Sony A7R Review – Working Out a Love-Hate Relationship

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After using the Sony A7R for a month, I’m still undecided about its overall merits. As a matter of fact, I’m going back and forth on this camera. I have written and rewritten this article several times, but I still haven’t reached a clear conclusion. As I move toward a new phase of using the A7R, it’s time to sum up my impressions so far and make this into a rolling review.

Regular readers know by now that I don’t mince words and that I’m not a fanboy for any brand. I’m just a fanboy for great cameras to shoot with. Image quality probably should come first, but in reality I can live with good but not great image quality while I have a hard time with good but not great camera usability. That’s where my troubles with the Sony A7R come in.

Read on for my take so far.

As always, you need to know where I come from before I can give you my opinions. I use digital cameras like I used film cameras, with an emphasis on the basic functions and a near-total disregard for advanced features, such as video, HDR and art filters. So, I don’t discuss those.

I’m not a professional photographer, so the act of photography needs to be fun while I’m shooting and rewarding in both that experience and the final result. That result is measured by my standards and to a certain extent by the standards of the stock agency I sometimes submit images to. I assume that many of my readers belong to the group of serious enthusiasts that I count myself to be a part of.

Equipment reviews are not meant as the mainstay of this site, no matter what it looks like now, so I gladly disregard a lot of camera features and sample images to just give you the nitty-gritty from the perspective described above.

With that in mind, the Sony A7R has been a headache to assess.

Superb Sensor

As far as image quality goes, there’s nothing wrong with it. The sensor is superb. The dynamic range is just as astounding and forgiving as the similar sensor in its much larger sibling, the Nikon D800(e). High ISOs are usuable to a pretty large extent, same as in most other modern cameras.

So, given that this sensor has 36 megapixels, it’s at the top with that Nikon. If you want to get the most out of something short of medium format and you want it in a small package, this is the one to get.

When you sit in front of your monitor and you look at your properly exposed files from the A7R, you will be in awe every time and you will think it’s worth every dime.

So, it’s capable of providing those rewarding results by the bucket loads.

But that’s only half the story. This is very much a perfect sensor in a flawed camera. And despite many attempts, using it has not fulfilled my desire to have fun when out shooting. Frustration and uncertainty is more like it.

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Winter Colors – Sony A7 with FE 35mm f/2.8 @ f/5.6, 1/125, ISO 100

The Story So Far

I received the A7R and the native Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens early December. Weather permitting, I have used it as much as possible. Earlier, I wrote a comparison article with the Nikon D800e and the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens and found that the Sony combo was sharper in the corners, but that otherwise they delivered pretty much the same results.

I also rented the Sony A7 over the holiday break to compare it against the A7R and have used the two side by side.

During this time, I’ve read forum posts and other reviews of the camera(s). I started to doubt my own sanity, as virtually everybody was raving about these little marvels. People pointed out some weaknesses, but quickly concluded that those could easily be tackled with proper technique or that these were just the price to pay for such remarkable cameras.

Maybe I’m sloppy. Maybe I’m impatient. Maybe I’m too much of a unsettled shooter, in the sense that I don’t focus on any particular kind of genre. Maybe it’s my early interest in photojournalism and the fast cameras that cater to that profession. I don’t know. All I know is that I struggled mightily to like, really like, the A7R (and the A7).

I shot around the house, I went for drives and shot in the economically depressed town of Newburgh, NY, and on the proud campus of the West Point military academy. I went for numerous trips to New York. I went to a model group shoot. I ventured out in the snow and freezing cold.

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Yep, Prestige Realty – Sony A7 with FE 35mm f/2.8 @ f/5.6, 1/80. ISO 100

Every time I took the camera, I was astounded that I had so much firepower in such a light and small package.

As a quick aside: there are pros and cons to carrying a light, small camera. When in Newburgh, parts of which look like Detroit with abandoned homes and empty lots, I was glad to carry a tiny unobtrusive kit. I had asked a postman if it was safe for me to walk around and take pictures and was a bit apprehensive after his answer: “As long as you don’t look like a cop.” It was only after I returned home that I read that Newburgh has the 4th highest crime rate of any American city. Oh, well.

But when I went to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City, a crazily crowded place this time of the year, I decided against carrying both Sony’s. They’re so light I was afraid I wouldn’t notice if somebody lifted one of my shoulder and got away with it. So, I only took one that I could hold on to at any time.

Still, I love high resolution and I don’t like carrying bulky, heavy cameras. So, the initial feeling of heading out with the Sony’s was always a delight. Just imagine, down the line with a few more lenses, and without breaking your back, you can get it all .

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Hoping Miley Will Notice Him – Sony A7 with FE 35mm/f2.8 @ f/5, 1/100, ISO 1600

Not Getting It

Except that every so often, I didn’t get it all.

Take one of the outings to New York. I’m taking pictures of people in the crowd, of the Chrismas tree and its surroundings. In my EVF and on my LCD the results look fine. When I come home, however, I see that much of it is not critically sharp.

I used aperture priority and auto ISO and find that the camera chose a combination that left the shutter speed at 1/60th. Turns out that often doesn’t work for the A7R with the 35mm lens, with 36mp and lack of stabilization.

Plus, the autofocus is slow (especially on the A7R, the A7 is much better). Did I ever write before that I can’t stand slow autofocus? Drives me nuts. At least when I’m in a situation where I need fast autofocus. Like in New York City.

