#189. Just how important is the new Sony A7R?

There are many levels on which the new Sony camera, and its lesser twin can be evaluated. That alone indicates that it could be a major trendsetter. Now that Pascal has let you in on so many aspects of breaking in this pocket rocket, let’s see how many of you could find it to your liking.

1. IQ KIng of the Hill

Very surprisingly, up to now, Sony had not released a single product that incorporated the 36Mp FF sensor they have been selling to Nikon for 3 years. That, along with Canon’s rut in sensor performance (they basically haven’t upgraded sensors in 5 years), has handed Nikon the uncontested title of landscape camera champ with the D800 and D800E.Image

Well, that is now over. The Sony A7R is at least as good as the Nikon for landscape shooting in IQ terms. The fact that it has a vastly superior implementation of LiveView makes focusing much easier on the Sony than on the Nikon. It can sucessfully take any lens the Nikon can, plus reams of other lenses, including every Canon lens (with the Metabones SmartAdapter v.3, to get aperture control, EXIF, AF and IS) and just about every other DSLR ever made. Plus some, but not all rangefinder lenses (more on this later). Plus the native so-called FE Sony-Zeiss lenses, including the delicious, compact FE 35 f:2.8, and its longer FE 55 f:1.8 sibling. Plus the 13 other (!) lenses that Sony have promised by end of 2015, including some manual focus Zeiss. Plus whatever Sigma and Tamron, who have produced very interesting lenses for NEX, will release for them. Rendering seems to be at least as good as Nikon, as evidenced by the DxO tests, in my opinion a very good yardstick by which to judge camera IQ. And, last but not least, the Sony A7R is cheaper than the Nikon. Plus, it maintains the performance where the Nikon was already groundbreaking, such as the oh-so important dynamic range, the noise performance, the ability to crop massively yet preserve good IQ.Image

So, all hail the new King of the Landscape Hill!

2. King of portability

Faithful readers of DearSusan’s know how fond I am of portable, take-them-everywhere-anytime cameras. This love affair started as a fling with the NEX 5 and Zeiss rangefinder lenses, grew into a serious relationship when Sony released the NEX 5N, the first small camera which I felt I could shoot without regret of not having had my large DSLR on hand. I moved up to NEX 7 to the point that I let my Canon 5D III go without looking back, but not without wishing Sony would release a full-frame, 24×36 sibling. Sony’s first entry into this market was the highly interesting RX-1. A minimal sized fixed-lens design. It produced great images, incredible from a camera that small, but had 3 flaws that stopped me from getting one. The LCD does not tilt, which prevents me from shooting my favorite way, which is holding the camera at waist level. There is no built-on EVF, and the add-on one makes the camera a lot less pocketable, because not only does it add to bulk and weight, but it also makes it much more vulnerable to less-than- perfect handling. Lastly, its IQ seems to me biased in favor of extraordinary close-up and mid-distance performance rather than for landscape, meaning at infinity.Image

So, what of A7R? It definitely pushes all my important buttons. Fantastic detail thanks to its 36Mp sensor. Great IQ otherwise (colors, contrast, DR, noise). No major no-nos in handling. Larger than a NEX7 or an RX-1, but still totally portable. What makes it laughably superior to its competition is that it, with its 35mm FE f:2.8 lens, weighs less than the latest Olympus OM-D with comparable 17mm f:1.4 (same effective focal length, same light-gathering ability). Yet the sensor is very, very much larger and better…

All hail the new King of Portability!

3. Any other Kingdoms?

Obviously, there are things the A7R doesn’t do very well. Using it for sports shooting would be ridiculous, it is not designed for fast action, as its AF is definitely on the slow side. Similarly, if you cannot get used to EVFs (electronic viewfinder), and crave the large optical ones from DSLRs, the Sony is not for you. Also, if you thought the Sony would be a “Leica-for-the-masses”, you are in for a disappointment. Whatever its quirks and even some shortcomings, shooting a Leica is a quality experience, with a high quality of materials, and a tactile experience which is as relevant as the gratifying thunk! the door of a large German car produces when closing. That, the Sony is not. Actually, one of its weakness is the sort of loud-ish clang-with-a-rattle (a clattle?) its shutter makes.Image

Add to  this list shooting with long lenses. Mating a small and light camera with boat anchor lenses is not a idea, as the result is unbalanced. Plus, birders need not only focal length, which is why many of them still use APS-C, but also fast autofocus. The exact opposite of the A7R. The same goes for people with large hands, who love the feel of something substantial, sold and stable.

