Some thoughts about lenses

We wouldn't normally talk much about lenses in a camera review, but the NEX-7 is no ordinary camera, and possibly the biggest conundrum facing potential buyers is what lenses to use with it. Sony's native E-mount range is, at the time of writing, relatively undeveloped compared to its Micro Four Thirds or Samsung NX competitors, consisting of just three zooms and four primes (click here for the most up-to-date list). However you can also fit Alpha mount SLR lenses using the LA-EA1 or LA-EA2 adapters - the difference being that the former offers limited autofocus capability, whereas the latter offers SLR-like performance by including a phase-detection AF module using Sony's SLT technology. Finally, you can fit a huge range of lenses designed for other camera systems using adapters.

Native E-mount lenses

Sony's native E-mount lens range consists mainly of relatively inexpensive, small maximum aperture lenses arguably more suited to the 'compact camera upgrader' market targeted by the cheaper models in the NEX range. Only the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm F1.8 ZA really matches the NEX-7's lofty ambitions, but with a price tag to match; it costs almost as much as the camera.

Aside from the 24mm the options are limited - indeed the kind of enthusiast photographer likely to be interested in the NEX-7 might well find them limiting. There are three zooms - the kit E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS, the 55-210mm F4.5-6.3 OSS telezoom, and the large and expensive video-optimised E 18-200mm F3.6-6.3 OSS superzoom. The widest option available is the tiny E 16mm F2.8 pancake, which is a useful little lens but slightly compromised optically. Meanwhile the E 30mm F3.5 Macro sits in no-man's land, being awkwardly short for a macro and too slow for an everyday walkaround 'normal'.

Arguably the most interesting option is the upcoming E 50mm F1.8 OSS, which has the distinction of being the largest-aperture optically-stabilised lens on the market. But even then we think it's shorter-than-ideal for its stated purpose as a 'portrait' lens. However fast 50mm lenses undeniably sell well for use on APS-C cameras, so maybe that's just us.

The problem with this lens set isn't necessarily image quality (although the 18-55mm kit zoom gives visibly soft results towards the edge of the frame) so much as creative potential. Without such options as a wideangle zoom or a fast 'normal' prime, the sad fact is that your ability to play with unusual perspectives or shallow depth of field is limited compared to other systems. The size of the lenses means also that, unlike Samsung NX or Micro Four Thirds, you can't walk around with a couple of pancake primes in your pocket.

The NEX-7 with three native lenses - the E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS kit zoom, the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm F1.8, and the E 30mm F3.5 macro. The system is relatively short of compact 'pancake' primes compared to Samsung NX and Micro Four Thirds.

One further point to ponder here is that, for the same price as the NEX-7 and 24mm F1.8, you can buy a top-end Micro Four Thirds body with its add-on EVF and 14mm F2.5, 20mm F1.7 and 45mm F1.8 primes - and still have change left over. So the question to be asked is whether the NEX-7 offers enough to justify this premium (something each photographer will have to answer for themselves). The NEX lens system will without doubt expand substantially over the next few years, but that doesn't help if you want to use the camera today.

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's LA-EA2 adapter 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 match. Here it's pictured on the NEX-5N with the Carl Zeiss Planar 85mm F1.4.

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; indeed the NEX-7 and LA-EA2 combined cost more than the SLT-A77, let alone the highly capable but much-cheaper A65. Indeed we have a sneaking suspicion that it exists mainly to convince wavering buyers that the NEX can be used with more than just the native E-mount lenses.

Of course if you already own a collection of A-mount lenses, then the LA-EA2 offers the undeniable attraction of being able to use them with the NEX-7 with full autofocus functionality. However one point worth bearing in mind is that you won't get any form of image stabilization (aside from a few recent Sigma zooms). Also, one of the biggest advantages of mirrorless cameras 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.

If you're prepared to forego fast autofocus, you can also use Alpha mount lenses on the older LA-EA1 adapter, which uses the camera's contrast detect AF with lenses that have built-in focus motors. However because the lenses are not designed to work with this AF system, focusing tends to be slow and hesitant - to the extent that it can easily be faster to focus manually instead.

Using 'legacy' manual focus lenses via adapters

Another option for NEX-7 owners - and potentially a very compelling one - is to use classic manual focus lenses via an adapter. The camera can use pretty well any SLR or rangefinder lens ever made, and a huge range of adapters is available for almost every imaginable lens mount. Indeed if you have a set of old manual focus SLR lenses or a cherished collection of Leica rangefinder optics, then the NEX-7 offers perhaps the most capable vehicle to date for reviving them.

If you have a collection of old lenses from a long-discontinued SLR system gathering dust in a closet, the NEX-7 will let you use them again. This also offers an inexpensive way of addressing some of the gaps in the fledgling NEX lens range. These are manual focus Olympus OM lenses, all of which can be bought for less than $100 or £100 secondhand; a 50mm F1.4, 135mm F3.5, 28mm F3.5 and 50mm F3.5 macro.

The NEX system has a couple of key advantages over other systems in this regard. The APS-C sensor means better wideangle coverage in comparison to Micro Four Thirds; a 24mm lens behaves like a semi-wide 35mm, rather than a 50mm normal. NEX cameras can also mount a wider range of lenses than Samsung NX, most notably Leica M mount rangefinder optics.

The NEX-7 also offers certain specific operational advantages for using such lenses. The built-in EVF and focus 'peaking' display make manual focus easy; the AF/MF button can also be configured to bring up one-touch magnified focus assist. Not to mention the detail potentially offered by the 24MP sensor.

It's important to realize, though, that focusing and aperture control are inevitably manually-controlled, and the existence of lens adapters on eBay for electronically-controlled lenses in no way implies that they will work sensibly. This is perhaps most obvious with Canon EF lenses, on which neither aperture control nor image stabilization will work - let alone autofocus. It's even possible to buy an adapter for Micro Four Thirds lenses, which won't work in any meaningful way at all (they can't even be focused). Caveat emptor - do your research, and if in doubt buy your adapters from a recognized manufacturer such as Novoflex. You'll pay more - probably a lot more - but should eliminate the risk of nasty surprises.

The NEX-7 can use a vast variety of lenses via appropriate adapters, from almost every camera system ever made. On the left we have a couple of inexpensive Russian M42 screw-mount lenses, the Helios 44-2 58mm F2 and Industar 50-2 50mm F3.5 pancake, both of which feature click-free aperture operation - which can be useful for video work. The NEX-7 can also act as a platform for rangefinder lenses such as the M-mount Leica Elmar 50mm F2.8. It can even accept many lenses designed for smaller formats, although with no guarantee of image quality (or even coverage) at the corners of the frame - these are still popular for experimenting with 'toy camera' effects. Here we have the Pentax 70mm F2.8 for the Auto110 SLR system, and the dirt-cheap Fujian 35mm F1.7 C-mount HDTV lens.

Overall, what this all means is that while the NEX-7 offers an excellent platform for using old lenses, or experimenting with some slightly left-field options for different image looks, the native E-mount lens range is arguably its Achilles' heel at the time of launch (although this situation will undoubtedly improve over the camera's lifetime). These gaps in the range can be filled-in using Alpha-mount lenses on the LA-EA2 adapter, and this makes perfect sense if you already own them - but less so if you're building a system from scratch.