Sony A7 III Field Test

A great all-rounder with full-frame image quality and a sensible pricetag

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FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 97mm, f/4, 1/200s, ISO 2500

Back in late 2013, Sony offered up its Alpha A7 mirrorless camera as a significantly more affordable alternative to the headline-grabbing A7R alongside which it was launched. A year later, it followed up with the A7 II, but it wasn't that long before the A7R II arrived, once again, to reinforce that its sibling bore the stigma of an entry-level status.

Fast-forward to today, though, and 2018's Sony A7 III no longer feels like the entry-level, full-frame camera which it still is. Sure, it retains much the same 24-megapixel resolution as its predecessors, and bears quite similar styling as well, but it suddenly feels like a much more complete package thanks to a very convincing upgrade in the performance department, as well as a profusion of useful new features.

FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 105mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 1600

The basic model, decoded

In introducing the A7 III to journalists attending the WPPI show in Las Vegas -- myself included -- Sony called its new creation "The Basic Model", a moniker which was met with perhaps a little confusion from press and public alike. I think perhaps a little subtlety was lost in translation here, but I believe what Sony was getting at was that the A7 III no longer leaves you with the impression that something is still wanting.

Sure, the A7 III can't keep pace with the spectacular performance of the Sony A9, and nor can it match the A7R III for the detail-gathering abilities of its ultra-high-res sensor. But unlike in Sony's past entry-level, full-frame cameras, those differences from the flagship models no longer feel limiting. The A7 III doesn't lack for resolution or performance because it's an entry-level camera, but because most of the time you're not going to need any more resolution or performance than it already offers.

I think perhaps that what Sony meant, in referring to the A7 III as the "Basic Model", is that it hits all of the basics in terms of its abilities. Having already shot several thousand frames with this impressive camera over the course of several days in Las Vegas, I have to say that I'm inclined to agree with them.

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 400mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 160

A brand-new body with some great improvements to handling and controls

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's rewind a little, and start with some initial thoughts on how the Sony A7 III handles, and take a look at what's new around its body. It might look a whole lot like that of the A7 II before it, but the A7 III's chassis is brand-new and brings with it more than a few important improvements.

Many of these are inherited directly from the previous Sony A7R III and A9, including a refined rear-panel control layout with a joystick control and separate AF-On / AEL buttons, in place of earlier models' combined focus mode / exposure lock button and switch. The new joystick control and the four-way controller / control wheel beneath it now stand proud of the rear deck a little, making both controls easier to access with your right thumb.

At the same time, the video record button has been moved just right of the viewfinder, an infinitely better position than its previous location on the outside of the rear thumb grip. Previously, it was difficult to start or stop video without unintentionally turning the camera body at the same time. Now, you don't need to throw away the start and end of your video clips, nor to avoid this by reassigning the function to a different control.

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 400mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 3200
This image has been edited. Please click to see the original.

A touch-screen display and a more generously-sized viewfinder

Another important change is the addition of a touch-screen to the rear-panel display, which can also still tilt upwards or downwards for shooting over your head, from the hip or low to the ground. The touch screen makes light work of subject selection, but I still prefer the more versatile side-mounted tilt/swivel articulation mechanisms used by some rivals. For one thing, they're useful for portrait-orientation shots too, not just landscapes. And for another, they sometimes allow you to close the screen facing inwards, for a little added protection against knocks and scrapes.

At the same time, the Sony A7 III viewfinder is more generously sized than before, thanks to an increase in magnification from 0.71x to 0.78x. The panel resolution is unchanged, and does have significantly lower resolution than that used in the A7R III and A9. But only rarely did I really notice pixelation, predominantly as a faintly-visible grid effect on bright subjects with minimal detail. (The sky or sand dunes, for example.) And lag was pretty minimal, too.

Dual card slots in an entry-level camera... cool!

Sony has also switched to the newer flash card compartment door design seen previously in the A7R III and A9, which places dual card slots beneath a spring-loaded compartment door that is released with a switch on the outside of the thumb grip. It takes a little getting used to initially, but quickly becomes second nature, making flash card changes easier and quicker. And since you now have two card slots instead of one, you need change cards half as often, as well. (Or if you prefer, you can use the secondary slot as a backup of the primary one, potentially saving your bacon if a card dies in the field.)

FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 105mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 1600
This image has been edited. Please click to see the original.

Other more minor changes include the removal of the panorama position from the mode dial (it's been replaced by Slow & Quick video mode), and the front dial now sits horizontally rather than being tilted upwards a little at the front as in the A7 II. There's also a new "A7 III" badge atop the left shoulder on the rear deck, and the hand grip is a little deeper than before, as well as the body itself being a bit thicker.

