The NEX-7's highly-modal control system, in which the functions of the buttons and dials changes depending on what you're doing, results in a highly screen-driven interface. The rear LCD display offers a range of choices with more or less information (and therefore clutter) overlaid on the preview image, and the option of larger font sizes that will be appreciated by photographers whose close vision isn't what it once was.

Record mode displays - LCD

The NEX-7 offers a choice of 8 different display modes on the rear LCD when you're shooting stills, which are cycled through using the DISP button. Not all are engaged by default, and you can choose which you you want to use from the Custom menu. Icons on the screen offer reminders of the functions that the dials and soft keys currently control.

In three of these view modes (basic exposure info, level gauge, and live histogram) the icons for the top-plate dials disappear a couple of seconds after turning the camera on, pressing the DISP button or taking a picture, and don't come back until you've captured another shot. This offers a cleaner view for easier composition.

This is the basic information screen, which offers an uncluttered view for composition. Here the function reminder icons for the top plate dials have disappeared from the display, as they do after a couple of seconds of inactivity.
Half-press the shutter to autofocus, and the camera will light up the active focus points in green. Rather pointlessly the button and dial hints disappear from the black area bordering the live view display, while all of the overlaid information stays in place.
This screen displays shutter speed and aperture scales, with small icons at each end hinting at their effects on the final image. Two 'needles' move across the scales to indicate the current settings. It's not a display we consider especially helpful.
Here we have the live view display overlaid with comprehensive shooting information - including your 'smile shutter' and 'soft skin' preferences. It's very useful for checking your detailed settings, but somewhat 'busy' and distracting for composition. You'll also need to study the manual closely to decipher what all those tiny icons mean.
This screen displays the key exposure information using a larger, more-visible font. All of this information says visible all of the time.
This is the NEX-7's 'Live View Priority' display, which keeps the preview image completely clear of overlaid information aside from the AF point. However, it never tells you what any of the buttons and dials currently do.

You can also engage an extremely useful 2-axis electronic level gauge, which displays left/right roll and up/down tilt. The orange indicators turn green when the camera is level.

This is another display mode in which the dial function indicators disappear after a couple of seconds.

Alternatively you can view a small live histogram to help judge the optimal exposure settings. In a marked improvement over other NEXs, the histogram stays visible if you adjust exposure compensation using the right dial.

Again, though, the dial function indicators only show briefly in this display mode.
New on the NEX-7 is this status display panel, designed for photographers who primarily shoot using the electronic viewfinder rather than the rear LCD. This shows all the key shooting information, but unlike many other cameras you can't 'activate' this display to change the settings.

Record mode displays - EVF

The NEX-7 has three display modes when shooting with the EVF - basic exposure information, live histogram and electronic levels - broadly similar to those shown above. However the way information is displayed is different, because the EVF has a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 16:9. This means that the exposure data - shutter speed, aperture, ISO etc - is displayed on black bars above and below the live view display, leaving it relatively 'clean' for easier composition. If anything, this works better than the rear screen displays.

Gridline displays

The NEX-7 allows you to overlay gridlines to aid composition, set via the Custom menu. The lines are displayed in all live view display modes, both in the EVF and on the LCD. They also show up during Auto Review, allowing you to double-check your picture's geometry.

The NEX-7 offers a choice of overlaid gridlines: rule of thirds, squares, or squares with diagonals. These also have small 16:9 corner marks, which are useful to help judge composition when preparing to record a movie.

Exposure simulation and full-time depth of field preview

By default the NEX-7 is set up to preview your image settings as closely as possible. It attempts to mimic the brightness of the final exposure in its live view display, and unlike some competitors, does so in all exposure modes. This can result in almost completely white or black screens if you enter manual mode with completely inappropriate settings, but we suspect the majority of the camera's buyers will fully appreciate what's going on. This behaviour can be turned off in the menu if you prefer (if you're working with studio lights, for instance).

The screen below illustrates how this works in practice. The exact screen you get depends on how you change exposure compensation - this large 'virtual dial' appears when you use the Exp Comp button.

