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A Bit of A7R Sanity: Rising Above the Trash Talk and Fanboy-ism with Actual Facts

a7r_1

A while back I wrote a post I humbly called Roger’s Law of New Product Introduction, complete with the graph shown below. The release of the Sony A7R has demonstrated the accuracy of that post as few other releases have.

a7rsanity_1

A few weeks after the A7R release we seem to be following the path quite nicely.

There were a lot of unreasonable expectations prior to the camera’s release, and, as usually happens, those unreasonable expectations aren’t being met. Of course that has resulted in the usual strident Fanboy smack talk on forums everywhere. It’s also resulted in some desperate magical thinking among the group of people that wanted the A7r to fulfill all of their dreams. So let’s get some of the things the A7R is not out of the way.

  • The A7R is not a 36-megapixel Canikoleica MD900 Mk IV that will shoot all lenses from every brand amazingly well.
  • Little batteries do not carry as many watts as big batteries, and when they power big sensors and electronic viewfinders they don’t last very long.
  • A good electronic viewfinder is still not an optical viewfinder.
  • While improved, Sony’s menus do still seem to be created by someone leaving a ‘Menu Item Suggestion Box’ on the wall and letting the intern put them all together in two days before production.
  • Yes, they apparently tweak the raw files when they compress them.
  • The shutter is loud and causes some vibration. The 1/focal length rule isn’t going to work for most people. (Truth is, it already doesn’t work for most people.)
  • There are only a few native-mount lenses, and adapters are still adapters.
  • It’s slow. It wakes up slow, focuses slow, and it takes 1.5 images per second.


I’m sure I left out some more reasons it’s being trashed in various forums as the worst camera ever, mostly by people who haven’t even touched it and probably never will. The last time I remember a camera being trashed this hard was the Canon 5D Mk II. You remember, that overpriced camera that did nothing well — except become the best-selling full-frame DSLR that revolutionized what people do with DSLRs.

So despite everything this camera isn’t, I think it’s still a game changer. And trust me, I’m no Sony fan. I don’t like the menus. Except for the glorious 135mm f/1.8 there are few lenses in their lineup I’m even impressed with (until now). Despite every effort of Nikon and Olympus, Sony clearly has the worst factory repair service of any manufacturer (at least in the U. S., not that they actually repair anything in the U. S.). So I don’t like Sony. Despite that, I think this is a fascinating camera that is going to change the industry a bit.

a7r_4

I’ll carry the 5D Mk II analogy a bit further. The 5D Mk II disappointed a lot of people when it was released because of what it didn’t do. What most of those people missed was it did something really well and really inexpensively. It produced movie-quality HDMI video through excellent lenses for a small fraction of the price of the other methods available for producing movie-quality HDMI video. It didn’t do it gracefully. There were all kinds of problems and constraints, but they could largely be worked around. A whole industry sprang up to help people work around those constraints and problems.

The A7R gives us something we don’t have, too. It’s arguably the highest resolving camera (it may be slightly higher resolving than the D800e since it really has no AA filter, maybe it’s a tie). It’s small and mirrorless, which some people really want. (Notice I don’t say YOU really wanted it, but there are definitely some people who do.) And it costs $2,300. A Nikon D800e is $600 more even on special. A Canon 5D III is $1,000 more. A Leica M is $4,600 more. Let me put it in a list like the one above:

  • Small
  • Cheap
  • Incredible resolution
  • Easily adaptable to other lens mounts


It’s not going to be the camera for everybody. But it is going to be a camera for a lot of people. I may even (gasp) buy one for myself. Despite all of the negatives, there are some game-changing positives. The fact that the two superb prime lenses were released with the camera makes it even more interesting. The last time Sony released awesome lenses with a camera was right after they rebadge the stuff they bought from Minolta.

Since I’m a lens guy, I think it’s worth discussing two things. First, is how good are those Sony lenses, really? They’re great on this camera but is that because the lenses are so good, because the camera is so good, or because they’re manipulating the hell out of the raw data in the camera? The second thing is what kind of performance can you reasonably expect out of an adapter, and how do you go about getting the best possible performance with adapted lenses.

