If you’re interested in photographs, you’ll have seen the Iceland shots by now (if not, they are here and here) and I have blogged a little about the trip. All that remains is to talk about the ‘equipment experience’. So, after almost ten days working intensively with the Sony gear, am I in love? Not really. Am I impressed? Yes, very much so. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there is and Sony seems to be moving in that direction with new bodies; however, the original cameras are increasingly available for a steal second-hand, so maybe they make more sense now than ever before? What I am in no doubt about is that the Sony A7 series is a superb system for general travel and landscape photography, when you wish for reasonable compactness. Nothing goes perfectly, however, and here are some of my thoughts after a concentrated spell working with these cameras under nasty conditions.
Just to remind you, here is what I took: Sony A7, A7R, 35mm, 55mm, 70-200 f4, Metabones III adaptor and 16-28 f2.8 Tokina. I flew it out there in one of my Domke bags, allowing me to fit it, laptop and other travel items in a backpack as hand luggage. Once I got there, I removed my Lowepro mini-trekker from my checked luggage and repacked everything in this. I figured the mini-trekker would bring two key advantages:
- Much better for hiking, walking, rock hopping, or running away from ice giants.
- Better suited to an opened up and laid out flat use on the passenger seat. Being able to conveniently grab kit from the passenger seat is important when you are doing lots of driving and opportunities present themselves along the way.
The first thing I heard when I mentioned ‘Sony A7 & A7R and Iceland’ online was ‘Battery life will be a problem’. The second was ‘what about weather sealing?’ so in that order, here goes:
Battery life was not a problem. I had six batteries with me and never came close to running out. I did use common sense, however, and switched off my cameras when they were on a tripod and not about to get uses. There is no point in powering hungry screens for no good reason. I did bring an external charger which is much quicker than the USB one, which made the evening recharge routine easier. I don’t shoot a huge number of frames and so I am probably much lighter on batteries than some people, but seriously, the batteries are small, light and cheap so how on earth can battery life be an issue? Bigger batteries mean bigger heavier cameras. I’d rather have a spare battery in my pocket than a heavier camera in my hand, but that’s just me. I did notice, however, that when the weather was at its most severe (v. cold and blowing steadily) battery life did suffer when the cameras were exposed for long periods. We are talking an effective temperature of -15 degrees C, or so, but like I said, I never came close to running out. I had a 12V car charger with me just in case, but it was never used. The biggest issue, with the cameras as supplied, is the slowness of the standard ‘battery in camera’ charger. Replace this with a mains/car charger (there are plenty available that can do both) and you will feel much better.
What was an issue was that twice I inadvertently opened the battery door cover (how I am not sure), but the batteries were retained fine by the little orange lever. This is a poor design and it should require a much more dedicated effort to open the battery door, which in the open position, and in use, would be all too easy to snap off. I’ll have to look at the A7 II and see if it has been redesigned, because it needs to be. Given time, there is a real likelihood of an accidental opening ending badly.
Weather sealing turned out to be ‘sufficient’ but be careful! I found that snow or hail just loved to collect in the area of the rear thumb dial on the top plate. Should it melt, its pretty clear that it’s going to find its way inside the camera and probably kill it. I did get some fine sea water spray on the cameras, but wiped them clean with a damp cloth each evening just to ensure that freshwater rain did not pick up salt and work its way inside. Hopefully they won’t die in the future, but so far so good. I did devise an ingenious way for checking if, after my cleaning attempts, there was any residual salt on the cameras: I licked them. Yes, really, I did and I can confirm that the Sony A7 and A7R have very unobjectionable flavour when clean. Not too metallic or synthetic… just a neutral and inoffensive flavour. I suppose this is not far off licking my cameras clean, but I am OK with that. They’re expensive and I want them to keep working!
After periods in the rain or sleet, I did notice that some water had penetrated some distance towards the body opening i.e. it had not been stopped at the outside edge of the mount. None got onto the sensor (which both got absolutely filthy during lens changes), but with time, this may have occurred, so worth bearing in mind.
Build quality did arise as an issue. The mount on my A7 now feels rough and ‘graunchy’. Something is not right, but it works. I will look at having this repaired, as I don’t want it to fail completely on my net trip. Its a good job Sony has improved the mount on the A7II, because these ones with plastic interiors are evidently below par. It was the A7R that took a tumble, so I am at a loss to explain why the A7 mount feels rough. It is not debris, by the way. Its metal against metal… as if something is out of alignment, or has come loose inside and so making contact that was not intended. I’ve never had such a thing happen on a camera, but hey ho. I have to admit that I found the movement in the mount when using the 70-200 f4 OSS a little irritating too, so an upgrade to one piece mounts is something I will now look into.
