Welcome to my blog. I'm an outdoor writer and photographer with a passion for wilderness and mountains. Use the links above to find out more about me and my books and walks. Click on a blog heading to see any comments or to add your own. -Chris Townsend

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Sony NEX 7: A Superb Camera for Backpacking and Hiking


Sony NEX 7 with Sigma 30mm f2.8 lens
 
I've had the Sony NEX 7 for six months now, during which I’ve taken nearly 3,000 photos, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the best camera I’ve used for backpacking and hiking, both in terms of images and in handling. I love using it and I love viewing the images. I had high expectations when I bought it. These have been surpassed.

It’s been two years and nine months since I began a changeover from DSLRs to smaller cameras with the Sony NEX 5. My thinking for this I described in this post. Basically I was looking for a smaller, lighter alternative to a DSLR that would produce the same quality images and my research suggested the NEX 5 was the best option. A year later I expressed my thoughts about the NEX 5 here, where I said that much as I liked the camera I was planning on replacing it with the even better NEX 5N or NEX 7 as my main camera and using it as a back-up. I read several reviews – especially those on DPreview, Luminous Landscape, Steve Huff Photo and DxOMark – and decided on the NEX 7 as the better of the two for my photography, giving my first impressions here. If you’re interested in technical details, comparative studio shots and comparisons with other cameras have a look at those reviews. Here I’m giving my personal impressions and views. 

18-55mm lens @ 39mm, 100 ISO, f8 @ 1/320
 
Most of my photographs are landscape and outdoors ones taken during hiking and backpacking trips, hence my desire for a small, lightweight camera. At the same time I need images for publication in books and magazines so high image quality is essential, which rules out compact cameras with their tiny sensors as these just don’t produce good enough pictures. So until mirrorless cameras with the same-size sensors as DSLRs appeared a few years ago I used one of the lighter weight DSLRs. When I changed to the smaller NEX system I wasn’t expecting better quality images than from my DSLR, just equivalent ones. The advantages for me of a mirrorless camera were the low weight and bulk. If these hadn’t been important I’d have stuck with a DSLR. The weight saving is significant for a camera that will be carried all day however. My old Canon 450D DSLR weighs 580 grams with battery, memory card and strap. The Sony NEX 7 with the same accessories weighs 376 grams. Being much smaller it fits into a smaller, lighter bag too and is less clumsy to carry.

For me the weight and size of the NEX 7 are enough to justify changing from a DSLR on their own. However using the camera I have discovered that there are many other advantages.

18-55mm lens @ 55mm, 400 ISO, f8 @ 1/20
Using

I didn’t find the menu-based controls of the NEX 5 as much of a hassle as many reviewers did but I had to admit that they weren’t very intuitive and did take a little time and thought. I quickly got used to using the screen rather than a viewfinder too, discovering that holding the camera against my chest with the screen flipped up was at least as stable as holding it to my eye. I didn’t really miss a viewfinder and I liked having the histogram and exposure settings visible on the screen so I could adjust them before taking a picture (I mostly use manual exposure and use the histogram as a guide not what the camera says is the “correct” exposure). The NEX 7 however has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that shows all that information plus three dials that control the shutter speed, aperture and ISO so all can be altered with the camera to the eye. This is a lovely system that works really well. I find there’s rarely any need to delve into the screen menus. I have read criticisms that the top two dials can’t be identified by touch but I haven’t found this a problem as I can tell which is which from their position in relation to the shutter button. The EVF itself is excellent in bright light though a little grainy and dark with details hard to see in low light. I still use the tilting screen a great deal, especially when taking low or overhead shots when it’s much easier to use than the viewfinder, but for many shots I have returned to the viewfinder. I wouldn’t want a camera without both now.

The NEX 7 has a good handgrip and feels secure held in one hand. I can switch it on, alter settings and take pictures one-handed too, though I rarely need to do this.

