The long-anticipated Sony a7 and a7R have been called the cameras of the year by some. I was an early fanboy, but does the a7 live up to the hype and my expectations?
The a7 and a7R are the first full-frame, mirrorless, autofocusing interchangeable-lens cameras. Together, they’re strong competitors for the Leica 240 and the Nikon D800E. But the native lens selection is meager. The sweet spot may be to combine the new Sonys with third-party lenses.
Heritage – When I reviewed the Sony RX1R I said that if Sony released essentially the same camera but with a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) and interchangeable lenses, I’d buy one. Sony did their part, and so did I. The long-anticipated a7 (24MP) and a7R (36MP) have been called the cameras of 2013 by many reviewers, and it’s hard to argue with them.
These cameras use the E-mount previously used on the NEX-series bodies rather than the A-mount used on the other alpha cameras such as the a99. Yes, the NEX line uses APS-C sized cropped sensors, but the E-mount diameter is just large enough for a full-frame sensor, and that’s what Sony has done here.
The Basics – Here’s the rundown with differences for the a7R shown in [square brackets]:
- $1,700 body only [$2,300]
- $2,000 with the kit lens [not available with kit lens]
- 24MP sensor [36MP]
Ergonomics & Usability – These are the smallest, lightest, full-frame interchangeable cameras on the market today. The two bodies are almost indistinguishable from one another. The most important difference is that the a7R has a somewhat stronger front magnesium plate, which I believe might help support heavy lenses. (OTOH, any really heavy lens probably has its own tripod mount and therefore the camera is really being supported by the lens, not vice versa.)
The cameras are almost as small as the micro 4/3 cameras such as the Lumix GX7 and the Olympus OM-D E-M5. They’re roughly the same height and width as the NEX-6 and -7, but quite a bit thicker (front-to-back) and noticeably heavier.
The a7 and a7R feel very good in the hand, at least to me. Other reviewers think they’re a bit cramped and some have suggested getting the optional battery grip. To me that sort of misses the point of having a small camera like this.
At first I found the position of the shutter button to be a bit off, but that concern disappeared after a few hours of use.
The controls are generally pretty good. I’ve managed to configure mine in a way that makes the camera fast and straightforward to use without having to get into the menu system. And speaking of menus, the a7 and a7R thankfully include Sony’s alpha-style menus (also found on the RX1R) instead of the awful menus on the NEX-series cameras.
I still wish everyone used controls like Fujifilm does on the X100s and X-E2. These give you dedicated, marked (!) dials for shutter speed and (on the lens!) aperture. It’s not that this is retro styling, it’s rather that you don’t have to set these controls “by wire” and check the rear LCD or EVF to see your settings. At least when I use something like a Leica M-Mount lens on the a7 I get a real aperture control. More about this later.
There is no built-in flash. Not even a tiny one for fill. The cameras have a standard hot shoe with extra connections for proprietary Sony devices and one such device is a combination flash/video light ($550).
One nice feature is that the battery can be charged in the camera via the power from a USB cable. On the other hand, Sony doesn’t include the typical external battery charger. Some reviewers complain about the short battery life, but that doesn’t bother me. I’d rather carry one or two extra batteries and get the benefit of a lighter camera.
LCD & Viewfinder – The EVF is about the best I’ve used on any digital camera. It’s bright and sharp and the combination of image and selectable data are great. Sony claims it’s 30% brighter and has 3x more contrast as compared to the external FDA-EA1MK EVF you can add onto the RX1R and RX100 II cameras.
The only problem I have, possibly because I wear glasses, is that when I have sunlight directly to my left and very slightly behind me, I can’t see the image in the viewfinder. I need to concoct some workaround for this, as it happens more than you might think, and when it does the camera is almost useless if I want to focus manually (ie, use both hands).
The EVF is centered over the lens, so the camera has that DSLR-like look. Some people, particularly those who use their right eye so they can watch the scene with their left one, prefer for the EVF to be on the left side of the camera. But a Sony spokesperson said that the body would have become larger with the EVF placed in the corner like it is on the NEX-7.
The rear LCD is large and bright. I find I usually switch to Bright Sunlight mode pretty much whenever I’m outdoors. Unfortunately, this drains the battery more quickly than usual.
The LCD tips up 90 degrees for shooting down low and tips down enough so you can hold the camera over your head. It does not articulate further (ie, it doesn’t swing out).
