The problem with Sony… Some impressions of the Sony A7

So let me start with a negative. I really didn’t like the Sony NEX-7. I hated the menus, the controls, the image quality above ISO 800, the display icons, the ergonomics yah-de-yah. 😉 . OK, a bit strong, but I did feel like the NEX-7 was a disappointment to me as a photographer. I never felt like I bonded with it.

Barbican Terrace

Lunch at the Food Hall

Conversely, the RX1 was an excellent camera. Small, stunning lens, stunning lens (so great I counted it twice) great sensor and the worst negatives I could come up with was the lack of a dedicated shutter speed dial and the lack of a built in VF. As a portable large sensor camera the X100s is a bit better in functionality, but it’s hard, neigh impossible to beat the image quality from this tiny pocket rocket. Having spent some time not using it, then writing about it, you end up wanting to take it out with you. It’s mind-blowing to me that something like this came out of the same company. But in that comment I am too hard on the NEX-7. The fundamentals of that camera were fantastic and ground breaking. Nikon may have better APS-C sensors made by other suppliers now, but in good light there wasn’t a lot to complain about.

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Which brings me to the Sony A7. Another great, but flawed, camera. However, there’s a lot to like here and the implementation is much, much better than the NEX-7. There are some odd ergonomic quirks that will be more of a problem for some people than others. The viewfinder isn’t perhaps as impressive as some other cameras (notably the E-M1). The native lens range is poor (in numbers, not quality). The shutter is quite loud.

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I want to be a tree...

But actually, look beyond all of that and you have stunning image quality (high ISO and dynamic range), fast focus and controls that are relatively intuitive. I’m not stating it’s a terrible camera, rather that it’s an exceptionally good mirrorless one, but that comes with some “quirks”. So let’s begin…

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The Sony A7 uses the same Sony manufactured 35mm sensor as has previously been seen (and used by me) in the D600 and RX1 (its also been used in the Sony A99, RX1r and Nikon D610). It strikes an excellent balance between high ISO image quality and dynamic range at base ISO, significantly outperforming similarly sized sensors for Canon DSLRs. The body is approximately the same size as an Olympus E-M1. In short this is a mashup of the smaller sensor mirrorless bodies with the sensor of a full frame DSLR.

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The rear of the camera features a high resolution 921,000 dot 3inch screen that tilts up and down (but does not articulate like Canon and Panasonic screens), and a high resolution 2.4 million dot OLED EVF. The EVF quality is excellent, with a very clear and crisp display, which includes a dual axis electronic level, and the EVF has a good sized rubber surround to help viewing outdoors which will be of benefit to anyone who wears glasses. A big improvement carried over from the RX1 is a menu system much more similar to Sony Alpha cameras (ultimately this menu system traces its roots back to the old minolta DSLRs, rather than Sony NEX cameras, which is great as the NEX menu system was not one of the camera systems strong points).

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A large front grip is covered in a textured rubber coating that extends round to the back of the camera, where it is shaped for your thumb. Unfortunately this is one of my beefs with the camera. The grip doesn’t allow me to curl my fingers round next to the lens when the 55mm lens is mounted. Clearly this kind of thing is subjective, but I cannot help feeling the next generation of FE mount cameras would be better served with a grip closer to the E-M1 in shape and size. On the topic of beefs with the camera, the positioning of the buttons on and around the”shelf” on the back of the camera also feels odd to me. It’s definitely an area for improvement on future FE mount models.

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An exposure compensation dial on top gives quick exposure control without being exposed to random knocks, and a front and rear dial can be used for aperture and shutter control when in M, A or S modes respectively. I find this a big improvement over the NEX-7s tri-navi control system and of course it is closer to the system used by most DSLRs and the Olympus OM-D cameras.

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I still don’t get the choice to treat a camera like a mobile phone and use in body charging as the sole means of charging the battery. I purchased a charger on eBay, because this is a power hungry camera. Battery life is rated at 270 shots according to CIPA test results, I managed a bit less than this in practice, but it’s consistent with other mirrorless cameras. I will say this, at least the battery can express its charge using a percentage, so you do have a vague idea of how much charge is left (I’m looking at you Fujifilm…).

