The Sony A7R was released as the lightest and smallest full-frame camera with the resolution range rivaling that of digital medium format cameras. But is it really a game changer, or only a step in the right direction? Let’s take a look.
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Ready? Let’s get started! First, here is an overview of the key features:
This review is an initial hands-on experience review with the Sony A7R with Canon EF, FD and FL lenses. A final Sony A7R Review is on the way, and this is the first iteration of that.
This review isn’t going to be based on marketing of the photography industry, and I hope to get past that with this review. I also don’t hold any preference for any brand out there, and I’ve never owned a Sony camera product before. I’m also not affiliated with any special interests. Okay, with that out of the way let’s get started!
The Sony A7 and A7R are the first cameras to enter the market that feature a non-SLR full-frame sensor, aka mirrorless full-frame. Up to this point mirrorless cameras have been associated with compact cameras, and have slowly gone from teeny tiny sensors and gradually moved closer to 1.0x 35mm sensor sizes.
The A7R Exmor CMOS sensor (35.9x24mm) has a resolution of 36.4MP, landing it in the same range as the Nikon D800/D800E, which makes sense in retrospect knowing that Sony fabricates and produces that line of sensors for Nikon (Sony IMX094AQP). At 36MP this also falls into the resolution range of a few medium format digital cameras of the not so distant past.
In addition to having a full-frame 35mm sensor, the A7R does not have an optical low-pass filter. What’s an optical low-pass filter you may ask? Sometimes referred to as an Anti-Aliasing filter, these are built into nearly all digital cameras and is located directly in front of the sensor.
Digital cameras which do not have a low-pass filter (or AA filter) allow high frequency information to be recorded, thus increasing image sharpness. At the moment the D800E and the Sony A7R are the only full-frame cameras without low-pass filters.
Rodeo Beach Sunset | 276s F22 ISO 50 Canon 17-40 | Download RAW and TIFF here
The A7R has an Anti-Dust system that has a charge protection coating on the optical filter as well as an ultrasonic vibration mechanism, but I haven’t found it to be any better than the Nikon or Canon anti-dust systems. That is to say, it sucks and I clean the sensor once every two weeks, or, at the same frequency that I clean my Canon EOS 5D-IR that doesn’t have such a system.
I’m doing an extensive image test of the latest Canon CMOS sensors against the Sony A7R sensor to see what the quality difference is, and if it’s significant. In the meantime take a look at the RAW and TIFF images I have uploaded by clicking here.
The Sony A7R is currently the smallest and lightest full-frame interchangeable lens camera. Not only is it the smallest, but it’s quite a bit smaller than the second smallest – the Canon EOS 6D. In fact, holding it for the first time may remind of you of holding a point and shoot or compact camera.
The construction quality of the Sony A7R is very high, and you can tell the hardware engineers and industrial designers over at Sony spent quite a bit of time on this camera. The rubber grips are very sturdy, and are bonded to the body (non-removable).
The front-panel construction of the A7R is magnesium alloy, which feels solid without any flex or play. The backside includes a swivel LCD panel, which unfortunately only swivels in two directions, not all four.
The 3-inch swivel LCD can be useful in some situations, however I would have preferred it to be built-into the backside of the camera. Having it swivel as it does decreases the durability quite a bit. A small snag of the LCD could break it off entirely if you’re not careful.
Lands End Sunset | Click here to download the .ARW + .TIFF
The small size is in no small part due to the lack of an optical viewfinder. Instead, Sony implemented an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) which is essentially a very small screen that sits directly inside the viewfinder.
Another design win on the A7R is simplicity. Sony really spent quite a bit of time on the drawing board reimaging what photographers need in terms of physical controls, and what they could build into the interface. As a result, there’s far less physical buttons, and there’s even an exposure compensation dial, which is a new addition to a full-frame camera. I actually quite like the exposure compensation dial as I often shoot in Aperture Priority and use it frequently. The dampening on this dial is excellent, and it has a good 2x to 3x more dampening than the rear thumb and forward index finder dials. It’s also out of the way and logically placed.
The backside of the Sony A7R looks pretty clean and clutter free. The 3.0″ LCD takes up a majority of the real estate, leaving just essential controls justified on the right. One of the biggest advantages of the Sony A7 and A7R is the custom function buttons. There are three C-buttons, all which are very customizable. There’s so many options for customization that it’s unlikely two A7R’s will be identical. I’ve mapped mine to the following:
C1: 0x – 7.2x – 14.4x zoom magnification for manual focusing
C2: Focusing Grid Overlays
All controls on this camera are accessible from the shooting hand, from the exposure compensation and mode dial, to the zoom buttons and custom function buttons… except for the Menu Button. Why Sony put it way up on the top left I have no idea.
Why not put it just below the exposure compensation dial in-between the grip, or drill a hole in the exposure compensation dial and include a spring-loaded nub, or just to the left of the EV dial, or… well, it’s nearly perfect except for the menu button placement.
The Sony A7R has a very nice sounding shutter click, however it does have a clank-type of sound and it’s a few decibels higher than other full-frame SLRs. The Silent Drive mode on the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 6D are pretty amazing, and unfortunately the A7R doesn’t have anything comparable. I was out shooting San Francisco’s Chinatown in B&W recently and nearly every closeup shot of someone alerted them to my presence.
