Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Launch Review: Sony A7 and A7R First Impressions


Given the critical success of the RX1 (and RX1r variant), it was only a matter of time before Sony proliferated the concept of a compact full-frame camera into the more mainstream interchangeable lens format. Hence, the A7 and A7R:

Update (October 26, 2013): Supplies will be very limited for the latter portion of 2013. I've heard word that general retail units won't be hitting store shelves until December, and supply will be limited, if not already spoken for. Translation: If you want one in time for the 2013 holidays, you have to pre-order. Chances of just pulling one off the store shelf when it rolls out will be slim.

Key Features:


  • A7: Has a 24mp sensor with phase detection, similar to the SLT-A99
  • A7R: 36mp variant of the Nikon D800e sensor, no AA filter 
  • A7R sensor has offset microlenses like the Leica M
  • New FE-mount. Short sensor-flange distance, compatible with adapters
  • Tilting 3" display
  • Weather sealed magnesium body
  • Electronic diffraction correction

What's Not Included:


  • In-body image stabilization: OIS in lens only
  • No built in flash
  • No intervalometer for timelapse shooting

These cameras are being priced aggressively, at $1,700 and $2,300 USD respectively for body only. Some of the cost savings comes from the fact that Sony is the manufacture of the sensors (i.e., they aren't charging themselves the profit margin that they would in providing sensors for Nikon). Cheap for full frame? Not quite:


Lenses Available at Launch:


  • 24-70mm f/4 Zeiss OSS - $1,200
  • 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens - $300 with A7
  • 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss - $800
  • 55mm f/1.8 Zeiss - 1,000
  • 70-200mm f/4 G OSS (in 2014) - price unavailable at launch

Though the prices aren't completely out of line with similar equipment from Nikon or Canon, it's the mix of equipment that adds the expensive. The FE-mount 24-70 f/4 is similar in price to Canon's 24-60 f/4 IS USM, but on a camera like this, it would be more likely that the user will prefer primes to match size. The 35mm and 55mm aren't in the expensive f/1.4 price bracket, but they are expensive for being entry-level primes. Overall, it's the Playstation strategy at work here: cheap console, profits made up later with consumables.


Also note which lens is not available at launch: a 35mm f/2. Ostensibly, an intentional decision to protect the the RX1 and RX1r. Sony isn't afraid to compete against itself, but in this situation, it has wisely left well enough alone for the time being. The RX1 is expensive for a camera, but inexpensive for the image quality and bokeh that it produces, and deserves to stay in the line up.


Coming back to the idea of "cheap"... how can Sony offer a 36mp camera for $2,300 when Nikon charges $2,800? Easy, think of what you aren't getting: a separate phase detection array, a separate exposure meter array, a precisely tuned reflex mirror system... I've said it before and I'll say it again: the downfall of all mirrorless systems (Sony, Olympus, Panasonic) is that they got greedy and started off their prices at DSLR levels despite the fact that their component costs were lower. This would have worked if the mirrorless companies had made a dent into the market share of Canon and Nikon, but they didn't at those prices. It's about time that the consumer is seeing some of the cost benefits of a mirrorless system; it's a bit odd that the benefit is showing up in the full-frame tier.

Some thing to Watch For


Leica famously had a difficult transition into the digital age because of the short mount-to-sensor distance that the M-mount imposes. This creates steep ray angles for light hitting the sensor, leading to a number of technical issues such as colour aberrations and vignetting. This wasn't an issue for film cameras because the surface of 35mm film is flat, but a modern sensor is a complex 3D structure that doesn't take kindly to light entering it from oblique angles. Leica resorted to off-set micro lenses in the M8 and M9 to combat this; the M Type 240 takes this a step further by using oblong microlenses.

The A7R uses some form of modified microlens array; it's not exactly the same sensor as the D800. Purportedly, the A7 does not. A curious phenomenom to watch out for is the so-called "Italian flag syndrome," where there is a left-right colour shift, with the left carrying a subtle green cast and the right being magenta. This isn't an issue in everyday shooting, but does crop up with ultra-wide lenses on the Leicas.