How Good Are the Native Lenses

The native prime lenses have been assessed on-camera and resolution is superb. But I wanted to know why they were superb compared to adapted lenses. Are they really that good? Are they tuned for the Sony camera in a way that adapted lenses can’t be? Are the Sony lenses just OK, but the adapters make the other lenses look worse than they are? Does Sony manipulate the raw data to make them appear better than they actually are?

sony55_1

Does any of that make a difference? Actually it does. If all adapted lenses can’t perform well, then I have to look at this system based on the native lenses only, which makes it less interesting. If the raw data is being manipulated, then future raw upgrades or some third-party hack may help adapted lenses perform better in the near future. If third-party lenses aren’t tuned to the camera’s sensor cover, then an optical adapter might improve adapted lenses in the future. If the adapters themselves are the problem, then people modifying adapters with optical absorbents and shims may be on the right track.

In an earlier article I compared A7R Imatest results of the Sony 35mm f/2.8 with the Zeiss 35mm f/2 and Canon 35mm f/2.8 IS lenses mounted on adapters. Since we also have an optical bench I can compare the lenses without any camera involved.

The bench we’re currently using has some serious constraints when testing E-mount lenses because of the narrow backfocus distance. We can only test them about 10 degrees off-axis, which is most unfortunate since the biggest difference we saw on the A7R was in the corners/ Still, it’s worth a look.

Here are on-axis (center) optical bench and Imatest results for all 3 lenses at f/2.8. (Of course several samples of each lens were tested.)

a7rsanity_2

Here are the results 10 degrees off-axis (about 1/3 of the way to the edge):

a7rsanity_3

Don’t worry too much about hair-splitting the numbers. Simply remember the optical bench tests are fairly pure tests of just the lens with no camera attached, while Imatest is a test of the lens-camera combination.

Imatest results and optical bench results in the center for all three lenses are about the same. which isn’t surprising. Off-axis, though, the Sony on the optical bench is, if anything, a bit weaker than the other two lenses. On the camera as shown by Imatest, though, it’s at least as good as the Canon lens and a bit better than the Zeiss.

So why would the Zeiss 35mm f/2 fare worse on the camera, while it is probably the best lens of the three tested on the optical bench? Well, it could be the adapter, but remember I matched best adapters for the camera and lens out of a large box full of name brand adapters. Plus Zeiss is affected a lot more than the Canon 35mm f/2 IS.

The logical answer is that the location of the exit pupil is fairly far back in the Zeiss lens. People who talk in mathematics I can’t really follow tell me that the further back the exit pupil, the more off-axis resolution (and color shift) will be affected by a thicker cover glass on the sensor. It’s the same reason so many wide-angle M-mount lenses have problems when adapted to NEX cameras.

Adapter Variation and Sanity

People are going to shoot lenses with adapters on the A7R. I’m going to shoot lenses with adapters on the A7R. But some people are driving themselves insane trying to make things perfect, and that’s not going to happen. So I thought I might save a few people a lot of hours by summarizing what we know about using adapters in general and on the A7R in specific.

Adapters aren’t perfect, but most are just fine

We all know there is variation among adapters. Even the best and most expensive adapters. You can’t add large pieces of metal between the lens and the camera without adding a little variation to tilt, centering, or backfocus distance. Here’s some things I know. You don’t have to accept them, but I’ve used hundreds of adapters of almost every brand and gotten more than a few peeks behind the curtain into places where adapters are made.

  • Even big adapter manufacturers buy their parts from some factory somewhere. Most change suppliers for components pretty regularly. Which means their adapters may change pretty regularly. There is no ‘best brand of adapters’.
  • There is enough variation that an adapter that is great on this camera with that lens may not be so great on this other camera or with this other lens.
  • An adapter that really messes up laboratory testing results generally has very little to no effect on actual pictures.
  • People often try to measure the thickness of the flat part of the adapter. That doesn’t matter as much as the thickness and alignment of the internal mounts (the part that locks into your camera or lens) for things like tilt.
  • The best way I know to check if an adapter is good is take some careful pictures with it, using the lens and camera you plan to use. If the four corners look the same, it’s a good adapter.

