New Sony A7 and A7R Cameras Discussed

Rainbow near Kerford Road Beach, Albert Park, Australia

I was lucky to be able to make this photo near Kerford Road Beach in South Melbourne, Australia. Such moments are fleeting, which is part of the reason why they're so special.

I was out and about with some friends helping them make photos. A very heavy shower had just passed over and, knowing that light can be particularly dramatic either side of a weather front, I stopped the car so they could be ready should great light appear. In such situations the location is less important than the transforming nature of the light itself.

You Can't Beat a Rainbow

I'm glad I listened to my intuition. We had just enough time to pull the car over, grab our cameras and make some images before this amazing rainbow vanished.

My Kingdom for a Pony

You've probably heard how it's important to have a camera with you whenever you're out and about. The problem is the size and weight of a DSLR camera, particularly when it's accompanied by a few extra lenses. Let's face it, most folks simply aren't prepared to go to that kind of trouble.

The compromise for many has been their mobile phone. You're going to take it along anyway. The fact that it incorporates a camera, apps for processing your images and the ability to email or post them onto various social networks are added advantages. But, while fun and a great way to keep the eye trained and practice composition, the mobile phone still doesn't cut it for quality conscious photographers.

The New Kids on the Block

Since 2008 the introduction of compact mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (including Micro Four Thirds cameras) have begun to shake up the marketplace and introduce a new paradigm into the world of photography. The photographer's blessed trinity of reduced size, reduced weight and excellent quality is, finally, starting to be realized. 

Yet, while offering a significantly smaller footprint (size and weight) and some high quality lenses these cameras haven't quite delivered in the way I need them to. That's been due to a range of issues including the following:

  • sensor size
  • functionality
  • ergonomics
  • menu structure

But things may be about to change. And it's exciting. 

The Photographers' Holy Grail

I couldn't be happier. I've been waiting several years for the release of a well designed, fully featured and robust full frame interchangeable lens mirrorless digital camera. With the announcement of the Sony Alpha A7 and A7R I may, finally, have the camera I've been waiting for. 

This camera marks somewhat of a revolution as it includes technology from both the Sony Alpha DSLR and Sony NEX mirrorless camera ranges. Feature rich, compact and full frame. Not quite the holy grail but, for my needs, quite close.

Availability

Both cameras are expected to be available to the general public from late November 2013. Here's a short video on Sony's Australian website that gives a really good idea of what the camera looks like. 

Camera Construction

The camera appears to be well made featuring a solid body and a reasonable degree of water resistance. While far smaller than a more traditional DSLR the camera's solid construction does make it heavier than one might expect for a camera of this size.

But add a few lenses and the overall size and weight reduction offered by a Sony A7/R kit, compared to a comparable DSLR kit, is significant. Remember, physically smaller cameras require physically smaller lenses. This may well be the camera kit best suited to photographers on the go, particularly those traveling by airplane and looking for a significantly smaller and lighter camera system. And if a just such a camera kit doesn't provide enough encouragement for us to carry it along with us, on our perambulations around town, it's hard to imagine what would.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

The specifications indicate a very impressive native sensitivity range of ISO 100-25600. My rule of thumb is to avoid the two highest ISO speeds which, in this case, would mean that ISO's up to and including ISO 6400 should produce acceptable results, particularly when working in RAW mode and exposing to the right (ETTR). 

The Sony Alpha A7 Versus the Alpha A7R

The A7 features a 24.3MP full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor with integrated fast Hybrid AF technology. It uses both phase and contrast-detection focusing methods to accurately and efficiently acquire focus. The A7 is capable of firing at up to 5 frames per second (fps) in Speed Priority mode, or 2.5 fps in normal continuous mode, while maintaining the subject-tracking and predictive-focusing benefits of fast Hybrid AF. This relatively high frame rate and fast Hybrid AF technology mark the Sony A7 as the model best suited to sports and wildlife photography.

The A7R features a 36.4MP full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor and utilizes contrast-detection focusing, which is highly precise and more detail oriented. In Speed Priority mode, up to 4 fps continuous shooting is possible, or 1.5 fps in normal continuous mode. The larger file size, associated with the full frame sensor, is likely the reason for the slower rate. The question is whether that compromise is actually an issue for the kind of photography you most commonly undertake.

BIONZ X Image Processor and Exmo CMOS Sensor

Both cameras incorporate the newly developed BIONZ X image processor.

This sensor records 14-bit RAW files that are claimed to produce excellent image quality with smooth color gradations, rich tonality and detail. If the rumors are true that the sensor is based upon the one found in the Nikon D800/e cameras then that claim is believable.

The Sony A7/R integrates a newly developed gapless sensor lens design. This concept incorporates small lenses in between adjacent pixels in order to increase light-gathering efficiency and promote greater image quality across the entire sensor. The placement of these on-chip lenses (OCL), especially toward the edges of the sensor, helps ensure even illumination by better accommodating the sharper angle of light, coming through the relatively short flange of the E-mount, striking the edge of the full frame sensor.

