I don’t review or even talk about equipment very often, but I reviewed the 36-megapixel Nikon D800E last summer because I think it’s such an important, game-changing camera for landscape photography, with exceptional resolution and low noise. Like many Canon users, I’ve been waiting for Canon to offer a competitor to the D800 and D800E. Rumors keep circulating about a 40-megapixel Canon camera, but so far nothing more substantial than a rumor has appeared.
Then last fall Sony announced their new full-frame, mirrorless Alpha A7 and A7r cameras – the A7 with 24 megapixels, and the A7r with 36 megapixels. The A7r uses essentially the same sensor as the Nikon D800E (though Sony says they’ve improved it). For a Canon user like me, the A7r was intriguing because some readily-available adapters could be used to mount my Canon lenses on it. The short distance between the sensor and the A7r's lens mount makes it possible fit an adapter between Canon or Nikon lenses and the camera, and still be able to focus at infinity. So I could potentially get the resolution and noise control of the D800E without having to make a large investment in new glass. And the A7r seemed reasonably priced at around $2300 (though adding an adapter and battery grip brings it close to $3000).
But I had some big questions. The A7r is a mirrorless camera, so would I miss a real, optical viewfinder? How well would my Canon lenses function with the adapters? And what about “shutter-shake,” and other potential problems that I’d read about online?
In February I had the time and opportunity to rent the Sony A7r, along with a Canon-to-Sony-E-Mount adapter, from Borrowlenses. I’m a big fan of Borrowlenses. They have a fast, efficient, online ordering system, and reasonable prices. I always like to try out equipment by renting it from Borrowlenses before buying – and especially so in this case, when I had so many questions about this camera.
After renting this camera for ten days I ordered one from B&H, so I’ve now been using it for about two months. Because this camera is so different than anything I’ve used before, and there are a lot of issues to consider, I’m going to go into a lot of detail here. But of course you can always skip ahead to the conclusion if you can’t wait.
Camera Handling and Controls
Since it doesn't have to incorporate a mirror and prism, the A7r is amazingly small and light. This is great when you have to carry the camera up a hill, but the size doesn’t leave a lot of room for dials and buttons. Luckily, however, Sony allows you to customize virtually every button, so you can put your most-used functions at your fingertips. It took a little while to configure all this, and it’s always challenging to learn a new camera, but once I set up everything and practiced using the controls I found the camera pretty easy to use. The controls are becoming intuitive – finally – to the point where I can perform most operations by feel in the dark, or when my eye is up to the viewfinder.
I rented (and then bought) the vertical battery grip, which helps make the camera feel a little bigger and more substantial. But I don’t have big hands, so someone with larger fingers might find the buttons and dials to be too small and too close together.
The menus are extensive and cryptic, but what else is new? They’re probably less convoluted than Nikon’s menus, because you can see all the options without scrolling through a submenu. On the other hand, I think the menus on newer Canon cameras are easier to use and understand than the menus on the A7r, even though they include more options.
The auto-bracketing feature could be better. You can bracket either five frames at up to ⅔-stop intervals, or three frames at ⅓, ⅔, 1, 2, or 3-stop intervals. I’d like to be able to bracket five frames at 1-stop intervals, or three frames at 1 ½-stop intervals. And you can’t trigger the auto-bracketing with a 2-second self-timer, as with Canon cameras (Nikon doesn’t include this option either). You can, however, buy the $25 remote, and one click of the remote will initiate the whole three-frame or five-frame auto-bracketing sequence (in the continuous bracketing mode).
There’s no way around it, the autofocus on the A7r is slow. While its sister camera, the 24-megapixel A7, uses phase-detection autofocus, and is supposedly much faster (I haven’t tested that camera myself), the A7r has only contrast-detection autofocus, which is slow. It’s not much slower than focusing in live view on a Nikon SLR like the D800, but certainly a lot slower than using the phase-detection autofocus that most DSLRs today use when not in live view.
The A7r is a great camera for landscapes, but not a good choice for sports or wildlife because of the slow autofocus. If you photograph action the A7 would be better, or you might look at the new Sony A6000 that’s coming out this month. The A6000 has a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, supposedly has the world’s fastest autofocus (11 frames per second), and is only $650.
