The A7r VS. the D800
Andrew Paquette – his website is HERE
My Nikon D800 with Nikkor 35mm 1.4G side-by-side with my new A7r mounted with a Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH lens. Quite a size difference for two cameras that are so equal in other ways!
I have been wanting a Leica M240 or Monochrom ever since I realized that my D800 was a heavy camera, particularly when it had my Zeiss 15mm 2.8 ultra wide-angle lens mounted on it. It hadn’t seemed so bad at first, because it felt great in my hand and was comfortable to shoot, but carrying it in a backpack all day along with a backup lens caused back pain long before I was ready to get on a train and go home. Another thing that made me curious about the Leica was that it looked much less intrusive than the Nikon. When I would pull my Nikon out of my bag, people nearby would often step back and say “whoah!” as if I’d just pulled out a cannon or some other weapon. A camera that would not draw attention to itself sounded pretty good to me, but at €6,299 for the M240 and €6,899 for the Monochrom, any kind of Leica seemed out of reach.
It wasn’t just the tiny form factor that I wanted, because there were those magical Leica lenses. The photos I’d seen taken by these amazing little gems had a quality that no other lens could reproduce. I loved my Zeiss 15mm and my 100mm Makro-planar, but their smooth, creamy rendering style didn’t suit some subjects as well as others. My two 1.4G Nikkor didn’t either. Each of these lenses served a useful purpose and I liked them, but none could provide the kind of gritty high contrast realism the Leicas consistently produce. It didn’t matter though because it would cost about €10,000 to get a minimal Leica system plus lens, and I couldn’t afford to do that. I tried the I-shot-it contest a few times, but didn’t even get close. Unsurprising, considering the numbers of professionals entering for a chance at the Monochrom plus enough money to buy several good lenses. Then, I had a spot of good news: Christmas was coming up and someone felt I should have a Leica. Problem solved!
Now that I was being asked to pick out my own Christmas gift, I realized that I wasn’t so sure that I wanted a Leica camera after all. I had read some things about it on the internet that I didn’t like. One of the reviewers I read said the M240 would lock up frequently right when he needed it, forcing him to pop the battery and reset the camera, but that was complicated by the design, which forced him to remove the tripod mount before he could open the battery compartment door. Who wanted that hassle from a €6,299 camera? Even as a gift I’d feel guilty about spending money on something like that. And then there was the 24MP sensor. I liked the D800’s 36MP sensor and didn’t want to take a step back while spending three times as much money for the privilege. I had all but decided to get a new Zeiss Otus as my Christmas gift when I ran across an article here about the A7r. A camera smaller than the M240, without the lockup problems or stupid battery door design (from Steve: NOT, I never have had any lock up with ANY M 240 I have shot, and i have shot with several), a 36MP sensor, and it could mount Leica lenses. Perfect!
About a week later, I had the A7r in hand, with a Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH lens to see through. Nice! Now all I needed was something to shoot. I was sick for about ten days, preventing me from doing any serious shooting right away, though I did get a few shots, then this weekend I went out with the A7r and my D800 to see what the differences were. Before I get into that, here are a few things you need to know about using Leica glass on the A7r:
The Sony .ARW RAW file format has not been shared with Adobe. They have a new update for Photoshop and Lightroom that can read the files, but because it is reverse-engineered, it does not do as good a job at reading these files as Sony’s free ARW image conversion utility. However, and this is really important, the Sony software stinks big time. All it will do is read the file correctly and spit out a TIFF or JPG image for you. Forget about doing any fancy RAW editing there because the software really stinks. For this reason, I prefer to use the Adobe software even though it immediately reduces the sharpness of the image a little bit. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, but this is how I feel about it right now.
I used the Novoflex Leica to Sony adapter ring to mount the Summilux on the A7r. This adapter does not communicate any lens data to the A7r (unlike the Phigment Tech adapter I’ve heard about) so you will not get much in the way of EXIF data shooting this combination. It also means that for this article, I had no idea what f-stop I was using on the A7r. For that reason, I decided to ignore f-stop comparisons and just look at image quality.
Now for the review. To test the cameras, I put a pair of top quality 35mm lenses on each. For the A7r, I had a Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH. The D800 had a Nikkor 35mm 1.4G AP-S. I would have liked to try the D800E with a Zeiss 35mm 1.4, but I didn’t have either, so this is what I used. Besides, I wanted to test the difference between the AF Nikkor and the MF Leica lenses.
Shooting these two cameras is a very different experience. When taking pictures of anything moving, the D800 is able to quickly fire off a half-dozen shots or more while the A7r gets only one image and then the subject is gone. At first this really irritated me, but then I learned to be more careful when I tripped the shutter on the A7r. It meant that I wouldn’t have any backup images if I got the timing wrong, but on the other hand, I found I tended to get the composition I wanted more often than with the D800. I think this was because the rapid burst-firing of the D800 had made me lazy about composition, so I would just shoot a bunch of shots and then sort out the compositions later. With the A7r, I had to see that I had the composition (or was just about to) before pushing the button.
Crossing the bridge, shot with a Sony A7r + Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH
Crossing the bridge, shot with a Nikon D800 + Nikkor 35mm 1.4G
Another difference between the cameras is the Live View and EVF on the A7r vs. the Live View and OVF on the D800. I didn’t expect this to be a big difference, but it really was. The resolution of the LV and EVF on the A7r is double that of the D800 LV, and the EVF is much easier to use than the D800’s OVF because of focus magnification. This may be because, at 48 years old, I need the extra resolution to see what I’m doing, but I had the distinct impression that my eyesight got worse whenever I switched to the D800, because it could only show so much on the LV due to its low maximum resolution. I had asked Steve about this by email and he suggested that I use the EVF on the A7r without focus magnification because it is much faster than trying to use focus mag. I tried it his way along with focus peaking (another cool feature of the A7r) and my way with focus mag. He was right that focus mag slowed down the process, but sometimes I felt it was necessary, so I used it anyway. Either way, I found that I got the focus more often with the A7r than with the D800. This was not because the Nikkor 35mm 1.4G was incapable of matching the Summilux (I assume) but because I couldn’t see what I was doing as well with the D800 as on the A7r.