Moiré: Something to Consider

In order to gain maximum sharpness and resolution the anti-aliasing filter has been omitted from the A7R. By removing this filter the possibility of moiré is increased. Moiré can occur when photographing highly detailed subjects (e.g., repetitive lines or dots on clothing) that exceeds the resolution of the sensor that recorded it. The areas in question often take on a distorted, wave-like appearance that can be extremely distracting. If you're working with highly detailed subjects (e.g., wedding, fashion) this may, on occasions, be a concern.

But, with a sensor of such high resolution, this problem is less likely to be an issue on the Sony A7R. As the phenomena of moiré tends to occur with manufactured items it's unlikely to be a concern for most nature and landscape photography, particularly with a camera like the A7R. My Nikon D800e incorporates a sensor without an anti-aliasing filter. For the photography I do moiré has never been a problem. Though what you photograph, and the conditions under which you make them, it may prove otherwise. 

Focusing Systems

As part of the sensor, but affecting the focusing performance, the A7 combines 117 densely grouped phase-detection points with a highly accurate contrast-detection focusing method.

The A7R differs from the A7 in that it only utilizes a contrast-detection method for focusing, and thus is more geared toward critical focus than it is to overall focusing speed and subject tracking.

Portrait Photographers Rejoice

Additionally, a new common focusing method shared by both cameras is Eye AF. This highly detail-oriented focusing function can prioritize a subject's pupil and dedicate focusing performance on that for sharply rendered portraits. When working with Eye AF a green confirmation frame will be displayed over the selected eye when focus has been acquired, ensuring critical focus on the most important subject within the frame. This function, also, can be assigned to a customizable button for selective use when the need arises. Sounds great for portrait photography. Let's see how it performs.

Rather than sports or wildlife I usually photograph landscape and portrait subjects. That, together with the ability to produce larger prints from the full-frame sensor, makes the A7R the right choice for my needs.

And, when the opportunity for telephoto work (e.g., wildlife) arises, the purchase of a less expensive A7 body would add versatility, as well as a backup body, to my travel kit. 

Admittedly, there isn't a lens on the horizon made for these cameras that's ideal for wildlife photography, but it is possible to add other manufacturers (OM) lenses, via an appropriate adaptor. Hopefully a whole range of new lenses (i.e., super wide-angle, portrait, telephoto and macro) will appear over the next few years. This is a new system and we need to give it time to grow.  

Viewing System

This remains my biggest concern. I'm yet to handle a digital camera with an Electronic Viewing System (EVS) that comes close to the quality of the optical viewing systems I've enjoyed over the years from brands such as Hasselblad, Leica, Canon and Nikon.

I was recently caught out when looking at a lower priced Sony DSLR camera. I couldn't believe how poor the viewing system was on what, otherwise, seemed like a pretty good camera. I was convinced there was something wrong. In fact the camera only offered a relatively low quality EVS and, as that's all the owner was used to, they didn't see the problem. But there's just no way I'd use a camera like that.

Clearly the upcoming Sony A7/R will have a much more advanced Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). The specifications list it as a 3.0" XGA OLED Tru-Finder EVF featuring 2.4 million dot resolution for rich detail, high contrast, and fluid motion rendering. It employs an 84-degree upward and 45-degree downward tilting design for support from both high and low working angles, providing increased brightness under very bright conditions. What's more it will be possible to navigate through important settings via the LCD without the need to work your way through more intensive menu structures. But whether it's enough for my needs is still unknown. I hope it's not a deal breaker. 

A great advantage of an electronic viewfinder is that it allows you to preview a range of changes (e.g., exposure and white balance) prior to making the photo. Once those technical concerns are attended to you can concentrate your attention on what really matters (i.e., composition, gesture and expression).

Menu Structure

The menu structure on the Sony NEX cameras was poorly designed and laid out. Apparently this significant and, somewhat, distressing issue has been largely resolved with the new A7 and A7R cameras. Thank goodness and thank you Sony!

Hot Shoe

The Multi Interface Shoe (i.e., hot shoe) enables the attachment of an external flash as well as other accessories like external microphones, an XLR adapter kit, LED video lights, or other photo and video-related accessories.

Connectivity

The Wi-Fi connectivity also allows the use of Smart Remote Control, a feature that permits linked mobile devices to release the shutter from a distance.

Video

Videographers will be pleased by the ability to utilize an optional external recorder for uncompressed, clean-screen 1920 x 1080 video files at either 60i or 60p frame rates, via an HDMI connection. If recording video onboard, full HD recording is supported at 60i, 60p, or 24p frame rates in the high-quality AVCHD codec or, for more Internet-ready files, recording in the MP4 format is also supported.