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The camera has shutter speeds between 1/8000 and 30 seconds with a Bulb option. The flash sync is 1/250 (which compares well to 1/160 on the A7r). Bracketing is a bit basic with three frames between 1/3 and 3EV or five frames in increments of 1/3 to 2/3EV.

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This is also a camera that does wifi, which I’m rapidly coming to conclude is essential for in the field social media pictures. Its about as easy to use as the Fujifilm system, not as good or as simple as the Olympus system which uses a scannable QR code. In fairness, I believe it’s ultra quick to set up if you have a Android phone with NFC. The A7 does not have a built-in flash, but it does have a standard hotshoe. The A7 also has USB and Micro HDMI ports, along with 3.5mm microphone input and headphone jacks. The HDMI output can be configured to deliver a clean feed without graphics, a must for serious video users.

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The prime lenses are just brilliant. No question that Sony hit it out of the park with these. The 35mm is not quite as good as the lens on the RX1, but its very close. The 55mm is one of the sharpest lenses its ben my fortune to use. It has lovely contrast and colour reproduction too. I can very easily see why DXO rated it so highly (at the time of writing its the highest rated autofocus lens on DXO). Apparently the 28-70 is so-so and the 24-70 is a bit better. I will get the 24-70, but I will say now I think this is a primes camera.

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The a7’s image quality is great, the size of the sensor making it easy to get shallow depth-of-field and offering excellent low light capability, simply as a consequence of having a huge sensor to gather light. DPR reported on an issue of jpeg “posterisation” in its review. I cannot say I have particularly noticed it, but its actually something common to many consumer cameras (you see similar things in some Fuji jpegs). In RAW there is an issue identified by the LibRAW decoder project whereby the 14 bit RAWs contain about 11 bits of information. Again, I cannot say I’ve really noticed it overmuch myself, but in practice it will limit shadow and highlight recovery. I would not get too het up about either of these issues. I think you have to bear in mind the A7 may not have the pure image quality of the D600/D610, but its still fantastic. The thought that this camera costs the same as a Olympus E-M1 is a sobering thought and perhaps a worrying one for the M43s manufacturers. In summary, the pictures here speak for themselves (I hope!).

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This is a quick to operate camera. It starts up quickly and there is little shutter lag. In decent light, the AF performs well, as quick if not quite as certain/accurate as a DSLR. In poor light (read indoors in most light), where the PDAF system is disabled, the camera can hunt a bit. This is my main disappointment with the camera – its not quite as bad as the X-Pro1 with firmware version 1 but in poor light the AF is either quick and inaccurate or slow and hunting. I’ve spent some time at a lunch in a pub with my family and found almost none of the photos I took were keepers. Clearly thats a negative, but yet in the outdoors I’ve found its about as good as a DSLR for street photography. Talk about schizophrenic!

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To get away from the negatives, when it works well its a small, quick, accurate camera with a full frame sensor. That needs to be balanced with some quirks. I can understand why DPR gave this camera a silver award. I cannot understand why DPR gave a gold award to the A7r with its even louder shutter, 36mp (and thus hypersensitive as well as hyper resolution) sensor, CDAF only and bigger price tag. The A7 however, has a lot going for it. The EVF may not be THE best, but its very, very good. The image quality is fantastic. Ultimately I end up thinking that its much cheaper than the FF DSLRs it competes with (this will be offset by lens costs though). It certainly isn’t a clunker though – what it is, is a first generation product finding its feet. So it isn’t perfect, but there’s still a lot to like. Give it more lenses, improved ergonomics and autofocus and the next version will be a belter. As it is, this version is very good in its niche rather than generally excellent.

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Taken with my Sony A7, 35mm and 55mm FE lenses, Voigtlander 20mm F3.5 (via adapter).

The Sony A7 is available here.

21 thoughts

  1. As always, a good real world opinion of the camera. I am now a committed Fuji user (X100S and X-E1) it would be interesting to hear your opinion of the A7 versus the new X-T1, should you decide to purchase one.

