Sony A7R - Review
*Updated May 21, 2015
**Updated December 30, 2018 (images shot with Sony A7R)
Having now owned the Sony A7R for the better part of a month, I feel it’s time I can honestly and thoroughly give my first impressions and overall opinions on this repeatedly titled “game changing” camera.
Since I bought my first DSLR camera some years ago, I’ve almost exclusively shot with Canon gear, bar my beloved Samyang 14mm. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I’d started hearing more and more about this new camera that Sony had released. I'll be completely honest when I say that I’d never paid any attention to Sony releases, until now. I often wondered how a company that doesn’t specialise in just imaging and/or optics like Canon and Nikon could ever produce a camera system that was worth investing in. Since owning the Sony however, I’ve become quite a bit more open minded. Could this really be the game changer everyone has been raving on about?
There are heaps of reviews out there that are far more technical and scientific than I am ever going to produce, I’m merely a landscape photographer and this is now my chosen tool for the job. If you want a more technical and in-depth review, this isn’t the post for you. I’ll be focusing this review on my experiences with using the camera in the field and not taking photos of bookcases, colour charts etc. There are plenty of those available.
A few Important Specs:
36.4 megapixel full frame “Exmor” CMOS sensor
Compatible with E-mount lenses (out of the box)
7.5cm tiltable TFT LCD monitor (921,600 dots)
No optical low-pass filter
Full 1080/60p Video (depending on PAL/NTSC)
Aesthetics and Build Qualtiy
Coming from a hefty 860 gram camera like the Canon 5D Mark III to a measly 407 gram Sony A7R was quite a shock at first. How can something be made so small and light and still hold up against a beast like the 5D Mark III. Well, the short answer is, it’s mirrorless. This basically means that what you see in the viewfinder is not reflected from the mirrors you see in DSLR cameras, but fed through electronically. No huge mirror equals smaller body.
I’ve been using DSLR’s for that past few years and they have a very distinct, modern look to them. They all pretty much look the same, right? One of the things I immediately fell in love with are the aesthetics of this camera. I hate to use this word but it’s got a very “vintage” quality about it, whilst still looking like it was designed this century.
Many reviews, until recently, had stated that this camera had excellent weather-sealing. Something in fact, it does not have. There are a lot of articles/posts online stating that people have had circuit shortages from light to medium contact with water. Sony appears to have since denied any claims of water-resistance. Though, I have no proof those claims even existed. I am a little concerned that, with the type of photography I do, this absence of weather-sealing could be an issue.
*Update: Since writing this review, I've taken numerous dunkings from waves and the Sony A7R is certainly holding it's own! No issues, whatsoever, after multiple salt water interactions. What a legend this little camera is!
Electronic Viewfinder and Tiltable Monitor
Unlike a DSLR, the A7R is completely reliant on Liveview for composing. The electronic viewfinder is great to shoot with, but is completely dependant on lighting conditions. As I shoot mostly during the early hours of the morning and late in the evening there isn’t a lot of ambient light around. The effect this has on the EVF is that it has quite a significant drop in frame rate. This obviously doesn’t happen with an optical viewfinder. Having said that, there are quite a number of benefits with an EVF. You have the ability to overlay guides such as a live histogram or focus peaking display, preview any changes made to White Balance or other picture effects if that’s your style.
Sometimes, it isn’t always possible to get your eye to the view finder. One thing about this camera that I thought I might find gimmicky, is the tiltable LCD screen. A screen that I’m used to seeing on entry-level cameras. Now that I’ve got my very own tiltable screen, I’m not sure how I lived without it! How many times have you laid down in the dirt or on some uncomfortably sharp rocks to line up that perfect shot, well, with the tiltable screen - that’s no longer necessary! Man, I feel like I’m in an infomercial. But seriously, its super handy.
This camera boasts a whopping 36.4 megapixel full frame “Exmor” CMOS sensor. Exmor is basically a new CMOS sensor technology developed by Sony that is more efficient and of higher quality than previous sensors. It’s supposed to have better low-light capabilities or something… Image quality is really where this camera shines. It is nothing short of outstanding. The detail and sharpness I’m able to get out of this camera, even while using non-native lenses, makes me wonder why I took so long to jump from the Canon (bodies) ship, to Sony. Don’t get me wrong, my 5D Mark III is a freakin’ sensational camera, but Canon are just a little behind with their sensor technology at this point in the game. Who knows what the future holds, though.
A good thing to note about cameras with such high resolution is that they are far less forgiving. If you even so much as sneeze 3 feet away from this camera, mounted on a tripod, you’ll probably notice a loss of sharpness due to camera shake. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but any shake is certainly more visible with 36.4 megapixel files. Not the camera's fault, just something I'm learning to deal with.
One of the many reasons so many DSLR users are switching to the A7R (from Canon mostly) is because of the shadow details in the raw files. I’ll be honest, I shot a few intentionally underexposed images myself when I first got my hands on this camera, just to see how far I could push the shadows. And push them far I did. Don’t get me wrong, you should ALWAYS take care to expose your scene correctly, but in situations where there is so much dynamic range i.e. sunset, sunrise etc, being able to expose for the highlights and bring out the shadow detail later is a godsend. It almost completely eliminates the need to blend exposures in Photoshop, something I was tiring of shooting with the Mark III.