By default the NEX-7 will mimic the effects of your exposure settings in Live View. This behaviour is controlled by the rather obliquely-named 'Live View Display' option in the Setup menu. You can disable it using 'Setting Effect OFF' - perhaps most useful when shooting in M mode with studio strobes.

When using native E-mount lenses the NEX-7 also provides its live view display at the set aperture, in effect showing full time depth of field preview. This is a great feature, especially when using larger aperture lenses such as the E 50mm F1.8 OSS. (Note that with Alpha lenses on the LA-EA adapters, live view is always at maximum aperture.)

AF area selection

The NEX-7 uses an impressively fluid interface for AF point selection and manual focus assist. It's engaged from the Focus Settings screen, which (slightly oddly) is both the first option on the Triple-dial-control interface, and the default option on the lower soft key. Set the AF area mode to 'Flexible Spot AF' using the left dial, and you can then use either the 4-way controller or the right and rear dials to move the point freely across almost all of the frame (only the extreme borders are inaccessible). The lower soft key returns the AF point to its centered position.

Slightly strangely, the NEX-7 has a second, less-efficient way of doing exactly the same thing, using the the 'Autofocus Area' setting either from the menu or assigned to a soft key. However this is a two step process - first you have to set the AF area mode, and only then can you enter the screen to move the focus point around. In this case the left dial is re-purposed to move the focus point up and down.

The NEX-7 allows you to move the autofocus point freely across almost all of the image area. Depending on how you access the screen, the left dial either changes AF area mode or moves the active point up and down.

Manual Focus Assist

In manual focus mode, the NEX-7 uses the Focus Settings screen to engage MF assist, i.e. magnification of the live view display for more accurate focusing. You can cycle between 1x, 5.8x and 11.7x views using whichever of three keys you prefer - the AF/MF button, center soft key or lower soft key - and move the area of interest freely around the frame using either the dials or the 4-way controller. If you set the focus mode to 'Direct Manual Focus' (DMF), then with a native E-mount lens the camera will enter magnified view automatically whenever the focus ring is moved.

The NEX-7 allows you to move the autofocus point freely across almost all of the image area. Depending on how you access the screen, the left dial either changes AF area mode or moves the active point up and down.

Magnification is dismissed by a half-press of the shutter button, and the selected area doesn't reset between shots. This means you can zoom in to the same area of the scene to fine-tune focus from frame-to-frame, for instance on your subject's eye when shooting portraits.

Manual Focus 'Peaking'

One particularly interesting feature of the NEX-7, shared with other recent Sonys, is a manual focus assistance display known as 'peaking'. In essence, this detects and highlights high contrast edges, which tend to indicate in-focus areas of the frame.

Peaking is available using both the LCD and the EVF. It's especially valuable when using adapted manual focus lenses, as it enables you to keep track of both the overall composition and the in-focus regions of the frame at the same time. It's also a tremendously useful aid when 'pulling' focus during video recording, helping you hit your desired focus point without overshoot.

This is the NEX-7's manual focus 'peaking' display, using a large-aperture manual focus lens (an old Olympus Zuiko 50mm F1.4) and focusing through the scene from front to back. High-contrast edges in the focus plane are highlighted in red - only vertical edges are detected.

However, focus peaking has its limitations. Because it detects only high-contrast edges, it doesn't work on low-contrast subjects. And if the subject happens to be the same colour as the peaking display, then the highlighted edges will be almost invisible. It's also worth noting that it only works in one direction - vertical edges in landscape format - which can occasionally cause problems.

To counter this, the NEX-7 has two settings which are worth exploring, to see which gives you optimum results. You can change the 'Peaking Level', which is essentially the contrast threshold for highlighting edges. The optimum setting for this can vary from lens to lens, for example you may need to set this to 'mid' or 'high' for relatively low-contrast fast primes used at maximum aperture. You can also select the 'Peaking Color' from a choice of white, red or yellow.

The peaking level control determines how high-contrast an edge needs to be before it is highlighted. With this lens, 'mid' is the optimum setting. You can also pick the colour for highlighting edges - we found yellow to be generally most useful, but obviously this is personal preference.