Sony A7 & A7R Part 1 – Why Are they Special?
An here is an alternate view:
The specs for these two cameras, or perhaps these two ‘versions of the same camera’ can be found here (A7) and here (A7R). I’m now going to commence rolling review that will begin at the concept level and move onto field use, which is where its all at in my book. As impressive as some cameras may be, as always, the key word in my book is ‘utility’. How do they really work in practice? What can you really do with them? So here goes…
A7 are extremely impressive, perhaps even revolutionary. These are strong words, I know, and some of you will agree and some won’t! What everyone does acknowledge is that these cameras have set the photographic world alight. No, they are not perfect, but they are certainly shaping new ground that lies somewhere between traditional DSLRs and the existing mirrorless market.
By shoehorning a full-frame sensor into a tiny body, they have brought together top end 35mm performance and the sort of mobility associated with the Micro Four Thirds system. You may have noticed that I left APS-C out, but that was deliberate. The A7 cameras are noticeably smaller than the Fuji XPro-1, comparable to the XE-1/2 and quite a bit smaller than top end Micro Four Thirds bodies like the OMD EM-1.
Fitted with the 35mm FE f2.8 Sonnar, the A7/A7R are not much larger than the APS-C sensored X100s with hood fitted….. and you can’t change lenses on that camera. If we consider them comparable in size to the Fuji XE-1/2 (and both use Electronic View Finers), the leap to 24 and 26 MP full-frame sensors is perhaps all the more astonishing. With Fuji, you can’t get past 16MP. This brings certain advantages, in terms of high ISO performance and achieving shallow depth of field (with the right lenses), but its not important for everyone.
So, we have a small, light full frame camera that gives high end DSLR image quality in a much smaller package, but what about the elephant in the room, the Leica M/ME/M/MM? This is where things get really interesting, because the Sony A7/R is comparable in size, comparable in performance and 1/3 the price. Do they ‘destroy the Leica’… ‘blow Leica away’ or ‘humiliate Leica’? Yes, in some areas they do, but in other important areas, no, not even close.
The Sony-Leica comparison topic is one I will discuss separately because its complicated, controversial and will caused raised blood pressure for some people! The A7/R is its own beast and a brilliant one at that, so lets consider it on its own merits first.
Small Size: This would be no use if the sensors and lens combinations do not allow their potential to be reached, but they do – see below. That’s rather handy, when you consider that the A7/A7R is about half the volume of a D600 and half the weight of a Nikon D800/Canon 5D III.
Sony Sensors: Well, of course they use Sony sensors, but why is this important? Sony just happens to be producing the finest sensors in the world at the moment and as a long-term Canon user, I am very comfortable acknowledging this. The Nikon D800’s legendary sensor is made by Sony and it’s the highest scoring sensor in the world according to DxO (along with the A7R that is), with the Sony made sensor for the D600 not far behind (along with the A7). While the precise value of DxO ratings can be debated until the cows come home, they do correlate with my own findings in use and the benefits over, say, a Canon sensor like that in the 5D III, are very substantial for some users. It took reviewing only the first handful of files to confirm this.
Lens Options: Using adaptors, you can mount almost any lens in the universe on these bodies. This brings tremendous flexibility, but going down this route requires some care. What it does mean, however, is that committed users of other systems can integrate the Sony A7 or A7R purely for the benefits of the sensors, while using their existing lenses. It also means old legacy lenses which lack a currently digital body can be re-commissioned. Have a drawer full of Olympus OM glass and half a dozen Leica R lenses? No problem, now you can use them both on the same body, oh, along with your Leica M lenses! Lots more on this later….
Electronic Viewfinders (EVF): Class leading resolution and absence of lag, with all the benefits of an EVF (no focus shift, flexible display options etc.)
Price: £1249 for the A7 and £1699 for the A7R means they are priced along the lines of the D600 and D800, which share similar sensors, perhaps even a little lower. Normally you pay a LOT more to get comparable performance in a smaller package, but not so with these Sony cameras. I have a feeling that Sony has been deliberately aggressive on price to get these cameras into the bags of those dedicated to other systems with a view to stealing customers in the long term. On that note, I also think they will do so very successfully….
So, what does this mean? Well, there are lots of ways of looking at it:
- You can now pack a much smaller camera that has format leading sensor performance.
- You can carry a much lighter camera for longer or farther.
- You have more space in your camera bag for other things, like spare bodies or lenses.
- You can travel less conspicuously.
- You may feel more motivated to actually use the camera, but not suffer any loss in technical image quality.
Well, this is all in theory. The 24/36MP sensor performance is for real, but the real discussion should be about how useable this performance is and what penalties are to be incurred along the way. I’ll be covering that in part 2.