The Sensor and Image Quality

18-55 @ 21mm, 800 ISO, f5.6 @ 1/20
The NEX 7 has a 24 megapixel APS-C sized sensor, which is twice as many megapixels as the Canon 450D and four times as many as my first DSLR, the Canon 300D, both of which have sensors the same size. I was concerned initially about all these pixels as the standard wisdom was that cramming more onto a sensor made images noisier, especially at high ISOs. Perhaps, I thought, the 16mp NEX 5N would be a better choice. Once reviews of the camera appeared I was reassured though, as they all said that high ISO results were okay - slightly noisier than the 5N but not significantly so. I also realised that as I rarely shoot at anything more than 400 ISO, and mostly stick to 100, this shouldn’t be a major concern for me anyway. I didn’t think I needed 24mp but I didn’t think it would be a disadvantage.

Once I started using the camera I quickly realised that 24mp actually had one big advantage and that was that I could crop pictures and still have high quality images. And for backpacking and hiking being able to crop pictures is a great boon as it means telephoto shots can be taken without a heavy telephoto lens. I now often take pictures with the intention of cropping, knowing that the results should be fine.

18-55mm lens @ 55mm, 100 ISO, f8 @1/100

Crop from image above
Just how good the sensor is compared with other cameras I can’t say from my own experience, other than that it’s far superior to the 12mp Canon 450D one, which isn’t surprising as that’s now an old camera. DxOMark however measures sensor qualities and publishes comparative lists. Their findings place the NEX 7 as equal 10th of all the cameras they’ve tested, with the same score as the much heavier and more expensive Canon EOS 5D Mk III DSLR and better than most other DSLRs. The NEX 7 also gets a higher score for dynamic range than the EOS 5D, which is important for landscapes. Where the big DSLR wins out is in high ISO low light performance, which is less important for me. Now I would never have a considered a camera as heavy, bulky or expensive as the Canon 5D anyway but it’s good to know that the NEX 7 can produce images of the same quality.

55-210mm lens @ 210mm, 100 ISO, f8 @ 1/250

Crop from the image above
The NEX 7s ISO settings run from 100 to a ludicrously high 16,000. My unscientific findings are that up to 400 images are virtually noiseless and that 800 and 1600 are still very good. At 3200 noise is visible, though not that intrusive. At 12,800 noise is very visible but images are still okay if not cropped or blown up much and if the subject matter lends itself to a grainy look.

3200 ISO, 18-55mm lens @ 55mm, f9 @ 1/40
 
Lenses

From left: Ultra Wide Converter, 16mm, Sigma 30mm, 18-55mm, 55-210mm
A big complaint about the NEX cameras has been the lack of choice in lenses and the mediocre quality of those available. My preferences have always been for three zoom lenses - wide angle, mid-range and telephoto. This is what I used with my film and digital SLRs. When I bought the NEX 5N only a mid-range zoom was available and for a year I used this. When I wanted wider angle or telephoto shots I used the Canon 450D, which effectively became a back-up to the NEX, an unsatisfactory situation due to its weight and bulk. I did try a converter that allowed me to use the Canon lenses with the NEX but I lost any control over the aperture and there was no autofocus so I decided that for outdoor use it was unsuitable.

Initially I just used the 220 gram 18-55 f3.5-5.6 mid-range zoom with the NEX 7. I wanted more lenses though so I could carry the NEX 5 as back-up and not bother with the 450D. I ordered a Sony 55-210 zoom, but had to wait several months for it to become available. In the meantime I purchased a second-hand Sony 16mm f2.8 lens from eBay, second-hand because reviews suggested it was a poor lens so I didn’t want to splash out the full amount and find this was correct. In fact for my usage it’s fine. However 16mm is only slightly wider than the 18mm of my standard zoom so I soon added Sony’s Ultra Wide Converter, which turns it into a really wide 12mm lens. Because the converter can be quickly twisted on and off this gives a two-focal length unit, though in practice I nearly always use it at 12mm.  The 16mm weighs a mere 66 grams; the converter 129 grams.

