Sony rocked the photographic world when it launched the first full-frame mirrorless cameras, the a7 and a7R. These cameras catapulted the mirrorless market into the forefront of technology for many MILC advocates. But those outstanding specs don't mean anything if the cameras' features and performance don't live up to the hype. Read on to find out if these cameras met our expectations.
The idea of packing a compact camera with the same (or similar) features and image quality of a DSLR is, of course, highly appealing. And mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have promised to meet those needs but, often, with a smaller sensor. But the a7/a7R have gone beyond current models by incorporating a full-frame sensor.
The two cameras are almost clones of each other and while this review focuses on the a7, we'll comment (where appropriate) on the a7R as well. To start, the biggest difference between the two is the sensor. The a7 uses a 24-megapixel full-frame sensor with hybrid autofocus, which utilizes on-chip phase and contrast detection AF. Perhaps the main difference between the two is that the a7R is built around a 36-megapixel full-frame sensor. Additionally, the a7R lacks an optical low pass filter (OLPF)--a trend that we're beginning to see in high end cameras to help ensure that the a7R delivers the ultimate resolution (hence the addition of the letter "R" to the name). Both have Wi-Fi, the must-have feature of 2013.
At the same time, Sony announced several FE lenses--e-mount lenses that cover the camera's full-frame sensor (otherwise you need to use the camera's crop mode or be okay with the vignette that non-FE lenses deliver). These FE lenses include the kit 28-70mm, f/3.5-5.6, the Zeiss 55mm, f/1.8 and the Zeiss 35mm, f/2.8. Next up is a 24-70mm, f/4 lens due soon. But Sony and third-party adapters, such as Metabones, are available to attach a wide range of lenses. Sony's FE lens roadmap promises a total of 15 lenses by 2015 but photographers are currently making good use of adapters to happily attach a wide range of Sony and third-party lenses to these two cameras.
I tested the cameras with the three FE lenses and spent a brief time with a prototype of the Zeiss Otus 55mm, f/1.4 lens as well. Read on to find out what I thought about the a7 and the lenses.
Build and Design
Although not quite as tank-like as the Sony RX1 (the a7 weighs a manageable 16.7 ounces), the a7 is well-made and feels solid in the hand. It's built around a magnesium alloy body and is dust and moisture resistant (yes, I shot with it in the rain with no ill effects). Relatively compact at 5 x 3.75 x 2 inches, the a7 is small enough--particularly when equipped with the FE 35mm lens--to meet my ideal size and weight for mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (ILC). The kit and FE 55mm lenses add more bulk and weight but are still relatively compact. And although longer lenses, like the large, heavy Zeiss OTUS 55mm sort of defeat the purpose of having a carry-anywhere mirrorless camera, the a7 and its feels well-balanced regardless of which lens is attached.
Ergonomics and Controls
Shooting with the camera is, for the most part, a pleasure. A contoured handgrip and a well-positioned thumbrest provide a solid and comfortable hold--good enough for one handed shooting with short lenses like the FE 35mm. While I appreciate the control layout, my hands are relatively small so it's a little bit of a stretch to reach a couple of the controls, such as the mode dial. But that didn't interfere with my ability to enjoy shooting with the a7.
Overall, though, all controls are easy to access and operate. The biggest issue is that there are so many custom options that one can be easily overwhelmed when setting up the camera and then equally baffled when trying to remember what features and functions were customized. But being able to choose from 46 functions to customize buttons and dials is a challenge I'll happily face any day.
The top deck of the camera is home to the mode dial, with the standard PASM options, auto and scene modes. Other modes include sweep panorama, two custom settings, intelligent auto and movie (movies can be started/stopped independently by pressing the red dedicated movie button on the side of the camera in most modes). To the right you'll find the shutter button/power switch, along with a separate exposure compensation dial (which I love), a custom button. Forward and rear dials are integrated in front of and to the rear of the camera's right top panel.
