I’m trying something new. If it works out, I’ll do more.
I’ve been talking to my friends at Precision Camera. They had some kind words to say about my blog and my camera reviews and we hit upon an idea. What if I borrow a camera overnight and do a quick review? From the time they close on Saturday till they reopen Sunday afternoon, there’s about 18 hours. I can see how the equipment performs and I can review it though my own unique perspective.
Understand that 18 hours is not very long. Some of my more extensive reviews take a week or more of shooting and a considerable time putting my thoughts together. These “18 Hours with” reviews will be different. I’m not going to test every feature, just stuff that interests me. As you know, I like urban environments, typically at night. So that’s my lens in which I see the world.
I suspect coverage will skew towards mirrorless, the interchangeable lens variety as well as high-end point and shoots — you know that my interest in DSLRs have waned. The good news is that I’ve used a lot of mirrorless cameras so I’m pretty quick at sizing them up. I know what I like and how it compares to the others. I take real photos, not test shots, for my reviews and judge cameras by how they work in the real world.
Why I picked it
The Sony A7 along with the A7r are the first full frame mirrorless cameras (I’m not including the Leica digital rangefinders). They made quite the splash when they came out late last year. I went to a Sony in store demo but the setup didn’t adequately test its capability. How good are the cameras in the real world, at night down on 6th street? I wanted to find out.
The ROT Biker Rally was in town and was perfect for testing the A7. I opted for the less expensive A7 instead of the A7r since the former is known to focus faster and it’s better in low light. The night before, I was busy shooting the ROT Rally with my Fujifilm X100S. It was Saturday night and it was time to see how the Sony A7 would do. Just for fun, I brought two other cameras — the Fuji X100S and my Canon 6D with the 35mm f2. The A7 sported the Sony Zeiss 35mm f2.8. Thus all 3 cameras have 35mm equivalent prime lenses, perfect for some low light street shooting.
The Design and Build
The A7 is amazingly compact for a full frame digital camera — noticeably smaller than my Canon 6D, which is one of the smallest full frame DSLRs. It about the size of an entry-level DSLR but with a much thinner body. It’s a tad larger than smaller mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX line (or the new Sony Alpha a6000) but about the same size as the Olympus OM-D E-M1.
Sony continues with its tradition of creating cameras with modern designs. No nostalgic throwbacks. However with a pronounced EVF hump, it echoes the traditional DSLR shape, albeit one with sharp angles rather than the soft molded look of modern DSLRs. It’s an attractive design with a beefy grip when paired with the smaller 35mm prime lens. It’s a nice size that worked well for me even though it’s larger than my typical mirrorless cameras.
The downside of full frame however, are the larger lenses. While the 35mm f2.8 prime lens is diminutive, attach the 28-70mm zoom and equation changes dramatically. And the larger the lens, the more I worry about the grip size. A grip that is beefy for a 35mm prime, suddenly seems lacking as the lens size grows.
The A7’s body feels like it’s mostly covered in plastic. While adequate and the body had enough heft, it doesn’t feel premium. It doesn’t seem cheap by any means, but somehow I get the feeling that Sony try to reduce costs to get it within a certain price point. That said, at $1500, Sony did an amazing job. It’s the least expensive full frame digital camera. Is the build quality a deal killer? Absolutely not. It’s just that it doesn’t delight me like some other cameras do. The Fuji X100S with its metal body, for example, just feels more substantial in hand.
What makes the Sony particularly enjoyable is the flip up rear screen. Many cameras have them these days but none of my actively used cameras do. My Sony NEX-5 is on display, gathering dust for the most part, also has a flip-up screen and I miss it. Combined with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) for bright day time shooting, the Sony A7 is easy to use in any light.
The Sony EVF is bright and works properly unlike my Fuji X100S which gets dim in bright light. I have to admit that the crystal clear optical view finder on the 6D still looks better in daylight. Once it gets dark, however, the EVFs rule. Optical gets too dim and its day time advantage is lost.
If all you’ve used is the Sony A7, the button placement and controls seem reasonable. There is a separate exposure compensation dial and the main dials make it easy to change the necessary exposure settings. But when compared to the 6D and X100S, I find some of the controls frustrating. To be sure, if I used the Sony longer, I would be better acquainted, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Sony seems like it was designed more by engineers rather than photographers.
Here is an example. On the Fuji X100S, I hit one button to zoom to 100% view. Hit is again it goes back to the normal preview. At 100%, I can use the 4 way job shuttle to quickly look check focus on the entire image. On the Sony I hit Fn2 button to zoom in, if I hit the button again, I continue to zoom in. I need to hit a different button to go back to the normal preview. The Fn2 button is placed in an awkward position and there’s more button pushes required compared to the Fuji.