If there’s one disappointment with the LCD it’s that it’s not touch sensitive. Two years ago I thought touch-sensitive displays weren’t a big deal, but after testing so many cameras and some with touch features, it’s something I’ve come to look for and even expect. When done properly, it adds a lot to the usability of a camera. Hopefully Sony will go in this direction in the future.
On the rear there’s an Fn button that defaults to bringing up a Quick Menu, which has become so common these days. It gives you 2+ click access to most of the settings you need to change most often. Almost every other button on the camera is also programmable. For example, I have one set to go directly to ISO, one to shooting mode (single, continuous, bracketed, timer), and other to zoom in for manual focusing. It takes a while to come up with your own personal configuration but almost anything is possible.
Sensor & Shutter – The a7 sensor is all-new. It includes on-sensor phase-detection autofocus, which the higher-res a7R does not. The a7 also includes the traditional low-pass anti-ailiasing filter in front of the sensor to reduce the potential for moiré effects. The a7R has no such filter. In fact, the a7R’s sensor appears to be virtually identical to that found on the amazing Nikon D800E.
But that’s all the technical stuff. How are the images? I’d say that both cameras have image quality that’s as good as any camera I’ve every used or owned. (Yeah, I know the Leica fans will take exception to that, but I ready to take them on!)
The shutters are rather unique. I read an interview with one of the Sony engineers who said that getting a 1/8000 second shutter into these tiny bodies was their greatest challenge, and I believe it. The a7 uses only an electronic front curtain. That’s camera-speak for the fact that no mechanical parts move when the exposure begins. In all mirrorless cameras, the shutter is normally open so the EVF and LCD can display the live image. At the end of the exposure, the mechanical shutter closes, the processor reads the data from the sensor, then the shutter re-opens. That means there’s the ker-plunk of the mechanical shutter at the end of the shot. If you’re making a long exposure such as 1/4 second or longer, it’s a bit unnerving until you get used to it. The camera gives the impression that it’s slow to respond, but that’s just because the start of the exposure is completely silent.
The a7R, on the other hand, has both a front and rear curtain. There’s one ker-plunk as the shutter first closes. The sensor is erased, then the shutter opens. After the exposure, the shutter operates just as in the a7. Many reviewers complain about the double ker-plunk, but if you’ve ever taken a shot from LiveView mode on a DSLR, it’s pretty much the same thing. There are two shutter actuations for every exposure because the shutter first has to close so it can re-open/close to make the shot, and it has to open once again to re-enable LiveView. (Via the menus you can optionally enable the mechanical front curtain in the a7, too. I haven’t yet figured out the reason(s) why you might want to do that.)
On both cameras the shutter actuation(s) are fairly loud, particularly for a camera that’s so small that you might expect it to operate in silent mode. You might consider this if you want to be stealthy. You won’t be with these Sonys.
Neither camera has in-body image stabilization. Honestly, it doesn’t look like there’s enough room in there to do it! The cameras depend on lens-based stabilization if available.
The a7 can shoot normally at 2.5fps or in Speed Priority mode (autofocus on first frame only) at 5.0fps. The a7R tops out at 1.5fps or 4.0fps, respectively.
Lenses – The subject of full-frame lenses for E-mount is one I’ll probably write quite a bit more about in the future.
As of this date, Sony has shipped only three lenses for these cameras:
- Sony FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS (stabilized). The optional kit lens for the a7. $500 alone or adds $300 to the cost of the kit. An unremarkable lens, particularly for such a good camera.
- Zeiss Sonnar FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA. Very small and just a great lens. This is almost as good as the 35mm f/2 on Sony’s RX1R. $1,000.
- Zeiss Sonnar FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA. Also a great lens in the mid-focal length range, but I wish it wasn’t so large, particularly with the lens hood attached. $1,000.
Two high-quality zooms have also been announced but are not shipping as of this review.
- Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 OSS (about $1,200, shipping early February 2014)
- Sony FE 70-200 f/4 OSS (no date or price yet)
Finally, you can use Sony’s A-mount lenses along with an LAEA4 adaptor ($350) which includes a translucent mirror and phase-detection autofocus.
The vast majority of existing E-mount lenses, designed for the smaller-sensor NEX cameras, won’t cover the area of the full-frame sensors of the a7 and a7R. The vignetting of this combination is generally quite severe. Just like the full-frame Nikon bodies, the new Sonys will, by default, automatically switch to a cropped mode when you attach one of these smaller-field lenses. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. The a7 delivers a 10MP image in crop mode, and the higher-density a7R gives you 16MP. I don’t know about you, but I rarely need an image that’s more than 10MP. At 240dpi, that 3936×2624 image will give you a nearly 16.5″x11″ print without any interpolation.
