Sony are known for pushing the technological envelope; the first NEX-5 showed us just how small an APS-C camera could be – with decent frame rates and AF speeds, no less. However, the rules of optics are not so easily breakable: lenses still have to be a certain size to cover a certain image circle at a given aperture and focal length. The NEX kit lenses were no smaller than APS-C DSLR lenses – because that’s pretty much what they were. Unfortunately, Sony are also known for serious attention deficit disorder when it comes to products and systems; recently one of their executives (Kimio Maki, GM of Sony’s Digital Imaging Business Group) was quoted as saying he wanted to do something new every six months. A good example is the RX1, superseded by the RX1R a year later, and effectively killed by the A7 and A7R now; new RX1Rs that sold for approx. US$3,300 in Japan plummeted to just US$1,300 or thereabouts in used value the day after the A7 twins were released. I don’t know whether that represents a relentless commitment to innovation at all costs, or whether it’s just sticking it to your customers. Nevertheless, the like the NEX-5 (which I owned, didn’t mind the limited controls, but found pretty good except for tonal palette) – the A7R pushes things a bit further; far enough to be in interesting territory. We now have full frame – and the best full frame sensor at that – in an E-M1-sized body. Surely there has to be a catch somewhere?
Images in this review were shot with the A7R and Zeiss 55/1.8 FE. An extended set on flickr with more samples is here.
You’ll notice a lot of still lifes in this set: it’s because this is the kind of subject that seems to suit the A7R best. It doesn’t AF track well enough to keep up with moving objects, and DOF is shallow enough and the camera sensitive enough to shake that it isn’t the best choice for street or reportage work. All images in this review were shot with an A7R and Zeiss FE 1.8/55 Sonnar.
During my initial thoughts piece, I said that neither camera would make sense with adapted lenses. I stand by that, for several reasons: firstly, you lose autofocus. Even though the EVF with peaking and magnification makes it easier to focus than a modern DSLR without focusing aids, autofocus for critical work and moving subjects is definitely valuable. More so when it’s the on-sensor variety that doesn’t suffer from back or front focus issues (as with systems involving mirrors) since you are focusing on the actual imaging plane. Beyond that, the moment we bring additional mount surfaces into the mix – two more with an adaptor – you’re going to start introducing planarity and decentering issues. Even with the best adaptors, there are a range of acceptable tolerances; that applies to the camera’s own mount, too. You could land up with a combination that cancels out, or becomes worse. And with a high density sensor like the A7R’s, you’re going to notice that. After some testing with various adaptors I had handy from the NEX-5 days – I came to the conclusion that unless your adaptors are perfect, you really will not see the difference. Adapted lenses will generally not perform the same as native ones.
The reasons go beyond planarity of adaptors: there’s also the lens-sensor interaction to consider. The reason why fixed-lens large-sensor compacts like the Ricoh GR, Nikon Coolpix A and Sigma DP Merrils are so good is because the lens was designed specifically for the sensor; the optical formulae are typically telecentric and take into account the fact that the sensor may or may not have offset microlenses to deal with very short back flange distances. Legacy adapted lenses do not; and something designed 20 or 30 years ago certainly did not have digital in mind. Even the modern lenses that are designed for digital are designed to work well generally with one system – witness how consistently good the designed-from-scratch lenses are for the M4/3 system, or Leica S tend to be. Or even the new Zeiss Otus. On top of that, you really have to ask yourself if it makes ergonomic sense to put an enormous SLR lens on the front of a very small body; it simply doesn’t balance or handle well. And remember, it will also have to be manually focused, too. Small RF lenses would make more sense, but these tend to be a lot more particular about which sensors they will play nice with; they are almost always short-flange non-telecentric designs that require offset microlenses and hue shift/ vignetting compensation. We can correct for some of this digitally, but it will not solve edge softness and resolution issues. At this point I’m sure somebody is going to ask about use with Leica M lenses: I can’t comment as I no longer own or have easy access to any.
The good news is that the one native lens I was given to test along with the A7R a very, very pleasant surprise – the Zeiss FE 1.8/55 Sonnar. It is not quite up to Otus levels, but then again, at this price and size, I wouldn’t expect it to be. I’d say it has much of the character of the ZM 2/50 Planar. By f5.6, the differences shrink between the three (2/50 MP or 1.4/55 Otus on D800E, FE 1.8/55 on A7R). The 28-70/3.5-5.6 kit zoom, on the other hand, is a dog, and a large one that feels imbalanced on a body this small. The corners are a bit of a disaster at any aperture; they never fully resolve nor do they rid themselves of CA. So far: with the right lenses, this camera can sing. The problem is, there are only two of them – a 2.8/35, and 1.8/55. I can only hope that we eventually get a wide – maybe 21 or 24 – and a tele of some sort to at least make for more of a complete system. These lenses were designed for the A7 from the ground up, and it shows – especially in corner performance.