But that leaves many other good reasons to buy an A7R: street photography, where its light weight, unobtrusively small size and superior IQ including with AF lenses makes it a compelling offering. That it does street and landscape well combines into formidable cityscape performance.

Then its class-leading resolution and high IQ makes it a no-brainer for close up and macro performance. The same applies for people photography, except it does not yet sport the vast number of lighting accessories required for high-end studio work. And I haven’t even begun to discuss video yet (no, no more on this later).Image

All hail the King of so many Kingdoms!

4. What is wrong with this camera?

Now let’s get serious. Is that A7R really that good? Isn’t there anything wrong with that camera, so that anyone who doesn’t want to buy one must sit and weep? Relax, all of you naysayers, lovers of M 4/3, Canon or Nikon fanboys and Fuji zealots, here is material to chew on. First, the clattle. I wish it weren’t there. It hasn’t ruined any shots of mine yet. Some self-proclaimed experts, including the famous Lloyd Chambers, claim that it ruins sharpness with longer lenses. They post shots taken at close distance with a 200mm+ lens mounted on a tripod collar and shoot at 1/100sec, and show bad blur. Frankly, that is so far removed from any condition I can envision myself running into that I find this bordering on the ridiculous. However, being a man who trusts that large coroporations do their homework before releasing products, I wondered how Sony could have let a major flaw like that slip through their hands. While it was unlikely to affect even of shot in a thousand, it could lead to serious damage in this uncontrolled space called the Internet. So first I mounted my Contax C/Y 180mm f:2.8 and shot it handheld, with a target much, much farther away than what the bloggers showed. The laws of physics dictate that the further away you shoot, the greater the blur will be, as expressed in pixels, so, whereas their shot is bad, I expected mine to be a disaster. Even handheld, the result is sharp. That it is a heavy lens seemed to actually dampen the clattle substantially (something the laws of physics definitely agree with). Then I set up my lightweight Gitzo 0541 and quickly mounted the camera on it, with less than 10% of the care these esteemed shooters claim to take. Set the camera to timer delay, focus, shoot. Boom, the shot is sharp. With 36Mp, even the LCD lets you know when something has gone sideways. Now I am not claiming that there is nothing there. That would be as impossible to conclusively prove as the non-existence of BigFoot or Nessie. But if, even replicating their worst-case scenario as closely as I could, not even taking great care in the process, I can’t see the ruination of my shot, then maybe you and I can move on without losing sleep over the issue.Image

There are similar claims of “orange peel” effects, and “jaggies”. Said bloggers attribute them to inferior RAW conversion of A7R files by Adobe, or to the fact that Sony RAW are compressed, which can be proven by the fact that they are more often 30Mb thatn the 80 Mb they ought to be if uncompressed. Ensues a lengthy discussion on “lossless” Vs. “lossy” compression, and, as usual in such discussion, the corporate behemoth gets tarred and feathered, and the oh-so-clever-and-knowledgeable-and-persistent blogger emerges triumphant. All I know is, I haven’t seen these “issues” on my shots yet, and what I don’t see doesn’t cost me my beauty sleep. But the issue raised by Pascal is really there, there can be reflections inside the sensor itself, and I don’t recommend the A7R for night shooting.

5. The real issue: wide rangefinder lenses

For obvious reasons, owners of Leica and other rangefinder lenses salivated at the prospect of a body that would handle their beloved, gorgeous lenses and offer superior resolution, superior dynamic range, superior LiveView to a Leica M at a substantially lower cost. Alas, that is not going to happen. I always thought that Sony, not being idiots, would like to sell their (and their partner Zeiss’) lenses rather than boost sales of Leica. That would be facilitated by the ground-breaking performance and not-over-expensive cost of the A7 twins. This is indeed the case.

The basic issue is that digital sensors dont take well to sharp-angled light rays, a problem which film did not present. The sensor being larger that the APS-C in the NEX only made it worse. I did not expect anything wider than 24mm at best to work well, and the truth, so far, is significantly worse than that. On the A7R, my Zeiss ZM 18 f:4.0, my ZM 35 f:2.0, my Contax G 28 f:2.8, my Leica Elmar 24 f:3.8 are unuseable at infinity. Even with color shift correction, even with significant stopping down, corners are simply mush. What I hadn’t expected is miserable corner performance at infinity from my Summilux 50 f:1.4. It is with rancor that I mention that a number of learned Internet blogger-experts proclaimed that “all is well at 35mm and onwards” and that “the Summilux on the A7R is pure bliss”. A**holes!