A slight downfall of the A7R’s sensor however, is the high ISO noise handling. While many reviews I’ve read do state that the noise, when shooting at high ISO's, is quite on par with the Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800/e, I would have to subtly disagree. Like I said earlier, I’m the kind of guy who tests equipment by taking real photos in a real environment, not photos in a studio lit scene of a fruit bowl or a stack of books. I’ve comfortably shot with my Mark III at ISO 6400, knowing that I will get relatively clean and usable files - if exposed correctly. I can’t confidently say the same about the Sony as some of the high contrast edge detail seems to get a little fuzzy. The amount of noise is practically the same (more or less) it’s just the detail that seems to be affected. Having said that, it’s only very mildly inferior. Nothing worth losing sleep over. I guess this is where the newly released Sony A7s comes into play!
Okay, this is where things may go a little pear-shaped for some. I bought this camera knowing that I’d only be focusing manually. And believe me, this camera dominates when it comes to the ease and functionality of manual focusing. However, the auto focus on this camera is much slower than I'm used to. I should state, that I am using the Metabones III adapter for my Canon lenses and the focus speed is known to diminish whilst not using native e-mount lenses. If you buy this camera for anything other than focusing manually, then I’d highly suggest investing in some of Sony's native mount lenses.
*Update: They now have quite a decent selection of full frame e-mount lenses to pair with this camera.
Now I’ve finished with auto focus side of focusing, it’s time to move onto the good stuff - manual focus. If I had to pin this camera to one type of photographer, it would be landscape photographers. Manually focusing is a dream with the help of two very handy features. One of which my 5D Mark III had and that’s Focus Magnification. Though, I’m pretty sure it was called something else by Canon. This basically allows you to zoom into any portion of your scene to really help nail your focus at a much more accurate level.
The other neat little feature, probably not as handy as the magnification feature (especially for landscape togs like myself) is the Focus Peaking tool. This is basically a HUD of little red (yellow or white) dots that appear on high contrast edges of the scene, letting you know where your focus is set. On the first few days of using this camera (running around the house taking pointless snapshots phase), I became more efficient in using focus peaking and acquiring critical focus than I was using AF on my Canon lenses on the A7R. In the gif (pictured above) I have my camera's "Creative Style" set to black and white, that way I can see the red lines much easier. It's a quick press of a button and my creative style is set back to standard (colour).
It’s worth mentioning that these two features can be mapped to any of the countless customisable buttons on the camera. More on this later.
Oh, is it later already? There are three official custom buttons on this camera, ingeniously labelled C1, C2 and C3. These can be mapped to almost any (useful) function in the camera’s menu system. At this stage, after some days of fiddling, I have my C1 set to adjust ISO and C2 set to peaking level (which allows me to turn Focus Peaking on and off). C3 is currently not mapped to anything, until I find a good use for it or until Sony add some other custom button options.
There are three dials (excluding the exposure compensation dial) on the Sony A7R, just as there are 3 points in the exposure triangle. There’s the shutter speed and aperture dial which can be swapped for your preference and there is also a dedicated ISO wheel, which I thought was pretty cool, at first. I have now set that wheel to do nothing as it was too easy to accidentally bump your ISO while handling the camera. I now have the C1 button set to bring up ISO control, I can then use my aperture dial (thumb) to adjust the ISO in full stops i.e.. 100, 200, 400, 800 etc or in third stops using any of the other two wheels. This setup is much more comfortable for me, but it may differ for other users.
The three previously mentioned custom buttons are not the only customisable buttons on the camera. There are at least 6 others from what I can tell, not to mention the function menu that can be set to include 12 of your most used functions. Though, at this stage, there aren’t 12 functions that I would want such easy access to. Maybe that will come with a future firmware update.
Images shot with the Sony A7R
Summary and a Little Extra
Things I love:
Tiltable monitor, I like this a lot more than I imagined I would.
Dedicated ISO wheel (if not set to custom button).
Dynamic Range is very impressive.
36mp sensor is an absolute pleasure to work with.
Size and weight is perfect for such an internal beast of a camera.
Focus Peaking (coming from a camera without it).
Endless choices of lenses.
Quite customisable. (Hopefully more functionality will come with future firmware updates).
Mirrorless - No need for Mirror Lock-up (not relevant to DSLR Liveview shooters).
Optical Low-Pass Filter
Things I do not love:
Battery life is pretty short. (I guess this is to be expected with an EVF. I’m sure it could be better, though - see next point).
Powers black pixels while taking an exposure. Waste of power, especially with long exposures which I’m sure the majority of people shooting with this camera are doing. Why not just have the screen completely shut off?
Auto focus is a fair amount slower than I'm used to. Though, I'm not using native lenses...
The things I love most about this camera are the reasons I made the switch from a DSLR to the Sony A7R. There is no full frame camera on the market, at the time of this review, that is this small or this light, that packs a punch like this camera. Yea, there are some things I don’t like about it, but for what I shoot I can absolutely work around them and get the most out of it. After all, the camera is just a tool. It just so happens that this tool makes shooting that much more satisfying and effective. The image quality alone is reason enough to shoot with this camera.
It wasn’t until about halfway through writing this review that I realised it was starting to get much longer than I anticipated, I guess I never realised how passionate I was about this camera. If you made it all the way through, then I’m very impressed.
Please feel free to leave me a comment below regarding your thoughts on the Sony A7R or anything mentioned in my review.
Final thoughts - This camera is a beast in a small package. It's a Gremlin!