The single largest differentiator between the Sony A7R, the Canon 5D3/6D and the Nikon D800/800E is the autofocus. In fact, if you’re used to using an SLR of any kind, one of the first things you’d notice when using the A7R is the autofocus speed – it’s sluggish.
San Francisco Sunrise | Click here to download the .ARW and .TIFF
However, if you’ve used the autofocus on a Canon or Nikon in Live View, you’d probably notice the AF being sluggish there too. Well it’s just as fast as that. So for photographers who rely on autofocus to get the job done, such as sports photographers, event shooters, wildlife photographers or anyone who uses Servo for AF tracking, this camera may not cut it with it’s AF system, which relies on contrast detection.
The accuracy of the focus is excellent however, and in fact it’s nearly always critically sharp on the first shot. But obtaining that AF lock usually takes between 3-5 seconds, depending on the scene and the light level.
The autofocus sensitivity of the A7R is 0EV. Contrast that against the Nikon D800/800E’s -2EV, and the 5D Mark III’s -2EV and it’s at a bit of a disadvantage. Compared against the Canon 6D’s -3EV and it’s even further off the mark!
So with regards to AF accuracy, the A7R’s AF is spot on. For AF lock speed, it’s comparably slow.
Focus Peaking is a feature whereby the photographer can see the areas in-focus on the LCD and EVF, represented by white areas of the image. It’s a feature that has been around for a little bit, mainly on mirrorless cameras, and has come downstream to the A7R from Sony’s other cameras (which I have no experience with).
I have found Focus Peaking to not only be incredibly useful with lenses that have excellent focus dampening, such as L lenses, Canon FD and FL, Nikon Kogaku and many of the other classic lenses. On lenses that have subpar focus rings and dampening, not so much. But assuming the lens is right, I have found that obtaining a focus lock with Focus Peaking can be faster than the autofocus in some situations, but not always as accurate depending on the lighting. Harsh light is the best scenario for focus peaking as it’s measuring the contrast for focus. In lowlight situations focus peaking doesn’t work, and in fact just clutters the viewfinder.
With my L lenses I almost always use the autofocus, as it’s fast enough, reliable and it’s very accurate. But for my classic lenses, such as the Canon FL, FD and Nikon Kogaku’s, focus peaking takes them to a whole new level.
Take a look at the following photograph, captured with my Canon FD 50mm 1.8:
Streets of Chinatown in B&W | 1/320 – F8 – ISO 125 – Sony A7R
Now let’s take a look at 100% zoomed in to see what the sharpness looks like:
Not only do these lenses have beautiful design and build quality, but the focus dampening is magnitudes better than modern lenses, even the most expensive L or Zeiss lenses. Why don’t they build lenses with focus dampening like they used to?
So in summary, focus peaking is not right for every situation, but for anytime after sunrise and before sunset, it’s not only accurate and fast, but a lot of fun. And if you have any old lenses, you can now focus with greater confidence and accuracy than ever before on a full-frame camera, and get critically sharp images without guesswork or magnification.
Unfortunately one of the downsides of the A7R and the Sony camera line in general, is there’s no intervalometer. The A7R has integrated WiFi, so sure, someone will create an application that will have that someday, but the fact that Sony has no intervalometer with the launch of the A7R says one thing: Sony either completely forgot about this or they hate time-lapse and star trail photography (or both).
Sony does however sell a shutter release cable, which they manufacture for $1.72 and then turn around and sell it for $70 to the photography community. So for landscape, star trail, time-lapse or any kind of photography that is longer than 30 seconds, you’re dead in the water. Pretty disappointing to say the least.
When Sony created the first full-frame mirrorless camera, they did so around the E-Mount. The distance between the back of the lens and the sensor is called the flange distance, and it’s the reason not all camera’s work with certain lenses. For example, the flange distance on a Nikon is further away than that of a Canon, meaning you can’t use a Canon lens on a Nikon without a bellows effect, and losing infinity focus. You can however use a Nikon lens on a Canon for the reverse reason, with an adapter to make up for the difference of the flange distance.
San Francisco Skyline from Treasure Island | 97s – F11 – ISO 80 – Canon FL 50mm 1.8 (1964 – 1971) | Click here for .ARW & .TIFF
The Sony A7R has a very small flange distance. This is significant for a couple reasons, the biggest one being now you can use any lens ever made for any 35mm camera ever. In other words, the A7R with it’s 35mm sensor and short flange distance is truly agnostic to lenses. Adapters for old lenses need not be amazing or have electronics in them either, as classic lenses didn’t have autofocus. I bought a few adapters, each one running around $7.30 with free shipping. Awesome!
Before buying the A7R, I had no experience with Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) and didn’t have much interest in them. Actually, I did look through a few EVF’s on compact cameras and I wasn’t impressed, however when I looked through the A7R’s EVF, I was surprised by a number of things:
I took the EVF to the test when out shooting Chinatown in B&W. I was using a 1960’s Canon FL 50mm 1.8, and a 1970’s Canon FD 50mm 1.8 shooting in B&W with focus peaking turned on. Read more about that experience here.
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Between 200-300 shots is what I’m seeing with normal day-to-day use, with around 100 when doing long exposure landscape.
ISO 50 – 25,600
ACR 8.3 and Lightroom 5.3
The file formats are supported on the OS X level, so navigate to: Apple > Software Update
Yes! It’s called the Sony RM-VPR1. Amazing product names over at Sony, right?
It does not, you must directly connect the camera to a power source.