Monday, December 30, 2013

Sony A7 Review

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. Fujifilm first tested the waters with the X100 only to expand to a full line of X-System cameras, and now Sony has done so with the A7 and A7r. Predictably, Sony has done full frame in their own style. For many photographers, the lure of having a full frame system is an irresistible draw, so does packaging a large sensor in a smallish) body make for a winning combination?

Body and Design

Despite having an angular body, the camera is fairly comfortable to hold in your hands, thanks in part to the soft rubber that wraps around the grip. The button layout is similar to the RX1, with the exception that the focus mode switch has moved to the back of the camera by the thumb rest. Despite the similar layout, the angularity of the A7 and the additional electronic viewfinder reduces the family resemblance to the RX1.

Access to the front and rear control dials is within easy reach of your thumb and index fingers. The button layout is somewhat reminiscent of a compact camera layout, which is to say that it is sparse compared to the similarly-priced DSLR. The 28-70mm lens (and the 35mm and 55mm) primes are lightweight for their size. There just isn't much heft to the lens, not if you've grown accustomed to the ever-increasing weight of Nikon and Canon lenses. The minimum aperture per focal length is as follows:

  • 28mm: f/3.5
  • 35mm: f/4.0
  • 50mm: f/4.5
  • 70mm: f/5.6

With the 28-70mm kit lens, the A7 is not a small camera; it's roughly in the same size category as the Canon SL1 or T3i, only lighter and more svelt. In other words, it's not small enough to tuck away discretely, but it is light enough to make carrying around less of a burden.

Along with the 28-70mm lens, the A7 kit also includes the LAEA-4 E-mount adapter for adapting Sony A-mount lenses to the A7. Not surprisingly, Sony has played up the ability of the A7 and A7r to adapt different lenses given the small number of native lenses available. However, this isn't really a feasible option for the type of shooter that will be attracted to the A7. Adding adapters adds bulk and complexity, especially if you are using one of the fully automated units from Metabones. If you are are using a simpler mechanical adapter, that necessitates manual focusing and exposure control.... a bit of contradiction in terms for what you would think of as a typical Sony user. The "Sony" brand is about technology and features... gadgetry... having to shoot in full manual mode would probably be a turn-off for the traditional Sony customer.

Oddly enough for a camera this size, the A7 and A7r have the ability to use an optional vertical grip (Sony VGC1E), which can accept up to two batteries. Even though it detracts from the virtues of having a small camera, the feel and sculpting of the grip do make for a comfortable shooting experience.

Other than that, the FE-mount will accept E-mount NEX lenses, with the caveat that the image will be cropped down to APS-C size. One thing to remember is that the A7 (and A7r) do not have in-body image stabilization, and must rely on in-lens stabilization.

Apparently a popular demo unit; not very  fingerprint proof!

Overall operation is reasonably quick and easy to use... once you've set the camera up the way that you need it. The menu system shows more organization and straightforwardness than with other Sony cameras in the past, but the A7 isn't adept at changing settings on the fly, at least not at lightning speed. What is (reasonably) fast though, is the autofocus system, which uses phase detection. Focus acquisition is speedy and the system is competent at focus-tracking moving subjects during burst mode. The caveat once again is that the A7 doesn't do so as fast as a DSLR; motion tracking is merely adequate. As well, motion tracking abilities decrease with off-center subjects, as the PDAF elements are located in the middle of the sensor only. Overall autofocus acquisition speeds drops in lower light conditions. In comparison, the Olympus OM-D E-M, which uses contrast detection only, focuses far faster for non-moving subjects. Once again, phase detection is not the be-all and end-all for autofocus speeds, but rather, it is the sum total of the lens system and sensor design.

The 2.4 million dot EVF (XGA resolution) gives a responsive and detailed view of the scene; even die-hard optical viewfinder aficionados will give grudging respect to the usability of the A7 EVF  (similar or descended from the SLT-A99).

Compared to the other full frame camera making headlines at the end of 2013, the Sony is smaller and more progressive in it's usability and handling compared to the Nikon Df. By virtue of its contemporary design, the A7 will draw more people up to full frame shooting whereas the Df explicitly appeals to photographers that have previously owned SLR's. Handling-wise, the Df is the superior camera to shoot because so many of the basic shooting parameters are available by manual controls. In contrast, the A7 just feels plain unsorted; there's a lot of potential to be had, but as is often the case, it still feels like it was designed by a team of consumer-electronics designers and not by a team of camera builders. Hugely in its favour, though is that the A7, is far more comfortable to hold; the grip is more substantial and the reach to the front control dial is far less awkward.

Battery life is rated at 270 shots under CIPA standards. As the camera comes in the box, there is not separate charger, the battery charges in camera. The accessory charger for the A7 is the BC-TRW, which retails for $50 USD. Even though the in-camera charging feature means that the A7 can charge over a USB port, this is a camera that really needs a separate charger. The LCD and EVF displays consume battery power, meaning that the A7 has nowhere near the battery life of a DSLR. At the very least, a separate charger would allow for one battery to be used in-camera while another was charging. 

Image Quality

This is the courtyard outside the camera store. Usually, Sony cameras (at default settings) tend to render the scene outside the store a bit on the warm side with a steeper than usual tone curve. However, the camera has done a fairly good job of rendering the near walls white while preserving the bright green of the Telus booth across from the store. Overall, this is a bit more of natural-looking colour rendition than cameras like the RX100ii, which is not unexpected for a camera in this class... it's closer to being DSLR-neutral than "consumer friendly."

