Body & Design
From the front, the NEX-7's body is dominated its large, deep handgrip, with the lens mount offset to one side to make space. With its exclusive black version of the E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS kit zoom it's an undoubtedly purposeful-looking camera, handsome even.
The back of the body sees little space wasted, with the controls clustered around the tilting screen and the electronic viewfinder placed at the top left corner. Note though that there's no conventional mode dial - as with other NEX models, this is replaced by an on-screen virtual version.
The NEX-7's build quality is excellent - the metal-shelled body feels solid with no flexing or creaks, and the handgrip is covered with a thick rubberized coating. The three control dials and most of the buttons are crafted from metal, giving a real quality feel. The overall impression is of a camera that's designed to provide as much control as possible at your fingertips, with minimal fripperies or gimmicks.
From the top it's clear just how efficiently Sony has managed to shoehorn a lot of camera into a small space. From left to right we have the electronic viewfinder, flash hot shoe (of the proprietary Sony/Minolta type), built-in pop-up flash unit, and twin top-plate dials behind the power-switch, shutter button and function navigation button. In typical NEX fashion the silver-coloured lens mount extends outwards from the front of the body, and the slimline tilting screen sits flush at the back.
Possibly the NEX-7's standout feature is its built-in electronic viewfinder. You might be forgiven for thinking that an EVF in a body this size would have to be small and low quality, but precisely the opposite is true. Sony's OLED unit is hugely impressive, even if you're used to the previously state-of-the-art units used by the likes of Panasonic and Olympus. If all you've seen before are the small, low resolution finders typically used on superzoom compacts, it'll be a revelation.
The advantages of an EVF are obvious. The NEX-7's can offer a preview of how your images will look in terms of brightness, white balance and colour rendition, as well as a truly accurate depth of field preview that's perfectly visible (if sometimes noisy) even when stopped down to very small apertures. It can also overlay a huge amount of shooting information, including a live histogram and electronic level. You can fluidly move the AF point anywhere in the frame, and engage a magnified view for accurate manual focus. Last but by no means least, in concert with the Triple-control-dial system it allows you to adjust pretty well any setting without removing the camera from your eye.
Like other EVFs, though, the NEX-7's can be difficult to see in bright sunlight, when you'll probably want to use the large clip-on eye cup. If you shoot left-eyed and use the EVF, you may well also find yourself continually cleaning the screen of nose-grease. Possibly the biggest design flaw, though, is that the proximity sensor has a very bad habit of keeping the camera 'awake' and rapidly draining the battery if you carry it over your shoulder or put it in a bag without first switching it off.
Viewfinder size and view
One figure hidden away in every SLR or ILC's spec is the size of the viewfinder (often in a format that makes comparison between competing models impossible). The size of the viewfinder is a key factor in a camera's usability - the bigger it is, the easier it is to frame and focus your shots, and the more enjoyable and involving process this is.
Because of the way viewfinders are measured (using a fixed lens, rather than a lens of equivalent magnification), you also need to take the sensor size into account, so the numbers in the diagram below are the manufacturer's specified magnifications divided by the respective 'crop factors'.
|The NEX-7's large viewfinder is comparable in size to that of a full frame SLR. This places it on a par with the built-in viewfinder of 'SLR-like' Panasonic Micro Four Thirds bodies (such as the DMC-G3), and noticeably larger than the clip-on Olympus VF-2 for the PEN series. It offers a 100% field of view, with no cropping of the preview image.|
Tilting rear screen
The NEX-7 retains essentially the same high-resolution 16:9 3" screen as the models lower in the range, which can tilt upwards 90 degrees for use as a waist-level finder, or down 40 degrees for overhead shots. This is a really nice feature, although as with all tilt-only units, it's of little use the moment you turn the camera 90 degrees to shoot in portrait format. There are also a couple more limitations with this articulation that we've noticed from using the camera; as usual these may not bother some users in the slightest. Note as well that an articulating screen with some movement limitations is still better than a fixed screen.
If there's one criticism of this screen, it's that the standard preview image is rather small, as the display area of a 3:2 image is closer to what you'd normally get from a 2.5" screen. This is compounded by Sony's utterly mystifying decision to effectively crop into this 3:2 display when shooting movies by default. Luckily a more sensible full-screen 16:9 display mode is included as a menu option.