Sony A7R - Is It Really Better?

March 16, 2014  •  3 Comments

I am well vested in Canon camera and lens gear which obviously makes it hard to consider another brand for photography. But times have changed after Sony released a novel class of mirrorless cameras equipped with latest in technology Exmor full frame sensor - the A7 and A7R. Especially the A7R kept my interest since it offers 36 MP of resolution with high dynamic range without the usage of a low-pass filter. Another advantage of mirrorless cameras is their ability to use all kind of lenses ranging from rangefinder to SLR and DSLR lenses with suitable adapters on them. Since I own a few older Canon FD and some M42  lenses, this was an additional plus. I decided not to purchase an A7R camera instantly after it was released end of 2013 but to wait a few months to read reviews and find out more about its potential drawbacks. 

A few weeks ago, I finally grabbed a decent deal for the Sony A7R camera. I am still keeping both of my Canon 5D MkII DSLRs - one is for IR light anyway, the other one would function as second camera body in addition to the A7R later. I also bought the Metabones III Sony camera E-mount to Canon EF lens mount adapter. This adapter is not cheap (unfortunately $399) but the best option currently on the market to allow to use Canon EF lenses with AF or MF together with the A7 camera series. 

Sony's A7 cameras arrive in a box with (very short!) USB cable to connect to a PC or Mac, and also to charge the battery plugged into the camera with the included USB plugin charger. Unfortunately Sony decided NOT to include a battery charger in the package - many complain about this in my opinion rightfully. Would it hurt Sony to include a new $50 battery charger for a camera around $2300? (A7R list price - Update: prices have come down, now in 06/2014 you can get the A7R for about $1800 or less). I don't think so. So I still need to get the Sony battery charger plus one additional battery - both items are currently back-ordered at most online retailers. Also interesting that you won't be able to use any transparent cellphone cover to protect the OLED display of the A7 series camera - it simply wouldn't stick. You are better off purchasing additionally for $14 the Sony screen protect semi hard sheet. Counting all of this - plus Metabones adapter, charger, additional battery, you will be paying about $2800. For this price, you can buy easily a Canon 5D MkIII camera or - if you intend to switch - the Nikon D800. So is it really worth it to go with Sony? Here is my summary and subjective impression:

 

PROS:

1. Weight&Size: amazing! The whole camera body fits by its length into my hand. It is very light-weight which makes it a perfect travel camera. The size fits in a small camera bag. 

2. Operations: Some criticize that the buttons of the A7 series are too small or to cumbersome to use. I find it the opposite - I never had a camera which made it so easy to change aperture, exposure time, ISO, magnification, and exposure settings all in one hand and by looking through the viewfinder while doing all the changes! Other than the bit cumbersome C2 function button, the camera's button and wheel locations are well thought of and designed. I am a big fan of the EVF in the A7R - the display is bright and the functions can all be seen very well to make changes. Much better than in any Canon DSLR which I operated so far. The EVF is 100% field of view coverage! After a photo is taken, I also prefer to review it through the viewfinder - I can see details better in the EVF viewfinder than on the display especially when shooting outside. 

3. Focus Peak Area: Part of camera operations, but I find it so important that I created a separate bullet point. It is one of the "must use" features for me in this camera. It makes MF a pleasure to use quickly and accurately. The outline of objects in focus is enhanced with a specific color (can be customized, I use red) when focusing manually. This can be combined with the MF Assist function which displays an up to 14x enlarged image. It is hard to miss a manual focus even at wide open fast apertures when applying those two functions. 

4. LCD Display and OLED EVF: very crisp and clear LCD display which can be tilted according to the user's position to the camera. The OLED based electronic viewfinder is superb in resolution and reveals very well photo details.  

5. Sensor: the heart of every digital camera - the Exmor CMOS sensor without optical low pass filter leads to a very high resolution with low noise and rich tonal range. 

6. Image processor: BIONZ X image processor allows fast recording speed with 14-bit RAW for high detail and tonal range processing.

7. Wireless connectivity: comes with pros and cons, but overall it is a good thing to have. So far I used it rarely and rather prefer to download the RAW image files from the SD card directly through card reader to my PC. 

