“‘To take an interesting photo, some may choose to carry around a lot of metal and glass and mirrors and silicon. I choose to carry around less metal and glass and silicon. Oh, and no mirrors.’ – Me, quoting myself.” – Trey Ratcliff
Oh, Nikon… Sad Emoticon
Nikon, you’ve been good to me over the years. It’s not you. It’s me. Well, maybe it is kinda you. You’re kinda getting heavy; let’s be honest. I have this other new spunky Asian I’ve been seeing. Her name is Sony. Yeah, she doesn’t have those giant lenses…but… she fits nicely in my hands, you see. Oh wait… let’s stop this line of storytelling… it’s kind getting into the 50 Shades of Greymarket territory…
Sony a7R and NEX-7 Review
Here’s my detailed review of the amazing new Sony a7R Full-frame Mirrorless camera (check prices) as well as my review of the Sony NEX-7 (check prices). I wrote this a long time ago and have recently updated it, but the story here is all about my recent decision, especially in how it compares to the Nikon Full Frame DSLR system.
Disclosures about Sony
None! I have no disclosures! Sony didn’t pay me to write this article or give me free equipment. I paid full price for my Sony NEX-7 and my Sony NEX-6 and the lenses. Now, Sony did indeed contact me and offer me free cameras and lenses after my FIRST article, The China Experiment: Dumping Nikon for Sony. I told them no. It was a very nice offer and there were no strings attached for the free cameras and lenses, but I still told them no. Note this doesn’t rule out any kind of sponsorship or other arrangement that may transpire in the future, of course, but as of right now, there is nothing motivating this article other than me simply wanting to use the best.
DSLRs are a dying breed
Over a year ago, I wrote a controversial article called DSLRs are a Dying Breed. I got a lot of hate for that… but that’s cool. But now, the transition to the dark side is complete, as you can read about in detail below. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy.
Is the Sony NEX-7 Really the Best???
UPDATE: I still love the Sony NEX-7 but I recently upgraded to Sony’s a7R Full-frame Mirrorless camera that is nearly identical in size and weight to the NEX-7.
Yes, the NEX-7 is the best for my kind of photography. I’m using it exclusively now and will be in the immediate future until something better comes along. Will it be the rumoured NEX-9? Will it be some secret full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens system from Nikon?
Who knows… better stuff always comes along, but I will tell you this: Changing from Nikon to Sony was no small decision. It creates tidal waves of change across my entire world.
I’m also sensitive to the effect that this has on other people that are also interested in this stuff! If you add up G+, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, I just passed 11 million followers, which is totally insane, and I can’t quite get my head around it. So, just understand that I am very careful and don’t say crazy things, because I know the magnitude of the effects!
Is the Sony NEX-7 WAY better than the my previous camera, the Nikon D800? No. Is it better enough to switch? Definitely. Want to know what’s better/worse? Keep on reading!
Hey look, it’s not all roses. I’ll give you my honest assessment below. Depending on the kind of photos you take and the kind of person you are, maybe this doesn’t apply to you.
If I were designing the camera, there are many changes I would make to the hardware and the software to make it perfect. I’ll list those below. I know Sony is watching this post, so you guys are welcome to jump down to that area and start taking notes! 🙂
Results of the Experiment
So this article is all about the results of my month-long experiment where I set aside my Nikon equipment to see if I could do just as well (or even better) with my Sony equipment. To see the nature of the experiment, see The China Experiment: Dumping Nikon for Sony. As I said in that article, much of my experiment is impure because a) I’m not doing side-by-side lab testing and b) I love to post-process my images. But I don’t claim to be a journalist or have lab-conditions. I’m an artist, and I feel like tools are there for me to bend to my will. Life’s too short not to use the best and most flexible equipment.
But, before I talk about the advantages of the NEX over the Nikon and the advantages of the Nikon over NEX, let’s look at some sample photos. And if you’re one of these internet-camera-forum-nerds that hates post-processed photos, well you can just go away now… I already know your opinion and it doesn’t matter to me.
I know the update above has been a controversial decision, so Frederick Van Johnson, host of This Week in Photo, wanted to get me into this interview. Now, here’s a cool thing. If you go to This Link For the Interview, you can scrub forwards and back in the video until you see the question you want answered. Man, it is a long interview, but everything you ever wanted to know is in there! 🙂
Let’s start with some sample photos. In all honesty, I don’t think I could have done any better with my Nikon D800, which is thousands of dollars more expensive and six times bigger!
