Sony Nex-7: Three Months In

Part III

In Part II, almost 2 months ago I focused on the downsides of the Sony Nex-7. On balance I still was happy with my purchase but now that another 2 months have gone by I thought I’d post a quick update.

Battery life

While the battery life is definitely not great for sustained shooting, I have found after reverting to my usual daily routine of shooting on the way to work and the way home and maybe at lunch, that a fully charged battery will last about a week and that’s adequate. I still carry the 2nd battery with me, in the charger so I can always swap batteries and recharge. If I was going out for a real extended shoot over the course of a few days I would definitely want to carry a third battery.

Knobs

As mentioned previously, and in most other reviews, the two unmarked (Tri-Navi) knobs on the rear right of the top plate provide fast access to commonly used features. and the rear screen shows you what they will affect at any time. It’s a really elegant and effective solution. However, as I also mentioned, I constantly found that the knobs had accidentally been moved and I’d be shooting with, say, an EV compensation of several stops that I hadn’t dialed in intentionally. This was really annoying. I subsequently learned that by pressing and holding the navigation button for about 5 seconds you can lock them. I have been shooting for the last month or so with the knobs locked. Most of the time this works well. But when you need fast access to one of these adjustments you now have to remember to unlock first. And that takes several seconds – so you can forget about getting a grab shot that requires you to make a quick adjustment.

Video mode

As has been commented on here and elsewhere often, the dedicated video button on the upper right is easily and often activated unintentionally creating 3 issues:

  1. It uses up memory, a fairly minor problem these days
  2. It uses up the battery life, already an issue for this camera
  3. You can’t take a still image till you first discover that video recording is what’s disabling picture taking and then stop it. You then have to delete the unwanted video which involves some toggling between playback modes but, at least, that can be done later.

I have become much more conscious of how I hold the camera so as to avoid doing this but I often still capture unwanted video of my trouser leg or the street. Michael Reichmann of the Luminous Landscape has gone so far as to recommend a “redneck” adjustment, which involves super-gluing a grommet over the button.

LCD screen

It doesn’t seem possible to easily switch off the rear LCD screen. When I’m shooting in the street and, especially in the subway, that rear screen often makes people suspicious of me so I like to keep it off. There appear to be 2 options. You can switch to EVF-only mode, but then the only way to get the LCD back on is to hold the camera up to your eye to go back through the menu system, or you can cover the EVF with some portion of your left hand. This fools the camera into thinking the camera’s at your eye and it auto switches from LCD to EVF. This solution, however, raises 2 new problems: one is continued drain on the battery as sleep mode doesn’t seem to be activated as long as you’re covering the eye sensor; the other is the fact that the slightest mis-positioning of your left hand makes the LCD flash on, defeating the original aim of being inconspicuous. Another adjustment I’ve made is to set the sleep mode to come on in only 10 seconds. As long as I don’t accidentally cover the eye sensor or touch the auto-focus button this will put the rear LCD into sleep mode after only 10 seconds so I’m good until I next attempt a picture.

Menu System

The menu system has stopped bothering me as much as it did originally as I have come to memorize the relative positions of the 2 or 3 items I use most frequently. But whenever I need to access a control that’s infrequently used it’s back to the hell of trying to find it. The camera has a wide range of customization options but none of them allows you to put together a combination of settings as a custom setting you can simply jump to. This seems like something that could be easily remedied in firmware.

Re-focusing on the positives:

  • great 24MP image quality with decent noise characteristics up to at least ISO 1600
  • small and light (no more tennis elbow/tendonitis)
  • quiet (no mirror slap)
  • solid construction and satisfying heft
  • wide range of semi-pro/enthusiast features, manual controls and overrides
  • Usable viewfinder with the advantages of an EVF
  • I find the 18-55 kit zoom to be a surprisingly handy zoom range for walking the streets

Working conclusions

I still like this camera a lot. In fact I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with it for the last 2 months. Except for one night shoot (I didn’t have a remote release for the Sony) I haven’t touched my Nikon D300 since starting with the Nex-7, nor have I even looked at my Canon G9. At the end of the day, despite some very annoying ergonomics, the camera is a pleasure to work with and yields very high image quality files. I’m happy to call it my main camera (for now).

What’s next?

I’m very interested in the new Sigma 30mm f2.8 e-mount Lens (and also the 19mm f2.8). The former has surprisingly good resolution (see story here) and it’s bargain priced. It may be the perfect street-length prime for now (much smaller than the Zeiss 24mm and affordable).

Sony Nex-7: First Thoughts, continued

Part II

In Part I, I discussed the background of my Nex-7 purchase, the benefits of the camera to a street shooter, and what the camera feels like to hold and carry – all positive. Now, in part II I’ll discuss the downsides.

