One year with the Sony A7r
By Pascal Jappy
It’s been just over one year since my A7r was delivered to my door and few of my cameras had been so intensely anticipated as this one. I vividly remember watching Steve’s Memphis images, particularly those made with the ZM35/2, Voigtlander 35/1.2 and crazy OTUS 55 lenses and mopping up the drool from my keyboard.
A long-time lover of the Mamiya 7 camera, I had never really been able to match the usability and image quality of that camera with any of the – too numerous – digital cameras owned since turning my back to film in the early days, not even my technically excellent D800e. But this Sony certainly felt like a potential candidate with its exciting mix of size, resolution, dynamic range and je ne sais quoi in pixel level fluidity.
So has it lived up to the Mega Mamiya ?
For anyone following the “f/8 and be there” motto, being there has certainly never been easier than with this small, yet robust camera. It’s been with me in the freezing Lapland winter, hot Mediterranean summer and torrential rain that afflicted my neck of the wood in between. It has always delivered the goods in spades and, although a friend’s sample died on him in Greenland, mine has been blessed with excellent reliability.
One year later, with several new cameras on the market, there still isn’t one I’d want to trade it in for. And the reason I’m writing this so long after the release of this camera is that its price has dropped significantly and will continue to do so with the introduction of its successors in the near future. So, to me, it has become the bargain of a lifetime for many to step into a world of affordable ultra-high quality. Yes, its successors may have more pixels, but not enough to discard this pocket monster. After all, the rumoured 46Mpix successor only offers a negligible 13% increase in resolution on each axis …
So why “mostly” ?
Are you familiar with Guns n Roses’ November Rain video? Well, if you’ll excuse the musical metaphor, my (really, really) beautiful A7r bride snores and sometimes makes me feel like I too “need some time on my own” …
But since the beauty far outweighs the beast, let me get the snoring out-of-the-way first and elaborate on the goodness after that.
Wakey, wakey !
So you’re walking down the street in KL, a monkey is looking eagerly at a lady’s ice cream. You switch your A7r on with the intuition that something funny is going to happen. And it does. And the A7r is still asleep. And the monkey eats the ice cream, particularly relishing the best chocolatey bit down the bottom of the cone. But the A7r is still gathering its wits. The monkey backflips its way to the rooftop, the sun sets, you have a delicious indian curry and, suddenly, the A7r has come to life.
OK, possibly a slight exaggeration here, but you get my angry drift. There are few slower cameras on the market anywhere near this price point. And as a street photography tool, it will mess with your Zen like little else can.
Happily there’s a way around this inconvenience. In the 2nd screen of the toolbox camera menu, you can set the Pwr Save Start Time to 10 seconds and leave the camera on. It takes a full press on the shutter button to wake the camera on so there’s little risk you’ll do it by accident. And doing so normally brings the camera back to life in a much more manageable 1.5s (compared to the sluggish 2-4 seconds from OFF). Since battery life is fairly good, that’s one big issue partly taken care of.
My only AF lens on this camera is the (fantastic) Zeiss/Sony Sonnar FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA. Aside from the typically poor construction of the Zeiss lens cap, this is an exceptional performer and could easily be my only lens.
Bu however wonderful, it is let down by the unpredictable autofocus on the A7r.
AF isn’t the fastest, but isn’t slow either. It’s also very accurate when it focuses.
It’s main drawback is the occasional inability to focus at all.
Forget taking AF photographs of clouds. You’ll have to find a distant tall building or mountain range to approximate infinity and recompose your shot once focus has locked.
AF really needs subjects with high edge contrast to function properly. And when it does, near-far situations are a constant worry, the camera always making the strange decision of focusing on the background. The example below of my daughter in the car is very typical.
That being said, manual focusing is – by a wide margin – the best I have ever experienced on a digital camera. Focus peaking works brilliantly and offers the certainty of 0% miss when combined with the elegant digital zoom system. Given how excellently this camera deals with most third-party lenses, this truly makes up for the occasional inadequacies of the AF.
Handling noise seems inversely proportional to electronic noise, in this camera.
A lot has been written about the shutter noise, and there’s very little I can add, other than the camera can even scare you with a very loud noise when powering down.
How bad is it in real-life ? Well, if I’m out walking and making pictures for a few hours, I actually don’t notice and forget all about it. It’s loud, but actually rather pleasant, in a positive, clunky way.
After a long day, it does get tiring to the point that I resist making more pictures unless they really beg to be made. In a way, that’s a good thing, because restraint is always advised after a day’s shooting. But I doubt that Sony intended that way and that noise is really something you could do without when you feel tired. That’s one of the only occasions the camera doesn’t feel like a close friend you want to take along everywhere.
Churches, theatres and ceremonies when silence are expected are also obvious turn offs. A couple of years ago, I visited 20 churches in Venice to create a collection of photographs. That’s definitely not something I would like to attempt with this camera. Which is a shame considering how brilliantly it would handle the low light and tonal ranges found in these places.
Mostly excellent. The size is right. Anything smaller would be pain to work with. The camera is light yet feels very robust. There is a – highly subjective but very real – tactile pleasure to handling it.
