The space between compact cameras and DSLRs is where it's at right now. As we type, the cream of the world's camera designers is feverishly attempting to crack the nut that contains full DSLR features and control within a body the size of a compact. Where Olympus and Panasonic have lead, others have followed, and with the latest NEX model, Sony might just have got its removable nose in front.
Daylight photos really show off the quality of the NEX-7's sensor. Edges are sharp and colours realistic, with every last pixel doing its job. Indoors, you can often get away without a flash or a high ISO. In-camera trickery means even 16000 is a realistic backup.
If you dig into the menus you’ll come across a number of arty effects to gloss your snaps with soft focus, retro haziness and pop-art colours.
The full manual control and those special effects are also available when shooting in 1080p, 50fps video mode. The footage is excellent, and the ability to alter the depth of field as you film means you can lay down some dramatic, moody sequences with minimal fuss.
Many of the controls are context-sensitive. Twiddling the beautifully minimalist, unmarked knobs can be perplexing at first but it doesn’t take long to realise what does what. It’s generally quick and easy to use but the rotating dial on the back is a bit too small, and it’s easy to push the video record button by accident.
Compact swappy-lens cameras often sacrifice features in the pursuit of petiteness, but not the NEX-7. A flash that pops up manually is perfectly integrated into the angles of the top edge, allowing the camera to work as a go-anywhere compact as well as a serious snapper. There’s a hot shoe if you need a flash with a bigger bang.
An electronic viewfinder gives the NEX-7 a DSLR feel, switching automatically from the main LCD to the EVF when it senses your eye on the camera. It makes framing outdoors in bright light so much easier. There’s a strange smearing effect if you move your eye off centre, but otherwise it’s up to the job.
The NEX-7's APS-C sized sensor has enough space on its surface to make those 24 megapixels count. With the 18-55mm kit lens there’s scope for wide-angle vistas and blurry backgrounds with depth-of-field effects. Auto focus is quick in bright conditions but lags when the AF light is drafted in to help.
If you ever find yourself holding your camera above a crowd and shooting blind, or poking it into small spaces where your head can’t follow, you’ll appreciate the NEX-7’s adjustable LCD screen. Once set to outdoor mode it’s bright enough for framing on sunny days, but even so, a subtle tilt can be useful for reducing glare and reflections.
So has Sony hit the bullseye? Yes. If opulent styling is high on your wish list, the NEX-7 could seem rather dowdy, especially at over $1700, but in just about every other respect it's right on the money.