The onscreen menus use the Sony Alpha DSLR layout, which is wonderful. The old NEX interface was a mess and I’m glad Sony moved away from it. The on-screen display still seems busier than I like with lots of cluttering icons but luckily I can remove all but the most important exposure settings.
Overall though, the camera is usable and easy to understand. Being mirrorless, I get the option to use the EVF or tilting rear screen which makes shooting so much more fluid and fun compared to the traditional DSLRs like the Canon 6D.
Image quality, as expected, is excellent. The 24MP sensor and the Zeiss lens gives sharp results. Viewed at 100%, there is certainly more detail from the A7 compared to the Canon 6D or Fujifilm X100S. No surprise there, the Sony has the highest resolution sensor out of the 3 cameras. Shot at night and at high ISO, however, Sony’s advantage diminishes. The increased noise and or JPEG processing really negates the resolution advantage.
I shot the Sony in RAW + JPEG so that I can compare both. Initially, there didn’t seem to be a huge difference between the two. As expected the RAW had slightly subtle colors and smoother transitions but with more noise. The A7 does a very good job in retaining detail and sharpness in JPEGs while cleaning up the noise at high ISOs. I feel comfortable using both depending on the circumstance. But then, I noticed that for certain photos, RAW made a big difference. The example below is especially egregious and needed saving via the RAW file. For some reason, the color and exposure of this group portrait was really out of whack, one of the rare misses. The photos on the left are the originals and the post-processed, on the right. Notice how much better the RAW processing is over JPEG.
But it isn’t consistent. Sometimes, I prefer the A7 JPEG over the RAW. Contrast this with the Canon 6D where I aways shoot RAW. If found that the Canon JPEG processing is weak and I can easily get better looking photographs by processing RAW files. It’s the opposite with the Fuji X100S. Its JPEG processing is very sophisticated and I opt to use JPEGs over the RAWs.
I’ve been critical in the past about Sony’s colors. My first mirrorless camera was the Sony NEX-5 and ultimately I moved away from it, towards the Olympus, because of how the NEX rendered skin tones. I found that the colors tended more towards a bluish-green which, even shot in RAW, I found hard to correct. No such issues with the A7. Color was generally good and roughly in line with the other cameras. Any colors I didn’t like, I was able to change by post processing either the RAW or JPEG files.
Exposure on the A7 for JPEG was very good, probably the best out of my 3 cameras. But then I noticed the RAWs were noticeably underexposed. The in-camera JPEG processing considerably brightened the shadows. So the way I shoot might change depending on whether I plan to shoot JPEG or RAW. Most of my photos had zero exposure compensation and when adjusting it was generally 1/3 stop up or down. The Canon 6D was the most inconsistent and exposure metering was something I aways had to keep in mind.
Canon still wins the high ISO contest with decent photos to ISO 12,800. I shoot the Fuji up to ISO 6400. The Sony was somewhere in between. But with the Canon and Fuji, I have F2 lenses, a full stop faster than Sony. Thus the reality is that the Fuji really can complete with the full frame Sony in low light.
Image quality is a tricky thing because there are so many factors. This is where shooting a long time with a given camera really helps. You instinctively get to know the type of conditions and settings which yields the best results. It took me many months to really optimize my X100S image quality and I’m sure that will only get better with time. This is were a 18 hour test has its limitations. If I owned the Sony A7 and used it consistently over many months, its image quality will also improve. That said, I have to admit that the Sony image quality didn’t really WOW me. To be sure the photos looks solid but somehow they seemed flat to me. It’s not something that I can explain empirically, more of a feeling that I get looking at the photos.
I’ll talk more about image quality in a separate, upcoming post. I’ll have examples from the same scene, from each camera.
I usually shoot Shutter Priority these days. I typically set Auto ISO and cap it at an acceptable maximum value — 12,800 for the A7. I would then change the shutter speed depending on the subject. I may shoot a stationary subject at 1/30 of a second, a portrait at 1/60 of a second and street photographs at 1/125 to 1/160 of a second. Why? Well, if the camera is smart enough, at slower shutter speeds, the camera uses lower ISO values which increases image quality. Thus I indirectly control ISO via the shutter speed. I also use exposure compensation if I need to tweak the exposure.
This method works great for most of my cameras including the Olympus, Fujifilm and Canon. These cameras are smart enough to increase the aperture when it gets darker before increasing the ISO. Not so with the Sony A7. Even though I have a f2.8 lens, the A7 insists on keeping the aperture at f4 and continues to increase ISO. This is dumb. The A7 treats the fast prime like a kit zoom.