And the EVF is so good and informative I would never want to go back to optical. Having fought the D800e to focus manual lenses using its abysmal live view, the EVF on this A7r is an absolute godsend. The artificial horizon is such a help with wide angles too. My percentage of frames requiring no cropping or rotation has increased dramatically thanks to this EVF.
Buttons and dials are firm and positive, although placement seems governed by some inexplicable alien logic or usage scenario.
Automatic white balance
The ease of bulk modification of white balance in editing software such as LightRoom or Capture One kind of makes this a non issue, but AWB is a bit flaky on the A7r. It often seems in a happy mood and makes everything appear a bit more golden than in real-life. That works well in most scenes but adds a slightly sickly mustardy tinge to others. Still, you can set 500 frames to auto-WB in a matter of seconds in any editing software, so no problems here.
Now the good stuff. There’s no suspense as many others have reported on the superb image quality offered by this little gem. But let me qualify that from my personal point of view.
Sharp, yet organic look at pixel level
36Mpix is a lot. Probably enough for 99% of photographers in the world and certainly enough for me. Obviously, it makes it easy to crop severely to recompose or enlarge a portion of the frame yet retain enough information to obtain quality prints. Which, in turn, means I never need a lens longer than 135mm for any of my shots.
But, beyond the pixel count, it’s the actual pixel-level quality that I find lovely. At 100% – at base ISO – the quality is silky smooth with an organic feel to it that I don’t remember with my D800e. Images are fluid and look beautiful viewed at full scale, provided I have been careful to avoid shake. As mentioned above, focusing using peaking in the glorious EVF is easy and very efficient (another major strong point over the D800e). But shake is a very real issue and one of the areas where the greater mass of the D800e helps stabilize. Still, when proper technique is applied, the results are incredibly gorgeous to look at, time after time. When everything comes together, there is a real sense of achievement that is quite similar to browsing through a large format slide with a loupe or examining a great print.
Remarkable tolerance to older glass
Don’t ask me why, but some sensors seem to emphasize the technical blemishes in some of the older lenses we own and love. Edges can seem mushy and lifeless, for instance.
Not so with the A7r. It may be because of that apparent fluidity, or it may be something else, but the A7r just loves older glass and proves very tolerant to designs that would not work so well on other cameras.
Thanks to some kind friends, I’ve used this camera with a great variety of legacy lenses from Olympus, Nikon, Leica (M & R), Zeiss and Mamiya 645. Roughly 20 lenses in total. Not one has been bad ! Most have been superb.
Yes, I steered clear of the known offenders such as some wide-angle Biogons but, from the superb 19mm (Leica Elmarit-R) to the great 135mm (Leica Apo-Telyt-M) it’s been a bed of roses. Some variation in sharpness, some strong flaring, but definitely no deal-breaking nasties.
So, in keeping with the dropping price of the camera itself, it is quite possible to equip yourself with a slew of fantastic lenses that will never disappoint you.
In the cheap and lovely pantheon, I would state many from the Olympus stable (28, 50, 135) as well as most of the Leica-R offerings (50/2, 35-70/4, 90/2.8). The adapter adds a bit of visual heft to these lenses, but they are not overly large, or heavy, in your bag.
And at the top of the price ladder, lenses such as the Leica Elmarit-R 19/2.8 II and Leica Apo-Telyt-M 135/3.4 are true stunners. Special mention goes to the specialty Leica Summilux-R 80/1.4 with its gorgeous bokeh. But even the cheaper lenses perform brilliantly as Steve’s recent reviews of the Jupiter 8 and Petzval lenses (among others) illustrate.
Huge dynamic range
I’ve long been fascinated by the aesthetics produced by some of the digital medium-format photographers. The silky smooth tonal range is particularly appealing to me.
The Sony comes closer to producing that look than any other digital camera I have owned. And I strongly believe the astounding dynamic range has a lot to do with these great results. There is very rarely any harshness in the highlights, gone are grad filters, and dark shadows always lift with very little noise.
It’s truly amazing and – to me – the single most fantastic feature of this camera (shared with others using its sensor, such as the Nikon D800 range) which opens up so many new possibilities
I could go on. The camera is a never-ending source of pleasure; interspersed with some frustrating episodes, but mainly a gem. It has been my constant companion for a year. I have smuggled it in deep pockets, work bags and suitcases to document my daily life, travels, family parties and it has been equally at ease on all subjects – provided they didn’t move too fast ;)
More importantly, in spite of a slightly warm tinge that’s easy to correct, I think this camera is neutral and can suit many styles. With most lenses, its huge dynamic range makes it a treat in B&W.
But colour landscapes are just as glorious and the detail is formidable.
The only real type of shooting location it wasn’t designed for is whenever silence is a necessity. Churches are one example and you’ll soon feel conspicuous. However, that’s a small price to pay for the other opportunities opened-up by the amazing sensor, light weight and the form factor which doesn’t attract attention.
The reason I’m writing this now is that it will inevitable be replaced. Probably sooner than later. The sensor is 3 years-old and Sony probably have new tricks up their sleeves by next year. But whatever comes up to replace will signal a fantastic opportunity to acquire this level of technology at significantly discounted price. If I was shopping for the almost-perfect-yet-affordable camera today, I’d wait for the A7r’s replacement and buy an A7r :) It’s that good.