What Kind of Camera Should I Buy? A year with the Sony NEX-7

Well, it happened again.
See, I try not to be a brand loyalist, so when someone inevitably asks me, "Hey I'm thinking of getting a DSLR, what should I buy, a Canon or a Nikon?" I always stay nestled comfortably on the fence.  

..and the person will go buy whatever speaks to them.   A Nikon because they saw Disney Photopass photographers use those or a Canon because the wedding photographer at the mall said they were better.

I finally have an anwer to give people.   

Get a mirrorless interchangable lens camera.  A Nikon 1 System, a Canon EOS M or a Sony NEX-7.
Of those available, I like the NEX-7.

My Sony NEX-7 is a little over a year old now, based on street date anyway.   I'm sure Sony is hard at work or probably in final testing of the next-big-thing in the NEX line.
(Probably a full-frame mirrorless NEX camera.)

I bought my NEX-7 early but didn't use it much.  The lack of use, also meant I didn't take the time to invest in the right lens.  (for me.)   I remedied that problem recently with the SEL18200 18-200mm e-mount lens.  This additional lens is really the catalyst for this re-review.

First off, this lens is awesome.   On the camera, it looks a little like a point-and-shoot and lightsaber rented a fine hotel room and made long, passionate whoopy into the night.

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6 months later (that's the gestation period for electroncs, I think) this bad boy came out. (Can you hear the song, Bad to the Bone in your head yet?)  .... b.b.b.b.B.B.BAAAADD 
(the good, bad, not to be construed with the bad, bad)

But instead of portruding a super-intense electrified beam of plasma and light capable of cutting anything, this sci-fi lovechild is capable of capturing light for just about any scenario you put it in..

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By no means why I would choose one camera over the other but there exists this phenomenon related to the looks of a camera.   When you are out in earth or other similarly populated quadrant of your star system, people respond to different cameras in different ways.  When you carry a bulky black DSLR with all of it's mirror-flippy bells and whistles, people look at you and wonder, "That is a professional photographer, they must be on assignment."  --and that bit of sillyness will sometimes get you access to things.

(If I fly my Drone around the Naval Air Station, which is really just a flying camera -- people get all worked up about national security.   What? It's just a camera. This version didn't include the AGM Hellfire package)

For the NEX with the 16mm pancake lens, a person will glance in your direction and think, "huh, another tourist shutterbug."  -- There is something about this as well.  The bouncer will have his guard down because clearly you are just in for a picture of you and the gang and aren't the social networking papparazzi coming to review this establishment.

With the 18-55mm kit lens, it's somewhere in between these two but with the 18-200mm on the NEX-7 people see the camera and the general response from the unknowing public is "what the hell is that thing?"

Still, though, among photography circles you may find yourself wanting to apologize for using it, like a Harley owner caught riding his favorite Honda. "Hey, is that a Sony NEX mirrorless?"   
(apologetically) "Uhmmmm.. yes.. umm... but .. umm. My REAL camera is a _______"

But make no mistake, the NEX-7 is a REAL camera.

Then, there is the branding problem.    "A Sony, eh?   I had a Sony Walkman / Mini Disc / camcorder/ vcr / television / ham radio / blender in 1999 that wasn't Y2k compatible and is broken."

When you think serious camera equipment, you think (in no particular order here) Canon, Leica, Nikon, RED, Hasselblad; not necessarily Sony.  When your PS3 overheats and dies or your collection of mini discs and Beta tapes falls and kills your cat and the film crew of Hoarders preventing your grand TV-Appearance, you can't help but hold a grudge against Sony, the company.

Take solace.   If Sony were a country, the Alpha division that makes these cameras is an island of untainted awesome all on its own; birthed from Minolta DNA and beaming with an innovative drive that shows through in some pretty damned ingenuous gear that is refreshing in such a stagnant industry.

The Canon and Nikon entries into the mirrorless space have been, strictly in my opinion, weak as hell by comparison.   They pitched their crap from the hilltop and we take it b/c they are Canon and Nikon, whaddya gonna do?  Yes, yes, I know, I'll get hatemail for this and for the record, my wife has a 1 System camera and loves it.    But, you have to look at it from the perspective of Canon and Nikon.   Why create a cheaper camera that is as-good-as-if-not-better than your best high end professional gear?  As my business mentor would say, "Don't compete with yourself, stupid."    

By marketshare, Sony is looking up from the bottom and saying, "Hell, we don't have anything to loose, here's something awesome." 

If Canon and Nikon don't tighten up their weak offerings in the mirrorless space, it could go poorly for them on the long run.   Hold on, I think Kodak is on the phone..

It is Time for a Drink to Reflect on What Makes the NEX-7 Awesome
ISO Performance

Cameras have taught me over the years to expect heavy noise with higher resolution sensors at higher ISO.    I was surprised with the in-camera noise reduction abilities of the NEX-7.    Sure, you get above 3200 ISO and you start to get some noise creeping in but the images are still very usable.

