Sony Alpha A7R Digital Camera Review
One small step for Sony, one giant leap for mirrorless cameras
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Progress rarely can be tracked with a straight line. The long arc of advancement for most technologies involves plenty of twists, turns, dead ends, and false leads. For mirrorless digital cameras, in particular, it's been a tortuous few years, punctuated by both bold strides and tentative steps forward, as each manufacturer struggles to carve out a new niche.
Sony has frequently been at the head of this advancement, particularly when it comes to sticking large sensors in smaller-than-you'd-expect bodies. This trend culminated this past fall with the announcement of the Sony Alpha A7R (MSRP $2,299.99) and A7 (MSRP $1,699.99), the first of a line of compact interchangeable lens cameras employing the same full 35mm sensors that actual professional DSLRs use. Promising top-of-the-line image quality, compatibility (native or otherwise) with just about any lens from the past half century, and debuting at a price on par with Canon and Nikon's entry-level full-frame offerings, Sony has officially put every other camera manufacturer on notice.
The A7R, while in no means perfect, is a complete product that builds off everything Sony has done since 2011, from the NEX-5 to the NEX-7 to the RX100 II to the RX1. The A7 and A7R encapsulates everything successful about each of those products, placing a confident exclamation point on the last three years. From here on out, it's Sony's move.
Design & Handling
Sony applies some hard-learned lessons to arrive at its most successful design yet.
For those familiar with Sony's line, the A7R is easy to sum up. It's what would happen if you took something akin to the Sony-fabricated sensor from the Nikon D800, paired it with a new incredibly fast Bionz X processor, and put it with a compact body as luxuriously built as the Alpha NEX-7. Add in an Alpha-inspired control scheme that eliminates all of the redundant contextual menus of the NEX lineup, and you'll have the A7R, a camera built to appeal not just to enthusiasts out for a stroll, but professionals on the job.
For those unfamiliar with Sony's previous mirrorless efforts, the Sony A7R can feel like a bit of a contradiction. It has a design that is unabashedly modern, though the blocky, polygonal body is capped with a large, pleasantly curved grip. The body itself is sturdy and very well built. It's a relatively small camera, but it has a reassuring heft. It's still quite a bit lighter than either the Canon 6D or the Nikon D600, but balances well even with larger lenses attached. The A7R is weather-sealed, though you'll give up most of that protection when using non-weather-sealed lenses and adapters.
Nestled between the grip and the body—right where you index finger falls—is one of three control dials. The other two are on the back of the camera, complemented by both mode and exposure compensation dials on the top plate of the camera. The dials are probably our main complaint with the handling of the camera. They're all various shapes and sizes, which should aid in switching settings without taking your eye off the finder, but the front and upper rear control dials both are taller than they are wide. This actually makes them slightly more difficult to turn, and we can't figure out why a more traditional thin, wide dial wouldn't have been easier to use.
Beyond that, the shooting experience is greatly improved over the NEX cameras. The A7R's control scheme is right in line with what we saw with the compact RX1, which borrows heavily from the full Alpha DSLR menu. It's more logically laid out, making even obscure settings easy to find. Also, in addition to the three control dials the A7R also includes ±2-stop exposure compensation dial. Manual shooters won't find any use for it, but it makes the camera more friendly to novice shooters and somewhat makes up for the lack of a secondary LCD on the top plate.
Shooting with the A7R is generally quite pleasant, overall. The electronic viewfinder is large, bright, and sharp. Its central location makes it workable for both left- and right-eye dominant shooters while the excellent tilting rear LCD gives you even more framing options. The A7R's compact nature and excellent control layout would make it the ideal shooter if not for a few key performance issues and one of the loudest shutters we've ever heard.
Phase-detection autofocus would be nice, but Sony has spared no expense otherwise.
