The subject of this review will be to discuss the merits, usability, performance, and suitability of the Sony NEX-7 for wilderness travel. Based on a comprehensive review of the state of the digital camera market today, we hypothesize that the Sony NEX-7 is capable of capturing higher image quality for less weight than (1) any other camera body equipped with a digital sensor smaller than full-frame; (2) any other camera body lighter in weight than the full-frame sensor equipped Leica M9; and (3) any compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera body. Thus, one important goal of this review is to evaluate this lofty thesis, which could have significant implications for the backpacking photographer.
This is a rolling review that will be released in several parts during the review period:
- PART 1: Introduction
- PART 2: Sony NEX-7 in use with manual focus lenses – OLED viewfinder – Focus peaking – Exposure control
- PART 3: Some lightweight and compact lens options for the Sony NEX-7
- PART 4: Shooting HD video with the NEX-7
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
Wilderness travelers who are enthusiastic about saving weight on gear often do so in the interests of adding weight back in order to increase their enjoyment of wilderness travel. In my consulting work with the U.S. Marines, I have discovered that the rifleman cares less about his absolute pack weight and more about the number of bullets that he can carry. In other words, if he can carry less weight in communications equipment, armor, cold weather clothing, and camping gear, then he can carry more weight in bullets. Ergo, the manifestation of lightweight backpacking philosophy for the U.S. Marine is to increasing his killing power (effectiveness), and not in reducing his load stress, per se (it is worth recognizing that bullets might be considered “consumable” items on the Marine’s gear list, resulting in significant pack weight reduction during the course of a combat mission).
It is like that for others as well, including hardshell kayakers, wilderness scientists, and professional photographers. For some, packing along lightweight camping gear is simply greater justification for packing along heavy gear for which substitutes would be considered heresy. I’ve known more than a handful of boaters unwilling to give up their particular model of hardshell, scientists unwilling to give up their chosen field instrumentation, and photographers unwilling to give up their large format camera, lenses, and an eight-pound tripod.
For the rest of us, and in particular, the rest of us that are hikers first and photographers second, the pursuit of a path of reason trumps the need to carry a camera that gives us uncompromising image quality.
Thus we fall into one of two camps.
The first camp is occupied by those who simply wish to carry a camera as a mechanism to document their travels. Image quality is less important than ease of use, weatherproofing, compactness, light weight, battery life, ruggedness, and reliability.
The second camp is occupied by more practiced photographers who wish to maximize image quality in a small, compact, and lightweight package, without compromising those aspects of photography that preserve creative control for the photographer – things like manual exposure control, interchangeable lenses, and large sensor sizes that deliver high resolution images that can be manipulated later during post processing.
Until just a few years ago, the latter group’s only option was a camera system based on a DSLR body and lenses. A typical DSLR kit for wilderness travel might include a medium range kit zoom lens, one or two extra batteries, and a case, resulting in a carry weight in the range of 1.5 to 3.0 pounds.
Comparing the size of the Nikon D7000 (and Nikon DX 35/1.8 lens) with the Sony NEX-7 (and Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8 lens). Two systems that offer good image and video quality and creative control, with dramatic differences in both size and weight.
Then, a few years ago, the game started to change, with the introduction of two distinct classes of cameras: large-sensor fixed lens compact cameras, and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The former category is characterized by the Sigma DP1 / DP2, Leica X1, and Fuji X100 – cameras that weigh in the range of 11 ounces or less (including lens weight). The latter category is characterized by the Micro Four Thirds systems from Olympus and Panasonic, the Ricoh GXR system, and the Sony NEX system, cameras that weigh in the range of 12 to 20 ounces with a lightweight lens. These “system” camera weights (including the camera body, a few batteries, carry case, and a lightweight lens) range from about 1.0 to 2.0 pounds (depending primarily on the choice of lens), making them distinctly lighter (and more compact) than their DSLR counterparts – but not without cost. These systems suffer from poor or nonexistent viewfinders, slow autofocus speeds, lack of quick and direct manual exposure controls, and, especially for Micro Four Thirds systems (which have smaller sensors than conventional DSLR sensors), substandard image quality (specifically: resolution, low noise at higher ISO, and dynamic range) relative to what is available in modern DSLR systems with APS-C sized sensors.
One of the more recent entries into this market is the Sony NEX-7. What distinguishes the NEX-7 from virtually every other “more compact than a DSLR” camera is not one specific unique feature or performance benchmark, but rather the fact that it includes all of the following:
- High resolving power with an APS-C sized sensor, (suspected) minimal anti-aliasing filter, and the ability to record RAW images at a 24MP resolution.
- Good performance (low noise) at high ISO ranges.
- Direct exposure control with physical dials rather than buttons.
- Built in flash.
- Full HD (60i / 1080p) video capabilities with external mic input.
Considering that all of these features are available in such a compact and lightweight package (the NEX-7 body weighs only 10 ounces), the NEX-7 should be on a pretty short list of cameras to be considered by the lightweight backpacker who is also a serious photography enthusiast.
