Triple-dial-control and soft key controls

In terms of physical controls, the NEX-7 can simplistically be seen as a NEX-5N with a couple of extra dials on top. Unfortunately, though, Sony's firmware engineers seem to have treated it exactly like this. So rather than fully integrating those dials into the existing control scheme, the 'Triple-dial-control' interface acts as an additional, separate layer in the firmware and screen-drive controls, over and above the existing soft key interface.

The result is a pair of interfaces that act like a divorced couple living together in same house, doing much the same things but in different completely ways. Only rarely do they interact, and on those odd occasions when they do, the results don't necessarily make sense. Despite this, it's important to appreciate that the NEX-7's handling and operation is still remarkably good for such a small camera. The only disappointment is that it could - and should - be even better.

Triple-dial-control options

Undoubtedly the biggest feature of the NEX-7 compared to other models in its class is its three dial interface, which Sony initially christened 'Tri-Navi' but calls 'Triple-Dial-Control' in the camera manual. Unfortunately this indecision over naming is reflected in a slightly unexpected approach as to what those dials are best used for. Apart from the superbly well-implemented focus settings screen, the options Sony has chosen by default are all essentially JPEG processing parameters - something we think is a little at odds with the NEX-7's positioning as a camera for enthusiasts, who are likely to shoot RAW.

Aside from the excellent focus area selection screen, the Triple-dial-control interface is by default set up to modify primarily JPEG-processing parameters: White Balance, Dynamic Range expansion and Creative Style. You can also opt to use it to select Picture Effects, or make your own custom settings.

You can choose to cycle through up to four sets of parameters, selected from five presets or your own custom settings. The preset options, and the corresponding functions of each dial, are listed below. We're far from convinced many photographers demand fingertip adjustment of JPEG processing parameters (sharpening, contrast and saturation) on a shot-by-shot basis - especially ahead of focus, flash or metering modes, which the NEX-7 by default makes difficult to adjust.

Function Settings
Left dial
Right Dial
Rear Dial
Focus Settings AF area mode AF area Left/Right AF area Up/Down
White Balance Settings WB setting Blue/Amber adjust Green/Magenta adjust
D-Range settings DRO/HDR Level Exp Compensation DRO/HDR/Off
Creative Style Creative Style selection Parameter adjust Parameter selection
Picture Effect Picture Effect Variant selection (n/a)

As usual, the NEXs' insistence on hiding options based on your current settings rears its ugly head. If you have the camera set to record RAW files, you can't access Auto HDR or Picture Effects; in the case of the latter, the camera simply refuses to show the screen at all. It would make infinitely more sense to use the otherwise-unemployed rear dial to set Quality, allowing you to switch to JPEG mode and actually access those Picture Effects, but that's not the NEX 'logic'.

You can configure one set of custom options if you decide you'd find that more useful, and we suspect most users probably will. Here you can choose from a shortlist of nine options, several of which are essentially repeats of the existing presets that consolidate options controlled by multiple dials onto one:

Custom Settings Options
Exposure Compensation
AF Mode
Metering Mode
White Balance
Dynamic Range
Creative Style
Picture Effect

Despite this limited selection, it's possible to identify some useful combinations of custom settings. Photographers who predominantly shoot RAW, but occasionally wish to dabble with AutoHDR and Picture Effects, may well wish to combine these as a custom set (using Quality to switch from RAW to JPEG). Meanwhile those who always shoot RAW and want as much direct control over camera settings as possible may like to combine AF Mode, Metering Mode and White Balance. (Note the latter is best assigned to the rear dial, as then the lower soft key gives access to fine-tuning if desired, and determines the colour of the live view display as well as the image output.)

Soft Key setting options

The NEX-7 retains the option, as seen on the NEX-3C and -5N, of customizing two of its soft keys and the 'right' key on the 4-way controller. A wide range of settings can be assigned to them, including the ever-useful 'Smile Shutter' and 'Soft Skin Effect'. The center button of the 4-way controller (Soft Key C) can be configured to either change the exposure mode, or bring up a custom menu covering up to 5 of your most-used options.

The center soft key can be configured to bring up a custom menu that offers quick access to up to five of your favourite options. The right dial or left/right keys select between options...
...and the left dial, rear dial or up/down keys change the specific setting.

When custom options are applied to the Right key or lower soft key, they bring up the same screen as you get from accessing the item from the menus, which uses a 'virtual dial' to change settings. The Drive mode button (practically the only 'hard' control left) uses essentially the same interface.

Most settings accessed from the buttons or menus use a 'virtual dial' interface - any of the three control dials, or the up/down keys of the 4-way controller, can be used to cycle through settings.
When the setting has sub-options, they are accessed via the lower soft key. Here's the NEX-7's rather limited autobracketing options.
Some settings get a more obvious 'dial'. Again, all of the physical dials, and the up/down keys of the 4-way controller, can be used to change the setting.

This interface works very well on the lower-end NEXs with their more-limited external controls, but overall we can't help but feel that the Triple-dial interface is the weapon of choice for shooting with the NEX-7, not least because it's so well set up for use with the EVF. So we'd set up the soft keys for less-commonly changed options, or those not available on the dials.

Custom Key Options
Shoot Mode
AF/MF Select*
Autofocus Mode*
Autofocus Area*
Precision Digital Zoom
Face Detection*
Smile Shutter
Soft Skin Effect*
White Balance*
Metering Mode*
Picture Effect*
Creative Style*
Flash Mode*
Flash Comp
MF Assist
Focus Settings
Not Set
* Also available for custom menu via Soft Key C (up to 5 may be selected)

Flash control setup

Perhaps most the most glaring omission in the NEX-7's out-of-box configuration is the lack of direct access to its flash controls, which have to be set via the menu. This is more than a little odd, especially given that it has a vestigial exposure compensation button that serves absolutely no useful purpose.

You can't assign flash functions to the triple-dial-control custom settings, but help is at hand in the shape of the customizable soft keys, which have the option of controlling both flash mode and flash compensation. Our preferred setup was with Flash Mode on Soft Key B, and flash compensation on the Right key.