Via the menus, you can also tell the camera not to switch to crop mode and just use the APS-C lenses as-is. I tried this with the lenses I already had and almost every one of them suffered serious vignetting (18-55mm, 18-200mm, 50mm f/1.8 and the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8). The surprise was the excellent Sony 10-18mm f/4. It covers the full-frame sensor when zoomed to focal lengths between 12.5-16mm. Wider or tighter than than and the vignette comes in. But within that range it works great!
The Universal Camera? A lens is designed to be a specific distance from the camera’s sensor plane, and lenses for DSLRs are designed to be far enough away from their sensors to accommodate those cameras’ mirrors. Because cameras like the a7 have no mirror box, their lens mounts can be much closer to the sensor.
Because of this, those DSLR lenses, designed to be far from the sensor, will work with a mirrorless camera if you insert a simple adaptor (similar to an extension tube, no optical components) between the lens and the camera so that the lens is the same distance from the sensor as the lens would be on its native bodies. And because the E-mount is closer to the sensor than any other full-frame mount, a vast array of lenses can be adapted to the a7 cameras: lenses intended for Nikon, Canon and Leica in particular.
When it comes to adaptors, I’ve tried everything from the $20 Fotodiox to the $309 Voigtlander. Honestly, I can’t see any difference, although the Voigtlander has an additional feature: you can adjust it to shift the lens a little farther from the sensor for closer focusing. I’ll be writing more about this here in the future.
The Leica Killer? Because Sony launched the a7 family with so few lenses, the company took an unusual step: they not only encouraged the use of other-brand lenses, they even included a coupon for a free adaptor of your choice with each a7R sold. This has been brilliant for a number of reasons. First, it meant that even on the cameras’ very first day, there was a huge number of compatible lenses. Second, it positioned the a7 cameras as a potential Leica killer. The quality of Leica lenses is legendary, but their own camera bodies are incredibly expensive and lacking in features. From the day the a7 cameras were first rumored, everyone wanted to know how well they would work with the many superb M-mount lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander. The answer is, “it depends” because of the design of digital sensors.
Almost any lens with a focal length of 35mm or more wont’ be a problem, but when you get shorter (wider angle) than that, you need to test or read online what others have learned. The problems stem from the angle of the light coming out of the rear element of the lens. In a wide-angle lens such as a Zeiss Biogon 25mm f/2.8 or Voigtlander Heliar 15mm you’ll see color smearing in the corners. The microlenses that cover each of the sensors photodiodes simply aren’t positioned to properly accept light coming in from such a low angle.
I’ve personally been using (own, rent or borrowed) the following M-mount lenses with the a7 and had excellent results:
- Leica Elmar 135mm f/4. A 50-year old lens I picked up used for $300. Terrific so long as you keep direct light away from the front element as it doesn’t have modern coatings.
- Leica Elmarit-M 90mm f/2.8. Gorgeous.
- Voigtlander Ultron 28mm f/2. Small, fast and sharp.
- Leica Tri-Elmar 16mm-18mm-21mm f/4. Superb ultra-wide, but it costs $6,300 new!
These M-mount lenses are generally quite a bit smaller than their native E-mount equivalents, in part because they don’t have autofocus, image stabilization or any electronics whatsoever. On the other hand, they’re usually heavier because they’re packed full of glass and the bodies are metal. Those Leica lenses are engineering marvels.
When you add an adaptor to attach an M-mount lens to the E-mount a7 bodies, you lose all electronic or physical communications between them. That means the camera can’t control the aperture or even read the aperture you’ve set manually. It also means there’s no autofocusing, so all your focusing is manual. But that’s really not a problem once you get the hang of it thanks to Sony’s superb focus peaking. To see it in action, watch the All About the Gear video review. But the idea is that all edges that are in focus are shown with an electronically added highlight. I have mine set to display in red. It makes manual focus a breeze and with practice you can even learn to track moving subjects.
At this time, I’m mostly shooting with these M-mount lenses along with the two Zeiss primes. The kit zoom just sits on the shelf. And even when I’m using the native Zeiss lenses, I’m focusing manually most of the time.