A tiltable LCD (which I'll discuss later) takes up the bulk of the rear real estate but still leaves plenty of room for other controls including a menu button to the left of the EVF. Placement there is a little awkward but once you set up the camera, you'll rarely need to access the menu anyhow. To the right of the EVF is another custom button, followed along the right edge of the LCD with the remaining external controls: AE/MF and AEL switch, a Fn button to call up a quick on-screen menu for most commonly used functions, a rotating control wheel that also functions as a 4-way controller to set display options, white balance, drive/self-timer. Below that sits the playback and delete buttons; the latter can be assigned a custom function for use in capture mode.
The red direct movie button on the side of the camera (to the right of the thumbrest) is a little awkward to use but not terribly inconvenient. And its position frees up more room for other, more frequently used controls.
A multi-interface/hotshoe is located in the center of the top deck atop the electronic viewfinder. The interface is no longer proprietary and will now accept ISO standard accessories, along with Sony accessories such as a hotshoe flash (there's no built-in flash), video light, external microphone and XLR adapter.
I have almost no complaints about the control layout, which is unusual for me. And, in the end, that really says a lot about the a7's design.
Menus and Modes
As much as I love the company's NEX cameras, the NEX user interface is frustrating to use. Fortunately, the a7's menu system is like that of the RX1. While you won't spend much time in the a7's menu system thanks to the external controls and custom options, when you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised. But, if you're a fan of the NEX icon-driven menu, there's an option to switch to a similar graphical interface.
The internal menu system is logical and features easy-to-navigate pages. Each page is self-contained so rather than scrolling down to get to the next page, a quick press of the 4-way controller quickly moves to the next page or tab. I'm sure other people prefer menus that wrap but I happen to like the a7's menus just the way they are.
Menu options include everything from image size and quality, noise reduction settings, the ability to save (or not save) individual settings and much more, as well as options for the camera's Wi-Fi and PlayMemories apps.
Multiple on-screen display options are available and are generally easy to navigate. Press the function button for an on-screen display of parameters of ISO, metering mode, flash compensation, white balance, DRO (dynamic range optimization) and more. Then use the control wheel/four way controller to change any of those settings.
There's also an on-screen menu that comes in handy when you're using the EVF. Just press the up arrow on the 4-way controller to change the screen display. This allows you to view your current settings on the LCD while focusing and composing with the EVF. If you want to change settings from this screen, just press the Fn button and use the 4-way controller to navigate to the functions you want to adjust.
Display and Viewfinder
One of the issues facing photographers using some mirrorless ILCs is that not all of them have a built-in EVF. Fortunately, the a7 comes equipped with a large and bright electronic viewfinder. This XGA OLED EVF provides a sharp, 100% field of view. Unfortunately, the dioptic adjustment falls just short of what I need to shoot without my reading glasses. Still, even with the glasses, it's comfortable to use.
The camera has an eye sensor that automatically switches the view between EVF and LCD, which can get annoying when trying to shoot from waist level using the LCD. The eye sensor is so sensitive that just holding the camera in front of your body puts it into EVF mode, so you're left with no way of composing an image. I found this happened most often when shooting in portrait mode and using the tilt LCD. There's no button to turn the EVF or the LCD off like other cameras that have a Live View button to activate/turn off the LCD. Instead, you have to go into the main menu system and change the monitor setting to Auto, monitor or EVF. It's not a dealbreaker but it would be so much more convenient to have a Live View button on the back of the camera.
The a7's 3-inch, 921,600-dot LCD also offers 100% field of view. It works well under most lighting conditions and offers a sunny weather mode to help visibility under bright skies, as well as a 5-step (+/- 2) manual brightness control. While it's not fully articulated, the LCD tilts enough to be useful for waist level (or lower) and overhead shooting. Numerous display options are available including a grid, level gauge, histogram and, as mentioned earlier, shooting information. The a7 offers focus peaking with a choice of levels and colors, as well as a magnified display for manual focus and in playback.
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