Making a Statement
The Leica I (1913), the Konica C35 AF (1977) and the Canon 5D Mark II (2008).
What do they all have in common? They are all landmark iconic cameras that significantly changed the course of photography forever and influenced subsequent generations of cameras.
The Leica I was the first small production camera to use the now-ubiquitous 35mm film and the Konica C35 AF was the first mass-produced camera with autofocus (AF). And as many of you already know, the Canon 5D Mark II became the first digital SLR to feature 1080p video recording capability, which effectively created the HD-video DSLR industry.
In short, these cameras are game-changers.
Now, Sony aims to do the same with the first full-frame mirrorless camera with AF, the Sony a7 and the 36MP Sony a7R.
(Yes, the Leica M series is technically the first, but it doesn’t have autofocus or a relatively mainstream price tag)
Without a doubt, the a7/a7R is one of the most exciting cameras to hit the market this year, and based on the immense public reaction, Sony may have a real winner in their hands.
So can Sony’s full-frame duo live up to their hype and shake up the camera industry? Let’s find out.
Wow, these cameras are small! If you are coming from a traditional DSLR system, the a7/a7R will surely feel diminutive. Just take a look at the size of the camera compared to the smallest full-frame DSLR, the Canon 6D.
Because the a7/a7R lacks a mirror, the flange distance is shorter. As result the native FE (full-frame E-mount) lenses are smaller, as well. Below are camera and lens comparisons between the Sony a7R and the Canon 6D with their respective 35mm prime lens and the 24-70mm f/4 zoom lens attached.
The a7/a7R’s styling matches that of the Sony RX-1, and the all-black matte-metal body lends to a serious but sophisticated style. It’s not flashy, it’s not retro, it’s just nice and modern.
Handling and Ergonomics
One of the things that I personally love about the Panasonic GH3 and the Olympus E-M1 is that both are relatively small cameras that are just big enough to offer plenty of buttons to control all the necessary camera adjustments.
Additionally, both cameras are still small and light enough to be carried around with an attached battery grip all day long, which is what I prefer to do since I shoot quite a lot in portrait orientation. Plus, having two batteries goes a long way with mirrorless cameras.
The Sony a7 and a7R also share these advantages. The cameras are small with and without the grip, and they have plenty of buttons. There are 9 customizable function buttons on the body alone, and they are all within easy reach. Altogether, there are over 40 functions that can be assigned.
One thing to note is how some of the available functions are not labeled clearly. It took me a while to figure out that “Focus Settings” is the function that actually changes AF points.
Thankfully, navigating through the Menu is straightforward because its structure is more like the alpha camera Menu as opposed to the dreaded NEX Menu. The only complaint I have is that the Menu button acts as the Back button. That button is placed to the left of the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and is therefore too far away to press with the right hand. As a result, you almost always have to use both hands to when using the Menu.
Additionally, You can also set a thumbnail-style Home menu so you can quickly dive into any of the settings category quickly. Convenient!
So let’s take a look at the rest of the camera body. Up top is where you find the shutter button, surrounded by the power switch collar, a C1 custom function button, the Mode Dial, and an EV compensation dial. There are no controls to the left of the viewfinder.
If you are coming from a DSLR, the location of that silver shutter button may also take a bit getting used to, since it’s positioned more like a rangefinder and a point-n-shoot on top of the camera plate instead of towards the front on top of the hand grip. I personally wish that the shutter button sits on top of the front command wheel similar to the Olympus E-M1 because that feels more natural and your index finger won’t get in the way of the shoulder strap.
In addition to the front and rear command dial near the top of the camera, the vertical scroll wheel at the back can be used to directly control ISO, which is a very nice feature to have.
Although the camera is small, the hand grip is sizable enough and feels great in the hand. While out on the field, the a7/a7R feels secure and comfortable to hold on to. I never felt the camera will slip out of my hand when I attached adapted full-sized lenses such as the Zeiss 135mm f/1.4 ZA or the big Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, and the balance when using larger lenses is not too bad at all.
Just like the Sony A99 and the RX1, both the a7 and a7R have really good build quality and feel really solid in hand. They both have magnesium bodies, although the a7 does not have a full magnesium body like the a7R. But in reality, it is really hard to tell the difference between the two cameras.