8. Third party lenses: ideal camera for this. It even allows to use cropped sensor lenses and jumps then automatically into the APS-C size capture of the full frame sensor (similar function has the Nikon D800(E) series). The A7 series works will all kind of photo lenses most ideally made for 35 mm full frame. This opens a broad field of lens accessory which can be used with the A7(R) camera. The camera's mirrorless design allows not only use of SLR but also of rangefinder lenses with fewer lens elements which are smaller and often better in quality. 

9. Camera body built: the A7R has a magnesium alloy body which is more resistant than the plastic body of the A7 model.

10. Camera balance: no issues so far - I am mostly using the Metabones adapter tripod mount or the lens tripod mount instead of attaching the tripod plate directly underneath the A7R camera.  

The photo above was taken with the Sony A7R camera, Metabones III adapter, and Canon 24/3.5 TSE L lens. No graduated ND filter was used nor a polarizer filter. The high dynamic tonal range and the natural colors are impressive.

 

CONS:

1. Manual: it simply sucks and develops into a patience test to learn about the camera. It just provides you with a very quick overview about its main functions but does not tell you how to operate the camera or which custom settings are best to apply. It took me a few days to dig through the menus and functions plus settings. I found most of my questions answered by googling it - I found that everything was already at least once asked in one of the many photo forums out there. Sony definitely needs to improve there. I wouldn't be surprised if people are unsatisfied with this camera because they don't understand the functions or how to use them. 

2. Charging: without external battery charger, you need to rely on the charging of the battery inside the camera through USB cable. It takes 310 minutes to fully charge an empty battery this way. Also, the battery arrives uncharged in the box, so you need to wait about five hours(!) before you are able to use the camera fully charged. Again, Sony could have avoided this by adding the external battery charger into the package.

3. Battery consumption: is high. Because display or EVF view is always turned on, it drains the small battery rather quickly. Currently I only have one battery, but fully charged it lasted me for a day trip of photography so far. But it is better to have at least one spare fully charged battery with you. 

4. Menu structure: needs to be improved. Some functions are hidden in sub-menus where you don't expect them to be. HDR is one example - the manual HDR option is conveniently located in the display view where you can select up to 5 photos taken in a row with a given range of under- and overexposure stops. This works fine with RAW files. There is another Auto HDR mode in the settings menu which only works with JPG files in the camera. I personally find this option rather useless. I am not convinced that users of this professional A7 series camera need in-camera JPG files anyway.

5. Remote Control: Oh well, Sony. You got me badly with this one - I tried for hours to get it to work with my Samsung Galaxy S3 Android cell phone via wireless or NFC connection. It didn't work. It is one of the worst documented features in the manual, too. I had no trouble connecting the A7R to my wireless router, and I also was able to directly connect my cell phone to the wireless transmitter of the camera. But Sony relies on the "PlayMemories Mobile" cell phone app to use the smartphone as remote control of the camera. When opening this app on the phone, it will disconnect any wireless connection first, but is then in my case unable to connect to the camera (it goes in an endless connection trial loop). NFC did not work at all either even my smartphone has this function. Currently I am hoping that a firmware update will fix this issue. 

Update: I solved the issue to connect my cellphone to the camera. The mobile data plan of the cell phone has to be turned off first, and all old former DIRECT-tcE0:ILCE-7R wireless connection memorized in the smartphone WiFi log have to be erased in case you experience problems. This is more an Android issue with the connection than it has to do with the camera. When the connection between camera and cellphone is established through the PlayMemories Mobile app, it works really fine. 

6. Commercial in-camera Apps: principally a good idea to have apps for specific camera functions similar to apps on a smartphone. Some apps come for free, and Sony allows you to download them through their support website either through your connected PC/Mac or directly through wireless connection of the camera (that's what I did). But the better apps cost you something - I really like the multiple exposure app for this camera since I enjoyed doing double exposures with film. What I didn't like here is that the "Multiple Exposure" app only allows me to take two exposures (no multiple as the name says!). I had to pay $5 for it. There are other useful apps e. g. for time lapse photography for the same price. Again Sony tries to squeeze out more bucks from you after you already purchased this camera plus Sony accessories. Those functions are included as standard in a more professional Canon camera like the 5D MkIII. 

7. Light Leak: A7 camera series users described that light leaks through micro gaps between E-mount and attached lens or adapter in 4, 8, and 12 o'clock positions at very long exposure times. So far I did not experience this issue on my A7R camera. Nevertheless, I found a very simple and efficient solution to resolve this potential issue:  I used a rubber band which USPS uses to wrap up stored mail when I am traveling. This white/yellowish 6 mm wide rubber band exactly covers the gap between orange colored mount on the A7(R) and adapter or lens attached. 

