Sony A7 Field Test Part II
Sony A7 Field Test Part II
New glass, great pics, features and closing thoughts
By David Schloss | Posted: 03/07/2014
Great new lenses. I tested the A7 with the new FE-mount Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens, which costs $800. I quickly fell in love with this optic: It only projects a little less than three inches from the front of the camera, and it's one of the sharpest pieces of glass I've used. That's to be expected from Zeiss, a company with which Sony has a long partnership.
Even though I found it hard to tear myself away from the Zeiss glass, I also used the Sony-branded kit lens that's available with the A7. The kit lens is a 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 optic, and it feels much more durable and substantial than most other kit lenses I've tried. Depending on the focal length, you lose 2/3 to 2 stops over the f/2.8 Zeiss lens, but the zoom is still a great and efficient piece of kit.
Plenty of detail. Images from the A7 are wonderful, though slightly less detailed than those from the A7R. That's understandable -- with 24 megapixels instead of 36, there's a lot less data in the A7's images, although it's still providing as much (or more) resolution than you'll get from the majority of cameras on the market. And that's borne out by my experiences.
Mount the 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss lens, and the A7 produces images that are indistinguishable in quality from what I'd manage with my professional cameras. Tonal and dynamic range of the A7's images are great, as are detail and exposure. That's not surprising to me, as my experience has been that Sony's cameras typically provide some of the best-in-class images. Still, it's amazing when this full-frame camera system is smaller than some Micro Four Thirds bodies.
For my money, that's one of the most intriguing things about the A7: It provides ful-frame SLR-quality images without the bulk of a professional camera, or even of an APS-C DSLR. It's something that experienced shooters like myself have been clamoring for.
Great exposures. The metering system in the A7 is incredible, just as it is in the A7R. Even intentionally presenting it with difficult subjects to to try and throw it off, I couldn't get the A7 to make a bad shot. Everything was at least in the ballpark.
A comfy fit. The Sony A7 looks like it's made out of a single piece of carved metal -- there's a feeling to it that's not unlike grabbing the first MacBook, which was CNC-milled from a slab of aluminum. The body has a reassuring solidity, despite its small size.
The grip is a perfect fit for my hand, although it might not be as comfortable if you have bigger mitts. The camera is just tall enough that my pinky wraps underneath the handgrip, for added support. All controls are well within reach without adjusting my grip, with the exception of the dedicated video button, which is on the outside rear of the camera. The allows the A7 to be used one-handed for snapshots and casual use, but I still think it's best used two-handed.
Pro-friendly controls. I was happy to find that the A7 has a front and a rear control dial along with an exposure compensation dial and mode dial. These two dials, along with the on/off switch, have enough resistance that I didn't accidentally move them in normal shooting or in storage in a camera bag. The dial built into the four-way controller, though, is quite easy to bump. Fortunately, its function can be changed or disabled, or you can optionally lock and unlock it with a press of the center button.
Unusual card slot. The memory card slot sits behind a door in the handgrip, which I prefer to cameras that place the card slot inside the battery compartment. It makes it impossible to accidentally dislodge the battery while trying to change the card, or to get rain in the battery compartment during a flash card change. It's a bit unusual in that the card ejects backwards rather than sideways, but I got used to it quickly enough.
In-camera charging. The Sony A7 doesn't ship with a battery charger -- instead the micro USB slot on the side of the camera is used to charge the battery in-camera. While I'm always happy to see an option to charge a battery over USB, I'd also like to see a standalone battery charger in the product bundle, because it gives me the ability to charge a second battery while I'm out shooting. It's easy enough to pick up an external charger separately, but with a price tag of US$50, it's a bit of a pricey option.
Movie capture. Video shot with the Sony A7 shows good detail, and has the same combination of attractive color and good exposure / white balance as do still images. I did notice a little aliasing and false color, but that's typical of cameras which skip rows of pixels during readout in movie mode -- which is to say, almost all still cameras.
Rolling shutter looks to be fairly well controlled, too. In fact, the biggest issue is that the contrast-detection autofocus system induces noticeable hunting around the point of focus. It's also a little slow to catch up when the focus distance changes suddenly. And unfortunately, the phase-detection autofocus capability of the A7 isn't available for movies. Most experienced videographers will simply disable autofocus, and focus manually or use a narrow aperture to expand the depth of field.
