This is a first impressions Sony a7 review, a quick look at a camera that is one of the few from the past year that actually interests me, which is why I wanted to get hold of one to try out.

My Fuji’s have good enough image quality, but where they fall down is with that full-frame ‘look’.  The beautiful shallow depth of field you can get, even with wide-angle lenses, allows you to separate subjects and just has a certain appeal.  One of the reasons images from cameras such as the Leica M9 and M240 stand out is that particular look you get from a larger sensor.  Leica obvious have some pretty special lenses, which is where Sony are seriously lacking at the moment, but one of the great things about the a7 is that you can buy adapters for just about every full-frame (and even APS-C) lens system out there, including Leica.

All the images here are straight out of camera JPEGs, none have been messed about with in LR.

sony a7 compact camera reviewSONY ILCE-7 (65mm, f/5.6, 1/80 sec, ISO160)

Where Nikon and Canon are desperately trying to keep hold of the DSLR, Sony and Fujifilm are where boundaries are being pushed right now.  Nikon have had a go with the DF, but all they have really done is dress up yet another DSLR in a pretty body – an admittedly very pretty body! – but it’s basically just another DSLR and nothing really all that different.

Right, let’s get some stuff I don’t like out of the way first, up front.

It’s not exactly what I would call attractive!
There are enough buttons to control a 747 jumbo! (some might say that’s a good thing?!)
Some of the buttons are just in the wrong place  – I think the shutter release was placed there by a mutant with a spare finger located in-between their thumb and index finger.  For the rest of us we have to awkwardly bend our index finger out of place to use it.
The menus are awful, I mean truly hideous, totally unintuitive and all over the place.  The people who complain about Fuji’s menu system obviously never used a Sony!
It feels like a computer rather than a camera.
The range of native lenses is none existent!  In the UK I can’t even get hold of either of the two primes.
Quality of the construction could be better.  It doesn’t feel uber solid like my X-Pro1 or X100S.
AF/MF switching isn’t implemented very well.
You really need to read the manual!  I hate that.  Sony seem to use words and terms of their own rather than industry standard ones.

Wow, that’s quite a list of things, makes the camera sound pretty awful.. why on earth did you buy it then?!

Well let’s get to a list of things I like.

It’s interesting!
It’s full-frame! Full-frame baby!!  A sensor 2.3x the size of APS-C in a compact mirrorless camera! (that doesn’t cost the earth!)
Image quality is stellar.
It’s cheap.
It’s small. I mean small. Smaller than the X-Pro1, about the size of an X100, maybe even slimmer if you ignore the grip.
The grip is great, one-handed holding feels very secure.
It’s full-frame!
Dedicated exposure compensation dial to +/- 3 stops.
WiFi – not only sending an image, but a liveview feed and control of the camera from iPhone/iPad.
Loads of adapters already on the market since it is an E-Mount.
Great viewfinder, excellent tilting screen.
Weather/dust sealed.
We will get some beautiful native Zeiss glass when it’s available.
Incredible high ISO performance.
Fabulous in-camera B&W files.
Side-facing SD card door, no getting in the way of tripods.
If you’re into video there are a lot of options including mic input and headphones out.
Oh, and did I mention that it was full-frame?

I think that’s a fairly balanced likes to dislikes list isn’t it?

sony a7 compact camera review

SONY ILCE-7 (29mm, f/3.5, 4 sec, ISO100)

 

I’m kind of going to skip over most of that list in this first-look and just pick out some of the things I find most irritating and most amazing.

First off let’s talk price.  It’s cheap, very cheap!  OK, so its not cheap, but for what you’re getting it’s amazingly good value.  To put things into perspective it’s a lot cheaper than the X-Pro1 was when it first launched.  It’s the same price as the new OM-D EM-1 with a sensor that is tiny in comparison.  It’s cheaper than any other current full-frame camera on the market, by quite a margin.

I’ve been wanting a full-frame camera again ever since I sold my D800 to go ‘all Fuji’.  There is just something about the look of the images that you can’t get in an APS-C sensored camera.  I’m not talking about image quality here.  My Fuji’s have amazing image quality.  I’m talking about the feel of the image.  Part of it is to do with the larger sensor just giving a better dynamic range, and the other part of it, I believe, is the shallower depth of field you can achieve.  The sensor is 2.3x the size of most APS-C camera (excluding Canon, where they use an APS-C sensor a bit smaller than most).  That difference in size makes a huge difference to depth of field.  You can put on a 35mm lens and isolate your subject really easily.  With APS-C you kind of have to force it to give you shallow depth of field by shooting wide open and getting in close to the subject, which may not be what you want.  I’ll have samples and side-by-sides in my full review to show you what I mean.  My hope is that Fujifilm will see the interest in the a7 and decide to go full-frame too.  I know I’ll have to buy a whole new set of Fuji lenses, I don’t care!

sony a7 compact camera reviewSONY ILCE-7 (33mm, f/4, 1/100 sec, ISO100)

Lens line up at launch is truly appalling.  I was looking at the a7R version to start with, I couldn’t find a kit anywhere, I couldn’t find even the 28-70mm lens available alone to buy them separately.  I can’t get hold of either of the primes.  In the end after doing a lot of reading I decided that the a7 would be the more appropriate camera for me anyway, and got hold of the camera with the lens kit.  I can’t even tell you if the 28-70mm lens is good or not at this stage because I have nothing else to use on the a7 to compare it against!  I’m torn between buying the LA-EA3 or 4 and the Sony alpha lenses, or getting something like the Metabones Canon EF adapter and using Canon lenses.  I think I’ll probably go the Canon route.  The great thing is that the Metabones adapter has all the electronics to make AF, exposure and even IS work on the NEX, so that looks like a great option right now until Sony get their stuff sorted out no the lens front.

