The Sony Alpha NEX-7 with Voightländer, Leitz, and Zeiss Optics (UPDATED!)

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The Sony Alpha NEX-7 with Voightländer, Leitz, and Zeiss Optics (UPDATED!)

If you audiophiles think that new and improved models are coming onto the market at an accelerated pace, try dipping a toe into the photography biz. Within the last few months, we’ve seen the announcement of two new 36Mp full-frame Nikon SLRs (the soon-to-be-released D800 and the D800e, which is a D800 with no anti-aliasing filter); the interchangeable-lens rangefinder X-Pro1 from Fuji Film with a 16Mp APS-C sensor, no anti-aliasing filter, and three dedicated autofocus Fuji lenses; and the model that I’m about to discuss—the Sony Alpha NEX-7 with EVF viewfinder and 24Mp APS-C sensor.

The present popularity of sensors without anti-aliasing filters is, to me, almost bitterly ironic, since I owned a Kodak 14N—a full-frame Nikon-mount 14Mp SLR, which had no anti-aliasing filter and was roundly castigated for omitting it. (The fact that it couldn’t produce images without a great deal of noise at anything much above its base ISO speed was, in fact, a serious defect, although it’s funny how one man’s defect—noise at higher-than-base ISOs—becomes another man’s irrelevancy when the name on the camera is “Leica M9” rather than “Kodak 14N” (the M9 uses a [better] 18Mp Kodak sensor, BTW). It’s the same with pixel count. Just as in audio, guys start talking out of both sides of their mouths whenever their ox gets gored: Who needs more pixels or lower noise at high ISOs? Who cares about moiré patterns? It’s the lenses that count, after all. And, to be fair, Leica does have the glass.

But…Leica isn’t the only company with great glass (although its glass is great). The Japanese firm Cosina produces beautifully made manual-focus Leica-mount and Leica screw-mount optics in partnership with Zeiss and on its own with the Voightländer brand (the renowned Austrian optical/camera-making company, which Cosina now owns). Not only do Zeiss and Voightländer lenses cost a good deal less than Leitz glass, they often perform comparably well.

But why am I talking about Zeiss and Voightländer optics in a blog devoted to Sony’s latest EVF camera? Because, folks, with certain exceptions, Sony doesn’t currently make enough high-quality E-mount lenses to come close to competing with something like a Leica M9 system. (The NEX cameras use E-mount lenses, and while Sony offers two adaptors that allow you to use its Zeiss-branded A-mount lenses on NEX cameras, you will have to pay a penalty in the considerable added weight of the A-mount lenses and, if you use the better adaptor with provision for auto-focusing, an SLT mirror, which steals some of the light away from the sensor). 

When the superb 16Mp Sony Alpha NEX-5N (about which I’ve blogged) was introduced, the first thing that serious photographers did was buy a Leica-mount-to-Sony-NEX adaptor and start using Zeiss and Voightländer rangefinder lenses on the 5N. The combinations proved to be marriages made in heaven. Thus when the 24Mp NEX-7 came on the horizon (and stayed there for months and months thanks to the flood in Thailand wiping out Sony’s NEX-7 factory), everyone grew more excited still by the prospect of using these same lenses via the same adaptor on the higher-resolution, more “professional” NEX-7.

Then came the bad news, which I first read on Steve Huff’s excellent Leica-fanboy Web site (go to http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2011/10/28/sony-nex-7-with-wide-angle-leica-lenses-a-quick-test-and-gxr-comparison/). Though the 5N had no problem accommodating wide-angle Zeiss and Voightländer “legacy” lenses (thanks to the layout of the microlenses on its sensor), the NEX-7 did. (For the record--and because everyone seems to have lost sight of this--so does the vaunted Leica M9, and I'd be willing to make a small wager that the 36Mp [Sony] sensor on the new Nikon D800 will have some corner/edge issues.)

As near as I can figure out, the problem seems to be that some of the tiny “photo sites” on the NEX-7’s more-pixel-packed sensor see light at too oblique an angle through these legacy wide-angle lenses (which are technically called “symmetrical” designs). The result of this diffraction problem can be vignetting and cyan colorcasts in the corners of images. On top of this, there is at least one report that this corner problem isn’t limited to wide-angle symmetrical lenses. The pixel-peeping German Web site Photozone recently reviewed two Sony-branded lenses that lost resolution at the edges at larger apertures. Photozone blamed the design of the 24Mp Sony sensor for some of this problem. (Do note that almost everyone else has had nothing but the highest praise for the NEX-7’s sensor.)

