#183. Sony A7r, first impressions : The Magnificent Seven

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]

Cesar's thumb in La Defense, Paris.

Thumbs Up Sony ! – Sony A7r & Zeiss 2,8/35mm ZA

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.

Puzzled & sad ? - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 ZA

Puzzled & sad ? – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 ZA

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

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.

SFR tower in La Défense, Paris. Sony A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35/2.8 ZA T*

SFR twoer in La Défense. Click for full size jpeg (4912×7360)

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.

A life boat and door on the canal in Paris's Port de l'arsenal. Sony A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 ZA

Way to go, Sony ! A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35/2.8

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.

Port de l'Arsenal sunset, Paris, straight out of camera. Sony A7r & Zeiss 2,8/35 Sonnar ZA

Port de l’Arsenal sunset, Paris, straight out of of camera. Sony A7r & Zeiss 2,8/35 Sonnar ZA

DSC01123-2

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.

Handling

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 greyhound dressed in a red runs along the seine river in Paris. Sony A7r & Sonnar 35/2.8 ZA

Running to hide ? Sony A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 ZA

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 🙂

The tunnel between port de l'Arsenal and La Sein in Paris. Sony A7r

The end of the tunnel – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 ZA

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.

Hail unto The ! - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.3 Sonnar ZA

Hail unto Thee ! – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.3 Sonnar ZA

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 Acte 3 yacht on the Seine river in Paris.

Act 3 on the Seine, Paris. Sony A7′ & Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 FE

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.

Well, nope.

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.

Pipe dream - Sony A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 FE

Pipe dream – Sony A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 FE

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 !

Inside Gare de Lyon in Paris. Sony A7r & Zeiss Sonnar 35/2.3 FE

United colours of Sony – A7r & 35mm F/2.8 FE

Minor negatives

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.

Don't turn your back to the Sony A7r

Don’t turn your back to the Sony A7r

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.

Inside the CNIT at La Défense, Paris. Sony A7r

A towering success, the Sony A7r

What else?

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.

Perfectly on target, the Sony A7r

Perfectly on target, the Sony A7r

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).

Early conclusion

This concludes my preliminary impressions of this long-awaited gem. As the UK TV ad goes “I love it, love it, love it”.

Center stage - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 FE

Center stage – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 FE

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.

A mercedes taxi at Gare de Lyon in Paris, at night. Sony A7r

Smooth operator – Sony A7r & Zeiss FE Sonnar 35/2.8

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*

Not a shot in the dark - Sony A7r

Not a shot in the dark – Sony A7r

Be seeing you !

Be seeing you

Be seeing you

39 thoughts on “#183. Sony A7r, first impressions : The Magnificent Seven

  1. Pingback: SAR readers A7 and A7r test roundup (Chad, Mike, Pascal, Lawrence, Buzz, Sanji, Tobin, Paul, Michel, Alik). | sonyalpharumors

  2. Thanks for your review… a very nice read….
    Thinking of buying A7r or E-M1… your review made me more towards the Sony… I love the IQ but I’m afraid the response of the camera is rather slowish (not only AF to some reviewers)…What is your idea to reaction time of this camera ?

    • Thanks a lot for the kind comment, Plextor.

      Autofocus on the A7r and with the Sonnar 35/2.8 is quite nippy when it works. But it’s easily lost in low light and low contrast subjects. I’ve ony had one badly focused photograph so far (out of roughly 300 made) and that was a moving subject. But there have been indoors situations where the lighting was simply not bright enough for AF to lock on to anything. If you’ll be relying a lot on AF in tricky situations, I really would go for a more traditional DSLR. The E-M1 is a fantastic camera in its own right, every bit as good as the A7r but with different picture aesthetics due to the sensor format. I think it focuses quicker than the A7r, but I’m not certain it is as reliable as a camera such as a Canon 1D MkIII. If you want full frame and a better AF, why not give the A7 a try ? Apparently as good AF as the E-M1 and the image quality of a Leica M240 … And really cheap.

    • Indeed, Christopher 😉 It’s Nirvana with the “kit” lens (Sonnar 35/2.8) and its autofocus. Not so much fun on manual lenses, I think. But this remains to be tested. Fun ahead 🙂

    • Hi Roy, thanks for the comment. To be honest, these pictures are all out of camera jegs slightly manipulated in LightRoom, mainly to recntify pectpective and a little contrast adjustments. The picture profile is the standard one. I’ll be delving into that and RAW files in a couple of days when I have more time.

  3. Terrible article Pascal, really terrible, now I have to re-think my DSLR options again!
    Seriously though, thanks for a great article.
    That magnification issue has me concerned, I use the 2x tap on a single button with my 5DII all the time, for 5x, 10x, and a further press for back to full view, so simple.

    Apart from the 2.8/35 ZA T*, what alt. lenses are you planning on using/trying with it?

    • Sorry about that Tim 😉 Yes, the magnification is an absolute pain, but it’s very likely you can configure buttons for a more logical process.
      I’m planning to test many lenses along with Philippe. Leica M (Elmar 24, Lux 50, Elmarit 90, Super Elmar 135, possibly some CV lenses), Leica-R (Elmarit 19 II, Cron 35, Cron 50, ELmarit 90) and some Mamiya medium format lenses. Posts will come during the week. Cheers, Pascal

      • I tried 3 leica to sony adapters and the one that worked the best for both near and close to infinity tests was the Voigtlander (did not test Novoflex). Initially, I had a more generic adapter but I don’t remember the brand / not the ultra cheap $15 variety but no well known name. This generic adapter gave me a lot of CAs and horrible corners. I was ready to return the camera because I really enjoy working with the 50 Lux but I decided to test other adapters first. I was very surprised at the difference, specially in near tests.

