It Isn’t Always This Exciting
The Sony A7 III has to be one of the most hotly anticipated new camera releases for some time. The reason is simple: mid range cameras impact a lot of photographers. They tend to be relevant to the consumer, prosumer and professional markets (to varying extents) and this camera is arguably the best example of this since the Nikon D750. Perhaps ‘ever’.
The Sony A7 III isn’t a niche flagship, like the big and heavy Nikon D5 or Canon 1DX II. It’s more practical for more people and will be sold in much larger numbers. However, it would be fair to say that cameras of this price bracket aren’t always exciting releases. Some are downright boring. Specifications are often conservative and upgrades are evolutionary, with manufacturers being careful not to cannibalise sales higher up in their product range. Once again, Sony has stuck two fingers up at this conventional wisdom and released an absolute belter. This may not be a shock, but I’m still pleased to see that despite Sony’s release cycle slowing on the A7 series, they haven’t ‘gone all Canon’ on us. I say this, because I see Canon as by far the worst offender when it comes to releasing lukewarm, hobbled cameras a year or two after the market was crying out for something better than what they ended up getting. That’s well deserved praise for Sony and a well-earned ouch for Canon.
I know this sounds harsh, but just look at the Canon 6D II. It took Canon five years to release the upgrade and, when they did, it arrived with sensor technology developed alongside cave painting. The 5D IV came with a vastly improved sensor, but miserable buffer, a mean frame rate, old tech card slots and a whopping price tag (at least in the UK). If the user base feels disappointed by new releases, the impact goes well beyond the sales of that specific camera. It affects our perception of and trust in the company as a whole. Are they pushing the technology envelope and trying to give users the best they have, or are they cynically hobbling cameras to prop up the sales of top end models? What manufacturers like Canon seem to have missed is that few people with a 6D II budget will go and buy a 5D IV because that’s the only way to get the more than 12 stops of Dynamic Range (DR). Potential 5D IV buyers will generally not buy a camera (1D X II) weighing nearly twice as much, for a much higher price, to get a slightly better buffer either. The end result of Canon’s marketing strategy is simply that it disenfranchises it’s existing user base by forcing them into ‘no-win-no-smile’ scenarios again and again. Any Canon shooter struggling with 5D IV pricing couldn’t simply downgrade to the Canon 6D II and sacrifice frame rate, buffer and build quality whilst holding onto a first rate sensor. 6D Mk I upgraders and 5D III downgraders got sucker punched with a 6D II sensor that actually has less DR than the original 2012 model (and still only one card slot). Sony has done the very opposite of all this with their recent releases and I will explain why. Please note that I will not be discussing video and I will not be teasing apart specs. I will instead take a more ‘birds-eye view’ of this camera and what I think it means.
Why am I so excited about the the A7 III?
This is simple: Sony has released an even better specifications list than most people were excitedly hoping for. 24MP, 7fps, upgraded Mk III chassis (as per A7R III), improved AF were the specs floating about. What we got was the Mk III chassis (with nothing trimmed off whatsoever), 10 fps (both in mechanical and electronic modes and with 14 bit readout), a brand new 24MP BSI sensor that offers more DR over the previous generation and the same A9 derived AF system that has wowed everyone including the skeptics. In short, it’s an absolutely dynamite spec. Sony has chosen to provide a phenomenal jack-of-all-trades camera to it’s user base rather than artificially push buyers elsewhere in their product range. Nikon did the very same thing with the D750 and D850 and I hugely respect Nikon for the same reasons. However, it would be a mistake to think Sony just lacks the business acumen of Canon. Instead, they have just differentiated their products better. I’ll come back to this.
So Who Is the A7 III For?
It is for most people. From the specs, experience with the Sony A7R III and early reviews, we can expect the AF system to be genuinely superb. We can expect the new 24MP sensor to be class leading and 24MP is enough for everyone apart from very serious landscape and product photographers who need the highest levels of detail in their files. The buffer is good (about 40 RAW + JPEGs at 10fps), the battery life is excellent (up to 710+, according to CIPA standards) and the list goes on. It’s for everyone who doesn’t need the extremes of speed (enter the Sony A9) or the extremes of resolution (the A7R III). What the Sony line up also means is that you can generalise and specialise seamlessly. The A7 III and the A7R III are identical on the outside. The buttons are in the same place, the grip is the same and (I am guessing), the menus are either identical or so close that it makes no difference. Shooting these two cameras side by side is absolutely doable without swearing or missing shots. In fact, this is the idea. Even the Sony A9, which most notably has an extra dial on the left of the top plate, is so close in layout, it too can be used with ease, once the small additions have been noted. This is smart and, amazingly, this isn’t something all manufacturers are doing. Try shooting on location when all your cameras have their play buttons, C (custom), or Fn (function) buttons in different places. I was critical of the A9 being in the same chassis as the A7 series and I still think that, as an outright sports/wildlife camera, this is a shortcoming. However, within the larger product line up, I can see why Sony did it.