While not strictly a build issue, I did have issues with both LCD screens showing black crackly patterns along the left side (extreme margin). This was due to the extreme cold and I am sure there are readers who can explain why. I thought I’d knackered the screens somehow, until they warmed up and they displayed perfectly. Phew.
My 35mm FE hood broke in half while inside my bag (the outer metal part separated from the plastic bayonet) and, while it can easily be repaired with glue, it can’t have taken much to do it because its clear that there was very little original rubber glue used during manufacture. In all honesty, it probably did take a knock (somehow), but the rubber glue used is completely inadequate and once self-repaired it will have the strength Sony should have given it in the first place. I am just glad the nose fell off inside the bag, or it would have been lost for sure.
Despite a number of criticisms, overall I feel the Sony A7 and A7R have the sort of build one might expect at their price point. They are not nearly as solid as a 5D III, but they are much lighter and less expensive at the same time. You can’t have it all and when Sony releases their pro spec FE camera line, we can draw more direct comparisons against cameras positioned similarly. The message that comes out of this is that a well cared for A7 or A7R is going to be fine and a spare body on any important trip is a wise precaution for any camera system. Certainly, there were no electronic or function faults that interfered with my ability to take photographs. Had a body died, or a command wheel stopped functioning, this would have been much more inconvenient than a broken hood.
What about some of the other key criticisms we hear about the A7 and A7R?
Shutter vibration with A7R: I was able to see, in some samples, that my 55mm FE was sharper hand held at 1/250th and a wider aperture than on a tripod at 1/30th or so at a smaller aperture. It was obviously vibration and not aperture induced diffraction. I am not convinced that this shows up consistently, however. Sometimes it is there and other times not. Personally, I am not going to waste time on it as the affected frames are still perfectly useable, just not as super crisp as the others.
AF was accurate and fast enough in all cases (when I used it, which was a lot). I do not have a single frame that is out of focus that I can blame on the cameras. I do, however, find the mechanical lens and focal scale as found on older manual lenses better suited to landscape photography. With the Sony cameras, you cannot trust the distance scale in manual mode (it is miles off) and so it complicates setting a rough focus distance quickly. Still, not a major drama. I am at a loss to explain the many comments one sees about AF misses on the A7R, because I haven’t had one. Ever. I suspect its due to people using multiple points and being shocked that the camera failed to demonstrate telepathic qualities. Set single focus point and it does the business, albeit not with blistering pace.
The rear command wheel and button is a bit too small to be operated even with very thin gloves. I used brilliant, wonderful, amazing – we’re soon to be married – Sealskinz Shooting gloves that allowed me to pop out my index fingers when I needed precision. I strongly recommend that all you photographers buy them. They are waterproof, well enough insulated for all but the coldest weather, have very high quality leather palms and finger undersides for a great tactile feel and lots of grip, with the ‘swing up’ index finger that has magnets to hold it in place in the ‘up’ position. They’re just incredible and I wish I’d bought some years ago! Even though they are quite thin, I think my hands were much warmer than they would have been in thicker gloves that I would have had to remove every two minutes (and would probably have ended up blown off a cliff on day one). They also do a sporting glove, which has flip up thumbs as well. I went for the sporting glove as I figured this would keep my thumbs warmer.
The A7R shutter does not bother me, but I did feel that the combination of the clattering shutter and spongy shutter release meant I felt robbed of the precision I would have liked when timing shots carefully. A lot of my sea shots required me to get the moment just right and this was a touch more difficult than it should have been. The A7 felt snappier, but the release is still a bit vague. I know this is something that has been improved on the A7 II.
To be honest, I would have been very uncomfortable shooting a Leica Monochrom or M9 under these conditions. I felt much more comfortable with the Sony cameras, not only because they are cheaper by far, but also because the cost of repairs is dramatically lower, should something go wrong. As I get older, I am less caught up on polishing things and more worried about getting the shots I bought the cameras to make in the first place. Sure, I am annoyed if something gets broken, but the Sonys allow you to forget about material concerns to a much greater extent than Leica kit does. I feel able to accept some casualties along the way, but thankfully all is well with my two bodies (despite a large scratch on the rear screen of my A7R, courtesy of a fall from a tripod onto snow covered rocks, due to wind).
The cameras have done a great job. I am very happy with the images. The cameras still work fine, but will both need one hell of a sensor clean and a new mount. To me, this is an excellent result and I can say with real enthusiasm that, once again, these bodies have done precisely what I bought them to do!
In part 2 I will talk about the optics I used and the impression they have left me with.