The Sony NEX-7 kit I’m using includes the NEX-7 body, Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8 lens (with Voigtlander VM adapter, lens hood, and UV + ND filters), a Lowepro Edit 100 case, extra battery, extra SD card, lens cloth, silica packs, Loksak, and shower cap for protecting the camera in rain. Total carry weight is about 28 ounces. When I take a tripod (as I often do), it’s the Gitzo GT0531 (with a Really Right Stuff BH-25 ball head), which adds another 1.9 pounds to the kit.
Thus, the subject of this review will be to discuss the merits, usability, performance, and suitability of the Sony NEX-7 for lightweight wilderness travel. Based on a comprehensive review of the state of the digital camera market today, we hypothesize that the Sony NEX-7 is capable of capturing higher image quality for less weight than (1) any other camera body equipped with a digital sensor smaller than full-frame; (2) any other camera body lighter in weight than the full-frame sensor equipped Leica M9; and (3) any compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera body. Thus, one important goal of this review is to evaluate this lofty thesis, which could have significant implications for the backpacking photographer.
When evaluating the usability, performance, and applicability of any particular “system," whether a cooking system or an image making system, one must consider the relationship between the components of that system, and in particular, the performance of the system as a whole – realizing that the performance of the system as a whole is far more important than the individual performance of the system’s separate parts, which in most cases, lacks relevance.
There are several E-mount system lenses capable of being autofocused by the NEX-7 body, and on top of that (with adapters), literally hundreds of legacy lenses that can be combined with the NEX-7 body. And out of those, I’ve selected two as being among the most interesting to lightweight backpackers: the Sony 16/2.8 for its small size, light weight, and wide angle view and the Leica 28/2.8 for its small size, light weight, and high resolving potential.
Thus, in this review, I’ll be taking a look at three NEX-7 centric systems by considering combinations of the NEX-7 body with the following lenses:
- Leica Elmarit-M 28mm f/2.8 – one of the sharpest (and most compact) lenses made, and thus, a lens that is capable of capturing the true resolving power of the NEX-7 sensor.
- Sony 16mm f/2.8 – the most compact and lightweight of the NEX lenses, and thus, perhaps, an applicable combination for the serious ultralight backpacker.
- Sony 18-55/3.5-5.6 – the standard kit lens shipped with NEX-7 packages, and the lightest medium-range zoom available for the NEX-7. While not as small or as light as other lenses, I expect this to be one of the more popular lenses used with the NEX-7 for its versatility.
One might typically start the usability portion of a review like this by discussing the operation of the camera with a kit lens, or at the very least, an autofocus lens that integrates perfectly with the camera body’s computer. I’ve chosen an opposite route, and have decided to start with a discussion of the camera’s performance with a legacy manual focus lens that requires manual adjustment of both focus and aperture via controls on the lens itself.
The reason for this is twofold.
First, I suspect the NEX-7 will appeal to photographers who have an interest in using the highest quality, smallest, and lightest lenses possible, with the NEX-7 acting only as a necessary, depreciating evil, i.e., the “lens recorder," if you will. Consequently, because the highest quality, most compact, and lightest lenses are often manual focus rangefinder lenses from the likes of Leica and Zeiss, the operation of the NEX-7 with these lenses will be of the utmost interest to this user niche.
Coffee. East Gallatin River. Sony NEX-7 and Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8.
Second, the NEX-7 is the first digital camera body I’ve used, in a long string of what I now consider largely failed attempts, that makes shooting with legacy manual lenses easy, simple, and enjoyable. To establish the entire process that a user must go through with the NEX-7 to capture an image manually provides the necessary foundation upon which can then be laid a discussion of using lenses that automate focus and aperture. This automation is neither special nor unique with the NEX-7, and the NEX-7 behaves like most other bodies when coupled with automatic lenses. In other words, the NEX-7’s ability to integrate with legacy manual lenses is one feature that makes it a particularly special camera.
Using the Viewfinder
The NEX-7‘s OLED viewfinder may be its greatest asset other than its sensor. The viewfinder is bright, has a high resolution, can be used easily for manual focus feedback, is engaged automatically simply by holding the camera up to the eye, and offers a wide array of information, including all of the essential information required for exposure and composition (including gridlines, aperture and shutter speed values, an exposure compensation scale, the mode setting, and a histogram).
A significant benefit of the viewfinder, combined with the camera’s intuitive user interface (which is based on three dials and a few well-spaced buttons), is that most of the settings required for managing the exposure and focus of an image can be manipulated while looking through the viewfinder.
With the Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8 lens, I have four settings to consider when shooting with the NEX-7 in aperture priority (“A”) mode: focus, aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO. Let’s take a look at how each of these is adjusted, and what sort of feedback the NEX-7 provides you in response to adjustment.
Focus with legacy lenses, including the Leica Elmarit-M used in this review, is manual, using the focusing ring on the lens. The challenge of using manual focus lenses on digital bodies is in interpreting the exact point at which the subject is in focus, i.e., the camera’s focus feedback mechanism.
Tenkara. East Gallatin River. Sony NEX-7 and Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8.
