From the moment you see the NEX-7's black packaging, it's clear that Sony wanted to provide an upscale experience from start to finish. The box is larger than that of the NEX-C3
, with felt-topped dividers spanning multiple layers. Each component from the battery to the USB cable has its own compartment, and a large, box-width lens cloth rests on top. The basic $1,350 NEX-7 kit includes the same 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that ships with every NEX kit, though this iteration features a matte black finish, compared to the silver lens available through other channels. There's also a premium 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss lens ($1,000), which you may want to consider adding to your collection as well -- if your pockets are deep enough.
While many of the NEX-7's overarching design elements should seem familiar to NEX camera owners, the camera body is noticeably larger than the NEX-C3 and NEX-5N -- a design choice intended to accommodate the built-in XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, tri-navi interface and full-size hot shoe. NEX critics may actually prefer the larger size of Sony's new flagship, since some E-Mount lenses look awkwardly large when mounted on this camera's smaller siblings. Still, it's by no means a big compromise -- the mirrorless cam is petite and lightweight compared to full-size DSLRs. It's also quite durable, with a magnesium alloy frame and solid construction (we spent a few hours shooting at a dusty track during our initial test period, and while the housing contracted a thin layer of dirt, the sensor and internal lens mount remained clean).
Naturally, the camera itself feels like a top-shelf imaging device, with a consistent, elegant design and solid controls. On the top of the NEX-7 you'll find a full-size hot shoe with a slide-in cover that allows for a flush appearance when not in use. There's also a built-in pop-up flash with an arm that's long enough to project light beyond the end of the sizable 24mm lens with the included lens cover removed -- leaving the cover on will result in an uneven vignette effect, though if the scene is dark enough to require the flash, you probably won't need to worry about lens flare. When retracted, the strobe lies flush, so you may not even notice it at first glance. To the right, there's a pair of control wheels that can be used to adjust a variety of settings, depending on mode, followed by a power slider, shutter release and shift button above the grip.
Continuing the tour, the right side of the camera is completely bare, leaving the rubberized grip to stand on its own. On the rear, there's the built-in EVF in the top left corner, with the 3-inch LCD below. Unlike the NEX-5N, there's no touchscreen functionality here, though you aren't likely to miss it. You may opt to not even use the LCD at all -- the XGA electronic viewfinder is sharp enough to completely replace the LCD for settings adjustment, framing and focusing. Dedicated controls include a flash release, playback button, AF/MF and AEL slider, a circular navigation dial with select, display, shooting speed and exposure compensation buttons. There's also a pair of variable controls that are used for launching and selecting different menu items. All of the buttons are easy to press, but not so much so that you need to worry about accidentally bumping one and changing a critical setting.
Centered below the lens on the bottom of the camera is a tripod mount, with a battery door to the right. Inside, there's the same 1,080mAh battery that Sony includes with all NEX cameras, and a combination SD / Memory Stick slot. The left side of the camera houses a pair of durable plastic doors, hiding an HDMI port, mini-USB connector and a microphone input jack for connecting your own audio source for video capture -- a first for an NEX camera. There's also a rather stiff leather camera strap in the box, with Sony and NEX-7 markings on either side.
The NEX-7's tri-navi interface isn't just another marketing gimmick -- it works well, and enables direct access to key settings without the need to flip through menus or even back away from the EVF. By default, the left top dial changes the primary capture setting -- if you're in aperture priority, turning it changes your aperture, while the right control adjusts exposure compensation. In shutter priority, the left dial adjusts your shutter speed, with exposure compensation again on the right. In manual, you have unfettered access to shutter speed adjustments on the left, and aperture on the right. In any of these modes, the secondary dial to the right of the LCD controls ISO, giving you instant access to aperture, shutter speed and ISO without clicking through to a single menu screen. A shift button to the right of the power slider changes the dial mode, instead letting you adjust focus settings, white balance, dynamic-range or Creative Style.
You'll still need to head to the system menu to get to a handful of seldom-used settings, such as turning off that awful camera beep, formatting a memory card (still buried at the bottom of the setup menu), turning on front-curtain shutter to reduce camera noise and activating the viewfinder proximity sensor that switches to the EVF when you bring the camera to your face. Speaking of that auto-switching feature, we had no choice but to disable it on our camera, since tilting the LCD up often caused the EVF to light up and the primary display to go black. Otherwise, it worked fairly well, but it could benefit from a sensitivity adjustment.
The menu layout is virtually identical to what you'll find in other NEX cameras, though the camera icon is clearly a render of the NEX-7 rather than the generic mirrorless ILC displayed in other menus. You can view options and a full settings readout on either the LCD or EVF, though some screens are stretched vertically, since the EVF has a 3:2 aspect ratio and the primary display is 16:9. There's also a horizontal and vertical level indicator, to assist in camera positioning.