So, it’s been a while since I’ve done a review but I decided to do a Sony A7R review. Why? Because I’ve recently bought this little game changer and have a lot of people asking me about it and it’s potential.
Now before I start, as always I want to make a couple of things clear. I am in no way endorsed by Sony despite being a fellow user of their cameras since I started. I am doing this review off my own back to benefit potential future owners. I also don’t claim to be an expert, this is an end user review for other end users, in other words a “real world review”. I also aim to be unbiased as possible, while I have spent my hard earned money buying this camera I wouldn’t want to waste yours so I will be as honest as possible. I also aim to be as none technical as possible and just give you an end user perception. I don’t care much for technical reviews that baffle, I just want to know does it work and how well (That said I feel technical enough myself to appreciate what achievements have been made).
So now that’s out of the way, we can get on with the meat of the review.
I will be writing this review from the eyes of a landscape photographer and will be basing my judgement on that. If you’re looking for an excellent all rounder that does everything then this probably isn’t the camera for you. I have also been using the camera since it was first released at the end of November and have held off the review so I could get a proper feel for the RAW files as for a while they weren’t supported in a final version of Lightroom/Photoshop and two months of testing also gives me a good feel for the camera rather than just a week.
First off, a little background. The Nex line of cameras were first released in 2010 and were if I remember correctly the first compact mirrorless cameras to have APS-C sensors in them making them truly an alternative to DSLR’s if you wanted the same quality in a small package. It took a long time for them to make a dent though, with a lack of lenses and those arguing the lenses were too big the uptake was slow. Over the years though they did gain following especially with the Nex 7. I originally had a Nex 5 but found the lack of viewfinder somewhat off putting and eventually upgraded to the Nex 7. The Nex 7 surprised me though, I intended it to become my back up camera and use it for wild camp’s where I wanted to go light but I soon started to love using it and a DSLR felt backwards ever since. The sensor from the Nex 7 was exactly the same as the camera I was using at the time anyway.
This for me was a revelation and as soon as the Sony A7R was announced I got my pre-order in. I had wanted to go full frame for some time but struggled to justify the cost (easily £5k with a couple of lenses, you get a decent car for that) but this just made sense. Nikon D800E quality in a small body, for around £600 less!
So, first off the technical specifications of the camera:
- 36.4 megapixel full frame Exmor CMOS sensor (newly developed sensor)
- No optical low-pass filter
- XGA OLED Tru-Finder electronic viewfinder
- 3inch tilting screen
- Full HD video, 60p, 25p
- Clean HDMI output
- Fast intelligent AF
- Smart remote control, Wi-Fi and NFC
- Tough magnesium weather sealed body
- ISO 100-25600, expandable to ISO50 and ISO51200
- 4fps continuous shooting
One thing to note is the sensor. A lot of people assume that this is the same sensor found in the D800/D800E but it’s newly developed with pixel pitching on the corners. As Sony make the D800 sensor, it would make sense for them to perform similarly and from professional tests it would seem they do, with the Sony maybe edging it in some regards probably down to sensor improvements over the last couple of years.
Next, I just want to talk about a few things. While the Sony A7R has been generally well received there have been quite a few people commenting on some of the features/designs of it. Here are the things I’ve seen and my thoughts to the right of them:
- Lenses should be smaller/plastic to make it more compact and lighter – The lenses are designed for a full frame sensor, they just aren’t going to get any smaller, you can’t defy physics. Get a micro four/thirds camera if you want smaller lenses. One of the nicest things about E Mount lenses are their metal construction and premium feel for me. They’re not what you’d call heavy or big next to a DSLR lens anyway.
- The batteries should have been bigger – 270 shots isn’t enough for you? Batteries are cheap enough now days, especially respected third party ones. If you really need it, get a battery grip. I’ve shot full sessions without going through a battery.
- No optical viewfinder – Optical viewfinders require a lot of space and would make the camera so much bigger. The EVF is very good and most of the time you can’t tell the difference.
