- Image Quality
- Very Compact
- Menu System
- Annoying Operation
- Fiddly to use
This is my Sony a7 review / real-world write-up. For those that don’t know, my perspective is one of a long-term compact system camera user, who pretty much abandoned dSLRs as a daily tool a long time ago now. Most recently I’ve tended to use the Fujifilm X-Series cameras, but I’ve also owned and used the Olympus, Panasonic and Sony NEX range of CSCs.
Introduction to the Sony a7 review.
As soon as Sony announced the a7 and a7r I immediately wanted one. It is one of the few cameras over the past couple of years outside of Fujifilm’s X-Series cameras that have actually interested me. I’ve been wishing Fujifilm would produce a full-frame X100 or X-Pro for a while. Not because of image quality but for the subject separation you can get with the shallower depth of field, especially on the wider angle lenses. On an APS-C camera, the aperture is effectively 2.3x less as far as depth of field is concerned compared to a 35mm full-frame equivalent. Putting that in an easier way to understand, f/2.8 on an APS-C camera has the same equivalent depth of field as about f/4.5 on a full-frame camera. Switching that the other way around, if you have an f/2 lens on a full-frame camera you need approximately an f/1.2 lens on APS-C to get the same depth of field. Now, Fujifilm have recently announced the 56mm f/1.2 to off-set that advantage, which is a great step in the right direction for them, and is a very tempting (if expensive for a Fujifilm X-mount) lens!
When I saw the specs I immediately thought I wanted the a7r – as I suspect most of you probably do! The lure of all those Mpx is certainly there! Then when I started to look into it more carefully my mind slowly changed. I’ve lived with slow AF on the early Fuji’s and would have preferred not to go through that again. 36Mpx was great on a big dSLR (my D800) where I could hold it super stable, normally on a tripod, but I would be using this much more as a handheld camera. I knew from experience with the D800 that if you’re not very careful with 36Mpx, image blur can occur at otherwise quite reasonable shutter speeds. Finally, 36Mpx files are HUGE with a capital H U G and E! I can absolutely see the a7r’s appeal to landscape and studio photographers for the mega resolution it provides, and where it will most likely be bolted down, but I don’t tend to shoot like that very often. From what I’ve read, even the action of the shutter in the a7r can cause image shake unless it is locked down, and at surprisingly high shutter speeds of 1/160th too. See this article here. The a7 will also sync at 1/250th of a second with a flash where the a7r is 1/160th, which was an advantage to me as I like to shoot a certain style of shot that requires a sync speed as fast as I can get.
The other reason I was interested in the Sony was the fact that Fuji are still yet to release their ultra wide-angle lens we’ve been promised for so long – now apparently delayed until March 2014. I shoot interiors quite often and although the XF 14mm is fine for larger rooms, for the most part if I’m shooting bathrooms I don’t stand a chance. I’ve tried using the Samyang 8mm fisheye and correcting for the distortion, but you have to chop quite a bit off the edges and it can still look pretty stretched. One of the great advantages of my D800 was the epic 14-24mm lens! With the a7 I can put something like the Canon 16-35mm or 17-40 on it with the right adapter, make use of the ‘real’ 16mm focal length with the full-frame a7 sensor, still retain AF and aperture control, not to mention the correct EXIF data being written to the file (more useful than you might think!). It is almost like shooting with a native lens. I say ‘almost’ because the AF is very very slow using the Canon lenses!
Shot with the Canon 17-40mm lens and this electronically coupled adapter (adapted by me to FF!) from Amazon UK
What do I think of the a7?
So I’ve had the a7 for a few weeks now, it’s about time to put up my full thoughts on the camera after using it in a variety of different situations and conditions. Rather than rush a full write-up out, I try to spend time with the camera, get used to it, and use it as I (and you) would in everyday life. I shoot for both professional and personal reasons. By spending time with the camera doing what I do daily, it usually draws out both the best and worst of a camera, but perhaps more importantly lets me get used to those things that initially I might have hated but grown to realise they aren’t so bad after all in normal use.
What I’m not going to do here is go through every feature and every technical in-and-out of the Sony a7. I did a video summary of the menus and features, which can be seen below, and all the technical stuff can be found elsewhere. The video below was supposed to be a quick 10-minute run-through, but because of the number of buttons and menu’s it turned out to be over 30 mins!!
This will be a write up about how I’ve use the camera day-to-day, what I like and what I don’t!