8. Copyright info in RAW files: is missing. Currently there is no simple way to add your name into the saved RAW camera files EXIF extension automatically. I hope Sony will implement it later in one of their freeware software updates for the "Image Data Converter" program or in an in-camera menu option. The software itself works fine but has a some basic look and is much less sophisticated than for example Canon's DPP freeware RAW converter program. 

9. Shutter noise: loud. So far no problem for me, I even like the feeling of an old camera shutter noise. But if someone wants to take photos in an unsuspicious way, you can be sure that this shutter will cause attention. It might be an issue for street photography or in concert halls for example. 

10. AF: I have no experience with Sony E-mount lenses, they might focus well in AF with the A7R. But third party lenses like Canon EF lenses focus very slowly after being attached to the Metabones III EF adapter.  The A7R uses a different AF system than commonly used in DSLRs, too. So far I decided mostly to use MF with EF lenses attached via adapter - I am simply faster by doing this and more accurate by using the focus peak area and the zoom magnification tool to focus. If you rely on fast AF with existing Canon or Nikon lenses, I would not recommend the A7 series to you. You are then better off with a good DSLR of one of the camera manufacturers instead.

Additional Comment after firmware 1.0.2 release: AF speed has improved. Still slower than directly on a Canon DSLR body, but definitely better than before. I still prefer to use my A7R simply in MF through the excellent focus peaking feature!  

11. Weather-sealing: somehow questionable especially when using adapters and no Sony lenses. Even lenses and adapters sit tightly, I am not sure how much humidity still can creep in between the mounts. Under wet/rainy/humid conditions I would likely rather use my 5D MkII than the Sony A7R. 

12. Compressed RAW files: Sony developed its own compression algorithm for RAW data which supposedly is lossless. It is unclear if still some recorded information could potentially be removed by this compression, but so far nobody including me has seen any disadvantage of this method. Still it might be a good idea at least to offer A7 series users to have files either saved as uncompressed RAW or slightly compressed. 

 

WHO IS THE A7(R) COMPETITION?

Sony started a very interesting approach with the release of the A7 series last year - it is certainly a game changer especially in the full frame camera market. Principally, the A7 series competes with every DSLR manufacturer, but I believe it is mostly Canon which might suffer most of the A7(R) impact. Nikon already uses Sony's Exmor sensor in the D800(E) series - for most Nikon users the A7(R) only makes sense to allow third party lenses to be used or to limit weight and camera size. Canon on the other hand still sells older type of FF (full frame) sensors built into the 1Dx, 5D MkIII, and 6D cameras. Consumers unsatisfied with Canon's current approach to neglect or delay the release of a high MP/high DR sensor definitely will consider the A7R as alternative - I can count myself to this group. I like my Canon lens gear, but Canon does not offer me currently a camera with novel FF sensor in which I could be interested in. People who are shooting wedding/sports/events, or bird photography likely won't be attracted to the A7R due to its slower fps rate and slower AF. The A7R is predominantly made for landscape/architecture/fine art photographers who can make use of the higher sensor resolution and dynamic range by giving up on fast AF especially with existing lens gear other than Sony lenses. I doubt that many buy the A7(R) cameras to use them just with Sony lenses. 

Also, the A7(R) competes with the Leica rangefinder market. Leica users can attach many of their existing Leica rangefinder lenses easily on the A7(R). Since those lenses are MF lenses anyway, it is only the camera body which changes (some Leica lenses work better than others on the A7 series due to different lens entrance pupils and thicker glass on top of the A7's sensor). Leica's electronic features in M series cameras are limited compared to what Sony's A7 series offers. Still the MF system between Leica M-series and Sony A7 series is very different. But seeing how quickly and accurately I can focus manually with my A7R, I can imagine that some Leica users think to use an A7 camera as alternative to the rangefinder-based M-series.

