Sony set the photography world abuzz when it released its A7 and A7R cameras back in 2013. These diminutive cameras featured the same large 35mm (full-frame) sensors as DSLRs like the Canon 6D and Nikon D610 (6D vs. D610). Not only were they the first-ever full-frame mirrorless cameras (not counting Leica's digital rangefinders), they were also the smallest and most affordable full-frame digital cameras of all time.
The duo of full-frame E-mount cameras quickly became a favorite with enthusiasts, thanks to the ability to connect all kinds of legacy lenses created for the 35mm format via adapters, without compromising the angle of view as in smaller sensor formats. For many, the question was not so much whether to buy an A-series camera at all, but rather which one to choose.
On the outside, the two cameras are almost identical, except for the little red 'R' letter added to one of the models, and the fact that the A7 uses a polycarbonate front panel vs. the A7R's magnesium alloy panel.
The two cameras also share the majority of their components and features: a large, tilting 3” display with almost 1.23 million pixels resolution; a beautiful, large and bright electronic viewfinder with almost double the resolution of the display at 2.36 million pixels; a BIONZ X image processor; a super quick shutter with a maximum speed of 1/8000 sec.; Wi-Fi; NFC; and of course the capability to record Full HD 1080p video at 60, 30 or 24 frames per second.
The key difference between the two cameras is the sensor, with that of the A7 resolving 24 megapixels and that of the A7R resolving 36 megapixels. But it's not just about the number of pixels; the A7R omits the anti-aliasing filter, which gives it even sharper images with plenty of fine detail. And that difference is definitely visible in the resulting images, even though the anti-aliasing filter in the A7 isn't very strong either.
But if you make a lot of insanely huge prints or have any other reason to need (or want) that extra resolution and detail, the A7R with its image quality approaching medium format territory is definitely the model to go for. On the other hand, if you don't need the extra detail from the A7R's sensor, the A7 will save you a nice sum that you can invest in extra lenses.
And there's another reason why you might want to go for the A7 over the A7R: Unlike the A7R, the A7 has phase-detection focus pixels on its sensor. When using E-mount lenses that are optimized for phase detect autofocus, the A7 combines both phase-detection and contrast-detection autofocus for faster and more precise focusing.
In our review, we found that the A7's autofocus is both more confident and quicker, with less focus hunting. Unlike the A7R, the A7 also features predictive autofocus tracking (made possible by its phase-detection pixels), which helps a lot when trying to keep up with moving subjects – something the A7R isn't particularly good at.
There are other considerations as well, as the sensor and autofocus aren't the only differences between the Sony A7 and A7R. Continuous shooting rates are also something to consider, especially if you're planning to use either camera to capture fast action. Without continuous autofocus, the A7 has a maximum burst rate of 5 frames per second, compared to only 4 fps on the A7R.
With continuous AF, the A7 again bests its higher-resolving sibling thanks to its hybrid autofocus. While 2.5 fps is nothing to write home about compared to what other cameras are able to pull off, it's still a whole frame per second more than the A7R's 1.5 fps; a full 67% faster than its more expensive sibling. It should go without saying, but neither camera is an ideal choice for action photography.
For the strobists among our readers, it will be nice to know that the A7 offers a maximum flash sync speed of 1/250 sec., which is much faster than what you can find in most consumer camera models. The A7R, on the other hand, offers maximum flash sync speed of only 1/160 sec. So if you need to do flash work outside, and increase shutter speed to keep a wider aperture or pull down the level of ambient light, the roughly 2/3-stop difference in x-sync speed could be a deal breaker for you.
The reason for all these speed difference between the two cameras, we assume, is the fact that the A7 features an optional electronic first-curtain shutter, which the A7R lacks. And besides speed, the A7's electronic shutter has one other benefit: it helps make the otherwise rather noisy mechanical shutter a bit quieter.
In the remaining categories – overall handling, high ISO image quality, metering, and movie capturing – the two are pretty similar. Since both cameras share basically the same body, their handling is also just about identical: They're both nice to handle and though there are a couple of quirks here and there, they shouldn't ruin your shooting experience.
High ISO image quality is good on both cameras, and while the A7 might have a slight edge over the A7R when it comes to noise performance due to its slightly larger (since fewer) pixels, the A7R makes good for that with slightly better fine detail reproduction at higher ISO sensitivities.
In our respective reviews, we found the metering systems of both cameras to be an absolute joy, yielding almost perfect results in most shooting scenarios. And even if either is fooled by a particularly dark, bright, or contrasty scene, the raw files provide copious dynamic range to salvage under- or overexposed shots.
The movie shooting capabilities of the Sony A7 and A7R are also identical, with both cameras supporting Full HD 1080p recording, stereo audio and plenty of manual options. Here, neither camera's still photography advantages apply: The A7R can't make use of its higher resolution during video recording and the A7 doesn't support phase-detection autofocus during movie capturing.
The decision boils down to whether you prefer the A7's speed advantages – higher continuous shooting rates, quicker and more accurate autofocus, faster x-sync – or the A7R's advantage in resolution, fine detail reproduction and body construction. The deciding factor might just be price: the A7R is $600 more expensive than the A7. In the end we'd recommend most photographers opt for the cheaper, faster Sony A7.
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Incredibly small body for a fully-featured, full-frame camera; Very high resolution; Hybrid autofocus is reasonably fast and confident; Significantly better burst-shooting performance than A7R; Excellent image quality even at very high sensitivities; Faster x-sync than A7R; Accepts existing Alpha-mount and E-mount lenses, and can optionally crop to APS-C image circle.
Grass-is-greener syndrome when compared to its higher-res sibling; Moderate performance; Loud shutter (but electronic first-curtain helps); Mediocre battery life when using electronic viewfinder; Weak low-light autofocus considering its price; Limited selection of native Sony FE lenses.
Incredibly small body for a fully-featured, full-frame camera; Resolution that rivals a medium-format camera; Excellent image quality even at very high sensitivities; Decent performance bearing in mind its extremely high resolution; Accepts existing Alpha-mount and E-mount lenses, and can optionally crop to APS-C image circle.
Extreme resolution makes focus and lens quality critical; Modest performance; Loud shutter; Lacks hybrid autofocus of the A7; Mediocre battery life when using electronic viewfinder; Slow X-sync; Limited selection of native Sony FE lenses.