I haven’t mentioned price yet, which is excellent considering what the camera offers. Yes, it is more than the Mk II and Mk I, but it is a more fully featured camera and arguably brings the A7 III up to level with the A7R III, rather than a little below (remember how the Sony A7 II did not have continuous eye AF tracking and AF was generally slower?). Lets compare it to the Canon 5D IV for a moment, which still retails in the UK for around 70-80% more. As far as I can see the A7 III is the better camera in more areas than it is worse.
Build quality. The 5D IV is more solid and resilient. If you play conkers with cameras on their neck straps, or go to war, the 5D IV will definitely hold up better. For everyone else, it won’t matter.
Weather sealing. The Sony A7 III is not likely to be as well sealed as the 5D IV. As some online tests and strip downs of the A7R III and A9 have shown, weather sealing on the bottom plate it essentially absent from the Mk III generation of Sony body. Very few people will wreck their Sony A7 III bodies with splashes of water or rain, but of those who do, I suspect a 5D IV would have come off better. Neither can go swimming of course.
Resolution. The Sony A7 III has 24MP and the Canon has 30MP. I doubt this will be a show stopper for anyone either way: editing hundreds of 30MP files is not much harder on the computer than 24MP. Equally 30MP offers only a very subtle improvement in detail. Both are ‘general purpose’ sensors, perfectly suited to most applications.
Battery. The Canon 5D IV will last around 900 shots, whereas the Sony rates at 700+ (LCD) and 600+ (EVF), according to the CIPA standard. The gap is much smaller than it used to be, however. Also, mirrorless cameras tend to run down their batteries by powering the EVF or LCD all the time. If you switch the EVF to eye sensor, they do a lot better. If you are shooting a massive number of images at one time (sports/fashion) they can actually rate higher than DSLRs.
Autofocus in very low light, especially tracking: we need to see, but I suspect the Canon will hold a slight advantage here.
Where are the Sony A7 III’s advantages, despite only costing 59% as much?
We can ignore the smaller and lighter mirrorless discussion, because that’s a more general point.
Frame Rate. 10 fps vs 7fps. Does this matter? For many people, yes, IMHO it does. 7fps is modest, but 10 fps is quick. Those three intermediary frames mean a lot more ‘perfect’ captures are bagged. The difference between my X-T2 with booster (11fps) and the 5D IV I used was night and day.
Buffer: the The Sony A7 III is almost double when shooting RAW + JPEG. That’s a lot.
Sensor performance: There isn’t a lot in it, but if the same improvements we’ve seen on the A7R III come to the A7 III, I think the The Sony A7 III will have an easy stop more DR at base ISO and possibly a stop or so better high ISO performance compared to the 5D IV. Don’t get me wrong, the Canon 5D IV sensor is lovely and I’d be lying if I said I did not subjectively like its results A LOT. However, any extra imaging horsepower is always welcome when the lights dim, or the sun burns especially bright! Sony is also coming on leaps and bounds with regard to colour science, which really, really matters to people photographers.
Tracking AF. The tracking AF under everything but very poor lighting remains to be seen. However, if it is anything like the A7R III it will be easily as good as the 5D IV with notable advantages: you can see which focus points are active and what the camera is actually focusing on in continuous AF. Despite years and years of frustration from professional Canon users, this is a critical feature Canon still holds back from their 5D IV and lower models. You just have to trust that the 5D IV is focusing in the right spot, because unlike in AF-S mode, in AF-C the focus spots don’t light up red for a split second. Even if they did, if they they go out, you can still lose your focus point in dim conditions. With the Sony bodies they twinkle away in green and you can see what the camera is doing. This matters, because you can correct things when it stops doing what you want.
Continuous Eye AF. This will get portrait, wedding, family and ‘parent’ photographers an awful lot more sharp files. DSLR versions don’t come close in performance. With the Sony bodies, you can stay locked onto the eye regardless of whether they move or you move (or both). When shooting at portrait distances with, for example, a 85mm f1.4 lens, with a DSLR, you have to focus on the eye and maintain the eye at the same spot in the frame. This keeps the eye under the same AF spot so that the AF-C can do its thing. However, if the eye moves away from the AF spot, the DSLR will now keep the eyebrow or nose in focus. They just aren’t smart enough, or when they try to be smart, aren’t nearly responsive or fast enough, or you have to be in live view at a low frame rate, or (insert all the compromises that degrade its value). With the A9, A7 III or Sony A7 III, you can sit there at 10fps (or more with the A9) and keep the eye pin sharp, even while you lean down to take a sip of Earl Grey tea. I recall an online review comparing the A7R III with a DSLR that complained that the eye AF can sometimes be distracted by obstructions and they marked the camera down compared to the DSLR whose Eye-AF wasn’t even workable. The remedy for the focus point being distracted by obstructions during eye AF operation? Remove your finger from the eye-AF button and focus it normally, duhhh. At least you can see that has happened and you make the change in a fraction of a second.