Let’s have a look at the good and bad points first. Before you start reading, and before you start shouting at me, these are my personal opinions. They are formed from how I use the camera, it may differ from you and there is nothing wrong with that! If I haven’t mentioned something it’s either because I haven’t used that particular feature, or it just isn’t significant enough to me and how I use the camera to write about it. This is very much a subjective review, but I feel that this type of opinion forms an important part of how we purchase things these days, my use of the a7 is probably fairly typical of a lot of people, so hopefully you’ll find it useful when deciding if the Sony a7 is the camera for you.
Price. So it’s not exactly a cheap camera, but it is a very cheap full-frame camera. You can’t argue with the value for money you’re getting from an a7 or a7r.
That huge sensor is awfully impressive when you take the lens off! You definitely get that full-frame look when you shoot wide-open. The biggest issue right now is that there is only one fast(ish) native lens. Anyone who follows me will know that I’m not a big fan of buying a system and using non-native lenses on them. The only reason I’m tempted to use Canon lenses on the a7 is the fact that I can get electronically coupled adapters to use the Canon lenses with. Being able to use the Canon lenses electronically means you get native aperture control, AF and EXIF data, which makes things a whole lot easier. It’s not ideal, but I’d rather have an a7 in my bag then having to carry a 5D around! The a7 gives me the option to use small native lenses for day-to-day stuff, but then also have access to the huge array of Canon lenses if I need something specialised.
It’s quite shocking comparing an APS-C and FF sensor side-by-side in real life!
This image also serves to show just how small Sony have made the a7 as you see it next to the larger X-Pro1. You can also see that they have only just shoehorned the full-frame sensor into the existing NEX E-mount!
The B&W images straight out of this camera using the default “B&W” filter effect are some of the nicest I’ve seen in any camera. It’s a personal thing, but they come out just as I like them, and better than the Fuji in my opinion. You can get the Fuji to give nice B&W JPEGs with a fiddle of the settings, but these are just nice straight away!
The size of this camera is truly impressive. Combine it with the native 35mm Zeiss lens and I think many would be surprised to see that it’s smaller than even the Fujifilm X-E2 with the Fuji 35mm lens.
The hand grip on the camera is just right. It fits neatly into the hand and gives a solid reassuring feel that you’re not going to drop it in a hurry. There may be more attractive cameras out there, but you can’t deny that whilst the Sony a7 may not look particularly ‘pretty’, the ergonomics of having a large hand grip are evident when you pick it up. I have always liked the grips on all of the Sony NEX range even if it did given them an odd look with the lens removed.
The side-loading SD card is a blessing if you’re used to working on a tripod and having to remove the camera from the tripod to access the SD card.
I’d like to say that high-ISO performance is very impressive, but it is starting to get to the point where we are used to shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 and getting good results from most modern cameras. I shot the a7 side-by-side with the X-Pro1 at ISO 6400 in RAW and honestly couldn’t tell any advantage either way. They were near identical in RAW, and once processed you really couldn’t see any difference. The a7 may just have had the edge on sharpness when viewed at the same size on-screen, but that is likely more to do with the higher megapixel count. There is in my opinion a bit of an over obsession with how good a camera is at the extreme high ISO settings. I know very very few professional photographers who would consider shooting at ISO 3200, the majority will shoot at the lowest they possible can, which usually means ISO 100 or 200, bending the conditions of the shoot to match that, normally by introducing artificial light. Certainly if you want to do any post-processing on image, higher ISO images fall apart much more quickly when manipulated. For someone doing casual shooting however, it is nice to be able to use auto-ISO and go up to ISO 6400, getting shots that aren’t blurred from being forced to use a shutter speed that is too slow.
These are both RAW files straight out of the camera at ISO 6400 shown at 1:1 zoomed in.
The slight size difference in the images is due the the 24Mpx v 16Mpx image resolution.
The auto-exposure system of the a7 is one of the best I’ve seen from Sony. The NEX cameras I’ve had in the past always got confused in sunlight and needed to be adjusted. I also found they often overexposed. The a7 is very good, especially in difficult lighting situations with strong highlights and dark shadows in the same scene. It somehow seems to know what to do and I find I’m reaching for the exposure compensation dial far less often that I would normally expect to. I shoot it in matrix mode. When I want to take more control I’ll switch to full manual exposure rather than use one of the other auto-expsosure modes.
What’s bad then?
