Digital Cameras Guide

Sony Alpha NEX-7 review

Sony Alpha NEX-7 - The Best There Is

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Overall rating 9.5/10
Extremely high resolution (24.3MP)
Best-in-class OLED viewfinder
Innovative Tri-Navi controls
Full HD 50p and 25p video recording
Great shutter responsiveness
ISO 3,200 and beyond unsuitable for large prints
More Awards:
Editor's Choice

Design & Handling (II)

Tri-Navi - Third Time Lucky for Sony

Remember that the NEX-3 and NEX-5 were knocked for their cumbersome UI? Due to the scarcity of controls on the bodies, users often found themselves having to delve deep into the menus just to change a shooting setting. Sony subsequently released a firmware that allowed users to customize the functions of the central and lower unmarked buttons. On the NEX-C3 and 5N, Sony has made even more keys unmarked and customizable; case in point: five functions can be tagged to the central key. But Sony must have felt that this implementation wouldn’t find favor among the advanced target audience of the NEX-7, who are used to dual control dials on their DSLRs. So Sony went back to the drawing board, and the result is the Tri-Navi control system. A few hardware controls are involved: two dials at the top of the camera, the rear scroll wheel, and a button beside the shutter release button.

So how does it work? By default, if you’re under P, A, or S mode, the left dial will control program shift, aperture, and shutter speed respectively. The right dial under all three modes governs exposure compensation, and the rear control wheel the ISO. When you’re in M mode, the control wheel still controls the ISO, but the left and right dials control shutter speed and aperture respectively.

To use the Tri-Navi system to its fullest would require the use of another unmarked button beside the shutter release button; Sony calls it the Navigation button. Pressing this button repeatedly will cycle through four more groups of settings: Focus, White Balance, D-Range, and Creative Style. And as you’d expect, the three dials will take on different functions under each category. There are two more categories that you can choose to replace any of the four mentioned above (except the Exposure category), namely Picture Effects and Custom. The latter is the most alluring for advanced users: you can assign parameters to the three dials from a list of alternatives that includes exposure compensation, ISO, metering mode and white balance. And lest we forget, the categories can be customized to appear in any order. Check out the table we’ve prepared that lists down the functions of the dials under each category.

Sony Alpha NEX-7 Tri-Navi System
Tri-Navi Category Mode Control Dial L Control Dial R Control Wheel
Exposure P Mode Program Shift Exposure Compensation ISO
A Mode Aperture
S Mode Shutter Speed
M Mode Shutter Speed Aperture
iAuto / Scene --
(No Function)
(No Function)
(No Function)
Anti Motion Blur --
(No Function)
Exposure Compensation --
(No Function)
Sweep Panorama Sweep Direction (Right / Down / Left / Up) Exposure Compensation Sweep Direction (Right / Down / Left / Up)
3D Sweep Panorama Sweep Direction (Right / Left) Exposure Compensation Sweep Direction (Right / Left)
Focus AF Mode AF Area Focusing Area (Horizontal) Focusing Area (Vertical)
MF Mode Enlarge Area (Vertical) Enlarge Area (Horizontal) Enlarge Area (Vertical)
White Balance  - WB Mode Amber-blue Color Tone Green-magenta Color Tone
D-Range - DRO / HDR Level Exposure Compensation Off / DRO / HDR
 Creative Style - Image Style Adjust Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness Contrast / Saturation / Sharpness
Picture Effect - Effect Mode Option Adjustment --
(No Function)
Custom - Assign any of the following to the dials/wheel: Exposure Compensation, Autofocus Mode, ISO, Metering Mode, White Balance, DRO/Auto HDR, Creative Style, Picture Effect, Quality, Not Set.

So, does it work? For the most part, yes. It did take us a day or two of extensive use to get used to it; but that’s no fault of the Tri-Navi system. Because we are seasoned DSLR users, whenever we rotated a dial on top of the NEX-7, we would instinctively glance to see what position we’ve turned the dial to. But there’s no need to do that, since the dials are unmarked! Instead, we should be looking at the indicators on the LCD screen or the OLED viewfinder. But once we’ve used the camera for a while, muscle memory took over, and we were soon switching modes as fast as we’d have on our DSLRs. And since old habits die hard, we put the Custom category right at the very top, and had DRO/Auto HDR (it’s always been a chore to get to the HDR mode in other Alpha/NEX cameras) and Quality (to jump quickly between JPEG and RAW modes) assigned to the top two dials, and Picture Effect (because it’s oh-so-fun) to the rear dial. In fact, because we just wanted to be able to switch quickly between the default Exposure and the Custom categories, we actually turned off the other categories; this saved us time of having to cycle through unwanted settings.

Remember too, that the Tri-Navi system is on top of the improved customizable controls already present on the NEX-C3 and 5N: you can tag a function (from a list of 19) to the bottom unmarked key, another function from the same list to the right key on the d-pad, and a further five to the central button on the d-pad. Sony has literally done a 360 to go from a setup with zero user-customizable controls to one that’s overflowing with them in a year.

Another thing that greatly improves usage is the presence of a dedicated AE Lock button. This gives us the ability to separate exposure metering from AF when we half-press the shutter release button. There’s no way to separate AF trigger from the shutter trigger though; a (clumsy) workaround is to switch to manual focus right after AF is locked. This is one detail that the Fujifilm X100 and X10 have gotten it right.

We didn’t spend a lot of time shooting in manual focus (MF) mode; but during the time that we did, we enjoyed it. The high-res screen and EVF, the MF Assist function (enlarges a portion of the live view image up to 11.7x), and the peaking feature (highlights the outlines as the focus ‘peaks’ and first seen in the NEX-C3) all combined beautifully to make life so much easier for MF shooters.