button once and then scroll, etc. It’s a convoluted mess that interrupts trying to take a photograph. Even though modern DSLRs have giant LCD screens to display this information, most still rely on combinations of button presses.
Sony’s NEX-7 is highly appealing for a number of reasons, among them, their “tri-navi” control scheme. It’s innovative, but it really shouldn’t be. Somehow Sony is the first manufacturer to discover how to add a third wheel to their camera’s controls. It’s a small touch, but it makes a massive difference. Between the three wheels, a user can set pretty much everything with ease. While taking a photo the three wheels set ISO, aperture, and shutter speed (or exposure compensation, depending on what mode it’s set to). There’s no mode dial, instead you hit the primary button to access a virtual one. It saves space on the camera (enough for that third wheel, I guess) and is a logical option to get out of the user’s way - you’re not likely to be changing modes with frequency. There’s a little button beside the shutter button that rotates through different control schemes. It allows for quick access to white balance settings and focus settings, thus allowing for quick adjustments rather than calling for the user to dig through menus. Overall, it’s a rather elegant scheme for a camera’s controls.
The EVF has been fairly well praised, and deservingly so. It’s certainly not on par with the clarity of an optical viewfinder, but the ability to receive a live preview of precisely how the photo will develop is perhaps a strong enough feature to argue in an EVF’s favor. It takes a bit of getting used to. Many reviews cite the NEX-7’s EVF as the best currently around, but even so, looking for the first time at a tiny screen is a little disconcerting. It’s easy to warm up to, however. There’s a manual focus assist that highlights high contrast edges, thus compensating for the lost clarity. It can sometimes be hard to view outdoors, highlights look a bit blown out, and shadows are a bit too dark, but the picture itself never retains these qualities. Aside from this, it’s a pleasure to use.
For the reasons touched upon earlier, I don’t want to go heavily into image quality, but the sensor produces some stunning results. ISOs up through 1600 are pretty usable. Beyond that, those shooting JPEG may be treated to an intensive noise reduction that makes the image look like it was printed on textured drywall. The kit lens collects a good amount of detail, but it otherwise seems to have a fairly bland character to it, be that good or bad. It’s unfortunate that Sony didn’t give the option of including their 50mm E-mount rather than the 18-55mm. The kit lens likely makes sense on more casually cameras like the NEX-C3, but it doesn’t excel enough at any focal length to have it make sense here. The 50mm has gotten far stronger reviews, though obviously the zoom lens provides more options, which is perhaps what a kit lens is provided to do. Regardless, the camera produces great looking images, and the short flange length allows for a lot of cheaper manual lenses to be adapted, which is a strong selling point given the price point of many lenses.
There are a few inconsistencies in the menu system, albeit very minor. When setting shutter speed and aperture, moving the dial left results in the on-screen virtual dial selecting the option to the left. Given that it’s a virtual representation of a dial, it would make more sense for it to represent the dial being turned, thus selecting the option to the right (more along the lines of the reversed scrolling in OS X Lion - you’re touching the trackpad, not the content, but it’s representative enough to make sense). The menu system follows the appropriate representations in other places too, which is odd. Setting the ISO is closer to a virtual representation of your physical manipulation. In other places it’s entirely different - exposure compensation has you controlling little arrow above various notches, though here controlling the arrow makes a bit more sense. Other reviews have maligned the menu system as complicated or more logical for a simpler camera, though it’s hard to see what the problem is. It’s broken up into six sections, four of which can be easily set without entering the menu. The other two are simple lists that you shouldn’t have to visit once the settings are how you want them.
There are a few quirks outside of the menu. The dedicated record button will accidentally get hit often enough to note. It’s immediately below the right wheel, which makes the button exactly where your thumb rests when you go to adjust it. It’s not a huge issue, but I’ve recorded a few seconds every other day of shooting. There’s also an automatic sensor to turn on the EVF. This works great in regular use, but it’s impossible to allow the camera to sleep while wearing it on a strap because the sensor picks up your body. Fortunately, the camera turns off and on quickly, but if you’re using autofocus it might cause issues. On a few occasions, it took the kit lens a notable amount of time to find focus after turning the camera on. It’s quick enough beyond this, but the initial focusing can take enough time to lose a shot.
Shooting with this camera is a pleasure. The body is super small and light, surprisingly so. Having to carry around a bulky DSLR is a major negative for traditional camera bodies. My last camera was heavier than my laptop - fortunately that’s not an issue here. The camera is a bit expensive beside it’s competitors, but it offers quite a lot. Beyond conventional (and more important) areas of judgement like image quality (in which the NEX-7 matches or beats those in its class, though that’s for DPReview to discuss), its control scheme, tiny and light body, allowance for old lenses, and full feature set such as mic-in and an EVF, make the NEX-7 a fantastic choice. It’s as powerful as most DSLRs and far easier to handle, and that makes this camera worth noticing.