Battery life

To put it simply, the battery and battery life are terrible. Keep in mind that my shooting modes is this: during the working week the camera is on as I leave home, and stays on till I get to work (½ – ¾ of an hour later). During the day it’s mostly off unless I see something interesting out the window or go walkabout at lunchtime. It’s on again on the way home from work or if I’m travelling to meetings or taking an early evening walk. At the weekends the camera is on whenever I’m out and about which may be hours at a time. In the case of the Nikon D300 a single charged battery easily lasts a week, sometimes 2 or 3 weeks. Whenever I buy a digital camera I always buy a 2nd battery with it and I always carry that 2nd battery with me, charged. So I ordered the Sony with a 2nd genuine Sony battery. Because the camera’s entirely electronic (no optical viewfinder) I couldn’t really do anything with it till the first battery was charged. That took over 4 hours Thursday evening (so I stayed up past 1:00 a.m. just to turn it on). I then charged the 2nd battery while I slept. Friday and Saturday I had few opportunities to shoot with the camera but Sunday morning early we left on the train for Washington. Those of you who watch this site will know I love to photograph landscapes and suburban blight at speed with the shutter speed set high enough to stop background blur but leave some in the foreground. The Sony made this easy to do. In standard mode, when you turn on the camera, a quick press of the button in the center of the control wheel changes it to a shooting mode dial so it’s very easy and intuitive to get to shutter-priority mode and from there the top left dial lets you set the shutter speed you want. Simple and obvious. A real pleasure. So I took shots out the window on and off for the 3½ hours of the train trip. By the time we got there the battery was all but dead. We took a cab to the hotel, got refreshed and headed out down H street for a walk and to find lunch. I had plugged in the first battery in the hotel room and slipped in the 2nd. We walked along the Mall to the Washington Monument and on the the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Then we walked back to our hotel to prepare for dinner. The 2nd battery was dead. So, in the course of a single day I’d gone through 2 batteries. As I discuss some of the other issues with the camera below you’ll see the problem can be compounded. My plan is to buy a third battery and carry the charger with me.

Knobs

The tri-navi system is really useful and works quite intuitively. The rear screen shows you what each knob is affecting at any given time. Other reviewers have pointed out that the initial settings are not ideal and should be reassigned. So far I haven’t gotten to that but I like the basic set-up. However all of these knobs are often accidentally shifted. In particular the right top knob, which controls exposure compensation is often shifted. I like to shoot Raw to the right at about ⅓ stop over the camera meter. But I constantly find the camera is as much as a full stop or two off that mark and has to be re-set. Similarly, the center control wheel on the back controls ISO in standard shooting mode. For walking around in the streets I usually leave it on Auto but several time I’ve found that it has crept up to as much as 800, seemingly by itself. I generally carry the camera in my right hand, down at my side with the shoulder strap wrapped around my hand. Perhaps it is brushing my leg – I’m not quite sure how the knobs are getting moved.

Video mode

I’m not terribly interested in video. It’s all I can do to learn how to make a good still image without figuring out how to make good moving ones. However, video is one of the strong points of the camera and I was happy to have it in case I ever do take it up. Unfortunately the dedicated video button, located on the top right rear corner of the camera seems to get pressed by accident quite frequently. On any given walk I will often find I’ve recorded 4 or 5 short videos of the ground without realizing it. To get rid of them I have to move into video review mode, choose delete, then confirm my deletion for each clip, then move back to still image review. On at least one occasion I went to take a picture and missed the moment because I didn’t realize the camera was already recording video. To make matters worse, video recording really drains the battery and you can actually feel parts of the camera warming up.

Eye Sensor

Cleverly, the camera switches from rear LCD to viewfinder mode when you put the camera up to your eye and back when you remove it. This is a feature I believe Minolta pioneered on the Dimage A1, my first serious digital camera, which I loved. However in the case of the Nex-7 it seems to be confused by being held at one’s side, flipping back and forth between LCD and EVF views and, thus, preventing the camera from entering sleep mode and further draining the battery.

Menu System

Other reviewers have commented on the confusing menu tree and it is worth mentioning. At the top level there are  6 choices: Shoot mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback and Setup. The only thing Shoot mode controls is the choice of exposure mode (aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual program and scene pre-set modes which I never use). And these are all readily available without going in to the menus at all. Similarly, Image Size controls only the jpeg quality level (or Raw), the aspect ratio and the panoramic modes – so far I’ve set the camera to Raw and haven’t tried the others). Brightness/Color provides alternate ways to get to exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering mode and flash compensation, most of which are more easily available from knobs. It is in Camera, Playback and Setup where all the action is and these contain a bewildering array of items in no logical order I can figure out.

I mentioned in Part I how for subway shooting I have to individually set white balance, auto-focus assist and rear display on the Nikon. On the Nex-7, white balance is reasonably easy to get to (press the top panel “navigation button”  twice, then use the left control dial to select white balance; turning off the auto-focus assist lamp is a little harder (press menu button, choose Set-up and then find AF Illuminator which can be 20 choices away or already available, depending on where you left it, and switch from auto to off); and I haven’t yet figured out how to keep the rear LCD screen off altogether.

The only way I’ve found to format a memory card is deep in the Setup menu. Perhaps there is some combination of buttons and knobs that will get to it faster but I haven’t found it and it’s not in the index of the unhelpful camera manual. This is somewhat similar to my Canon G9 but is a real pain when you’ve just removed the chip from you computer and want to go shooting.

