Well, it finally arrived 🙂 My much awaited Sony A7r, for which I sold both my Nikon D800e & Zeiss ZF2 glass and my beloved Olympus OM-D E-M1, which tells you a lot about my very high expectations for this camera.
[UPDATE : This post will serve as summary for all the posts related to the Sony A7r and lenses published in the near future]
- The Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 ZA jewel in the A7r crown
- A spotty flaw in the A7r & FE 2.8/35 ZA combo ?
- Leica-M or Leica-R: which Red Dot for your Sony A7r ?
- Low-light long exposures with the Sony A7r
Spoiler alert verdict : my best camera ever !
Having spoilt your fun, let me detail my opinion a bit more, getting the worst out-of-the-way first. Please note that the camera has been with me only a few days and the review will continue in more detail in the future.
Ergonomic frustrations !
Get this ! In standard configuration, to zoom into a photograph you are reviewing, you need to click a button named “C2” located as far from the review button as physically possible on the back of the camera. This sets the magnification to a middle level. You can increase magnification using the same button, decrease it using a third located in the middle of the AF/MF switch (I swear I’m not making this up) or use a wheel. Leaving zoom mode is done via the center wheel button, but not the same wheel, obviously.
Whisky Tango Fox, Sony ? How about an “Are you sure” message with the confirm button located inside the battery compartment, while we’re about it ?
All the more surprising from a company that had a very decent system working on its NEX cameras : center wheel button for entering and leaving zoom mode, rotate wheel one way to zoom in another to zoom out. Simple, elegant. What caused a project manager to waste time and money on altering a perfectly adequate feature and what thought process could possibly have led to this disaster is beyond me.
Luckily, it’s reversible. Time for a firmware request ? Puh-leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze ? That alone seriously spoils an otherwise fabulous camera.
Happily, in many other aspects, the camera can be summed up in 3 words : FAH BUE LOUS !
Image quality is generally absolutely superb. Whatever quality you’re after, it’s there right up or beyond the best of the rest. Per pixel sharpness beats my Nikon D800e hands down. Dynamic range is as good and seems to roll off even more gently in the highlights (though that might be the lens). Tonal smoothness is beautiful. Really beautiful.
Jpegs ? Sony has worked hard to polish its reputation of the worst out of camera jpegs in the galaxy. And some months after investing in Olympus (who, in my opinion, produce the very best OOC jpegs), I’m happy to report the A7r will not much upset the charts 😉
Actually, that’s unfair, and some major progress has been made: Where there’s detail in the image, the jpegs show impressive fluidity and sharpness. In fact, to me, image quality is far more reminiscent of CCD than CMOS ! Voluntary design by Sony or figment of my imagination, I have no idea. But the effect is very noticeable on many of my early tests pictures, which show grain in place of digital artefacts. Great stuff.
On low contrast, out of focus zones, it’s sometimes like a kindergarten escapee has smeared pastels and watercolours all over the picture. So, jpegs really are a mix of the best there is and an also ran. But if you’re shooting jpegs enough to worry about this, the Sony A7r may not be the camera for you. Today’s smartphones are excellent.
High ISO ? Haven’t tested yet and not particularly interested.
Dynamic range is up there with the very best, as demonstrated below.
As you can tell from the second picture, there is detail all the way from deepest shadows to sunlit highlights. At 100%, pronounced grain is visible in the lower values but nothing post processing cannot tame (besides, for best post processing, I would probably not yank the shadow slider all the way up as I did here. Plus, this was processed from a jpeg, not a RAW file).
Colour rendition is lovely. Very pleasing. Which doesn’t mean it’s perfectly accurate, at least in OOC jpegs. Reds in particular seem a little more orange than in real life. More later, when I have time to work on RAW files in better controlled conditions.
In hand, the A7r feels perfect. The grip might feel a tiny tad small for big hands of glove wearers, but it’s the Goldilocks of cameras for me ! Just right.
A special mention here for the shutter release : the longish throw feels springy (in a smooth and positive way) and oh-so progressive, so that there is no interruption whatsoever between no-picture and picture.
If you are a Zen practitioner, this is a camera for you. Just as the Master archer looses the shot by releasing the bow-string with no adverse impact on the arrow, so will the Zen photographer trigger the shutter with (b)utter smoothness. A very nice touch and by a long margin the most pleasant feel of any of the (far too) numerous cameras I have owned or used. The shutter will trigger itself. The photographer will be the subject 🙂
Build is very good. While the A7r does not have the same luxury sex toy feel as a Leica M or the tough-as-nails character as the EM-1, it is very pleasing in its own modern style.