Lenses and Adapters
The A7 and A7r use Sony’s E-mount, also found on their NEX-series cameras. But the NEX lenses are designed for its APS-size sensor, so you’ll get vignetting if you use them on the full-frame A7 or A7r. Currently there are only three full-frame Sony E-mount lenses (what they call the FE mount): a 55mm f/1.8, 35mm f/2.8, and 24-70mm f/4. A fourth, the 70-200mm f/4, should be available soon, with more on the way. The three current lenses are either made by Zeiss, or designed by Zeiss and manufactured by Sony to Zeiss’s specifications. I haven’t seen a review of the 24-70mm lens yet, but all the tests I’ve seen of the 55mm and 35mm lenses indicate that they’re extremely sharp.
With only three native lenses available, most people are going to be using adapters to fit other lenses onto the A7r. You can use Sony A-mount lenses (for Sony's SLRs) with the A7 and A7r, with an adapter. One of the Sony adapters has a translucent mirror, which allows you to use faster, phase-detection autofocus with supported A-mount lenses.
I haven’t tried any Sony lenses, with or without adapters, but I have used both Canon and Nikon lenses on the A7r. My Metabones Smart Adapter III is fully functional with Canon lenses; autofocus, image-stabilization, and the automatic aperture all work just as if you were using a native Sony lens. The one exception is that the autofocus only works in single-shot mode, not continuous mode. But as I said earlier, this is not the camera to buy for action photographs. The Metabones adapter is well-constructed. I found a little play between the camera and adapter (less than between my Canon lenses and bodies), none at all between the adapter and my Canon lenses.
I also got a Novoflex adapter for Nikon lenses. I have a few old Nikon-mount lenses, and also borrowed some Nikon lenses from a friend for testing. This adapter is also well-constructed, but offers much less functionality than the Metabones adapter (due, I’m sure, to the different camera-lens connections on the Nikon mount). There’s no autofocus, and no automatic lens diaphragm. The manual diaphragm takes a little getting used to, but works well enough with manual or aperture-priority mode (shutter-priority won’t work). The biggest drawback is that the f-stop isn’t recorded in the camera’s EXIF data, so you can’t tell later which aperture you used. I didn’t test whether Vibration Reduction works with this adapter.
In an effort to keep the camera small, the batteries for the A7r are small too, and since you have to use power-draining live-view mode all the time the batteries run down quickly. I’ve had good luck with third-party batteries, so I bought three extra Pearstone batteries ($12.95 each) giving me a total of four. During one day of intensive photography I made over 1,000 exposures, but still had a full, unused battery at sunset. I also bought two third-party battery chargers, since the camera doesn’t ship with one.
The electronic viewfinder (EFV) in the A7r has good resolution. I can detect a slight dot pattern, but it’s not objectionable. However the EFV has certainly required me to make some adjustment to the way I use the camera.
For one, our eyes have excellent dynamic range, so when looking through an optical viewfinder it’s usually easy to see detail in both highlights and shadows, even in high-contrast scenes. With the electronic viewfinder of the A7r I sometimes have difficulty seeing highlights and shadows at the same time, since I’m looking at the higher-contrast image the camera is recording, rather than the actual scene.
One way of dealing with this is to use the camera’s Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO). This in-camera processing lightens shadows (similar to Nikon’s Active D-Lighting) and makes it easier to compose high-contrast scenes with the electronic viewfinder. This kind of in-camera processing only affects JPEGs (which includes the previews shown on the back of the camera), so my Raw files have normal-looking shadows when I get them into Lightroom. And pushing up the Shadows slider in Lightroom achieves a similar effect to the camera’s DRO if that’s what I want. (Actually Lightroom does this in a much better, more natural-looking way.) But it takes some practice to interpret all this, and translate what the camera is showing me with the DRO into what my Raw files will actually look like.
One of my biggest questions about using an electronic viewfinder was whether I could compose and focus at night with it, so I took the camera out into my driveway on a moonless night and take some star photos. I found that the Sony’s live view (and you’re always in live view with a mirrorless cameraa, whether looking at the back of the camera or through the electronic viewfinder) was better and brighter than the Nikon D800’s at night, though not as good as on the Canon 5D Mark II or Mark III. With the Sony, it was no more difficult to compose in the dark than with an optical viewfinder, and I could zoom in to easily and precisely focus on a star. I also used the A7r for my recent lunar elipse photograph, and focusing and composing under a full moon was a piece of cake. So the night photography test was passed.
Another question was whether I could photograph sunbursts, and this is more of a mixed bag. On one hand, I can look through the viewfinder directly into the sun without risking eye damage. On the other hand, I can’t tell exactly where the sun is, or when the edge of it is just poking out from behind a tree trunk, because the whole area of the image around the sun is washed out. But I can make it work by just taking lots of photos and looking at the results.