And unless we're going to start counting screws, that's essentially it for the external changes. The good news is that most controls are unchanged, making for an easier introduction if you're upgrading from an earlier model, and that the few changes made are all well-considered, making the camera easier and more comfortable to shoot with. And as you'd expect of a Sony Alpha camera, the controls all have good feel. Only once all week did I accidentally bump a control unintentionally. (And that was when trying to contort my 6'1" frame to fit myself into the cockpit of a helicopter that, apparently, wasn't designed for the vertically inclined such as myself.)

Great results from a first shoot at the press event

Immediately after revealing its new camera at a press conference held in an event space just off the Vegas strip, Sony had cameras on hand for the assembled press, bloggers and YouTube personalities who'd gathered to hear the news. The company also provided a selection of shooting opportunities at the launch event. As well as an acrobat suspended from the ceiling, twirling and generally making hanging from a hoop look easy, there were a couple of other model shoots set up, too.

Together with my colleague Jaron Schneider, who also attended the event (and whose shots from that first night sit alongside mine in the gallery), we quickly familiarized ourselves with the gear on hand and got down to some shooting. Each of us had an A7 III body and two lenses in hand, with occasional access to a third off and on throughout the next few days.

As well as the FE 24–105 mm F4 G OSS zoom and FE 85mm F1.8 prime in our personal kits, we had occasional access to the FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS super-tele zoom . I was also briefly able to borrow the lust-worthy E-mount Voigtländer MACRO APO-LANTHAR 65mm F2 Aspherical lens from my friend Kishore Sawh, over at SLR Lounge. (From memory, I think only one Voigtländer shot made it into the gallery, though, as I only had a few minutes with this lens.)

Voigtländer MACRO APO-LANTHAR 65mm F2 Aspherical: 65mm, f/2, 1/640s, ISO 1600

As you'll see in the gallery, our results from that initial shoot were very positive. The Sony A7 III showed itself able to focus very quickly and confidently, and to capture plenty of detail with an accurate exposure and good color. But all of this is in a controlled, studio environment with good lighting, shooting predominantly at low sensitivities of ISO 1600 or below. I wanted to see how the A7 III would handle in more challenging conditions.

Noise is well-controlled over most of the base sensitivity range

With that goal in mind, I headed out from Sony's event, but not back to the hotel. Instead, I grabbed Las Vegas' criminally underutilized monorail system to the strip, and went for a photo walk of my own. I shot more than 600 frames over the next few hours around Vegas, ranging all the way from the Sony A7 III's base sensitivity of ISO 100, right the way up to its maximum expanded sensitivity limit of ISO 204,800.

FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 105mm, f/4, 1/250s, ISO 40,000

I had to whittle the gallery down to a meaningful number of shots, so nothing from that shoot above ISO 32,000 actually made it into the gallery. I've since added an ISO sensitivity series shot in the dimly-lit hotel bar which runs all the way across the expanded range, though, which you can see in the gallery or in the crops below.

Sony A7 III ISO Comparison (Click images for full-res)
FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 36mm, f/4, 1s, ISO 50
ISO 50: 100% Crop
ISO 100: 100% Crop
ISO 200: 100% Crop
ISO 400: 100% Crop
ISO 800: 100% Crop
ISO 1600: 100% Crop
ISO 3200: 100% Crop
ISO 6400: 100% Crop
ISO 12800: 100% Crop
ISO 25600: 100% Crop
ISO 51200: 100% Crop
ISO 102400: 100% Crop
ISO 204800: 100% Crop

Between my first day's shooting and the subsequent ISO series, I came away pretty impressed with the Sony A7 III's high ISO chops. I wouldn't hesitate to use anything up to ISO 6400, and even up to ISO 25,600 is surprisingly usable. Noise levels rise significantly from ISO 51,200 and beyond, and there's a noticeable drop in saturation at the very highest sensitivities, although even these could prove useful for smaller print sizes, in a pinch.

Performance is in a whole different league from the A7 II

My first couple of shoots told me plenty about image quality and autofocus, but with relatively static or at least rather less energetic subjects, they didn't necessarily take much advantage of impressive performance on offer. And compared to its predecessor, it's on the performance front where the Sony A7 III makes its biggest gains. Sure, it still pales in comparison to the jaw-dropping performance of Sony's flagship A9, but the A7 III is vastly more affordable than that camera, too.

FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 105mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 1600
This image has been edited. Please click to see the original.