This image was shot at ISO 1600 and I'm surprised that the noise is very much in control, still. Dense sensors, usually punish you at high ISO.   My D7000, for instance, I wouldn't go above 800 ISO for anything.
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This was from a flimsy tripod but still very clear given the higher ISO, I think.
I was on the phone with this dude the other day that was a brand loyalist.   I won't say what his brand was but I thought was interesting when he spoke, "The thing I like about Brand X is that you can shoot ISO 100.   Brand Y stops at 200."

I didn't correct him.   Being a user of brand x, y, z, I can tell you that statement was foolish.

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Speaking of ISO 100, the Sony NEX-7 produced some very nice, crisp images in indoor light on a tripod and timed shutter.  

Looks like it's time to dust in my dining room..


Getting My Macro On

Being an f3.5-f6.3 lens, I normally wouldn't expect such tack sharpness from this lens.  Yet at the 200mm range and a large aperture, you get some really quite impressive detail.

I shoot in RAW and without JPEG side-copies.   The RAW images coming from my Nikon are flat with muted colors and missing detail.   It isn't until you bring them into a photo finishing package (I use Lightroom) that you can really bring those images to life.     What has struck me about the Sony NEX-7 is that their default RAW images look better and very little tweaking is needed to amp up the colors and bring in the detail.

I'm sure there is a techno-whizzy reason for this that is measured in bits or microns or nano-something-or-others but I don't really care what that is.    Good job, Sony, giving me usable RAWs out of camera and the usual opporutnities to improve the images.

Tele & Autofocus
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As a telephoto lens, the 18-200mm works very well.   The Sony's autofocus is very good, able to contrast-detect a subject even with surrounding objects that might usually pop the focus elsewhere.  At 24 megapixel, you have plenty of opportunity to crop an image in post, which really helps in finding compositional opportunities in an image.

Possibly the Perfect Body & Lens For a Kid-Cam
I really like Sony's logic for autofocus.  It is very-good.   Miles & Buzz will help me illustrate below.  (Miles is the one not wearing a space helment that does that cool SWWWOOOOSH thing)
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Here, we have a good, clean image of buzz.   Miles is lurking in the background.

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At this point, Miles has detected unauthorized use of a toy by a parent and he is beginning to engage the target parent.

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Still approaching... 

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Here, he's approaching but still behind the helmet, so the contrast seeking autofocus wizardry hasn't kicked in quite yet.
Then.. BAMF..
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The Sony smartly shifts the focus to Miles.

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..and keeps on him as he tracks forward..

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even, when he gets to be really, too close for the optimal focus range at this mm-to-distance ratio..

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Until such time Miles steals my toy.
Alas, Buzz, our time together wasn't meant to be..
Plus, the small body size of the NEX -7 makes it great for out-and-about use, whether to catch sillyness at lunch:
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or to document the terror of human on plush toy domestic violence..

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If you are a serious photographer looking for a second camera body or something different, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the NEX-7.

For the rest..  you have probably gotten frustrated with the slow-shutter and blurriness of photos from your P&S camera.  Your phone is really good but you want something that is a bit more, perhaps with a zoom or more manual settings.    You are gearing up for the big trip this summer or for the coming holidays or you just always wanted to take on photography as a hobby, so you find yourself hovering around those big, professional-looking cameras at Best Buy and Sams Club.    Eventually, you buy one in a Black Friday sale or on a combo deal.  
You go home, all excited because you know you've taken the step into photography and you feel like you got a good deal.

(Honey, it has TWO lenses and it was only $600 THIS weekend only).

At first, you use the heck out of that camera.   You get some great shots but you probably keep it on the big green A (for Automatic).    As the honeymoon wears off, in about a year your shiney camera finds itself not getting used, sitting at the bottom of the closet.    You use it for special occassions and then eventually not at all.

In two years you buy a Point and Shoot.   The other camera is just so big and bulky, surely Point and Shoot cameras have improved in the last few years!! 

They haven't.   In six months you find yourself looking at the ads for another amazing deal on a DSLR.
..and the vicious cycle begins again...

If you feel this could be you..

Do yourself a favor, spend a little more money now and buy the NEX-7 with the SEL18200 18-200mm lens. It isn't cheap, probably $1800 for the camera + lens.  But, I'll see you in 4 years, you'll still have it, it will still work and you'll have 4 years of great photos to look back on.   

Sure, it won't be the last camera you'll buy - things will evolve and improve  but your next camera in 5 years probably won't have the flippy mirror thing and will look more like my Sony NEX-7 than my Nikon D800. 

..and for Pete's sake, don't buy a P&S, especially the big ones with crazy zooms that look like DSLRs but without the removable lens, your iPhone 4s, 5, (6?) will take much better shots..

"What about you Bill, isn't it hipocritical to say the NEX-7 is all you ever need, you still shoot with a D800 and you aren't even a professional"

Yeah, leave me a lone.   I'm a big, bald kid that likes his toys. ;)