Sony has announced the much leaked NEX-7 enthusiast-targeted mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. It manages to squeeze vast amounts of the A77's capabilities into a body barely bigger than the existing NEX models. It packs a 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor and 2.4M dot OLED electronic viewfinder into its magnesium alloy body and yet still finds room for a pop-up flash and Alpha hot shoe. Working samples of the NEX-7 have not been made available to the press anywhere in the world, so we have not been able to prepare a hands-on preview. However, we have seen and handled an early pre-production unit and have interrogated Sony about its operation. We have used this to prepare an overview of the camera, which we will expand to a preview when cameras with functioning firmware are available.

MSRP (Body only) $1199
(With exclusive black 18-55mm lens) $1399

Sony NEX-7 first look

When Sony introduced its brand-new range of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras in May 2010, the company was very clear about who it thought would buy the NEX-5 and its near-identical-twin NEX-3. Small cameras with APS-C sensors, we were told, would appeal to compact camera users who wanted to upgrade but would be intimidated by the bulk and perceived complexity of an SLR. The cameras were a sales success (especially in Japan), and their influence on this sector of the market has become increasingly clear, with Olympus's PEN E-PL3 paying extensive homage to their key design features, and Panasonic stripping-down its GF line from the enthusiast-friendly DMC-GF1 to the distinctly beginner-orientated DMC-GF3.

In practice, though, it wasn't just beginners buying these cameras. Many enthusiast photographers have been equally attracted to the promise of excellent image quality in a small, highly portable camera, fuelled by the ability to adapt almost any lens to fit. To its credit Sony has taken note and steadily increased the NEXs' appeal, with successive firmware updates to improve usability and add features.

Now, with the NEX-7, Sony is specifically targeting those advanced users with a camera whose key spec reads like it's come straight off an enthusiast's wishlist. First up is the new 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor, shared with the co-announced SLT-A77, that enables true 1080p60 video recording. Then there's the EVF that's been squeezed into the compact body (and also shared with the A77) - the 2.4M dot OLED unit is the highest resolution yet seen in a stills camera, and has an eye sensor for automatic switching with the rear LCD. Rounding off the additions are a built-in flash and Alpha-type hotshoe, all in a body that's about the same size as the Olympus PEN E-P3.

The NEX-7 also expands on the existing interface, adding two dials on the top plate that can be used to control a wide variety of functions, plus a conveniently-placed button beside the shutter that's used to cycle through their functions. The familiar rear dial and three 'soft' keys on the back of the camera are retained, as is the handy tilting rear LCD.

Outline view With NEX-5N overlaid

The NEX-7 uses a new shutter arrangement, with an (optional) electronic first curtain. In other words, the camera no longer has to close the shutter then open it again to start the exposure, and according to Sony this decreases shutter lag from 100ms to just 20ms. This isn't completely new technology - Canon's live view capable DSLRs have been using it since the EOS 40D of 2007 - but it's very welcome to see it implemented in this type of camera.

Further indication, if any were needed, of the NEX-7's serious intentions is provided by the co-announced Carl Zeiss-branded E 24mm F1.8 lens (also known as the SEL24F18Z). This offers a field of view equivalent to a 35mm lens on full frame, and places the NEX-7 squarely up against the likes of the Fujifilm FinePix X100 (with its fixed 23mm F2 lens), as well as the E-P3. The NEX-7 will also be sold with a black version of the standard E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS kit zoom.

Sony NEX-7 specification highlights

  • All-new 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor (shared with the SLT-A7 and A657)
  • ISO 100-16000
  • Built-in 2.4M dot OLED EVF with eye sensor
  • Electronic first-curtain shutter (cuts response time from 100ms to 20ms)
  • 'AVCHD Progressive' 1080p60 HD movie recording with built-in stereo mic
  • Tilting rear screen
  • Three-dial user interface
  • Built in flash and Alpha hotshoe
  • Infra-red remote control receiver
  • Microphone input socket

New E-mount lenses

Alongside the NEX-7 (and the updated NEX-5N), Sony has also announced three new lenses. As well as the Carl Zeiss E 24mm F1.8 mentioned above, there's an image-stabilized E 55-210mm F4.5-6.3 OSS telephoto zoom (SEL55210), and another fast prime in the shape of the E 50mm F1.8 (SEL50F18). While the latter is, in our opinion, a slightly curious focal length for a brand-new APS-C format design (we'd prefer to see a fast portrait lens in the 60-70mm range), there's no denying the fact that inexpensive 50mm primes have proven very popular with DSLR users.

