Out on the Road: Getting to Know the Sony a7 and a7R


This last week, I had the great pleasure of joining many of my fellow writers from other major photo and tech news outlets for a week of fun and photography with Sony in Nashville, TN. Basically, the event gave us all a chance to test out the new mirrorless full-frame a7 and a7R cameras (as well as the RX10, which I’ll hit on in another post) in a variety of situations, with Sony artisans and engineers on hand to answer all of our questions.

A gallery of sample images are coming your way soon, but for now I wanted to outline some of my first impressions of what is good, bad and in-between about Sony’s revolutionary new shooters.

The Good


For the most part, both cameras act and feel very similar in hand. Until you get to the internals and some specific situations, your first impression of the a7 will be largely the same as your first impression of the a7R: both feel solid and, thanks to a fairly simple button and menu layout, are very easy to navigate and configure even for the novice.

Additionally: the electronic viewfinder is fantastic, the tilting screen makes it easy to capture some otherwise difficult-to-compose shots and the multiple input wheels and customizable buttons make it so that all of your most used settings can be adjusted very quickly and easily.

And when everything is dialed in properly, the resulting shots do not disappoint. Whether I was shooting with the ISO cranked in a dimly lit auditorium or using hot lights in a studio environment, as long as I nailed the focus, the images came out extremely sharp.

Nailing the focus, however, has turned out to be a bit more of a pain than I’d like.

The Bad


So far, problems both I and many of my fellow writers have noticed mainly surround the cameras’ focus systems. Whether it’s the phase and contrast detection AF-equipped a7 or the contrast-only a7R, AF set in “Wide” burned me more than once. For example, while shooting upcoming country singer Leah Turner and her band front and center, the camera somehow managed to focus on the background instead of the talent (see photo above).

Solutions include setting the AF to “Center” and using the focus and recompose technique, as well as going fully manual with help from the camera’s focus peaking; however, even focus peaking has failed me (and others) at times.

Especially when using large aperture lenses like the A-Mount ZEISS 50mm f/1.4 (with an adapter) wide open, I was forced to enable the MF Assist — a feature that zooms in your live view/EVF image so you can really nail the focus — to really make sure I was getting things sharp after noticing that the focus peaking was often slightly off.

Another problem I’ve personally noticed has to do with the Auto White Balance, which leaves something to be desired when used in daylight temperature light. Not everybody has experienced this, so it may be a personal preference or even something to do with my individual units, but both cameras seem to shy a little closer to the cold side color temperature wise when left to their own devices.

Sony a7 Specifics


The a7, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is the little brother in this particular family. It boasts the smaller sensor of the two (24.3 megapixels as compared to the a7R’s 36.3), along with a few other minor differences that you can find out about here.

It’ll also only cost you $1,700 for the body only, which is why I was surprised at how many of the people at this event (myself included) tend to prefer it to the a7R. I’ve gotten to spent three full days day shooting with both cameras, and the slightly faster AF speed and lack of noticeable difference when using the a7 vs the a7R has me favoring the cheaper shooter.

Of course, the a7R has its resolution advantage, but for the everyday shooter, the cons — no AA filter (moire), slightly slower performance in a few areas (e.g. flash sync, AF and continuous fps) and a significant price difference — will outweigh the pros, making the a7 the more appealing choice.

Sony a7R Specifics


The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up the a7R vs the a7 is the exceptional build quality. That additional magnesium alloy has been put to good use, and even though the camera is actually lighter than the a7, it feels more solid at the same time.

You’re also getting a much higher resolution camera, which is the most obvious and noticeable difference between the two once you pull the images into your favorite editor.

On the bright side, the images out of the AA filter-less high res sensor come out incredibly sharp, which will no doubt appeal to many. But on the other hand, that sharpness can cause problems, especially when using a lens without optical stabilization. Every little movement will show up when you pixel peep, making it that much more important that you’re locked down on a tripod when shooting with the a7R.

Finally, since the a7R doesn’t have an electronic first curtain like the a7, you’ll probably also notice that the shutter is LOUD. It’s one of the first things I noticed, and although it might seem like I’m nitpicking, those who often (or ever) work in quiet situations will find the a7R is going to make a very conspicuous companion.

Conclusions So Far


Keep in mind, this isn’t a comprehensive review — for that we’ll need to get the cameras in one of our reviewer’s hands and really put them through their paces for more than a few days. This is just a set of first impressions: both the good and bad things you’ll notice when you first pick up these awesome cameras.

The good news is two fold: One, both cameras are in many ways everything we hoped they would be performance wise, with only a few minor and firmware-fixable flaws. And two (for those who want to save money), if I had to reach a recommendation verdict right now, I’d recommend the a7 over the a7R hands-down for the majority of shooters. And that second one is REALLY good news, because we’re giving an a7 away right now!

So if you haven’t already, head over to our giveaway before next Wednesday and get yourself some entries into the contest. And stay tuned for a whole slew of sample images and some first impressions on the very capable RX10 coming up tomorrow.

  • carl schultz

    More focus problems…sounds just like my d800 with the sony sensor, this has caused so many headaches for me.

  • GeniusUnleashed

    Was this a pre-production camera, or of the shelf?