    I think I am going to wait and see what the X-Pro2 brings before committing to my next body purchase.

    Do you still have your Fuji’s or have you gone separate ways?

    Thanks for all the effort Simon.

  2. I have just purchased the Sony a7, its early days but so far I love it, the colour is lovely…all of these shots are brilliant.

  3. Nice pictures Simon, clean and not overly saturated like is the case with Fujis. The 55mm really looks great from whatever I have seen. I am thinking of getting A7 and a telephoto prime, but 55 would be too close to my RX1R. I am not ready to give up my RX1R yet 🙂 Maybe I will get a leica 90mm of some sort after checking my bank account.

    • Hi Mahesh,
      Ha, wait until you have 4 50mm lenses and 5 35mm lenses! I would love to say I’m jesting… More seriously, the 55 is very different to your 35mm RX1 in terms of field of view. But then I think 24mm is very different to 28mm. I would seriously recommend the combination of the A7/r and the 55. Optically there’s little better, its a classic sharp, contrasty modern lens multiplied by 120% for a little extra. My biggest beef with the A7 is the iffy AF in low light, but that’s just a weakness of most mirrorless cameras.

  4. I love your review and your photo. Is your photo edited from RAW or straight from camera jpeg? They all look stunning! I am a Fujifilm X-E1 user and going to switch to Sony A7.
    I am still thinking what lenses to get. Either Sony or Voigtlander. I have the choice of Voigtlander 35mm f2.5, Voigtlander 50mm f1.5. or Sony 35mm and 55mm.

    • Hi Alex,

      Thank you. If you are getting an A7 I would recommend the Sony native lenses, which are excellent quality optically and have autofocus.

      The Jpegs are all processed from a RAW via Lightroom, but the Jpegs from the camera are excellent with great skintones. I’ve been sending them to my ipad via wifi and occasionally editing in snapseed.

      Best

      Simon

      • I am a Fuji shooter right now and somehow i dont like the character from Fuji lens. Thats why i am thinking about Voigtlander. Cause it hs some Leica feel. I know Sony 35mm 2.8 is good.

      • I think many/most of the Fuji lenses are excellent. I think the problem with Fuji cameras is really the sensor. It’s also the best thing about them too. The Fuji X cameras give great results in many conditions, but in some (notably high contrast or conditions with dull but bright ambient light) they really fall over. Its a pity. That’s an extended metaphor for my response to your question, in the sense I’m saying that when you analyse a lens’ performance, the sensor behind the lens matters a great deal, as does the camera body it’s mounted on.

        As to the Voigt, I’m not sure it will have Leica-like results mounted on an A7 – there are two factors at play in that, the shutter and the sensor. Undeniably, the A7 cameras produce beautiful results, but they also have a very different colour response to a Leica. Also, the A7/r have a shutter that is DSLR like in the amount of vibration it produces. What that means is that the results sometimes have more in common with results from a DSLR like a D600 than a Leica, regardless of the lens used.

        That’s not me saying “don’t buy the camera” more “don’t expect it to give you instant Leicalike results”. I think the Voigt is potentially a good choice for a manual focus lens on the A7, but I would try and pick up a used version, just to save on the resale if you decide you do want AF.

        As to the selection of Voigtlander lenses you mentioned, the 50 is probably the one I’ve heard the least good things about (I would probably go with a Zeiss C-Sonnar (made in the same factory) over that), but the 35 is very good. I’ve seen rave reviews about the Voigtlander 40mm too, just in case that’s a focal length that takes your fancy.

        Best

        Simon

      • Thanks for your reply.

        I know auto focus is nice. Zeiss 50mm f2.0 manual lens also nice.

        If I can get just one prime lens of Sony between FE 35mm 2.8 or 55nn f1.8, which one is good? 55mm seem a bit too big.

        Alex

        Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone

      • Sure – the Zeiss Planar ZM 50 F2 is a fantastic lens if you appreciate sharpness and microcontrast – has to be one of my favourites for my M240. Of the two Sony lenses both are excellent but the 55 is extremely good. It’s smaller than it looks in photos. Ultimately though, get the focal length you prefer, or get both!