Ultra Wide Converter/16mm, 100 ISO, f8 @ 1/320
Another complaint about the NEX 7 has been that there’s a magenta cast with wide angle lenses. I haven’t found this to be so. I’ve found there’s a purple cast. I first noticed this with some grey clouds, though, oddly, only on one side of the image. As I always shoot raw it’s no problem removing this when processing the images in Lightroom. At first I did adjust the magenta, assuming this was the problem due to the reviews I’d read, but it did nothing. Adjusting the purple then quickly removed the cast.

Eventually the 55-210 lens did arrive. It’s much bigger and heavier than the other lenses (379 grams) and not one I’d carry on a long distance or multi-day walk unless I felt I really needed it. However for day hikes and shorter backpacking trips it’s useful and the results are good.

Of these lenses only the 16mm lens is really small. With it attached the NEX 7 can be slipped into a large pocket. With the Ultra Wide Adapter or the zoom lenses this isn’t possible. 16mm is too wide for general use for me though so I was on the lookout for a more standard length lens when the 145 gram Sigma 30mm f2.8 lens appeared. This is a delightful little lens; small, light and capable of excellent results. I’ve found myself using it surprisingly often and if I only carry one lens to keep the weight down this is it even though it isn’t a zoom and doesn’t have image stabilisation, unlike the other lenses (I think this more important with focal lengths over around 40mm anyway).

This collection of lenses covers most of what I need though I would like an equivalent to the 24-70mm zoom that was my most used lens with film cameras. In fact I’ve wanted such a lens since I changed to digital DSLRs so I’m pleased that Sony are said to be bringing out one in the next few months, a 16-50 (equivalent to 24-75mm in 35mm) pancake lens that will hopefully be lighter as well as smaller than the 18-55. It could be the lens for trips where I only carry one. 

30mm lens, 400 ISO, f8 @ 1/800
 Carrying

At present I’m carrying the NEX 7 in a LowePro Apex 100 W padded case (232 grams). This has room for the camera plus any lens but the 55-210 and will also hold a spare battery and memory cards. It has an effective rain cover and is quite compact. However I’d rather have a click buckle fastened lid than the zip round one as the latter is a little awkward to use. The lenses are carried in Zing neoprene pouches in the pack.

Conclusion

Is the Sony NEX 7 the best camera for backpacking and hiking? I don’t know. It must be one of the best though, given the low weight and bulk and high image quality. It’s definitely a camera for photographers who want the best results and who are likely to make large prints or have images published. To get the best from it you need to shoot raw, watch the histogram and take care with the processing. If you don’t want to be bothered with any of that then a simpler, lighter, less expensive compact or even one of the better camera phones should be fine. But for committed photographers who venture into the wilds the NEX 7 is excellent.

Addendum: Criticisms

I've been asked if there are any flaws with this camera at all.  For me there are two minor ones, both complained about, sometimes loudly, by other reviewers as well. The first is the video button which is positioned so it is easily pressed accidentally. I've shot a few short boring videos by doing so. It can't be locked, something Sony should address. The second annoyance concerns the EVF. This comes on when you put it to your eye, which is excellent. However if you carry the camera slung on your chest it also comes on, and eats up battery life. Until I realised this was happening I was puzzled at to why the battery was losing power quickly even when the screen was off. Now I switch the camera off when there's going to be more than a few minutes between taking pictures.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review!

    I've been going for more treks and hikes recently and have been eyeing the NEX7 for quite awhile.

    Not going to make the jump until the said 16-50 pancake is launched. I had the NEX5 previously and while the camera was fantastic, I wasn't impressed with the IQ of the 1855 kit, though the build quality itself was very good.

    While waiting, the Olympus OM-D recently caught my eye. It looks good, feels damn solid and it's weather sealed.

    A recent trek in a pretty moist environment made me realise that weather sealing could be important. Wondering if you would be trying that camera out anytime soon?

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  2. Nice review on the things that really matter in photography.
    I just want to add another option that may be useful for other photographers out there that is the actual setup I'm using (and there are many reviews around the web too).

    Nex 5n + E-viewfinder and M to Nex mount adapter, I'm using Voightlader's 35mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.1

    Why not Nex 7?