Most cameras use one of two (and sometimes both) types of manual focus feedback mechanisms. The first involves contrast detection at the focus point. For example, on the Nikon D7000, when the subject in the focus point is in a state of maximum focus, a small green dot is visible in the viewfinder. Two arrows on either side of the dot indicate the direction that the focus ring on the lens needs to be turned in order to achieve a state of focus. Other cameras, including a number of Micro Four Thirds bodies from both Olympus and Panasonic, require a very high degree of zooming using the LCD screen (or perhaps, an external electronic viewfinder). The better of these systems trigger automatic zooming upon rotation of the focus ring on the lens. Both of these types of systems suffer from some imprecision due to their subjectivity. Further, “LCD-screen zoom type systems” suffer from slow use in actual practice.
The NEX-7 offers a feature Sony calls “focus peaking.” It works the same whether you are looking on the LCD screen or through the viewfinder.
Focus peaking is enabled in the Settings Menu and offers two settings: Peaking Level and Peaking Color. Peaking Level can be set to High, Medium, Low, or none, and defines the extent to which outlines of subjects in focus are enhanced with the (specified) Peaking Color. Peaking Color can be set to White, Red, or Yellow.
In addition to focus peaking, the NEX-7 offers a Focus Zoom button within easy reach of the thumb on the grip hand. The combination of focus peaking and focus zoom, along with the focus ring of the lens, results in rapid focusing with a highly effective feedback mechanism that has easily given me the ability to properly and very accurately focus nearly 100% of my shots with manual focus lenses.
Aperture on a manual focus lens is adjusted normally with the lens’ aperture ring. Objective feedback (the aperture value) is not available – you have to look at the aperture setting on the lens’ aperture ring to know what the aperture is. However, subjective feedback is available on the LCD screen (or viewfinder) by monitoring focus peaking – an increased depth of field is indicated by noting the presence of the peaking color on the edges of in-focus subjects throughout the depth of image.
When in “M” (manual) exposure mode, shutter speed is controlled by the left dial on the top of the camera (the right top dial controls exposure compensation), and feedback (as indicated by the shutter speed) is available on both the screen and in the viewfinder.
Exposure Compensation & Histogram
Exposure compensation is controlled by the right dial on the top of the camera (the left top dial controls shutter speed), and feedback (as indicated by the amount of exposure compensation via a pointer on an exposure compensation scale) is available both on the screen and in the viewfinder.
Using exposure compensation is most helpful when the histogram is turned on in the display, which provides feedback for dialing in correct exposure. The histogram can be turned on and off in the Camera Menu and can be viewed both on the LCD screen and in the viewfinder.
ISO is adjusted with the thumbwheel. ISO feedback is provided on the LCD screen and in the viewfinder.
It’s also worth noting that all of the dials (any many of the buttons) can be customized to control a variety of other functions. My preference is for the dials to be dedicated, and their function clearly labeled. This, of course, is a Catch-22, because it might be helpful for some photographers to assign other functions to dials and buttons that better match up with their style of shooting.
Trees and Sky. Sony NEX-7 with Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8.
IN USE: THE DETAILED PROCESS OF TAKING A PHOTO WITH A LEGACY MANUAL LENS IN “A” (APERTURE PRIORITY) MODE
I find it helpful to document processes for accomplishing specific tasks, especially digital cameras that are capable of customization. What follows is the process that I use for capturing the vast majority of my images with an NEX-7 and a manual focus lens while backpacking while in “A” (aperture-priority) mode.
- Remove the camera from its carry case.
- Remove the lens cap from the lens (it usually gets placed in a pocket, or in the camera carry case temporarily).
- Turn the camera switch to “ON” using your index finger.
- Set the aperture using the aperture ring on the lens.
- Hold the camera up and look through the viewfinder, which activates the viewfinder display automatically (and automatically shuts off the LCD screen).
- Manually focus the lens with your left hand and note the precision of focus by viewing the focus peaking color on the edges of in-focus subjects.
- If necessary for more precise focus (I find this unnecessary most of the time), press the focus zoom button with your right thumb once to enter focus zoom mode, and one more time to zoom in. Press the shutter button halfway to exit focus zoom mode once you have achieved critical focus.
- Using your right thumb, while viewing the histogram, adjust exposure compensation (top right dial) accordingly so as to achieve the type of histogram you want (e.g., to avoid blowing out highlights).
- Note the shutter speed, and if necessary, increase the ISO (using the dial on the rear of the camera with your right thumb) if the resulting shutter speed in the scene is too low for handheld image capture.
- Press the shutter button to capture the image.
- Review the image by pressing the Playback button with your right thumb.
- Switch the camera off, replace the lens cap, and return the camera to its carry case.
Steps #5 through #12 can be accomplished while looking through the viewfinder – a significant benefit in bright lighting conditions. In addition, these steps can be performed intuitively by feel using only your thumb for controlling three dials and one of three buttons that are spaced rather far apart so as to avoid confusion.