        I think the reason the adepter is extra important in the Lux 50 ASPH is because it has floating elements. These elements can get close to the sensor and pronounce the light incidence angles (theory). Also with this lens if an adapter takes you just past infinity it can generate horrible corners and smearing. A not well aligned adapter will generate lots of vignetting and smearing in one of the corners. I was able to overcome these issues with my copy of the lens camera but at first I was very skeptical of claims that the lens could work well with the Sony.

        You mentioned in a previous post that you will be testing Mamiya medium format lenses on the Sony -wow, you found an adapter for Maniya 7 lenses? where?

      • Thanks for the information. I’m asking because we’ve had poor results on a Hawks and Novoflex adapters with the Lux 50, as Philippe will soon describe.

        Alas, not Mamiya 7 lenses. What a glorious combination that would be. Those are Mamiya 645 lenses. Pro quality but just not in the same league as the Mamiya 7 lenses … Too bad 😉

  4. i also come from the d800e, mamiya 7 ii and Leica m… i too love the new Sony a7r but i am keeping the nikon and mamiya for now… color is better in the nikon at least developing raws in lightroom.. the mamiya 7 ii is just rangefinder delight with the gifts of analog darkroom output… the nikon d800e offers ovf which is a better experience (with fast lenses) compared to the very good sony evf … the leica will go but i must say the leica works very well with many lenses that are poor on the sony (zeiss 35/2 zm). The leica 50 lux asph will stay – if this lens did not perform on the new sony i would have kept the leica and returned the sony.
    my 2 cents

    • I agree entirely about the Mamiya and that is the only camera I regret selling. An absolute star. At this, I do not miss the OVF. May I ask what adapter you are using with the Lux 50 ? Others have not been so lucky in their results on the A7r. Cheers.

    • I have no luck so far with the ‘Lux 50 on A7R. Results are the same with Novoflex and Hawks’ adapters. The tricky part is the corners at infinity, when the exit pupil is closest to the sensor, and at wid apertures. Basically miserable corners until f:2.8. Acceptable at f:4.0. Fair at f:5.6. Did you try infinty at wide apertures and get good corners?

      • My standards may be lower than yours. I am happy if I get good infinity results at 5.6. I have prepared a link to some personal tests. I never shot these images with the intention of sharing them but maybe they will be helpful to you.

        http://rauljarquin.com/link/Sony_A7r

        Notice that the seite uses scaling and therefore if you look at the images with a small screen you will not be seeing 100% of the information. Let me know your thoughts.

  5. Hi… Have you done any long exposure shots, like greater than 30 seconds? I’m wondering if the major shutter vibration in the A7r is resulting in just enough vibration in the camera body that would show up in long exposure shots? If that’s the case, I’ll have to pass on this otherwise superb camera. Let me know.

    • Hi, no I haven’t *yet* tested the long exposure abilities of the camera. I’ll report on this asap ! For 30 second exposures, it’s highly unlikely shutter vibration will be an issue. It should be more of a problem in the 1/30th to 1 second range. I’ll let you know very soon.

  6. Pingback: #185. The Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 Z jewel in the A7r crown | Dear Susan,

  7. Hi Pascal, Thanks for the great write up, very informative! I have also just received my A7R and am also struggling with the magnification in playback.. Is there any way to set magnification so it does not start nearly all the way zoomed in (pressing the “C2” button) and then you need to press the button next to AEL switch to zoom out?

    I am used to starting all the way zoomed out and then zooming in… Much better in practice I think..

    For the life of me, I cannot figure out how to do this!! If anyone has any idea, it would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.

    Cheers

    Andrew

    • Hi Andrew, I’m afraid not as I haven’t had time to configure the customisable buttons yet. Plus, I’m not sure that the default zoom setting can be user set. Sorry 😉 Help, anyone ? I’ll look into it over the week-end. Cheers, Pascal.

  8. Pingback: #185. A spotty flaw in the Zeiss FE 35/2.8 ZA & Sony A7r combo ? | Dear Susan,

  9. Pingback: #186. Low-light long exposures with the Sony A7r | Dear Susan,

  10. Thanks for that, much appreciated! Yep, am still at a loss with this part of the camera i am afraid.. Have been able to configure magnification when in live-view shooting mode, to a somewhat satisfactory level but no luck when in playback mode..

    Any suggestions would be much appreciated!

    Cheers.

    Andrew

  11. Pingback: #188. Leica-M or Leica-R: which Red Dot for your Sony A7r ? | Dear Susan,

  12. I love your review,i had 7r too,but i dont have sony lens for 7r yet.
    i used this camera with leica m 50mm f1.4 asph lens,easy to use with sony 7r
    Love this combo
    But later must get sony 35mm f2.8 for daily lens,your review about this lens very interesting for me…thank u

    • Thank you Judi. Much appreciated. The 50/1.4M sounds like a lovely lens. One of my friends uses it on his A7r and his pictures are very beautiful. The 35/2.8 FE is a superb little lens. Some small flaws but mostly brilliant. I love mine to bits. Have fun ! 🙂

  13. Pingback: #186. Low-light long exposures with the Sony A7r | DearSusan

  14. Pingback: #185. A spotty flaw in the Zeiss FE 35/2.8 ZA & Sony A7r combo ? | DearSusan

  15. Pingback: #188. Leica-M or Leica-R: which Red Dot for your Sony A7r ? | DearSusan

  16. Pingback: #184. The Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 ZA jewel in the A7r crown | DearSusan

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