You don't need the Sony A7 camera series if:

1. You already have a Nikon D800(E) camera and have no other MF lenses 

2. You rely on fast fps (frame per seconds) and AF only

3. You don't like small cameras with smaller-sized buttons 

4. You are not interested in manual focusing or in any third party MF lens

5. Especially for A7R with 36 MP photo file size: You dislike having larger RAW and image files in post-processing

 

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US - SUMMARY:

The Sony A7R camera is not for everyone. Beginners will be overwhelmed by its functions, others might find the lack of fast AF and fps in this camera a deal breaker. Street photographers will dislike the loud shutter. I see the camera not as a replacement of a DSLR but as a great addition to have. I am mostly into landscape and fine arts photography, so this is a camera I was waiting for since a while. I am not only intrigued by its sensor, but even more so by its capability to be used with all kind of lenses. You might have old MF lenses which can't be used on a modern DSLR, or you see a good deal somewhere for a MF lens - no worries, guaranteed you will find an adapter which makes this lens work on A7 series cameras. The metal MF adapters cost less than $20 per piece! The small size of the camera comes handy and is ideal to take with me on travels. If weight is an issue, I can simply take a small and older MF lens with me to be used in combination with my A7R. I will review the quality of photos taken with third party MF lenses with the A7R in one of my future blogs, stay tuned!

The full frame sensor of the A7R is simply amazing. The difference to other existing sensors e. g. in Canon full frame DSLRs is huge. I didn't expect to see this difference when I bought the A7R. But the photos posted here in my blog didn't need post processing nor a graduated ND filter to take them - impossible if I had taken those with my 5D MkII. The shadows come with a lot more detail instantly, the colors appear richer and more natural as my eye sees them. There will be more for me to test, but after a bunch of first test shots this difference is more than obvious. To me it is the perfect combination of excellent electronics and very good glass which I own. The advantages of the A7R outweigh the cons mentioned above. 

Consider that you will need to vest an additional $500 for adapters and accessories after you purchased the A7R. This does not make it a cheap full frame camera deal - in fact you need to ask yourself what you will need the A7 series camera for. I hope my blog facilitates your decision-making process. Furthermore, I am looking forward to the first Sony firmware update of the A7 series cameras due on March 19th. 

Belmar, NJ

Photo above taken at moonrise with the sun setting in the back. Sony A7R with Metabones III adapter, Canon 90/2.8 TSE lens, ND filter. The amount of detail and tonal range is impressive.

Belmar, NJ

Night photo of the same scenery - Sony A7R with Metabones III adapter, Canon 50/1.2 L lens, no filters. The detail in the shadows underneath the pier is fantastic as well as the blueish tonal range. No post processing was needed. 


Comments

mark giangiordano(non-registered)
Thanks for the links and the info, Martin !
Martin Bluhm Photography
Mark, thanks so much for your feedback and mentioning those very good points! The link below will support your first question and is a well written article about digital sensors and technology advances therein:

http://www.chipworks.com/en/technical-competitive-analysis/resources/blog/full-frame-dslr-cameras-canon-stays-the-course/
http://www.chipworks.com/en/technical-competitive-analysis/resources/blog/full-frame-dslr-cameras-part-1-nikon-vs-sony/

This shows clearly that Sony's sensor technology currently is quite advanced in regard to sensor architecture. They use a 0.18 micrometer fabrication process which produces 4.75 µm pitch pixels while others are still behind at 0.5 micrometers!

Your second question in regard to the BIONZ sensor is a tougher one. I did not find a precise answer to this, but I assume that a faster processor is needed to cope with the high pixel density (resolution) and to keep even a 4 fps photo rate.

Leica has used CCD full frame sensors up to recently in their digital M series rangefinder cameras until they switched to CMOS also in the latest model. This CMOS Leica sensor is described here:

http://www.chipworks.com/en/technical-competitive-analysis/resources/blog/full-frame-dslr-cameras-part-iii-new-entrants-and-look-forward/

They even use a 0.11 micrometer design but somehow similar to the 0.18 micrometer design discussed above.
mark giangiordano(non-registered)
How different is the design and materials used in the A7 CMOS sensor different from competing full-frame sensors ? And what is the relative importance of the camera sensor vs. the BIONZ image processor in achieving a superior image. I notice for example, that image processing engines (software + hardware) improvements seem to occur at a faster rate than corresponding improvements in sensors (hardware) in general for digital cameras. And how and in what respects is the A7 sensor design (s/n ratio, dynamic range, color fidelity, "grain") different in important ways from competing products such as the Leica rangefinder ?
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