Video – The 36MP a7R isn’t a particularly good camera for video. On one hand it’s a bit of overkill. But its lack of an anti-aliasing filter and sensitivity to moiré effects are of particular concern for video. The a7 however is a very good video camera. It has the AA filter and can record 1080 24/25p or 50/60p with a clean HDMI stream up to 28mbps. The cameras can also pump 4K video out the HDMI port (for compatibility with 4K TVs), but the resolution will still be only 1080p. The reason is that when generating a true 4K stream, the cameras’ processors just generated too much heat.
Both cameras have stereo mic inputs and headphone outputs.
Autofocus – The a7 is clearly superior to the a7R in the autofocus department because the a7 includes on-sensor phase detection (PDAF). Its autofocus is about as good as any other mirrorless camera I’ve tested, but nowhere near as fast or accurate as a good DSLR such as a high-end Nikon.
The a7R lacks the phase detection (presumably to keep all the pixels pristine) but it’s still pretty good. A Sony engineer said that the a7R contrast-only autofocus is faster than other Sony mirrorless cameras due to a new algorithm and the Bionz X processor. He claims the autofocus in the a7R is 35% faster than in the NEX-7, which also has no PDAF.
Sony’s PlayMemories App – To control the camera remotely (other than just to make an exposure) you’ll have to use Sony’s PlayMemories app for iOS or Android. (No Windows Phone version.) Sony recently upgraded the app so that you can perform the following functions:
- set exposure compensation, ISO and white balance
- display (but not change) the shooting mode (P,A,S,M)
- touch-focus (but not touch-to-shoot) — very slow
This mobile app uses the Remote Control app in the camera. Other camera-based Sony apps such as Time Lapse that work with the NEX cameras don’t yet work with the a7 series. [Note: The Time Lapse app was updated for the a7 cameras on January 9, 2014.]
Competition – This is a tough one. When it comes to image quality, most of the competitors are much larger DSLRs, but when you look at other mirrorless cameras, about the only ones are expensive Leicas. Specific competitors you might want to consider include:
- Nikon D800E ($3,000) 36MP, no AA filter — competes with the a7R.
- Nikon D610 ($2,000) 24MP.
- Canon 5DmkIII ($2,900) 22MP.
- Canon 6D ($1,500) 20MP
- Leica M 240 ($6,950) 24MP (no viewfinder and it’s never in stock!)
- Leica M 9 ($4,500 used)
- Superb image quality.
- The only full-frame, interchangeable-lens, autofocusing mirrorless cameras you can buy.
- Excellent EVF.
- The universal cameras — can use Nikon-, Canon- and M-mount lenses via adaptors (no autofocus or image stabilization).
- There doesn’t appear to be a real manual yet. The one you can download from Sony just describes the most-basic features.
- I wish it had the controls of a Fujifilm X-E2.
- The LCD isn’t touch-sensitive.
- There’s no in-body image stabilization and the prime lenses released to date have no lens-based OSS.
- The autofocus is slow, particularly in low light.
- There are very few 3rd-party accessories yet. For example, I haven’t been able to find an intervalometer for time-lapse or long exposures.
- The native lens selection borders on pathetic.
- The PlayMemories mobile app provides only limited control and is slow to connect when using iOS (ie, no NFC).
Recommendations – The Sony a7 and a7R are terrific cameras, but I don’t recommend them for everyone. They’re serious cameras for serious shooters. If you’re not going to shoot with care, you’re not going to get any the benefits from these puppies. In fact, you’ll probably get better results from simpler cameras.
This is even more true for the a7R than for the a7. That big 36MP sensor can capture amazing detail, but it will also amplify all of your carelessness and mistakes. Some users report having trouble with blur caused by the front-curtain shutter movement, even when the camera is mounted on a tripod. And speaking of tripods, to me the a7R really wants to be used with one. The same is true for my Nikon D800E. It’s not that I only use it on a tripod, but I never take it out on a shoot unless I also have a tripod. No tripod? Then I take a lower-resolution camera. I think that’s a good guideline for the Sony a7R as well. The only exception is when you plan to use crop-sensor lenses and use only 16MP of the a7R’s 36MP. In that case, you’ve got a camera that’s much more like a Nikon D7100.
Until Sony fleshes out their line of lenses, you should also plan to use glass from Nikon or Canon or M-mount lenses from Leica, Zeiss or Voigtlander with adaptors. You’ll be focusing manually and you won’t have image stabilization, but that’s a great way to use these cameras.
For just US$6.95, get a Opteka RC-3 Remote.
And make sure you buy at least one spare battery. Better make it two. To keep the cameras small and light, the batteries are small and light as well. One battery doesn’t get you through a full day of shooting.