To see MORE images, visit my Sony NEX Review Photo Gallery over on Google+.
Why am I talking about Nikon and not Canon?
Look, anything I say about the Nikon below you can substitute the word “Canon”. They are pretty much the same! I talk about Nikon a lot because that is what I have most used in my life.
What does it look like to shoot with the NEX and change lenses?
Here is a video I took that shows you what it is like to shoot photos with the NEX-7 and change lenses. It starts to get a bit into post-processing, but I fast-forward through that bit, assuming you are only interested in the hardware bit for now.
The Main Reasons I prefer the Sony NEX system over Nikon cameras
There are many many reasons. I’ll list them out here, not in any order:
- The onboard focus systems – Since this is a mirrorless system, I get to see exactly what appears on the sensor. If I want it to be tack-sharp, I am assured of that. I noticed with my Nikon D800 that it sometimes came out a little bit soft. I think that is because even if the mirror/lens/sensor alignment is a little bit off, you can still get softness.
Above: I took this one morning on the way to Milford Sound with the kit lens.
- The onboard Manual Focus system – When I was on a tripod and wanted to be extra-sure I got good focus, I loved switching to manual and then twisting the focus dial. It shows me in the viewfinder the scene at 100% When I had that + Focus Peaking turned on, I knew I was nailing the focus. If you don’t know what Focus Peaking is, it allows me to see a “green” (or any color) outline of exactly what is in focus. It’s like a video game, actually!
- The size and weight – Man, this thing is 6x smaller than a D800. It is TINY! It’s over 9x smaller than a D4! Nine Times Smaller. And it is so light. The lenses are so light too! I was able to walk around without a bag – you can see in the video below. I would just put my favorite tiny little lenses in my jacket pocket. My arms and back never even got remotely tired. Even better, it was just an absolute joy to pick up the camera and run out for a quick shoot. I didn’t feel like I was preparing for a major weight-carrying operation.
- 24 megapixel – Sure, the D800 did 36 megapixel, but I found that 24 megapixels was more than enough. The Nikon D4 only has 16 megapixels, so this has 50% more and is 8x cheaper (if you’re only concerned about megapixels).
- The speed – When I wanted fast photos, I could not have been more impressed with the 10 FPS.
- Movable LCD – I LOVE not having to squat all the way down or lay on the ground to take a close-to-the-ground photo. My knees hate that move. These hips don’t lie.
- Autobracketing – The autobracketing with the new firmware upgrade is “good enough” — it can take 3 exposures from -3 to +3 (or step down less too). It’s not as good as my old Nikon, but it gets me there 95% of the time.
- Amazing viewfinder – Some people do not like the digital optical viewfinder (the EVF), but I love it. That organic LED is simply amazing. I love seeing the histogram and level graphical overlays on top of the photo. I feel like it is a HUD for a fighter pilot!
- More inexpensive – This is not a deciding factor for me, but I do understand budgetary constraints. It’s over 3x cheaper than the D800 and 8x cheaper than the D4! This means I can buy 2 or 3 cameras and have backups and never really have to worry if one breaks for the price of one D800!
Minor Reasons I prefer the Sony NEX System
These are minor bullet points, so I wanted to separate them from the main bits above.
- Intelligent Auto – Even though I am in Aperture Priority 90% of the time, I love going into iA (Intelligent Auto) when taking photos of my kids. This means I don’t always have to switch stuff around when chasing my kids from inside to outside, from daytime to night. iA almost always makes the right decision!
- E-Lenses – There are not nearly as many lenses available for this E-mount system as the competing Micro Four-Thirds system, but, for me, there are enough. The 10-18mm is a godsend. I use that for 80% of my landscapes! And, the other 55-210 lens (effectively 82.5-315mm) has gotten me enough flexibility for some of those outlier landscape situations. The kit lens fixes the middle range with no problem. The lenses are not that “fast” with great f-stops, but I don’t care so much with my landscape shots where I like everything in focus.
- Tiny Batteries – I like carrying around a few extra tiny tiny batteries. True, the batteries don’t last nearly as long as the professional Nikon batteries, but they are easy to pop in and out.
- Firmware Updates That Don’t Suck – Everyone complained about the lame Auto-Bracketing on the first release of the NEX. A few months later, they released a new firmware that fixed all the problems. Wow. That doesn’t happen much with some of these companies! (note, see the bottom of the article for Suggested Improvements to take it to the next level)
- Movie Mode – it’s even easier to get into movie mode with the NEX-7 than the Nikon. In fact, some people complain (rightly so!) that it is too easy to get into movie mode and they click it by accident a lot. That has been fixed in the firmware update and its cousin, the NEX-6.
