Note: This review still counts as WIP as I’m adding more as I continue to use the camera…
Having enjoyed the NEX-6 as a platform for my Contax glass and for the compact body and good handling, I never quite got to liking the kit lens, although the power zoom implementation was very good. When the A7 & A7r were announced I felt that I might end up with one. Last year I was given the 1Dx as an insurance replacement form my ageing 1Ds and never felt it was quite the right for me – I don’t really have much need for lightning AF and wanted a higher resolution body. When I got a really great deal from Park Cameras for my 1Dx and a useful Tax rebate I decided to pull the trigger…
I’ve got the body itself but have also bought into the system overall and added the FE 35 & 55 lenses, the battery grip and a Metabones Smart Adapter III for my Canon glass. Having had the NEX-6’s big brother for over a month now, and have had a real chance to get to know it. The form factor is great, I absolutely love having a full frame Digital Camera that is roughly the size of my Contax 159MM. That said I’m a 6 foot guy and the body is a tiny bit too short in my hands, I do have the battery grip – more on that later.
The size is one thing, but I feel that the ergonomics have gone slightly backwards from the NEX-6. The video button is now harder to use, and I’m not a fan of the physical exposure compensation dial as it limits you to ±3 stops, which is a bigger problem as the camera consistently underexposes so I usually have +1/3 or +2/3 of a stop dialled in. Otherwise exposure works fine with my favoured Av mode. The front and rear dials can sometimes both do the same thing which is OK but a bit weird. I’ve also found I can mix up the rear dial with the exposure compensation occasionally.
Like the NEX cameras rear screen tips up and down but isn’t fully articulated. It’s a good screen but not touch sensitive, which is a decision I found puzzling with the NEX-6. I feel that if you are going to have apps and WiFi the screen must be touch sensitive – entering passwords and the like is a pain using the d-pad.
In use any camera shake is highlighted but I feel that the well documented ‘shutter shock’ seems to be a bit overplayed. I have, however, noticed it at times. Whet has surprised me is that in some cases depth of field seems less than I’d expect. I have yet to understand why that is.
Adding the battery grip not only adds battery life but gives a bit more stability and gives me an additional set of controls to allow easier use in portrait mode. As it happens I didn’t buy it for hand-holding but to allow as an extra-large tripod spacer – it gets the TS-E lenses away from any chance of fouling on the tripod.
Ergonomically the grip isn’t as big an improvement as I’d hoped, it’s actually slightly too big making the camera a little top heavy. I also find the battery door catch fiddly, which would be OK if I didn’t put the grip on and take it off regularly.
On the subject of batteries, the A7 is supposed to be a pro/semi-pro camera, so why no charger in the box sony? Also why can I not charge batteries in body when the grip is attached. Finally, with such a short battery life from the NP-FW50 there should be 2 in the box, when you buy the camera. I don’t machine gun, and have learned to switch off between shots (praise be to the firmware update for making that possible…) but in no way can I go a full day on a single battery.
The two FE primes are superb, this has been well documented elsewhere, including the DxO test that placed the 55mm not all that far behind the Zeiss Otus on a D800. In use they also produce RAW files that simply don’t acre the cr*p out of me. The level of vignetting and distortion on both lenses is reasonably well controlled optically. As I worked with the lenses I found the 35 is more to my taste and it is also bitingly sharp and gives ample resolution on the 36mp sensor. I do tend towards a slightly wider field of view and what I’d love to see is something like the old Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon revived and made at the quality level of these lenses. I’d also like to see a lens on the level of the 85mm f/2.8 Sonnar as well.
I Also love the fact that, via a Metabones Smart adaptor III my Canon glass works perfectly in Av mode – albeit the TS-E 17mm looks a bit foolish! The Canon lenses will AF but they are very slow and it’s not very practical. In reality I mainly wanted to be able to use my TS-E lenses, so that’s OK. I will need to add an FE mount zoom at some point, for walk around use.
The sensor is particularly brutal on adapted lenses and while most of my Eos lenses hold up to the 36mp sensor it has really highlighted the Tamron 70-300 VC’s relatively poor resolution at the long end. On the Manual focus lenses side my Tamron glass is pretty much out of it’s depth but the Contax Zeiss glass all seems to be good.
Focussing & Viewfinder
This is perhaps the biggest drawback to this camera. I enjoy using it with the two FE primes, where the AF. Performance is mostly acceptable. Though it doesn’t always lock where I want. As I’m rarely shooting at f/2.8 and above that’s fine though it may be a problem for fast lens fans. I also find manual focus using peaking to be harder than it was on the NEX-6 and the viewfinder seems less clear. I also finding can’t use Zebras because of this. It felt like heaven when I picked up my wife’s Canon 5D II, looked through the finder and watched it focus crisply, the other day.
I like the A7r a great deal it has a lot of the attributes I want in a camera but there are a number of issues Sony needs to resolve for the next high end E-mount body. Key among those are a charger in the box, a fully articulating touch screen on the rear. better AF, better focus peaking, more accurate exposure and a ‘soft’ exposure compensation dial with more than 3 stops. I would also like a slightly taller chunkier body or, at least, an add on grip which makes it about 1-2cm taller.
We know that the lens range is going to improve, and I look forward to the rumoured Zeiss 16-35. Once that is out I’d also love to see a 25/28mm and an 85mm both at f/2.8, because combined with the 55/1.8 they would give a near perfect walk around set.
Ultimately I’m happier overall with the A7r than my Eos 1Dx – it suits my regular shooting styles better, though improvement to the Manual focus so I can get more reliable results from peaking without magnifying the image would be welcome. However, I’m glad I still have access to a Canon DSLR as I do shoot the occasional event and I’d still be happier with a 5D II in that situation than any of the mirrorless cameras I’ve yet tried.