Sony A7R III Field Test

A near-perfect masterpiece of a flagship

by | Posted 12/05/2017

Sony did quite a lot with the A7R III despite keeping the same sensor from the previous camera and maintaining the form factor of the A7R II. In fact, many of the features of the Mark III are the same as with the second generation camera, but the things that Sony did change make a huge difference in the overall experience of the camera. It's faster, more responsive and offers more features than its predecessor while fixing the biggest complaints users griped about with the Mark II.

Overall, it's a masterpiece of a camera with so few flaws that it is obvious Sony listened to its user base and actively engineered a camera that would silence even its loudest critics. Though not perfect, it's the closest Sony has ever come.

Packed with Features

In addition to Sony A7R-series mainstays like 5-axis in-body image stabilization, lightweight body, no optical low-pass filter and a wide ISO range, Sony packed even more features into the Mark III without sacrificing the form factor of the camera (something they seem to care about a great deal).

The new A7R Mark III has the familiar 42.4 effective megapixel EXMOR R sensor, but with a Sony-claimed 15 stops of dynamic range (one more than the Mark II). Sony completely reengineered the physical circuits of the A7R III to lower the noise floor and increase the signal to noise ratio. The camera technology of 2015 has been totally eclipsed by what they can do today, and as such, Sony claims that they were able to make much more of the exact same sensor than they could just a couple years ago.

Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS @ 24mm, f/6.3, 1/20sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Additionally, Sony instituted a brand new, low-vibration and high-reliability shutter to go along with the totally new circuitry. What results is a camera that they say should, and I agree does, perform far better than the A7R II.

The two biggest new features that likely grabbed your attention were the promise of a vastly-improved autofocus system and the Pixel Shift Multi-Shooting feature. The former likely grabbed your attention because Sony heralded it as a "quantum leap" in autofocus performance. It borrows from the Sony A9, and I am happy to report that yes, it is quite outstanding. It's not the exact same AF system as the A9, though, which has 693 phase-detect points and 25 contrast-detect points versus the A7R III's 399 and 425 points respectively. However Sony says they have doubled the speed, tracking performance and eye-tracking performance over the previous camera. They also instituted touch autofocus using the newly-added touch functionality of the LCD.

I have to say, their stated "double" actually feels like a bit of an understatement. The autofocus capability of the A7R III is so spectacularly good that anyone who tries it will have a very hard time going back to the A7R II. As an avid fan of the A9, the camera's autofocus handling feels just about the same. Everything I tried that I knew the A9 would have been able to handle, the A7R III did so with just as much gusto and reliability.

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 31mm, f/14, 0.5sec, ISO 50
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Sony says that we shouldn't expect the camera to perform as well as the A9, and perhaps it does not, but as an end user I had a hard time telling the difference. Perhaps I wasn't challenging the camera enough in the testing I was able to do, but given that I was shooting an action sport in the field and felt like the camera did extremely well means that unless you have a ridiculously high ceiling for being impressed, you also will find the A7R III to be outstanding in this regard.

The autofocus tracking won't cover the entire sensor, and this you might notice especially if you're shooting in portrait orientation. 47% of the sensor is covered by phase detection autofocus, and when combined with contrast autofocus it goes up to 68%. The autofocus doesn't reach edge-to-edge, so you as a shooter will have to adapt in kind. The AF coverage is still way better than that of most DSLRs, but there were a few instances where I noticed the tracking was not able to cover the area of the frame I wanted. These were few and far between, though, and I didn't find that it interrupted my ability to capture a scene too terribly.

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 32mm, f/13, 1.6secs, ISO 50
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

The A7R III offers 10 frames per second continuous shooting combined with continuous AF/AE tracking using either the all new mechanical focal plane shutter or the silent electronic shutter.

The aforementioned Pixel Shift Multi Shooting feature isn't new to the camera world, but it is new to Sony. The camera is able to capture four, pixel-shifted images containing a total of 169.6 million pixels that you'll later need to composite into one finished image using a free piece of Sony software -- it can't composite the massive image in-camera. When your subject or anything in the frame remains still, there is currently no better way to produce a more high-fidelity image.

Will the average, or even above average, viewer of the image notice? Probably not. Especially not when an image is rarely viewed at full resolution. The samples we were shown were enlarged, and we were told to focus on the differences between the Pixel Shift image and a regular, single shot. Of course in this situation we would see a difference. Would we have in a real world, unbiased situation? It's hard to say.

Is it still a cool feature to add? Totally.