Big Japanese Companies in Social Media
It’s so interesting to watch how these giant companies navigate the social media landscape. In many ways, it reminds me of my dad using his AOL account to send me a photo or a website. In other words, there is a lot of confusion involved.
Nikon is often quite ridiculous on social media and they continue to waste millions on magazine ads that hardly anyone sees any more. They should be spending a bigger portion of their marketing budget on the web, where most tech purchasers actually make decisions. Everyone “in the know” hangs out on the internet now to get their information, and so I still can’t believe some of the nonsense I see from Nikon on social media. I remember just recently they made a ridiculous statement that says, “A photographer is only as good as the equipment he uses.” Apparently, this copywriter is just hitting his prime, because I saw a post yesterday on Facebook that asked, “What would you rather photograph – Tennis or Water Polo?”
Conversely, after I put up my previous story on social media, Sony actually replied in the thread on Google+. It was a fun and unexpected response. To me, this is a good sign from Sony on social media, albeit rather anecdotal.
Sony NEX – Three Great Lenses
Want to know my favorite three lenses? Here they are! Often times a camera will come with a “kit lens” that is pretty versatile and can get you a long way. The Sony NEX-7 comes with a 18-55mm lens that produces great pictures. But there are many lenses that are better for more specialized situations.
- Sony 10-18 f/4 (Amazon | B&H Photo) – A great new lens that gives you maximum wide-angle flexibility for landscapes and architecture
- Sony 55-210mm (Amazon | B&H Photo) – This lens is a little big but its versatility is perfect for mid-range stuff like landscapes, birthdays, sports, etc. I’ve also used it to zoom in and get shots of the moon (like you can see below)
- Zeiss 32mm prime f/1.8 (Amazon | B&H Photo) – f/1.8 will give you some incredible depth of field. It’s great for taking photos of people, objects, or other little things you find throughout your day.
Major Disadvantages of the NEX and why they don’t matter to me
This is a smaller sensor than the full-frame Nikons. There’s no way around that. This means that the sensor collects less light. What does that mean? It’s harder to take good photos in low light and in darker, handheld situations.
If you’re shooting a lot during the day, then this is not a worry. It’s especially not a worry for me because I use a tripod. Sometimes, during the day, I do not use a tripod, but I certainly do at sunset and night.
I set the ISO to 100 on the NEX and then get myself up on a tripod. This overcomes a MAJOR shortfall with the NEX-7 compared to the full-frame sensor on the tripod. So, really, with a tripod, this major weakness does not affect me, as you can see from the shots.
I still end up with a “little bit” of noise, but it frankly is not that bad and Lightroom gets rid of the noise without even thinking about it!
A second disadvantage with the NEX-7 is also related to the sensor size, and that is the amount of bokeh (or blurry background for the new-photographers). There’s no doubt that bigger sensors mean better bokeh, but mine seems more than good enough. I have a 1.2 Leica-mount lens that looks nice and buttery, and I’ve even tried a few 1.8 lenses from Zeiss where the bokeh looks good enough to put on the cover of a wedding portfolio website with a watermark that is in flowing cursive.
Should I get the NEX-6 or NEX-7?
This is a popular question I keep getting! I’ll try my best to answer. If you are doing mostly landscapes, architecture, etc — in other words, the kind of stuff I usually shoot — stick with the NEX-7. If you tend to do more portraits and handheld stuff, go for the NEX-6. The NEX-7 has more megapixels and is better suited for epic landscapes. The NEX-6 has better performance in low-light and is better at auto-focusing. Personally, I have both! I use the NEX-7 for my landscapes and carry the NEX-6 as a backup. Now, even though the NEX-6 is a backup, I still use it to take pictures of people, objects, and this sort of thing. It’s handy to have two cameras around for different kinds of shots for me.
Where the Nikon system is better
Well, there are MANY different Nikon cameras. It’s hard to compare the NEX to every single Nikon camera. People (well-meaning!) always email me and ask, well what about Camera Model X, as if I am an expert on every single camera model! I really don’t know… I own a Nikon D800 and D3S (and, well, a D3X, D2X, and a few others… bought them all myself… nothing free from Nikon), so I have a pretty good basis to know what I am talking about with these newer full-frame cameras.
