10 Reasons to Upgrade from a Sony Nex-7 to an a6500

nex-7The Sony Nex-7 was a revolutionary camera when it came out in 2011. DPreview gave it an 81% rating and a gold award. Here are a couple of quotes from the review: “with the NEX-7, Sony is specifically targeting those advanced users with a camera whose key spec reads like it’s come straight off an enthusiast’s wishlist” and “The NEX-7 packs an awful lot of features into its small body, including an excellent 24 MP APS-C sensor and large high-resolution electronic viewfinder. Its three-dial interface and extensive customizability makes for excellent handling”. No wonder I bought one!

When you look back over the 6 years since the introduction of the Nex-7, newer mirrorless cameras from Sony and others have slowly rolled out a series of incremental changes: autofocus has improved, video has moved on to 4K, shake reduction has migrated from the lens into the body and touch screens have been introduced. However, resolution is mostly stuck at 24 megapixels, the electronic viewfinder has stalled at 2.4 megapixels and the picture quality (dynamic range, sensor noise) has not progressed very much.

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Travel photography with the Nex-7 was a pleasure

As a happy owner of a Nex-7 camera, I watched the introduction of the a6000 and the a6300 as well as worthy offerings from Fuji, Olympus and Panasonic and resisted the temptation to jump. I was getting marvellous pictures from the Nex-7 and it was my “go to” camera for travel and family photos and it traveled the world with me. I bought a nice group of e-mount lenses from Sony, Zeiss and Sigma and enjoyed the excellent image quality combined with the portability of the kit. The camera and all the lenses fit into a very small carry-on bag.

a6500_beautyWhen the a6500 came out in 2016, the sheer number of improvements made it clear to me that it might be a good time to upgrade. Despite the high price of the camera, I made the purchase and passed the Nex-7 down to my son. After a few months of working with the a6500, here are the ten reasons happy Nex-7 users might want to consider an upgrade.

Reason Number 10 – video features. I’m mostly a stills shooter. If you’re into video or occasionally shoot movies, 4k is now a “must have”. The Nex-7 wasn’t much of a video camera. It was limited to 1080p and had its issues with overheating. The a6500 inherits its video capability from the a6300. To read the full run-down of improvements on DPReview, click here.

Reason Number 9 – Better menus. The Nex-7’s menu system was a quagmire, designed seemingly by chimps throwing darts at a board with random lists of camera functions. The a6500 menu system is better. It’s still very complex, but has a better way of organizing functions under main headings. It’s a shame that Sony didn’t take advantage of the a6500 touch screen to select menu items, but the menu system is still good enough for use after studying the user manual.

Reason Number 8 – Better weather proofing. One of the worst moments in my photo career happened in the country of my birth, Wales. We were hiking on the Welsh mountains in a downpour and my Canon 5dII was stored in a cheap backpack with no rain protection. As I found out, the backpack did a great job of letting water in, but a poor job of letting it out. The 5dII was floating in a puddle and got completely trashed. Ever since, I’ve appreciated any attempts by camera manufacturers to add weather protection to their gear. The a6500 has better weather proofing than the Nex-7 according to review sites. I haven’t tested to see how much better and there isn’t much written on the Internet about the extent of the improvement, but the seal between lens and camera appears to be much tighter and robust.

Reason Number 7 – Shooting scenes with lots of action. The a6500 is one of the best action cameras on the market. Sony added a “front-end LSI chip” to give the camera more capacity to hold shots before they are written to the memory card. As a result, you can shoot 300 JPEG shots at 11 shots per second before the camera runs out of buffer and bogs down. That’s nearly 30 seconds of continuous rapid-fire shooting. If you combine this with the new focus tracking functions (introduced with the a6300), then you have a powerful camera for capturing action scenes ranging from sports through to kids playing.

Reason Number 6 – Proper mode dial. The Nex-7 has a virtual mode dial. To adjust the mode (e.g. to flip from aperture priority to manual) you had to press one side of the dial on the back of the camera to bring up a picture of a mode dial in either the viewfinder or the screen and then turn the back dial to select the desired mode. For some reason, I never got comfortable with this action that required three actions (button press, rotation, button press). The a6500 has a proper mode dial and just requires a rotation of a dial to select the right mode.

Reason Number 5 – Custom mode buttons. The a6500 has a physical mode dial, as opposed to a virtual function on the Nex-7. While I lament the passing of the Nex-7 tri-navi system (where you had three dials that could be set to aperture, shutter speed and ISO in manual mode), having a physical mode dial is nice. Not only that, but there are now two modes that are custom settings. Just like with my Canon camera, I can set the camera up for a particular purpose and then store the settings under a custom mode. For example, I can set the camera up for action shooting, with continuous auto-focus and multi-shot shutter. This camera set-up can be stored under mode C1 for recall whenever the situation calls for it. This makes it so much easier to get organized for a shoot without having to refer to a checklist and go through all your camera settings to make sure you’re set up properly for the situation. It also ensures that you don’t make mistakes under pressure and miss a critical setting.