While I miss some aspects of the optical viewfinder, a couple of features in this camera help make up for it. First, there’s Focus Peaking. In manual focus mode you can see areas that are in focus highlighted in the color of your choice (I use red). This makes manual focusing very quick.
Then there’s the “Zebra” mode. With the Zebras turned on you can see “blinkies” (overexposed areas) as moving, diagonal stripes before you take the photo. This is by far the quickest and easiest way I’ve found to set an exposure. In manual mode I set my aperture, then adjust the shutter speed dial until the zebras just disappear (I have the zebras set to 100 for Raw files). This makes the image as light as possible without blowing out highlights – a perfect ETTR (expose-to-the-right) exposure for most situations. In aperture-priority mode I could just turn the exposure-compensation dial to accomplish the same thing. I have yet to use the A7r’s light meter because adjusting the exposure with the zebras is so much quicker and more accurate.
All in all, for me the plusses of the electronic viewfinder slightly outweigh the minuses.
This is where the A7r really shines. The image quality is simply outstanding.
Dx0Mark gives the A7r sensor a rating of 95, tied with the D800, and only slightly behind the Nikon D800E (at 96 their highest-rated still camera).
My own experience confirms their rating. The resolution, noise, and dynamic range are very similar to the D800E.
One of the first things I did was take an image I made at Tunnel View with the A7r and make a 26x40-inch print from it. The print has beautifully crisp detail, as good, to my eyes, as prints made from scanned 4x5 film. It’s amazing to see so much resolution come out of such a small package. I've since made 26x40 prints from this camera that are even sharper (using better lenses). And I've even made 40x60-inch prints that hold hold up amazingly well. It does take good technique and high-quality lenses to get this kind of detail in large prints; I’ll have more to say about that later.
I also did a zone-system dynamic-range test (as described in my article for Photograph magazine) at 100 ISO, and was able to pull usable detail from Zone 0 to Zone 9 out of Raw files in Lightroom 5 – a full nine-stop range. I might even be able to get usable detail from below Zone 0 in a pinch. Cameras like the Canon 5D Mark III have a similar range in the highlights, but reveal a lot of noise when you try to lighten shadows below about Zone 2. There’s a little noise in Zone 1 and Zone 0 shadows with the A7r, but it’s minimal. The A7r’s high-ISO noise performance is also excellent (and very similar to the D800E). I have no hesitation using this camera at 800 ISO, and even higher if necessary. For nighttime images I've used the A7r at up to 12,800 ISO with acceptable results. (You can see a high-ISO noise comparison between the D800E and Canon 5D Mark III in my D800E review; the noise in the A7r is essentially identical to the D800E.)
Although the A7r’s overall image quality is superb, there are some issues:
It seems as if Sony is adding some compression to their Raw files. Personally I haven’t found any practical, real-life problems stemming from this, but it would be nice if they would add an option for recording completely uncompressed Raw files.
I also read about a light-leak around the lens mount of the A7r, so I tested mine by taking it outside on a sunny day, with no lens (just the body cap), setting the ISO to 25,600, and taking a 30-second exposure, making sure that sunlight hit the lens mount. Sure enough, I found major light leaks. I then tried a slightly more realistic test – another 30-second exposure, but this time at 800 ISO. No light leaks.
Of course other copies of this camera might have a more serious light-leak problem, but based on my tests I can’t see this as being an issue in real-world situations. You’d have to be taking a long exposure at a high ISO during the middle of the day to see a light leak. I can imagine some scenarios where you’d make a long exposure during the middle of the day with a 10- or 20-stop neutral-density filter, but there’s no reason to use a high ISO at the same time. In any case, Sony has acknowledged this problem, and says they’re working on a remedy.
A more serious concern, in my view, is the shutter-shake issue. Before trying this camera I had read several reports, including one by Joseph Holmes, about photographs blurred by shutter vibration. Holmes found that it occurred at around 1/30th to 1/125th of a second, with some lighter-weight, tripod-mounted telephoto lenses, and perhaps only with adapters, or certain adapters. (The A7 apparently doesn’t have this issue, because it has an electronic first-curtain shutter.)
At first I simply couldn’t find evidence of this shutter shake issue on the A7r in my own tests, even with my tripod-mounted Canon 70-200 f/4 zoom and Metabones adapter – a combination that fits all the right criteria. Then I took off the vertical battery grip and found the shutter shake when zoomed out to 200mm, right in the range between 1/30th and 1/125th of a second. I went back and did more careful tests with the battery grip, and could detect some slight image softening at those same shutter speeds, but it was minimal. So it seems that the weight of the battery grip plus a quick-release plate greatly reduces the problem, if it doesn’t completely eliminate it.