The other positive note is that the a7/a7R are also weather-resistant, so a little bad weather shouldn’t stop you from taking these cameras out for a shoot. All the Zeiss FE lenses are also weather-sealed.
The EVF and LCD Screen
The high-resolution OLED EVF is just about as good as the one found in the Sony A99 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1, and really provide an almost seamless experience for even those who are used to optical viewfinders (OVF).
I actually prefer an EVF nowadays because I can see exposure, white balance, and depth of field in real time. You can even overlay various grids and horizontal/vertical electronic levels within the EVF display.
Additionally, when manually focusing, the Sony a7/a7R provides focus peaking and magnified view, as well. Finally, in broad daylight, I don’t have to worry about seeing washed out images on the LCD screen because I can playback images through the EVF instead.
Speaking of the LCD, the a7/a7R is also pretty bright and sharp. What’s also important is that the colors on both the LCD and EVF are accurate and match each other. That was one of the issues that I have seen with several mirrorless cameras, that the LCD and EVF colors do not match each other.
Just as important is how well the displayed colors matches the colors of a color-calibrated computer monitor, and in this regard, both cameras’ LCD and EVF are color accurate.
The last note about the LCD screen is that it articulates up and down just like some of the NEX cameras. It really does make it easier to shoot those low angle and high angle shots. I don’t understand why Sony is the only company to include an articulating screen for their full-frame cameras, and I feel that Nikon and Canon need to start doing this.
Sadly, the Sony LCD is not touch screen. Coming from the GH3, having touch AF is surprisingly useful especially when you want to rack focus by touch for videos.
The Optional Battery Grip
The optional portrait battery grip is probably not the prettiest grip in the world, especially when connected to the camera body, but as someone who shots portrait orientation regularly, I’m glad that Sony has a grip available from the beginning.
The battery grip does take a little bit of time to get used to because the actual hand grip is actually concave – which is partly the reason it looks a bit funny. Nevertheless, once you get used to having your middle finger sit inside the groove, holding on to the portrait grip is actually pretty good.
Unfortunately, the button ergonomic with the battery grip is not as good as the camera bodys’s. The buttons are all flush, which makes them a little harder to find by touch quickly. Additionally, the on-and-off switch does not need to be that high and another custom function button could have taken its place. Finally, the front and back command dials are recessed, which makes them harder to operate. The back dial is particularly difficult to quickly operate at times.
On top of that, the way you attach the grip to the body is by first removing the camera body’s battery and the battery door, and then by inserting the protruding connector segment of the grip into the battery bay. Not only is detaching and reattaching the battery door a bit cumbersome, but the grip now takes up the body’s battery space.
This also meant that grip takes up more room in your bag because of its L-shape. At least the grip itself can accommodate up to two batteries.
In comparison, I prefer the way the Sony A99’s grip work. You don’t have to take the battery out of the body because the grip connects to the a99 through the connector pin is at the bottom of the a99. With the two-battery tray in the grip, you can have up to three batteries to power the a99.
The a7/a7R uses the small NEX batteries, and since one battery is only rated for a paltry 340 shots, it is best to carry at least an extra spare or two.
Shooting with the a7 and a7R
Clunk goes the shutter! Ok, let me get this out of the way. I actually like the sound of the a7R’s shutter. Although it would be nice to have an option for a quieter shutter, for the most part, the sound is nice to hear. For a fashion, commercial, or portrait photoshoot, the loud shutter helps the model or subject know that a photo has been taken.
The a7 does have an electronic first curtain, so it is a little quieter in comparison.
Aside from that, the a7 and the a7R are a joy to shoot. It’s easy to compose your shots using either the sharp, high-resolution EVF or LCD screen, and you can always use focus peaking and magnified view to double check your focus.
The 9 custom buttons and three command dials give you quick access to the majority shooting functions you typically need right away. You can also press the “Fn” button just above the rear scroll wheel in order to access a customizable Quick Function Menu.
The AF is pretty quick, but not blazingly quick like the E-M1 or the GH3. It is a lot faster than the Fuji mirrorless cameras, though.