    Price is relatively out of the ecuation since the sum of Nex 5n with the e-viewfinder is almost the same price as the body only Nex 7, slightly cheaper though.

    I like being able to swivel the viewfinder since I'm tall and I like taking pinctures from an angle other than my tall, also, for street photography not being in the usual photographer position with the camera allows me to be more inconspicuous (even taking photos on my side). Also, I dont use the eVF all the time, so, sometimes I just don't put it.

    Another advantage is the touch focusing because it is easyer to manual focus with the focusing aid that magnifies the image in the point I touch (I get a super sharp focusing by hand because of this, no need to recompose, very important when shooting wide open on a 1.1 at 1m)

    Anyway, just wanted to share this thoughts and I hope the're useful to other photogs outthere.

    Best regards

    Amilcar

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. I've had the Nex-7 for some times and is very happy with it. I started with the 18-55mm. lens and 16mm. lens with ultra wide converter. Both lenses and the converter is now sold. I have instead bought the Sigma 19mm.f.2. and the 30mm.f.2.8, and are extremely pleased with them as they provide better quality than my original Sony lenses. I also bought the Sony 50mm.f.1.8 but uses it only for portraits as it gives a great blurred background, but otherwise it can not beat my lenses from Sigma. The Sigma 30mm. also gives a good blurred background, but perhaps not quite as good as the Sony 50mm. Should I buy today I would not buy the 50mm. from Sony, but only buy the two Sigma lenses. They are also lighter and smaller and fits really well with Nex-7, plus they are also cheaper. They have not stabilizising in the lens, but up to 50mm. it means nothing to me. Hope Sigma comes with a lens of approx. 85mm. little more or less, for they have shown they can make super lenses for Nex system for little money.
    Greetings Jess from Denmark

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  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Aaron, a weather-sealed camera does sound appealing. However I've been using non-sealed ones in the Scottish Highlands - an extremely wet environment - for over 30 years and have yet to have a problem with damp. I'm unlikely to be trying the OM-D. I don't know anyone with one and having invested in the NEX system I'm not going to change anytime in the near future.

    Amilcar, thanks for those suggestions. The NEX 7 does have a swivel screen and I often use it for low shots. I can see a touchscreen could be useful.

    Jess, The Sigma 30mm is excellent. I haven't tried the 19mm. I also hope Sigma makes more lenses for the NEX.

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  6. Chris,

    I have been looking at the Sigma 19mm and 30mm lenses. Is the AF worse than the Sony lenses? Does it hunt a lot?

    Regards,
    David

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  7. David, the Sigma 30mm is about as fast as the Sony lenses I've used. It only hunts occasionally in poor light. It's now my favourite lens and the one I keep on the camera at all times.

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  8. Thanks Chris for this interesting review. I'm wondering about your comment 'in 30 years yet to have a problem with the damp'.

    Does this mean you can freely take pictures in the pouring rain? Or that you wrap the camera up tight in a waterproof bag and leave it in your pack when the weather is unfavourable? Since my first digital camera stopped working in damp conditions I've been careful about this. I used a waterproof Olympus Tough on the recent TGO Challenge, I thought it too risky to take my compact Sony which I love for its higher quality and sweep panorama and built-in GPS.

    What more do I need from a camera? Great low-light sensitivity, easy management of focussing, and a view-finder or support for better picture composition than I get from a vertical reflecting screen. This camera seems to fit the bill - although replacement lenses are not so important - I would expect more than 90% of pictures to be taken with one lens, and I would
    happily forego the remaining 10% for a saving of weight and money!

    I had a look at this camera at the airport last week. I can imagine the recess for the flash filling up with water, and the area behind the moveable backscreen holding on to moisture. And what about condensation in the optics after getting damp?

    Any comments on picture-taking in the rain would be welcome! Paul

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  9. Paul, I don't freely take pictures in pouring rain but I don't wrap the camera up tight and leave it in the pack except in torrential rain. The Lowepro case I use has a rain cover that works fine in most rain. When I put the camera in the pack - in the Lowepro case, I don't use anything else - it's because there are very strong winds as well as rain so taking pictures would be very difficult anyway.

