Ok, so I’ve been getting a lot of questions from fellow photographers, and students at my workshops about what I think of my newest piece of gear: the Sony A7. I figure this is as good a place as any to put my thoughts down, and hopefully give other aspiring fashion and working photographers some info/opinion on the camera now that I’ve been using it for a month.
The Road to Mirrorless
I’ve used primarily slr/dslr’s since I started photography approx. 8 years ago. Mostly Nikon, with a short foray into Canon. A little over a year ago I tested the mirrorless market with a Sony NEX-6. What appealed to me was the idea of the same image quality of an APS-C dslr, in a small package that can be taken anywhere and keep me looking inconspicuous when shooting on location without a permit. I ended up not using it as much as I thought I would, and sold it about 6 months later. I regretted it almost immediately. Fast forward to two months ago: I’m using a Canon 7D, more or less happily (disappointed with the low-light performance, but loved everything else) and one day my camera takes a tumble down a couple flights of concrete stairs.
One “not economically viable for repair” body later, and I’m suddenly in the market for a new camera. I’m the type that only has one or two lenses for a body to cover the focal lengths I shoot at most, so jumping ship and starting over is always an option as I’m never really tied into a brand. My requirements for this new camera: Must have good AF, must have good ISO performance up to 1600, and must be full frame. That left me with a couple options from Canon, Nikon, and a dark horse contender in Sony. I won’t go into the particulars and pros/cons of each system, as they all have good bodies capable of producing good images, but at the end of the day after some narrowing down of choices based on how they’d meet my needs I was left choosing between a Nikon D800 and Sony A7.
Ultimately I ended up going with a Sony A7. Why mirrorless? Well, to be honest I miss the format. I had a NEX-6 a while back that I puchased for the purpose of being a light, small option with good IQ that I could take with me both on scouting trips, shoots for funsies where I didn’t need to bring a dslr with grip, and 2-3 large zooms, and also for being inconspicuous when shooting tests with models throughout Southern California without permits. While I loved the camera, I never really did that much location shooting that year, in fact I’d say it was more like 95% studio, 5% location so all the reasons I purchased it never really panned out. I ended up selling it maybe 6 months after I bought it and instantly regretted it. So I guess I was always going to go back to mirrorless eventually, and the A7 gave me that opportunity, while fitting all the requirements I needed for a new body: good IQ, full frame, and good ISO performance at 800+.
Why the A7 and not the A7R? Well, to be honest I’ve heard far too many negatives about the A7R, from the contrast detect only focusing being slower and more sluggish, to the now widely-reported mirror-slap issues, to believing that if I ever do need 36mp of resolution for a job (I certainly don’t need it for a test), I’d be better off renting, or purchasing a D800 in the future. I also won’t lie, price did play a factor albeit a small one, in the decision. I thought I got a steal: A7 and kit-lens for $1300, brand new in box. Little did I know, that week Sony offered members the same kit for ~$1100 if I remember correctly, and now the kit has pretty much hit that price everywhere. I’m still happy with my purchase though, as I’m not a Sony member so the special sale wasn’t a big deal for me, and at $1300 it’s still far cheaper than any other current full frame options, much less with a decent lens.
“So how’s that working out for you?”
Pretty good actually. I’m sure if you’re reading this you’ve already read other reviews where people have pointed out mirror-slap/vibration, light leaks, and slow auto-focus. I’ve had the camera for a month, and have done 9 shoots with it, in a variety of situations, ranging from direct sun and great light, strongly backlit and low-contrast, low light in a dim apartment, and studio. Thanksfully being the A7 I don’t have any issues with mirror-slap thanks to the electronic first curtain. I haven’t seen any indication of light leaks either in real world situations so that’s a non-issue as well. The auto-focus is admittedly slower than the 7D I migrated from, but then again…that’s a sports body, very few cameras short of 1D/D4 series will outperform it. The A7 actually holds it’s own in most situations in my experience. Even in low light I’ve had only one situation where the camera hunted for 1-2 seconds before locking focus. And that was during a shoot where the entire day was spent in poor lighting. The majority of stuff I shoot on location is actually backlit and even then the camera performs pretty darn good. As a body, the camera is almost everything I could ask for. For the price, it’s a steal. It can do the majority of what I did with an SLR, with the exception of perhaps fast tracking AF like the 7D, but then again I don’t shoot sports so I don’t really care.
I also love the amount of customization that’s available, in fact practically every button is customizable to serve a variety of functions. The EVF is very high resolution and very sharp, and you just can’t beat live view shooting and seeing the exposure and effects before pressing the shutter. The camera is fairly small, but still big enough to fit my hands well without worrying about dropping it.
The kit lens that came with it, the FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS is actually surprisingly good for how cheap it is. I believe you can find these for around $250-300 and for that price I’d definitely recommend it, just in case you need the convenience of a zoom. I do hate variable aperture zooms, but when the only other option is the Zeiss (blah) 24-70mm f4 zoom at $1200 the kit lens sounds pretty good. It sounds even better when you consider that it’s slightly faster at the wide end (f3.5 vs. f4) and only one stop slower at the long end (f5.6 vs. f4). Even better so when you see the reviews for the Zeiss aren’t that much better than the kit lens, and some reviews go so far as to suggest that the kit lens is a better buy due to performance that is that far away from the Zeiss, and factoring in the huge price difference. It’s a fairly sharp lens (not nearly prime quality though) and renders colors fairly well. It does suffer from some flare issues, but I personally love flare so it works out great for me. Your mileage may vary though. That being said, it’s not all wonderful and great; this lens might have the most distortion of any I’ve ever used and unfortunately the only way to fix it is with a heavy batch of LR or PS processing. I don’t typically shoot with straight lines in my composition and can usually get away with being lax on lens correction, but this kit lens is reaaaaally bad with distortion. Unfortunately the correction causes you to lose a good bit of the outer edge of the frame, so you have to be cognizant of that fact and plan accordingly with composition. The biggest issue for me of course is that it’s a variable aperture lens, so zooming changes your aperture (and exposure) which can be annoying at best.
