Using the NEX-7 / Handling

For a small camera, the NEX-7 has remarkably good handling. Perhaps what's most impressive is just how good its square, barely-shaped grip really is; you can hook your fingers comfortably around it, and carry the camera around one-handed all day without discomfort. This is a rare distinction, that's arguably only shared with the SLR-like Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 amongst its high-end mirrorless peers. It's still a small camera, though, so users with large hands may find it a little cramped - but probably much better than the majority of its competitors. However if in doubt, try before you buy (as always).

Overall, the control placement is excellent too. All of the key buttons and dials are well-placed for operation by your right hand, and it's really impressive how Sony has managed to fit so much fingertip control onto such a small camera. It's not without some annoyances, of course, but none that we'd consider close to being deal-breakers.

Overall operation and handling

Overall, the NEX-7's handling in normal use is excellent. It fits well in your hand and the controls are all positive in action. The use of three dials to control the key exposure parameters works so well that you wonder why noone's done it before on this type of camera. Indeed as a piece of hardware the NEX-7 is difficult to fault; but not for the first time with a NEX, the main irritations lie with the firmware.

The NEX-7 fits snugly in your hand, with the twin top-plate dials in easy reach of your thumb. All of the key controls - the power switch, three dials, and the shutter, navigation, AEL and movie buttons - can be readily operated even with the camera to your eye.

The NEX-7's default control settings are, to us, slightly baffling given the high-end targeting of the camera. It's difficult to see why, for example, JPEG sharpening or white balance fine-tuning should be much easier to access than flash or metering modes. But the camera's near-infinite customizability means that this shouldn't be a problem for experienced photographers who understand how to set a camera up to for their own needs. It's just odd that the out-of-box setup should be so suboptimal in terms of controlling the camera (as opposed to image processing) functions.

Configuring the NEX-7

From our earlier Control Settings page, you should hopefully have grasped two things - that unless you like tweaking JPEG parameters every shot, the NEX-7's default control options are far from optimal, but also that its immense configurability means you can almost certainly set it up to better suit your personal shooting style. So it's worth spending time working out which controls you want most-frequent access to, then set up the camera accordingly.

Of course everyone is different in their preferences, but here we summarize what we think is a sensible configuration for photographers who predominantly shoot raw and desire the best possible access to camera controls. The aim here is to place as much as possible on the triple-dial-control 'Function Settings', and remaining options on the Soft Keys. This Setup forgoes assembling a 'quick menu' and instead uses Soft Key C for Exposure Mode, which maintains consistency of operation with the non-PASM modes.

We don't pretend this will be ideal for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling to get the camera to do what you want, we think it's worth considering as a start point. One point to note, though, is that if you frequently use a custom white balance, you'll need to set one of your Function Settings options to White Balance Settings, as the Custom Settings option inexplicably doesn't let you capture a reference (grey/white card) shot.

Function Settings ( Triple-dial-control)
Custom Key Settings (Soft Keys)
Function Settings 1 Focus Settings Right Key Setting Flash Comp
Function Settings 2 Custom Settings* Soft Key B Setting Flash Mode
Function Settings 3 Not Set (or DR Settings) Soft Key C Setting Shoot Mode
Function Settings 4 Not Set  
*Custom Settings
Custom Settings 1 Metering Mode
Custom Settings 2 Autofocus Mode
Custom Settings 3 White Balance

Aside from this, there are plenty of other settings to consider changing. It's well worth running down the Settings menu and looking at such things as configuring the AEL/Focus button behaviour, turning on Auto Review, setting Wide Image to 'Full Screen' for movie recording, and enabling 'Release w/o lens' if you plan on using adapted lenses (etc).

Specific handling issues

Assuming you can set up the NEX-7 to your satisfaction, there are just a few hardware gripes to be aware of. The twin top-plate dials are identical in size and feel - this gets 10/10 for style, but means they are impossible to tell apart by touch alone. This can become problematic with the camera to your eye, as it's quite easy to change the wrong setting by accident, and not notice until it's too late. Ironically, this is most a problem with the Function Settings screens that are turned on by default but we'd choose to disable - for example in the White Balance Settings, the right dial controls blue-amber fine-tuning, making it remarkably easy to bias all of your JPEGs on the cool side.

The NEX-7's identical-twin top-plate dials are impossible to distinguish by touch alone, and therefore easily confused with the camera to your eye.

They're also quite easily knocked accidentally, so it's worth keeping an eye on your settings when you take the camera out of a bag. They can be locked by holding down the navigation button for a few seconds.
The relatively exposed record button is distinctly prone to being activated by accident. We've found ourselves recording long, boring and spurious movies on more than one occasion.
The camera won't auto power-down when the sensor beside the viewfinder eyepiece detects something in close proximity. This can keep the camera active and rapidly drain the battery when it's hanging from a shoulder strap or placed in a bag, so it's best to make a habit of using the power switch.

One further slight irritation with the NEX-7 is the way that you can't combine certain useful information on the live view display, most notably the live histogram and electronic levels. Instead, you have to cycle through screens using the DISP button. This somewhat Olympus-esque approach is however alleviated by the fact that there aren't so many useful screens to scroll through.

The live view screen settings are also separately 'sticky' for the two viewfinder displays. In other words, if you're currently using the electronic level on the rear screen and bring the camera up to your eye, it won't necessarily show the level display in the EVF, which will instead return to its previous mode. If you find you're using the EVF and LCD for different types of shooting, this distinction is welcome but it can be an irritant if you're regularly swapping back-and-forth between the two.