Price. It is much cheaper. It’s the same price as the Canon 6D II, which is waaaay lower in performance in quite literally every way. I also don’t understand why Canon does not offer more technology when they are able to time travel. After all, how else did they find the sensor for the 6D II? Another explanation is that the Japan earthquake opened up a subterranean storage facility lost to the passage of time and that facility happened to contain hundreds of thousands of imaging sensors. I don’t know what really happened here, but it is fair to say that it’s beyond explanation. You expect unpleasant surprises when buying used cars from people who chew toothpicks and have a glint in their eye. You check everything twice as a result, or more sensibly jog on. You shouldn’t have to do that with a Canon camera, just to ensure they haven’t shipped it with a sensor that narrowly missed capturing The Resurrection.
With the above in mind, this camera will excel in all areas where amateurs use their camera (street, travel, landscape, family etc). However, I can see this camera being used by a lot of professional portrait and wedding photographers as well. It now has the AF and speed to really be taken seriously by people whose cameras need to cope with fast changing environments, movement, very low light and to make them money.
Sony’s Approach Makes Sense (For Users)
In a way, the Sony A7 III – A7R III line up reminds me of the Nikon D750 and Nikon D810. If you didn’t need the resolution or quite such a solid build, you could save a bunch and buy the D750 and retain many other important qualities. However, here enters the BIG Sony advantage: the A7 III and A7R III are packaged identically. The D750,810, 850 all have substantial physical differences that make them much harder to move between seamlessly. Not only do the Mk III Sony bodies not have this impediment, the new Mark III bodies are pretty easy to use alongside the previous generation. Not much changed on the outside and with the interface. For professional photographers who will use anything from 2-4 cameras to a location this matters. Many photographers will want to have a line up of cameras and throw a high resolution body in there, or perhaps a video monster, or a speed demon. Sony lets you do that with either zero or next to zero penalty. You can bet the Sony A7S III will follow the same philosophy. You can largely move between the Canon 5D IV and 5DS or 5DSR seamlessly in terms of operability. Here they do better than Nikon. However, the two sensors are from very different generations. The 5D IV sensor is much more up to date with 13.5 stops of DR and mucho malleability in processing. The 50mp sensor in the 5DSR is old tech and has only 12 stops of DR and much less malleability in post. So you’re still having to make mental adjustments when you shoot and you’ll notice a huge difference when you start processing. You won’t with the Sonys, either in use, or on the computer. One will simply have more pixels.
The Mirrorless Ascendancy
It hasn’t taken nearly as long as many expected for mirrorless cameras to challenge DSLRs with regard to AF tracking with no excuses made. The Sony A9 did that, right at the very top end and the matter is closed: mirrorless tracking AF can be every bit as good as the best available under decent light. However, in very poor light (think near darkness) I have yet to hear of a mirrorless camera that is as good as the best DSLRs at locking on or tracking. It remains to be seen whether the Sony A7 III can change this, but it seems unlikely. What we can say is that under all other conditions, mirrorless cameras are now offering such big advantages that the narrowing disadvantage just mentioned increasingly pales in comparison.
Fujifilm is the king of APS-C in my opinion. They produce brilliant products that I love. Sony does the same in Full-Frame and in a different way. They aren’t quite as ‘fun’ or intuitive, but they make up for this in sheer functionality and performance. Nikon is managing to keep DSLRs relevant and interesting (perhaps alongside Pentax), but Canon has long since stopped offering its users a reason not to move either to Nikon, or to mirrorless. They charge far more for less and offer next to zero hope of that changing any time soon. Despite the well-known commercial success of Canon as a whole, I am certain their myopia is hurting them in the camera division and will increasingly do so as time goes by. Regardless, it goes down extremely badly with customers. It is entirely possible they have identified that mirrorless will push out DSLRs over time and that they are investing pots of money in an amazing full-frame mirrorless system rather than DSLRs. However, this remains ‘vaporware’ (as they say) and disappointed Canon customers are already…. well, disappointed. There isn’t a single camera in the Canon line up I’d pay for with my own money, but across the line up they have many qualities I’d love to see in a camera. Canon just won’t make a single ‘non flagship’ camera with all those qualities, because the marketing department thinks they can ‘upsell’ you a 1DX, or persuade you to buy several models when all you need is one.
Of all the manufacturers, Sony has figured out that cynical product differentiation can be turned on it’s head and you might happily buy three A7 III bodies and not feel the pull of the A7R III or A9 at all. Equally, they’ve ensured that you can mix and match A7 III, A7R III, A7S III (coming, surely) and A9 models without a second thought. You can do this without feeling something has been deliberately withheld from a cheaper model (and which utterly p1sses you off), without paying an insane premium and without having to change hands and brains every time you pick up a different camera. Heck, your biggest problem is forgetting which one you’re actually using…..
Well done Sony! Huge, massive respect. Just as I felt the Fujifilm X-T2 was the coming of age of mirrorless APS-C: great specs, great performance and all in a wonderfully functional and fun package, the Sony A7 III is the undoubtedly the full-frame VolksKamera. The standard has been set against which all others will be measured, mirror or not!
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