Reason Number 4 – better high ISO performance.  Checking the DXOmark site for a comparison between the Nex-7 and a6500 shows a modest gain in overall score (81 for the Nex-7 versus 85 for the a6500). The a6500 exhibits a nice half-stop gain in dynamic range and a significant 40% improvement in high ISO performance. While these can be viewed as evolutionary changes, it really does make a difference in usability. In practice, the Nex-7 produced usable images at ISO 1600, but not at ISO 3200. The a6500 produces usable images at ISO 3200. This might not sound like a big deal, but it is to me. Much of the event-based work that I do involves photographing performers in low-light situations requiring ISO settings of 3200 or more. My Canon system thrives in these situations and produces highly usable images at ISO settings from 3200 to 6400. The Nex-7 was not usable due to its inability to focus in the dark as well as its poor ISO 3200 performance. The a6500 breaks through this barrier with its superior high ISO performance and its auto-focus capabilities.

Why is this important? In event photography, sometimes you are mingling with the audience to a performance. DSLR cameras are noisy things, with mirror slap and clacking shutters. The a6500 has a wonderful silent shutter mode and allows me to get right in there closer to the performers without irritating the paying customers. I can use my Sony 50mm F1.8 lens to advantage and produce some compelling images.

Reason Number 3 – in-body stabilization. One of the great attractions of the Sony mirror-less line of cameras is the ability to choose from a wide variety of lenses, both e-mount and other types using adapters. For example, Sigma makes a great range of inexpensive, good quality, lightweight, small, e-mount lenses, including the 30mm F2.8 DN (my “normal” prime lens), the 60mm F2.8 DN (a great portrait lens) and the 19mm F2.8 DN (a nice wide-angle). These lenses do not come with image stabilization. This tended to pose a problem in low light when combined with the Nex-7’s poor image quality above ISO 1600. The a6500 addresses this issue with the in-body stabilization as well as better low-noise performance at higher ISO’s.

For those who venture into other brands of lenses (e.g. Leica M-mount) using adapters, the in-body stabilization is a big advantage, especially with telephoto lenses.

Reason Number 2 – Superior auto-focus. The Achilles heel of my Nex-7 was auto-focus.

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Shooting scenes from a bus window presented focusing challenges to the Nex-7

In good light and static situations, it worked like a charm. In poor light or dynamic situations with moving targets, forget about it! Last year, we took a trip to India and we spent a good amount of time traveling between cities in a small minibus. The scenes outside the bus window were memorable and I spent a lot of time trying to capture them with the Nex-7. Imagine the challenge for the camera – the bus is moving, the light is varying from bright sunlight to shadow, the air is choked with smog and the subjects are also in motion. The results were hit and miss and some great shots were lost due to soft focus.

The a6500 auto-focus system is considerably better. The a6500 uses both on-sensor phase detection (for depth awareness) and contrast detection autofocus (for high precision) in a hybrid process. In practice, the auto-focus system is extremely fast and precise and works well in low-light conditions. It does a good job of tracking subjects (far better than the Nex-7), but is apparently not as good as some DSLRs. See here for more details. The bottom line is that far fewer shots will be lost due to soft focus.

Reason Number 1 – Back button focus. I’ve become addicted to focusing using my thumb on a back button on my Canon 5ds system. Logically, there doesn’t seem to be an argument for the thumb as a focus initiator instead of a half-press with the index finger, but in practice, it just works a lot better. My hit rate at events went up drastically when I started to listen to Stuart Lowe, my even photography mentor, and moved the focus to a back button. The ability to re-program the AF/MF button to AF ON was very obscure in the Nex-7 and I was never able to figure out how to do it. In fact, DPReview calls this function an “Easter Egg” because it is largely undocumented. The disconnect of moving from the 5ds to the Nex-7 and not being able to assign focus hold to a back button was frustrating. With the a6500, the focus hold button is easily assigned to the MF/AF button and it works like a charm. This button is easy to find with your thumb (i.e. without looking) and my focus hit rate has improved. In family situations with kids running everywhere, being able to nail focus is critical to great family shots, and being able to customize back-button focus on the a6500 is the key. Toggling between MF and AF can easily be assigned to another function button.

So there you have it. If you are a Nex-7 user, it is time to upgrade to the a6500. Yes, it’s expensive, but it is packed full of features and should give at least 5 years of great service.

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