  • Zachery Jensen

    These focus problems are common user error. Even this article erroneously claims they could only use “wide” AF or center. That’s B.S., one can move the focus reticle all over the frame. Anyone who magically expects the camera to focus on a specific part of the selected AF area by reading their mind is going to be disappointed as well as using the camera incorrectly.

    People who actually have experienced using Sony’s mirrorless cameras have no trouble with the focus. Read Steve Huff’s posts to see one such operator’s perspective.

    These cameras will be absolutely nothing like the D800, especially the a7R since it does not even use phase detect AF (which is the source of D800’s issues, phase detect is not very accurate to begin with and those cameras were rife with calibration problems).

  • Syuaip

    relying AF on a studio (controlled environment) shooting? i’m confused.

  • DLCade

    I wasn’t 100% sure, so I got in touch with Sony to find out. According to them, these were “very early production models. Image quality was final, but [there were still] a few minor bugs w/ firmware.”

  • DLCade

    Thanks for the feedback @zacheryjensen:disqus, we really do appreciate it as it helps us provide more useful information in the future.

    Just to clarify, I wasn’t saying that Wide and Center were the only two options available, only that Wide as the default didn’t perform as expected, and that Center was an easy and quick way to adjust. I could have used any of the other focus settings (and did) this was just the most convenient to switch to on the fly.

    I actually spoke with Steve while there, and it is true he had no issues with focus — in fact, he was also surprised when several of us complained about the focus peaking. However, the majority of the journalists I spoke to did have issues, and though I’d be more than happy to take the blame as user error (thought I don’t consider myself a novice, I am not a professional photographer), it seems strange that even some of the professionals there would experience the same thing.

    I certainly don’t expect magic to happen, but when I’m shooting a straight forward group portrait, I don’t believe its unreasonable to expect the AF to focus on the people and not the wood background three feet behind them (the same thing happen once with the a7R, with the camera focusing on the ground behind the horse I was shooting, even though the horse took up the majority of the frame). I expect problems had to do with firmware, as Sony has already admitted that these were “very early production” with “a few minor bugs.”

    Also, @syuaip:disqus, I spent the majority of my time there shooting manual, studio environment and otherwise. However, in order to get a comprehensive view of what all the cameras could do, I also tried out the AF in all of those situations so I could speak to the quality of the focusing system on both cameras.

  • Joe

    Ok, who is the clown that doesn’t have a clue of how to focus a camera. Maybe YOU should hire a photographer that does.

  • John Huang

    If you want it to focus on people you should have enabled Face Detection.

  • Nexman

    I second that. Having used focus peaking with the NEX line and over 30 manual lenses for two years now, I can only say this: this technology made focusing more precise and easier than ever before. Manual focusing, that is.

  • Leroy A Wiley

    A nice overview article and I look forward to the review.

    However, something that stands out to me is this warning:
    “… that sharpness can cause problems, especially when using a lens without optical stabilization. Every little movement will show up when you pixel peep, making it that much more important that you’re locked down on a tripod when shooting with the a7R.”

    I’ve read similar opinions in the past when referring to high pixel cameras, whether it was 12 MP a few years ago or 36 MP today. Does it really matter that your sloppy technique is hidden by a low pixel camera? Given the same technique and the same focal reference, the high pixel camera will always equal or better the low pixel camera when you print or post to the web. Always.

    That’s the practical side of it – the higher pixel camera will never lose the sharpness battle. The technical side of it (pixel peeping) is that if you can see softness when you pixel peep in the 36 MP image because of your poor technique, 9 times out of 10 you’ll see softness in the 24 MP image too. They just aren’t that different (there is only a 3.6% higher linear pixel density advantage in the 36 MP image).

    Like I say, I’ve read similar opinions in the past. It’s repeated often enough that it has almost become common knowledge. “If you aren’t 100% solid in your technique, don’t buy the high pixel camera.” Nonsense.

    Don’t buy the high pixel camera because it costs 35% more for a 3.6% linear pixel density advantage. But please, forget the urban legend that it will smear your images.

  • collinnyo145

    my Aunty Lyla just got a
    stunning yellow Mitsubishi Eclipse Convertible by working from a computer. pop
    over to these guys J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Steven Ellingson

    No idea where you’re getting 3.6% from. A 50% megapixel advantage ends up being 22.5% linear advantage. Specifically 7348 pixels wide vs 6000.

  • ChrisGampat

    Sony told me we dealt with production units.

  • Cheng Hoo Sew

    Always use Sony face recognition when using a Sony camera to shot portrait. It suddenly works extremely well when it’s turn on. In fact it’s much much better then other cameras. But now that the a7 and a7r have eye recognition it will be even better to nail sharp focus on the eyes. If you get a chance to use a Sony camera again do try it out. You’ll be surprise how accurate it is. I can’t wait to test the eye recognition of the A7 :)

  • GoHeros

    My NEX camera doesn’t do multiple face detection well. 1-2 faces it works fine. 3-5 and it misses focus all the time. Doesn’t work on 10 faces.
    I would love to know the face detection limitations on the A7…anyone?

  • Rienz

    In the last image (with the girl looking at the camera screen) I see you are using a radio trigger …. could you please share which one you are using, as I have been looking for one without much success for my Sony a7 … ideally I’d like to trigger my Canon 600 EX-RT flashes, but if that’s not possible, I’d like to use it to trigger my Sony HVL-F43M.