Finally, switching modes (e.g., between “M” and “A”) can also be accomplished by looking through the viewfinder, and requires a press with the right thumb on the button in the center of the rear dial, a turn of the dial to change the mode, and a press of the dial button to choose the mode.
PRELIMINARY REVIEW SUMMARY
I have neither the interest nor the experience in writing camera reviews to write a technical review of the Sony NEX-7. My objective here is simple: evaluate the applicability of the NEX-7 in the context of wilderness travel.
To that end, I’m most interested in three things: how to deploy and use the camera while hiking, how the camera behaves with manual focus lenses, and what sort of image quality results from various lightweight lenses. In addition, I’m very interested in shooting HD video with the NEX-7, and will present the next episode of “24” in the context of this review.
Finally, I’m approaching the usability and performance of the NEX-7 from the usability and performance of my primary high-quality / HD video shooting system, the Nikon D7000. I realize that some shooters will be evaluating the NEX-7 as a “step up” from a more compact camera. To you, I have to ask, “why do you want to add pack weight back to your pack?” I mean that question to be only half-cynical. After all, we’re in the business of saving weight, not adding it. Of course, that question is an important one, because perhaps the NEX-7 will open up creativity and quality to the backpacking photographer who has previously shot only with small sensor compact cameras.
I’ve not spent a lot of time with the NEX-7. However, I’ve spent enough time with it to communicate my key findings that are most relevant to my own backpacking experience, and those findings are worth outlining in this interim summary to whet the appetites of those considering the NEX-7 as a backpacking camera before the more comprehensive parts of this review are completed:
- I am able to assemble a NEX-7 kit that is significantly more compact, and significantly lighter, than any DSLR kit, without sacrificing HD video or still image quality.
- The NEX-7 provides a better experience with manual focus lenses (including the precision and speed at which critical focus can be achieved) than any digital body I’ve tried, including both Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds systems, the Ricoh GXR, and the Leica M8/M9.
- haven’t even begun to scratch the surface to investigate some of the features of the NEX-7, including its panoramic and HDR functions, creative scene modes, and more. However, I’m very pleased to note that all of these things can remain effectively buried in the menu system without getting in the way of basic camera and exposure controls.
- The triple-dial control system of the NEX-7 provides an effective solution for rapid and intuitive exposure control.
- Although small (the body of the NEX-7 is only slightly larger in size than my Sigma DP2), the NEX-7 provides a real grip that makes one handed shooting comfortable. Paired with an autofocus lens, and noting that all exposure functions can be manipulated with the thumb of the grip hand, I find this to be a valuable feature for capturing images while trekking, when one hand might be holding trekking poles, or for scrambling / climbing, when one hand might be securing your life.
(Added on July 5, 2012)
When a lens reviewer reviews the quality of a lens, they pixel peep, i.e., they view the resulting images at 100% magnification on screen, so that the sharpness of the lens can be adequately evaluated.
The lens reviewer studies MTF curves, takes photos of wine bottle labels, American coins, and other accoutrements of modern civilization that pixel peepers find fascinating, and then make judgments about how those tiny little pixels translate into the archaic world of viewing – an increasingly strange manifestation of modern day photography – the often elusive “print”.
I enjoy creating prints from my images. This 16×20 print of the sunset behind the infamous Camp Parsons Pier complements a media nook in my home. It was taken with a Nikon D7000 and a Voigtlander Color Skopar 20/3.5 SLII lens (ISO 100, f/5, 30s), curve-corrected and sharpened very slightly for print output, and exported with the custom printer profile at my local Costco. Any APS-C sensor – and a quality lens – should capture RAW images that, with a little effort, are nothing short of stunning at this size, and entirely suitable for home decor at sizes up to 24×36. However, lower lens quality is magnified in large prints, and their limitations begin to be seen at prints larger than 8×10.
I’m neither a lens reviewer, nor a pixel peeper. I’m an outdoorsman. I’ve shown my photos in galleries, but rarely, and when I do, I care way more about the composition of the image, and how compelling it is, rather than its sharpness, or how well it compares to the seven other guys in the gallery showing prints from files captured with their Hasselbads and Linhofs.
So, the review you’re going to get here about lenses for the Sony NEX-7 is going to be from the perspective of an outdoorsman in general, and a lightweight backpacker in particular. Yes, I’ll peep at some pixels at 100%, and I’ll let you know what I find. But I’ll try to give you a more practical perspective as well.
A Note About Manual Focus Rangefinder Lenses With the NEX-7
It is well known that manual focus rangefinder lenses, especially those from Zeiss and Leica, offer “better image quality” (some combination of sharpness, microcontrast, bokeh rendering, and color rendering) for the weight than any other class of lenses. There are a few lenses that may be higher in quality than the best rangefinder lenses made by Leica or Zeiss, but they are much heavier. Likewise, there are plenty of lenses that are lighter than Leica and Zeiss’s best rangefinder lenses, but their image quality is inferior (however, even Leicaphiles who only view their images online have to admit that this gap must be closing, no?).
It is no great surprise then, that there is a demand for adapters that allow rangefinder lenses to be used with popular mirrorless formats, including Micro Four Thirds (Olympus and Panasonic), the Ricoh GXR, and the Sony NEX systems.
