As Good As It Gets? – Sony A7R Field Report

DSC00516SONY ILCE-7R (16mm, f/9, 1/320 sec, ISO100)

I love to travel. I love photography. I’m a gear head. So there is only one word for traveling through one on the most spectacular landscapes in the world and taking pictures with a new camera: Heaven!

The new camera is not new at all but it is new to me. I already hold it in my hands almost 2 years ago and wrote about it here. I was impressed by the camera but not so much by the available lenses. A classical Sony story. I didn’t buy it back than but this isn’t a rant regarding the lack of lenses. The situation has improved already. This is about one of the best landscape cameras money can buy.

DSC00923SONY ILCE-7R (16mm, f/8, 1/125 sec, ISO100)
DSC01046SONY ILCE-7R (28mm, f/16, 1/60 sec, ISO125)

When I got the Sony A7R right before my vacation the idea wasto have a second camera body beside my Canon 6D to avoid lens changes in the desert. The other option would have been a Canon 70D for my tele zoom. But I don’t like the idea of a rather big camera with a small sensor. I prefer to have a small camera with a big sensor – a littlebigtravelingcamera. The fact that the Sony A7R also means high resolution and high dynamic range didn’t hurt either.

The only thing that worried me was the need of an adapter. Adapters are a pain in the neck. They are produced by small third party companies and they are prone to introduce problems. I chose the IV from Metabones. Mainly because it communicates with the camera and AF and IS should still work. The shop did’t get the mark IV so the mark III version went on the trip.

How does the Metabones adapter work? In short:

  • IS: yes (at least I think so)
  • AF: not really
  • problems: occasionally

From first tests in the shop I already knew that this will be a manual focus setup. Not a big deal for landscapes. Mountains are not going anywhere, at least not in my lifetime. AF is so slow that you are much faster if you focus manually. There is an excellent loupe that makes manual focus a joy. Image stabilization should work but it is hard to tell since the super smart Sony A7R doesn’t allow to select a minimum shutter speed in the Auto – ISO menu. It is 1/60s all the time. What about the problems? Sometimes the camera just didn’t work. It refused to take the picture and when it did the exposure time was very long. I assumed that it had to do with the transfer of the aperture value. It did not happen very often. About 5 to 10 times during the trip but it was annoying though.

DSC01274SONY ILCE-7R (16mm, f/16, 1/60 sec, ISO125)
DSC01450SONY ILCE-7R (20mm, f/8, 1/60 sec, ISO100)
DSC01708SONY ILCE-7R (16mm, f/16, 1/100 sec, ISO100)

Is it hard to get sharp images?

There are a lot of reports on the internet that the Sony A7R is a tripod only camera and that you need to take extreme care to get sharp images. All I can say that I did not use my tripod at all. All shots are handheld and they were all sharp. Or to be more specific: Crazy sharp. The level of detail is impressive. I have never seen such files before. It’s like listen to your favorite record through a real high end hifi system for the first time. The song sounds familiar but there are so many details you have never heard before. It’s like removing a curtain in between the music and you. A truly impressive experience. The sensor of the Sony A7R gives you that.

But it’s not only the resolution. Part of the attraction of Sony sensors is their dynamic range or lack of noise in the dark areas or however you may like to call it. It allows to push the shadows to create an HDR image out of a single exposure. HDR! You start to shiver when you hear those three letters? It is the same for me. I like dark shadows. I use VSCO’s Velvia setting most of the time to get bold colors and lots of contrast. But it is good to have the chance to push shadows if you want to! The Sony A7R allows that.

Take a look at the 3 images above. The first was taken in perfect evening light. There is not much contrast in the scene. Any camera can handle that even the one in your iPhone. The second shot is different. No chance to get exposure right for both: the glowing rocks/sky and the trail with the green bushes in the foreground. In this shot I pushed the shadows like crazy to get the look I wanted. In the third shot I exposed for the rock and let the shadows become almost pitch black because this is what attracted me in the first place. There were some people sitting in the foreground. I could have lifted the shadows but he cleaner shot looked better.

The point is that this sensor gives you the chance to lift shadows if you want to. Like in the shot below or in the very first shot of this blog entry. Sometimes the camera can’t see what your eyes can see and that’s why landscape shooters always used graduated ND filters to balance exposure long before HDR. But filters are awkward to use and the only other option to balance exposure in such shots is to take a couple of images with different exposures and merge them later in computer. A technique which of course requires a tripod. So high dynamic range is a good thing. As is high resolution. As is good high ISO quality. Talking about high ISO. This is not a low light, high ISO camera! It performs decent but if you plan to shoot at ISO3200 or higher on a regular base there are far better options. It truly shines at base ISO.

DSC01926SONY ILCE-7R (24mm, f/8, 1/60 sec, ISO640)
DSC02231SONY ILCE-7R (18mm, f/9, 1/100 sec, ISO100)

Is the image it takes perfect?