Retro ? Not in my book.Quite the contrary, in fact. Having a protruding viewfinder box and dials doesn’t imply retro in my book. A Leica M and its unholdable grip is retro, so is the RX-1 (silly silly silly gripless gem). The A7r is modern in a no nonsense sort of way that really appeals to me. The button layout on the rear panel could probably have been improved by a mentally deranged 4 year-old chimpanzee, but the “thick slab of modern unobtainium” design, and the gorgeous grips really work for me. I absolutely love it.
Gripes ? Well of course ! Nothing’s ever perfect. So here it goes : either my nose is too big or the EVF is better positioned in a corner. Overblown ego and extensive use of Mamiya 7, NEX 7 and Leica M point me to the latter.
Here goes the product marketing decision : placing the EVF on the top left corner penalizes those 30% who aim with the left eye. Placing it in the middle penalizes everyone. Let’s choose that. To be expected from an industry that has needlessly (and knowingly) inflicted AA filters to 99.9% of its users for a decade … But Sony has broken so many molds that it would be unfair to hold a grudge. Even with a greasy rear screen the A7r remains an abfab achievement.
The Electronic ViewFinder (EVF)
After finding much relief in the optical viewfinder of my Nikon D800e, my main fear with the Sony A7r was the feeling of being trapped inside a digital TV again.
The EVF is the best I’ve used, Olympus E-M1 included. High contrasts are well handled. Pixels are barely detectable but never obtrusive (actually, they probably aren’t detectacle, but the feeling of a viewing digital screen is). The screen is wide. The optics behind it are pretty good. Not perfect but very good.
My only real negative at this point is that colours are not as saturated in the EVF as the real thing, sometimes making the scene a little less interesting, a little more dull, than reality, particularly in low light. But the positives far outweigh this for my use and I would never go back today.
When reviewing photographs (have I mentioned the brilliant zoom implementation ?) the EVF produces a much more immersive 3D effect than the rear screen, albeit at very slightly duller colours. Chimping in the EVF is actually spooky so great is that feeling of 3D ! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, this EVF is udderly fabtastic !
Battery life ? At this point, I do not know, but all reports indicate a shortish charge and I have no reason to doubt it. When co-author Philippe collected my A7r, he had the great idea of buying a second battery for me and the great kindness of offering it to me as a gift 🙂 🙂 🙂 While not all friends may be that kind, I do recommend you buy a second battery to be on the safe side.
Autofocus ? Eh … If that’s your main evaluation criterion, let’s be honest, you’ll be disappointed. In low light, it hunts. Badly. In flat lighting on very low contrast subjects, ditto. On fast-moving subjects, it’s not that accurate either (see picture below, that’s not even fast-moving).
Other reviewers have reported very good autofocus. That is simply not my experience with my sample camera. But it’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination. On 90% of subjects, it snap into very accurate focus (Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 FE) in about ½ second. If your type of photography cannot be satisfied with this level of performance, this is not the camera for you. If you’re not a sports / wildlife photographer, you’d be very silly to regard what is probably the best affordable camera in the world on this count alone.
Shutter noise ? Loud, yet pleasant. If you’re shooting bears in the middle of the night, startled poo emissions might ensue (and what a shame it will be that the autofocus will still be hunting by the time Whinny has cleaned up the mess) followed by painful death. In other conditions, season to taste : theatre photography, nope. Street, why not (a 59 Blad is noisier and some have been used for this) ? Landscape, no worries. Fashion, compared to the baking lights, it will go unnoticed. The list goes on … But the sound is actually quite pleasant in a “hello look at me shooting a pro camera” kind of way.
Tiny details such as only one card slot (bad) that inserts towards the front (good, harder to drop and more pleasant to use).
Red button : video experts might not approve, but from a stills photographer ‘s point of view, it’s perfectly placed in a spot that doesn’t get in the way.
General feel : it’s as lovely to hold as the hand of Nathalie Portman almost as soft.
The rear screen is as good as any and tilts. Booo to all manufacturers who think their upmarket users don’t want/deserve that very useful feature (try hip shooting a D800).
This concludes my preliminary impressions of this long-awaited gem. As the UK TV ad goes “I love it, love it, love it”.
I’ll even go as far as writing something I’ve only told my wife and one of my two kids before : I love you more than my Mamiya 7 !!!!!!!!!!!!!! I never thought the day would come but it has, and that’s thanks to Sony !
In my book, this is the first camera (& lens) that give me a taste of that large format film or medium format digital look. That combination of endless detail with utter smoothness, particularly when the light is right.
Hats off, Sony and thank you ! Now give us that firmware update and fix the zoom lunacy before it sends us to the cuckoo’s nest.
Coming next : the review of the Sony Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 ZA T*
Be seeing you !