Thursday, October 17, 2013

First thoughts on the Sony A7 A7R

I haven't even seen this camera, but, like many of you, have been waiting with anticipation for its arrival since the RX1 made its debut. It was obvious, at least to me, that Sony was testing the waters with the RX1, just as Fuji was doing with the initial X100.  The feedback was very favorable so it was only a matter of time before Sony would take the next step and introduce a similar camera with even better specs and add interchangeable lenses into the mix.

I haven't had one in my hands yet, but, like everyone, have been reading the buzz on this sensational new release from Sony. The question is: Will it (can it) live up to the hype? On the surface the specs are state of the art, very small camera with full frame, high resolution sensor coupled with an exceptional lens system primarily of Zeiss optics. Whew! Leaves you salivating just thinking about it.

The new Sony A7R 36mp mirrorless camera shown here with an interchangeable Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 lens. Will it replace the RX1? 
The size looks good and all the hands-on reviews I've read have mentioned how comfortable it is to use. The extra 1/2" in length over the RX1 plus the additional grip appear to be helping out. Small is one thing; too small is something else. With the  larger lenses used by a full frame model you really need something secure to hang on to.

The camera is bound to produce great results. Both the 24mp and 36mp sensors have been field tested to great reviews in the RX1 and Nikon D800E.

The A7 and A7R cameras are nearly identical except for the resolution of their sensors and what this implies. A 36mp sensor on the A7R is going to demand longer processing times. To accommodate this the camera can only shoot to 4 fps, as opposed to 5 fps for the A7. The other question is how the difference in resolution will affect noise at high ISO's.  I use a Nikon D800, which has the same sensor, and can say that the noise situation is very comparable to Nikon's top cameras, like the D4 and D600, with lower megapixels.  So I don't expect much, if any, degradation from the Sony A7R. No anti-ailiasing filter will mean occasionally having to deal with moirĂ©. 

In all respects, this is a ground-breaking camera system. Small. Expensive. Extremely high quality sensor and optics. My concern is not with whether or not it can deliver. I know it can. My concern is whether or not this is a workable system (as an alternative?) for other pro systems. Small size brings with it many desired benefits, but it also introduces significant limitations. Entry level on a suitable system with this camera is going to be around $5k . That price point puts it into a rarefied atmosphere for the casual shooter. This camera is going to have to appeal to pros. Apart from its sensor, apart from its optics, this camera is going to need to have reliable, user-friendly features that make it fully dependable, practical, and comfortable as a stand-alone pro system.

- The menu system is borrowed from the RX series, not the Nex series. The RX menus are very well organized and intuitive to use.

Some features I like:

- Weather sealing for protection against the elements.

- The ability to use alternative lenses from Canon, Nikon, Leica, etc. This feature will be particularly useful while we wait for the Sony FE lens line to expand.

- One of the first lenses made for the camera is a small 35mm f/2.8. Using this on the A7 replaces the RX1. Using it on the A7R replaces and improves upon the RX1.

- The initial lens complement for this camera includes a 24-70mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4, 35mm f/2.8, and 55mm f/1.8. A kit lens of 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 will also come out as the same time, but I doubt any pro would want it, especially considering the excellent Zeiss alternatives available. A maximum of f/4 is one stop too closed down for a real pro lens on the initial zoom offerings, but I suppose Sony did it to keep the lens size down. A full frame f/2.8 is a monster zoom that would dwarf a camera the size of the A7.

Some features that make me wonder:

- The built-in EVF finder. This thing has to work fast and well for this camera to be viable because there is no optical alternative as on the Fuji X-Pro1.  Purportedly, the EVF is a built-in version of the current accessory finder made for the Sony RX1. As a result of its capabilities, this camera will be pushing the limits of such a finder.

-  No super-wide lens will be available as part of the initial offering. Pity, because a 36mp camera is a perfect camera for landscapes where super-wides are often used.

- Battery life on the RX1 is no winner. You'll be lucky to get 300 images on a charge. The A7 series uses the same battery but has more electronics.  You will need to carry along lots of spares and/or pick up the optional accessory battery/grip for the camera. Of course, adding a grip is beginning to negate the camera's extremely small size.

-  On the subject of size: This is a really small camera for a full frame sensor. Thing is, Sony is aiming it at an audience that must be willing to pay dearly for a quality camera and optics. It is not a casual camera system. It is one thing to make a splash with a high grade sensor in a minuscule body, but everything else must work for the camera to be a practical alternative to other pro options. A small package is attractive as an alternative carry-along, but at this price accompanied with such an extensive support system, this camera portends to be more than something you tuck casually into a bag for a walk about town. It aims to be a solitary pro system in and of itself, and that is a tall order.  


Despite my few concerns, all in all, it looks like Sony has produced a versatile winner with the A7 series. Its sensor should produce very high quality, high resolution images. It is backed up by a strong optical support system right out of the gate with more to come. This camera should easily rise to the top of the list as the best option available for producing the highest grade images. 

It still lacks much of the rugged durability of top flight pro systems, but for those occasions where a lighter weight system is required to deliver the very best image possible with current digital technology the A7 series by Sony should do the trick.

Sony seems to have hit the mother load with this latest announcement of the A7 and A7R -- high resolution, full frame, mirrorless cameras offering interchangeable lenses.

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