There are practical disadvantages to using manual rangefinder lenses on the Sony NEX-7.
- Aperture is controlled by the aperture ring on the lens and that information is not communicated as EXIF data attached to the image. The EXIF doesn’t include the lens make, model, or focal length, either. My conclusion: so what.
- Focus is controlled by a manual focus ring on the lens, with assistance from in-camera contrast detection (see Part 2 of this review for details). You don’t have access to the camera’s autofocusing features when using manual focus rangefinder lenses. In addition, you can quickly zone focus these lenses – because a focusing scale is imprinted on the top of the lens – something that is missing from nearly every digital lens ever produced. I grew up learning photography with manual focus lenses. While I do appreciate instant spot-on autofocus, focusing manually just isn’t a barrier for me, and with the NEX-7’s focus peaking functionality, using manual focus lenses on it are a joy.
- Leica lenses are extraordinarily expensive. Zeiss lenses are about one third to one half the price of Leica lenses for image quality that approaches (and in many cases, matches or exceeds Leica). Voigtlander lenses are about one third to one half again as expensive as similar Zeiss lenses, and offer measurably lower image quality – and perhaps, the best image-quality-to-value ratio. In spite of the dramatic differences in prices for each of these major brands of rangefinder lenses, the quality delivered by the lowest end (Voigtlander) – especially its wide angle lenses (12mm to 21mm) – can be pretty good.
- Most wide angle lenses of focal length 28mm and less (including the Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8 used in this review) have a rear element that protrudes through the back of the lens, and when mounted, results in that rear element coming very close to the camera sensor. On the NEX-7, this results in light hitting the sensor at steep angles, causing color fringing at edges and corners. The effect is easily enough fixed by processing your raw images through a correction utility (such as the excellent Cornerfix), but be aware that this is an extra step in your post processing routine when using wide angle rangefinder lenses (and probably many wide angle lenses of other brands and camera types that are not natively designed for the E-mount of the NEX-7). For me, the extra step clutters my workflow and results in images that are less than optimal. As someone who likes to capture the image I want in the camera, rather than “create” the image I want in post-processing, I stopped using MF wide angles with the NEX-7 after the luster wore off. I spend enough time in front of the computer.
Trailstar in Bridger Mountains. Note the magenta color fringing in the corners of this image. Sony NEX-7 with a Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar Aspherical II 15mm f/4.5.
Summary of Selected Lenses with the NEX-7
I’ve used four manual focus rangefinder lenses on the NEX-7 (all Leica M-mount, and used with the Voigtlander LM adapter) and several autofocus lenses (including the tiny and light Sony 16/2.8, featured in this review). My lens selection is based primarily upon using the very smallest and lightest lenses at each focal length that I want. For the purpose of this review, I’ll summarize a few notes about my experiences with each of the lenses I’ve used, eventually moving on to the lenses that I now use most often in the context of backpacking.
Obviously, what follows is a sampling of what I’ve used, not a sampling of what is available or what may become available soon. Certainly, you might have differences in opinion or criteria when it comes to lens selection.
1. Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar Aspherical II 15mm f/4.5
This wide angle lens requires the correction of color fringing (I use Cornerfix), and results in a 35mm-equivalent field of view of about 21mm, making this a good focal length for wide, sweeping landscapes with a strong foreground element. Thus, the feature that I value the most in a wide angle lens for backpacking, because I use it primarily for capturing landscapes, is sharpness. The Heliar is well known for its excellent optics, and the NEX-7’s ability to capture that detail across the entire frame is excellent. Unfortunately, it suffers from severe color fringing and, for most of my photo work, the hassle to correct it simply isn’t worth it. For wide angle applications, I prefer the cheap (albeit lesser quality) optics, autofocus, compactness, and light weight of the Sony 16mm f/2.8 (see below).
Fire and Trailstar in Bridger Mountains, Montana. Sony NEX-7 and Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar Aspherical II 15/4.5 (ISO 800, 2.5s, Aperture unknown). This image wasn’t corrected in Cornerfix, and magenta color fringing can be seen in the snow at the left edge of the image, and very slightly in the flame at the lower right edge. Cornerfix completely eliminates this fringing without meaningfully perceptive loss of image quality, unless you start to peep at pixels.
2. Leica Elmarit-M 28mm f/2.8 ASPH
With a 42mm field of view (35mm equivalent) on the NEX-7, the Elmarit-M 28/2.8 represents a good focal length for “everyday” use – wide enough to capture a landscape, long enough to capture people at close range without a fisheye effect, and fast enough at f/2.8 to be used in lower light and/or for good subject isolation. Like most wide angle rangefinder lenses, this one requires the correction of color fringing on the NEX-7. Otherwise, the NEX-7 is able to resolve plenty of detail offered by this legendary lens and the resulting images are excellent. I really wanted this lens to work on the NEX-7 without color fringing. It’s one of my all time favorite lenses, and probably the highest resolving lens that I own. On the NEX-7, the resolving power of this lens is extraordinary. Unfortunately, color fringing adds hassle to my workflow, and it usually stays home.
