Sony a7 Review: Performance

January 13, 2014 by Theano Nikitas Reads (34,547)
Editor's Rating

Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 9
    • Features
    • 7
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 8
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Expandability
    • 7
    • Total Score:
    • 7.60
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10


Neither the a7 nor the a7R are well-suited to fast action shooting, although the a7 can shoot continuously at about 5 fps, with the 36-megapixel a7R dropping to about 4fps. That said, I was able to easily capture a horse galloping at moderate speed so you can stop action but I wouldn’t trust it when shooting sports or a Formula One race.

The cameras are both slow to start up, which was surprising and both seem to be power hogs. The a7, for example, is rated at about 340 shots per charge but that seems to be a little optimistic (even when the WiFi is not used). Fortunately, the a7’s on-screen power indicator is pretty accurate and displays the percentage of battery life left so you shouldn’t get caught short if you pay attention (and have a second battery). You can also charge the battery via USB, so if you have a newer car, you can even charge the camera while you’re driving around. AC charging is, of course, available as well.

Autofocus worked pretty well on both cameras, although the a7’s hybrid AF system was faster than the a7R. Since the phase detection coverage doesn’t reach to the far edges of the frame, the a7’s AF speed also depended on your composition. Both cameras’ AF worked best in brighter light but I had some good experiences (and some not so great luck) with AF when shooting in low light. Outdoors, though, the tracking AF seemed to be fairly accurate for both models.

One complaint I have–and I know I’m not alone in this–is that both cameras are very noisy when you click the shutter. The a7 is a little quieter than the a7R but do a sound test before you buy one if you plan to use the camera in quiet environments like wedding ceremonies.

As mentioned earlier, the a7 is equipped with an E-mount, like Sony’s NEX cameras. However, because the a7 uses a full-frame sensor, E-mount lenses don’t cover the full sensor and will cause vignetting unless you set the camera to shoot in crop mode.

Currently, there are only three FE lenses designed for the a7’s full-frame sensor: the a7’s kit 28-70mm, f/3.5-5.6, the Zeiss 55mm, f/1.8 and the Zeiss 35mm, f/2.8. An FE 24-70mm, f/4 lens is due soon and, by 2015, Sony plans to have 15 native FE lenses for the a7. Meanwhile, there are several options to attach A-mount and third party lenses to the a7. Sony offers two adapters for A-mount lenses, the $200 LA-EA3 and the $350 LA-EA4. The latter has phase detection AF built in, providing faster AF. Metabones offers a wide range of adapters for the a7 including those for Canon, Nikon, and Leica lenses, to name a few. (Note: Metabones Speed Booster automatically switches to crop mode on the a7/a7R.)

Of the handful of lenses I tried with the a7, I have to say that the FE Zeiss 35mm, f/2.8 is my favorite. I like wide angle lenses and this one delivered sharp, crisp images, with edge-to-edge sharpness. And, as I mentioned earlier, it’s so small and light that the 35mm lens makes the a7 the size and weight that’s perfect for carrying this camera anywhere.

That said, Zeiss OTUS 55mm, f/1.4 lens is one sweet lens. It’s incredibly sharp and, when paired with the a7R, is astounding. On the other hand, it’s large, heavy and manual focus only. Since I was shooting in very low light, with the aperture at f/1.4, I had a difficult time focusing, even with focus peaking since there was so little depth-of-field. But the areas that were in focus were incredibly crisp. Oh, before I forget there’s one other detail you should know about the OTUS. It costs $4,000.

I also liked the FE Zeiss 55mm lens, although it was larger and heavier than I anticipated. But images were sharp and clear and it’s a focal length that most of used when we first started shooting 35mm.

The a7 kit lens, at 28-70mm, provides a good zoom range for everyday shooting. It’s not terribly fast at f/3.6-5.6 but I found that the a7’s autofocus performed best in good light anyhow, so it matches well–especially if you shoot mostly in daylight or in the studio. I found that most, albeit not all, of my test shots were nicely focused.

I also tried a 70-200mm lens, although it was borrowed and the metadata doesn’t show what brand it was (my guess is Sony). It was large, heavy and, again, difficult (for me) to focus manually, even with the camera’s magnified view. But the a7/a7R felt pretty well balanced even with the long lens attached.

Wi-Fi and Apps
Wi-Fi is pretty much a mandatory feature on new cameras these days and the a7 doesn’t disappoint. The a7 is also equipped with NFC (Near Field Communication) technology, which makes it easy to connect with compatible mobile devices–all you have to do is tap the camera and device together and you’re set. Using the a7 with an iPhone (or an iPad) is easy, although not as simple as with NFC. Typing in my network password would have been so much easier if the a7 had a touchscreen but it only took a minute or so to use the virtual keyboard to enter the information and I was able to connect the a7 and my iPhone with little hassle so I could easily transfer images to my mobile device.

Sony also offers a series of apps from its Play Memories online store that can be loaded directly onto the camera. Cost ranges from free to about $10. At this stage, not all of the apps are currently compatible with the a7 but Sony promises that they will be in the future. However, you can use the Smart Remote Control app, for example, to control the camera from your phone/tablet, or use direct Upload to send images directly to social media accounts.

Video Quality
The a7 offers a full range of video options from 1920 x 1080 HD at 60p/60i or 24p in AVCHD as well as space saving MPEG 4 options.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. I mentioned the position of the red video button before as being awkward but it’s important to mention it again. When you push the red button from the side to active video recording and to stop recording, the camera is going to move from the pressure so you may have to edit out the first and last second of the clip. Also, while video quality is good–and certainly better than previous NEX cameras, for example–the a7 (and the a7R) exhibited moire. Surprisingly, though, there wasn’t much difference that I could see in terms of quality between the two.

On the other hand, you have manual control over exposure and video quality is good, albeit not exceptional. But I was pleased, overall, with exposure accuracy, color rendition and smoothness of the footage. You’ll need an external microphone for the best sound, of course, but the built in stereo microphones delivered better-than-expected audio.

Image Quality
Overall, despite a little moire, the a7R’s image quality bests that of the a7 but that’s no surprise given the camera’s 36 megapixel sensor and lack of OLPF. Images from the a7R are mind-bogglingly good. However, the a7 is no slouch when it comes to image quality.

Test shots were, for the most part, impressive with sharp details, natural color rendition and generally accurate exposure. Although DCR editor and photographer Laura Hicks had a worse experience with the kit lens than I did, I was happy with most of my images, regardless of lens used. However, test shots with kit zoom lens were less likely to be consistently as good as those with other lenses, particularly the FE Zeiss 35mm. Laura was not terribly happy with the a7’s processing on skin tones and textures while I thought that flaws in my people test shots might have been more the result of ISO and lighting. However, when looking more closely, I can see that the a7 sometimes lost a little skin and hair texture in some areas. But, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot portraits–or any other subject–with the a7 or the a7R.

Both cameras perform well in low light, although I tend to think that the a7 has a slight edge over the a7R in terms of image noise, especially given the a7R’s higher resolution. On the other hand, the a7R tends to maintain detail a little better. In some senses, though, this is comparing apples and oranges due to the difference in resolution.

With the a7, I feel very comfortable shooting at ISO 1600. After that, details tend to get a little mushy and, depending on lighting conditions, grainy image noise is even more visible. On the other hand, shooting extremely dark scenes, the darkest shadows (blacks) are rich and deep.

I’m not thrilled with Sony’s in-camera noise reduction and always turn it off. I’d rather take care of image noise or any other issues in post, so shooting RAW (or RAW + JPEG) is–in my opinion–the best way to go.

Sony a7 Sample Images

Sony a7R Sample Images

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