So, taken to an extreme you might try a few copies of an adapter and find the best one. If you’re really, really OCD, you might even match the best adapter for each lens. What doesn’t work, though, is trying 16 copies of an adapter hoping the lens just gets sharper, or the corners all get better.

Blacking Out Adapters

There have been some well thought out posts and blogs from Marc Aurel and others who are concerned that light glare within an adapter might be causing increased softness in the outer areas of the image. Marc has even posted templates for cutting out black felt to line the Metabones III adapters that most people are using.

A number of reports have indicated this definitely is helpful for tilt-shift lenses, but it’s unclear if it’s of benefit for non-tilting lenses. I tested lenses on a Metabones III adapter, then blacked the adapter with some optically black ink and retested, then lined it with black gaffer tape (in case the roughened surface might be of further help).

Normal and taped Metabones III adapters. Not nearly as neat as Marc’s but it covers the reflective surfaces.

Normal and taped Metabones III adapters. Not nearly as neat as Marc’s but it covers the reflective surfaces.

I won’t bore you with tables of numbers, but none of the 35mm or 50mm lenses we tested showed the slightest improvement in the edges and corners. So this is probably worthwhile for tilt-shifts. It might (although I doubt it) be worthwhile for very wide-angle lenses. It’s certainly not effective for standard range lenses.

So What’s Left?

Whenever I don’t know for certain what an issue is, I go talk to lots of people I know who are smarter than me and know optics better than I do. They were about 100% in agreement that the off-axis softening seen with the A7R and third-party adapted lenses (or, if you’d rather, the lack of softening with the native mount lenses) has to do with the thickness and composition of the sensor’s cover glass.

Different manufacturers use different glass and the refraction of this material off-center causes smearing and color shifts to some degree. The effect is worsened with lenses that have an exit pupil near the back of the lens, it’s less severe with exit pupils further forward.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a list of exit pupil positions in all the lenses, and don’t know if anyone does. In general, M mount lenses and wide-angle lenses will have a rear exit pupil, telephoto and tilt-shift lenses tend to be more forward. Hopefully as more people report their experimentation with alternative lenses someone will start a database for those who are interested.

I’m also told it’s not too difficult to make an adapter with an optical element to correct for sensor glass differences. Assuming there’s enough demand I expect someone will be releasing something like that in a few months. Sony lenses designed for FE mount certainly already take this into effect, which is why they seem better in the corners and edges. It probably also explains why some NEX lenses, despite vignetting, also do well. Whether Alpha cameras had a similar sensor cover I do not know, but maybe someone out there can tell us.

Conclusion (for now)

There’s no question the A7R has some issues. Some of them we can expect to be improved with a firmware update or two. Some are the nature of the camera and won’t clear up until the A7X or whatever comes next. Given the limitations the options are to either trash it on forums or to learn how to work around those limitations.

The camera does some things very well at an excellent price. That will be enough to assure some people will learn how to work around those limitations. In another month or two the screaming will die down and some people will be using the camera regularly and making superb images with it. Because it’s fully capable of making superb images.

It’s never going to work for action photography. It may (or may not) be a great walk around camera. But it will do certain things better than any camera out there at a price that’s going to attract a lot of attention.

And lets not forget what may be the biggest change Sony seems to have made: it already has at least two excellent lenses, maybe more. And more are coming. I expect when Sigma and the other third party manufacturers release FE mount full-frame lenses they will have corrected for sensor glass effects and we’ll see good performance from those, too.

That doesn’t help those who want to shoot native mount lenses on the A7R right now, though. Right now it seems that most people buying the camera are planning to use lenses on adapters. Despite spending a lot of time discussing the problems off-axis, lets remember that most lenses perform every bit as well adapted to the A7R in the corners as they do on their native mount cameras. They perform much better in the center on the A7R, which makes the edges seem problematic. For people shooting landscapes it’s something of an issue, but for many other types of photography it’s insignificant.