Skyscape X and Cottonwoods. Sony NEX-7 and Leica Elmarit-M 28/2.8 lens (ISO 200, 1/60s, aperture unknown). Color fringing has been corrected in Cornerfix, and very light vignetting added back for artistic effect.
3. Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f/1.4
This little gem is one of my favorite lenses on the NEX-7, and is a staple in my kit for shooting low light portraiture (or portraiture in bright light with a neutral density filter attached) and renders beautifully for 24p video. Resolution of this lens is not the greatest, so it stays packed when I’m shooting faraway landscapes (e.g., mountains). The Nokton works perfectly on the NEX-7 and doesn’t require color fringing correction.
Snow Pit Fire, Gallatin Mountains. Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f/1.4 on a Sony NEX-7. Handheld, ISO 800, 1/125 sec.
4. Leica Tele Elmarit-M 90mm f/2.8
I have an older version of this lens (pre-ASPH, thin barrel), which at 225g (8.0 oz) is one of the very lightest 90mm lenses ever made. With a 35mm equivalent field of view of 135mm, it certainly qualifies as a telephoto lens, but it’s too short for wildlife photography. Its image quality and weight drove me to purchasing this lens, but it’s become my all time favorite lens to work with for outdoor photography. It’s not a popular focal length for outdoor photographers, and I think the reason for this is twofold. Most “kit” zoom lenses, especially those on mirrorless systems, offer terrible image quality and small apertures (which require low shutter speeds and poor sharpness when handheld, or high ISO and thus high noise), so the resulting images that are captured may not be so inspiring (especially when the pixels are peeped!). Second, using a telephoto lens requires that more careful attention be paid to composition, which requires more time on the part of the photographer. My favorite images from my outdoor activities consistently come from this lens, and my satisfaction results from the combination of using the longer focal length for subject isolation, its beautiful rendering of out of focus areas (bokeh), and its excellent optics wide open at f/2.8. This lens accompanies me on every backpacking trip, and is a beautiful lens for cinematography as well.
Warren Peak, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Leica Elmarit-M 90mm f/2.8 on a Sony NEX-7. ISO 100, 1/500 sec., aperture unknown.
5. Sony E-Mount SEL 16F28 16mm f/2.8
This is the lens you want to love if you are a Sony NEX user.
It weighs an astonishingly light 70g (2.5 oz), has a “pancake”-like thickness of 2.3cm (0.89 in), can be quickly autofocused by the NEX-7, and has the perfect 35mm equivalent focal length of 24mm on the NEX-7 for landscape photography.
Best of all, when mounted on the NEX-7, it makes for an extremely light and compact package.
Hornbeck Blackjack on Holter Lake, Montana. Sony 16mm f/2.8 on a Sony NEX-7.
Thus, the combination of the NEX-7 and the Sony 16/2.8 (small size and weight, landscape-worthy wide angle) is a very compelling one for the backpacking photographer, especially if you enjoy shooting landscapes that have strong foreground elements.
If you are a pixel-peeper, however, you might hate this lens. Especially after shelling out $250 on it. Here’s why:
- Image quality at low apertures is “mediocre” (mediocre is relative – we’re interested primarily in shadow detail resolution, contrast rendition, and color interpretation when viewing 100% crops here and comparing them to what is possible from the NEX-7 using lenses with known optical quality). Stopping down to f/4.5 results in marked improvement and images that deliver acceptable quality throughout most of the frame – for pixel peepers, that is.
- Image quality is inconsistent across the frame, and de-centered. Corners and sides of images have bland colors and mushy details with significant differences in contrast between the center and edges. In addition, the effect is not centered, with the left half of the image frame performing noticeably worse than the right half.
But, if you are not a pixel-peeper, and your expectations for image quality are lower, and you post mostly to Facebook or otherwise to the Web, then the lens will deliver images that will look just fine, and you’ll be tickled about its size and weight (I certainly am, and for 2.5 oz, who cares?). In addition, if you are shooting images for a magazine or book printed on cheap paper, or in B&W, then the lens will suit you fine. Just be aware that if the camera drives the lens, this pairing is a bit like putting Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of a Ford Escort.
I believe wholeheartedly that strong composition, sharp focus, and good technical exposure always outweigh lens quality, and that good images can be captures with bad lenses (even Dale could drive the Escort to its limits, right?). If any one of these three factors is missing, then bad images can easily be captured from the world’s best optics. However, I’m a firm believer that strong composition, sharp focus, and technical exposure are prerequisites to achieving technically outstanding images, and that the difference between a good image and a technically outstanding image, especially in landscape photography, has everything to do with the quality of the file delivered by the lens and captured by the sensor. To that end, the Sony 16/2.8, by nature of its less-than-awesome technical performance, not only hampers the excellent NEX-7 sensor, but limits what the accomplished photographer can do as well.