It’s a Great Idea, But Not Without It’s Problems…
So far it probably sounds like I’m turning into a Sony fanboy. To some extent that’s probably true. Sony has created a product that filled a need I had, and made it fairly affordable compared to the other options out there. That’s not to say there aren’t issues though. And some of them are pretty big…
To start, my biggest complaint with the A7 series is the same as my complaint with the NEX series 2 years ago: Lens selection. Currently Sony has available for the FE mount:
- Zeiss 35mm f2.8
- Zeiss 55mm f1.8
- Zeiss 24-70mm f4
- Sony 70-200mm f4 OSS
- Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS
Now, other than the 55mm 1.8 which by all reviews is apparently Otus-like in quality (in other words, a $4000 lens), none of the others really fit what I’d like for a lens. The 35mm is the perfect focal length, but f2.8 is slow in general, and definitely slow when you consider an $800 price tag. The 24-70mm again has had rather disappointing reviews for a $1200 lens, and the 70-200mm doesn’t really fit a need of mine, but if it did it’s as big as the Canon 70-200mm f4 (in other words: huge for the tiny A7 body). The kit lens is a decent value, but if I ever get out of this “I’m ok with images not being razor sharp and perfect as long as the lens has character” phase it’ll be the first to go. Back to the 55mm…it really looks nothing short of amazing, but there’s something inherently wrong with a nifty-50 selling for $1000. At 600-700 I would have been sold, but not at $1000. Something tells me eventually I’ll end up getting one, but that’d be more due to a lack of options than actually wanting that focal length.
Sony really needs more focal lengths, especially wider and short-tele, and faster. f2.8 is fine for a zoom, but in 2014 it’s not cutting it for a prime. In a perfect world I’d like to see a fast(er) 35mm, f2 at minimum, ideally f1.8. In addition a short tele would be ideal, something around 85-100mm f2. If they filled that out with a wide angle, maybe 20-24mm, a pancake (I could live with a f2.8-3.5 for the size trade off) and a short macro (60mm?) they’d have a winner. Of course, not costing $1000+ for a fancy Zeiss sticker on the side would be nice but that’s probably asking a bit much. According to rumors we can expect a wide angle Zeiss, and a Zeiss short tele (read: overpriced), as well as some MF primes (sarcastic “Hooray!”) but nothing that has me too excited. Currently I’m using the kit lens, the MF Pentax 50mm f1.4, and a modified Sigma 60mm f2.8 e-mount lens (which surprisingly works fairly decent). To be happy all I really need is that fast-ish wide prime…so hopefully they come out with something by the end of the year, or I’ll end up having to make due with the Zeiss 35mm…
A lot of people rave on the ergonomics and button placement, but I’m going to say they could definitely be better. The shutter button is the main culprit, resting square on top of the body (instead of more forward) at such an odd position that I needed to drastically change the way I’ve held all my previous bodies in order to be able to use it. The exposure comp. dial is also closer to where I’d like the rear dial, and for the first week or so I found myself accidentally using that instead of the shutter speed dial. The movie record button is much harder to activate than the NEX-6, and while I understand the reasoning (apparently it was too easy to activate on the NEX-7) I think they might have made it a little too hard to use this time around. Then there’s that pesky EVF sensitivity. Good luck trying to shade the LCD to review images outside….the auto-switch sensor is so sensitive it’ll kill the screen and switch to the EVF, preventing you from viewing the LCD unless you feel like dealing with glare from the sun. Technically you could disable the EVF and rely on the LCD, but that’s a bit of a pain to switch back and forth during as shoot. It’s also got my pet peeve of attached metal, dangly neck strap lugs. Annoying most of the time, very much so while attempting to shoot video due to the noise.
The EVF doesn’t really have much lag during most usage including panning…but it doesn’t have a very noticeable lag when zooming. Enough to miss a shot if you’re zooming in on something and need to capture that moment quickly. There is also a slight shutter lag, and if you’ve come from a pro body or something made for sports (like the 7D) it’ll feel like you’re using a point and shoot circa 2009 again. It takes a little getting used to, and requires you to anticipate moments before they happen.
All in all, I’m a fan. The camera has it’s quirks and issues (most notably a pitiful lens selection) but it has enough positives to outweigh the negatives. The image quality, with even the kit lens (I imagine the 55mm Zeiss would blow me away) is surprisingly good. My main needs were: small/light, high ISO performance, and affordable full frame, and the A7 meets all those. Hopefully the FE lens lineup will blossom as quick if not quicker than the E-mounts for the NEX line did. I think they’re one or two primes (fast wide angle and short tele) away from being a complete kit for me, and if they ever do get there I wouldn’t think twice about picking up another A7, possible the A7R for times when higher resolution and sharpness are needed.