Aperture Priority on the camera does some funky things too. I had a case where I set the aperture to f2.8 in a dark bar and the camera insisted on keeping a 1/160 of a second shutter speed even at ISO 12,800. I think a 1/80s or 1/60s shutter speed would make more sense while dropping the ISO to a more reasonable 6400 or 5000.
The only way to ensure optimized Auto ISO values was to shoot in Manual were I set the Aperture and Shutter values. The downside with this approach was that exposure compensation no longer worked. So there was no easy way to change exposure, if I needed to. Because I was set to Auto ISO, whenever I change the aperture or shutter, the exposure remained the same and the ISO value changed instead.
The focusing was fast and enjoyable both during the day time and night. No complaints. I really didn’t see my Canon 6D do any better. So for the most part, for non-sport events, mirrorless is on par with the traditional DSLR. Certainly, the A7 is faster than the X100S, which is one of my grips about the leisurely focusing Fuji.
I made a mistake though. I had the A7 on multi-point focusing and I really should have picked single point — I usually use the center. But the multipoint worked so fast and it seemed like it was doing the right thing. Upon closer inspection, there were some issues.
Full frame, even with a 35mm lens (especially at f2.8), requires precision focusing. When I shot a portrait, for example, the multipoint focused on the person but not the face. So While the body was in sharp focus, the face was a tad soft. Even when shooting a street scene from a distance, picking a specific point would have been advantageous. When shooting further away, the A7 multipoint focus switches to an area focus, which I found deceptive. While his may work for large depth of field point and shoots, for a full frame camera, you might end up focusing on the unintended.
The Sony A7 got some flack about a loud shutter sound. Though not nearly as bad as the higher-end A7r, the A7 is nevertheless louder than expected. Outside, on a noisy 6th Street, no problem. Shoot in a quiet place and the shutter click gets distracting or attracts attention. The Canon 6D’s shutter is more muffled and pleasing instead of Sony’s sharper clack. The Fuji X100S is dead quiet and is much preferred by me these days.
1. Compact size for a full frame mirrorless camera
2. Lowest priced full frame camera (as of mid 2014)
3. Great image quality
4. Very strong low-light, high ISO performance
5. Fast focusing for everyday usage
6. EVF and tilting rear screen give many composing options
7. Compatibility with A mount lenses with adapter
1. Dumb exposure settings behavior
2. Plastic body does not give a premium feel
3. Small number of full frame E-Mount lens
4. High ISO performance does not match Canon’s full frame
5. Loud shutter sound
For most people contemplating a full frame camera, I’ll recommend the A7. Have a bunch of Canon or Nikon lenses, the decision gets harder. If all you have are a few kit lenses or lenses compatible only with the crop sensors, then I wouldn’t worry about your glass collection. Get the Sony. The mirrorless cameras are smaller and more fun than the traditional DSLRs. They work just as well as DSLRs, for the most part and they do better autofocusing video.
That said, the Sony A7 is not a sports camera. If you want an full frame action camera, DSLRs still rule. Canon and Nikon have more lenses and more top end performance — there are still tangible reasons for owning and using a DSLR.
I still wonder about Sony’s commitment to lenses though. Sony’s working hard, creating interesting and unique cameras, which get a lot of attention. Sony needs the buzz, to complete with the entrenched big guys, Canon and Nikon. But they still have not broken through and established a camera identity.
They were making excellent progress on mirrorless APS-C cameras such as the NEX 6 and 7 but now with the addition of full frame, what’s their commitment to the smaller sensors? Sony still does not have a full line of lenses for mirrorless and they are lacking especially in larger aperture primes.
Contrast that with Fujifilm, who within a few years, have built out a highly regarded set of lenses for the X line. They appear to be committed to APS-C and have not split their attention by trying to come out with different products in an apparent shot-gun approach. They have wisely concentrated on building up a complete solution.
As for Sony, only time will tell.
I have enough high quality Canon lenses that it made sense to go to with a Canon full frame DSLR. But what if I didn’t have those lenses or decided to start fresh? The A7 would be a possibility and if I had it, I wouldn’t need the Fuji X100S.
But the bigger question is whether I need to go to full frame at all. Full frame gives me two things. High ISO performance and shallow depth of field. For the type of shooting I’m doing now, shallow DOF is less of a concern. And while the Sony A7’s high ISO performance is good, it’s not much better than the Fuji with a f2 lens.
Given my current gear though, it’s clear that the Sony A7 has not impressed me enough for me to want it. Ultimately, it doesn’t do any more than what my Fuji X100S will do (I am not interested in zoom lenses). The Canon 6D, while not as enjoyable, still takes superior photographs and there is a much larger lens selection.
My conclusion. The Sony A7 is a fine camera, but not a game changer for me.
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