In that context, I’d rather carry a higher quality lens (along with the extra weight) for wide angle shots (like the Heliar 15/4.5). If saving weight is your primary goal, and rapid publication, web, or mass paper print publishing is your primary display, then you’ll be able to achieve nearly equivalent image quality with a much lighter small sensor camera (like a Canon S100 or Lumix LX5), and better image quality with a competing mirrorless system with a better lens (like the Panasonic 20/1.7 for Micro Four Thirds, or the Fuji X100 fixed lens camera). Unfortunately, the size and weight of the Sony 16/2.8 is too compelling not to ignore, and image quality is good enough for many purposes when the camera is in the hands of an accomplished photographer who understands the limitations of this lens.
That said, the 16/2.8 accompanies me on many trips, for the simple fact that it affords me some neat creative options (like the canoe shot above) for a tiny weight and bulk penalty.
Of course, there is the Sigma 19/2.8 EX DN, which seems to have better optics, but is significantly larger, a little heavier, and of course, not as wide.
6. Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN
This $200 autofocus lens, when paired with the Sony NEX-7, is simply outstanding for backpacking.
The reasons are many:
- It offers a versatile 45mm equivalent focal length with the APS-C sensor (1.5 crop size).
- Small size and weight.
- Excellent optics
This is the lens that spends the most time on my camera.
Supermid in Gates of the Mountains, Montana. Sigma 30mm f/2.8 on a Sony NEX-7. ISO 100, f/2.8, 1.3sec.
Of course, the Sony NEX is a young system, so its native lens offerings are minimal. Based on what Sony has delivered for the NEX so far, it’s clear that light weight and consumer grade image quality are Sony’s immediate goals. Zeiss is also making lenses for the E-Mount and early results from lens reviewers suggest that the new Zeiss 24/1.8 is an excellent, albeit bulky lens on the NEX-7. In a similar size, I’ve discovered that the Sony 50/1.8 offers fine optics as well but it’s bulk makes me less than enthusiastic about using it for backpacking. I have no interest in reviewing bulky lenses for the NEX-7, as these types of lenses remove the primary benefit of keeping the kit compact for wilderness travel.
My Backpacking Kit
Now that I’ve used the Sony NEX-7 for several months, I find myself gravitating to a consistent selection of equipment. I think you should find this to be valuable because it represents the process of discarding what I don’t like, preserving what I do, and understanding my photography objectives on trips and how this kit meets those objectives.
I’ll start by summarizing what I don’t take.
First, I don’t fool around with lenses that require additional post-processing when I get home. I just don’t have time for it. If I was a professional photographer with very specific needs, then I might. Therefore, my Leica 28/2.8 and Voigtlander 15/4.5 will stay home and unused until I can mate them with a camera that can take advantage of their optics without undue time tax.
Second, I don’t mess with bulky lenses. They defeat the purpose of what I’m trying to accomplish with the NEX system, which is minimal size (primary advantage) and weight (secondary advantage). Size is more important for me than weight because I like to carry all of my camera gear in a small chest/hip pack worn in front of me while I hike (more on that below). I may allow for one exception to this: The Zeiss 24/1.8 offers image quality and speed not found in any other E-mount lens, and the tradeoff in bulk just may be worth it for the opportunity to shoot wide angle landscapes at shallow depth of field (this is particularly appealing to the videographer).
Third, I don’t need a lens to cover every possible situation. You’ll notice that I did not discuss zoom lenses above. The Sony 18-200 is a fine lens with good optics across most of its range, but it’s a monster. I think this is a great lens for the “one-lens photographer” but it’s not exactly a stealth lens and is generally inconsistent with my personal philosophy of photography which focuses on minimal size. The Sony 55-210 suffers the same bloat as the 18-200. Finally, the kit lens (Sony 18-55mm) simply doesn’t offer fast enough apertures to minimize depth of field or for low light photography at low ISOs, suffers from image softness at wide apertures, and is bulkier than I like. In other words, the versatility of zooms is not worth the sacrifices that I have to make in terms of weight, size, and image quality.
In short, what I do want when I build a camera kit are just a few small, fast, high quality prime lenses.
Therefore, the two lenses I have grown most fond of are the Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8 and the Sigma 30/2.8. These two lenses go with me on nearly every trip.
Their small size and outstanding optics on the NEX-7 are the defining criteria for these two lenses. The Sigma 30/2.8 gives me the flexibility to have autofocus for the occasional action shot and for run-and-gun shooting while on the trail. The Leica 90/2.8 simply produces beautiful images and video at small apertures and I can’t imagine that a smaller replacement exists at this focal length.
For each lens, I carry both variable ND and circular polarizing filters (multicoated). In addition, a typical week long trek where I’m shooting lots of video requires five batteries. For sensor and/or optics cleaning, I use a LensPen and a small Giottos Rocket Air Blaster.
I often carry a tripod (mostly when I know I’ll be shooting video). Most often it’s a Gitzo 0541 with a Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ultralight ball head.
For carry, I use a Simms Hip Dry Pack with a foam insert. It has welded seams and a water resistant zipper and I have total confidence in its ability to keep my equipment dry. In particularly wet conditions, I take along some silica gel (desiccant) packs to manage moisture when my camera and lenses do get wet – which occurs when I remove the camera from its case in the rain.
