SONY NEX-7 - One year on.

After what I think has been pretty close to a record number of days of NOT going in daylight out to shoot pictures, the sun finally came out yesterday, and I was able to use a camera and lens other than for tests or nightime shots.

All images - Sony NEX-7 16-50mm zoom lens

A while ago I gave my Camera of the year award to the Nikon D800E.  What I didn't write at the time, was that right up until the morning when I'd decided that I would announce my winner, I was seriously undecided as to whether to give it to the Nikon or the NEX-7.  In the end it was probably only the fact that I chose the Sony NEX-5n last year that meant the Nikon won.

I've had a NEX-7 for just over a year and its my longest serving camera.It also seems to be becoming my "baseline" camera. No matter what, this one stays and everything else comes and goes.

There is no doubt that it is the camera I've used the most in that last year. A variety of lenses, yes, and a lot of them manual focus with adapters, but it seems to be the one body I don't want to sell.

I seem totally unable to resist the charms of m4/3 and using my 36MP Nikon D800E is a pleasure (Or at least looking at the files is, not so sure about carrying it!) but the NEX-7 seems to be the one I keep coming back to. 

The reasons for this are simple. High performance in a small, light package with excellent handling. While its true that the pixel density of 24MP on an APS-C sensor is high, if exposed correctly, the results at low ISO's are incredibly good. The NEX-7 has metering that works for what I shoot and I rarely have problems with noisy shadows, a consequence of underexposure. There is also an excellent dynamic range and though the raw files can come out of the camera somewhat soft, they do respond well to sharpening, without creating unpleasant luminance noise, which can often be the case. 

But ultimately its that file size that works for me. 24MP is pretty much the ideal size for stock photography. Yes the 36MP files from my D800E are very nice, but I still have never sold a file that big. I am however selling a few 24MP files these days, all shot with the NEX-7. To a large extent this is still too big for most picture library purposes, its bigger than A3, so there are very few print requirements that need that size.

There are of course two major downsides to the NEX-7. The first is the restricted high ISO performance. Up to ISO 1600 its fine, but after that the images tend to get very messy. Not an issue for me, but others may want a camera that is better at this. The second is the poor lens choice, I saw a review of another camera that said there have been 14 NEX cameras but there are only 9 lenses for the system. This is being expanded, but I don't think anyone would argue that we are spoiled for choice! Yes there are 1000's of lenses that can be added via adapters, but this really does need improving. The issue for me is, and always has been a decent telephoto option. The only native AF alternatives currently are zooms. 4 different 18-200mm lenses, 3 from Sony and one from Tamron, and the 55-200mm NEX. All are OK at the longer end, but not much more than that. There is apparently a "middle telephoto" coming, whatever that is, presumably something like an 85mm. With m4/3 there are the 45mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8 lenses from Olympus plus the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 zoom, and for me this is the "hole" in the NEX lens system. So currently I'm using either of my two Voigtlander 90mm lenses - Nikon and M-mount, via adapters. And while using the NEX-7 focus peaking, they work well, AF would be nice.

Even with this major handicap, I still like the camera. I'm using the 16-50mm zoom a lot lately, which despite its flaws and the need to use pretty significant lens "correction", works well for what I shoot. The Voigtlanders provide great quality for the telephoto end and I also have the Sigma 19mm and 30mm f/2.8 lenses, both of which are excellent.

There are of course three "genuine" Zeiss lenses coming, with AF. 12mm f/2.8, 32mm f/1.8 and the 50mm f/2.8 macro, which promise much. However I hope they are better than the Zeiss badged Sony lenses, most of which I have been disappointed with. I'm quite prepared to accept I got a bad copy but the 24mm f/1.8 lens I had was the most overated lens I've ever used. Mine was only marginally better than the 18-55mm kit zoom, and at a couple of apertures actually worse. 

So how could the NEX-7 be improved? Well, a couple of thoughts spring to mind. Sony do seem to be one of the companies that do seem to respond to what people want and other manufacturers come up with. I wonder if they are going to respond to the "beefing up" of m4/3 with the OM-D and GH3. Sony don't like to miss a trick and if they see both the Olympus and Panasonic cameras selling well, will they come up with their own version? Wishful thinking on my part, but I'd love to see a battery grip for the NEX-7 successor. If it is going to have one then it needs some contacts added on the bottom of the camera. This would provide a body that has better handling for those who would like it, plus the ability to shoot all day without changing batteries. Such a system would benefit from equivalents to the 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses from Panasonic. Some more ergonomic redesigning of the body and better video options would also be an asset.

I've often wondered if the Zeiss lens announcements, which were somewhat of a surprise to me, give us a clue that the NEX system is about to go "semi-pro" or something similar. A description I'm not happy with, but you know what I mean. I can see the attractions of a GH3 competitor for Sony. It seems they like to compete in all markets and at the moment this is where they aren't competing. An RX1 type interchangeable lens camera? Well maybe, but that would take a long while to get going unless they throw money and time at it, and in the current economic situation that is probably unlikely. There is also the lens issue. How big would a standard zoom have to be to fit an RX1 sized camera? Pretty big I imagine. So if they do do it, then they would probably have to redesign anyway. But the APS-C NEX system is up and running and would be much easier to "pro up". (Another ugly term - sorry!) 

Personally I'd love to work with a system like the one I'm proposing. Sure the m4/3 equivalents are great, but those extra pixels are enticing. 

But putting all speculation aside, even in its current state I think that the NEX-7 is a fine camera. I find that reinforced every time I shoot with it, as it is easy to handle and a pleasure to use, and when I look at the results. I do constantly think when the images come up my screen, that they look great and I often wonder why I bother with anything else. For my kind of work, I saw no real advantage from the Nikon D600, and the files are just as good as what I get from m4/3 in terms of sharpness, but of course they are bigger and have more resolution. I can shoot a couple of images and stitch them together to get a 36MP file and I've even just simply upsized a few to Nikon D800 size and had them accepted by the stock agencies who sell my work. 

I once described the NEX-7 as almost the perfect camera for location and travel photographers and I've never been inclined to change my mind on that. Its not as versatile as an OM-D or GH3 but for roaming around outdoors shooting landscape and urban environments it strikes me as ideal. Whether I've still got it in another years time I can't say, and to a large extent that depends on what Sony come up with in 2013. However, even though it missed my camera of the year award by a whisker, it still picks up the Soundimageplus longevity award for 2012. Since its the only camera I've had all year, it doesn't have any competition! However that longevity is due to its usefulness to me, and I can't think of a better recommendation.

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