Part 1 is here
Part 3 is here
This is part 2 of a 3 part article on my first impressions of the Sony A7r Mirrorless Full Frame Camera.
I am not in love this this camera’s looks, but looks are not everything.
Can you judge a book by its cover? The brutal honesty is that when SonyAlphaRumors.com first started posting the rumored design (which they nailed) of the new full-framed NEX 9 (they did not nail the name), I was not impressed. I did not like the sharp edges or the fake pentaprism viewfinder… in the middle of the camera no less! Was that an attempt to be retro designed? I had grown pretty fond of the progressive designed NEX 7, including its left oriented viewfinder and TriNavi three-wheel control. I felt the new camera had none of this! I must admit that the left oriented viewfinder was not ideal for everyone. My significant other is a left eye dominate person and it took a bit of getting use to how to hold the camera. Furthermore the TriNavi is not so much gone, as reconfigured. The A7r has plenty of nobs, dials and buttons to make it theoretically usable… the trick will be if I can find a configuration that I can feel comfortable with, after all, this is what is important. As I take it out of the box siting in Downtown Reno, I still am not in love with its looks. This does not bother me much. Beyond the self-esteem boost of holding Canon 1 series with a nice long white L lens looking like a rock star, a cameras looks don’t help you take better pictures. This is something that I think Nikon is going to find out with their new light on feature, expensive, 16 mp, but stylish retro Nikon Df.
This was taken at ISO 6400 f5.6 1/50 sec with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8. The camera performs very well, on par with my Canon 5D Mark III in low light.
With the goal of having the perfect carry around camera, the NEX 7 still has one big advantage – price. The NEX 7 is about $1000 cheaper. One of my criteria for having a carry around camera is that if I were to lose it, it gets stolen or I drop it into the _____ (fill in the blank – Ocean, lake, Grand Canyon…) I will not be destitute. This actually happened a while back with my NEX 7 when someone smashed our car window and snatched my camera bag (NEX 7 and three lenses) and my iPad right in front of a Denny’s on a road trip. This hurt, but was survivable, even more so since insurance helped out. But if this had been an A7r and three Zeiss Lenses, I might not have been so… calm. So, the price issue is a BIG issue and one I have not entirely come to grips with in how the A7r is going to fit into my camera needs and usage. I am considering keeping my NEX 7, which has me owning more cameras than I probably need and might be a bit confusing when I go to grab a camera for a trip. I am guessing this will work its self out as I figure out which camera is not being used. It should be noted on the other hand, that when the A7r is compared to the Nikon D800, D800e and Canon 5D Mark III, it’s priced very well, especially considering it has unique offerings in this category of cameras.
A7r has arguably the best sensor in a camera (along with the D800e) for under $10,000 and the only 36-megapixel pro level sensor in a camera that nearly fits in your pocket. That coupled with Sony Zeiss and Sony G lenses, should equal image quality that is hard to match at any price. The saying, ‘The best camera, is the one you have with you’ has a much better outcome when that camera is an A7r over an iPhone. The question is, if I choose to shelf the price issue (at least for now) can I use this camera to make good photographs? It takes more than a great sensor to make great images.
ISO 200, f5.0 1/10 sec with the Zeiss SonnarT* FE 35mm f2.8. This lens and sensor combo create some spectacular detail if you us good camera techniques.
Since I broached the subject of lenses, let’s dive in. The A7r/A7 are E-Mount cameras, same mount as the NEX line. But, the current NEX lenses for the most part, only produce an image large enough to cover an APS size sensor, the sensor in the NEX 3, 5, 6 and 7. So for the A7 series Sony is releasing E-Mount FE lenses that covers the full frame of the sensor. Currently there are only two out, the Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f2.8 ZA (the one I am using) and the Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6. The 28-70mm zoom is being released as a kit lens for the A7, but most reports warn not to use it on the A7r, because it does not have the resolution for the sensor, or at least it will not take full advantage of the sensor. A 55mm Zeiss lens is due within the month and early next year a Zeiss 24-70mm f4 zoom is expected. The Canon 24-70mm f2.8 II is my most used lens, so I am really looking forward to this Zeiss version, it will really start making this body usable for me. Sony is reported to have an aggressive release schedule in the works to get lenses out for these cameras. But that does not help much if you have an A7r body now. The compromise is that you can put the older APS NEX lenses on your A7r, and use them in a cropped mode (using only the APS size of the sensor) producing a 15 mp image (4800×3200 pixels) or in a full frame mode that creates an image circle with most of these lenses that you can crop in post as you see fit. In initial tests the crop mode worked flawlessly and from a functionality point of view you really don’t feel like you put an APS lens on the camera. But, if you do not own NEX lenses, you might want to wait on the sidelines a little, until enough lenses come out that meet your needs. I’m not saying the 35mm isn’t nice lens, as a matter of fact, it’s AMAZING, just maybe a bit limiting for some.