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Actually there are 4 issues, the combination of which is a bit complex. First, no lens is really perfectly sharp in the corner wide open. The fact that using a FF lens on a smaller sensor hides that does not make it go way on the A7R. Then, because the registry is so short on the E-mount, light rays hit the sensor at sharp angles, and that causes problems. Leica do quite a bit of in-camera processing to correct that, if you are using Leica lenses and can instruct the camera on what corrections to apply. Thirdly, some fast lenses have field curvature, and thus corners may be out-of-focus because of it. Lastly, adapters were designed to mate FF lenses on APS-C sensors, thus discarding the edges of the images. If the inner adapter diametre was too narrow, it did not show up as a problem. Enter the FF sensor of the A7R, and suddenly the adapter is “in the way”, so to speak. Already Hawk’s and Voigtländer have released “improved” adapters, Rayqual have stated that their adapter was not suited for FF, and Novoflex have stated that their adapter is suited to FF.

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So, what is the issue with the Summilux, considered one of the world’s finest lenses?. Well, it is not totally sharp wide open, which I already reported, even in the centre. But what I did not expect is that it has massive field curvature, meaning that, unless I stop down to f:8.0, there is not enough DOF to sharpen up the corners. And, because the A7R has this short registry, instead of the corner looking “merely” out-of-focus, it looks like mush. That is only true at infinity, because closer up the lens pupil is actually further away from the sensor, the light ray angles get less sharp, and the problem goes away. And other 50mm designs and quite a few 35mm suffer less from this than the ‘Lux. Even the Leica wide-angle Tri-Elmar (WATE) is free from any issue, if you can stomach the price and the less-than-state-of-the-art-but-excellent IQ.

Now, if you remember, NEX 7 suffered from similar issues, until Sony released a 10-18mm zoom that was reasonably clean, and Zeiss introduced its wonderful Touit 12mm which was so good it seemed like Zeiss knew how to make the issue go away. The fact that the Touit 12mm works a charm on the A7R in crop mode, making it a 15Mp 18mm wide angle is thus no surprise. The 35FE is also free of such problems, increasing my belief that the best lenses for the A7R will ultimately have been designed for it. This trend for ultimate performance from specific camera-lens combinations is what I observe from Leica, from Fuji, and now from Sony and Zeiss.

6. What about the A7? 

I played around briefly with the A7, which some claim to whav efewer corner issues than the A7R. They are right, but only up to a point. The Summilux is fine on the A7, but my ZMs and Contax G are not. There is less clattle, due to an electronic first curtain, and AF is faster. All of this for less money. Alas, you get less resolution as well. So if it is a trouble-free camera you are looking for, A7 is the better bet. If it is the better camera, then it has to be A7R. Sort of like staying trouble-free with NEX 5N, or trading up in performance and problmes with NEX 7

7. In (temporary) conclusion

So there we are: a formidable camera, for a less-than-daunting price. What’s not to love? Sure, there are things that I would like done better, but what camera pleases everyone all the way? Sony deserve to be congratulated the only way they really appreciate: with our money!

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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Lignum Draco December 27, 2013

    “My belief that the best lenses for the A7R will ultimately have been designed for it”. You are right and the 35mm Sony Zeiss quality exceeds what I am getting from my M lenses. As I bought the A7R particularly for landscape photography, I shall await their native offerings this coming year.

    • Avatar
      HionHiFi January 12, 2014

      With all the inbody lens correction the A7/r is doing, I think native “electronic” lenses perform the best. This is strictly from a performamce point of view. Sure many Leica and old school Zeiss and other manual lenses are great but I don’t think they can compete with the resolution of the corrected lenses. Time and technology have marched on leaving manual lenses behind. Certainly, for portability between lens mounts/manufactures, manual lenses are a better investment however.

      • Avatar
        pascaljappy January 17, 2014

        You’re quite right about in camera corrections making native lenses stellar. But many of the same corrections can be performed using affordable software such as LightRoom. This levels the field. And it often makes more financial sense to buy used Leica or Zeiss lenses than new Sony. But I do think most of the legacy optics are more or less at their limit on the 36Mpix sensor of the A7r. If Sony ever push the boundaries to 50Mpix, that will make lens selection very complex indeed.