So is this small box the perfect camera? No it isn’t and here is why. First of all there is a yellow hue that is nice in landscapes but not so great in portraits. To get skin tones right is tricky. Second: The white balance is colorblind. I know that this is a stupid remark. How should the camera know the color of my subject? I will give you some examples.

When I took pictures in Bryce Canyon I could see how the color of the rocks changed from red to grey on the screen of the camera. As soon as there was some sky in the picture it was OK but red rocks only was something the camera did not get right. I shot with my Canon 6D at the same time and the rocks were red. Another example is shadow. A lot of cameras struggle to recognize that you are shooting in the shadow. The Sony seems to struggle a little but more. There is a strong blue color shift almost like shooting with slide film. Since I shoot RAW it is not a big deal but I recognize that I need to correct WB in post more often than I have with my Canon or Fuji.

The Auto-WB, the skin tones and the not impressive high ISO performance are the only points I managed to find where there is real room for improvement. But none of them is of any importance when you plan to shoot landscapes.

DSC02406SONY ILCE-7R (35mm, f/10, 1/800 sec, ISO100)
DSC02521SONY ILCE-7R (16mm, f/14, 1/60 sec, ISO160)

Is it a joy to use?

The sensor is close to perfect but what about the camera body? Since 2011 my main cameras came from Fuji. From the Fuji X100 to the X-Pro1 to the X-T1 today. Especially the Fuji X-T1 is probably the best camera ever made regarding shooting experience. It doesn’t have the leave shutter of the X100 cameras but beside that it is almost perfect. There is no need for menus or to use small 4 way controllers. There is the dedicated dial for everything.

But back to the Sony A7R. The most obvious difference is that there is no shutter speed dial and there are no aperture rings and the lenses. Both lead to a rather detached shooting experience. Especially if you switch in between camera bodies you need a second to find out which dial to turn to i.e. change the aperture. I shoot Auto-ISO most of the time but I still love to have the dedicated ISO dial on the Fuji X-T1. With the Sony A7R I have to use the flimsy 4way/ring dial on the back of the camera to change the ISO value.

The shutter button is too far back to feel comfortable. Something Sony already addressed in the mark II versions of the A7. When shooting from the hip I found myself using my thumb to trigger the shutter which works fine. The shutter button also feels a little sluggish as does the shutter itself. For me the shutter noise is clearly one of the most annoying things of the Sony A7R. First the shutter sound is very loud. Not only compared to my Fuji X-T1 but also to the Canon 6D even though the later has a slapping mirror. But the shutter sound is not only loud but also very long. It is a kind of double sound. Like a train when it runs over the rail gaps “tha-dakh”.

The build quality in general is impressive. The camera is small but rather heavy. All controls work very good and precise. The body doesn’t squeak. But it is the lack of dedicated dials, the shutter button position and vague action point and the strange shutter sound that make this camera feel sluggish and less enjoyable to shoot. It’s not a show stopper but you will never find yourself pushing the shutter button just because you want to hear the sound of the shutter.

 

Who should get a Sony A7R or now A7RII?

If you start from scratch I recommend to take a good look at the Sony A7 system. There are still limitations regarding the lenses. If you want the best choice in lenses you still have to get a DSLR from either Canon or Nikon. No mirrorless camera system comes even close. If you are happy with what is already there the Sony A7 series is a great option. It is much lighter than a DSLR but it is heavier than a Fuji X system.

What you gain is a fantastic full frame sensor that produces truly impressive images. What you loose is shooting experience and the option to choose from a range of amazing Fuji primes. The Fuji is also more versatile with better high ISO and better AF in low light. If you are focused on landscapes the Sony is the better system. If your main subject is street or portraiture or if you simply want to travel light the Fuji is the better option as long as you stay away from the f2.8 zooms. To me the Fuji X-T1 combined with 2-3 of the lighter primes makes the best system for travel photography.

What about if you are invested in Canon lenses.?

For landscapes I think I would get the Sony A7R or A7RII over the new Canon 5DSR just because of its better dynamic range. For anything else I would prefer the Canon because it is the more rounded camera and because it works better with its native lenses.

Outlook:

The Sony A7R is a mark I product and it shows. The ergonomics are not perfect and the list of lenses is small. But with the mark II version Sony already addressed some of the issues and Zeiss started to offer AF lenses for the new system. At the moment there is just the 25/2 and the 85/1.8 but they both look very, very nice. I think the big advantage of the Sony A7 system is that you can have a rather light full frame DSLR replacement without scarifying image quality and if you combine it with something like the 35/2.8 you have a really compact camera to take to the restaurant while you leave the big bag in the hotel room.

36MP looks excessive today but so did 12MP a couple of years ago. As 24MP has become the standard for APS-C cameras it makes a lot of sense to offer higher resolution in a sensor that is two times bigger. If you look at it like that a 36/42MP sensor makes a lot of sense. 36MP simply is more future proof than 24.

As good as it gets? Yes, almost.

DSC02537SONY ILCE-7R (35mm, f/8, 1/160 sec, ISO100)