What are the advantages of the Professional Full-Frame Nikon Cameras?
- Build Quality – They are tougher. They can stand bumps, bruises, and drops better than the NEX cameras.
- Water and moisture – The professional Nikon cameras are also more water-resistant. I’ve never had anything happen in rain or anything with my NEX, but I DO worry about it. I never worried about it with my Nikons. Well, that’s not true. I got a lot of rain on my D3X in Hawaii and it broke. So I take that back.
- Action Sports with Changing Focus – Do you shoot high-speed action sports that need a focus point that is changing? The D4, for example, is still much better at getting a high FPS where the subject is moving closer or further away. I’d frankly (and controversially) say that the NEX is better if the focus is NOT changing, because you can nail 10 FPS with no problem.
- Autobracketing – This is a sore spot with me! I much prefer all the autobracketing options (plus use of a timer to start it all!) on the professional Nikon bodies.
- Buffering – The professional Nikon cameras also have less of a “buffering” problem. That is, the NEX can take photos very quick, but it does start to buffer pretty quick. So it’s great in short bursts, but it wills start to slow down if you’re trying to take 14+ photos very quickly. This problem did not bother me at all, since I never encountered it.
- Lenses – Nikon has a ton of lenses! There is no doubt about that. If you are doing specialty work, such as wildlife or birding, for example, then you should make full use of all the Nikon cameras. You’re not going going to get one of those crazy 600mm lenses with a great f-stop on the Sony system any time soon. However, as you can probably tell, I have all the lenses I need for the Sony system already.
- Astrophotography – Also, if you are into hardcore night and astro-photography, you probably also want to stay with the full-frame systems. They’ll do a better job of collecting all that light when there isn’t much of it! In fact, I’ll probably hang on to my Nikon D800 just for Astro-photography, which I do very little of. But, I would still do okay with low-light astrophotography with the NEX if so-pressed. You can see the moon shot above, although that is not really the best example because it was not pitch black.
Does any of the above affect my travel and landscape work? Not really, and that is why I am sticking with the NEX as my main weapon.
The Sony NEX-6 as a backup camera?
Every professional photographer needs to have a backup camera at all times! If your main camera breaks down, you better have a backup ready to go! I don’t want to take around my Nikon as a backup because that would also require a whole set of extra lenses (which are quite huge).
I could have gotten another NEX-7, but there are a few things I like about the NEX-6:
1) It is 16 megapixels rather than 24. That means it will do better in low-light.
2) It will be my main secondary camera that I use for family, people, or object shots. I don’t just keep the backup in my bag in case the first one breaks. I actively use it!
3) The NEX-6 has a few apps that are pretty cool.
I am even thinking about getting a third NEX camera as a backup-backup! After spending $3000+, $6000+ etc on cameras, I find the idea that I can buy a bunch of cameras for around $1000 to be rather intoxicating! If you want to know more about the NEX-6, see my friend Doug Kaye who has written a thorough review.
The NEXT camera – what I really want
What I really want is a full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens system. I don’t even mind buying all new lenses. But we’re not here to talk about that… But, Sony, since I know you’re reading this, just file that away.
People love the idea of re-using lenses from “old” cameras and systems, but I hope (and think) that is a tradition that will fall away like using old LPs on new record players. At some point, everything changes and you just buy new kinds of “songs” for new kinds of “devices”. Now you buy MP3s from Amazon to play on your phone. I mean, things just totally change over time, and I think the same kind of thing will happen with cameras and lenses. This is especially true when a new generation of cameras and lenses is very cheap, and you’re not looking to shell out a bunch of much money to create the kind of images you want, faster and better.
Improvements to the NEX-7
- Bracketing timer – Let us click a 2 second timer that will then take all the auto-bracket images without requiring me to hold down the shutter button. When I hold down the shutter button now, it causes camera shake, even with a very steady tripod.
- More Autobracketing – Let us take more than 3 brackets.
- Smarter Timelapse – Let me totally customize taking time lapse photos. I also don’t want the screen to come on all the time and wear out the weak battery.
- Fun Filters – You have these great built in features like HDR, filters, B&W, and all these sorts of things, but please don’t just flatten to a JPG. Also save the RAW for me so I have more options down the road.
- Redesign the menus – Your menu systems are ridiculous. They were obviously designed by Japanese masochists. I barely understand them, and I am a camera expert! But I know they scare the hell out of “regular” people who are, I believe, your biggest customers. I can’t figure out if your menus are designed by a single masochist or a committee of them.