I talked with a Sony rep about this issue, and he said that shutters in all professional DSLRs have the same kinetic energy, but that the vibration is dampened by their extra weight. True enough – Joseph Holmes solved the problem by adding a 24-ounce (!) brass weight to the camera, and even the lesser weight of the battery grip almost completely eliminated the vibration in my tests. It also seems that heavier telephoto lenses are not affected – again, that extra weight helps. And it will be interesting to see if the same problem occurs the Sony 70-200mm f/4 FE-Mount lens when it becomes available, as maybe the problem is related to the extra spacing and flex inherent with using adapters.
So if you buy this camera, and have any longer telephoto lenses with tripod collars, I recommend getting the vertical battery grip. It would also be helpful to add a little extra weight with an L-bracket. With a lighter-weight lens it might be better to forego the tripod collar and attach the camera body to the tripod, rather than the lens. Since the shutter speeds in question are relatively fast, you can also try dampening the vibrations with your hands on the lens, camera body, or both. (I’ve tried every hand-and-body-dampening technique I’ve heard of or could think of, without any consistent success, but you may get better results with a different lens or tripod.)
Of course adding the battery grip adds weight, which lessens one of the main advantages of the A7r. But it's not that much extra weight. The grip itself weighs 9 ounces. It holds two batteries, which are about 2 ounces each, but I'd want to carry at least two batteries anyway, even if I wasn't using the battery grip. The whole package (including camera, grip, and two batteries) weighs 27 ounces, which is still 10 ounces less than a Nikon D800E and one battery, with no battery grip.
Corner Softness With Adapters?
An article by Roger Cicala at LensRentals seemed to indicate that there might be something about the sensor design of the A7r that led to images made with lens adapters being soft in the corners (especially, perhaps, with wide-angle lenses). This concerned me, since one of the main reasons I bought this camera was to be able to get extra resolution out of my existing Canon lenses.
There are no Canon bodies with comparable resolution to the A7r, so it’s hard to make good comparisons with Canon lenses. But Nikon sells two cameras with very similar sensors to the A7r, which makes comparisons easy. I was able to borrow a friend’s Nikon D800, and used my home-made lens-test chart to compare four different Nikon-mount lenses on both his D800 and my A7r (with the Novoflex adapter): a Nikon 70-200mm f/4, a Nikon 16-35mm f/4, an old Tamron 90mm f/2.5 macro, and an old Nikon 50mm f/1.8.
With all four lenses, at every focal length (even 16mm) and every aperture, the results were essentially identical on both cameras, whether in the middle of the image or the corners. In fact, images made with the Sony were slightly sharper across the board, no doubt because the low-pass filter on the D800 softens the images a bit (it’s doubtful that you could see this difference in a print, especially if you add a little extra sharpening to the D800 files).
This proved to my satisfaction that there’s no inherent loss in sharpness when using adapters to mount lenses on the A7r, and I’d have no hesitation in using any brand of lens on this camera (with a high-quality adapter, of course). My guess is that the test results in that article simply highlight the corner deficiencies of the lenses – deficiencies not as noticeable on the lower-resolution Canon bodies used for comparison in the article, but revealed by the increased resolution of the A7r.
In fact one of the beauties of the A7r is that you can mount almost any lens designed for 35mm film or a full-frame sensor on it. I’ve added my old Tamron 90mm and Nikon 50mm lenses to my bag because it turns out that they’re both quite sharp. I’ve suddenly found myself browsing e-Bay looking for old-but-good lenses. When photographing landscapes I don’t need autofocus or image stabilization; the only thing I care about with most lenses is resolution and weight.
And speaking of lenses, when the D800 and D800E first came out there was a lot of talk about how you needed to use super-sharp prime lenses to get the most out of these high-resolution sensors. After using the similar high-resolution sensor in the A7r for the past two months, I’d say yes and no.
Yes, looking at images made with the A7r or D800 at 1:1 (or 100%) will quickly reveal any lens flaws, like soft corners, or a centering problem (the image softer on one side than another). And a really sharp prime lens could no doubt produce some incredibly sharp prints. On the other hand, that first, beautifully-sharp 26x40 print I mentioned earlier was captured with a rather mediocre copy of a Canon 70-200mm f/4L zoom. I think many good-but-not-great lenses can take advantage of a high-resolution 36-megapixel sensor. It helps to use good technique (sturdy tripod, remote or self-timer), and know which apertures yield the best results for the lens, especially in the corners.