However, the A7R is a very, very demanding beast to shoot in the field. The small size, relatively low mass and very loud/ rough shutter mechanism mean that you need higher than expected shutter speeds to yield perfect pixels; we’re talking 1/125 at an absolute minimum for the 55mm, and ideally 1/200+ for consistent results. Below 1/200 you may well see very faint double images; it’s as though something ‘jumps’ halfway through the exposure. Compare that to 1/90 minimum for the D800E/ Otus, and 1/125+ ideal. Curiously, at lower speeds – below 1/30 – and on a tripod, it’s fine. I personally found that the A7R tested my shot discipline to the maximum; a tripod is really required to make the most out of the available resolution. Note: the A7R lacks the electronic first curtain of the A7, which makes things worse. It also trades PDAF on-sensor and an AA filter for no AA filter, some magnesium in its frame and 12 MP more. Otherwise, excluding price, both cameras are identical.
This brings me neatly to the question of ergonomics, haptics and tactility. I recently conveyed my thoughts on the Nikon Df and received a lot of heavily polarized comments and emails; that is one camera that either ‘works’ for you, or it doesn’t. Despite being a long time Nikon shooter, I fell squarely into the latter camp. The A7R is less contentious: whilst opinions may vary on the aesthetics of the design, handling is actually very, very good, and it’s comfortable in my hands. It does balance much better with smaller lenses though; the native 1.8/55 is perfect. In fact, it felt remarkably like an E-M1; so much so that psychologically I kept expecting the stabilizer to kick in when I half pressed the shutter. Dials and buttons are in similar places, even if they don’t do the same things – but you can always change a custom function for that. Build quality feels similar – both are all metal and feel like they’re all metal, though I don’t see any gasketing/ weather seals on the A7R other than around the left-side ports. They both also put their right hand strap lugs in an uncomfortable place…
So then, I set up my A7R to behave like my E-M1 – which was reasonably easy given configurability of most of the buttons, and an extra two control dials – one for exposure compensation, and one for…well, it seemed to duplicate the function of the other dials. In any case, other than navigating the confusing menu system, the camera is pretty cooperative in use. On the menus: although Sony is self-consistent amongst its cameras with the horizontal tabs, what doesn’t make sense is that most other cameras use a downward-scrolling list for the functions, with a right arrow press giving you sub-options. The Sony uses a list that scrolls both down and across, with enter giving sub-options. This is confusing, though I suppose you’d probably get used to it if it was your only system. I have to give them several huge credits in the UI though: you can have live overexposure zebras in any mode (not just video); playback is not only fully-functional, but the one-press zoom takes you straight to 100% actual pixels view. In short: there are a lot of things to like about this camera.
A word on the EVF: it’s good enough that I didn’t think ‘oh, this is a small LCD panel’ in practice; showing actual depth of field and overexposure means it’s easy to nail focus and exposure. The viewfinder optics aren’t quite as good as the E-M1’s, and that’s obvious at the edges; they just aren’t quite as crisp. The one problem is when you try to use it in very bright (i.e. tropical, where I live) sun: though it maintains pretty good color accuracy and tonal separation, it’s just too dim, even turned up to the maximum setting. I haven’t had this problem with the E-M1.
As ever, nothing is perfect. And there are a few fairly big gotchas with the A7R: firstly, the shutter vibration problem we’ve already talked about. The next problem is related to that: you could theoretically work around it if you could set auto-ISO to a minimum shutter speed above 1/125; you can’t. It defaults to 1/focal length, or as near as it can get to it. The only way I’ve found around this is to enable auto-ISO and shoot manual; this way you can set shutter and aperture, and the camera chooses the sensitivity. If you need exposure compensation, the separate dial on the top plate still works. It’s a bit slower, but usable; in practice, I’ve set the 1st custom position on the mode dial to aperture priority, and the 2nd one to manual with 1/125s, which I flip over to the moment the light gets too low. The final major issue is the fact that a camera of this price does not include an external charger. You have to plug the camera in to the USB charger, or a computer; this of course means you can’t shoot with it while it’s charging batteries – and that’s made doubly worse by the small battery, long charging time, and very limited battery life; 200 frames was about my absolute maximum. Sony, for a camera that costs $2,300, this is just cheapskate.
Note: My evaluation on the A7R’s image quality isn’t going to be as comprehensive as I’d like, simply because I only have one native lens. And it’s also clear from tests with the adapted lenses that something in the optical system – adaptors, lens formula, sensor microlens array – just isn’t doing the sensor’s potential justice, especially in comparison with the single native lens I have. It would therefore be unfair to come to any conclusions off this.
However, there is no question that under optimal conditions, this camera is capable of matching the current king of full frame 35mm cameras, the D800E. (I will be conductiong a more detailed direct comparison when I find some time, specifically between the D800E/ Otus and A7R/ 1.8/55.) Resolution and tonality are pretty much identical; that isn’t surprising as they probably have the same base sensor design. Color reproduction is different, however. I personally prefer the D800E, though this may well be because I’ve got a lot more experience in dealing with its files. Dynamic range and noise are also identical, as far as I can tell; and if they’re not, they’re pretty darn close. The A7R certainly shares the D800E’s seemingly never-ending deep shadow recoverability. Assuming similar level optics on both, I would have trouble distinguishing results from the two cameras in a blind test. In short: this is a D800E body in a much, much smaller size.