- Better Viewfinder Cap – I’d like a bigger, better rubbery one that covers up my whole eye and makes it nice and dark. The current one is dinky and falls off all the time.
- Waterproofing – I don’t want to worry about it in the rain.
More suggestions for Sony
As long as I have your ear in a public forum, here are more thoughts:
1) Apps – Your decision to include apps with the NEX-6 is good, but your execution is something that could only come out of a committee that been infected by marketing-nonsense. While it’s a good idea to have apps on a camera, here is where you had bad execution:
- All your apps are internally made by Sony and you did not allow other developers to do it. You should open up your API and let others create apps for you. I guarantee you that people out there can make much better apps than you can.
- There are less than 20 apps, and you are charging money for them. This is crazy. If I pay $1000 for a camera, why are you trying to make a few extra dollars from apps? I can see the marketing meeting now: “Hey, Earl, you know Angry Birds made like over a million dollars!” “Wow! We should sell our apps too!” You don’t have the ecosystem to make any significant income from your apps, and you certainly never will as long as you have a closed system! (Hint: Choose Android as an OS and build on top of that. If you don’t watch out, Google or Apple will start making cameras and they will bury your camera line in less than 2-3 years. Samsung is already a threat you should watch with their Android-based cameras.)
- Installing your apps is ridiculous! My god… the app store is clunky, and then hooking up my camera via the USB and rebooting and all that nonsense… I mean… I know you guys are embarrassed by it too. If you are all are going to make “apps” the purchase and installation should be at least as easy as iOS or Android.
2) Long-Exposure Feature – The Olympus OMD has an amazing feature you should steal. You can take a long-exposure photo and watch it live as it is being built then stop it any time. This is great for light-painting, fireworks, or any other situation where it’s hard to guess how many seconds to keep the shutter open.
3) More Modular Hardware for Open Frankenstein Accessories – Many of your Micro-Four Thirds competitors have all kinds of wonderful gizmos that people attach to pimp-out their cameras. I’m jealous! Me, for example – I’d love an extended eyepiece so that my nose does not smash the screen (I prefer to use my left eye). Some people will prefer extended battery units, extended grips, or external mic booms, etc.
4) Glass – Integrate with Google Glass ASAP so that people can use Glass as a viewfinder for the NEX. The first camera company to do this will create real excitement.
5) For Professional Cameras – two card slots that will allow overflow or auto-backup.
6) GPS – just add it. Comon… I can’t believe we even have to ask! 🙂
Do you have a Nikon DSLR because of my previous reviews? Don’t stress!
I saw this comment on G+ from Christopher Neumann Ruud, and it is a good example of many others I am seeing:
But on a serious note. I feel a bit gut-wrenched about this, since you, +Trey Ratcliff, is the reason why I started this hobby of mine in the first place, and although I know your reasons and I agree with the valid points in your decision to swap (good for you!) I still feel a bit sentimentality because in some remote stupid corner of my self-consciousness, it invalidates the time and effort (and above all, money!) that I have invested in my Nikon-park of lenses and utilities. I know, its a silly thing to feel and it should mane no difference at all, but I got into Nikon on Treys recommendations and now I feel almost left behind 🙂 Best of luck in the NEX-world for now, and I will continue to shoot stunning images with my d700 and building those muscles from luggung around that beast in the mean time 🙂
It is a lovely comment, actually. I am so honored to see things like this. I know that tons of people around the world have bought Nikons because I said they were the best over the past 5+ years. I saw a few comments where people (not longtime web-friends like this) are MAD at me… like I am somehow threatening their current DSLR! That’s just crazy… there is no need to be defensive about it. For those of you that are overly defensive and combative (not kind people like Christopher here), don’t take out your mental imbalance on me! You can carry around whatever combination of metal, mirrors, sensors, and glass you desire. I’m just saying I’m carrying around a little bit less metal, sensors, and glass (but not mirrors, hehe).
Now, for YOU, Christopher, here is my answer: No worries mate! That Nikon DSLR system you have will serve you well for years to come. In fact, you may be in really good shape when this mirrorless thing really hits its prime. Many new Sony cameras (or maybe even Nikon or Canon will make something compelling) in 2014 or 2015 when you decide to go to the next level. I’ll be here with you the whole time mate and always try to suggest the best when you are ready. Until then, you’ll get great shots with that d700 of yours! 🙂
More Photos with the NEX-7
Here’s a gallery link over to Google+ that has a bunch more photos for you.
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