That model shoot pretty much left the same impression. I schlepped the Nikon, two Sony’s, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and a Canon 5D Mark III and a bunch of lenses to that shoot. Looking back at the hundreds of images I took, the Olympus, Nikon and Canon all focused without a problem. The A7 got it right most of the time. The A7R missed critical focus quite often. That’s because the model is only lit by the modeling lights and/or any ambient light in the studio and that’s often not enough for the A7R to focus.

Talking about shooting in the studio. You have to turn off the EVF effects, otherwise the EVF completely blacks out showing you the image it would take without the strobes firing. If you turn it off (Live View Display>Setting Effect OFF), you can see the model but using an optical viewfinder still beats an EVF in the studio. This is also a disadvantage for the Olympus (on the E-M1 you have to turn on Live View Boost when using studio strobes).

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Sony A7R with FE 35mm f/2.8 lens @ f/8, 1/200, ISO 200

In general, everything is a little slow on these Sony’s. Formatting the memory card isn’t the zippy process of a DSLR. Frames per second is a joke for modern cameras.

Some have compared the A7(R) to the Contax G2 film camera. That happens to be a camera I loved. It was small, the lenses were superb and it rendered beautiful images. The comparison is apt, because like the Sony, the Contax had its drawbacks in terms of speed. Autofocus was pretty slow, manual focus was done in an unusual way with a wheel on the front of the body, the viewfinder was too dark. Like the Sony, when it got it right, the results were great.

The weather plays a role too. If I still lived in Cyprus, in the sunny Mediterannean, I would be happier with the Sony. I could use high shutter speeds almost all the time. Same for the summer here in the USA. But this wintry weather often forces me to use slower speeds than is safe on this camera.

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Bitterly Cold Manhattan – Sony A7R with FE 35mm f/2.8 @ f/8, 1/200, ISO 200

The Emotional Conclusion

All in all, I cannot love these Sony’s. They’re just too limited for me. They’re not fun, especially not the A7R. I’m constantly in doubt whether I’ve nailed it. I haven’t experienced the shutter vibration others talk about, but I don’t like the loudness of the shutter. For the life of me, I cannot envision these camera as all-around travel cameras, which is to me a large part of having a small and light camera.

The A7 doesn’t make sense for me at all, actually. Sure, it’s faster than the A7R and more capable as a camera. But I’d choose the Olympus E-M1 over the A7 any day. It’s faster in every aspect and the image quality difference isn’t that great.

I do see a point in the A7R with its 36 megapixels. It might not be fun as an all-round camera, but if I’d only use it for slower work, it might be able to replace my Nikon D800e and my Canon 5D III, especially if I can make it work well with the better Canon lenses on a Metabones adapter.

And that’s why I haven’t sold the A7R yet. I do have too much money invested in gear at the moment and need to cull down. Other than studio work, where the optical viewfinders of the DSLRs are a real advantage, I could get by with the Olympus as my main system and the Canon or Nikon or Sony as the landscape, high megapixel setup.

So, the next step is to start shooting the A7R with various other lenses and see how I like the experience and the result. If I don’t like it, I sell my Sony gear and wait for the next generation, if Sony has the attention span to roll out new and improved versions.

If I do like it – rationally – the Nikon and Canon cameras will leave the premises and the Sony will become the landscape-only camera. I’ll keep you posted.

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Candles & Paint Cans, St. Patrick’s Cathedral – A7R, 35mm @ f/5, 1/50, ISO 6400

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A7, 35mm @ f/2.8, 1/15, ISO 1600

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Street Vendor – A7, 35mm @ f/2.8, 1/60, ISO 160

(this image looks good small but is one of those examples that’s not critically sharp at 100%)

PS: Some people are comparing the A7(R) to the Sony RX-1(R). I think they’re different beasts. The RX feels more solid (because the lens sits deeper in the body), is quiet, has a faster, better, lens and to me is an extremely desirable camera, a digital classic that will retain that status. The A7(R), one the other hand, seems an example of a company rolling out something that’s good enough, but will become obsolete the moment someone (maybe Sony) gets the combo of superb sensor and superb small camera right.

Comments

  1. Very interesting point of view and nice review, I’m getting to the same conclusion.
    I have the OMD EM1, which is a great camera and wanted to complement the system with a FF camera for shallow DOF work (only primes, zooms are to heavy and expensive on FF, here m43 has a benefit for me). I’m inclined to a D610 or Canon 6D because of a much larger variety of lenses (I like the 35mm/2.0 (stabilised!) and 85/1.8). Did you have any chance shooting with any one of those models?
    On the other hand the new Zeiss 55/1.8 is a great lens, sharp already wide open.
    But being used to such a great stabiliser in the OMD, it is difficult to live without it.

    • Thanks. I’m sorry, but I’ve never used the Canon 6D or the Nikon D610. Both seem very capable cameras, though. I think your choice would come down to the lenses you prefer.

  2. Nice review. I’m considering the A7R with the Zeiss FE 24-70 zoom to replace my Nikon D600. Primarily to get 36 MP landscapes with my 24 and 85mm Nikon PC-E lenses that are manual focus anyway. Light enough with the Sony mid-zoom to also replace my Fuji x100s that is a secondary camera for travel.

    Interested in your thoughts as you’re looking at the Sony for landscapes too.

    • Thanks. I’m still trying my Canon lenses on the A7R and will report back later. I also have a Fuji X100s. I don’t think the Sony is as capable for street work as the Fuji. It’s much slower and very loud. I’d hold on to the Fuji for a while.

  3. Chuck B says:

    Love-hate relationship: I cannot agree more. After a week with the 7R I came to the conclusion that it is good for landscapes using a manual focus lens, but not much more. It simply misses focus 50% of the time.
    Forget all the fancy settings and stuff. The 7r is just a convenient data back, not a camera.

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