Keeping warm by the canal. Shot with a Sony A7r + Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH
I had both cameras in the same big camera backpack, but found that whenever an unexpected opportunity for a shot arose, I grabbed the A7r by reflex. Maybe it was because it was smaller and easier to grab, or because it was less obtrusive. Whatever the reason, it was my instinct. All of my favorite shots were made this way: unexpected, quick, and without a D800 shot to compare with (sorry) because the opportunities came and went too fast to use both cameras. I did, however, get plenty of shots that were good comparatives, so let’s get into those.
Dynamic range test shot, St. Antoniuuskerk Kathedraal. Shot with a Sony A7r + Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH
I took a number of shots inside a couple of cathedrals in an old medieval town in the Netherlands. In St. Antoniuuskerk, I wanted to test the DR capabilities of the two setups. In my opinion, the Sony was much better the Nikon. Of the 30 shots I took, below is a side-by-side comparison of the best from each camera. Keep in mind that I have no idea what the f-stop settings were for the A7r so I didn’t bother comparing that. For all I know, these are totally different f-stops. However, these are the two best shots from either camera for DR, regardless of f-stop, so it shouldn’t matter.
Nikon on left, Sony on right. The Sony clearly has a lot more detail than the Nikon, and this was true of all the A7r shots vs the D800.
Figure 7 Another DR shot, made with the Sony A7r + Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH
The shot I took of the canal above was one of those fast shots I hadn’t planned on taking, so I don’t have a D800 shot to compare it with, but this a pretty decent shot for checking out the DR capabilities of the A7r sensor. This is not an HDR image, but a single image with some tweaking in LR to adjust the shadow brightness. Importantly, the shadow, darks, and highlights are not clipped anywhere in the image despite the fact that the sun is (almost) in the image and there are reflections everywhere.
Auto focus comparison. Nikon D800 on left, Sony A7r on right
This test really surprised me. On my D800’s Live View screen, it looked like the D800 had nailed the focus on the “GIANT” lettering on the down tube of my bike, but it is soft compared to the MF of the A7r + Summilux combination. I used focus mag and the EVF on the A7r for this shot, and it seems to have worked really well. In other shots, moving and static, I consistently got this result. Only rarely were the Nikon shots focused better, regardless whether I used AF or MF (I tried both after I noticed the problem.) Maybe this is because my eyes are 48 years old now, but it is still important to know, because I’m not the only person out there that has to wear reading glasses.
Another focus example, D800 on left, A7r on right
The aperture on these two shots is clearly different, with the Summilux more wide open than the Nikkor, but the important thing is that it is sharper. I really think this is because the higher resolution EVF allows me to see the details better than the D800’s LV or the OVF.
Colour test, D800 on left, A7r on right
I took some deep woods shots because of all the highly saturated colours to be found there after a recent rain storm. The A7r + Summilux always gave a wider colour range, though on a couple of shots I preferred the Nikkor results. In this example, we are looking at a pile of leaves from slightly different angles, but they are the same leaves. The D800 + Nikkor clearly has less colour range than the A7r + Summilux. In addition, despite the things I’d read about a magenta cast on the A7r when using Leica lenses, in this shot the Nikkor looks more magenta than the Leica.
Sharpness comparison, D800 on left, A7r on right
This comparison really surprised me. I took about 40 shots each with the D800 and the A7r of people crossing this bridge on foot and bicycles, as well as several of the bridge without any people around, and all of them are like this. The A7r shots are always sharper at the point of focus than the D800 shots. This doesn’t mean I always focused on the right subject with the A7r, I didn’t, but wherever the point of focus was, it was sharper than the D800. Because the people were sometimes moving quite fast, I did a better job of focusing on my subject with the D800 when the person was on a bicycle, but when walking, I had better luck with the A7r.
Shot with Nikon D800 + Nikkor 35mm 1.4G
Shot with D800 + Nikkor 35mm 1.4G
Shot with A7r + Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH
Noise test, D800 on left and A7r on right
One of the few tests the D800 consistently won on was noise. It seemed like the A7r always had more noise. Maybe I just am not used to the camera yet, but it seemed like there was always noise in the A7r shots, no matter how low the ISO was.
Close-up sharpness test, D800 on left, A7r on right
In this tripod shot I could have sworn the focus on the D800 was perfect. At least, based on what I could see in the viewfinder, that’s what it looked like. And yet, the A7r is sharper. On the D800, I used Live View magnified to the maximum. It looked as sharp as could be detected with its resolution, but there was still some play in the lens where there was no discernable change in focus, meaning I needed more resolution to see what was going on. If my eyes were sharp enough, I might have been able to see the difference with the OVF, but with the EVF of the A7r I could see the difference and that got me better focus.
Another colour comparison, D800 on left, A7r on right
My wife likes the colour of the shot on the left better because of the more saturated blue reflections in the puddle, but I prefer the variety of greens in the A7r shot on the right. At first, I liked the D800 shot better also, but then I adjusted the tones a bit in LR and then I liked the A7r shot better. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste.
Market day, shot with the Sony A7r + Leica Summilux 35mm 1.4 ASPH
And that’s it! Now I’m off to a conference in the UK, where I hope to get a few hours to take some more shots with the A7r. I’ll be carrying it on a tiny hip pouch, which is all that is needed for this extraordinary camera.