I was not able to fully test this feature due to a couple factors: 1) No scene I shot would remain totally still (either cloud motion, water motion, or tree motion) for the time it would take to capture the four images used as a composite. 2) The software from Sony required to composite the images together was either not available or only available in a beta form at the time.

Those things said, we will add a section later regarding this feature and its performance.

Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 G @ 14mm, f/10, 1/80sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.
Hardware Upgrades

Sony addressed the biggest, most widely-complained about shortcoming of the A7R II in a way we were not expecting. Heck, even some Sony representatives were surprised this happened. Sony managed to compress the rest of the camera's internals down so as to not change the form factor of the body, while improving its features dramatically in multiple areas (which is a highly impressive feat) so that they could change the battery entirely. The Sony A7R III uses the new NP-FZ100 Z-series battery found in the A9, and it more than doubles the lifespan of the A7R III over the A7R II.

When you add on the battery grip (which is the exact same battery grip used on the A9, mind you), you will actually find it challenging to burn the camera's battery out. I shot full days in both high-resolution video, time-lapse and 10 frames per second stills and never once went through one battery, let alone the two that fit in the grip. Sony managed to go from arguably the worst battery performance in a professional camera to what might be one of the best in just one generation.

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 16mm, f/8.0, 1/250, ISO 250
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Sony also added a second card slot, with the same arrangement as the A9: one UHS-II and one UHS-I. They also added relay-recording to those memory cards.

The A7R III also has both USB-C (3.1 Gen 1) and Micro-B USB 2.0 connections, which allows you to power a camera while it's operating. You can use both at the same time as well. For example, you can power the camera with a USB-C cable, and use the Micro-B cable for an accessory, like an intervalometer.

While I am on that note, the PlayMemories app marketplace for the A7R II was not carried over to the A7R III, which means you have to use an external intervalometer in order to do timelapse. I'm not certain why the relatively simple built-in timelapse feature found in other cameras like the Nikon D850 and Canon 5D Mark IV didn't find its way into the Sony A7R III. That said, the fact they left the apps marketplace behind I actually applaud -- they were bad.

Sony also added a multi-selector joystick to the rear of the camera and doubled down by adding touch support to the rear screen (it really only works with touch focus, so it's not a full-on active touchscreen).

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 16mm, f/2.8, 15secs, ISO 8000
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.
Video Features

Though I will absolutely be going into much greater detail on video in a dedicated video field test, I do want to point out what the camera features and briefly talk about how it performed in a real-world situation. Below is a video I shot and edited in 48 hours using only the A7R III:

The A7R III does not add any new frame rates over the Mark II, but it does do a few things to increase the quality of the footage produced. When shot in full frame 4K, video quality is spectacular. However, when you switch the camera to Super-35 mode, it gets even better. Though you lose the full frame focal lengths you might want, you gain image quality by way of mixing the already great full pixel readout without binning or line skipping that comes with the normally shot 4K footage with an oversampled 5K readout compressed into a 4K file. It looks really good, but honestly… both Super 35 and Full Frame do. It's a nice combination of options. Super high-end users are going to love the bump in quality they get when shooting in Super 35, but there is hardly a downside for most when shooting in full frame.

Like the A7R II, the Mark III also offers Full HD video at 120 frames per second. The Mark II suffered from a "soft" or lower-quality look with its 1080/120p footage. This has been improved on the Mark III, and in limited testing, it indeed appears to have jumped in quality. The image is crisp and the footage looks quality. Sony also added S-LOG3 to the camera for wide, 14-stops of dynamic range video shooting.

Unfortunately, Sony didn't add 4K at 60 frames per second, leaving only the Panasonic GH5 and the Canon 1DX Mark II as the only cameras in this form factor to offer it. That's a real shame because if they had, 4K/60p combined with the in-body stabilization, image quality and S-LOG all would have resulted in a video camera that would easily outperform its competitors. As it is now, for video shooters there are still reasons to buy other cameras.

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 35mm, F/6.3, 1/4sec, ISO 50
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

My Takeaway: A7R III User Experience, New Features & Weaknesses

The Sony A7R III is both the most fluid and excellent professional full frame camera I have ever used, and also the most frustrating. It's fast and light, but also slow and cumbersome. What I'm trying to say is that because the camera is so excellent in most areas, the few small problems that it exhibits are even more noticeable and highlighted to me than when they could hide among larger, more game-breaking issues. But now there is so little to complain about that items that used to be minor quibbles are standout issues. It's perhaps a good problem for Sony to have, but I can't help but think that their engineers often sacrifice a much-needed and highly useful feature in exchange for something minor, basically intangible, or perhaps even meaningless in the long run.