This is the A7r and the NEX 7 right next to each other, you can see that mount is the same, but the sensors are very much different. What do you think, do you think Sony planned to put a FF sensor in the E-Mount? Looks pretty tight. The A7r distinguishes it FE mount by making the outside red.
If you turn the crop mode off when you mount an APS NEX lens on the A7r you can see the resulting image circles. Here are three examples, the two on the left are from the Sony 10-18mm, which can be made to almost fill out the full frame in the middle focal lengths. The 28-200mm I does a little less spectacularly. But they both work great in cropped mode producing a good 15 mp image.
The final options is lenses from other systems. Because the A7r has such a short distance from the mount to the sensor you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in what you mount on it. There is plenty of room to mount an adapter for almost any kind of lens including much cherished Leica rangefinder lenses. This, if you wish to go down this path, opens up a wide range of options and experience. I will state right from the start that I really am not drawn to this path as my goal with this camera is a walk around, travel and hiking camera. And I am looking for size, weight and convenience (i.e. auto focus) in this type of camera. With that said I have experimented with Canon FD and EOS lenses on the NEX and they should work on the A7r even better since they are full frame lenses. Most of these adapters put the lens completely in manual mode, so you will have to set the aperture and focus and the camera can set the shutter speed or work it completely in manual mode. The A7r has a few tricks up it sleeve for helping with focusing. It has an auto zoom mode that will zoom the view finder in as it sense you are focusing the lens, this is great help in focusing on your subject. The second trick is a thing called Focus Peak. This is a tool that highlights what is in focus with red, white or yellow color. The combination can help in allowing you to focus manual focus lenses surprisingly fast.
This is the Canon EOS 16-35 f2.8L II on the Sony A7r with the Metabones adapter. This is actually and old adapter for the NEX, but it gives you and idea of size and that it does work.
The two exceptions to the manual focus limitation are the Sony A-mount adapters that will drive Sony lenses for their DSLR line completely, aperture and autofocus. Metabones also has an EOS adapter that will mount Canon EOS EF lenses on the A7r in full frame mode and also work the aperture, image stabilization and in some cases autofocus (it is warned on the web site that the autofocus is slow). Although this is novel and I am not saying I won’t try it, it is not my first plane. For starters Canon full frame lenses with an adapter become pretty big. Although, I was a bit tempted when I heard Gordon Laing of Cameralabs.com talking about using a Nikon 14-24mm on it. For the most part I am looking forward to the Sony e-mount FE lenses. This should make for a very portable high quality shooting machine.
The image quality this camera can produce keeps impressing me. This was taken in shadow late after noon sun with the camera held out in front of me at arms length. ISO 320, f16, 1/60.
One negative comment I’ve seen repeated is on the price of the FE lenses. Many have said they are expensive. It is true, they are expensive when compared to consumer lenses for Micro 4/3 or less expensive Nikon or Canon lenses for APS sensor cameras, but they are on the affordable side of the pro level full frame lenses like Canon’s L lenses or Zeiss’s line of lenses for 35mm. The thing to keep in mind is that many people who purchased the Nikon 36 mp D800 have found their lenses can’t keep up with the sensor. I have heard more than one person say they will now need to buy all new glass for that camera. For Sony to put out a 36 megapixel camera they are going to have to put out top notch lenses that resolve with enough resolution to take advantage of the sensor and make it look good. I can tell you from my experience in the film days when I shot Contax and Hasselblad, Zeiss makes some incredible lenses. And Sony’s G lenses are well thought of also. These lenses will be expensive but should be top quality, and you would want nothing less or you might as well buy a less expensive lower resolution system.
This was actually an HDR processed with the HDRSofts Merge To 32Bit and processed in Lightroom. The added detail takes a bit longer, but looks stunning in the final image.
