When The Camera Store in Calgary,
Alberta asked me to review a camera from Sony’s mirrorless line, I
jumped at the chance. After previously reviewing the top-down merging
of medium format into the DSLR universe (the Pentax 645Z), it seemed
logical to next review compact cameras as they merge upwards.
My overall experience with the Sony A7R
full frame mirrorless system was, not surprisingly, a mixed bag of
positives and negatives. My hopes and dreams are invested in these
compact lightweight cameras as the future of event and wedding
photography because, as I get old and feeble, I will need lighter
rigs. My current two camera, full frame DSLR set up is a monstrous
workout after 12 hours.
The first thing that I noticed was that
the camera was just not all that intuitive to a DSLR hand. The A7R
was built slightly more like a compact point and shoot, which took a
fair amount of brain energy to get used to. The grip is
extraordinarily tiny. I was unfortunately not able to use the lower
vertical grip option for portraits – which I think is just a
fantastic option. If Sony were to keep the weight and size where it
is, and add a beefier grip to future lines of full sensor mirrorless,
this could transform these bodies into real DSLR contenders. From the
reviews I have read of more recent A series cameras, Sony seems to
have addressed this.
The small size of the magnesium alloy
body is its biggest plus, however, it wasn’t all fantastic. The
tiny body made me feel like a GWC pervert snapping pics of a lovely
model in a dingy back alley. A big full frame camera with grip helps
gives the impression of a professional… at least I think it does.
When I attached the 70-200mm F4 with a
pocket wizard on top, and hauled around a portable studio light, I
felt a touch more impressive. The build of these FE series lenses
felt equivalent to DSLR cropped sensor lenses, and the apertures are
similar also. I have read that Sony is putting a significant amount
of energy in coming up with better lenses for this system, and
they’ll need to if they want photographers who shoot in poorly lit
venues. Currently, I understand you can purchase mount adapters to
use other Sony lenses.
By strapping on a big lens, the hope
was that no one would noticed the tiny size of my camera, and even
with the heavy(ish) lens, and extras strapped on, the weight
difference of the body was a substantial positive for me. However,
there is simply no excuse for a 1/160 second sync speed, and even
though I hoped I might look more professional hauling around that
strobe, I felt anything but.
Looking through the viewfinder felt
like I was looking through a built-in loupe. This eliminates the
need to carry a loupe as the viewfinder itself naturally blocks out
the light, but the eyepeice image quality isn’t great (for some
reason it isn’t nearly as nice as the rear screen), and I just
never got used to looking into the viewfinder after taking a photo,
and seeing the lingering image sitting there, instead of a live
optical view. As a result of having both a digital viewfinder and an
LCD rear screen, the battery life was predictably very short.
The camera has a dedicated zoom button
who’s default goes from full view to something like 600million times
zoom with one button push, and it is terribly slow to load the zoomed
image. It was perplexing, and entirely useless to me.
The functionality and ergonomics of the
buttons was just average. There are 3 separate dials for ISO, f-stop
and shutter speed, which is extremely important. These are some of
the features where you can tell Sony is trying to get the attention
of the DSLR community. These dials and buttons were easy enough to
use, but also a bit too easy to accidentally change. Many of the
buttons, however, still have multiple functions likely due to the
physical size of the body, and that can trick you if you are trying
to work fast. That is a complete no-no for the event photographer.
There was one thing that really irked
me was that I could not for the life of me figure out how to use
selective focusing. The autofocus worked surprisingly well, and I
wasn’t shooting anything with fast action, or subjects at multiple
depths, so I didn’t feel I needed to dig into it too deeply (and if
I’m being honest, I simply did not find the time), but I do not like
cameras who’s basic functions are difficult to figure out. If the
camera has the option (and I certainly hope it does), it’s a
terrible idea to make that difficult to find and manage.
Luckily, I didn’t have any lenses
that opened up past f4, because shooting with a wide aperture would
have been very difficult without selective focus. Lucky… I guess.
Though it wasn’t a huge problem for me in any of my shoots, selective
focus for fast moving subjects like sports or kids, or for shallow
depth of field shooting, would be impossible without it. I do think
it must be there somewhere. The autofocusing at higher f-stops was
very impressive, and it was an interesting experience to give up
control and see what the camera could do.
I also had a strange problem with
faulty white balance in about 1 in 100 shots. During post
processing, I noticed that the white balance just seemed to randomly
change on me. I am not sure if I fat-thumbed it, but my white
balance would be fine for dozens of shots, then it would randomly
change for one shot, and then mysteriously go back to my previous
settings the next shot. This was easily fixed in Lightroom when
shooting in RAW, but was very strange nonetheless.
At one point, I turned my lens into the
sun, and there was a very strange 1970’s-esque flare from light
coming through the lens. I can only assume this looked different to
me because I was viewing the image digitally, and not optically. The
distance from the lens to the sensor may have also contributed to it
looking different to my eye.
The newer, higher-end Sony mirrorless
systems like the A7S have an option to use an electronic shutter, to
silence shutter noise. The ability to have a silent shutter and no
mirror noise is a huge benefit for shooting events such as religious
ceremonies. Unfortunately this system does not have that option, and
that would have been a huge boon to any system trying to convince
wedding shooters to convert.
The overall image quality coming from
the 36.3 megapixel CMOS sensor on the A7R would probably be very
impressive to the average compact camera user, however it is very
disappointing compared to a camera like the (older) Nikon D800.
Specifically, the high ISO noise is pretty terrible, and the
highlight and shadow recovery was just abysmal. It felt like I was
shooting a D200 from 6yrs ago.
My final opinion is that if you are
coming from the compact world, this camera should impress you. If you
are like me, however, coming from the highest quality full frame
DSLR’s, then you would likely still be underwhelmed and recognize
that this particular camera is a step down.
Overall, the A7R is like a promise of
better things to come. The experience was much better than I
expected, as the last time I shot a system that compact, it was 2
megapixels. As a result, I am pleased to say that I am more
confident than ever that these systems are the future of event