    When I take pictures in the rain - and I took some during the very wet weather on the last Challenge - I use my body to shield the camera and only have it out of the case for as short a time as possible.

    The only time I've had condensation in the optics was many years ago with film cameras when I brought them in to warm places when they were very cold. I soon learnt not to do that!

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  10. Hi Chris,

    I've just bought a NEX 7 myself (wanted one for ages). While I'll not be giving up my DSLR (A sony a77) for my photography I do intend to use the NEX 7 for mountain walking and maybe wild camping (carrying camera kit and tent stuff is very exhausting and hard going).

    I did have a NEX 5 but couldn't get used to not having a viewfinder.

    I've just ordered the new 10-18mm lens, expensive but meant to be really good. Have you considered this?

    I'm also considering getting the 18-200mm Sony or Tamron. not sure which yet.

    BTW they've released a firmware update to sort the movie button out and there's also an option to turn off the auto switch to EVF off :)

    Cheers,

    James

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  11. Hi James,

    I am considering the 10-18mm lens. It is expensive. In the meantime I'm getting good results with the 16mm + UW Adapter.

    I now have the 16-50mm lens, which is really small and light.

    Yes, I have the firmware update - no more accidental movies of my feet!

    Cheers,

    Chris

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    1. Good stuff. I have the 10-18mm and its pretty damn sharp (it does have some flaws if you shoot RAW which will hopefully be addressed with a lens profile).

      How do you find the 16-50mm? I understand its portability but heard its pretty useless unless shooting JPG?

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    2. James, I've been shooting raw with the NEX 7 and the 16-50 and the results are fine. There is some vignetting at 16mm but Lightroom corrects this automatically. The shots in my post for January 14 were all from raw images taken with the 16-50.

      Sounds like I'll have to get the 10-18mm! Thanks for your comment.

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  12. For super wide, I'm looking to get the ultra-wide converter to use with my 16mm pancake instead. I dont have a NEX 7 but a NEX 5N which I've use for about 8 months and enjoy photographing similar scenes to those above in the hills around Moffat or on ski days in the local hills or the Highlands. I also have the 18-55 that came with the camera, and bought the 55-210 later which I agree is pretty big but is a great lens when you need it. I've also just got hold of the ultra compact power zoom 16-50 which seems awesome so far but needs testing in earnest although I suspect it will be on the camera a lot from now on especially when I just want to pocket the camera and go. Great shots & great website BTW :)

    Cheers ... Ross

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  13. Just wondering what people's thoughts were on using the Wideangle converter on the 16mm? I'm a stickler for image quality, ie. decent sharpness throughout the image, doesn't the UW converter make the edges and corners very very soft or does the image retain an acceptable level of sharpness?

    Anyone know of a lens that would work with either the 5n or nex 7 with the adapter for SLR lenses and a 10/11mm equivalent (approx 16mm FF)

    Cheers,

    H.GIll

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  14. Hi Chris
    Love your blog and photographs, and was interested in buying a Sony NEX. Thanks for this comprehensive guide. On the back of this and other reviews I have just bought the NEX 6 today so I hope it will work for me!
    Also need a tent or tarp as my ancient Vango finally gave up the ghost on a bushcraft course. Like the look of your ML Trailstar. Have been in touch with Joe at ZPacks and love his Heaxmid Solo+, but not sure it will endure up a Scottish mountainside. Must read more of your shelter reviews!
    Keep up the good work.
    Cheers
    Steve

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  15. How about the protection in very humid and hot climates, rain, fog, spray etc. I think for real outdoor use the Pentax K30 or K 5 IIs is still the better joice. Or I'm wrong?

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    1. I bought a well-used Nex 7 in summer 2013 and that's been lots of damp, cold places this winter just gone, stuffed in my outside skiing/climbing jacket pocket. All the photos in this album were taken with the Nex 7 and the SELP1650Z ...

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/88898381@N02/sets/72157644420384371/

      Cheers ... Ross

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