My first experience with the Sony A7 and A7r

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas (Shot with Sony A7r)

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera – Austin, Texas (Shot with Sony A7r)

Recently, Precision Camera had a demo day for the Sony A7 and A7r, the new compact full frame mirrorless cameras. Sony went all out and brought an elaborate set where people can test. They also had an interesting yet slightly goofy contest where the best photo from this artificial setup gets to win a cruise to Alaska. It smacks of some hokey idea that some marketing person thought up. I prefer to take the camera out in the real world and shoot what I like. Night street photography on 6th Street anyone?

Just a day before I played with the new Sony, I shot the Fujifilm X100S for 4 days in California. Using these cameras back to back made for an interesting comparison. I opted to use the 35mm f2.8 Zeiss on both the Sony A7 and A7r which matched Fuji’s focal length.

Sony A7
Sony A7 with the 28-70mm kit lens which is considerably larger than the setup with the Zeiss 35mm f2.8 that I used.

So what did I think? I had a distinct meh feeling. Nice body, looks better in person than in the photos. At least it didn’t have that design by committee ugly Nikon Df look. OK, I know I’m digressing here but can you believe that Nikon thing? Let’s take all the digital parts, keep them and slap on the manual film controls. To me it looks like a Franken-camera. It might take spectacular photos and it has the very nice D4 sensor but man does it look perverted. The proportions of that thing are all wrong. It has none of the elegance of the retro inspired Fuji Cameras.

Anyway, back to the Sony. The first niggle. The shutter is too damn loud. The A7r is louder with a clunk – clunk sound. I asked the Sony guy if the camera was working properly — I thought it was broken. The A7 is a bit quieter. This certainly ain’t the Olympus E-M5 or the E-M1 which has an absolutely wonderful shutter sound — my favorites to date. The Fuji X100S shutter is perfectly silent. Fantastic for street photography. Yes, but the Sony is full frame, it should be louder, you say. Well my Canon 6D, which is a traditional DSLR with a flipping mirror has a quieter and more pleasant-sounding shutter.

The A7r had a nice body. The ergonomics seemed good. The A7 has the same design except that a portion of the camera is made of plastic. Too bad. I prefer the A7 but the plastic build was disappointing. It wasn’t cheap but it didn’t have the premium feel of the A7r or the Fuji X100S, which is less expensive. Did Sony opt for a plastic body to add more differentiation between the two models? I do like that both bodies are weather sealed.

Happily Sony has ditched the less desirable NEX interface and gone Alpha. Much better and understandable. There are 3 adjustable dials on the camera plus a dedicated exposure compensation dial. The dials and function buttons are configurable. It should make for a very nice shooter’s camera.

One thing I know I can’t reprogram is the play back settings (I asked the Sony rep about this). All 3 dials do the same thing, they take you from picture to picture in preview mode. How dumb is that? There is one small button that you need to press multiple times to zoom in to check focus. I would think it’s natural to use at least one of the dials and spin it to allow you to zoom in quickly. On the Fuji X100S, for example, one button press and it automatically zooms to 100% at the focus point. Much better. I sometimes wonder if Sony gets real photographers to test these things before they go into production.

I shot all photos in JPEG — the camera is too new for a RAW converter. The details are beautiful, better than any camera I’ve used (They are equivalent to the Nikon D800 and D610 full frame cameras). Accurate focus is critical since the high-resolution files are less forgiving. Too bad it’s a pain to check focus.

Update: A reader who bought an A7 reports that there is a way to configure the dial zoom in to preview images. See in the comments section below. My original comment was based on what the Sony rep told me and by trying to look through preferences.

You know I’ve been critical of Sony’s colors. My beef with the Sony NEX 5 was the skin tones, especially of my kids. They seems too green for my taste. That’s one of the main reasons I switched to Olympus, by the way. I know Sony has been improving/changing their colors since that first NEX cameras several years ago. So how did the A7r do? You be the judge. The image at the top was shot on the A7r. The one below was shot with my Fuji XF1 point and shoot.

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas (Shot with Fuji XF1)

Sony A7 Set, Precision Camera – Austin, Texas (Shot with Fuji XF1)

I took both photos with auto white balance. To my eyes, the Fuji is a bit more red which give more of a pinkish skin tone. The Sony still looks a bit more blue-green to me. I’m not saying that the Fuji is more accurate but I do prefer Fuji’s color. The colors can certainly be tweaked in post so ultimately it might not be a big issue. Except, at least on my NEX 5, even shot in RAW, I found it a pain to get the colors the way I liked them. I’m hoping this is not the case with the A7.

Here is a comparison between the Canon 5D Mark III, A Leica M and a Sony A7 by Ken Rockwell. Looks like Ken didn’t get very good colors from his Sony either.