The shutter button is way way too spongy. You literally have no feedback as to whether you’re half-pressing it or full-pressing it. Even cheap point-and-shoot cameras manage to do that properly! After weeks of using the camera I’m still taking photos when I don’t mean to. The half-press point can only be found through experience, there is no feedback at all from the button, no positive notched stop at the half-way point from the button as you get on other cameras. Even when you press the shutter button fully it is still like pushing your finger into blancmange! It might only sound like a little thing when written down, but being the button you (hopefully) use most on your camera, the shutter release is one you’d hope would feel ‘right’. On the a7 it just doesn’t. This often results in taking images you didn’t intend to, and can mean missing the moment you were waiting to capture. I’m not sure how Sony managed to get this out of the door with such a poorly designed shutter button, it just makes the camera feel like it has been made on the cheap.
It’s just awkward to use. For people who are used to and happy with their NEX or Sony systems this won’t be as much of an issue, but certainly coming from shooting mainly Fuji’s I just find the whole interface fiddly and awkward to use, right from the menu system to the confusing array of physical buttons and dials. I could go on for 1000 words here just saying how things aren’t joined up, but I don’t want to take over the write-up with too much negativity.
Menu options such as “Lock AF” mean nothing in the context of the menu they are in – what does that mean, what does it relate to, when can you use it – none of which are explained clearly! Other examples are “Eye-AF”, which apparently isn’t anything to do with focusing on the eye, but something to do with activating the AF when you have the A-mount adapter on the camera. I did read somewhere that it was like an intern had written down everything they could think of on a whiteboard and then Sony just put them in the menu in a random order – I think that sounds about right! No less than 24 primary pages of menus! That is far too many, and for some reason what I’d normally call the “camera settings” have two separate top-level menus. As I said, things like Eye-AF and Lock AF just appearing randomly in the middle of the menu with no context, make no sense, and just add to the confusion – putting these items under a sub-menu where you could understand what they relate to would make things easier perhaps.
I spent time setting up the custom buttons as I wanted them to be – the one advantage of those is that you can avoid the menu sometimes! I changed them around a couple of times, but I always seem to forget which ones I’ve assigned to which! One thing I do miss greatly is the switch from the Fuji’s to change from AF to MF – you can assign it to a button, but that’s then one of the three used up, another is assigned to ISO – both of these functions are used frequently and should have dedicated buttons, so in reality I only have one left to use for something else.
Other oddities are things like the exposure compensation dial. There is a dedicated dial for this like the Fuji’s, but you can also assign the exposure comp. to either the front or rear wheels, which seems kind of pointless, and must just be confusing when the setting on the screen says one thing and the dedicated dial says something else! As I tend to shoot in aperture priority most of the time and use the front dial for the aperture, it would have been handy to be able to dedicate the rear dial to something else, the ISO value for example would be a perfect use of it.
As I said, I don’t want to go on too much about what makes it awkward to use otherwise the whole review would be used up! I will mention one final thing though ,and that’s preview image magnification. When you press ‘play’ to preview the image and want to zoom in, instead of just using the scroll wheel to zoom, you first have to activate the zoom function by pressing the C2 button. I just don’t get what the point of adding that extra step is, especially when it is probably the thing most people want to do when reviewing an image.
I did think that I would get used to it more, but I still find the camera gets in the way when you just want to adjust something quickly, or is outright confusing, often leaving you reaching for the manual. My personal feeling is that if you have to look in the manual then it hasn’t been designed properly in the first place, which takes me onto…
…The manual. It is honestly awful! It doesn’t really explain much, tends to use Sony specific terms rather than industry standard ones, and is very sparse. The manual is written in a way that appears to explains how a point-and-shoot camera works, but what you have in your hands is much more like a dSLR. As a comparison, the a99 manual is 239 pages long (far too long, but at least it explains everything properly if you really need it!), the a7 manual is 94, but has effectively the same number of functions as the a99. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you didn’t really need to delve into the manual to try to understand how Sony have configured the camera!
Start-up time is slooooow. I’ve never known a modern camera take this much time to power up. The weird thing is that sometimes it seems ok, and other times you are sat there wondering if you’ve actually turned the thing on. I used to think the on/off button was faulty and repeatedly turn it off and on, until I realised that the camera had actually turned on but that it was just starting up. It doesn’t help that nothing appears on the screen, not even a start-up message to let you know it is doing something.