I did not test the AF speed difference between the a7R and a7, although I did notice that the a7 does track moving subjects better since it has phase detect AF on its sensor.
AF accuracy is really good for the most part when using the native FE lenses. The Flexible Spot AF and the Facial Recognition works well. You can even hit the button inside the rear scroll wheel to activate Eye Recognition so the AF will look for the closest eye. Pretty cool!
I did have issues with the pre-production LA-EA4 alpha-to-e-mount adapter missing focus constantly. Hopefully, the final unit will be spot on when it comes out since that adapter focuses really quick when paired with the new generation of full-frame alpha lenses like the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZA.
Both cameras’ AF can get fairly slow when it comes to focusing in low light environment, however.
Burst speed for the a7R in particular is a rather pedestrian 4fps when using Speed Priority (AF locked on the first image only) and a sluggish 1.5 fps when using the continuous shooting burst mode with AF. The a7 barely improves on the a7R with a maximum Speed Priority burst mode of 5 fps and 2.5 fps for continuous shooting. It goes without saying, neither will replace your sports-oriented DSLRs like the Nikon D4, Canon 1D X, or even the Canon 7D.
One thing to note is that compared to the E-M1 and the GH3, the a7 and a7R do take a bit longer to turn on and get into a ready-to-shoot state, so you would want to be quicker on the power switch if you don’t want to miss a timely shot or just let it stay idle in sleep mode. Luckily, the cameras do wake up quickly from sleep mode.
Overall, the shooting experience for the a7 twins has been very positive.
Now, because I shot mostly with the Sony a7R, I will be covering the a7R’s image quality for this Field Review.
a7R Image Quality
Sony has really been one of the best sensor makers in recent years and many of the top cameras in the industry use their sensors. That is why it’s hardly a surprise that the a7 and a7R can capture high quality images. The Sony a7 has the 24MP full-frame sensor that has done very well in the Sony A99 (See our review) and the Nikon D600 (See our review), and it has been updated with an on-sensor Phase detect AF that helps with moving subjects. The a7R has an updated version of the highly regarded 36.4MP sensor found in the Nikon D800 and D800E. And just like the D800E, the a7R does not have a low-pass optical filter to soften the image.
Both cameras have very good true-to-life color rendition, and in the case of the a7R, tons of details. When you pair the camera with a high-quality lens such as the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, the result is pretty magical. It’s true, the a7R can deliver near-medium format quality images.
I was amazed at the quality of the jpegs when I was shooting in Nashville, and now that Adobe has released a new version of Camera RAW and Lightroom that can read the a7/a7R RAW files, I am even more amazed at the a7R’s image quality.
You can see more samples of the a7R below along with some 100% crops. Unless otherwise noted, all the images here are unretouched RAW images imported into Lightroom and exported into full-size Jpegs.
You can also click on the images to see them in full resolution.
(NOTE: Flickr still compresses the huge a7R images, so the images on my laptop is actually sharper than the Flickr version)
I primarily used the two Zeiss FE native lenses, the 35mm f/2.8 and the 55 f/1.8, and for the most part, they both perform very well. Additionally, I shot with several adapted alpha lenses (Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA and the Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 ZA), and the aforementioned Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 with Canon EF mount adapted using the Metabones Canon EF to NEX Smart Adapter Mark III.
The images have a great look to them and have a lot of latitude to work with in post processing, as you can see with this before and after Lightroom processing:
Wide Dynamic Range
Just like the Nikon D800, the the a7R has a very good dynamic range performance. It is pretty easy to recovere clipped shadows and blown highlights for images shot in relatively low ISOs. Here is an example of how well the Sony a7R can cope with wide dynamic range. Notice how much of the blown up sky and interior shadows is recovered cleanly.
Now with this next image, you can see that even if you pull the Whites and Highlights by -100 and the Shadows and Blacks by +100 in Lightroom 5, the image holds up well.