Sony A7 Versus Nikon Nikon D610


Comparing kit to kit, the Sony A7 is a tempting offer if you aren't heavily invested in the idea of having a DSLR. The published dimensions of the A7 make it tiny in comparison. The usual caveat that a camera system is more than the spec sheet applies, as the D610 easily beats the A7 in versatility. The most glaring downside to owning a Sony is their commitment to filling out lens portfolios. Sony jumps from lens-mount to lens-mount in the same way that Fujifilm rolls out new sensor technology; in other words, Sony hasn't been the fastest at developing their lens lineups, and have arguably been upstaged by X-System.

A common argument against mirrorless cameras is the lack of a true optical viewfinder. This remains true, but electronic viewfinders are no-longer the laggy peepholes that they used to be. My experience with the SLT-A99 EVF was very positive and except for sports shooting, I would have no trouble with any modern EVF.

Sony A7R Versus Nikon D800


Not really a fair comparison, as users of the D800 will know exactly what it is that they are looking for. The A7R gives the same value proposition that the RX100 first offered: a tremendous amount of image quality in a very compact package. The price difference between the A7R and the D800 is huge, but it's unlikely that the top-tier Nikon is the A7R's true competitor, as the difference in cost is not enough to make up for in terms of completeness of the lens system and camera versatility. Just because they have equivalent sensors does not mean that they are equivalent cameras.

However, the A7R does pose an interesting solution to anybody who has dreamt of a Leica M but could not afford it. Compared to the M Type 240, the A7R is devastatingly cheaper, offers more resolution and has class leading-dynamic range and noise characteristics. The lack of lenses is once again the downside; known of the lenses available at launch are the equivalent of the typically used Leica primes. However, this is looking at it from the wrong way around: it's not that the A7R is a competitor to the Leica M, it's a competitor to the Leica M body. Anybody with M lenses will be interested in seeing what will be possible with Leica glass on a proper full frame Sony sensor. Steve Huff has already had a go at it...

Conclusion


If there is any doubt at who Sony thinks will be the primary target for the A7 cameras, you only have to look at the lenses being offered at launch time. Variable aperture zoom kit, higher-priced constant aperture normal zoom upgrade. These are the hallmarks of a consumer-grade lenses, albeit high-end ones. Camera companies have pegged consumers as being prime-averse, and for the most part, they've been right. That's not a knock, it's just the reality: buying one zoom lens is cheap, buying many prime lenses is expensive.

This is a continuation of the RX1. Despite it's professional capability, the RX1 is operationally an over-sized RX100: friendly and familiar. In the way that low-end DSLR's are "soccer mom" cameras, high-end Sony cameras are "dad" cameras: capable consumer electronic pieces, but not quite hitting all of the notes for the purist photographer. Like all Sony products, the A7 and A7R are a bit gadgety, but they certainly do hit a chord with the DSLR-averse. Tremendous image quality in a small size was the winning combination for the RX100 and RX1; though it's tough to call a $1,700 camera cheap, the A7 adds "value" to that list of positives. 


Does this signify the beginning of the end for DSLR's? No. For years now, people have been watching for the inevitable rise of mirrorless cameras over DSLR's, but there's a problem with that: who will do it? On paper, the trend is inevitable, but on the ground, the problem is that only the major DSLR players (Canon and Nikon)... who also own most of the market share... are the only ones who are profitable in the global camera industry. In business, it's not a matter of what will happen, but who will do it and how? The FE-mount has many virtues on paper; from here on out, it's a matter of the how in getting the system off the ground.


3 comments:

  1. The A7 and A7r both feature support for the Playmemories timelapse app available for the current NEX5R / NEX5T / NEX6.

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    1. No, they do not. Check your references before you post. They may in the future, but frustratingly for now... they do not. I can vouch for this personally as I have had my A7R plugged in and attempting to download the app to the camera from Safari Playmemories store. They are simply not supported for whatever reason.

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    2. You mean the app was downloaded to your *phone* or *tablet*, yes? Further reading: http://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/52605475

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