Lens selection. Okay, so this will improve, but at launch the only lens (in the UK at least) you could get was the 28-70mm kit lens, which was only available in the kit with the a7, leaving a7r buyers out in the cold completely. I managed to get the 35mm lens after a 20-day wait, but still can’t get hold of the 55mm without paying a premium from those few who have it in stock. I know I said I can use Canon lenses [almost] natively, but they are much larger and just look unbalanced on the camera. They are for specialist applications as far as I’m concerned. Using non-native lenses is awkward and shouldn’t be a necessity! You might argue that you can use the APS-C E-mount lenses, but what’s the point of that?! A 10Mpx image is what results, and you can do better than that just using your older NEX! I don’t think the sensor is all that much better that you’d notice a difference between a NEX-6 image and an a7 in crop mode.
High ISO JPEGs are truly awful using the standard Sony settings. Mush mush mush! I’ve never liked the Sony noise reduction algorithms. It was actually the thing that put me off buying the NEX-7 when I was looking to upgrade from the NEX-5, and was one of the main things that made me look at the Fujifilm X-Pro1 instead. Turn the noise reduction down to low and to be honest it’s not all that bad – certainly a huge improvement from the standard NR setting. To get the best out of the file you really do need to shoot in RAW and process it yourself though. Of course, the same is true for the X-Pro1 – if you want the very best at high ISO you should shoot RAW and process the file yourself, but there isn’t anywhere near as much difference between the JPEG and the processed RAW files from the X-Pro as there is the a7. It’s not the end of the world, but it does mean adding an extra step that you may not need when shooting with another camera.
Day-to-day use of the Sony a7
Whilst Sony say that the camera is “weather-sealed” I think that may be somewhat of an over exaggeration. There are no seals between the lens and body, the doors covering the ports, card and battery don’t appear to have any rubber seals around them, and appear to rely on hard plastic seals. I have no doubt that you could probably get the camera quite wet before it stops working, but I think that applies to most cameras, even the ones that don’t state they are weather-sealed. For me, weather-sealing means that at the very least having a rubber seal between the lens and body as per the Canon and Nikon weather-sealed bodies and good soft rubber seals around openings. I certainly can’t see the a7 competing with a Pentax, Nikon or Canon on that front, and as soon as you put a 3rd party adapter or lens on your a7 any weather-sealing there may be goes out of the window anyway. It certainly wouldn’t stand up to this sort of cleaning process!
The rear screen is excellent, and I particularly appreciate the tilting feature, something I do miss when I switch back to the X-Pro1 or X-E2. The EVF is also excellent. I’m not one of these people who is put off by an EVF, even on my Fuji’s with their “amazing” optical viewfinders, I still use the EVF 99% of the time if I’m looking through the viewfinder! I’m also not excited enough about EVFs to tell you if the X-Pro1, X-E2, X100S, or a7 are better or worse than one another, to my eye they all look pretty damn similar. They are all more than good enough.
I guess you’re probably wondering by this point why I haven’t mentioned the auto-focus system. Well that’s because I can’t really fit it into the good or bad category. In terms of performance it kind of drops in-between the X-Pro1 and X-E2. In good light you’d need a high-speed camera to judge the difference between the a7 and the X-E2. It is in poor light that the a7 falls down. The X-E2 definitely slows down in low light, no question about that, but it will rack through the whole range and then lock on, and lock on consistently almost without exception. The a7 in that regard is still like the X-Pro1 in that it will rack back and forth a couple of times before giving up. I’ve experience this in all sort of different circumstances, from close-up portraits to architectural shots at night. Try to lock on with the a7 and it goes back and forth, fails a couple of times and then maybe on the 3rd go it will lock. Pull out the X-E2 to shot exactly the same scene, it will run through the range once and then just lock AF. I think part of it is the larger sensor being more difficult to read the information off quickly to do really fast AF. One big advantage of a much smaller sensor in cameras like the Olympus and Panasonic micro-four-thirds systems is being able to read it very quickly (and therefore more often) for AF functions. I think the best way to sum up the auto focus on the a7 is ‘adequate’. I’ve not noticed any difference in speed between the kit 28-70 zoom and the 35mm prime. The Fuji AF system is very much lens-dependent. Perhaps Sony will release a firmware update, but more than likely they will just release another ‘better’ camera in the not too distant future.