Here is a toned-down version with the Whites and Highlights at -50 and the Shadows and Blacks at +50:
High ISO Image Quality
What is surprising is how well the Sony a7R’s low light and high ISO images look. Noise starts to creep in around ISO800, but it is well maintained into ISO1600. At ISO3200, detail resolution is still retained, while color starts to loose a bit of vibrance. The RAW image below was shot in ISO3200 and lightly processed in Lightroom 5 with no noise reduction added:
In this ISO3200 image example, you can see how much color is lost in the original RAW file and recovered in Lightroom, as well as how much detail is retained.
And although the color loss is much more noticeable at ISO6400, detail retention is still quite good especially in areas with good light. This is particularly true when shooting RAW images, and once you resize the image down to 24MP, the image still remains fairly sharp.
Even in super low-light, there is still enough detail and dynamic range to work with. The noise actually helps to retain the detail and prevents the image to look too smushy.
As you can see in these before and after crops, moderate noise reduction and highlight clipping control can still be applied effectively at ISO6400.
One of the highlight features of the Bionz X Processor is its ability to handle image quality loss due to diffraction. In the real world, this does work pretty well, especially with the a7R and its 36MP sensor. This image below was shot at f/16 on a tripod. Notice in the 100% crop how the leaves on the trees still retain enough detail.
The Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 can exhibit some purple chromatic aberration despite the Bionz X Processor, and adapted alpha lenses like the superb Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 ZA are even more prone to chromatic aberration. Thankfully, fixing chromatic abberation is easy to do in Lightroom 5 and Capture One.
There is one caveat with having a 36 megapixel full-frame sensor in such a small, lightweight camera body – shutter vibration.
The other journalists and myself noticed that subtle camera shakiness are affecting a good deal of our images when we first started shooting. High resolution cameras such as the D800/D800E and Phase One medium format cameras are somewhat vulnerable to this as well, but because their body and lenses are heavy, the vibration of the mirror or the shutter is dampened. In comparison, the Sony a7R’s body and lenses are so light that if you are paying attention, you can actually feel the shutter reverberate inside the camera.
Does this mean that the camera is faulty? Well, no, of course not. It just mean that you may not be able to go as low on the shutter speed as you can with bigger cameras, and that you have to pay more attention to your shooting form. After several days of getting accustomed to shooting with the a7R, the majority of my shots in the 1/50 to 1/80 shutter speeds have little to no signs of shutter vibrations.
This shot, for example, was taken at 1/80th of a second shutter speed. As you can see from the 100% crop, there is no sign of shutter shake.
Limited native lens availability
The other caveat is the lack of native lenses available at launch. Unfortunately, there are only 5 lenses available within the first few months of the launch:
• Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA
• Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 ZA
• Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS
• Sony FE28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS
• Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS
Luckily, according to SonyAlphaRumors.com, Sony plans to develop and release 15 FE lenses by 2015. Some of the highlights include a fast Zeiss prime lens by 2014, a Zeiss wide angle f/4 zoom, and a Sony G macro lens. It’s an ambitious roadmap, and I hope that Sony can commit and follow through because a proper lens system is one of the issues that still affects the NEX system.
In the meantime, you can adapt practically any DSLR and vintage SLR lenses by using the many different E-mount lens adapter that are in the market right now. As I mentioned earlier, that wonderful Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens that I used was mounted on the a7R using through Metabone’s Canon EF Lens to Sony NEX Smart Adapter (Mark III). Not only can you use most Canon EF lenses through this Smart adapter, but you can also electronically control aperture and AF. Additionally, EXIF data passes through the lens, as well.
What I Like About the a7/a7R
- David-sized body with a Goliat-sized sensor
- Excellent image quality
- Very good white balance and color rendering
- Wide dynamic range
- Surprisingly good high ISO image quality
- One of the best EVF with beautiful and natural looking display
- Very good build quality
- Good grip, ergonomics, and customization
- Battery grip available at launch
- Articulating high resolution and color accurate LCD screen
- Audio in and headphone out jack, as well as clean HDMI output for movie recording
- E-mount allows you to use many third party and legacy lenses can be used via existing E-mount lens adapters
- Both the a7 and a7R are competitively priced compared to Canon and Nikon’s full-frame offerings
What I Don’t Like
- Limited native lens availability in the first few months
- More prone to shutter shake/shock because of high-resolution sensor, large shutter, and lightweight body
- a7R’s shutter may be loud for some
- There is no in-body stabilization (IBIS)
- LCD screen is not touchscreen
- Small battery with fairly low shot count
- Battery charger is not included and costs extra
- AF is a bit slow in low light environment
- Only 1/160th X-sync for the a7R
- Phase-Detect AF only available on the a7
- Movie codec is limited to AVCHD and fairly low bitrate
- Battery grip’s design and ergonomic not as well-thought out
- The PlayMemory Smartphone App is too simplified and cannot wi-fi tether to computer
From an image quality standpoint alone, both the a7 and a7R are more than capable of producing very high-quality, professional-caliber images. But there are already a handful of DSLRs that can capture exceptional images.
