February 21, 2014

review: Sony Alpha a7R camera

Sony is still on fire with their new camera releases. There is the delicious full-frame compact  Sony RX1 (Amazon).  (Read my review of the Sony RX1).  For a relatively long while, the best compact camera on the market was the Sony RX100 (Amazon) which was improved with the Sony RX100 II (Amazon). The full-frame Sony A99 DSLR also received great reports.  So no doubt about it – Sony makes great cameras.

Another trend that has gained momentum in the last year or two – Mirrorless cameras. Without the bulk of the mirror and prism, the mirrorless cameras are more compact and weigh less. But instead of that direct optical view of the world around you, there’s an electronic viewfinder (EVF).  The EVFs tended to show lag – but great improvements have been made where they show nearly real-time what the scene unfolds in front of your camera. For some, it will be a huge adaptation working with these.

But I digress. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras have become more popular. Or at least, the photo industry has been pushing these really hard, creating a buzz about these cameras. The photo industry are obviously keen on new markets that are created.

Until now, mirrorless cameras have been crop-sensor cameras. Until now – Sony has released the 24 megapixel Sony Alpha a7 camera (Amazon) and the 36 megapixel Sony Alpha a7R camera (Amazon). The a7R is interesting in that it doesn’t have an optical low-pass filter. (Anti-aliasing filter.) This allows for greater image sharpness, at the expense of occasionally risking moiré  patterns.

I had my hands on a review copy of the Sony  a7R camera (Amazon) and the Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens (Amazon) for a few weeks to give the camera a test run. My verdict? I kinda like it, but there are also a few surprises …

image quality of the Sony a7R

Currently only the Nikon D810 (vendor) offered a high-resolution camera to the general photographers. And now the Sony  a7R (Amazon) joins the fray. In a sense it is direct competition, but then, it also appeals to a different crowd perhaps.

First of all, how much details does 36 megapixels offer? Lots & lots! You have to really look at a file at 100% magnification to marvel at the detail.

Here is a magician who works the crowds in front of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, on 42nd Street in New York. Thrilling the crowd with a few sleight-of-hand tricks, (and sleight-of-mouth tricks apparently), I was able to get in quite close with the Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens (Amazon).  This lens is made by Zeiss and it is incredibly sharp. For the images where the auto-focus of the Sony a7R was able to keep up, the images were remarkably crisp.

Here is the 100% crop. I did remove a few skin blemishes with the Healing Brush in Photoshop. No one should really have to withstand a close scrutiny at 100% with such a high-resolution camera. This was shot at 1/250 @ f/3.2 @ 1600 ISO

This isn’t the straight-out-of-the-camera (SOOC) JPG, but one where I first adjusted the RAW file a bit for white balance and such. I had to go with the RAW files, because the SOOC JPGs didn’t look so good. There were noticeable artifacting with the SOOC JPGs.

You can download three files from this link – RAW + sooc JPG.

With those files, you’ll notice the artifacting on the 400 ISO JPGs immediately. For some reason, the in-camera JPG processing of the images are fairly horrible. This was with Creative Style set to Standard, and High ISO NR set to Normal. Soft Skin Effect was also set to Off. So this is pretty much the JPGs you could expect out of the camera – disappointing for a camera which was meant to be a high-quality machine – 36 megapixels with no optical low-pass filter / anti-aliasing filter.

But – the RAW files shine!

 

specification of the Sony a7R camera

  • full frame 36.4 megapixel sensor
  • resolution optimized by lack of optical low-pass filter
  • new BIONZ X image processing engine
  • lightweight
  • shutter speed range:  30 – 1/8000
  • normal ISO range: 100 – 25,600 ISO
  • burst rate: up to 4 fps at 36.4 MP
  • 3″ Rear Screen Tilting Live Preview LCD (1,229,000 pixels)
  • 2.4M-Dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder
  • motor drive: 4 fps
  • (no built-in flash)
  • lens-mount: Sony FE-mount
  • full HD Movie at 24p/60i/60p with Uncompressed HDMI Output
  • WiFI support / Near-Field Communication for Android devices
  • AF Control by eye
  • electronic spirit level

One of the benefits that are touted for the new cameras, is the compatibility with Sony’s present APS-C E-mount lens system and the new line of E-mount compact full-frame lenses from Carl Zeiss and Sony’s premier G-series. If you place a crop-sensor lens on the Sony a7R body, then the camera automatically changes the resolution to 15 megapixels, while still filling the entire viewfinder with the scene your lens sees. That’s one benefit of the viewfinder being electronic and not optical!

Currently the choice of dedicated lenses for the a7-series cameras, are limited, but new lenses will surely roll out during the year:

OSS = Sony’s Optical SteadyShot stabilization

 

handling and performance of the Sony a7R camera

As can be expected, the camera itself is light, and a pleasure to carry around. The styling of the camera is functional I guess – black and blocky. None of the sex appeal of the Fuji X-series cameras.

If you’ve used Sony cameras before, then it will be a breeze getting around the controls and menu of the Sony. It’s the way I like tech goodies to be – obvious. The menu makes sense, and the controls make sense.

The one control that was oddly placed, is the magnify button (C2) which is a bit of a thumb-stretch away.

I used the Function button (Fn) to access the ISO quickly. I still like the idea that the ISO setting should have a dedicated control, just like the shutter speed dial and aperture control.  [ edited to add: as Gordon pointed out via the comments - there is in fact a dedicated ISO control. ]

I couldn’t test the eye-start AF, since it wasn’t compatible with the lens provided, the Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens (Amazon). I also did not try the movie mode, nor did I use the camera with a flash.