Preliminary conclusions

I am still enjoying the camera overall. It’s light and easy to carry. It feels comfortable and natural to shoot with and is quite responsive. It’s far less intimidating for street shooting than a big DSLR. But the items listed above are real annoyances. My next steps to overcoming them are:

  1. buy a third battery to carry with me
  2. modify how I hold the camera so as to:
    1. avoid accidentally moving knobs and settings (in the last 2 days I’ve managed to keep the ISO where I want it)
    2. not go into video mode unintentionally
    3. allow the camera to go to sleep and save the battery
  3. delve deeper into the manual to see if I can customize things around the menu system

I’ll try to make one more follow-up report on my success with these things. I think the Nex-system is excellent for my type of street shooting. It combines high image quality in a small light package with a wide range of features and manual controls. Most of the issues I’ve described seem as if they could be improved through firmware upgrades and learning the camera better (and carrying 2 spare batteries). At this point I would recommend the camera to anyone who shoots in a similar mode to what I’ve described here.

Further reading

This has mostly been an impressionistic and subjective review from my initial handling of the camera for street shooting. You can read more in-depth reviews of the camera here:

Also, you can see Michael Reichmann’s (the Luminous Landscape) 6-month re-assessment, a recommendation for solving the unwanted video issue and my 3-month re-assessment, here:

Sony Nex-7: First Thoughts

Part I

I’ve had the Nex 7 for about a week now. Ordered in December of last year, it finally arrived late last week, just in time for a few days in Washington DC (I’ll be posting pictures from that trip over the coming weeks). Unfortunately, it arrived with only the kit lens (18 -55mm) but at least I could get to work with it. Before we begin, a little background.

Background

I’ve been a lifelong Minolta shooter. I started with a Minolta srT101 when I was 13 and have since then shot with the XE-7, a couple of xd-11s, the Dimage A1 and the Konica Minolta 7D. And I have to say I loved each of those cameras. When the 7D began to get a little long in the tooth and started getting balky a new generation of sensors had just arrived and I had to choose among the new Sony (Minolta-based) Alpha 700, Canon 40D and Nikon D300. But when I held the Alpha 700 in my hand it had a totally different layout from my beloved 7D. And I was seduced by the idea of owning a “professional” camera. I sold all my Minolta equipment, bought a Nikon D300 and became a Nikon shooter. The camera is heavy-duty and takes fantastic quality photos. However it’s incredibly heavy – I think about a pound more than the 7D with a medium zoom – so heavy, in fact, that I developed painful tennis elbow from carrying it around and had to adapt my whole shooting style to left-handed camera carrying. Carrying it in my Tenba messenger bag with a 2nd lens, a flash and a few other odds and ends was killing my back and shoulders and putting my chiropractor’s daughter though college. Also, it’s way too “pro” for my taste. Features that I could find intuitively on my 7D were buried deep in menus on the D300. When I shoot in the subways I change my white balance to fluorescent, turn off the auto-focus assist lamp and the rear LCD display. Amazingly, for all its customization capability, it doesn’t seem possible to assign that set of features to a custom setting. I must make all 3 adjustments individually each time I descend and undo them each when I emerge.

This set the stage for my delight at the early reports on the new generation of mirrorless cameras, particularly the Nex-7. Among the features that attracted me:

  • Small lightweight camera and lenses
  • Very high image quality and 24 MP in an APS-C sized sensor
  • Good build quality, if not quite as weatherized and rugged as my D300
  • Full range of serious photography settings and manual controls
  • A usable viewfinder built in (there were raves for the OLED EVF)
  • Tiltable rear screen
  • The “tri-navi” system sounded like it would accommodate my customization preferences through physical knobs, which the 7D excelled at
  • While there were few E lenses available yet, the initial ones sounded to be adequate and many, many lenses were available with adapters with focus peaking promising to make manual focus feasible

Camera Feel

The camera feels very comfortable in the hand. Solid, but light. I wouldn’t even mind if it was a tad bigger – my right pinky curls in below the camera instead of on it – not a problem, but I don’t think I’ve ever shot with a serious camera so small before, including the 2nd hand Voigtländer Vito C I started with when I was 12. Lenses feel pretty good and don’t feel as unbalanced in the hand relative to the small camera as they look. Also, one of my real peeves with my last several lenses is the way the rubber zoom and focus rings loosen up over time and won’t stay put. The Sony E55-210 and E18-55 are wide, hard-ridged and both feel like they’re there to stay (time will tell). The camera is quite fast and responsive if not quite as fast as my D300. But I haven’t had any missed shots because the camera wasn’t ready. The layout of the buttons and knobs is good and they fall comfortably under ones fingers (although see a problem with this in Part II). By and large, I found I could start shooting immediately without reading the manual. It feels good to shoot with the camera, natural and comfortable.

I’ve now processed my first batch of a couple of hundred images in Lightroom and the file quality is superb, especially at lower ISOs. It’s a little unexpected to shoot with a camera as small as this, that feels like a digicam with an electronic viewfinder and get such big, luscious files to work with.

However, all is not perfect. In Part II I’ll discuss some of the annoyances I’ve run into in my first week of shooting.