What is really special about the a7 and a7R is really how Sony manage to cram a full-frame sensor into such a small body, especially the 36.4MP sensor in the a7R. Sure, there are some compromises that has to be made, particularly with the underpowered battery and increased chance for shutter vibration, but overall, Sony has a real winner in their hands and I applaud them for being very much ahead of the curve.
Are the a7 and a7R enough to shake up the industry? I believe so. There is no doubt that because Sony was the first to come out with a mainstream full-frame mirrorless camera, Canon and Nikon has been caught sleeping and has to now play catch up.
Even the Nikon Df does not have the same impact as the a7/a7R because of its size, inclusion of the mirror box, and most notably, the price.
By introducing both the a7 and a7R, Sony is also pulling a one-two punch against Nikon and Canon’s D800E and 5D mark III. Need super high-resolution? Buy the a7R. Need a more all-around full-frame camera? Buy the a7.
So in the meantime, what can Sony do to strengthen its position with the a7/a7R? In my opinion, it is going be critical from this point on is for Sony and Zeiss to develop more lenses quickly for both consumers and professionals. The faster they can churn out high-quality lenses in both the affordable tier and the professional tier, the better for all of us.
And that is including me, because I for sure will be buying the a7R in the near future. It’s that good and both the a7 and a7R are awarded 5 out of 5 stars.
Where to Buy
The 24.3MP Sony a7 is priced at $1,698.00 at B&H and Amazon, while its 36.4MP big brother, the a7R, is priced at $2,298 at B&H and Amazon.The α7 can also be bundled with a 24-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Lens for $1,998 at B&H and Amazon.
Additional High-Resolution RAW Images
- Sensor: 24.3 Megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor (35.8 x23.9mm)
- Processor: BIONZ X image processor
- Shutter Speed: 1/8000 to 30 seconds, bulb
- ISO: 100-25,600 (Expendable to ISO 50)
- Video Resolution: AVCHD up to 1080p60 @28Mbps
- Focus System: Fast Hybrid AF (117 on-sensor phase-detection AF points/25 contrast-detection AF points)
- Focus Sensitivity: 0EV to 20EV (at ISO100 equivalent and f/2.8 lens attached)
- Focus Peaking: High/Mid/Low/Off. Color: White/Red/Yellow
- Metering: 1200-zone evaluative metering
- Continuous Shooting Speed: Max continuous shooting at 2.5fps; Max speed priority continuous shooting at 5.0fps
- LCD: 3.0″ TFT LCD (1.23 million dots) with tiltable design
- Viewfinder: 1/2-inch XGA OLED with 2.4 million dot resolution, 100% field of view, and 0.71x magnification
- Body Material: Magnesium Alloy
- Dimensions (approx): 5″ x 3-3/4″ x 1-15/16″ (126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2mm) (W/HD) excluding protrusions
- Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
- Weight (approx): 14.7 oz (416g) body only. 1lb 0.7 oz (474g) with battery
- Battery: InfoLITHIUM NP-FW50 1080mAh – Good for approximately 340 images
- Availability and Price: Early December for $1,698.00 or $1,998 bundled with 24-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS Lens
Sony a7 Accessories
VG-C1EM Vertical Grip
$298 at B&H
LA-EA4 Alpha to E-Mount Adapter with translucent mirror technology
$348 at B&H
LA-EA3 Alpha to E-Mount Adapter
$198 at B&H