I also find that the Sonys tend to underexpose more than I like. In the shot above, I added +2/3 of a stop of exposure compensation. The Fuji was shot straight with no exposure changes.

From what I see on the web, high ISO performance should be excellent. How would it compare against the X100S for my favorite low light urban photography? The X100S does clean files to ISO 6400. Since the X100S lens is one stop faster, the Sony would have to do an equally clean ISO 12,800 to keep up. The jury is still out on this one. Is the Sony full frame sensor good enough at ISO 12,800?

Here’s the crazy thing. When I was skimming through the photos in Aperture 3 at full screen (not 100%) on my 27″ monitor, I had to do a double take to tell the difference between the Sony A7r and my Fujifilm XF1. I noticed Sony’s shallower DOF but I didn’t see the difference in the details. What stood out more was the differences in color. Sure, zoom in and in particular at 100%, the Sony absolutely demolishes the XF1. No question. But unless you plan to print really large or love pixel peeping, that wonderful 24MP or 36MP sensor may not mean as much as you think. Under tougher lighting conditions, the Sony is also going to excel. But the web is a big equalizer especially under more favorable lighting conditions.

In many ways, this little nature demo setup was unfortunate. The bright LED lighting is not going to challenge cameras. You’re not going to test the dynamic range for example. How about some vivid colors to show off the color bit depth? Dark cave like areas to test the great low light capability? Look, I know this Sony is capable of spectacular results. Of course I know that a point and shoot is not going to have better image quality. But you need the proper environment to put the camera through its paces.

These Sonys are getting a lot of buzz on the net. Particularly from people who want to use their legacy lenses, like the really nice Leica ones. They also drool at the prospect of a highly rated (by DXO) 36MP sensor. No doubt these Sonys will make excellent compact landscape cameras. They would be fun to play with despite my quibbles. And I do admit, I am intrigued by its large color depths and dynamic range. But what if you don’t have lenses from other companies to use? It’ll be a while until Sony builds up an arsenal of full frame E mount lens. Perhaps I’ll be more interested if I didn’t already own my full frame Canon 6D?

So there you have it. My very quick impression of Sony’s flagship mirrorless cameras. They seem like very solid cameras with beautifully detailed files. They felt good in hand but was a bit too large for me — I prefer smaller mirrorless cameras. I’ll stick with the Olympus and possibly look at the Fuji for mirrorless. The Sony A7 is double the price of the X100S but in my book, it’s not double as good.

Fuji XF1 Flash Portrait, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas

By the way, here is another image I shot with the Fuji XF1 point and shoot. I used the built in flash and did the automatic ambient light flash blending that I love on the Fuji. Not bad at all for a point and shoot, which you can get for a bargain price of $200, less than 10% the cost of the Sony. Yeah, I know but if you pixel peep at 100%, it ain’t going to be as good. But do you even print your photographs? If so, how large? Unless you print large or want to crop a lot, all those extra megapixels are just sucking up hard drive space.

One more bonus image, my favorite of the day. It shot it again with the Fuji when the Sony set was being taken down for its road trip to the next camera store. The guy on the left is Jerry Sullivan, the owner of Precision Camera. He was lending a helping hand when a particularly stubborn set piece would not get unstuck.

Fuji XF1 Flash Portrait, Precision Camera - Austin, Texas

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21 thoughts on “My first experience with the Sony A7 and A7r

  1. I’m a Em5 and Em1 user. I noticed that the Sony 7 plus their upcoming 24-70 Zeiss F4 weights the same (about 31 ounces) as the E-M1 plus 12-40 F2.8. The Oly combo has one stop better light collecting ability when wide open, while the the Sony has one stop shallower depth of field.

    1. Yup, if you don’t need full frame, the E-M1 is going to outperform the Sony in many different areas. The Sony will ultimately have better image quality especially at really high ISOs.

      1. True, but I’m thinking for landscapes I’d be shooting a Sony 7 at F16 and the Oly at F8 for equiv. DOF. That gives the Oly two stops more light. Then with F2.8 on an oly zoom and F4 on the new sony Zeiss FE zoom, that gives the Oly another stop of light…. and therefore the ability to maintain it’s base 200 ISO while the Sony 7 will need to nudge up the ISOs. That should mitigate some of the larger sensor advantage but not all of it… regardless, I’ll be watching the Sony seriously as it develops.

      2. Yes, that’s true.

        And the equation changes if one does landscape photography on tripod. If you are planning to print really big, the 36MP sensor will help. It will depend a lot on the intended destination.