Sony did some things very wrong with this camera. They did some things very right. Mostly they did things different. I applaud the differences. They may not all work, but at least they’re shaking things up a bit. And I do predict when all the dust settles in a couple of years, we’ll look back on this camera as one that shook things up.


About the author: Roger Cicala is the founder of LensRentals. This article was originally published here.


 
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  • Sky

    Won’t happen. Oly isn’t stupid to introduce a bayonet they can’t support. Unlike Sony.

  • Bla

    Or they just disagree with you.

  • gav

    point taken..
    thank you

  • gav

    Appreciated

  • Photography Is Easy

    Yeah, I mean… what do they expect us to do? Use a tripod? A cable release? Top-quality glass? Careful technique? Pft, what a con job.

    If a three year old can’t pick up the camera and get everything out of it, why even bother making it?

    It’s not like you need any more than 6mp for web jpgs, anyways…right?

  • ms

    I got the A7r with plans to adapt lots of glass…. and it does work for that. However after trying the 55/1.8 Zeiss FE I find myself less interested in adapting and A LOT more interested in seeing the other native FE lenses that will be coming out. The ultra-wide Zeiss zoom can’t come soon enough :D … and for the record I love this (obviously) imperfect camera.

  • Opie

    The problem with being intelligent and well-reasoned is that people who disagree with you tend to be ignorant and reactionary. Diplomacy tends to preclude us from identifying them as such, so they get to continue thinking their knee-jerk opinions are equally valuable. Unfortunately, their first line of defense is usually to say something like “just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean I’m wrong”. In fact, sometimes it does. :)

    “You are not entitled to your opinions. You are only entitled to that which you can defend.”

  • Swade

    I would use an a7R at a wedding. I’ve used an RX1, and came out with great stuff. You just need to learn how to use it for the situation.

  • Swade

    So you would never use any DLSR at a wedding? Because those are louder than the a7R. No pop-up flash? First, why would you ever use that? Second, you know it didn’t come with one, that is without a doubt your fault. Same goes for knowing what lenses are out. Lastly, f/0.85 is really apples and oranges when comparing FF vs. M43. ISO performance on a FF is far superior to M43 size sensor and the depth-of-field is nothing close to each other.

  • Mike

    The camera is a good camera. It’s not for everyone, but its a good camera. Even amongst DSLR’s each has a different ISO performance, fps, megapixels, etc. the Nikon df/d4 will do better low light than d800. Does that mean d800 sux? Nope. They are different tools for different jobs. Shoot what works for you.

    If the a7 isn’t for you then at least be happy that there are lots of different options for everyone.

    Personally i’m happy that a company is trying new things. Change is inevitable and DSLR’s won’t reign forever. Either way innovation will benefit everyone in the end.

  • Trollbuster

    God damn, this ‘discussion’ is getting heated. But, people are forgetting the main thing.

    Sony is not about making cameras. Canon is not about making cameras. Nikon is not about making cameras. Olympus is not about making cameras. They are all about making money, and I suspect that Sony will make a great deal out of this camera. WTF is a ‘Sony apologist’? They are making money – and are better at it than Nikon is.

    I don’t care what you Nikon/Canon loyalists have to say – I like my Sony cameras. I didn’t buy into the system because I liked their customer support, marketing or future plans; I bought into it because I liked their cameras. And it isn’t anything that you’ve said or done that has convinced me to convert to a D800 – I bought it because I liked it, and needed more than my trusty ol’ A700 for pets and portraits. I also like my NEX7, and intend to fully investigate the A7 when their 24-70 is on shelves.

    A camera is a mute tool; I just wish the ‘tools’ here were just as mute.

  • d400 superstar

    yes, all companies want to make money, that is so obvious I feel stupid for typing it.

    but nikon and canon are optics companies. sony is not, and it’s painfully obvious.

  • Trollbuster

    Canon is as much an optics manufacturer as Sony – the only reason Canon remains profitable is because it makes other electronics. Nikon does not – have a look at the sales reports they made public for last financial year. Another couple of years like that and it’ll be bye-bye Nikon.