One last thing: like the D800E, the A7r doesn’t have a low-pass or moiré filter. I can’t see moiré ever being a problem with nature photographs, but there’s a remote possibility that it could occur with fabrics or other finely-textured subjects.
Here’s my list of the pros and cons of the Sony A7r:
- Small size of the camera and controls may not suit some people
- Mediocre auto-bracketing options
- Cryptic menus
- Slow autofocus
- Electronic viewfinder makes it hard to compose high-contrast scenes
- Limited battery life
- Limited functionality (autofocus, automatic aperture) with some lenses, especially Nikon-mount lenses
- Light leaks around the lens mount (unlikely to be a problem in real-world situations)
- Shutter shake at speeds between 1/30th and 1/125th of a second with some tripod-mounted telephoto lenses and adapters (and without the battery grip)
- Superb image quality, including high resolution, great dynamic range, and excellent noise control
- Small size and weight (even with the battery grip)
- Focus peaking and “Zebras” in the electronic viewfinder make manual focusing and setting the exposure quick and easy
- Can be used with almost any lens designed for 35mm film or full-frame sensors
As I said, I already bought this camera. It’s not perfect, but for me the pros outweigh the cons – by a large margin. For me, with landscapes, image-quality is my main concern, and the A7r is outstanding in that regard. I’ve also learned to adapt to the electronic viewfinder, and appreciate carrying a bit less weight in my pack.
Of course, the resolution and noise control of the A7r sensor is overkill if you never make large prints. Since I do make large prints, and I’m very picky about sharpness and noise, these things matter to me, and make me willing to put up with small inconveniences like using adapters, or the less-than-stellar autofocus.
If you’re also picky about image quality then the A7r is a camera that you should seriously consider, especially if you’re a Canon user and are looking for a higher-resolution option with better noise control.
On the other hand, if you already own a bunch of Nikon lenses you may be better off getting a D800 or D800E. You’ll get essentially the same image quality as the A7r, and your lenses will be fully functional, with automatic aperture and fast autofocus. The only reason a Nikon owner might consider the Sony A7r is to save weight when hiking, or perhaps to travel with a small-but-high-resolution camera.
And if you own Canon lenses, but aren’t particularly concerned with getting ultimate image quality, you might also be better off sticking with a Canon camera. I had a chance to test the Canon 6D recently, and found it to be a great option for a relatively-inexpensive full-frame camera. The sensor is essentially the same as the 5D Mark III, which is very good – if not quite in the same class as the D800 or A7r.
Also, if you’re not as concerned with resolution, but would appreciate excellent noise control and higher dynamic range (and faster autofocus than the A7r), you might consider the sister camera to the Sony A7r, the 24-megapixel A7.
What If I Was Starting From Scratch?
A friend asked me an interesting question recently. If I had no investment in lenses, he asked, and was starting from scratch, would I get the Nikon D800E, or the Sony A7r?
A tough question. Before trying the A7r I would have said the Nikon, no question, because it was a type of camera I was more familiar with. But now, after using it for two months, I think I would pick the A7r. I’ve come to appreciate and rely on the Focus Peaking and Zebras. I like the fact that I can use almost any lens on the camera, and not be locked into using only one brand of lenses.
And I appreciate having a smaller, lighter camera. I’m looking carefully at the weight of my lenses now, with the goal of being able to carry this small-but-powerful camera, a couple of sharp-but-lightweight lenses, and a lighter tripod. I might be able to cut the weight of my gear in half, which would make a big difference on long and steep hikes.
There’s another, long-term consideration. Whenever you buy a camera you’re making a bet about the future of the camera manufacturer. Since you’re often locked into buying lenses from that same manufacturer (though actually less so with the Sony A7r), you’re making a certain commitment, and hoping that the camera-maker keeps producing the right gear for you at a reasonable price.
You could make a strong case that Sony makes the world’s best sensors right now, since Sony also makes the sensors for many Nikon models, including the D800 and D800E. Many people also think that Sony is the most innovative camera company today. Putting 24- and 36-megapixel full-frame sensors into small, mirrorless bodies is a good example of that.
And mirrorless cameras seem like the wave of the future. I don’t think DSLRs are dead yet, but I wonder if anyone will be making them in ten years. I’m excited to plunge into this new mirrorless world and see where it leads.
On the other hand, if Sony goes under (alas, they’ve been having financial problems), or if Canon comes out with an amazing 50-megapixel, noise-free, $2000 camera next month (okay, I know, that price is out of the question), I still have my Canon lenses. 🙂
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.