The full-frame camera has been synonymous with the most high-end DSLRs -- the biggest, the priciest. Not anymore. A new breed of camera that's light on its feet but packs the best image quality outside of pro-grade gear is here, and it starts with Sony's new A7 series.
What Is It?
A mirrorless camera with a full-frame 35mm sensor, in a body that is much smaller than a DSLR and takes Sony E-mount lenses. Actually, it's a pair of cameras. The A7 is $1999 in Australia (body only, $2199 with kit lens) and has a 24-megapixel sensor, while the A7r is $2499 in Australia (only available body only) and has a 36-megapixel sensor. There are a few other small differences as well that we'll address later.
Why Does It Matter?
These are the first full-frame mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. Full-frame means that images are better in low light, have a wide field of view, and deliver top-notch quality. Bringing these sensors into camera bodies that are smaller and lighter means giving street, travel, and documentary shooters more options for finding the perfect tool -- one that doesn't hurt your arm.
Technically, Leica was first out the gate with its M9, but that was over $7000 at launch and not meant for broad adoption. The A7 and A7r are more accessible in every conceivable way.
The A7 and A7r share the same smooth, angular body, frankensteined together from previous Sony cameras. It has the grip of a NEX-6, the controls of a RX1, with an electronic viewfinder glued to the top. The magnesium-alloy body is weather-sealed and feels solid and comfortable to hold due to the nicely curved and textured grip.
There are plenty of controls, including four rotating wheels -- one for exposure compensation, two for aperture and shutter-speed, and one on the back for ISO. For accessing additional features there are three customisable function buttons.
Overall, Sony did a great job remaining consistent with previous cameras. If you have used an NEX or RX series, you will feel right at home. Some will find the geometric style unappealing, but it has an understated beauty, and doesn't conform to the current mania for retro-styled rigs.
A7r with Sony 55mm f/1.8 -- 1/125, f/5.0, ISO 100
A7 with Sony 35mm f/2.8 -- 1/640, f/4.0, ISO 3200
Ergonomics are incredibly important on a camera, because your hands do all of the work. On the A7/A7r, many of the controls miss the mark just barely. They just don't quite meet the natural resting places of your fingers. The last camera I used was the Olympus OM-D E-M1, where the dials seem designed exactly for fingertips, where as Sony's seem designed for elegance. For example, the shutter would have been better located inside the aperture dial, as opposed to sitting on a whole other piece of the casing. It's a minor quibble though, and obviously your mileage may vary depending on hand size and personal preference.
As you power on the A7/Q7r you can choose to either shoot through the 3-inch tilting LCD or the 2.4 million dot OLED viewfinder. Viewfinders are incredibly important for photographers, and many manufacturers have been slow to adopt electronic versions over the optical mechanisms of DSLRs. With cameras like the A7/A7r (along with the Olympus OM-D EM-1 and Panasonic GX-7), EVFs might actually be preferable. The image is crisp and responsive. For my money, the ability to monitor exposure, utilise image overlays, and have access to manual focus tools like peaking and magnification are way more beneficial than the slightly bigger and clearer optical viewfinders of DSLRs.
I would describe both cameras as moderately responsive. The camera starts up moderately quickly; around 2 seconds for both models. I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, but one factor that certainly creates the perception of it is the extremely loud shutter noise that accompanies both cameras. It's particularly noticeable on the A7r. Don't even try to stealthily sneak a shot of someone -- unless you're trying to get rid of their hiccups. Yeah, it's that loud.
Every new camera takes some getting used to, and part of that process is being able to customise its functions to your liking. Sony doesn't disappoint on this front. Most of the buttons are customisable to allow for any control scheme you want. The default layout isn't the best, with multiple steps required to access key functions like focus point selection, so thank god it can be changed. Sony has also thankfully dropped the terrible NEX menu system in favour of a clear and intuitive layout, akin to the RX1. As far as software features, the standard fare is abounds: Wi-Fi, panorama mode, HDR. You won't find yourself wanting for options.
Let's talk about autofocus. It's not the best in the world. For all the joys of a full-frame sensor, it is more difficult to engineer snappy auto-focus with such large surface area than it is on smaller guys like micro four-thirds sensors, famous for their fast focusing. That said, it's not all that bad. In good light you will not have any problems, and in darker conditions you might see a bit of hunting. The A7 is slightly better in this regard because it has on-sensor phase detection which helps out particularly in the dark. The difference, though, was nothing major to my eyes.
**all our images were shot RAW and converted to JPG**
A7 with Sony 35mm f/2.8 -- 1/320, f/5.0, ISO 200
A7 with Sony 55mm f/1.8 -- 1/500, f/4.5, ISO 100
A7 with Sony 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS -- 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
At long last, the pictures. Yes, they are terrific. Really, you won't find much better image-taking capability in terms of quality on a full-frame camera. Low-light? It's a barnburner. Dynamic range? Impressive.
It's easy to be seduced by the A7r's extra megapixels, but when you compare images from the two at full size, 36 megapixels isn't that much bigger in size than 24. Also, very, very few people actually have any use for 36 megapixels. When we took identical pics with both cams, then resized the A7r version to match the A7's resolution, the A7r was ever-so-slightly sharper. This is due to another difference between the two -- the A7r lacks an AA filter in front of the sensor. That means a hair more detail, but in any practical situation you'd never notice the difference.