    2. I prefer the A7 rather than the E-M1, with the 24-70 F4 you can easily replace the Olympus primes 12mm f2 + 17mm f1.8 + 45mm f1.8 🙂

  2. So far, in interchangeable lenses, I haven’t seen anything that tempts me away from Olympus. Since adding the Panny 20 to my setup, I’m having fun in shooting situations where previous lenses couldn’t cut it. Between the Panny 20 — plus the PM2, I’m pretty well set for awhile. I want another camera, but I don’t really NEED one. But if someone were to GIVE me one … well … I wouldn’t refuse!

  3. I’m guessing a lot of this is mostly due to your limited time and limited situation (which in fairness you complained about). A camera as powerfully complex as this requires some time to dig into, try all the options, get used to the controls, learn how to utilize what it does well and what it doesn’t and being 24MP FF it’s not very forgiving (especially the a7R at 36 MP). For example you talked about the zooming in playback only only being done with one button you have to press and liking the Fuji which has a button that auto zooms to 100%… not sure if this is simply different in the shipped models but got my a7 yesterday and in playback the back dial zooms in and out exactly like you want and the c2 button in the back does a quick zoom into something like 100% (not sure if it’s exactly that off the top of my head but a pretty big jump).

    1. Absolutely. There is no reason why this camera won’t take spectacular photos and all cameras need time to get to know it.

      That’s great news if I can check focus and use the dials. I took the Sony guy at his word about this setting. I’m happy that there must be some customizable way to do this.

      Congratulations on your new camera. Let me know how you are getting along with it.

  4. I tend to pretty much agree with everything you are saying, and actually came to the same conclusion as you.
    For me the only reason to own a full frame mirrorless camera like the A7(r) is to use it with a collection of old lenses (if you have them).
    I have the A7, and sure it’s not bad with my old Olympus, Minolta and Leica lenses. Those colours are not bad, but still questionable.
    It’s a shame the A7(r) doesn’t have a built in raw converter like the Fuji bodies.
    Can’t really beat Fuji colours.
    If you haven’t got a collection of old lenses, and only want native AF lenses for a system, Fuji-X with the APS-C sensor size is more than enough (lenses are smaller too).

    I’ll keep my A7 for use with old lenses (until Fuji or Olympus bring out a full frame mirrorless body).

    1. Robert, thank you for your visit and comment. Yeah, the ability to use legacy lenses is one of the key features of the A7. It will need to be a long term commitment for Sony to come out with enough E mount lens to make it a completely viable and competitive native system.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I currently own an Olympus E-PL5 with the 17mm f/1.8 and the 45mm f/1.8 lenses. I’m tempted by the Sony A7r. I like making black and white photographs (mostly street, reportage and portraits). I have never printed anything from a 16mp micro four thirds sensor. Do you (or anybody else) know what is the largest print size for this kind of sensor? I don’t need perfect details when looking close at a print, but it shouldn’t fall apart either. There is a possibility that I don’t even need a Sony A7r at all if the files from micro four thirds print large enough.

    1. I’ve personally printed up to 13×19 with no problems and it can certainly go larger? How large do you want to print?

      Print size also depends on how close you’re going to be to the print. For example, it would be easy to print bill board size prints too but bill boards are usually viewed from far away, so there is no problem.

      Perhaps you might try to print some of your favorites from the E-PL5 first to see if you like that before considering buying a A7r.

      Also the A7r is not a fast focusing camera. It is not a good choice for street and reportage photography.

  6. I don’t really understand this review or many comments here which seem like protecting their own equipment.
    The Sony sensor blows away the other cameras mentioned here
    Apart from lens selection and AF speed on the E-M1 there is no massive argument for buying anything as expensive from other manufacturers
    BTW the Sony A7 AF is very fast and extremely accurate. People are jumping to all sorts of “comforting conclusions vis-a-vis their own equipment”.

    1. James, while the sensor is certainly important, there are a lot more to cameras than the sensor. There is the user interface, the available lenses and personal factors such as how it feels in hand.

      No doubt the A7 and A7r are ground breaking cameras. And your subject matter is going to be a major factor. Are these cameras great for landscapes? Probably. Are these cameras great for street photography? Less so. Are these cameras great for sports? Definitely not.

  7. I have been using the A7 for a month and love the look and feel of the camera. I even photographed a portion of a wedding with it. Very cool,but, the Auto White balance indoors is horrible! Can anyone share any work arounds or fixes. And yes I agree with the comments above, why isn’t sony road testing these cameras with photographers first?

    1. Steven, I would suggest shoot in RAW and post process. There are tools such as the color checker passport that help you find the best and most accurate color. If you are shooting in JPEG, you can do a custom white balance in each location but that tends to get old pretty quickly if you move around a lot and the light levels and colors are constantly changing.

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