    Sony still makes awesome lenses, so I can’t see that argument. Their G lenses are on par with Canon’s Ls, and are far surpassed by their proprietary Carl Zeiss glass (on A mount); one thing they did right with their FE mount lenses is have Zeiss make the serious lenses. So what FE mount lenses there are have the potential to be extremely capable lenses. What I’m getting out of your argument is that “My red Holden car is better than your blue Ford”.

    But, to me, the ‘painfully obvious’ bit is the point that you completely missed, as did most people reading this article. This camera was not made for you; it was made to stand out of a crowd and generate hype, which generates money. Which it has, and will. It still has some awesome specs and has the potential to be, to the right user, a very powerful and capable tool.

    And no, those companies don’t ‘want’ to make money, they are there *to* make money, so yes, you should feel stupid for typing that.

    I generally don’t lock horns with rutting bulls, but this ‘guest posting’ notion, along with a bit of Christmas liquor has given me a bit of Dutch courage. I wonder if carpenters have as heated discussions about power tools?

  • http://www.imaging-resource.com/about-ir/the-team/arthur-etchells Arthur Etchells

    Totally agree on the ultra wide Zeiss zoom…

  • d400 is for pros only

    slow zooms and slow primes = serious lenses?!?!? please. I’m sure fast glass will come eventually, but just like previous sony offerings it will be huge and puzzlingly expensive, both factors destroying the entire point of mirrorless systems. think boy. you ignorant amateur.

  • d400 ninja

    also sony as a company has been treading water as hard as nikon in the past 5 years. I guess you didn’t know that. please think or google before you post. posting mindless drivel doesn’t float here. you will be quickly corrected and set straight.

    furthermore, despite it’s most blogged about NEX line, sony digital cameras have been trending seriously downward recently. plus now that the NEX like has been discontinued entirely, sony now has serious loyalty issues with it’s existing user base, especially considering there is no decent glass to lock anyone in. sony = samsung these days! they’re just flinging one garbage half baked idea at the wall and dumping everything all together every 6 months. sure there has been some ok stuff like the rx-100, but as a whole sony cameras are lackluster and hatefully ditched. remember when sony introduced the SLT? pffffffffffffft.

  • John Oliver

    The author of this article correctly predicted the boyish comments that would follow. I’m wondering if all these shutterbugs ever have time for taking photos. Perhaps it’s a good time to turn off the computer and -instead, take pictures :)

  • Trollbuster

    What’s slow about an f/4 zoom? Once upon a time when automatically stepping apertures were fresh and new an f/1.4 might have been useful because it helped you use an optical viewfinder – that’s hardly relevant now, and when you can push your iso to 1600 and get a more usable file than an iso 400 scanned neg, you really don’t need that extra stop. It’s still faster than my old Mamiya set, not that I’d seriously compare the two.

    And what is the point of a mirrorless system, then? Does there have to be a point?

    Ignorant amateur? That’s gotta be the best way to start the day; another day where clients prefer to shop. I wouldn’t normally post in blogs like this, but working on Christmas day is generally frowned upon.

    See, that’s the best thing about anonymous posting – you really don’t know who you’re talking to, and they really don’t know about you, so you can tear each other new ones without fear of them burning down your house. It’s always fun being a chaotic antagonist.

    C’mon guys; everyone knows the D400 itself is as well founded as this guy’s rants – isn’t there anyone else to talk at?

  • d400 bada$$

    f/4 is a slow zoom. period.

  • Trollbuster

    And you’re slow at arguing.

  • jrn145

    A7 seems to be the better camera, ironically enough.

  • jrn145

    Who uses popup flashes?

  • jrn145

    Used my NEX-3 since launch, never once missed a shot because it doesn’t have a flash.

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    Friends don’t let friends buy Sony.

  • Andrew McDonald

    So, nobody mentions the A7. I’m testing it out now with manual focus M mount lenses. So far, my only complaint is the slow saving of images.

