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Feature Articles

Hands-on: Sony Alpha NEX-7

By Ng Chong Seng & Alvin Soon - 31 Oct 2011

Hands-on: Sony Alpha NEX-7

The Professional NEX

The success of the first NEX cameras (in particular, NEX-5) has posed a problem for Sony (albeit a good problem): enthusiasts had since been clamoring for a more advanced NEX. They wanted a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera that’s not designed to be a backup or secondary camera, but one that can truly replace their DSLRs.

Sony Alpha NEX-7: The most anticipated camera of 2011?

In August this year, Sony announced the NEX-7, and its specs caught many (even loyalists from other camps) by surprise. In fact, it isn’t a hyperbole to call the NEX-7 the compact version of the A77 SLT (single lens translucent) camera, for the NEX-7 shares many features with its much bigger cousin. One of the first questions asked by many at the time was: “How did Sony pack so much into such a small camera?”

So what exactly does the NEX-7 have that caused it to get more preorders* than the rest of the SLT and NEX cameras on Amazon U.S.? Here’s a list of its key features:

  • 24.3-megapixel APS-C 'Exmor' CMOS sensor (same as A77)
  • XGA OLED viewfinder (same as A77)
  • 1920 x 1080 video recording at 25p and 50p using AVCHD Progressive with full manual control (same as A77)
  • Tri-Navi navigation system
  • Up to ISO 16000
  • 0.02 second release time lag (via an electronic front curtain shutter)
  • Tracking Focus function
  • 10fps continuous shooting speed (Speed Priority mode)
  • Built-in flash & accessory shoe
  • 3.0-inch, 921K-dot, 2-way tilt LCD
  • Lens compensation: peripheral shading, chromatic aberration, and distortion
  • AF micro adjustment
  • Magnesium alloy body

(*As a result of the terrible flooding in Thailand, production activities in some of Sony's manufacturing plants have stopped, and the company has announced the delay of some of its products. The cameras affected include the new NEX-7, NEX-5N, NEX-C3, and SLT-A65.)

Hands-on Video

We've had the NEX-7 for a while now, and we've prepared a video to walk you through some of its features. If a picture is worth a thousand words, we hope this video is worth a million.

As the new Tri-Navi system is the most intriguing aspect of the NEX-7, and one that could make or break the user experience, we'll spend a bit more time detailing its implementation and our experience with it below.


Tri-Navi Control Navigation System

Remember that the NEX-3 and NEX-5 were knocked for their cumbersome UI? Due to the scarcity of controls on the bodies, users often found themselves having to delve deep into the menus just to change a shooting setting. Sony subsequently released a firmware that allowed users to customize the functions of the central and lower unmarked buttons. On the NEX-C3 and 5N, Sony has made even more keys unmarked and customizable; five functions can also be tagged to the central key. But Sony must have felt that this implementation wouldn’t find favor among the advanced target audience of the NEX-7, who are used to dual control dials on their DSLRs. So Sony went back to the drawing board, and the result is the Tri-Navi control system. A few hardware controls are involved: two dials at the top of the camera, the rear scroll wheel, and a button beside the shutter release button.

So how does it work? By default, if you’re under P, A, or S mode, the left dial will control program shift, aperture, and shutter speed respectively. The right dial under all three modes governs exposure compensation, and the rear control wheel the ISO. When you’re in M mode, the control wheel still controls the ISO, but the left and right dials control shutter speed and aperture respectively.

To use the Tri-Navi system to its fullest would require the use of another unmarked button beside the shutter release button; Sony calls it the Navigation button. Pressing this button repeatedly will cycle through four more groups of settings: Focus, White Balance, D-Range, and Creative Style. And as you’d expect, the three dials will take on different functions under each category. There are two more categories that you can choose to replace any of the four mentioned above (except the Exposure category), namely Picture Effects and Custom. The latter is the most interesting: you can assign parameters to the three dials from a list of alternatives that includes exposure compensation, ISO, metering mode and white balance. And lest we forget, the categories can be customized to appear in any order.

We’ve prepared a table below that lists down the functions of the dials under each category.

Sony Alpha NEX-7 Tri-Navi System
Tri-Navi Category Mode Control Dial L Control Dial R Control Wheel
Exposure P Mode Program Shift Exposure Compensation ISO
A Mode Aperture
S Mode Shutter Speed
M Mode Shutter Speed Aperture
iAuto / Scene --
(No Function)
(No Function)
(No Function)
Anti Motion Blur --
(No Function)
Exposure Compensation --
(No Function)
Sweep Panorama Sweep Direction (Right / Down / Left / Up) Exposure Compensation Sweep Direction (Right / Down / Left / Up)
3D Sweep Panorama Sweep Direction (Right / Left) Exposure Compensation Sweep Direction (Right / Left)
Focus AF Mode AF Area Focusing Area (Horizontal) Focusing Area (Vertical)
MF Mode Enlarge Area (Vertical) Enlarge Area (Horizontal) Enlarge Area (Vertical)
White Balance  - WB Mode Amber-blue Color Tone Green-magenta Color Tone
D-Range - DRO / HDR Level Exposure Compensation Off / DRO / HDR
 Creative Style - Image Style Adjust Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness Contrast / Saturation / Sharpness
Picture Effect - Effect Mode Option Adjustment --
(No Function)
Custom - Assign any of the following to the dials/wheel: Exposure Compensation, Autofocus Mode, ISO, Metering Mode, White Balance, DRO/Auto HDR, Creative Style, Picture Effect, Quality, Not Set.

So, does it work? For the most part, yes. It did take us a day or two of extensive use to get used to it; but that’s no fault of the Tri-Navi system. Because we are seasoned DSLR users, whenever we rotated a dial on top of the NEX-7, we would instinctively glance to see what position we’ve turned the dial to. But there’s no need to do that, since the dials are unmarked! Instead, we should be looking at the indicators on the LCD screen or the OLED viewfinder. But once we’ve used the camera for a while, muscle memory took over, and we were soon switching modes as fast as we’d have on our DSLRs. And since old habits die hard, we put the Custom category right at the very top, and had DRO/Auto HDR and Quality (to jump quickly between JPEG and RAW modes) assigned to the top two dials, and ISO to the rear dial. In fact, because we just wanted to switch quickly between the default Exposure and the Custom categories, we actually turned off the other categories; this saved us time of having to cycle through unwanted settings. Of course, this is just one way of using the Tri-Navi system; there are almost countless permutations depending on your shooting style.

Tri-Navi Custom Settings Suggestion
Suggestion Control Dial L Control Dial R Control Wheel
Custom DRO / Auto HDR Quality ISO