Even for shooters without a stockpile of legacy glass, a full-frame mirrorless would represent a quantum leap forward. Oh, you want to give me the best of current DSLR image quality in a body not much larger than an advanced point-and-shoot? Let me think about that... YES!
It’s one of those concepts you knew was going to happen eventually, and the good money was on Sony to deliver. Sure enough, the Japanese megacorp delivered: Earlier this month, Sony announced the Alpha A7 (MSRP $1,699 body-only, $1,999 w/ kit lens), and its high-res twin, the A7R (MSRP $2,299 body-only).
These two cameras are packed to the gills with cutting-edge tech, including high-performing Sony CMOS sensors, BIONZ X processors, and brilliant EVFs. What’s more, the pricing—for the A7, at least—undercuts what Nikon and Canon are asking for their "entry-level" full-frame DSLRs.
What we have here is an undeniably potent performance package, at an attractive price. But is Sony’s full-frame future a world we’d want to live in? We went hands-on at Photo Plus Expo 2013 to find out.
Compact, but not cramped
The Alpha A7 is a stylish camera, blending classic film SLR lines with modern materials, finishes, and ergonomic ideas. Leading up to its launch there were rumors that the camera would look like an Olympus OM-D clone, but it turns out that’s true only to the extent that there’s a center-mounted EVF hump. Otherwise, the A7’s design language stands confidently on its own.
Eschewing the kind of rounded surfaces common to Canon and Nikon DSLRs, the A7 instead follows the template created by Sony’s RX cameras—all right angles and hard edges. The lone exception is the grip itself, which is pleasantly curved and covered in soft-touch rubber. At first glance, the hard edges look like they'd cause serious discomfort during sustained shooting, but in our experience the result is surprisingly ergonomic. We're happy to report that the camera is also built like a tank, much like the RXes it emulates.
The body is compact, but not overly so. Since it uses the Sony E mount—just like all existing NEX cameras and the recently announced Alpha A3000—it’s quite thin, but the grip around front is nice and chunky, giving you plenty to hang onto. The rubberized leatherette coating finds its way around back to the generous thumb rest, as well.
Front and rear control dials allow for natural control in PASM shooting modes, and several customizable keys ensure you’re never too many clicks from your vital settings. There’s also a Fn button that calls up an on-screen control panel with direct access to a whole mess of other commonly used controls. There are a few other odds and ends, too, like a 3-stop exposure compensation dial and a switch that toggles another button between AF/MF and AE-Lock operation.
The tilting 3-inch rear LCD is bright and crystal-clear at 1.23 million dots, but it’s not touch-sensitive. Given the A7’s small form factor, a quality touchscreen interface could have gone a long way. But oh well, we suppose that’s for the eventual followup. Up above, the electronic viewfinder boasts 2.359 million dots of its own, with 100% frame coverage and 0.71x magnification. It’s a remarkably lifelike display, and one of the most convincing arguments we’ve seen that OVFs are a dying breed.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that both the A7 and A7R are fully sealed against dust and moisture, along with all of the recently announced Sony and Zeiss full-frame E-mount lenses. That’s great news for those who plan to buy into the system wholesale, though legacy lens aficionados may get less use out of it.
A grab-bag of high-end treats, with only one serious trick
There’s no doubt that the A7’s headline feature is its 24.3-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. Sony says it’s an all-new design—not shared with last year’s Cyber-shot RX1 compact. That only makes sense, since it features 117 phase-detection pixels on the chip. As a result, the A7's hybrid autofocus should be able to keep up with other full-frame DSLRs when it comes to tracking fast-moving action—or, at the very least, it will do better than contrast-only mirrorless cameras.
Powering the sensor is Sony’s new BIONZ X chip, which the company claims produces all kinds of fringe benefits, both for stills and video. All we can say after using it on the PPE show floor is that the camera is as quick and responsive as anything else on the market, and certainly won’t disappoint anyone when it comes to operational speed.