If I’m shooting video, I’ve been adding the Voigtlander 35/1.4 lens with both ND and polarizing filters, and sometimes replacing the Sigma 30/2.8 with this lens. Finally, I’ll toss in the 16/2.8 on shorter trips as a “just in case” lens for more dramatic wide angle shots (and include ND and polarizing filters for it as well).
Generally, depending on the specifics of my kit, I’ll carry about three pounds of camera equipment between the camera body, cleaning supplies, two lenses, and carry bag. Adding a tripod, a third lens, and perhaps some other supplies specific to high end videography (e.g., a follow-focus rig and a panning head), my kit weight is still less than about eight pounds. This is a far cry from the 20 or 30 pounds we used to carry when shooting Super 8, toting multiple cameras, medium format boxes, or today’s pro-level brick-sized (and weighted) DSLRs and lenses.
This will not be a detailed review of the Sony NEX-7’s movie making capability. I will summarize what I think are the most important aspects of its feature set of interest to the backcountry videographer.
The Sony NEX-7 offers the usual basic specifications for routine HD video capture, including:
- 1,920 x 1,080 (full HD) resolution
- MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression
- AVCHD recorded at 60p, 60i, or 24p frame rates
- Silent autofocus during movie recording
- One button recording in P, A, S, or M modes
For someone who has more than a casual interest in making movies for commercial use, I also appreciate that the NEX-7 offers
- The ability to use my Cosina-Voigtlander and Leica manual focus lenses so I can manually rack focus;
- The ability to attach an external stereo microphone;
- The ability for full manual exposure control for movie recording.
The Backcountry Caveat: No In-Body Image Stabilization
From an “ultralight” perspective, the primary limitation of the NEX-7 is its lack of in-body image stabilization, which limits its applicability for hand held shooting with lenses that lack in-lens stabilization.
This makes for shaky handheld shots when using lenses that don’t have in-lens image stabilization, which for me, are most of the lenses that I want to use with the NEX-7 (i.e., legacy manual focus lenses) for movie making. This limitation is clearly seen in the video vignettes that are presented with this article, and for the backcountry videographer, this is a major limitation. Being able to shoot high quality handheld video without stabilizing paraphernalia (tripods, gyros, counterweights, or chest/shoulder rigs) means that you’ll be able to grab candid shots when they happen, and not when you stage them.
However, if you limit yourselves to lenses that use in-lens stabilization, then shaky handheld shots become less of an issue. Unfortunately, this limits your lens selection significantly to lenses that have poor manual focus control, excessive size, high apertures, and/or less-than-stellar optics. The number of small, light, bright lenses that offer in-lens stabilization and are of interest to a cinematographer is pretty limited right now. I’d propose that the number is zero, with perhaps a consolation prize for the Sony 50/1.8 OSS, which is limited by its poor manual focus control (at least, relative to something like a MF M-mount lens from Zeiss, Cosina-Voigtlander, or Leica).
The Overheating Sensor
Reports about the NEX-7’s sensor overheating in video modes at “normal” room temperatures started popping up shortly after the camera was released. I’ve used two different NEX-7 bodies and both of my bodies have this problem as well.
The practical impacts on my own style of videography have been limited. I mostly shoot short clips less than one minute in length.
However, the overheating sensor becomes an issue in reasonably warm weather when trying to capture clips in excess of three or four minutes. Worse, once the camera sensor overheats, the camera must be shut down and restarted, and the ability to shoot even short clips of a minute or two become seriously compromised until a significant amount of time has passed to allow the camera to cool down.
This is an unacceptable defect in the camera, and although it doesn’t impact me directly very often, it does limit the camera’s flexibility for outdoor videography in warm conditions. Online buzz seems to indicate that the issue has been resolved with the new NEX-6.
HD Video: Conclusion
Image stabilization aside, there’s little to criticize about the NEX-7’s movie making capabilities. For its size, weight, image quality (due to the large sensor), lens flexibility, and manual control, the NEX-7 may offer the most powerful movie-making package for the enthusiast videographer.
However, don’t mistake this for a perfect camera. Lack of in-body image stabilization and a sensor that seems too sensitive to normal ambient temperatures (resulting in overheating and subsequent shutdown) should be considered carefully before investing into a NEX-7 system.
In addition, this is not a professional editor’s camera. The output is not robust enough to handle a significant amount of post-processing (e.g., color correction), so you had better get it right (white balance, exposure, etc.) as you record.
These limitations aside, content is still king, and in the hands of someone with a good cinematic eye, the NEX-7 should be able to create some very compelling movies.
The video below pulls together a series of vignettes that I shot from some of my summer 2012 backcountry trips with my Scout Troop. The topic: food, of course!
Disclaimer: The Sony NEX-7 digital camera evaluated in this review is on loan to Backpacking Light from a generous BPL Member. Backpacking Light does not own the camera, has not been paid to review it, and receives no compensation from Sony related to the outcome of this review.