By Zack Schnepf
You can read my preliminary article about the A7r here.
There has been a lot of buzz about this little camera. It’s full frame, mirrorless, lightweight, weather sealed, 36 megapixels and relatively inexpensive. You can read an in depth review on Dpreview: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/sony-alpha-a7r/18. I agree with their assessment for the most part, but I’ll be focusing on my own experience and how it applies to my style of shooting. Here are my first impressions and how I think it stacks up against current DSLRs.
I intended to really torture test the A7r in tough conditions, to get a feel for how it would compare to the rugged DSLRs that I’m used to, but seven weeks ago I ended up tearing my meniscus in my left knee while snowboarding. This left me injured for the better part of my testing time. I finally had surgery just last week. I had to cancel a few of the more adventurous photo shoots I had planned up in the cascades. I was still able do several photo shoots, including in pouring rain, below freezing temperatures and in the dark. Here are my impressions so far.
Image Quality: The image quality produced by this camera is superb. The 36 megapixel sensor combined with the Sony FE 24-70 lens produce sharp, clear, beautiful images as long as your technique is good in the field. I was very impressed with image quality using the Sony FE 24-70 lens, as well as with my existing canon L lenses using the Metabones adapter. The image quality while shooting night scenes and using high ISO was excellent as well, once I figured out ways to compose in the dark; I’ll elaborate on this in the LCD/EVF section. The high ISO noise reduction performance of this camera is very good, on par with the D800 and the 5D mark III. One thing to keep in mind when you are moving up in resolution with a new camera, the higher the resolution of your camera, the less forgiving it is. Wind vibration, camera shake, as well as choosing the wrong settings are all amplified with more resolution. Your technique in the field has to be that much better to take advantage of higher resolution.
This is a good example of the dynamic range you can capture in one exposure with the Sony A7r. It would have been an impossible single exposure with my 5D II.
One big advantage the A7r has is the dynamic range the sensor is capable of capturing. It’s a noticeable improvement coming from the 5D II. This allows me to get away with a single exposure in some cases where I would have had to bracket with the 5D II. This is one of my favorite features of the A7r. The overall image quality is truly excellent.
Auto Focus: This was a big concern of mine after reading initial reviews of this camera. Even though I don’t use auto focus while shooting landscapes, I do when taking family photos or while taking travel photos. Luckily, I found the auto focus to be very good while using the native Sony FE 24-70 lens. However, this is not the case when using the Metabones adapter with my canon lenses. The auto focus is so bad when using the adapter, I keep all my Canon lenses on manual focus when using them with the Sony A7r. This won’t be a big deal once I’m able to have a full compliment of Sony FE native lenses. It did struggle a little in low light situations compared with my Canon 5D II, but pretty acceptable in my opinion.
LCD and the EVF: The LCD is also very high quality, and a good thing too. This is your main tool for composing images. The EVF, or electronic viewfinder works well, but does not sport the same image quality as the LCD. When shooting in bright scenes it works well enough though. In general I really like composing with the LCD and the EVF, but there are situations where an optical viewfinder is a huge advantage, especially when shooting in really low light and at night. Using the LCD or EVF to compose images while shooting night sky images is nearly impossible. There are ways to work around this, but this is an area where traditional DSLRs have a big advantage. Bright sunny conditions are also challenging when relying on the LCD and EVF, but this was pretty manageable.
Size and weight: I love how this camera feels in my hands, it’s light, but very sturdy. I could hand hold the A7r with the Sony FE 24-70 for long periods of time and it never felt heavy. I was also able to use a smaller backpack , the F-Stop Kenti and a lighter tripod. My overall kit was much more manageable than my standard DSLR kit. It will become lighter still once I have a full set of native FE lenses. Unfortunately, many of those lenses have not been released yet, so I’m forced to use some of my heavier Canon lenses.
Control layout: I found the control layout to be well thought out and easy to use for the most part. I liked that I was able to switch the function of the shutter wheel and aperture wheel so that it was the same layout as my Canon. As mentioned in other reviews, the ISO/function wheel on the back of the camera is a little too easy to bump by accident, something that can be annoying if you don’t notice right away. I like having all the primary controls at my fingertips and I really enjoyed shooting with this camera in the field. Once I was used to the controls, I was able to change settings quickly and efficiently while chasing the light.
Workflow quality: So far the image files are holding up very well to my usual processing workflow. The noise levels are acceptably low. The raw files are nice and sharp out of the camera as well. I’m not sure whether it’s the lack of an anti aliasing filter in front of the sensor, or the added resolution, but images are tack sharp out of the camera. With normal amounts of output sharpening in either Lightroom, or Photoshop images look very clean, and sharp. The added dynamic range of the A7r sensor means you can get the most out of your single raw files as well.
Issues: I did run into several issues while testing this camera. Here is a list:
-The firmware updater failed while running the recent firmware upgrade on my new Mac Pro running the Mavericks OS. This bricked my camera, rendering it inoperable. Luckily, with a little research I found others were having this same issue and there was a fix. Even though my computer could no longer recognize the camera, the updater could. I was able to run it again and complete the update. It did freak me out for about an hour though.
-The cable release recommended to me does not work well with the RRS L bracket I have attached to the camera. When plugged in, the remote blocks the camera from being attached vertically. I’ve ordered a wireless remote to compensate for this.
-While photographing the McKenzie River, I was caught in a torrential downpour. The weather sealing on the camera seemed to hold up well, but the EVF sensor that shuts off the LCD when you look through it is a bit sensitive. When it got wet, it turned off the LCD until it dried off a bit. I was worried the LCD had shorted out at first, but then realized the problem.
-There are not many native lenses available yet, but the lenses that have been released so far are very high quality.
-There is no built in intervalometer, and no programmable remotes yet available for the A7r. There is a mobile app that allows for this, but I have not been able to get it installed and working yet. I’m hoping someone will develop an easy to use intervelometer in the near future.
-The A7r is not a great action camera. It has a relatively slow burst fire rate and gets bogged down if you capture too many images too quickly. I’m running the fastest SDHC card I could find at the time. This seems to minimize the buffering times.
-Battery life is shorter compared to a DSLR. I was actually expecting it to be worse, so I was pleasantly surprised, but it is still shorter than most DSLRs. This makes sense, if you’re running the LCD and EVF all the time it’s going to drain the battery. I do carry four batteries on my photo shoots and a battery charger that allows for two batteries to charge at once which has a car plug adapter. I also turn off the camera when I’m not using it.
My first impression conclusions: The Sony A7r is a fantastic little camera. The image quality is wonderful. I can’t wait to photograph more with the A7r, and see what it’s capable of. I love the feel of the camera and the layout of the controls. I also love how light and sturdy it is and that I can carry a very light kit when I want to. The A7r does have issues, but none of them were deal breakers for me. I still intend to use the A7r as my main landscape camera, and keep my Canon 5D II for action photography as well as timelapse sequences. Stay tuned, I’ll be posting images from the Sony A7r and updates throughout the year on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/zack.schnepf, 500px and around the web.