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Undressing an NEX

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I have to say I have one of the better jobs on the planet, at least for a photography gear-head. The part I like best -- well, really there's a lot of parts I like best -- but one fun part is that my job description includes: Take things apart. See how they work. Learn how to fix them.

Sometimes taking things apart is disappointing. I just don't want to know things like "so you hold that together with a piece of Scotch tape, huh?" Some cameras and lenses look really nice on the outside, but inside there's so much chaos I wonder if someone in the corporation is saying "We have 2 million of these parts left over, put them in something so we don't have to write them off."

Inside view of Canon autofocus system, greatly magnified.

Every so often, though, I get to see an internal design that is so elegant and efficient I think the engineers should have signed it like a painting. The Sony NEX cameras are that way. Perhaps being so small required efficient engineering, or maybe the team that designed it just was so good. Maybe the fact that there was no legacy technology that was cheap to carry over to the next model let the engineers, rather than the beancounters, make all the decisions. Whatever the reason, the layout is amazing.

I got to take apart an NEX 3 the other day (water in a camera is a bad thing) and thought some of you might like seeing the insides so I took a few pictures along the way.

The Usual Disclaimer Stuff

First things first: if your camera looks like this, then leave it alone. I have it on good authority that the curse of Serenput I (3,500 years later and we still can't top the Egyptians when it comes to a good curse) is inscribed in the electronic chips of every NEX camera:

Whoever shall enter here and take these offerings: his arm shall be cut off like that of a bull, his neck shall be twisted off like that of a bird, his office shall not exist, the position of his son shall not exist, his house shall not exist in Nubia, his tomb shall not exist in the necropolis, his god shall not accept his white bread, he shall be cooked together with the condemned, his children shall belong to the fire, his corpse shall not be to the ground, I shall be against him as a crocodile on the water, as a serpent on earth, and as an enemy in the necropolis.

We're semi-trained, semi-professionals with another 20 of these on the shelf. If we screw it up, we'll only have 19 left, which is probably less critical than if you screw up the only one you have and then need to 'splain to your wife why you have to buy a new camera.

 

Now Let's Get to It!

It's pretty obvious the 4 screws on the front hold the mount on, just like with every other camera.

And then that the three screws under that hold the mount base, which also lets you remove the lens stop. So far just about like every other camera (although unlike some there are no shims under the mount).

Flipping the camera over and removing 13 screws lets the back come right off. Thank you Sony #1: Notice all 13 screws are exactly the same size, which is a nice thing. A typical SLR uses 4 or 5 different size screws and you have to mark or remember exactly which screw goes where.

Thank you Sony #2: all the back buttons are all mounted on a single flex with one connection: you can remove and replace it in about 30 seconds should the need arise. Just the circular dial button on most cameras has 6 to 9 pieces (which I can assure you can't be reassembled in less than an hour, 15 minutes of which is for profanity breaks, the other 45 require using a magnifying loupe which leaves you cross-eyed for the rest of the day).

The tilting LCD is surprisingly easy to disassemble - removing a few screws removes the cover and exposes the flexes. Disconnecting those and the LCD comes free.

After the LCD is removed and it's flexes disconnected, the metal shielding plate is lifted up and the circuit boards are visible. If you haven't looked at other cameras, you may not appreciate just how clean and well laid out this is. Every flex connector comes onto the main circuit board directly: no long, winding, taped-down cables on this camera. Notice also there is significant electrical shielding over critical cables and circuit boards (I've removed the secondary shield over the main board already). What  nice, clean design!

After disconnecting the flexes and removing a couple of screws the two circuit boards and the plastic frame under them come out. Another 'thank you Sony': the smaller assembly is the memory card circuit. Those break somewhat frequently and on some cameras (yes, I'm talking about you, Canon 5D II) you may end up replacing the entire circuit board when that happens. On the NEX that would never be necessary.

Under that pretty copper shield (another point worth considering: copper is much more expensive than aluminum) is the imaging chip. It's held in place with 4 screws and no shims. I'm not sure if the mirrorless design with it's close backfocusing distance means alignment of the imaging chip and lens mount isn't as critical as on an SLR, or if Sony is able to machine to such close tolerances that shims aren't necessary. Maybe one of you can enlighten me.

The last few assemblies are the shutter and battery compartment, again easily removed.

Only after they are removed is the top button assembly accesible. So note to self: don't break the shutter button on this camera. The electronic connections on the lens mount and the metal chassis of the camera are the last pieces out (lower right in the picture below). Even completely disassembled, there are amazingly few parts to this camera.

For those of you who want to ask, no, there was no reason to put the camera back together after water submersion. We wouldn't trust the electronics to keep working even if they did work for a while. But there are a number of nonelectric parts that are salvageable, which is why we take them apart. OK, really there aren't a lot of salvageable parts, after water immersion. But taking them apart is fun anyway.

And to give you a bit of perspective: If I wanted to take pictures of all the parts from a disassembled SLR, I would have needed about 4 images the size of the above. I'm generally not a Sony fan, but it's amazing how much Sony has simplified the design of this camera - not just compared to SLRs, but even to other mirrorless cameras. And props to them for doing a lot of little things that cost money but probably make the camera better and more reliable: heavy electronic shielding, gluing down the flex clamps, using copper shields instead of aluminum, etc.