Audio. The built-in stereo mic does a fair job of audio capture, all things considered, and you can adjust the audio levels in 32 steps. You can also monitor levels over a 3.5mm headphone jack, either with near-live or LCD / EVF-synced timing. That's a rather nice touch, and one I haven't seen on many cameras thus far. You can of course attach external mics, and fully manual exposure control is possible too.
Look for much more info on the A7's movie capture capabilities in our video page, coming shortly.
Wireless connectivity. Sony has built Wi-Fi wireless networking connectivity including NFC for quick setup on Android devices into the A7 camera body, as well as its in-camera PlayMemories Camera Apps. I tested using two Android products: a Google Nexus 10 tablet, and an HTC One X+ smartphone. (Although the latter isn't on Sony's "Verified Mobile Devices" list, it's functionally identical to the HTC One X, which is.)
Just as with the recently-reviewed Sony RX10, the tablet worked fine, but a connection could never be established to the phone. An app for iOS devices -- the iPhone or iPad -- is also available, but you can't use NFC for easy pairing on Apple devices since they lack the necessary hardware.
Keyboard "fun". Apps must be installed on the camera and updated via a Wi-Fi hotspot or router, and if you have a long Wi-Fi password, entering it on the old-school multi-tap keyboard (similar to that from an old dumbphone) using the four-way controller is a painful experience. And once you're done with that, you have to sign up for a Sony account online, then enter your email address and password on the camera using a different on-screen keyboard more similar to that on a smartphone.
Updatable in-camera apps. On the plus side, these apps make it easier for Sony to add new features to the camera, and you can choose which of those features are important to you. As of early March 2013, you can choose from an updated Smart Remote Control app, a Direct Upload app, a Flickr add-on for Direct Upload, and a Picture Effect+ app. There are also several payware apps: Time-lapse ($10), Lens Compensation ($10), and Multiple Exposure ($5).
Remote live shooting. The Smart Remote Control app is the interesting one. It's similar to that which we saw on the Sony RX10, but allows for more features. It also leaves the physical controls on the camera active. You can shoot in Program, Priority, or Manual exposure modes, and can set exposure variables (including shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity, and white balance) as appropriate from the smart device, be it a phone or tablet. You can also touch on the smart device screen to select a point for focus, and trigger autofocus operation.
In addition, you can enable a self-timer, change the live view feed to prioritize speed or quality, and opt for either 2-megapixel or full-size image transfer. Live view quality, while well below the resolution of a tablet like the Nexus 10, is certainly sufficient to get an approximation of focus. And unlike the RX10, images can optionally transfer to your smart device immediately after capture.
Quick transfer. Transfer speeds are also much better than those we saw with the RX10, taking only a couple of seconds to transfer a full-res image, while the live view is similarly snappy. (Perhaps a quarter of a second lag, or less.) Wi-Fi range was also better, on the order of perhaps 20-25 feet, although I still couldn't go out of line-of-sight without the live view image becoming too slow to be usable.
And of course, you can also transfer images you've already shot, handy for when you have rattled off a burst of shots with the camera and then want to review them on a larger screen. Here, you can select images either from the camera or the smart device.
Still-image only. The only area in which the Sony A7 lags the RX10's Wi-Fi feature set is that you can't transfer or shoot movies remotely at all. It's still image or nothing for the A7. But if you're willing to overlook that, and the relatively limited Wi-Fi range -- which could perhaps be addressed with a repeater of some kind -- the feature is pretty handy, and the ability to adjust exposure from your phone or tablet, then focus on your chosen subject remotely, is cool indeed!
Having a really large full-frame sensor makes available-light, handheld shots much more feasible. This shot was taken in a very dimly-lit hotel room, and while auto white balance struggled a bit, there's still a fair bit of detail in the shot.
Closing thoughts. The Sony A7 is a groundbreaking camera. It challenges the conventions of what can be done with a full-frame camera body, much like APS-C mirrorless cameras redefined the crop-sensor camera market. Until now, if you wanted full-frame and interchangeable lenses, you had no choice but to buy a bulky DSLR. With the Sony A7 and A7R, that's no longer the case.
Chances are, these cameras will go down in history as having changed the full-frame game. Ultimately, there may be faster, more efficient and more professional mirrorless cameras, but right now, if you want full-frame and phase detection in a mirrorless body, the Sony A7 is simply a camera with no rival.