I love, with a big fat capital L the WiFi capabilities of the a7.  This isn’t your usual send an image to a smartphone (although it can do that) this is a full liveview relay of the image with a display of camera settings and shutter button on-screen.  They even have an iPad App, not a re-sized iPhone App, a proper native iPad App.  This is just fantastic for previewing your images in liveview, you tap the screen to focus on the exact point you want and then fire the shutter.  It isn’t perfect, but I’ll go into it more in the full review.  The camera will also connect to your WiFi network and has a browser and downloadable Apps facility – awesome!  Not all the Sony Apps have been updated for the a7 yet, but there are all sorts of fancy ones available for their other cameras and I presume will become available for the a7/a7R in time.

The straight-up B&W output from the a7 is great using the B&W “creative style” JPEG option as Sony like to call it.  It’s setup exactly as I like to see B&W images.  It may not be to your taste, but I like it!  I don’t have to fiddle with anything in LR afterwards, I’m happy just to share them straight out of the camera.

sony,a7,iso 6400,portrait,sample,imageSONY ILCE-7 (50mm, f/5.6, 1/40 sec, ISO6400)

sony a7 compact camera reviewSONY ILCE-7 (28mm, f/7.1, 1/60 sec, ISO100)

sony a7 compact camera reviewSONY ILCE-7 (65mm, f/5.6, 1/80 sec, ISO200)

Before I bought it I read that the AF was poor.  I think that must be from people coming from their DSLRs.  The AF is fine, it’s fast, it’s accurate and it works!  I have to say that I don’t have a lot to say about the AF because it just gets on with it’s job and doesn’t bother you.  Very occasionally it focuses on the background and not the subject, but I’m yet to find a camera that doesn’t do that from time-to-time!  Easily as good as the Fuji’s with their latest firmware, excellent in good light, and about what you expect from a mirrorless camera in low light, not amazing, not awful!  Now getting the AF to the setting you want.. that’s a different story!

What’s all the noise about the noise?!  Some people are just too damn fussy!  This is a full-frame sensor with a full-frame sized shutter, it’s going to be a bit louder than ones on smaller cameras, but boy has this been blown out of proportion!  Is anyone but you going to hear it on the street? No.  Are you going to use it as a stealth camera in church? No.  It’s a camera, it makes some noise.  Can we move on now?!

The menus are bad, not only is everything seemingly in a random location, sometimes when you set something it jumps you right out of the menu altogether (and sometimes not!).  It’s like it assumes you only went into the menu to change one setting.  The first thing I wanted to do was format the memory card – something I do (and I assume you do) a lot.  Took me goodness knows how long to locate that one!  There are no less than 24 pages of menus!  I’ve said this before though, if you’re spending all your life in the menu system then you’re doing something wrong.  Get it setup as you like it, leave it alone and concentrate on taking photos!  All those messy customisable buttons do at least serve to keep most of the functions you need daily ready to hand.

High ISO performance is fantastic on the a7.  Sony’s noise-reduction is less so.  The Sony NEX range always had the habit of going waaaay over the top with their NR processing and the a7 is no different.  To be honest set to ‘low’ it isn’t half bad, but to get the best out of the camera you need to shoot RAW and process the file yourself.  The best way I’ve found to do this is to import the RAW into LR (v5.3RC supports a7 RAW’s) and then use Nik’s Dfine2 software.  It does a great job.

sony a7 compact camera review high ISO 6400SONY ILCE-7 (70mm, f/5.6, 1/30 sec, ISO6400)

The camera and zoom lenses (I don’t recall for the primes, but I suppose they are) are all weather sealed.  Sometimes I think this is over-egged a bit as my X-Pro1 isn’t officially weather-sealed but I’ve used it in driving rain, got it absolutely soaked and it carried on.  It is nice to know however that some attention has been paid to this and you’re going to be sure it won’t get damaged by dust and rain.

I’m going to stop writing about the camera there before this turns into a full Sony a7 review!  Come back later to see my in-depth thoughts after I’ve spent more time with it.  In the meantime I’ve posted a small gallery below of images taken with the Sony a7 and the 28-70mm kit lens.

So are you abandoning Fuji and going Sony?

No, never!  The Fuji’s have soul, they feels like real cameras.  They are much easier to shoot with.  The Sony cameras have always felt like computers to me.  At the moment I’m torn.  I love my Fuji’s in a way I’ll never love the Sony, but I love the output from the full-frame sensor in the Sony.  It’s a tough call, especially if Sony came out with a compact 35mm pancake lens it would make the a7 a comparable size to the X100S.  If Fuji ever came out with a full-frame X-Series camera then things might change!  For the moment it fills a gap that Fuji don’t and I’ll be keeping it for that reason.

Gallery of images from the first look Sony a7 review with the 28-70mm kit lens.

 

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About The Author

Matthew Maddock is a commercial photographer based in the Lake District, UK. Specialising in the hospitality and outdoor sports industry. He is a Fujifilm X-Photographer and Getty Images contributor.
His portfolio can be viewed at memaddock.co.uk

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