Further lens options - LA-EA2 Alpha mount autofocus adapter

To further expand the range of lenses that NEX owners can use with full functionality, Sony has also announced the LA-EA2 adapter that promises fast autofocus with all existing Alpha mount lenses. This uses the company's SLT technology, with a fixed 'translucent' mirror and built-in phase detection AF sensor, plus an AF motor for 'screw-drive' lenses. Somewhat reminiscent of Leica's old 'Visoflex' system for its M-mount film rangefinders, the rather bulky housing also has its own tripod socket for use with larger lenses. The LA-EA2 includes the same 15-point AF sensor as the SLT A65 and original A55.

The Sony LA-EA2 NEX-to-SLT adapter promises fully-functioning fast phase-detection autofocus with all Alpha-mount AF lenses - something no other mirrorless system can quite match

While this certainly expands on the range of lenses accessible to NEX owners, we're not entirely convinced of its real-world practicality (especially as, at $399, it's not cheap). We have a sneaking suspicion that it only exists to show that the NEX can be used with more than the handful of native E-mount lenses, rather than being a big seller. It seems likely that most people who own a range of Alpha lenses will already have SLRs to use them on, increasingly supplemented by 'real' SLTs. And perhaps the biggest attraction of mirrorless camera over SLRs is compactness, which rather goes away when using AF lenses with such a large adapter. But for those who bought a NEX and then discovered that they really wanted an SLT after all, it could well come in handy, and we can see potential for videography.

Tri-Navi control system

The NEX-7 features three control dials. Here you can see the interface the default controls for Aperture Priority mode with Aperture Value on the left-hand dial, Exposure Comp. on the right and ISO on the rear dial.

The pre-production NEX-7 units shown to journalists (including ourselves), featured NEX-5N firmware, making it impossible to make sense of how well the NEX-7's 'Tri-Navi' three dial control system works. Given that the existing NEX interface isn't ideal for the kind of committed enthusiast photographers that the NEX-7 is aimed at, it's clear that the most important aspect of the NEX-7 is how well it's been implemented.

We have, however, discussed this interface extensively with Sony and can provide the following exclusive detail about how Tri-Navi will work:

Default 'Exposure' control settings:

The default exposure options are predefined and cannot be adjusted. No matter how many additional functions you choose to assign to the control system, these are always available.

Exposure mode: Dial 1 Dial 2 Dial 3
Program Mode Program shift Exposure compensation ISO
Aperture Priority Aperture value Exposure compensation ISO
Shutter Priority Shutter value Exposure compensation ISO
Manual exposure Shutter value Aperture value ISO

Beyond this, you can choose up to four sets of controls that can be applied to the dials (from a choice of 6). When using the camera, pressing the button on the front shoulder cycles between the sets you've selected, in the order you've specified.

Pressing the button on the front of the camera takes you away from the default, exposure settings and then cycles through up to four other sets of commands that you can assign to the three control dials.
This screen shows the function of the NEX 7's control dials in the 'D-Range' preset. Dial 1 controls the extent of DRO or HDR, Dial 2 controls exposure compensation and Dial 3 defines which of the two functions you're using.

Presets: Dial 1 Dial 2 Dial 3
Focus Focus Area Mode Move AF point left/right Move AF point up/down
White Balance Select WB preset Fine-tune WB in Amber/Blue axis Fine-tune WB in Green/Magenta axis
D-Range Extent of DRO or HDR Exposure Compensation Off/DRO/HDR
Creative Styles Select Creative Style Preset Adjust image parameter (Sharpness/
Saturation/
Contrast)
Select image parameter
(Sharpness/
Saturation/
Contrast)
Picture Effects Select Picture Effect Adjust effect parameter (where applicable) N/A
Custom Option1 Option2 Option3

The exciting option for us is the 'Custom' setting. As you might expect, this allows you to specify which function you want on each dial. There's only one Custom slot, so you can only create one personalized 'set.'

There are nine settings that can be applied to the dials and, once assigned to a dial, is removed from the list of available options for the other dials. There is also the option to assign no function to any given dial.

Available options: • Exposure compensation
• AF Mode
• ISO
• Metering Mode
• White Balance
• DRO/HDR
• Creative Style
• Picture Effect
• Quality
• Not Set

For settings that usually have multiple options (such as the different extents that can be applied to HDR and DRO), all these options are available as a long list to spin through, when assigned to a dial. This differs from their behavior when they appear as one of the presets.

Although we are not in a position to assess how well this system will work when out with the camera, taking photographs, it does sound promising. Our immediate thought was that we could assign Quality to the left dial, DRO/HDR to the right dial then Exposure Comp. to the center dial, so that it's easy to drop into JPEG-only shooting, shoot an HDR shot, then quickly flick back to Raw shooting (something we've found rather time-consuming on other Sonys).

We will, of course, write more as soon as we have a camera.