 

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

March, 2012

 

24 Responses to “Undressing an NEX”

Amryl said:

If only they can make it weather seal....

Kelly said:

I've always thought that Sony made the best stuff. I've only bought Sony cds and dvds and have never had one issue. Compare them to almost any other brand- the Sony discs are opaque while all the others are translucent. Top-quality stuff.

Greg said:

Maybe Sony could start selling them as a kit - "Some assembly required."

James said:

I'll be the reason they don't need shims is that there is only one sensor. They don't have to make sure that an image sensor, auto-focus sensor and exposure sensor are all equidistant from the lens.

Mike said:

@Kelly - LOLWUT? ಠ_ಠ

Tony said:

The reason fo rthe copper might be that they had no other choice. It has a much higher thermal conductivity than aluminum so it might be there to cool the chip during longer video scenes.

And the lack of shimming may have everything to do with fewer parts. Each part has a tolerance: the more parts, the more the tolerances stack up.

Tom said:

Since focusing is done by the main sensor, any tolerances between the lens mount and sensor are compensated for by the lens focus mechanism.

padang said:

About the shim and the imaging chip: since the focusing is contrast-based, there is no need for calibration and precise alignment of the sensor / AF sensor / lens. The system will adjust automatically in a feedback loop.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

I agree with what everyone says about not needing calibrated optical paths for phase contrast autofocus, etc.
But that doesn't really explain keeping the sensor and lens mount in parallel. Side-to-side image softness on some cameras can be corrected by adjusting the alignment between sensor and mount, but obviously not on a mirrorless camera.

Perhaps the short flange-to-sensor distance makes this less critical? Or perhaps the smaller size allows more precise tolerances during manufacture?

bob m said:

Now can you put it back in my Contax G2 please

Thanks

Tore said:

If you dissasemble Nex 7, 5N or C3, you might get an answer to the shim-question. These cameras are compatible with the Sony LA-EA2 adapter for alpha mount lenses. The adapter has a translucent mirror and phase detection AF, so they can't ignore the distance between lens mount and sensor in these cameras.

Eric M. Jones said:

I noticed over the years that my home electronics gradually were Sony. I didn't plan it that way, but everything else broke. What remained were made by Sony.

Samsung and Panasonics aren't bad. But I have a Sony D-34 CD player that is 20 years old this Spring and works like new. I finally had to give away my Trinitrons.

Milan said:

Couple of things:

- lens mount and sensor plate are directly attached to single cast frame, probably they can cast/machine that part tprecise enough not to need adjustments - afaik, in slr's all parts are held to the body, so a lot of adjustment is necessary due to sheer size

- Sony is probably electronics and micromechanics technology leader - every single thing I had from them is such an engineering marvel; kudos to Sony for that attitude (although their business leaders are to be hung)

- submerged electronics will work as good as new as long as they have been washed out in clean water and thoroughly dried out, to prevent rust; I had a flooded camera (diving accident - coincidentally a Sony) and after drying out it workes fine - the real problem was dirt in optics/sensor module which rendered center of images blurry, and the flash electronics, which got shorted due to high voltage

Although I quite understand why someone in your position wouldn't want to wash out camera and risk it failing in customer's hands.

William Kurtz said:

During Hurricane Irene, my Canon Rebel Xsi got a good dunk and gave up the ghost. I've since replaced it but this post is making me want to take it apart and see if it can't be restored to some kind of half-life. Fun read!

Tim Bond said:

I just had to replace my 1980's Sony TV. I have two Sony cameras.
Tim

Henk said:

@ Amryl weather seal does not make it water proof

electronbee said:

Was the tripod mount within the cast lens mount?

Also, what did the shield look like that covered the first main board?

ed curran said:

I got it apart to the sensor, can you put it back together?

ZoetMB said:

Sony is a mixed bag, but I don't think things are looking good for the future. Sony is intent on closing down its own factories and not only manufacturing elsewhere (which most companies do), but OEMing many of their products. That means simply buying a product that Sony has little design input on from a Chinese manufacturer and sticking a Sony label on it. That's not good.

I also had a Sony CRT TV that I used for 28 years and was still working the day I got rid of it. I also recently took out of service a Sony FM component tuner that is 32 years old and working perfectly. But that Sony is long gone. I do now have a new Sony top-of-the-line HDTV that has a spectacular picture, but Sony had severe manufacturing problems with this set and whether you got one with defects or not (not all of which Sony recognized as defects) was a crapshoot. And Sony's tech support is incredibly awful - not one person I've ever communicated with has had any idea what they were talking about.

But I did buy a NEX for my daughter and I'm glad to see that it's well made.

Asha said:

Hi, I have a sony NEX 3 camera , that I dropped , and after that , the zoom ring seems to be stuck , and I cant change the camera zoom. Is there any way to repair that ?

Donal said:

HI Guys,

Just wondering if any of these bits might be for sale? I need some body plastics, nothing electronic.

Steve Bohne said:

I am in the middle of a site redesign. The image of the disassembled camera would be GREAT for a "PAGE UNDER CONSTRUCTION" page. Could I get your permission to use it on my site, giving you full credit, of course.
Thanx,
Steve

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

No problem Steve, feel free to use it.

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