Alongside the Alpha A7, Sony announced the Alpha A7R. From the exterior, the two cameras are pretty much identical. But it’s what’s inside that counts, and inside the A7R is a 36.4-megapixel sensor without an anti-aliasing filter. Though it has significantly more resolving power than its cheaper brother, the A7R lacks the A7’s on-sensor PDAF. On the other hand, it includes a gapless microlens array that should improve high-ISO performance and could also help the A7R work better with adapted wide-angle rangefinder lenses.
For those who want to keep it in the family, Sony is planning to roll out a total of 15 full-frame E-mount (FE) lenses over the next two years. Around launch time, there will be five available: a 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, plus four Zeiss-branded primes and zooms. In the prime camp are a 35mm f/2.8 ($799) and 55mm f/1.8 ($999), while the zooms include a 24-70mm f/4 OSS ($1,199) and 70-200mm f/4 (price TBA), both with Optical SteadyShot image stabilization. You can also mount any existing (APS-C) E-mount lens, either utilizing a crop mode (10 megapixels on the A7, 15 on the A7R) or capturing the full frame and dealing with any resulting vignetting yourself.
Finally, Sony has refreshed the existing A-mount 70-200mm f/2.8 OSS zoom, which is now weather-sealed and has Nano AR coating. Autofocus speed is supposedly substantially improved, though we were unable to test it on the show floor (where an A7 mounted with the new 70-200/2.8 replied to our prodding with a forlorn “Battery depleted”). The A7 and A7R will happily take any Sony or Minolta A-mount lens with the LA-EA3 (manual focus, $199) or LA-EA4 (phase-detection AF, $349) adapters.
Like most current Sony cameras, the A7 looks to be a fantastic video camera. It’s certainly ‘roided up on the specs front, capable of recording 1080/60p footage in the AVCHD 2.0 codec and featuring a mic input along with a headphone jack for audio monitoring. With its compact size, decent handling, and functionality with classic lenses you could easily use this camera for run-n-gun cinematography. Sony’s usual focus peaking implementation will help both videographers and stills shooters make the most of manual focusing, and other features like zebra patterns and XLR input (via an optional adapter) provide added value.
There’s only one real stumbling block facing legacy lens enthusiasts: a lack of in-body image stabilization. The A7 and A7R leave vibration correction up to the lens, and since that kind of technology was science fiction back when your glass was manufactured... well, you’ll simply have to make like your ancestors and suffer for your art if you want that sweet, sweet manual focus action. (If it's any consolation, you can remind yourself that plenty of SLR totin’ pros would have killed for ASA 25600 film.)
WiFi and NFC connectivity are onboard, as they have been on virtually every other Sony camera this year. The Sony PlayMemories ecosystem isn't our favorite wireless shooting solution on the market, but it's reasonably fluid and simple to set up—especially for Android owners with NFC-enabled devices. With the Smart Remote Control app you'll be able to use your phone or tablet as a remote viewfinder, though we're still unclear on how much fine control you'll have over exposure parameters.
A halo product with a purpose
The Sony Alpha A7 is a hugely appealing camera thanks to its unique combination of full-frame image quality, compact size, and a supremely accommodating lens mount. It's also the only game in town: There’s nothing else like it on the market at the moment, and we don’t see anything on the horizon, either.
If you’re a manual focus enthusiast, a lens collector, a full-frame DSLR owner looking to downsize your kit, or simply someone looking to jump into one of the best enthusiast-oriented full-frame cameras around, the A7 and A7R look to be excellent choices.
At first glance, it’s really hard to find fault with the package Sony has put together. Admittedly, the company’s lens roadmap is very ambitious, and Sony has a spotty track record when it comes to actually getting its high-profile releases on store shelves. But if the launch goes smoothly and the A7s are well-received, Sony has a real chance to steal Canon and Nikon’s thunder.
The A7 is a camera meant for enthusiasts, aimed at wealthy amateurs and manual lens hoarders, but the system has real potential to disrupt the status quo in the DSLR market. With a larger selection of pro-quality lenses and world-class autofocus, working pros—even sports photographers and photojournalists—could abandon their D4s and 1D Xes for the next generation of full-frame mirrorless Alphas. It's a very real possibility that in a couple years we'll be looking back at the A7 as a watershed moment for mirrorless—a tipping point in an industry-wide shift.
Meet the tester
Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.
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