Lenses - Sony

The Sony A7 and A7R are the first Sony E-mount cameras to feature a full-frame sensor. As a consequence Sony has developed a new range of full-frame compatible E-mount lenses to fit these new bodies.

The A7/R cameras will be available in a kit with a Sony FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens. Designed as a general purpose lens, this wide-to-portrait zoom incorporates three aspherical elements and one extra-low dispersion element into its design to minimize chromatic aberrations and enhance overall image clarity. An Optical SteadyShot image stabilization system has also been added to minimize the appearance of camera shake when photographing, hand held, under low light conditions.

A Sony 70-200mm f4 G OSS lens has been announced, though it's likely release date has not been made known. Sony plans to have 15 FE lenses by 2015. This future range is said to include macro and ultra-wide models.

Lenses - Zeiss

Of the Zeiss lenses, the Sonnar T* FE 35mm f2.8 ZA is the widest and features a reasonably bright f2.8 maximum aperture which is helpful when working under low light conditions and to achieve a relatively shallow depth of field when used up close at or near the lens's maximum aperture. Geeks amongst you should be impressed by the incorporation of three double-sided aspherical elements into its construction designed to reduce spherical aberrations and distortions common to wide-angle lenses.

The Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 55mm f1.8 ZA features a nine-blade circular diaphragm and a fast f1.8 maximum aperture which promises to produce gorgeous shallow depth of field at or near the lens's maximum aperture.

The Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f4 ZA OSS is a general-purpose lens that incorporates Zeiss Optical SteadyShot image stabilization into its design for reduced camera shake. A significant benefit associated with this lens is the constant f4 maximum aperture. I couldn't imagine photographing with a lens where the maximum aperture changes dependent on the focal length.

Having said that a f4 maximum aperture, while very workable, isn't overly exciting. I'd have preferred a maximum aperture, over the entire 24-70mm range, of f2.8 or wider. Doubtless, cost and size are the reasons this did not eventuate. Likewise, a reach beyond 70mm (e.g., 90mm or 105mm) would have been preferred. 

Image quality is enhanced by the inclusion of five aspherical and one extra-low dispersion element to help control chromatic aberrations and contribute to image sharpness and detail.

Each of these lenses employ a Zeiss T* anti-reflective coating to significantly reduce lens flare and ghosting. The result should be images with higher contrast which, in this case, means increased sharpness, better detail and more accurate reproduction of neutral and saturated colors. A dust and weather-resistant design should add a measure of confidence when working under inclement conditions. But, remember, weather-resistance does not mean waterproof.

Lenses - Sony E-mount

It is possible to mount an existing E-mount lens onto either of these new bodies. But, in doing so, it's important to understand that, as these lenses were not designed to cover the larger full frame format, the image will be automatically cropped down to the APS-format. As a consequence the usual x1.5 Cropping Factor, associated with those lenses, will come into play. This resulting 50% increase in perceived magnification (though, of course, it's brought about through cropping rather than through any increase in optical magnification) is often a boon for telephoto work, and the death of much wide-angle photography. 

Options, Options, Options

As well as a range of new Sony FE lenses, three new Zeiss-designed lenses (two primes and a general purpose wide-angle to portrait length zoom) are available. Even more exciting, for folks like me, is the ability to attach a range of premium quality Leica-M, Canon, Nikon and Sony A-mount lenses via the appropriate adaptor.

Two lens converters are available to adapt any Sony A-mount lens for use on either the A7 or A7R camera. The LA-EA3 adapter is an optics-free (i.e., no glass) adapter that maintains auto exposure settings between the camera and lens, along with an electronic aperture-selecting mechanism and a detachable tripod mount.

The LA-EA4 adapter maintains auto exposure and electronic control over the aperture meaning whatever exposure adjustments you dial into your camera should be communicated directly to the Sony A-mount lens mounted on the camera. This adapter includes Translucent Mirror Technology, a focusing aid featured in several recent Sony Single Lens Translucent (SLC) cameras. Well-suited to both still and video applications, the translucent mirror enables high-speed, full-time phase-detection autofocusing with Sony A-mount lenses.

Lenses - Leica

I have been hanging onto three mint quality Leica-M lenses since selling my Leica M9 body a year or so ago. Two of these lenses, a Summicron 35mm f2 and a Summicron 75mm f2 have only been used a couple of times. The other, a glorious Summilux 24mm f1.4 has had more use, but nowhere near enough to warrant its AUS$7,000 purchase price. After owning three previous Leica-M film cameras I just couldn't come to terms with the inadequacies of the Leica M9 camera in the brave new world of digital photography.

In particular the M9's hopeless high ISO noise performance and poor quality LCD screen were problematic. What's more I was not impressed with the camera's so-called vintage features, carried on from the days of its film-based forebears. The incredible shrinking frame, when mounting lenses with focal lengths above 35mm, goes against the careful way I approach composition.