- It won’t be as weather sealed as a D800 or Canon 5D MK3 – The Sony A7R is weather sealed, along with tests showing it having a glass of water chucked over it. Until I see destructive tests showing which camera fair’s better I think this is an unfair hypothetical assumption. I can only assume people are giving size and substance over fact.
- It doesn’t perform as well as a DSLR in terms of speed etc – In some respects this is true if you compare it to the likes of a 5D MK3, but that’s more of an all rounder camera which is some ways is behind the times in terms of sensor etc. The Sony A7R however performs very similarly to the D800. However, I’m looking at this from a landscape photography perspective and as I manual focus and don’t shoot burst modes these don’t really concern me much.
- We want faster lenses – Faster lenses will only add size and weight to the lens.
- No lens line up – It’s a new system, there’s not going to be many until it matures. However Sony have given a promising road map. You can also use just about any lens from any system via an adapter possibly actually giving the system the largest lens selection in the world. You can also use APS-C lenses in crop mode.
- Blurry images with telephoto lenses – This needs more testing but it would seem the shutter in the Sony A7R causes image shake when shooting with a telephoto lens mounted to a tripod. A counter weight circumvents this. However, this needs testing more and I must stress the issue lies only with third party lenses. The Sony FE lens is not out yet and I’m sure it will work fine. If it doesn’t big mistake on Sony’s part but you can’t blame them for not supporting third party options. Also, suggested firmware fixes can also get around the issue so it’s a time will tell kind of thing.
- No charger included – I believe this is a cost saving exercise to lower the price. You will be able to pick one up cheap enough or charge via USB. A good advantage of charging via USB is being able to charge in the car while on the go inbetween shoots.
So really, what I’m trying to say is that this camera is by no means a compact camera. What it is, is a specialised camera that loses a lot of weight and packs really small. It’s really ideal for landscapes if you want to shed weight for those longer hikes. A lot of the features people are asking for would make the camera so much bigger. I think the thing that confuses me most is that for years a lot of people have been asking Sony to put a full frame sensor in a Nex size body and they said time after time it would be very difficult to do, but they’ve done it, performed some of the best engineering in cameras overall and then people still complain.
Just to note also that Sony have dropped the Nex brand in favour of unifying the Alpha brand.
So onto the actual Sony A7R review and first off is the handling.
The camera is small! Initially I expected it to be smaller but in fact when comparing it to the Nex 7 it’s not that much bigger. When you look at that full frame sensor inside the mount you realise what they’re achieved here with no space at the corners of the sensor. Some might even argue that the e-mount may have actually been designed with full frame eventually in mind?
I haven’t got any native full frame lenses for the camera yet, so can’t give an in hand feel with a native lens but with a metabones adapter and Canon 17-40 f/4l it still feels well balanced especially when mounted on a tripod.
With a magnesium alloy body all round, it feels premium as do all the dials. I’ve always liked this about the Nex cameras with metal bodies, they feel expensive compared to the plastics of a DSLR. It’s painted black to give it a sleek look, which while in practice looks great I’ve managed to nick mine somehow already and the silver underneath shows. Now I’ve never had this with the Nex 7, so bad one on your part there Sony. That said it’s only minor and cosmetic so I won’t worry too much.
To the rear there is a 921k dot 3 inch tilting screen, which tilts up and down. This is by now means the most flexible compared to something like the Sony A77, but most full frame cameras come with fixed screens so it’s not too bad. Again, to make it fully articulated would add more size. It is clear and bright and asks what you want of it.
What I really like though is an EVF, somewhat controversially. The EVF is 2.4 million dots, same as the Nex 7 but has been improved somewhat. I loved the EVF in the Nex 7 and A77 but always found it got harder to work with when working in low light. However, I’m pleased to say these shortcomings have been overcome in the Sony A7R and the EVF is really clear even in low light, the full frame sensor will help here as well creating less noise. Initially, I didn’t see too much difference in the day time between the two EVF’s until I did a shoot where I took the Nex 7 with me and seen them side by side at which point the difference becomes clear. A lot of people like a traditional viewfinder for the clarity but I can honestly say the an EVF is just as clear in daylight conditions. The advantage of an EVF is being able to see changes you make instantly, like the effects of a graduated filter, stopping down the aperture etc. It’s sort of like liveview, through the viewfinder. However, I struggle with live view to compose and review images due to size and reflections where as an EVF suddenly becomes a dark box allowing you to view images without distraction. Quite often I try to look at peoples images on their cameras without and EVF through the viewfinder. EVF’s aren’t to everyones taste, but they’ve come a long way and I like them.
Another thing you can do with an evf is create custom features to be shown on screen like spirit level, ISO, histogram etc etc.
The NEX menu systems have been scrapped in favour of the more traditional Alpha menu’s found on Sony’s DSLR’s. A lot of people disliked the NEX menu’s but I can honestly say I never had any issues., But again side by side you can see the logic, there’s much less delving into menu’s to find something and everything is laid out much more logically. I also like the new feature of being able to choose to go old school and only having your camera settings details on the back screen without any overlay.
For me, something Sony have always been good at are giving you customisable buttons. Quite often they will just leave buttons blank and let you assign functions to them, in the Sony A7R’s case they’ve put c1, c2 and c3 but almost every button you can customise. This will allow you to set the camera up the way you want for it’s fastest use. I’ve got mine set up mainly to aid manual focus etc. You can also set up your function menu in a custom way to display only what you need. There’s that many choices and I still didn’t use all my slots but you can do such things as turning off steady shot (IS), focus selection, exposure metering all the way to creative styles and other random settings you may want such as quick access to settings.
One thing that does bug me though is that you can only really customise the buttons for when you’re taking photos and not when reviewing. I really miss zooming in by pressing the centre button on the scroll wheel and instead I can only zoom in by pressing C2 which by the way Sony isn’t intuitive to find without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Everything else is pretty much perfectly laid out so it doesn’t matter but please give customisation in a firmware update.
The movie button has also been moved out of the way, onto the side where you’re not going to catch it accidentally. A frustrating design flaw of previous Sony cameras which was fixed in a firmware fix by being able to turn it off.
There is now a mode wheel which has always been a soft menu thing before, kudos here. Also there is a nice touch of a dedicated exposure compensation wheel plus two further wheels, one on front and one on the back for setting aperture and shutter speed.
Handling in hand feels solid, with a large textured grip which gives enough purchase so it doesn’t feel like it will slip out of your hand.
Another thing you can do is take advantage of the built in wi-fi or NFC and launch the app on your phone to control the camera. In practice this works very well but I haven’t found the need for it out in the field where often you don’t fancy using your phone at the risk of getting cold hands. Nice feature though and once an intervalometer app is released will no doubt be used much more. There are other apps such as auto lens compensation and file upload over wifi with more to be released. Speaking of intervalometers, there’s no wired one as of yet and the connection for a remote has now changed. Hopefully in time though because the Nex 7 never even had a port! You could always use an IR intervalometer like the astrus-nex in the interim, though hardly ideal.
Manual focussing is made super easy using both the EVF and the focus peaking feature. Focus peaking is where when in MF mode the camera will highlight in a colour which parts of the image is in focus. I have mine set to red and high sensitivity and when manual focussing I get a screen full of red dots shouting at me confirming focus. Usually what I do is zoom in on a third first, set focus, check peaking, make adjustments then double check focus around the frame to make sure. It’s really simple and should make manual focus less scary. I know it’s a feature that most Canon and Nikon users wish they had.
Also, the charger. There isn’t one. Well, not a traditional one anyway. You can charge via USB or buy an external charger. An external charger is worth it if you’re like me and want to charge faster while leaving your camera safely packed away in it’s bag. However there is an advantage of also being able to charge over USB as you can charge in the car on the go inbetween trips, pretty nifty eh? I think the exclusion of a charger was to just bring the price down.
Images of the camera below: