Sony A7 & A7R Part 2 – In Use
What I’m going to do now is start with a bit of an overview that will be built upon in the field testing sections, so please do keep checking for A7/A7R field reports for pros and cons as they arise in use. To give you a clue of what is to come, I will say that I am extremely impressed with these cameras. Sure, they aren’t perfect, but are they truly ground breaking and worth the hype? Hell yeah! OK, so starting at the beginning…
The A7 may have a few more plastic panels than the A7R, but it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Both feel solid and well put together – far more so than many APS-C DSLRs and compact cameras. Are they built like a Leica? No, they are not and to be frank are not really in the same ball park, but a Rolls Royce Phantom does not feel as solid as a WWII Tiger Tank either…. which is my way of saying the comparison is pointless (unless you want to drive through houses in your car, or break paving slabs with your camera). These Sonys are made every bit as well as I think they need to be to function as cameras (and Leica Ms are arguably over-engineered)! Buttons operate just fine, dials click very positively and everything feels tight and robust. I’ve spent years photographing in challenging environments and I’d have no hesitation using the A7/R from a build point of view. It’s too early to comment on reliability, but as brand Sony is doing just fine in this department.
Both the A7 and A7R are ‘weather sealed’, but from inspection this would not seem to be up to the same standards as, say, the Canon 5D III. I see no gaskets on the lenses and no seals on the side doors. This could be misleading, but I’d suggest being fairly cautious until more is known about the performance of the sealing.
Importantly, there is no flex in the panels or grip, the dials don’t move as if by magic and you feel you’ve got value for money.
The first thing you notice is how light the cameras are. At 470g, they are a full 200g lighter than a Leica M and 130g or so lighter than the Leica M9. Just to help you picture this, that’s like taking just under three Mars bars out of the M9 and four out of the M/M240. If I want to work quickly, with a simple set up and completely unencumbered, I use a wrist strap and here weight matters… a LOT! Is a bit like hiking/camping/mountaineering; people pay a fortune to shave off a few grams, because when the chips are down, you notice.
Handling, not surprisingly, is pretty darned good. Most of the buttons fall to hand easily and the balance is absolutely perfect. Some have called these cameras ugly, but I feel they look sleek and utilitarian. They’ve been designed to be used and to perform well. There is nothing flash about them (like the X100) and they won’t win any jewellery awards, but then again they don’t scream ‘I am expensive, please steal me’ which to me is much more important. Besides, it’s the pictures that go on the wall, not the camera!
The only niggle I have found is that sometimes I brush the real dial, thus changing the ISO setting. I’ll look at solutions to this. When I first picked up the camera, I thought ‘the shutter release button is in the wrong place’. It felt too far towards the back of the camera. However, after using the camera for a while, I found that my grip changed to a more ‘fingers and thumb’ grip rather than ‘full hand’, which actually follows the body/grip contours provided. The result was that the shutter release fell to finger very nicely.
User Interface: I like it. Its logical and you can find what you need. While I would love C1, C2 and C3 on the dial like Canon, few other manufactures implement this as well as Canon, so Sony is in good company here. I find the C buttons bring up functions I am happy to leave untouched. The defaults work perfectly for me.
Focusing: AF is fairly fast, but slower than my Panasonic GM-1, or my 5D III. For static and modest subject movement, it’s fine. For typical scenic work it feels much more responsive than my X100 and there is less movement felt inside the camera (and less noise). It’s absolutely silent. In low light, both cameras are more than reasonable.
As far as accuracy goes, I have found them both to be great. None of the weird X100-style early firmware misses. If you are not used to Sony, one does have to learn how the various modes respond, but I have found it a very reliable system. I will comment further on this in the field tests. How about a bunch of children in an orphanage for a challenging test?
Manual focus is very well executed indeed. Focus peaking, which can be varied by degree and colour, makes focusing a breeze most of the time; however, the magnified view allows you to nail precise focus every time when shooting with fast aperture or long lenses. Implementation with native FE lenses is even better, because you can set the camera to show a magnified focus box as soon as you hit the focus ring. With non-native lenses, you need to hit a button to activate the magnified view.
What I will say is that if you are shooting a fast longish lens in dynamic situations (such as subjects moving back and forth) good DSLRs like the 5D III are much quicker to operate because the small focus points can be laid over the eye (for example) and nail focus with each movement of the subject, followed a split second later by firing the shutter. With the A7/A7R, while you can select an off centre focus spot, they are too large to achieve critical focus on small details. You need to use the magnifier function, which of course slows the operation down. Still, for slower moving studio work, or where your subject is playing along, its just fine and of course very accurate. You are seeing what the sensor sees.
More on focus when I get to the field tests.
Shutter: The shutter release does lack a little feel but you get used to it. The first stage to focus and meter is light and there is soft movement until the release. If jumping from 5D III to Monochrom to Sony A7/A7R it might prove a little annoying but once used to it, its quite fine and predictable for general use, however, I’d say it lacks the feel to make a natural street camera.
Shutter noise is, well, a bit noisy. Both are a bit ‘clacky’, but the A7R clacks twice (lacks electronic first curtain) and the A7 only once. Does this make a huge difference? Not in my view. The A7 does feel a little sweeter though. The A7R comes close to grating for me, but everyone has their own tolerances here.
Vibration. The A7 has electronic first curtain and vibration is not of concern, but the A7R is different. Well, what a controversy, but based on my own tests and reading, here is my view: For lenses of 50mm and under there is no problem in practical use. If you want do place pixels under an electron microscope and view them on billboards, maybe. The only lens I was able to find evidence of vibration was with my 90mm Elmarit-M (Kippon adaptor), between about 1/10 and 1/80, with the core of 1/20 to 1/60 being worst. By worst, you might find a 36MP file really resolves the same as a 24MP one from the A7. Until there are native lenses to compare, or various adaptors, this issue could be debated forever. I chose to move on and file this issue under the ‘go take photos and stop fretting’ category’, but users of lenses longer than 90mm may want to scrutinise this issue further. I’m willing to work around these speeds on the rare occasions I use lenses of 90mm or longer, but YMMV. I do think the vibration is real, but everyone’s uses and standards vary.
File Quality: In a word: Amazing, for both of them. Bags of resolution and dynamic range, good highlight recovery possibilities and very robust files in post.
The A7R files are a touch sharper at the pixel level (due to the lack of the AA filter) and there are more pixels of course, but the A7 files are still very good indeed and comparable to the 22-24MP competition. Noise is superbly controlled, especially for the A7R and I am thrilled in this area. I really like the colour balance and will be uploading images to discuss these issues in due course. Metering is very good and comparable to what I see from other top cameras. Unless you are really demanding, I cannot see much to complain about here. Apart from where I went wrong, files are all smack on, giving me a great starting point for post processing.
Dynamic range is clearly much better than the 5D III and this is immediately obvious in high contrast scenes. On my first real world use, I shot scenes that would have had me seriously working in Lightroom to work the Canon files, whereas the Sony files were just effortless in comparison.
Sony FE (Native) Lenses
This one is a bit difficult, because there are few native lenses available:
35mm f2.8 FE Sonnar (Sony Zeiss – widely available)
50mm 1.8 FE Sonnar (Sony Zeiss – mostly available)
28-70 f3.5-5.6 FE zoom lens (Sony – available only with A7 as a kit)
24-70 f4 FE (Sony Zeiss – almost available)
There is a 70-200 f4 FE with image stabilisaiton in the pipeline, but timeframes are unclear.
What’s frustrating is that there is nothing on the horizon in the ultra wide range, which is particularly important considering the importance of matching lenses and sensors in short focal lengths. Lets hope for a 16-35mm or similar by the end of 2014!
I will be posting reviews of the 35mm Sony Zeiss Sonnar and the 28-70 very soon and so will make only generalised comments about the system here.
It seems to me that Sony has placed great emphasis on keeping the lenses reasonably small. This means that they are not particularly fast. A 35mm f2.8 is considered pedestrian these days, but when matched with the stunning sensors in the A7 and A7R low light performance is not an issue. Separating subjects from their backgrounds is a different matter and whether it matters to you much depends on the type of photography you do. At only 120g, however, it is extremely lightweight and the resultant handling on camera is exceptional. This really is a combo you can carry around in your hand all day long and still produce exceptional image quality. A much larger 35mm 1.4 that still delivered the goods with 36 MP would have stepped outside the goals that seem to have been set for the system and so the decision makes sense to me.
It looks like similar logic was applied to the 50mm 1.8 Sonnar, which is already a bit larger than a Leica 50mm f1.4 Summilux, for example. Performance is fantastic, but that’s something that’s easier to achieve if you don’t try to make the lens too small (or fast for its size). While the Sony Zeiss primes are a little larger than comparable Leica lenses, they are dramatically less expensive while offering super optical performance.
The fact that the 28-70 f3.5-5.6 kit lens is only available (for now) with the A7 as a kit makes matters worse for A7R buyers, until it and the 24-70 f4 Zeiss become available as separate lenses. The good news is that the kit lens is surprisingly good…. but more on that later.
In the case of the 35 Sonnar and the 28-70 kit lens, they balance beautifully on the cameras and their lightweight construction has been well worth the compromise. No, the 35mm does not feel like a hand grenade in the way the 35mm Leica Summilux or CV 35 1.2 both do (and which tend to draw attention on airport X-Rays for that reason)! But I don’t intend to throw mine at anyone, so lets move on.
With the 35 Sonnar, it feels like they forgot to put anything inside the shell (!) but the result is much, much better handling than with heavier lenses. Lets not forget the body is much lighter than a Leica M/M9, so the lenses need to be commensurately lighter to avoid the package becoming nose heavy. And yes, the 35mm Sonnar seems ‘too expensive’, but when you see the results you might change your mind…. The truth is that Sony has to release some top end optics with these cameras to give purpose to the sensors. This is the reality of buying into the system and should be factored in at the beginning. Besides, considering the price of some of the recent Fuji X-mount lenses, Sony’s lenses start to look quite reasonable.
Next, I will be looking at legacy lenses and outlining some of the pros and cons, along with my own experiences. I can say that its a mixed bag, but with some tremendous high notes!