  2. Avatar
    philberphoto December 27, 2013

    There are many options for landscape with the A7R, and I am having to make up my mind right now. The lighter Zeiss DSLR lenses (ZF.2 25mm f:2.8 and ZF.2 50mm f:1.4), the Zuiko 21mm f:3.5, or fairly exotic rangefinders, such as CV 21mm f:1.8, Leica 24mm Summilux f:1.4, Leica WATE. All of them have produced very attractive, trouble-free pics on the A7R.
    But, so far, the true mind-blower is the Zeiss OTUS IMHO.
    Unless you are willing to wait. There will be 2 lines of lenses, the Sony-Zeiss with AF, and Zeiss with MF. Hopefully, they can be as good as the Touit for NEX. By the way, the 12mm works just fine as a 18mm on A7R in crop mode. If you can stomach having “only” 15Mp, it is a fine option as a stopgap.

    • Avatar
      Lignum Draco December 27, 2013

      The performance of the Otus is not surprising given it was designed for a camera like the Nikon D800E (or should I say sensor like the A7r 🙂 ). Not sure I need another normal lens at Leica prices, but if the line continues into wide territory, I’m definitely there!

      • Avatar
        philberphoto January 20, 2014

        It seems the next Otus will be a 85mm, and then a wide one. That should be a heavy lens indeed…

  3. Avatar
    Will January 01, 2014

    Great write up. Can you please elaborate on which LUX 50 you were using, the ASPH or non-ASPH?

  4. Avatar
    philberphoto January 01, 2014

    I am using the current ASPH ‘Lux. Because of different optical designs, the non-ASPH has to be regarded as a different lens in this respect, and performance could be entirely different. Since then, ther eis another Leica that has been demonstrated to work well on the A7R: the not-so-cheap,, not-so-light ‘Lux 24! Well, Santa is another 358 days away…:-(
    The problem with ‘Lux 24 is that it is just as heavy as DSLR lenses that also present no problems, like the excellent Zeiss ZA 24 f:2.0, which can be autofocused with the LA-E4 adapter.

  5. Avatar
    HF January 11, 2014

    A few comments from my side, to your otherwise very nice post: you state
    “What makes it laughably superior to its competition is that it, with its 35mm FE f:2.8 lens, weighs less than the latest Olympus OM-D with comparable 17mm f:1.4 (same effective focal length, same light-gathering ability)”.
    First it doesn’t make sense to compare the extremes (largest m43, smallest FF), on average there is still a really big difference in bulk and weight. Equally fast lenses for the same FoV are much smaller and lighter. Attach a stabilised f2.8 24-70 equiv. zoom, minimum focus distance of 20cm at all focal lengths, freeze proof and sharp to the edges or even an 70-200 to the Sony and the form factor is negated.
    The 35mm Sony lens has a different light gathering ability (with that we scientists usually mean intensity/unit area, which is smaller than on an f1.4) The total light among both is equal, but equivalence doesn’t stop here you need to boost ISO to equal exposure: 17.4/1.4 at Iso400 is equivalent to 35/2.8 at ISO 1600 on FF (
    http://www.josephjamesphotography.com/equivalence/#3, http://www.falklumo.com/lumolabs/articles/equivalence/ff.html).
    Besides that, I have a Sony too (A7) and an OMD, because both systems complement each other really well. These are really interesting times.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto January 20, 2014

      Fair point. But I still think that Sony’s prowess in shoehorning the world’s best FF sensor into a highly portable camera cannot be overstated. That doesn’t mean that other systems have suddenly turned into rats and pumpkins like in Cinderella, come midnight.

  6. Avatar
    togtog January 11, 2014

    You might like to add this this to part 4 – the evf is in the middle, it’s not an slr it doesn’t need to be there. I’m sick of squashing my nose against cameras!

  7. Avatar
    Mo January 16, 2014

    Can I ask a very obvious question that your comments just had me a little bit unsure of.
    Ive bought the Sony SEL55F18Z E-mount Carl Zeiss for my my 7r
    So I figure this is the Sony-Zeiss you talk about in you comment above…

    But is the Zeiss MF lens out yet or available for pre-order?

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy January 17, 2014

      Hi Mo, yes you are correct. As for the MF,I don’t think any have been relased yet for the A7r. This spring, probably.

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