A7 with Sony 35mm f/2.8 -- 1/400, f/6.3, ISO 100
A7r with Sony 35mm f/2.8 -- 1/400, f/6.3, ISO 100
If you really pixel-peep with the Nikon D800E or other heavy hitter, you may be able to make some claim about image superiority, but that level of minutia isn't worth tracking for nearly everybody. Better to focus on how well the camera allows you take the kinds of pictures you like taking. That's what a small camera like this can do. Unless you're in a studio, you just don't want to be carrying around boulders of glass and metal over your shoulder. Just the thought of lugging a D800 and three lenses around all day is painful.
Unfortunately, as with previous Sony mirrorless cameras, video quality remains mediocre. You can get decent results in terms of sharpness, but moire and aliasing run rampant when shooting fine detail. At least with the full-frame sensor the video does really well at high ISOs. Only the kit lens has stabilisation, which will limit your ability to shoot smooth hand-held footage with other glass. In comparing the A7 and A7r, we found them to be near identical, with a slight edge going to the A7r in resolving detail. In the end, the cameras are totally useable for shooting video, and are aided by a headphone jack, microphone input, and clean HDMI out. They're just not ideal.
A7 with Sony FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS
A7 with Voigtlander Nokton 40mm 1.4 and Leica Summacron 90mm f.2
Speaking of glass, a camera is only as good as the lens you put on it, and in this case your options are sorely limited. Sony's lens ecosystem is in its infant stage. Sure, the mount is the E-mount, the same one on all of those NEX models. But the lenses themselves require a different architecture than those made for NEX cameras with their smaller sensors. Lenses compatible with the A7/A7r are called FE. Right now, there are only three -- yes, three -- FE lenses out there, and one of them will not even be available for a couple of months. The lineup consists of a 35mm f/2.8, 55mm f/1.8, and 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6. That's two primes, one of them not that fast, the other (the 55mm f/1.8) not yet in stock , and a kit lens which has the quality of, well, a kit lens. Sony has announced a high quality 24-70mm f/4 and a giant 70-200mm f/4 for early 2014, but they will probably be very expensive, and an f/4 aperture is not exactly an inspiring spec.
You can use regular old E-mount lenses, the ones used on all the NEX models, but you will see a cropped image with the same field of view as an NEX. Kind of defeats the purpose of the A7 to begin with.
The saving grace in the lens department is actually a key aspect of the A7/A7r, and that is the ability to use legacy lenses (with mount adapters) from manufacturers like Canon, Leica, Voigtlander, Nikon, and many more. This is possible with other mirrorless cameras, but the A7 is the first full-frame body to accept such a wide variety. Most of these will require manual focusing, but with aids like magnification and peaking, it's really not that hard. Not every lens will perform perfectly -- especially super wide-angle ones -- but most seem to accommodate admirably. With the plethora of moderately priced, high-quality lenses available second-hand, the possibilities are endless.
One last complaint goes to battery life. It's poor. I would say it's around half of what you would get on an NEX or micro four-thirds body. It's nice that you can use the same batteries from NEX cams, but they just wear down too fast with these upgraded guts. Definitely buy extras, or look into the battery grip accessory for extended life.
Overall, I had roughly the same experience shooting with either camera. Nothing jumped out that made one better or more fun to use than the other. The big thing to keep in mind with the A7r is that the 36 megapixel sensor is less forgiving to camera shake and focus. You need to shoot at higher shutter speeds and really make sure you nail the focus so that those images are tack sharp when viewing them full size.
High ISO comparison -- cropped to actual pixel size
These produce the best quality images you are likely to achieve on a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera -- period. There is no lack of controls and options for seasoned shooters who want things their way. Components, like the EVF, are well-built and a joy to use. Having the door opened to the wide world of full-frame manual-focus lenses, many of which are cheap and high quality, adds tons of value to the system.
You only have a few Sony FE lenses to choose from at launch, and there are significant challenges in manufacturing fast lenses that aren't huge. Some of the ergonomics are a bit off, and you might find the design awkward. Autofocus is not as good as it needs to be (on either camera, but more so on the A7r) to compete with DSLRs, especially action shooting. These things suck batteries dry mighty fast.
Should You Buy It?
If you're a photo junky who values a low-profile, compact setup, you should run to get this camera. Your only other options for compact full-frame bodies are the Leica M, which is an unworldly $8000, or the Sony RX1, which is great but has a fixed lens. Sure there are trade-offs with the A7 series like poor lens selection and battery life, but those problems just fade away as you bask in the glory of the full-frame system.
If you are a pro who shoots sports or a studio photographer, you're probably better off with a DSLR. The ol' clunkers still rule in focus tracking, and burst speed. The other companies offering high-end, feature-rich compacts are Panasonic and Olympus with their micro four-thirds sensor bodies. The $1599 Olympus OM-D E-M1 is more ergonomic, faster to focus, and offer lots of great compact lenses. But that small sensor with inferior low-light performance and narrow scope will nag at your soul.
Forking over $1999 for the A7 seems like a lot, but it's around the same as the cheapest new full-frame DSLRs like the Canon EOS 6D or Nikon D600. On the other hand, $2499 for the A7r does seem like a huge price bump for more larger images. Please take a good hard look at whether you really want to pay $500 extra for 36 megapixels but lesser performance. If you're shooting for giant wall-sized murals then I suppose it makes sense. Otherwise, we recommend the A7 for almost all shooters.
A7r with Sony 55mm f/1.8 -- 1/1000, f/4.0, ISO 100
A7 with Sony 35mm f/2.8 -- 1/200, f/2.8, ISO 400
A7r with Sony 55mm f/1.8 -- 1/200, f/3.2, ISO 100