Let me explain.

Sony did what they themselves said was impossible: make just about every major problem users had with the A7R II disappear. They said it wouldn't be possible to integrate a bigger battery, yet here we are, with the newer and better battery found in the A9 packed into largely the same space the old, terrible A7R II battery once lived. Now, a camera that would rarely last me an hour or two of heavy use can withstand an entire day, or more. Add on the battery grip, and the A7R III is an absolute beast. After shooting with the camera all day long for a few days, I'm confident saying that it outperforms the 5D Mark IV and the 1DX Mark II, especially when shooting video (the two Canon bodies absolutely feel the strain of video production while the A7R III doesn't seem to have any battery life change from stills to video).

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 35mm, f/5.0, 1/40sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Menu access while writing to a card has also been expanded, making it possible to adjust most settings while the A7R III is recording data. Sony also made the rear LCD a touch screen, allowing for tap-to-focus as well as the ability to drag your thumb across the panel while using the EVF to pinpoint specific locations for focus (think of an even more intuitive way to select focus points than the typical thumb joystick).

Except… it's still not quite perfect. Much of the menu options can't be accessed while the camera is writing files. Yes, you can change settings like ISO and shutter speed, but you can't adjust the mode of the camera (from photo to video) or access other areas of the main menu without being greeted with a warning that states "Cannot perform this function while writing to memory card." With the Canon 1DX Mark II, for example, I am able to rattle off a huge swath of images and immediately then switch to video mode and hit record, without being told by the camera at any point that I couldn't. I can also quickly browse the menu and see images I shot immediately without any lag, which the Sony also cannot do. When it's writing to a card, the A7R III dramatically slows down the entire camera until the writing is finished.

What's also frustrating is that although the Sony does show you how long you have to wait until the buffer is cleared via a visual loading bar, it doesn't always seem entirely accurate. I'll watch the numbers fall from 10 to 1 image remaining before I can access the camera again, but the time it spends on the 1 is vastly longer than the time it spends on the 10, or the 4. Sometimes I wait three or four seconds before the 1 disappears and the camera "unlocks." Those seconds can feel like hours when you're watching something you wanted to capture disappear while the A7R III sits there, inert.

Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 G @ 12mm, f/10, 1/80sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

My performance expectations, I imagine, are thanks largely to the far faster CFast card that the 1DX II uses over any UHS-II SD card that the Sony takes. Or perhaps the DIGIC processor in the Canon is just better than Sony's processor. I don't really know what specifically is to blame, but in the end it doesn't matter. Even though the A7R III fires quickly and is fast to use, other times I feel crippled by a slowdown I can do nothing about. And that really sucks, especially when I'm trying to capture both stills and video, and the camera is just a bit too slow to get both in a limited timeframe of capturing a moment.

The menu system is also an absolute mess, but that's not really a new thing. Actually, it's fair to say that just about every camera on the market these days has just the worst menu system. No one has changed anything about the paginated, hierarchical slog of a folder system since it was first brought to a camera years ago, but has put in astronomically more features. For instance, it can be an absolute nightmare to try and find HLG video on this camera, and the same can be said for the pixel-shift multi-shot. There are so many menus with a torrent of options that it is just the worst trying to find any one thing. But like I said, this isn't new. It's only becoming more intolerable as Sony adds more features and does nothing to address the growing elephant in the room. This menu sucks, all menus suck, and someone needs to do something about it.

Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS @ 80mm, f/14, 1/80sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Now, I think this is probably going to be the most controversial opinion of this review, but I have to say it: dust is a major, major problem. Mirrorless is absolutely the future, that much is now inarguable, but something has to be done about the dust that can get into this camera and absolutely wreck shots.

Even when I take extra care to shield the camera, facing it downwards and swapping optics as quickly as possible while the camera is off (because if you leave it on, it becomes a literal dust magnet), I can end up with atrocious dust spots on the sensor. Within the first hour of shooting in Arizona, I had spots on the sensor that were just awful. In photos, this is less of a problem as it is in video, where I had to do some digital magic to make the spots disappear.

It has gotten to the point where if you don't bring a rocket blower or sensor cleaning stick with you everywhere and add that step to your lens swapping routine, you will get dust in your shots.

I am not sure what the solution here is. Maybe it's a shield that drops down when you take the lens off, maybe its a closed shutter that automatically shuts when swapping. I don't know, but I do know that the higher resolution images get, and the more of the sensor I use when shooting video, the bigger this problem becomes.

Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS @ 24mm, f/9.0, 1/80sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Moving to something positive, there is an area of the camera where I can find no fault: the new focusing system. The A7R II had a pretty pitiful autofocus engine (though it was at least better than the Mark I) and it's slow-firing five frames per second was acceptable, though not standout. The new autofocus system that Sony imported from the A9 is a rousing success. This new engine is remarkable, allowing for wicked-fast focusing and rapid-fire shooting that is unique among high-resolution cameras. I was able to capture more action with greater accuracy than I am used to for a high megapixel camera, and Sony's mirrorless system allows for the best user-feedback of what is in focus and what the camera is going to focus on next of any high-end camera other than the A9. The sheer number of ways to customize the autofocus and the new eye-locking setting all work outstandingly. Once the A7R III locks onto a target, it doesn't lose it. The only time it may struggle is nabbing that subject initially when using AF-A focusing mode.

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 26mm, f/4, 1/1250sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Another change is that Sony bailed on the Play Memories Apps that were available in the Mark II version, and my feeling is that's because the whole store/apps system they built was confusing and clunky to use and likely under-utilized by both customers and Sony themselves. It also rubbed people the wrong way that they had to buy something more for a camera that they just spent thousands of dollars on. I'm a big fan of them dropping the support for their app store, but they didn't replace those features with anything. For example, the A7R III can't timelapse on its own -- this $3200 camera has no built-in intervalometer.

Sony clearly has the software to allow it, and since they shut off the ability for the camera to connect to that software via their store, you would think they would just add it to the camera's firmware. They did not. Now it's the only camera in its category that doesn't have a built-in intervalometer.

Now is where I'll make a comment regarding Sony's decision-making that I mentioned in the lead-in to this section: I just don't get it sometimes. For some reason, Sony makes it so critically important to do one thing that they will sacrifice whatever they can to maintain that one thing. In this case, it was form factor. I think many people actually liked the slightly larger Sony A9 when compared to the A7 series. Honestly, the A7 bodies don't fit well into many people's hands. My hands are somewhat small, so it's never bothered me specifically. However, I see how the camera fits into others' hands and it does seem quite uncomfortable. The engineers were so dead set on keeping the A7R III exactly the same size that they couldn't institute 4Kp60 or XQD. Well, the XQD is also because it's not a common card, and they didn't want to force their user base to switch over to it quite yet (and the A7R III still actually supports MemoryStick, if you can believe that, for the same reason), but yes, size was also part of it.

For the longest time, we were told that we weren't going to get a better battery in the A7R III because the Z battery just wouldn't fit in the small body. It's why we, and some Sony folks, were actually surprised they managed to cram it in once they finally unveiled the camera.

But that kind of highlights the philosophical issues here. Even though they did manage to put that battery in the same small housing, the Sony engineers grasp so tightly to one concept that they don't allow anything that forces them away from that concept into the equation. Sometimes that's a really good perspective, as it forces them to innovate and not make compromises. But sometimes I'm left scratching my head wondering why a slightly larger camera is so taboo when compared to better performance.

Sony FE 24-105mm f4 G OSS @ 24mm, f/6.3, 1/100sec, ISO 100
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

Field Test Summary: The A7R III is the best camera on the market

As much as some parts of the A7R III bother me, don't let my criticisms distract you from my final opinion: this is the best overall camera on the market today. It gets so much oh so right. Images that come out of this camera melt my heart, and video looks so darn good. I'm willing to put up with a few frustrations if that means getting a camera that has amazing battery life, an insane autofocus system, more options than you could possibly ask for, access to some of the best lenses on the market (seriously, Sony's new lenses are totally amazing, and there are a plethora of them now), and a company that seems to want to succeed at making both stellar photos and videos. They don't hold back features for "fear" of cannibalizing their pro camcorders or other camera models, and they pack as much as they can into one body every single time they release a camera. It's so refreshing. When another manufacturer gives me a camera with limited functionality, and I then look over at Sony, who is giving me just about everything I want and more, I'm stuck asking: "Why are you trying to take my money and spread it across multiple cameras just to get what Sony gives me in one? Why can’t I trust you to support me as a consumer?"

Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM @ 19mm, f/8.0, 1/200sec, ISO 250
Note: This image has been edited. Please click to view the original.

The Sony A7R III is so darn good across the board that I'm forced to nitpick, really nitpick, when it comes to finding complaints. Like I said in the beginning, it's the closest Sony has come to perfection. It might be the closest anyone has.

 



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