October 24, 2014

Sony NEX-7 Hands-On Review Part 2: 24.3 Million Surprising Shortcomings

Sony NEX-7 Review Series

Despite Sony's candy-coating, the NEX-7 exposes the weakness of the Sony lens lineup

The Sony NEX-7 is far from perfect. As noted in part 1, most of the new features are compromised in one way or another, but there’s an even bigger elephant in the room: The excessively dense 24.3 megapixel sensor overwhelms most of the NEX system lenses.

Too Many Pixels?

I was wary of that pixel-dense sensor from the start, since I never felt that the 14.2 megapixel sensor of the original NEX-5 was insufficient. All things being equal, a denser sensor places ever-greater demands on the optics in front of it, and 24 megapixels is a whole new world for digital photography.

Start with the image size: Each NEX-7 JPEG image is 7 to 8 MB in size. That’s massive! It really slows down the Eye-Fi card (which was already less than perfect) and fills up regular SD cards fast at 10 frames per second. You need a high-speed card just to keep up with that kind of pounding! And it’s even worse in RAW mode.

There doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Sony’s NEX-7 sensor, mind you. Indeed, it’s really amazingly capable, with excellent low-light performance. Most tests show it to be better, technically, than Sony’s older 14.2 or 16.2 megapixel sensors. In fact, it is this performance that is the problem.

Out-Classed Lenses

The selection of Sony lenses for the NEX system remains quite limited even after two years on the market. We have four primes (16 mm, 24 mm Zeiss, 30 mm macro, and 50 mm) and three zooms (18-55 mm kit zoom, 18-200 mm “video lens”, and 55-210 mm). There are some third-party lenses, but no “must-have” offerings. Indeed, many NEX users opt for adapters so they can use the whole world of lenses from Sony, Nikon, Canon, Leica, and others.

Although some of Sony’s lenses are excellent (particularly the 24 mm Zeiss and 50 mm prime), most are merely adequate. They were good enough on the 3- and 5-series NEX cameras, but the NEX-7 is too much for them. Reviewers are noting poor off-center sharpness and vignetting with many of the older lenses, particularly the 16 mm and 30 mm primes. But this new sensor pushes the limits even of my “go-to lens,” the 18-55 zoom that ships with the NEX-7 kit.

Average photographers probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but NEX-7 buyers are decidedly not average. They’re people crazy enough to drop $1400 instead of $600 on a camera body just to get awesome manual controls and a viewfinder. I’m not much of a photographer (and I’m no “pixel peeper”) but even I noticed the odd lack of sharpness off-center with the 16 mm pancake (aka SEL16F28). And I’m glad I didn’t buy the 30 mm prime!

The NEX-7 desperately needs more sharp and quick lenses like the SEL50F18

Fixing a Hole

Newer NEX cameras include firmware that recognizes Sony’s lenses and corrects image aberrations. The NEX-7 tries to straighten out the barrel distortion of the little 16 mm prime, among others. The firmware will also brighten up some of the vignetting that plagues the NEX-7 at open apertures, and it corrects some of the chromatic aberration found on many of the Sony lenses.

But the NEX software can’t work miracles. It does nothing with third-party or adapted lenses like my scrumptious SLR Magic 35 F/1.7: Wide open on the NEX-7, it dims like crazy around the edges. And software can’t sharpen up an out-classed lens like the SEL16F28.

On the other hand, the 50 mm prime (SEL50F18) is really a solid companion to the NEX-7, with speed and sharpness to spare. And the Zeiss (SEL24F18Z) is said to be an excellent pairing as well. Although not perfect, the SEL55210 tele-zoom isn’t bad with this camera, either. But the SEL1855 kit zoom is just so-so, and the remaining primes aren’t worth buying for the NEX-7.

Stephen’s Stance

Sony should have designed a new kit lens for the NEX-7, and buyers should consider whether their collection of E-Mount and adapted lenses are going to be good enough for this camera. I will keep my 16 mm lens, mainly for use with the VCL-ECU1 ultra-wide converter, but I doubt I’ll use it much. I probably will tote along the 18-55 and 55-210 zooms for casual shooting, but will definitely switch to the 50 mm prime to get the most from the camera. And I’m seriously considering dropping another thousand on the Zeiss!