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    The sensor on this camera is nice….BUT EVERYTHING ELSE ABOUT IT…is JUNKK!

  • Jacques

    For people really concerned with the fps and all that, take a look at Hasselblad. Sure it is medium format, but the point is if you can take the shot and know the decisive moment, then suddenly fps is not a major concern.

    Unless of course you want to argue that spray and pray is still a good way to do photography.

  • Jacques

    There are still some people that use the pop up flash as a trigger, till they can afford more off camera flashes and triggers etc. Took me a while to make up money for a trigger (but that is the price you pay for buying a 600EX Canon without proper research first. My bad) But I don’t use a pop up flash as I am using a 5D MK III, but still Nikon D800 has an pop up flash :?

  • Leighton DaCosta

    I actually agree with you on this one. For the standard pop up flash, heck no. I was about to get the a7r and for some of the same things mentioned in this article, I ended up going with the Df instead, because I was already vested in Nikon. But I have an NEX6 as well. and the way the pop up flash is designed is amazing. It is close enough, that you can tilt the flash back and bounce it off the ceiling and what not. That is ingenious, so I think they could have designed the a7 with something very similar.

  • Jacob Dole

    I don’t even use flash… high ISO raw, clean up in pp.

  • Jacob Dole

    Canon hasn’t done anything right for the past 3 years. 5D3 is essentially a 5D2 with fixed autofocus.
    a7R is the most innovative camera to come out in 2013… something that many people said couldn’t be done.

  • Nico de Zwart

    I think the Sony A7R is an excellent camera, despite its shortcomings. It has no pop-up flash, it has a low frame rate, the shutter sound is relatively loud, there is the ‘exit pupil issue’ and of course there are only a few native lenses available. If you look deeper, you can probably find some more issues to get all fired up about.

    All of that doesn’t change the fact that this is simply an awesome innovative camera that can deliver astonishing image quality. As always, the camera has to be in the right hands. You either like it or you don’t. If you like it, you’ll want to work with what you get. If you don’t like it, just don’t buy it.

    Personally, I think it’s great to have all that resolving power and dynamic range in such a small camera body. For me, it’s the camera I have been waiting for. It strongly reminds me of my old film camera. A perfect balance between performance, size and weight. I have no need for better image quality than this.

    I tried several other mirrorless camera systems (Olympus, Fuji, Panasonic). None of those systems are perfect. Not even the Olympus E-M1 or the amazing Fuji X-Trans sensor. For me, this Sony A7R is the one that ticks most of the boxes. I hope you will find the camera that is best for you too.

  • Simon Redfield

    Who uses popup flashes?

  • Sony Boy

    Well, I’m very glad that they didn’t. A pop-up flsh would have been a deal breaker for me. I don’t want to be seen with it. Pop-up flashes are nice on mobile phones and toy cameras, but not on a professional camera like the A7R.

  • Snake my name is Snake

    Just keep buying them anyway.

  • William the Red

    Well, I love the wow factor in the A7R man! Keep ‘m coming Sony!

  • Dustin Wagner

    I dont use the pop up flash to light a dark object, I use it to fill shadows and to balance the light during the day.

    I may use a removable flash with a diffuser to light up a dark object.

  • Fred Nilsson

    Forget the 7R get the a7 save the $600 and get the 55 1.8….the 7R is over kill the A7 is faster and focuses much better….This article is stating the obvious, technology keeps getting better, duh. So lets never buy a new Mac, the new one will be here in 6 months, lets wait, and then wait again. Could you image the bragging Nikon of Canon would be doing if they did this first. Since there are fewer Sony people like me, there are a lot more people with hurt feelings and brand loyalty/ Just put your Canon lenses on it, ..They will be big and ruin the reason for the small camera, my 55 1.8 Zeiss is small and perfect, $1k is a steal–B&H buy both for $2400 no tax. I got the latest L4 adapter too, my Sigma 70-200 2.8 the a7 becomes a trans lens, it focus like an a77 with the adapter, super fast. Makes the A7R look super slow, I just do not need 36 pix, I need focus speed and real word use.