So…is the NEX-7 a serious bust for serious photographers?

After several weeks of using the camera, I’d have to say, “Certainly not.” However, there are caveats.

First, some words about the camera itself. Reviewers have generally raved about how far superior the NEX-7 is to NEX-5N in build-quality and features. While the praise is mostly justified, if you plan to use manual-focus RF lenses take it with a grain of salt. Yes, the NEX-7 is very well made, but so is the NEX-5N, which is a smaller but still very solid piece of machinery. Yes, the NEX-7 has a built-in (or built-on) grip, but what the reviewers haven’t mentioned is that the grip makes for a tighter squeeze between lens and fingers if you’re using a manual focus lens and adaptor. And, yes, the NEX-7 has two built-in rotary dials on its top panel as well as a large central dial on its back panel (together called by Sony its Tri-Nav configuration) that make tweaking EV, WB, ISO, aperture (with auto-focus Sony E-mount lenses), shutter speed (with auto-focus Sony E-mount lenses), picture “style,” etc. much easier than fishing through the 5N’s touchscreen menus to adjust these same parameters. However, once again, if you’re using manual-focus rangefinder lenses some of this added convenience gets thrown out the window, since the aperture and focus of RF lenses have to be set manually and the camera’s built-in metering system can only be used in Aperture Priority or Manual mode (or in one of the specialty modes such as Anti-Motion Blur).

I’m not going to go through all the myriad features of the NEX-7. Web site after Web site has already covered these in detail (see http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/sonynex7, for example) and it would take thousands of words to go through them again. Suffice it to say, that the NEX-7 is easer to use and control than the NEX-5N (though SD cards certainly pop out and USB cables plug into the 5N more readily than they do the 7), is at least as sturdily built as the NEX-5N, and has a built-in OLED EVF with focus-peaking that makes manual focusing a good deal easier than it is via an optical rangefinder (though focusing is not a fool-proof snap with either camera when you’re trying to take people pictures at close range).  

What the NEX-7 really offers—what makes it so attractive—is Image Quality. Click on the following link and take a look at this photo (taken with the NEX-7 and the Voightländer Color-Skopar 50mm f2.5 lens handheld and wide-open: http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h37d65391#h37d65391. (If you’d like to see a whole bunch NEX-7 more photos taken with Voightländer and Zeiss RF lenses, go to http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288). This is tack-sharp, with, I think, rather beautiful color and contrast.

How high in resolution is this sensor? Well, click on this link and look at a photo taken with a 90mm f3.5 Voightländer Apo-Lanthar: http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h37d65391#h32977208. Pretty finely detailed, eh? But guess what? This is a 100% crop of the bottom left corner of the following photo:

http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h37d65391#h274221c7. Now that is sharp, IMO!

Three-dimensionality? Well….click on this link: http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h37d65391#h38259060. And this snap was taken at ISO 800.

Of course, these photos were captured with 50mm and 90mm Voightländer lenses. What happens when you use a wide-angle symmetrical lens and get all that vignetting and colorcasting in the corners? Click on this link: http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h37d65391#hb7ec58f.

This was taken with a Voightländer 21mm Color-Skopar, and this next one was taken with a Voightländer 15mm Super Wide-Heliar f4.5 Aspherical: http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h37d65391#h1fcb0d8f.

Where are the vignetting and the colorcasts? Well, they were there all right, but I got rid of them thanks to a freeware program recommended by the great Web site The Luminous Landscape (see http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/cameras/sony_nex_7_rolling_review.shtml#legacy). It’s called CornerFix (go to sites.google.com/site/cornerfix/ to download the program) and it works like a charm. CornerFix does require a little extra work to set up, and it does necessitate an additional step in post-processing. But the upside is that you can use any lens (wide-angle symmetrical or not) without having to worry about the edges and the corners of your images.

The procedure is simple: You take a reference photo with the lens in question of a white card (or a grey one) at about two stops over metered exposure. You load this image into CornerFix and it generates a corrected image that compensates for vignetting and colorcasts. Then, the next time you download your RAW files into Lightroom 4, you simply export the file in question as a DNG, open the DNG in CornerFix, apply the correction profile that you created with your white card for this particular taking lens, and, presto, you have a DNG without vignettes or casts. You save the corrected file on your Desktop (or wherever), load it back into Lightroom 4, and go about your usual business of post-processing. It may sound complicated but it isn’t. It’s just one extra step that opens a whole range of wonderful optics to the NEX-7.