One feature I love on the a7 is the WiFi functions. Many cameras these days have the ability to upload to your mobile device directly, but the liveview relay and remote shutter is brilliant. The only thing missing is the lack of ability to adjust settings (aperture, shutter, ISO) remotely. You still have to go to the camera to change those settings, and for some reason with the WiFi mode activated the camera somehow slows down and when you turn the dial on the camera it can take a little while for the setting to actually change. The other WiFi feature the camera has is the ability connect to a WiFi hotspot and either upload photos directly to Facebook and Flickr, but also to download Apps into the camera. You can see the Apps you can download on the Sony Playmemories website here.
A couple of days ago Sony updated their Timelapse App to work with the a7. Just tonight I installed it and put the camera outside the house, dialled in one of the automatic programs (night stars) and left it to it for 45 minutes. I’m sure with practice I can get it better, but considering I simply opened up the App, chose an automatic program and only changed the time from the 2 hours default to 45 minutes I’m pretty impressed with the results! Instead of creating an AVCHD file as the standard video mode does, it creates an AVI file in either 720 or 1080p.
I did hear a few people saying the kit zoom wasn’t great, but it is the best kit zoom I’ve ever used with a Sony camera. However, that really isn’t saying much as the Sony kit lenses are very much that, cheap kit lenses. The 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss is stellar, super sharp. It could be argued that it is a shame is wasn’t an f/1.8 lens, I certainly would have liked to have seen that, but then it would have been larger. As it is, the a7 plus the 35mm make for a great discrete walk-around size.
To be honest I’ve agonised over this conclusion. In some ways I really like the Sony a7, but in other ways it can frustrate me when I just want to take images, or adjust settings quickly. Where the Fuji’s I’m used to just allow me to pick them up and shoot without thinking about it, I somehow feel the need to think too much about things other than photography when using the a7.
I sold a fair bit of equipment to be able to get an a7. I really can’t decide if it was a mistake or not. In some ways it is a fantastic camera, and the fact that I can use the wide-angle pro Canon lenses on it is a big plus for me until Fujifilm get their act together and get the 10-24mm zoom out.
The other thing to think about is whether the advantage of that gorgeous full-frame sensor continues to be a benefit once I can get hold of the 10-24mm X-mount lens and the newly (officially) announced 56mm f/1.2 XF lens will remain to be see. Fuji have also recently let it be know that they intend to produce a fast ultra-wide too, so it appears they are going for fast prime lenses in the future to silence people like me who want, and like, the shallower depth of field you can achieve with a full-frame sensor.
Sony cameras have always been much more computer than camera to me, and I think a lot of other people feel the same too. That isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. The WiFi implementation of this camera is leap years ahead of the Fuji WiFi system for example, and works really well where the Fuji system can be pretty frustrating at times. Not only can you upload images directly to your mobile device, you can see a liveview of the image and fire the shutter too, and I imagine more functions will come eventually too. The camera also has the ability to connect to a hotspot and download new Apps directly into the camera – ok, for now most of them are hardly professional level tools, but at least the possibility exists.
Despite the size, I don’t feel it’s a particularly enjoyable walk-around camera to use. It isn’t that it is a bad camera, I just don’t enjoy using it. In that regard the Fuji X-E2 has it beaten, for me at least. However, the image quality is stellar and it will allow me to reproduce larger print images at the same DPI. This will be great for Lake District landscapes. I also love how the WiFi functions work and the fact that I can use an iPad as an external liveview monitor, even use it to do critical focus and fire the shutter remotely. That’s something where the Fuji’s are really lagging behind, so if you like that techy stuff then the a7 may well be a great camera for you.
For now the a7 will remain in my arsenal. Whether that continues is really down to Sony and how serious they are going to be about supporting the system. If they start releasing new a camera to replace the a7 every 8 months as Olympus like to do, I wouldn’t be too thrilled. They do have a bit of a habit of jumping from one thing to the next. RIP NEX as one example!
I rather feel this write-up might read too negatively on the whole, I don’t want you to go away thinking it is a bad camera, it’s a fantastic camera, it is just that the operation of it could have been made a good deal easier. I’ll never come to love the a7 as I do the X100S or X-Pro1, but I do absolutely respect it for bringing us a new generation of camera and pushing the boundaries of camera technology.
You can find more information on the Sony a7 on the Sony website here.
If you enjoy this review, please check out the A7 on Amazon which will help me continue to write this blog.
[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”B00FRDUZXM” cloaking=”default” layout=”top” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”m06d-20″]
[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”B00FRDUZUK” cloaking=”default” layout=”top” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”m06d-20″]