Our first chance for some more active subjects came the following day, when we regrouped at Sony's event venue for more shooting. With the stage and seating from the previous night's presentation gone, there was room for a brand-new set alongside those from the previous day, though. Instead of shooting models who were staying fairly still, we were presented with a large splash pad with water cascading near its rear, and lights set up to illuminate both subjects and waterfall effect alike. And the performers were extremely energetic, taking turns giving us countless leaps, flips, twirls and other impressive demonstrations of their athleticism for a good couple of hours.

I must admit, while quite a visually impressive setup, I'm not terribly great at anticipating what the performers are going to do next on shoots like this. Doubly so given that I wasn't able to provide direction for the performers. Bearing that in mind, I decided for the most part to frame rather loosely, so as to avoid missing limbs and heads if the action didn't move as I expected. I also switched to manual exposure and deliberately underexposed a little as well, in hopes of holding onto more of the many highlights in this energetic set. (You'll see a note next to the thumbnail for any images which I applied curves to post-capture, and these will link to unedited, straight out of the camera versions for each shot so you can see what I was working from.)

FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 82mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 1600

But while I took control of exposure, for the most part I left the camera in charge of autofocus. And as you might expect given that its extremely point-dense autofocus system is based upon that in the flagship Sony A9, I came away rather impressed. Admittedly, the performers were mostly staying at a relatively consistent distance from me, but this was also a rather challenging shoot with loads of subject motion, harsh lighting and extreme dynamic range.

And I was constantly moving around myself, framing shots from different angles and switching lenses quite regularly, so the AF function was nevertheless given quite a workout. And almost all of the time, it performed admirably, quickly and accurately locking focus. Out of almost a thousand frames expended upon the water set, I only saw the Sony A7 III significantly fail to lock focus twice, for a total of perhaps five or six frames. And the overwhelming majority of my shots were focused perfectly. In fact, most of the shots that weren't successful were my own fault, as I kept trying to manage longer trails from the water drops in the background, a tough balancing act while trying to simultaneously render the performers reasonably crisply.

FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS: 84mm, f/6.3, 1/400s, ISO 1600

And where the A7 II was a relatively sedate performer, the A7 III didn't keep me waiting around anywhere near as much. We've not timed it precisely in the lab yet, but my gut feeling is that Sony's 10 frames-per-second burst capture rating -- double that of the A7 and A7 II -- will likely prove pretty accurate. And I'd expect the same of its burst depth, too. Even in raw+JPEG mode (which I used almost exclusively), where Sony predicts a 36-frame buffer, you can expect to get around 50% more frames in a burst than with the A7 II. And if you shoot predominantly in JPEG mode, Sony predicts an approximate tripling of burst depth over the earlier camera. That was borne out by my own experiences, where even rattling off dozens of frames in a burst and then immediately re-framing for another batch, I seldom ran up against the buffer limits.

Continuous AF, too, performs amazingly well for a $2k camera

Of course, the waterfall shoot wasn't really giving us much of a chance to test continuous AF tracking. Thankfully, we got that opportunity the following day, as we headed out of Las Vegas in the direction of Nellis Air Force Base, and the nearby Nellis Dunes Recreation Area. Here, Sony had arranged for a significantly more active subject: Dune buggies!

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 400mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 100

And what a shoot it was. Hands-down my favorite of the trip, it gave me a really good chance to see how the A7 III handled faster-moving subjects. And while dune buggies might be towards the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to their speed, they can still come towards you at a pretty good clip if you're shooting them head-on, as I spent quite a while doing. I really, really wanted to get a good shot of the buggies getting air as they crested the top of a dune, and to try and emphasize just how much air they were getting.

It turned out that the best -- if perhaps not necessarily safest -- way to do so was to wait near the base of a dune, laying on my stomach fairly near to the buggy tracks from past jumps. I did my best to anticipate where the buggies were going to appear, which wasn't so easy to figure out either, as the tell-tale buggy tracks were on the far side of the dune from me, and frequently even the flags above each buggy would vanish out of sight behind the dunes.

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 288mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 100

Eventually, I got my timing and framing just right, and at the perfect moment, too! My chosen buggy racer had crested a dune and threw his arms apart in classic "Look, Ma! No hands!" pose, and I had the FE 100-400mm lens trained on him right as he appeared. I rattled off a burst of nine frames, and in every single one -- including the fourth frame, which was the money shot -- the buggy is tack sharp as the dune behind slowly vanishes into the bokeh, frame by frame.

FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS: 400mm, f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 160

Field Test Summary

I'm just not used to autofocus of this caliber in a camera I could justify buying. With its aggressive pricetag, the Sony A7 III is conceivably within my reach, and thus far it has seriously impressed me with its capabilities. If you want the most camera possible for your money in a relatively compact body for around US$2,000... well, you will definitely want the A7 III near the top of your shortlist.

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