There are two main things that separate the A7R from its cheaper sibling, the A7. The first is the image sensor, which is a 36.3-megapixel behemoth that is on par with the Nikon D800. While 36 megapixels can seem like overkill, we've talked to plenty of pros—even those who primarily publish in smaller digital formats instead of print—who swear by the extra resolution. Our own experience with the D800 suggested the same, as it's a powerful tool that allows not only for extensive cropping, but also drastically improved image quality through downsampling.
The second feature is one that is sorely missed on the A7R: phase-detection autofocus. As mirrorless cameras, the A7 and A7R lack the mirror box needed to employ off-sensor PDAF sensors. The A7 gets around this as many mirrorless cameras do, with phase-detect autofocus sensors built right onto the sensor itself. Sony hasn't elected to include PDAF pixels with the A7R's sensor, so we're stuck with just contrast detection AF. The result, unfortunately, is that the A7R is truly dreadful at tracking motion. Not just sports or extreme action, but any unpredictable subject moving toward or away from the camera will give it fits. I used the A7R over the holiday season and found that my 18-month-old nephew's slow (unpredictable, if adorable) walk around the room was still too much for the A7R to cope with.
Even when you've locked onto your subject, the A7R is still rather slow compared to most DSLRs in this price range. The A7R is capable of around 4 frames per second continuous shooting in its speed priority mode, but that falls to just 1.5 frames per second in other modes. It's faster than similar high-resolution medium format cameras from companies like Phase One and Hasselblad, but no matter how you look at it the A7R is poorly equipped to capture action.
Otherwise the A7R has a phenomenal feature set that is on par with any high-end mirrorless offering. On the hardware side you've got a 1/2-inch XGA OLED electronic finder and tilting 3-inch 921k-dot rear LCD for framing. The camera is also capable of 1080/60p video with full manual control, as well as both headphone and microphone inputs. For enhanced connectivity the A7R also has NFC and WiFi built into the body, allowing you to control and transfer images remotely.
You've also got the same E-mount that Sony has been making lenses for since the original NEX-3 and NEX-5. Unfortunately, those lenses are only suited for smaller APS-C sensors. They can be used with the A7R, but the shots will have severe vignetting or have to be cropped, producing a shot that is just around 15 megapixels—less than half of the sensor's total pixel count. Sony is releasing a series of full-frame capable FE lenses to remedy this, and we got our hands on the new 55mm f/1.8, 35mm f/2.8, and 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses. They're all excellently built, produce razor sharp images, and offer weather sealing. It's not nearly as complete a lineup as Canon or Nikon, but it's an outstanding first step and enough to build a very nice kit.
A full-frame that's short on price but doesn't cut corners with performance
This is a brief breakdown of how the A7R fared in our lab tests, for a full picture of the A7R's performance in our testing, please head on over to the A7R Science page.
The Sony A7R is the first non-Leica mirrorless camera to feature a full-frame image sensor, and being first often comes with some performance sacrifices. Fortunately, there are precious few cut corners with the Sony A7R, and our lab tests reveal a camera that produces images that are every bit the equal of pro-level full-frame DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.
In our time with the camera the main issues that cropped up were the awkwardly loud shutter, sluggish autofocus, and anemic continuous shooting speed. When you actually capture images, however, the results are very impressive. The A7R's sensor has class-leading resolution, excellent dynamic range that's just about on par with the Nikon D800E, and color accuracy that is about as accurate as you could want.
We ran our tests primarily with the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, but we were also able to shoot with the new FE 55mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2.8 lenses. Both are superbly built and offer excellent corner-to-corner resolution. And while the A7R may appeal more to stills shooters than videographers, the camera's inclusion of full 1080/60p, mic and headphone jacks, as well as audio level control and zebra exposure warnings will certainly appeal to budget-minded filmmakers looking for that full-frame aesthetic.
Overall, there is very little to pick on the A7R for. The lack of responsiveness is an issue—one cleared up mostly by the cheaper A7—but the image quality is world-class. The photographer in us would prefer the more flexible Nikon D800 for now, but there are no cameras out now that can match the A7R's combination of price, size, and performance.
Mirrorless completes the journey from enthusiast toy to professional tool
Qualms with its speed and focus abilities aside, the A7R is a fantastic camera worthy of all the praise it has been receiving. Though it has a significant Achilles heel in the form of action shooting, the extensive feature set, massive resolution, and excellent image quality has us very excited for more. The key will be for Sony to continue to develop the lineup of FE full-frame E-mount lenses. Though the A7R is able to function with hundreds of third-party lenses via adapter, Sony needs to flesh out native lenses quickly, something it has struggled to do with E-mount lenses so far.
All that said, compared to the A7 it's difficult for us to recommend the A7R for anybody but studio and landscape shooters. If your subject moves much, shooting with the A7R will too often devolve into a frustrating game of "catch up." It's also embarrassingly loud, calling attention to itself and making it useless for discrete photography of performances or people on the street.
While we'll have a full performance review soon, we've already seen that, with its improved speed and focus abilities, the A7 will be the better option for most kinds of shooters. The A7 is simply more adaptable, and still offers all the same features an a whopping 24 megapixels of its own. Being $600 cheaper doesn't hurt the A7's case, either.
The concept of a professional-level mirrorless camera has finally gained ground in the past year. With the Sony A7 and A7R including the same full-frame sensors as other pro-level cameras, it's quickly becoming reasonable for a person who makes their living with a camera to do so primarily with a mirrorless body. Do we feel that everyone shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800 should instantly trade in all their gear for a Sony, Olympus, or Fujifilm? Not quite. A lack of lenses is obviously an issue given this is a brand new line of cameras, and pro news and sports photographers are spoiled silly with cameras like the Canon 1D X and Nikon D4 that focus in an instant and shoot at 11+ frames per second. The Nikon D800 has shown pros will live with a slower camera that offers extensive resolution, but the D800 is quieter, faster, and focuses on moving subjects without an issue.
Those issues aside, the A7R shows that the mirrorless category can extend its reach not just from novices through the enthusiast sector, but all the way to the professional ranks. Whatever someday replaces the A7R will have to be faster, offer more reliable autofocus, and have better lenses to choose from, but the A7R stands as a watershed moment when the arrival of a mirrorless camera that can serve professional shooters as well as a DSLR became simply a matter of time.
By the Numbers
The Sony A7R is an extremely high-performance camera in a compact body. Though there are some nagging issues with focus and responsiveness, the image output is absolutely on par with any current professional camera on the market. Available for just over $2,000, the Sony A7R represents a great value for those willing to live with its many peccadilloes.
Color & White Balance
Most Sony cameras don't put much of an emphasis on strict color accuracy, focusing instead on producing vibrant images that are pleasingly saturated. The A7R represents a different tack, with Sony coding all of the color modes to be far more accurate than what we're used to seeing from Sony products.
Looking at the numbers, we found the "Deep" color mode actually produced the most accurate image. It returned a ∆C00 (saturation corrected) color error of 1.91. Saturation came in at 106.2% of the ideal, which is well within tolerances. Any error less than 2.2 is pretty much as good as it needs to be, so this is an excellent result.
The other modes were less accurate, but ramped up the saturation. The worst offenders were the sunset, autumn, and landscape modes, all of which push reds, greens, blues, and purples so that your final image is more memorable.
Those seeking accurate colors should also be mindful of the A7R's white balance capabilities. When just using the automatic WB settings, the A7R handled daylight scenes fine, but struggled with indoor incandescent and fluorescent lights. Incandescent was worse with an error of nearly 2500 kelvins (a little above average) while fluorescent was off by just over 300 kelvins.
Switching to a custom white balance solved these issues, as under any lighting condition the color temperature was off by less than 50 kelvins. In fluorescent and daylight the error of pure white was actually less than 3 kelvins, which is remarkable.
High ISO Noise
Like the Nikon D800, the Sony A7R has a 36.3-megapixel full-frame image sensor. With all of that extra resolution, the pixels are quite small. As such, the image it output at the top end of its 100-25600 ISO range can actually look noisier than you might expect if you obsess over images at 100% magnification.
Having smaller pixels like that is a mixed bag. On the one hand you have far more resolution, recording finer detail and giving you the option to downsample your shot, improving image quality. On the other hand, smaller pixels gather less light, which results in a hit to dynamic range and resulting in a higher noise percentage.
Generally image quality takes a noticeable dive once noise crosses 2% of the total image. With no noise reduction applied that happens at just ISO 1600 on the A7R. The images don't look that bad, however, because you will rarely view them at full size. If you want to keep noise down even more you can apply some extra software noise reduction, but it's very aggressive on the A7R. At the "low" setting noise actually never is allowed to cross the 2% threshold, topping out at 1.35% at ISO 6400 (and dropping even more from there). If you ramp NR up to the "normal" setting, noise never even crosses 1%.
This is the source of many of the complaints about the A7R's muddy JPEG output. The "Low" setting of NR would pass for "Ultra High" on almost any other camera. It's over aggressive and permanently destroys fine detail. If you must shoot JPEG our advice is to turn NR off. It may look worse to have a noisy image when you're pixel peeping at 100% magnification, but trust the power of downsampling and you'll turn out better results.
We tested the Sony A7R primarily with the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, and found the results to be very sharp. At f/2.8 the zoom lens showed some distortion and generally soft corners, but nothing more than is to be expected from similar lenses. Stopping down solved these issues, while some barrel distortion at wide angle is also corrected by zooming in a tad.
Overall all three lenses performed on par with what we'd expect from similar pro-level lenses from Canon and Nikon, though the FE lenses are weather-sealed and quite compact compared to, say, the 24-70mm f/2.8 from Canon's L series.
One of the major benefits of the Sony A7R's large full-frame image sensor is the increased dynamic range. Dynamic range is the range of inputs (i.e. light levels) that a sensor can reliably record. Though it's easy to think of this in terms of how much detail can you keep in the highlights before it's totally blown out, it actually has a lot more to do with shadow areas. On the dark end, dynamic range is limited by the amount of noise that a sensor produces. If a pixel reading is more noise than actual signal, you can't reliably record an image, resulting in a noisy mess.
We actually cut things off quite a bit sooner, where the signal to noise ratio drops below 10:1. This is a better indicator of image quality, as having 1:1 signal to noise may work from a theoretical standpoint, it's rubbish as far as producing a good-looking image. And compared to the competition, the A7R and its large full-frame sensor do very well.
At the base ISO of 100, we found the A7R recorded 8.61 stops of this high-quality dynamic range. It predictably falls off from there, as amplifying the signal (i.e. ratcheting up the ISO sensitivity) also brings up noise levels. With the A7R dynamic range falls to 6.05 stops at ISO 400, 4.43 stops at ISO 1600, and 2.11 stops at ISO 6400. At the top ISO of 25600 dynamic range falls to just 1.05 stops, which isn't great, but most cameras actually fall all the way to 0 by this point, so it's still a positive result.
The A7R produced some excellent video in our suite of lab tests, easily matching similar competition from Canon and Nikon. In our video resolution test the A7R resolved around 625 line pairs per picture height (LPPH) in bright light, with around a 15-20% falloff when switching to the limited light version of this test. In our low light sensitivity test the A7R managed to produce an acceptable image with just 9 lux of light. And in our motion test we found that the A7R's 1080/60p mode handled things quite well, with only minor ghosting or flaring in our moving sample.
Overall it's a strong performance result that doesn't rule out the A7R for more serious video work. Add that to the fact that the A7R also includes a mic jack, headphone jack, audio level control, full manual exposure control, and zebra exposure warnings and you have a potent tool for even serious videographers.