 

My first “what!?” surprise was how loud the Sony a7R’s shutter is. I am so used to the whisper-quiet Fuji X100s (Amazon), that the shutter sound was surprising. With no mirror, you’d expect the camera to be quieter in operation.

In using any of the auto-exposure modes, I had to run the Exposure Compensation around +0.7 and 1.0 EV for scenes which I wouldn’t expect other cameras to need a bump in exposure.

The auto-focus speed was acceptable. The new Fuji cameras feel faster.

 

further observations & summary

The Sony a7R certainly brings high-resolution digital cameras within the reach of photographers. For Nikon shooters though, the obvious choice would still be the Nikon D800. Like the Sony RX-1, it is one of those cameras that I feel a twinge when I have to send it back after I’m done with the review. I really do like the camera, in use and the results.

If you are invested in Sony gear already, then the Sony A7r (and Sony A7) are excellent choices that will give you remarkable image quality (if you shoot in RAW.)

 

buy the Sony a7 and a7R

 

 

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{ 8 comments. } Add a Comment

1 denis February 21, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Hi Neil, great review!
Pardon my ignorance, but how does the shutter in that camera works with regards to the AF? Does the shutter have to be open for the camera to focus (directly from the sensor)? I am assuming the picture in the EVF comes from the sensor? or is the data needed for focus+EVF somehow gathered in front of the shutter?
thanks!
Denis

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2 Neil vN February 21, 2014 at 9:45 pm

Denis … my techie knowledge is limited in that I don’t understand why this camera doesn’t have an electronic shutter. Maybe someone can explain it?

The picture in the EVF comes from the sensor, yes. And if you take the lens off, there is the sensor, very finger-pokeable.

Unfortunately, you can’t take the lens off and fire the shutter to see what is going on.

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3 Michael February 23, 2014 at 5:09 am

I have the Canon EOS-M and got it for around $350 when it was on sale. At that price its an incredible buy.

The main advantage of these mirrorless cameras is compact form. To carry around a Canon 5D Mark III for example you need a large camera bag and it becomes a production of sorts. The mirrorless cameras need less bag thus less heft. Some of the mirrorless cameras do not look “professional” and thus are accepted more at certain venues as some people believe its a consumer camera. When I carry around my EOS-M, I do not get the same attention as when I carry my Canon 5D Mark III.

My gut-feeling is that we should wait for the next generation mirror-less camera. While impressive, I feel the next generation will have ironed out all the flaws of this current generation.

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4 Gordon February 23, 2014 at 6:10 am

denis, with the A7R the processoor cant deal with the 36MP image fast enough so no EFCS (electronic first curtain shutter). The A7 (24mp) does have EFCS. So with the A7R the shutter has to close first and then make the exposure which is why the shutter blackout is longer.

Neil. The A7R has a dedicated direct ISO control. The wheel around the four way controler gives direct access to ISO with no button presses. There is a menu setting for firing the shutter without an electronic lens on the front as well. Even so, it’s louder than it needs to be. The lenses are pretty stellar though, especially the 55 which is absolutely stunning.

Gordon

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5 Neil vN February 23, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for the added info.

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6 Ron February 23, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Michael,
No offense but that Canon Mirrorless was and is sub par to say the least when it comes to Mirrorless cameras…
The Sony Line of NEX cameras, Nex3, 5, 5N 6, and 7 made the canon look and perform like a toy. I have an NEX 7 24MP APSC camera, as well as the A77…Fantastic pieces of hardware. I can only imaging the A7, A7r being even better at FF. Plus with the ability to use ALL A Mount Lenses from Sony and Minolta…No shortage of lenses for whatever type of photography you do. Michael, forgive the initial remark, as it was not directed at you but the Canon Mirrorless. Even all the Canon shooters were soooo taken aback by the low quality of it. So, that, in and of itself, turned a lot of people off to mirrorless cameras. I love my A77, with battery grip but it’s probably one the largest Cameras. Only complaint. But if you’re traveling, hiking, camping, or just want to skip carrying all the weight around…Try one of the NEX Line of mirrorless cameras or the two new ones the A7, and A7R. Plus if you really want the more bulky look and feel, Sony does sell a Battery grip as well, the LA EA 1,2 3, and 4 adapters to use all those Sony/Minolta Lenses. My two cents worth.

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7 Michael February 23, 2014 at 2:11 pm

I agree the Canon EOS M is sub-par to the other competing mirrorless cameras. However, it was only $350 and it came with the lens. It produces about the same quality as a digital rebel. I do have the full-frame Canon 5D Mark III, but when I cant use my big camera then I use the EOS M. The EOS M is superior to any of the Canon S or G series or other compact cameras. Certainly better then a cell phone or Iphone. The EOS M has much better low light ability then any compact.

So I know there are other alternatives, but Im not going to invest in other lens systems when I have all these Canon lenses.

I own the EOS M for a niche purpose. Its for those times when I want to go somewhere that might be unsafe and I dont want to risk my gear. Its for venues that wont let me in with the 5D. Ive been told at certain bars and nightclubs I was not allowed to bring my 5D inside. However, the EOS M is allowed every time and its typical Canon APS-C quality.

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8 Ron February 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Yes it fills the void quite nicely. I even bought the Canon Bridge camera called the Powershot SX50 with the 1200MM Zoom, thinking it would also fill the void…NOT!! Horrible quality and felt like a cracker jack Box Toy…Imagines were simply just okay. Now, My Olympus Tough TG-2…amazing little camera for all around carry purposes. good to 50 feet underwater, and an F2.0 Fixed lens. Nice! Between my NEX 7, the OLy, Nikon D7000, and my favorite, the Sony A77…I have everything covered! :-)

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