By Theano Nikitas
Rumors and excitement about Sony’s compact, full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras were running hot and heavy prior to the announcement of the 24-megapixel a7 (Alpha 7) and 36-megapixel a7R (Alpha 7R). Shortly after the cameras were announced, Sony invited a group of journalists and photographers to Nashville, Tenn., for some hands-on time with both full-frame cameras, along with Sony’s new “bridge” camera, the DSC-RX10.
These were fairly early production models, and I spent less time with the cameras than I would for a full review, so these first impressions are just that—a quick first look. That said, I did have enough quality time with the cameras to get a feel for what it’s like to shoot with them.
The a7 and a7R are very similar in size, weight, and feature sets. They’re both well made and built around dust and moisture resistant magnesium alloy bodies. Given that they sport full-frame sensors, they are relatively compact, measuring around 5 x 3.75 x 2 inches. The a7 weighs 16.7 ounces, while the a7R is a hair lighter at 16.4 ounces, with battery and media (SD/SDHC/SDXC or Memory Stick) installed. Granted, the a7/a7R aren’t as small or light as Sony’s NEX-series cameras, nor many other mirrorless models on the market, but since they’re similar in design to the Cyber-shot RX1, there’s enough heft to them to feel solid in the hand and help balance longer lenses. A nice-sized handgrip also adds to the camera’s comfortable handhold.
Currently there are only three native full-frame (FE) lenses for the E-mount a7/a7R: the kit 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6, the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8, and Zeiss 35mm f/2.8. Sony’s FE roadmap promises a total of 15 lenses by 2015, with a 24-70mm f/4 lens due early next year. But Sony and third-party adapters, like Metabones, make it possible to attach a wide range of lenses. Of course, you can always attach an APS-C E-mount lens and either choose a crop mode or live with a vignette.
During the time in Nashville, I checked out the 28-70mm, 55mm, and 35mm lenses, along with a prototype of the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens. Of the three native lenses, the 35mm is my favorite. It’s small, lightweight, and delivers great detail and edge-to-edge sharpness. The 55mm is also an excellent lens, and I managed to pull some nice images from the 28-70mm kit lens as well. It goes without saying that the new Zeiss Otus lens is really, really sweet, but it’s large and overwhelms these compact cameras. Since it’s manual focus only, Sony’s focus peaking comes in handy, but I still had some issues with focusing in low light (which I attribute to mostly user error).
Sony Alpha 7, 35mm lens. Exposure: 1/500 second at f/5.6, ISO 12,800. ©Theano Nikitas
At 36 megapixels, the a7R is the higher-end (and more expensive) camera, and, given the trend in high-resolution digital cameras, it’s no surprise that the a7R lacks an optical low-pass filter (OLPF). In the brief time I shot with the a7R, I noticed very little moiré, but more extensive testing is needed to see how it performs.
Sony Alpha 7R, 35mm lens. Exposure: 1/30 second at f/20, ISO 160. ©Theano Nikitas
Using the cameras’ EVF was a pleasure, and the 3-inch, 921,600-dot tiltable LCD works well under almost all lighting conditions.
Overall, the cameras handle well and have an impressive number of external controls—many of which are customizable—and that’s one of the cameras’ main strengths. Multiple buttons and dials can be customized from a choice of 46 functions. Essentially, you’re given almost free range to create your own operational workflow. On the other hand, setting up the camera can take a while since you have so many choices. Initially, I found it difficult to remember what functions were assigned to the various dials and buttons, especially given that I set up both cameras differently, but it didn’t take long for everything to fall into place, allowing me to concentrate on shooting and not searching for a feature or function.
The cameras are feature rich (for more details about specific features, visit Alpha 7 or Alpha 7R), with more than enough control to please even fussy photographers. And, true to the latest trends, both models feature Wi-Fi, which is generally easy to set up and use, especially if you have an NFC-enabled smart device.
I’ve never been a fan of Sony’s NEX menu interface and, fortunately, the a7/a7R UI follows the logic and easy navigation of that used in the RX1 instead of the mysterious arrangement and placement of features within the often confusing NEX icons.
Neither camera is a real speed demon, but the a7 chugs along a little faster at up to 5 frames per second (fps) vs. the a7R’s maximum 4 fps. Not a huge difference as far as I’m concerned since neither is designed to shoot sports. On the other hand, both cameras are fast enough to capture action shots such as galloping horses.
Autofocus worked fairly well, although the a7—which has a hybrid AF system—seemed to be a little faster than the a7R, but at this point that’s difficult to quantify. On the other hand, the a7R’s AF seemed to be more responsive in low light. Notably, the a7R’s shutter is a bit noisy, so if you’re a wedding photographer, hightail it to your local camera shop to take a listen before you buy.
I was a little disappointed in battery life, even when not using Wi-Fi, so extra batteries are a good bet for extended shooting sessions.
Among the journalists and photographers who attended the Nashville event, there was some discussion about the quality of the a7’s JPEGs. Some people were disappointed and said their images were a little soft straight out of the camera, particularly with the kit lens. I found that most of my test images with the 28-70mm lens were sharply focused and provided good detail. The 55mm lens was even better for sharpness and detail, but I think my favorites were the 35mm lens and the Otus 55mm. Not surprising, the a7R’s images were, in some ways, much better. Again, I’ll repeat the caveat that these are only my first impressions working with early production models, but I can say that the a7/a7R perform quite well in low light/high ISO situations.
Sony Alpha 7, 55mm lens. Exposure: 1/800 second at f/4, ISO 50. ©Theano Nikitas
Sony Alpha 7, 28-70mm lens. Exposure: 1/800 second at f/4.5, ISO 160. ©Theano Nikitas
Are these cameras perfect? No, but Sony has certainly raised the bar by introducing this new category of full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs), and we won’t be surprised to see a lot of pros and enthusiasts adding the Sony Alpha 7 or Alpha 7R to their kits.
Sony a7R: $2,300 (body only)
Sony a7: $1,700 (body only)
Sony a7: $2,000 (with 28-70mm kit lens)
Sonnar T FE 28-70mm F4: $1,200 (January)
Sonnar T FE 35mm F/2.8: $800
Sonnar T FE 55mm F1.8: $1,000
Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4: $4,000
A-Mount fo E-Mount FF Lens Adapter (LA-EA4) with TMT: $350
A-Mount fo E-Mount FF Lens Adapter (LA-EA3): $200