White balance
The A7 and A7r use adaptive sharpening through the BIONZ X processor to compensate for detail lost to diffraction. Diffraction limitation begins at f/16 assuming normal view distances and a print size of 10" by 8." Even though electronic sharpening doesn't increase the actual resolving power of the camera, detail loss from diffraction is not a yes/no condition. As such, there is some real benefit from having

Using the ad hoc refrigerator test, image noise per increase in ISO is what you would expect from a full-frame camera. Below ISO 3200, the combination of low image noise, dynamic range (watch the highlights in the bottles) and overall detail rendition make for a care-free shooting experience.

ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 1600

ISO 3200
ISO 6400

ISO 12800

Compared to the Nikon D610, which uses a similar sensor, the Sony A7 appears better at first glance when looking at JPEG output, but that's because of higher sharpening and noise suppression levels with the Sony. In RAW, both cameras produce similar-looking images, though the Sony once again tends to do it with a bit more of a heavy hand with regards to overall contrast. The differences are subtle; they're noticeable but they might not matter to most people using these cameras casually. Regardless, anybody stepping up from an NEX mirrorless camera will experience a bump in image quality and depth of field control; the caveat to that, though, is that how much of a bump there is depends greatly on which lens is paired with the A7.


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. The A7 is priced aggressively at $1,700 USD.  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: these were the lenses available at time of 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, the primes are quite expensive considering that you can get f/1.4 versions in other camera systems. 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 the size of the camera body.  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. The RX1 is also a smaller and more portable camera than the A7 with the 35mm f/2.8. The extra stop of shutter speed and shallower depth of field isn't a deal-breaker at the 35mm focal length, but it does mean that the A7 with the 35mm f/2.8 prime doesn't give the three-dimensional look that the RX1 can, or even a Canon or Nikon with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART.

Coming back to the idea of "cheap"... how can Sony offer a 24mp camera for $1,700 when Nikon (D610) charges $1,999 MSRP? Easy, think of what you aren't getting: a separate phase detection array, a separate exposure meter array, a precisely tuned reflex mirror system...  The unfortunate history of nearly all mirrorless systems (Sony, Olympus, Panasonic) is that they were not appropriately price competitive in the beginning and started off their mirrorless pricing 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; however, it's a bit odd that the benefit is showing up in the full-frame tier. To put it into perspective, the $1,700 USD price for the body-only A7 is very close to what you would pay for a crop-frame camera in the 7D or D300 price bracket.

Sony A7 vs Nikon D610 And Canon EOS 6D

On paper, this is where the battlefront is, two cameras with related full frame sensors, one representing traditional DSLR's and the other marching ahead with the mirrorless revolution. With kit lenses, the Nikon is more expensive, but not by much. However, that's where the similarities end, as these cameras will likely be shopped by two entirely different customers. The D610 and Canon 6D buyer will be much more likely to have owned a DSLR in the past, whereas experienced DSLR owners looking at the A7 will be thinking long and hard about what they will be giving up to get the smaller form factor. In kit form, the problem with the A7 is that it doesn't give ethe same amount of "wow" for somebody moving up from an NEX camera, as they would get if they jumped ship to the D610 from a lesser Nikon body. 

However, the larger issues revolve more around how the shot is taken, not what it looks like. The A7's phase detection autofocus works well, but not as reliably as a DSLR's dedicated system. Single-shot acquisition is modestly fast, but motion tracking ability is not as good. Where the Nikon really excels is in its ability to motion track and correctly meter the moving subject at the same time. Then there's the issue of battery life... it's not even close, the A7 is woeful for a camera of this price range. The short battery life is made even worse by the fact that a separate charger is not included in the box. 

However, there's no denying that the A7 wins on size and portability. Paired with the FE-mount 35mm or 55mm primes, the go-anywhere size of the camera will be a real winner for the shooter who is looknig to shed weight and who doesn't require the camera for mission-critical work. Like the A7r, the A7 is an interesting camera to adapt older lenses to; however, it's likely the majority of A7 users will not be going this route given the bulk that adapters add to the overall size of the camera. Leica M-mount adapters don't fall into this category; those adapters are very slim but Leica glass owners will probably be more interested in the A7r than the A7.

Sony A7 vs NEX-7  and NEX-6

This one is a bit of a pointed question... what aren't you getting out of the crop APS-C sensor that a full-frame sensor will give you? The short answer is one more stop of high ISO, more depth of field control and more megapixels (compared to the NEX-6). However, you can address the first two issues by moving to one of the excellent NEX primes if you are only using the kit lens.... you will get better low light and depth of field control, for much reduced cost.

There might be the temptation to think of the A7 as the "last camera that you will ever get"  after upgrading from a crop sensor mirrorless camera, but that clearly isn't the case. If the sensor was the only thing that mattered, then this sentiment would be true, as few people would need the extra image quality of the A7 over an NEX camera, let alone extract its full potential. However, there are enough areas where the A7 could be better that it should be obvious that there will be reason to see what's coming next down the line... better autofocus, better battery life, more mission-critical-friendly operation, etc.

Final Thoughts

Though the A7 isn't perfect, it does have its virtues. However for the serious photographer, this seems like a camera that would provide more joy when used for personal purposes than for shooting for other people. To clarify; if you are shooting for yourself and aren't doing mission critical work, the A7's image quality and portability work exactly as intended. If the need turns to shooting for others and paid work (or personal pride) is on the line, an experienced photographer will still prefer to reach for a DSLR.

Given that the march towards mirrorless seems inevitable, does the A7 signify the beginning of the end for DSLR's?


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 at the end of 2013. 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.

With thanks to Broadway Camera.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)