To be honest, there are ways of correcting images taken with wide-angle symmetrical lenses within Lightroom, via the Post-Crop Vignetting or Lens Vignetting tool and color correction via the judicious use of the Graduated Filter and/or the Adjustment Brush. (Here is a photo in which I did that very thing: jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h172e9390#h172e9390. And here is another: jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h189e4365#h189e4365) And certain lenses seem to be less prone to these problems than others—the Zeiss 35mm f2.8 Biogon (go to jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288/h180845af#h180845af), for instance, and any “normal” or short telephoto lens. Nonetheless, CornerFix saves you time and work with “problem” lenses.

Unless you’re prepared to use CornerFix (or find a procedure in Lightroom that works for you), I can’t really recommend the NEX-7 with most Zeiss and Voightländer wide-angle rangefinder lenses. But if you are, you’ve got a genuine treat in store: a lightweight, eminently hand-holdable camera with a superb electronic viewfinder and a very high-resolution sensor that is nearly ideal for street-shooting. Oh, the NEX-7 is also very good in low light—maybe not quite as low in noise as the 5N, but close enough when you factor in improved image quality to call it a wash.

The NEX-7 costs $1199 without the kit lens (which is not worth purchasing, IMO). Judging by reports, the Sony NEX lenses that are worth purchasing are the $299 optically-stabilized 50mm f1.8 (which I will report on separately) and the $999 Zeiss Sonnar E 24mm f1.8. However, if you can deal with the hassles of focusing manually (and with using CornerFix with certain optics), I personally think you’d be much better off with Zeiss or Voightländer RF lenses. But then I use a turntable as my primary source, so what do I care about convenience?

An Additional Word About The NEX-7 and Manual Focus Lenses

As those of you in line to get the Nikon D800 or D800E may already be aware, Nikon is warning potential buyers about the necessity of: a) using lenses that have enough resolution to take full advantage of the cameras’ 36Mp sensor; b) focusing as precisely as one can, which may entail using a tripod; and c) avoiding vibration when shooting, which in addition to a tripod may also entail mirror-up shooting and the use of a remote release.

If you’re in the market for a street camera, this doesn’t sound particularly inviting, although it doesn’t prevent anyone from trying same and certainly wouldn’t limit the cameras’ use for studio, landscape, portrait, or architectural photography.

However, before anyone starts slapping himself on the back over how much better off he is with a lightweight mirrorless camera like the NEX-7 for street shooting, let me warn you that a 24Mp APS-C sensor doesn’t have any advantage over a 36Mp full-frame sensor when it comes to using the “right” lenses and precise focus. Indeed, with a pixel density of .06Mp/mm2 a 24Mp APS-C sensor is actually more densely packed with pixels than a 36Mp full-frame sensor, which has a density of .04Mp/mm2. (Controlling vibration is a genuine plus on the NEX-7, however, thanks to its light weight, compact size, the absence of a mirror, and its electronic first shutter.)

As you may already know if you’ve been paying attention to the results of Photozone’s lens tests with the NEX-7 (about which there is some controversy), finding a Sony E-mount lens (beyond the Zeiss 24mm f1.8) that is capable of taking full advantage of the new 24Mp sensor is a neat trick. Moreover, in spite of the NEX-7’s state-of-the-art focus-peaking EVF, focusing on tricky subjects (like human faces) is not always a snap—and, unfortunately, a snap is often precisely what you need for this kind of shot. You see, Sony’s focus-peaking, which adds progressively brighter shimmering highlights around areas of progressively higher contrast (i.e., areas in sharper and sharper focus) works most readily on subjects with clearly defined outlines, like leaves or tree limbs or the facades of buildings; softer contoured items, like human faces, will also show highlights (around eyes, hair, etc.) but if you’re in a hurry, as you may well be in a street shooting situation, you may think your subject is in sharpest focus when a little added attention paid to whether focus has actually “peaked” (or not) would’ve proved that he or she wasn’t. If you’re not zone focusing, when possible use the camera’s magnification function (which magnifies the image in the EVF) to ensure that the face you’re shooting is indeed in “peak” (and not just approximate) focus.

Under real-world conditions, the lenses I’m recommending from Zeiss and Voightländer are all sufficiently sharp and contrasty to use with the NEX-7. (Once again I encourage you to go to jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p783855288 to view sample photos.) They are also unusually compact and lightweight, which makes street shooting considerably easier. And they are very well made. Just understand that proper procedures must be followed when taking a picture and when processing it if you plan to employ these superb manual-focus lenses.

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