I have also heard complaints that the initial planned lens offerings, (which are for the most part f2.8 to f4 lenses) are not very fast. The critics on one side who are saying the lenses are expensive also want faster lenses. It should be noted that fast lenses are even more expensive and are also big and heavy. And for a fast lens to cover a full frame sensor, it would have to be almost as big as DSLR lenses. My Canon 50mm f1.2L is a large heavy lens and would totally destroy most of the size/weight advantage the A7r camera has. Sony is obviously making an effort to walk a thin line of price, size, quality and functionality, at least with its initial offerings. You can bitch all you want, but they have produced a camera that is so unique and hits that mark, as a result it will probably be the benchmark for this kind of camera for years to come. For me personally I like to shoot zooms. Yes, I can hear you cringe, but for my shooting style and subject, I find that high quality zooms work best for much of my shooting. This is not to say I do not have primes, I do. I use them and I do enjoy their superior quality. I’m looking forward to the Zeiss 24-70mm f4, 70-200mm G and the rumored wide zoom. Especially with a carry around camera, zooms allow me to get the most range coverage in the smallest bag. With that said the Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f2.8 that I have now with this camera may be the sharpest lens I own.
This is the Canon 5D Mark III with the 50mm f1.2L compared t the Sony A7r with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8.
The size of the A7r did not strike me like it did some others because I have been using the NEX 7 for some time. The A7r is just a smidgen bigger than the NEX 7 and substantially smaller than the 5DIII. But it must be said, this is an incredibly small camera for what it has packed into it. It is also light when compared to a pro-sumer DSLR. This is another place that Sony walked a very thin line – The camera is small and light, but feels substantial. The A7r with the Zeiss 35mm weighs in at 1.3 lbs. (545 g). The A7r has much more magnesium used in the body than the A7 making the camera a bit heavier and stiffer… and I hope more rugged. It is very comfortable to wear around my neck. Sony has a new thinker neck strap for the A7r over the thin NEX strap, which is good. One disappointment I have is that the NEX 5 hung lens down, it was how they positioned the neck strap lugs. I really liked this, it made carrying and hiking with the NEX 5 really nice. But Sony did not follow through with this on the NEX 7 or now the A7 series so it is back to the lens sticking out in front of you. Bummer! For some reason I also find the next strap flipping over the viewfinder on both the A7r and the NEX 7. This was not a problem I recall having with my Canon cameras.
This shows some examples of weight – The A7r with 35mm at 1.2 lbs, Canon 5D III with 50mm f1.2 (admittedly a heavy lens) at 3.5 lbs, and the NEX 7 with Kit lens at 1.2 lbs.
I have medium size hands and find that the camera and its grip fit adequately. My fingers and thumb can find the appropriate buttons and dials with a little or no effort, it is much easier to use when the camera is supported with the other hand. Some of the controls were almost intuitive, especially after using the NEX, while others take some time to find with my eye at the viewfinder. I feel that someone with big hands might find this camera a bit of a challenge to use, but small to medium handed people will probably find this a good fit.
I was pretty concerned about the control layout. As I said, I really liked the NEX 7 layout or at least I thought I did. The A7r has changed quite a few control elements, but after looking at the manual for a while I have come to the conclusion that they have everything covered if not more so. In this case, more might not be better, although it might make the camera fit different styles of shooting. The problem seems as though the camera was designed by committee and might have fallen victim to a few committee level compromises. I think the best example of this might be exposure compensation. There is actually a multitude of places you can set exposure compensation including a dedicated dial on the right side of the camera. Besides the dial, you can set the front or back dial to do exposure composition and you can also do it from the LCD interface on the back in a few different ways. Besides all of the options there are a few idiosyncrasies to this. For one, the dedicated dial on the camera only goes from -3 to +3 stops, and these are marked on the dial and have a tick to set it to. This can make it interesting if you have the dial set to plus 1, but then start using a soft dial (non-marked) or the back interface to change exposure compensation… The dedicated dial then might not reflect how the camera is actually exposing the image. To make it even more interesting the electronic interface allows for -5 to +5 confusing the -3 to +3 on the dial. There is also a menu item that allows you to make the changes to the exposure compensation add up or reset when you change the dedicated dial… I chose the reset method. I am a bit concerned that I might make a mistake here and I think I will have to give my procedures a real thinking. Other than this and some duplicated functionality, I found the camera fairly intuitive and configurable over all, although, I have not determined a final configuration – it has two configurable dials (front and back) and three configurable buttons along with the down position on the back control wheel. This allows you to pull a lot of functionality forward so that you do not have to dig through the menus. This was one of the saving graces for the NEX 7.