      • Thanks for your reply. I love your photo from your page.

        Is really tough choice for the lenses. I shoot portrait mainly.

        Zeiss Planar 50mm f2 and Sony 55mm f1.8, are they sharp wide open? These two lenses price is not that much of a different. Except one has auto focus.

        Is the focus peaking made manual focus really easy? Fuji has terrible focus peaking.

        Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone

      • That makes things easier – the Sony 55mm is better wide open than the Zeiss Planar. In fact the C-Sonnar is probably sharper at F2 than the Planar, but the Planar sharpens up drastically by F2.8 and by F4 not much can touch it. For what it’s worth the focus peaking is easier with sony because you can use multiple colours (red works particularly well).

      • Oh yeah I forgot there are two Zeiss 50mm. C-Sonnar T 50mm f1.5 and Planar-T 50mm f2. Also Zeiss Planar-T 50mm f1.4 which is the cheapest.

        And Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 is also simialr price.

        Hard decision.
        Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone

      • I think I mostly go for Zeiss Planar-T 50mm F2 and Voigtlander 35mm f2.5. Thanks for your advise.

        Subject: Re: [New comment] The problem with Sony… Some impressions of the Sony A7
        To: comment+pybgbtrto48w93esi9nc9u9hj_x4lnr01ukbvuykfmrrj5cy55@comment.wordpress.com
        From: alexchanmusic@hotmail.com
        Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2014 16:17:57 +0000

        WordPress.com

        Oh yeah I forgot there are two Zeiss 50mm. C-Sonnar T 50mm f1.5 and Planar-T 50mm f2. Also Zeiss Planar-T 50mm f1.4 which is the cheapest.

        And Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 is also simialr price.

        Hard decision.Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphoneFrom: sgoldswoblog Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2014 15:47:57 +0000To: ReplyTo: “sgoldswoblog” Subject: [New comment] The problem with Sony… Some impressions of the Sony A7

        sgoldswo commented: “That makes things easier – the Sony 55mm is better wide open than the Zeiss Planar. In fact the C-Sonnar is probably sharper at F2 than the Planar, but the Planar sharpens up drastically by F2.8 and by F4 not much can touch it. For what it’s worth the foc”

      • You can’t go wrong with the Zeiss Planar in fairness – its an incredibly sharp lens – only really bested by the Leica 50mm F2 APO (no, I haven’t used that one!).

      • One thing for the 55mm F1.8 is the big size. Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 is lighter. Zeiss Planar 50mm f2 also lighter too.

        Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone

      • About the Voigtlander 50mm 1.5 — I’m not sure where you read what you did, but it’s actually one of the lenses that get very good praise by its users in forums. Sean Reid at Luminous Landscape rates it very highly among fast M mount lenses. Especially the latest one with the reworked body design. Even the old one is very good — it gives a look that is a spitting image of the old 50mm Summilux (probably because Voigtlander expressly designed that lens to copy the look of the old classic Lux haha).

        I used to own a set of Voigtlanders before I could afford Leica lenses. Of the ones I had, the 35/2.5, 50/1.5, 35/1.2 and 75/1.8 were superb. Never much cared for the 35/1.4 or 40/1.4 due to the bokeh — the 35/2.5 is much, much better in that aspect. Didn’t like the 50/1.1, either, because of the weight but it did what it’s supposed to do very well. Not sure how they would do on the Sony, but my experience in using M lenses on surrogate digital bodies have been quite good overall as long as you stay above 35mm. Somehow these old manual lenses tame the digitalness of the digital sensor.

      • Of the Zeiss ZM I have owned, the ones I preferred best were the 35 C-Biogon and 21 C-Biogon. I imagine the 35 C would make a great compact partner to the A7 — it has a 43mm filter compared to 49mm on the 35/2.8 FE, and for a 35 you don’t need critical focus that much. I expected to like the C-Sonnar but somehow just didn’t take to it and would prefer the 50mm Planar ZM, but have no doubt the 55mm is as good if not better (especially since it has AF).

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