Operation and controls

The NEX-7's control layout revolves around its unique 'Triple-dial-control' system, which utilizes three control dials to operate a range of functions, and a Navigation button beside the shutter release to cycle through their various options. The other addition of note compared to other NEX models is a button on the back to control autoexposure lock or focusing, which is surrounded by a selector switch that changes its mode between the two.

The NEX-7's control systems are entirely modal - more than almost any other camera, what the buttons and dials do at any given time depends entirely on the mode you're in. Because of this the interface is highly screen-driven, with prompts and icons indicating the controls' current functions. This can take a little getting used to, but does it enable a remarkable degree of fingertip control for such a small camera, particularly when shooting with the EVF.

Most of the NEX-7s controls are also highly customisable - indeed almost bewilderingly so. This is a good thing, because the out-of-box setup is, in our opinion, some way short of optimal (for example it's much easier to change the JPEG sharpening than the flash mode). But most photographers should, with a little experimentation and study of the manual, be able to set the camera up to their liking.

Top of camera controls

The NEX-7's top plate is rather spartan, with just a few controls. It's dominated by two identical dials placed for operation by your right thumb, which together with the rear dial form what Sony calls the 'Triple-dial-control' system. The small button beside the shutter release cycles through their various functions (described more fully on the next page); holding it down for a few seconds locks the dials against accidental operation.

The power On-Off switch is handily-placed as a collar around the shutter release, like on Sony's recent DSLRs and SLTs, making it extremely quick to operate. This is a good thing because, as mentioned previously, the EVF's proximity sensor has a tendency to keep the camera 'awake', thereby draining the battery. So it's best to make a habit of using the power switch to turn the camera off (rather than relying on auto power-down).

Rear of camera controls

The NEX-7's rear controls are all clustered around the screen, and designed for operation by your right thumb. The flash button is used simply to release the small built-in unit; the playback button is beside it. Next door is the highly customisable AEL/focus button; its functions are described in more detail below. The red movie record button sits on the shoulder of the camera where it's within easy reach of your right thumb, but is also easily activated by accident. It can't be disabled or re-assigned.

Below this is is the now-familiar cluster of controls that's common across the entire NEX family, which three 'Soft Keys' whose function depends on the camera's mode. The central of these is surrounded by the rear dial/4way controller; as on previous NEXs this is one of the most successful implementations of this type of control, being positive in operation and not particularly prone to accidental operations.

The center and lower soft keys are user-customisable in the PASM modes, as is the 'right' key of the 4-way controller; all can be set to a wide range of options. Oddly though the 'down' key of the controller is permanently assigned to exposure compensation, despite the fact that the right dial always controls this anyway. As the first NEX camera with a built-in flash, this would surely have been better-assigned to control flash mode. In fact this is the first pointer to the perhaps the least-impressive aspect of the NEX-7 - the triple dial control system appears to have been simply dropped on top of the existing NEX interface with minimal integration.

Triple-control-dial exposure parameter setting

The NEX-7 is unusual among interchangeable lens cameras in having three dials to control the main exposure parameters. The interface is admirably consistent: the right dial is used to set exposure compensation, and the rear dial ISO, whenever they're available. In the PASM modes, this offers possibly the most fluid interface of any interchangeable lens camera available. The flipside is that the NEX-7 has a 'dumbed down' Intelligent Auto mode which offers no user control over exposure settings, so the dials do nothing in this mode.

Exposure Mode
Left Dial
Right Dial
Rear Dial
Program Program Shift Exp Comp ISO
Aperture Priority Aperture Exp Comp ISO
Shutter Priority Shutter Speed Exp Comp ISO
Manual Shutter Speed Aperture ISO
(3D) Sweep Panorama Sweep Direction Exp Comp Sweep Direction
Anti-Motion Blur - Exp Comp -
Intelligent Auto / Scene modes - - -

In addition, pressing the small 'navigation' button beside the shutter release cycles through a series of additional camera control options, such as focus area and white balance, which can then be changed using the dials. We'll look at this in more detail later in the review.

AEL AF/MF button options

The NEX-7's deceptively simple AEL/Focus control is in fact highly customisable, with its exact behaviour defined by no fewer than four menu options. When the switch is set to AEL the options are simple enough - it can either be set to 'Hold' (exposure is locked as long as the button is held down) or 'Toggle' (exposure is locked when it's pressed, until it's pressed again).

Menu Section
AEL options
Setup (Shooting Settings) AEL  • Hold
 • Toggle
AF/MF options
Camera AF/MF select  • Autofocus
 • Direct Manual Focus
 • Manual Focus
Setup (Main Settings) Custom Key Settings
AF/MF button
 • AF/MF control
 • MF Assist
 • Focus Settings
Setup (Shooting Settings) AF/MF Control  • Hold
 • Toggle

When the switch is set to AF/MF things are more complicated, as the settings interact. In something of an 'Easter Egg' that's not entirely obvious from the manual, if you set the right combination of options the button can be persuaded to act as 'AF ON'. This provides a separation between autofocus and the shutter release that many serious photographers find useful:

AF/MF Button
AF/MF Control
AF/MF Select
Button Function

AF/MF control

 • Autofocus
 • Direct Manual Focus
- Switches to MF while held down
 • Manual Focus - AF on
 Toggle (Any) - Toggles between AF and MF

Meanwhile, photographers planning to shoot extensively with legacy manual focus lenses via adapters may well find it useful to assign the button to directly engage MF assist, i.e. one-touch magnification of the live view display for more accurate focusing. It's particularly well-placed for this when shooting with the EVF - to the extent that we'd love to see Sony configure it for one-touch MF assist whenever the camera can't detect a native or Alpha lens.

'Dumbed down' Intelligent Auto mode

One slightly surprising change in the NEX-7 is its implementation of Intelligent Auto. Other NEX models allow indirect aperture control via Sony's 'Background Defocus' control, which on the whole we like, despite having concerns about its detailed implementation. With the NEX-7, Sony has sidestepped these criticisms by leaving the feature off completely.

What this means is that you can no longer influence exposure parameters in Intelligent Auto at all. You do get access to some basic camera options - focus, flash and drive modes, for example - but have to accept the camera's chosen white balance, shutter speed, aperture and ISO. The latter is especialy frustrating, as it's limited to a maximum of 1600, wasting the large sensor's higher ISO capabilities. You also end up with three dials that do absolutely nothing, plus a couple of buttons whose sole function is to trigger an error message saying that they do nothing.

We can understand Sony's logic here: the NEX-7's primary user is likely to an experienced photographer, and the Auto mode allows them to hand the camera to photographically less-savvy friends and family, and still expect good results. But it reinforces the idea that lower-end models such as the 5N and C3 are distinctly better choices for less-technical users who might appreciate the results-orientated interface.

Auto ISO limitations

One disappointing aspect of the NEX-7 is that Auto ISO is limited to 1600, just as it was on the original NEX-5 and -3. There's no option to change this, which somewhat negates the point of having a large sensor. This is particularly annoying in Intelligent Auto mode, which only offers Auto ISO.

Auto ISO will maintain a minimum shutter speed of 1/60 sec or 1/(2x focal length), whichever is faster - this is fairly conservative, and should minimise any effects of camera shake or (moderate) subject movement. It's available in P, A, and S modes, but not in Manual (which will default to ISO 100 instead).