Almost all the controls on the camera are on the right side. The is now a front and rear control dial along with a dedicated exposure compensation and mode dial. The rear of the camera has the same multi-directional dial as the NEXs used.
As I began to use the A7r I realized that I often did have a problem distinguishing the two dials on the back of the NEX 7 without looking. The front back dial positions on the A7r is actually better. Most of the other little things I have written off to the fact that I will need to get use to them. Although one button is in an odd spot and I have already decided I do not like its position and that is the Menu button. It is the only control on the camera that is on the left side of the camera (where the viewfinder SHOULD have been). I just find it odd and not intuitive. Since you can control most of the interface on the camera with your thumb or finger on the right hand, you have to use your other hand or move your hand to hit the menu button when you wish to back out of something. Perhaps I will get use to this. I have also come to the conclusion I like the physical mode dial. It allows you to quickly see what mode the camera is in and quickly change it.
One new great addition is the two configurable mode positions. Canon and Nikon have done this and I know many have hoped it would make its way to the NEX line. This allows you to program the camera in a specific way and save it to be accessed when you move the mode dial to ‘1’ or ‘2’. I have used this to quickly set up HDR bracketing and long exposure self-timer.
Sony has changed up the feel of the dials, which is another feature that has pluses and minuses. The NEX 7 was easy to use since the dials were very easy to turn, but the challenge came when I often turned a dial without intending it and only realized it after I ruined an image or two. The dials on the A7r are much stiffer and will reduce this problem, but at the same time it makes the camera a little harder to use. I was out the other day in near freezing temperatures and had gloves on. The dials were a challenge, but almost any camera becomes harder to use with gloves. I feel I will get use to them and know I will appreciate the fact they will not get unintentionally changed quite so easy.
The SD Card Slot is in a more traditional place and it is much easier to get the card in and out then in the NEX’s battery compartment.
Thankfully Sony moved the SD card slot to its own little compartment just below you’re right palm. This is a welcome change over the cramped space it was in next to the battery in the NEX 7. Since I mentioned battery, it should be noted that the battery is the same one used in the NEX 7 and my initial sense tells me that it does not quite last as long. I felt that NEX 7 was at the minimum of acceptable battery life getting in about 400 images; the A7r seems to be closer to the 300 mark. Don’t leave home without a spare battery. I should mention that I have been using the camera in sub-freezing temperatures, which is brutal on Lithium Ion batteries, so this might improve.
The new location to the movie button is welcome. The button on the NEX 7 was always being hit and the new firmware that turns it off is only a half solutions. So far I have yet to accidentally hit the movie button on the A7r. The A7r also has a dedicated movie mode and you can configure the movie button to work only in this mode, which sounds good, but I have yet to try it.
I have found after looking at several outings of images that the dynamic range appears to be very good. I am using Lightroom 5.3 with RAW support for the A7r and it seems to pull in detail in highlights and shadows the NEX could not and might be as good if not better than the 5D. ISO 500, f11, 1/60 with Zeiss 35mm.
The following two items are things I am surprised to find myself writing – first I find that I can use the LCD as a viewfinder, and at times, find the tilt viewfinder very handy (same tilt as the NEX). I often use it on a tripod when the camera is in an awkward position. The A7r, so far, appears to have a bright enough LCD to use in the daylight and by tilting the LCD you can reduce the glare, but there is also a sunny day mode that can be activated on a custom button. The second thing I REALLY like is the OLED viewfinder in the A7r. I think we might be at a point that the benefits of the electric viewfinder might outweigh the disadvantages. The A7r’s viewfinder is really good. And that along with all the things you can make it do really makes it a contender with optical viewfinders. Just for starters, the What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) can be a lifesaver. You see your exposure and if you want you can add zebra stripes to the blowout areas. You can add a histogram, level, exposure info and more. You can make the viewfinder zoom when manually focusing and you can have it show, with peak focus, what is in focus, something that people who shoot legacy lenses have raved about. And finally, you can see depth of field. Not the dark squinty eye DOF of the DOF preview on a SLR, but real depth of field on a properly exposed image. Where the OLED viewfinder becomes less fun is in really low light situations, although I have found in this case that the A7r’s viewfinder does better than the NEX 7. This is going to take more testing, but I might be an electric viewfinder convert.
The tiltable LCD screen is bight and contrasty and works very well for both review and shooting.