Now comes the contentious bit: how does it stack up against its competitors? Note firstly that the A7R has no obvious direct competition because it sits in a niche of its own. I’m just guessing from my own needs and thoughts that buyers may well also be considering (or moving from) these cameras, and more importantly, systems:
Vs Nikon D800E: Here, it all boils down to the system of lenses and flashes: if you need any special purpose gear at all, or longer lenses, then the balance tips heavily in favor of the D800E. I think the shooting envelope is a bit wider, too – given the much better shutter mechanism. Of course, if you’re travelling on a strict weight budget, then I’d go with an A7R, 55mm and Ricoh GR.
Vs Leica M 240: From what I understand from people who do use the A7R and M glass, not all lenses are great; you need to try individual ones to see what plays nice and what doesn’t. And be prepared to do software correction on all images. However: if you have trouble focusing your rangefinder, use the EVF more, or are adapting lenses to your M 240 anyway, it may well make more sense to go with the Sony option to gain some resolution – if the lenses you want to use agree with the sensor.
Vs Olympus E-M1: Same size, same weight, very different image quality. Quite a big difference in price, though; less so to the regular A7. The E-M1 has three aces: firstly, its stabilizer is so good that you claw back most, if not all, of the high ISO advantage of the A7 and A7R for handheld shooting in low light. It also means that you don’t have stability issues – my ‘technical’ hit rate with the E-M1 is close to 100% because of this. You can shoot at pretty much any shutter speed with impunity. Ace number two is weather sealing: I’m sure you’ve all seen [what I did to the E-M1 in the shower]. The final, largest ace is the lens system: not only is the M4/3 lens system arguably the most mature mirrorless system with the greatest diversity of options – the lenses were all designed specifically for digital from the ground up. Even the kit lenses are pretty good, and the excellent glass – like the [60/2.8 and 75/1.8] is really special by any standards. This one is a tough choice, to be honest. I think it’s like doing a present value calculation and trying to figure out a discount rate: do you want images now, or later, and how’s your nerve (or how shaky are your hands)?
Vs Sigma DP Merrills: Now, this is an interesting question: from previous tests, we’ve determined that the D800’s sensor and a good lens will match or slightly outresolve the DPMs. However, there are only three focal lengths – 28, 45 and 75mm. The A7R’s native primes split the difference with 35 and 55mm. High ISO is unquestionably better with the A7R, you get a viewfinder and much better ergonomics, and on top of that, there’s more depth of field control, but if you need to stop down – the Sigmas handle small apertures better with later onset of diffraction. Both have poor battery life. An individual choice, I think.
Vs Sony A7: Perhaps the A7R’s biggest competition is going to be its sibling. I haven’t said much about the A7, because I think the two cameras are aimed at very different markets. The A7 has a much more forgiving sensor and shutter mechanism; it will tolerate lower quality lenses, adaptors etc and not show as much compromise at the pixel level due to its lower resolution. It will focus faster due to PDAF. The files will be easier to handle, etc. I suppose the answer boils down to your end intentions for the files: are you chasing ultimate image quality for very large prints or not? If the answer is no, then the A7 will probably be a better choice; you’ll save money for glass, and won’t feel frustrated if your files aren’t perfect. On the other hand, if you do print…you probably wouldn’t even be asking.
You’ll notice a theme here: it really comes down to the lenses. This puts me in a bit of a dilemma: I don’t know whether to go out and buy one, or stick to my D800Es. Let me explain why: on one hand, the A7R unquestionably raises the bar when it comes to the quality/ portability equation; yet it has an extremely limited shooting envelope because of its demands on stability/ shutter speed, and very limited native lenses – just 35mm and 55mm so far – that can make the most of that potential. Perhaps the most telling question would be whether I missed the D800E/ Otus combination when using the A7R/55; the honest answer is not at the time, but yes when looking at the files afterwards. The irony of course was that I was also carrying the D800E and Otus for much of the testing to determine the answer to just that question.
One assumes that systems generally grow and thus populate their lens lineups with time, but the problem is that we haven’t really seen this happen with the NEX system; frankly I’m a bit concerned that the lenses I want won’t ever exist, or will come so late that there will be a second generation body to go with them. Adapted lenses are hit and miss, for reasons detailed earlier. As ever, the old advice of ‘buy the glass’ makes sense: if 35 and 55 are all you need, then either the A7 or A7R – depending on your printing needs – is probably the camera for you. If not, you might find it an intriguing idea as part of a lightweight system – I could see the aforementioned A7R/ 55 and GR being a good travel pair, for instance. I like the direction Sony are heading in with the A7R: now if only they would hold the course and not get distracted…
Both the A7 and A7R are available from B&H here in various kit or body combinations.
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