When Sony first introduced its range of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras in May 2010, the company was very clear about who it thought would buy the NEX-5 and its near-identical-twin NEX-3. Small cameras with APS-C sensors, we were told, would appeal to compact camera users who wanted to upgrade but would be intimidated by the bulk and perceived complexity of an SLR. The cameras were a sales success (especially in Japan), and their influence on this sector of the market has become increasingly clear, with Olympus's PEN E-PL3 paying extensive homage to their key design features, and Panasonic stripping-down its GF line from the enthusiast-friendly DMC-GF1 to the distinctly beginner-orientated DMC-GF3.

In practice, though, it wasn't just beginners buying these cameras. Many enthusiast photographers have been equally attracted to the promise of excellent image quality in a small, highly portable camera, fuelled by the ability to adapt almost any lens to fit. To its credit Sony has taken note and steadily increased the NEXs' appeal, with successive firmware updates to improve usability and add features.

Now, with the NEX-7, Sony is specifically targeting those advanced users with a camera whose key spec reads like it's come straight off an enthusiast's wishlist. First up is the 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor, shared with the SLT-A77, that enables true 1080p60 video recording. Then there's the EVF that's been squeezed into the compact body (and also shared with the A77) - the 2.4M dot OLED unit is the highest resolution yet seen in a stills camera, and has an eye sensor for automatic switching with the rear LCD. Rounding off the additions are a built-in flash and Alpha-type hotshoe, all in a body that's about the same size as the Olympus PEN E-P3.

The NEX-7 also expands on the existing user interface, adding two dials on the top plate that can be used to control a wide variety of functions, plus a conveniently-placed button beside the shutter that's used to cycle through their functions. The rear dial and three 'soft' keys familiar from the backs of the existing NEX cameras are retained, as is the handy tilting rear LCD. The resulting 'Triple-dial-control' interface makes the NEX-7 the first interchangeable-lens digital camera that in normal use gets one dial dedicated to each of the main exposure parameters (for example shutter speed, aperture and ISO in Manual mode) - such an eminently sensible arrangement we're amazed it hasn't been done before.

The NEX-7 uses a new shutter arrangement, with an (optional) electronic first curtain. In other words, the camera no longer has to close the shutter then open it again to start the exposure, and according to Sony this decreases shutter lag from 100ms to just 20ms. This isn't completely new technology - Canon's live view capable DSLRs have been using it since the EOS 40D of 2007 - but it's very welcome to see it implemented in this type of camera.

Further indication, if any were needed, of the NEX-7's serious intentions is provided by the co-announced Carl Zeiss-branded E 24mm F1.8 lens (also known as the SEL24F18Z). This offers a field of view equivalent to a 35mm lens on full frame, and places the NEX-7 squarely up against the likes of the Fujifilm FinePix X100 (with its fixed 23mm F2 lens), as well as the E-P3. The NEX-7 also gets its own black version of the standard E 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 OSS kit zoom.

Sony NEX-7 specification highlights

  • 24MP APS-C CMOS sensor (shared with the SLT A-77 and A-65)
  • ISO 100-16000 (100-1600 in Auto)
  • Built-in 2.4M dot OLED EVF with eye sensor
  • Electronic first-curtain shutter (cuts response time from 100ms to 20ms)
  • 'AVCHD Progressive' 1080p60 HD movie recording with built-in stereo mic
  • Tilting rear screen
  • Three-dial user interface
  • Built in flash and Alpha hotshoe
  • Infra-red remote control receiver
  • Microphone input socket

Compared to the NEX-5N

Here's the NEX-7 alongside its little brother, the NEX-5N. The body isn't so much bigger, and Sony has managed to add on 2 more control dials, a built-in flash and hotshoe, and an EVF. The NEX-5N has a touchscreen, but its sensor is 'only' 16MP.

Compared to 'enthusiast' competitors

The NEX-7 resides in a somewhat rarefied sector of the market - that of the truly enthusiast-orientated, 'rangefinder-style' large-sensor camera. The image below shows it compared in size to some of its main competitors - the Micro Four Thirds Olympus PEN E-P3 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1. We've also included the Fujifilm FinePix X100, which like the NEX-7 has an APS-C sensor, extensive external controls and built-in electronic viewfinder, but sports a fixed 23mm F2 lens and decidedly retro design and layout.

Despite its impressive specification (including tilt screen, pop-up flash and built-in EVF), the NEX-7 is almost exactly the same size as the Olympus PEN E-P3, and only fractionally larger than the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1. Head-on, it's also smaller than the Fujifilm FinePix X100, largely because of the latter's hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder.
Viewed from the top, perhaps the most striking features of the NEX-7 is its large handgrip - easily the best in this class. You can also see the two dials on the top plate that are used for the 'Triple-dial-control' system, and the button beside the shutter release that cycles through their functions. One area that may concern some users, though, is the size of Sony's NEX lenses to date: here we're comparing fast prime lenses, and the Sony Carl Zeiss T* E Sonnar 24mm F1.8 is a sizeable beast compared to the Panasonic Leica Summilux DG 25mm F1.4, let alone the Panasonic Lumix G 20mm F1.7 ASPH for Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile the X100's fixed-lens design makes it surprisingly slim.
Other manufacturers also offer more-compact, collapsible standard zooms, most notably Panasonic's remarkable X 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 powerzoom seen here adorning the GX1. This confers an undeniable portability advantage.