To be able to compose an image properly you need a large canvas. Being forced to compose an image within a significantly smaller frame, whenever a lens with a focal length larger than 35mm was attached is, to my mind, nuts. 

Damn and Drat

One area that concerns me is that neither the A7 nor the A7R incorporates any kind of Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction. It's included, or not, with the lenses you purchase. Sadly, none of my Leica lenses include any kind of stabilization. And with a high megapixel camera that's unfortunate when working, as I often do, hand-held at slow shutter speeds.

Remembering the Bauhaus

Likewise, having to remove the camera's bottom plate to change a memory card or battery is just silly, not to mention problematic in wet, windy and/or dusty conditions.

Such idiosyncrasies just don't belong on a modern digital camera and I believe Leica's decision to incorporate them into the design of some of their modern digital cameras was unwise. After all, form must follow function.

I loved the quality of the files from my Leica M9. Except, that is, for those made on ISO 800 or higher. But I'd lost affection for the particular feel (i.e., the tactile experience) of the camera that's so essential when using this kind of system. While it's nice to remember an old love, it's rarely practical. And, at the end of the day, it's the photos you're making today, rather than any you made in the past, that motivate your current success.

I do understand that many of these issues have been resolved with the latest Leica M camera. But I'm simply sick of losing money selling extremely well cared for equipment at prices far less than what I paid for them. I don't care how much I have to pay for a camera but, for it to be used frequently, it needs to deliver in regards to quality, easy of use and functionality. Let's face it, the only way to obtain value is to use the item frequently.

I can buy several Sony A7/R cameras and lenses and still come out with change compared to the price of a Leica camera. And there's no indication that the Leica sensor, and its associated software and electronics, is any better than that of the upcoming Sony A7/R cameras.

It may still be the case that German glass married to Japanese electronics is the ideal solution for the quality conscious photographer. For the most part I still prefer the simplicity of German design. But Japanese manufacturers have had years to study classic Leica camera design. While not hand made, as is largely the case with Leica M9 cameras, the new Sony Alpha A7 and A7R cameras were not born in a vacuum. And thanks for that must go, to a large degree, to our German friends and the Leica aesthetic.   

The Way Forward

Or course cameras are evolving at a far greater pace than was the case in the days of film. I've meet numerous people over the years who were still, quite regularly, using their old Leica cameras thirty to fifty years after they'd originally purchased them. An amazing fact that is unlikely to be repeated in our modern world.

A digital camera, regardless of the price, that's more than three years old is likely to have been superseded by a cheaper and better model at least once in that time frame. Depending on the camera in question the changes in dynamic range, high ISO performance and focusing capabilities over the last few years have been dramatic to say the least.

So what's the best way forward? The solution seems to be, when in doubt, to put your money into glass. Good glass lasts longer and, if cared for, can last through numerous camera generations. If money is an issue a cheaper camera and superior lenses may, over time, be a better solution.

Accessories

A new Vertical Grip, which is dust and moisture resistant, has been announced. Suitable for both the A7 and A7R it's said to provide more comfortable handling, particularly when photographing with your camera in portrait (i.e., vertical) orientation. The grip also accepts two NP-FW50 batteries, potentially extending photography sessions.

A semi-hard Screen Protector provides reinforced durability to the 3.0" LCD monitor while still permitting use of the tilting design.

The Genuine Leather Case offers protection and, importantly, full camera functionality when attached.

Lastly, a multi interface off-camera shoe has been designed to allow use of an external off-camera flash, which is connected via a dedicated cable.

Pricing

Naturally, pricing will vary from region to region. At the bottom of this post you'll find a link to the Amazon site with pricing for both the Sony Alpha A7, body only and with kit lens, and the A7R cameras.

It's important to note that some of these lenses and accessories won't be available until 2014 and, while the cameras will be released late November, demand may make supply difficult around the Christmas holiday period.

Conclusion

If you're a potential buyer I think it's important to look at more than one review of these cameras. The review that should resonate the most is likely to be the one written by a photographer interested in photographing the things you're most likely to. Any negative comments made by any reviewer should, therefore, be put into context. Are those areas actually relevant to the kind of photography you do? Here are some examples.

Both cameras feature an LCD screen that, while it tilts up and down, doesn't flip over allowing for more accurate composition when making a self portraits (e.g., selfie) or instructional videos that feature you. Not great for folks who'd be looking at purchasing said camera for such activities but, frankly, probably not a big deal for the rest of humanity.  

The small, full frame Sony Alpha A7R camera may well become the base of the camera system I've been waiting for and, as such, a great match for my Leica-M lenses. What's more, by the time it arrives we should know what, if any, similar offerings are coming from Panasonic and Olympus. It's a generally exciting time for the mobile (that is to say, out and about) photographer.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru