The Sony Alpha 7 Review – NEX Full-Frame Mirrorless
If there’s one thing about Sony’s digital camera business that stands out, it’s that they’ve tried out a lot of various ideas. Sony has pursued almost every path in digital imaging, from SLRs with dual autofocus systems and “Translucent” Mirror Technology to their NEX mirrorless line-up. The Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R, its most recent offerings, may be the most interesting things to come out of the Sony labs in a while. It has been possible for the firm to produce full-frame cameras that are roughly the same size as the Olympus OM-D E-M1. To put it another way, the Alpha 7s are considerably smaller than their full-frame interchangeable lens competitors (such the Nikon D610 and the Canon EOS 6D), a feat made primarily possible by the fact that they are not SLRs.
All upcoming interchangeable lens cameras will now be categorized under the Alpha brand as Sony also unifies the NEX and Alpha brands. The a7 would have most certainly been preceded with the letters NEX had it not been mirrorless.
The sensor and autofocus system are where the two cameras’ main physical differences between the a7 and a7R lie. The 36 megapixel CMOS sensor in the a7R lacks an optical low-pass filter while the 24 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor in the a7 has one. While the a7R use conventional contrast detection, the a7 employs a hybrid AF system (with on-chip phase detection) similar to the one found on the NEX-6. The A7R does not have the electronic first curtain option, which enables a quieter shutter and lessens the possibility of “shutter shock” shaking. Both cameras include weatherproof bodies that resemble those of the Olympus E-M1, an XGA electronic viewfinder, tilting LCDs, Wi-Fi, and the newest Bionz X CPU from Sony.
As would be expected, Sony had to develop new lenses to make use of the full-frame sensors; these lenses will be referred to as the “FE-series.” Ten additional lenses were promised by 2015 in addition to the initial five (mentioned below). Current E-mount lenses will function, but cropping will (of course) be required. If you have A-mount lenses hanging around, those too will function, as long as you pick up one of Sony’s full-frame-ready adapters (the LA-EA3 or LA-EA4).
Features of the Sony a7
- OLPF and a 24.3 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
- Support for FE, E, and A-mount lenses in the E-mount (with adapter)
- Image processor Bionz X
- 25 contrast-detect and 117 phase-detect sites in a hybrid AF system
- Aluminum and composite sealed body
- Multi-Functional Shoe
- 1.23 million dot 3-inch tilting LCD (640×480, RGBW)
- Electronic viewfinder in XGA (1024×768)
- Technology for diffraction correction
- 1080p/60p and 24p full HD video recording; uncompressed HDMI output
- NFC-enabled Wi-Fi and downloaded apps
A 24.3 megapixel CMOS sensor with an on-chip phase detector and low-pass filter is used by the a7. The purpose of this “Hybrid AF” is to speed up the autofocus process and enable the camera to shoot continuously at 5 frames per second. Contrarily, the more expensive a7R features a contrast-detect AF system and a 36 megapixel sensor without an optical low-pass filter.
Both the a7 and a7R have manual exposure control, headphone and mic connections, an audio meter, zebra pattern, XLR capability (through adaptor), and live, uncompressed HDMI output. They can both record video at 1080/60p and 24p.
Processor Bionz X
The most recent processor from the company, called Bionz X for reasons that apparently made sense to someone, is significantly more powerful than the previous generation and enables what the company claims to be more complex processing.
The new CPU reportedly offers “Detail Reproduction Technology,” which seems to be a more nuanced and complex sharpening technique, according to Sony, which is being a little evasive about specifics. The company promises a more believable portrayal of fine detail with less obvious focus on edges.
The Bionz X processor also claims to have a feature called “Diffraction Reduction,” which aims to compensate for diffraction-related softness as a lens’ aperture is stopped down. This processing, which presumably depends on aperture, sounds a lot like a component of Fujifilm’s Lens Modulation Optimization system (debuted on the X100S), indicating that it will likely become more widespread across brands in the coming months.
The Bionz X processor, according to Sony, delivers an improved version of its context-sensitive, “area-specific noise reduction,” which tries to determine whether each area of an image represents a smooth tone, textured detail, or subject edges and applies varying amounts of noise reduction appropriately. We’ll demonstrate the effectiveness of this system in the review as well as the issues it may cause.
The a7 has an E-mount, but in order to utilize its full-frame sensor, you must use Sony’s new FE-series lenses. Existing E-mount lenses will still physically fit, but because they were made exclusively for APS-C sensors, their image circles won’t correctly fill the entire frame (much like putting Sony’s DT lenses on full-frame Alpha mount cameras). The 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS will only be offered as a kit lens for the a7, despite the fact that five FE lenses were initially announced, not all of them were readily available at “press time.” The zooms and primes both include optical stabilization, but all of the lenses are weather-sealed.
The five FE lenses that have been formally announced are listed below.
By 2015, Sony expects to provide fifteen FE lenses, including macro and ultra-wide versions.
Two regular zooms, two prime lenses, and a tele zoom are included in the first five Sony FE lenses.
We’re a little taken aback by Sony’s approach in this case; it seems a little strange to be starting with two distinct regular zooms rather than including a wide-angle zoom. Despite the fact that it’s wonderful to see two primes, both seem a little slow given their pricing. A bit too long for a “regular” lens is the 55mm F1.8 as well. We wish Sony would release a quick “portrait” lens in the 85–135mm range sooner, while we would have loved to see one.
You may choose whether to crop the image, and the two cameras are perfectly capable of using existing E-mount and A-mount lenses. If you decide to crop, the a7 will only have 10 megapixels of resolution and its comparable focal length will be 1.5 times longer. Sony also gives you the option to use the complete sensor without cropping, however this will probably result in significant vignetting.
The camera’s APS-C crop mode has three settings: Off, Auto, and On. If you use an APS-C lens and it is Off, you will see Image 2 if you are using a full-frame lens. In Auto mode, depending on whether you’re using a full-frame or an APS-C lens, you’ll receive Image 1 or Image 3. Finally, with it turned on, whichever lens type you attach to the camera, you’ll see Picture 3.
The a7R with the 50mm F1.4 Zeiss lens and LA-E4 A-mount adapter
An A- to E-mount adaptor is necessary for Sony’s A-Mount lenses. Sony now provides no less than four of these adapters, each of which varies in terms of autofocus performance and format support. While the LA-EA2 and the upcoming LA-EA4 use Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology to offer autofocus with all lenses, the LA-E1 and LA-EA3 only offer contrast detect autofocus for lenses that feature built-in focus motors (i.e., SAM and SSM). The LA-EA3 and LA-EA4 are required to provide full sensor coverage with full-frame lenses because the LA-EA1 and LA-EA2 were created for APS-C NEX cameras and will vignette excessively when used on the a7(R).
It’s important to note that the a7 and a7R can accept a wide variety of other lenses via easily accessible third-party adapters, including vintage manual focus lenses from long-defunct systems like Minolta MD, Olympus OM, and Canon FD, as well as those from current systems like Nikon F, Pentax K, and Leica M. Furthermore, in theory these lenses should offer the angle of view they were initially designed to give – so a 24mm will be The a7 might be the perfect camera to revive your beloved collection of vintage manual focus prime lenses if they’ve been collecting dust in a closet. There will be more on that in the review.
Kit features and cost
The 24 megapixel Alpha 7 comes for $1699/£1299 body itself and $1999/£1549 with the 28-70 F3.5-5.6 OSS lens. For those who are interested, the body-only cost of the 36 megapixel a7R is $2299/£1699.
An optional battery grip (VG-C1EM), a first for an E-mount camera, is the most noticeable addition to both cameras. You’ll pay about $300/£259 for this handle, which adds controls for vertical shooting and can accommodate an extra battery.
The a7 relies on internal USB charging and DOES NOT include an external battery charger. Investing in the BC-VW1 or BC-TRW external chargers is definitely a wise choice because USB charging is fairly slow (and makes having an extra battery on hand harder).
Camera cases, an off-shoe flash adaptor, wired and wireless remotes, and screen shields are further add-ons.
Despite the A7’s popularity among enthusiasts, it lacks the ergonomics and image quality of DSLRs from Nikon and Canon. While resolution is comparable between Canon and Nikon, subtle color rendition is superior due to improved proprietary color algorithms that provide better color in most circumstances. While photographs from the A7 appear fine on their own, their colors simply fall short of those of Nikon and Canon. You would notice if you were an artist whose work, like mine, is entirely based on color.