Conclusion - Pros
- Small and well-priced full-frame body
- Very good image quality when shooting Raw
- Solid build quality
- Compatible with a huge range of legacy 35mm camera lenses with no field-of-view crop
- Large, high resolution electronic viewfinder
- Tilting LCD offers good detail and outdoor visibility
- Useful tools, such as focus peaking and zebra pattern (work well with native lenses)
- Very good video quality
- Strong video features: manual controls, audio level adjustment, and uncompressed HDMI output
- Well-implemented dual-axis electronic level
- Solid Wi-Fi system allows for remote shooting, easy photo sharing; NFC a plus
- Charging via USB can be convenient
- Classic Sony features (HDR, Sweep Panorama) work well
- Exposure compensation dial makes Auto ISO usable in manual mode
- Microphone and headphone ports
- Optional battery grip
Conclusion - Cons
- JPEG quality disappointing compared to peers – crude sharpening, over-aggressive processing and occasional posterization
- Autofocus can be hesitant, especially in low light; AF improves when assist lamp is turned off
- Auto ISO tends to keep shutter speed at 1/60 sec, often resulting in blurry photos
- Limited selection of FE lenses, which are expensive compared to competition
- Tools for shooting with third party lenses need improvement
- Longer-than-average startup times
- Camera 'locks up' while buffer is clearing after continuous shooting
- Overly sensitive eye sensor (also stays active when screen is tilted)
- Lacks a built-in flash
- Limited battery life
- Exposure compensation and rear scroll wheel too easy to accidentally bumped
- Menu arrangement poor and navigation a bit clunky (requires a lot of button-pressing)
- No in-camera Raw conversion
- No external charger included for rapid charging or keeping a spare battery topped-up
- Included remote capture software lacks live preview
The digital photography world was set ablaze when Sony announced its Alpha 7 and 7R full-frame mirrorless cameras. It's the smallest and least expensive full-frame digital camera with interchangeable lenses, and one that supports nearly every 35mm lens ever made, thanks to the plethora of available adapters. The cameras support all of Sony's existing E-mount lenses (though they'll be cropped by default), and the company has created a new line of FE lenses, which support the full-frame sensors of the cameras. There are just five lenses at this point in time - and they're expensive - but Sony says it will have fifteen lenses available by 2015. The a7 also supports Sony's wide selection of existing A-mount lenses via a pair of adapters.
The Alpha 7 is the cheaper of the two models, and pairs a 24 megapixel CMOS sensor with Sony's latest Bionz X processor. We see three major audiences: those stepping up from existing NEX models, photographers 'buying into' full-frame, and fans of third-party lenses who want to use them on a full-frame body. As you might expect, the a7 suits these different audiences to differing degrees.
For those who will be shooting Raw, they'll get very good results out of the a7. Noise is comparable to full-frame SLRs such as the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D610, with plenty of detail retained until the very highest sensitivities. In terms of Raw, Sony has made the decision to compress its files in a lossy and non-optional manner, which raises some concerns about a camera so likely to be bought by demanding Raw shooters. That said, we didn't encounter the theoretical limitations imposed to the extent that we ever found it to be a problem.
Probably the biggest disappointment on the a7 is its lackluster JPEG quality. Despite being a high-end, full-frame camera (and one which uses the same sensor as the Nikon D600/D610, which produce excellent JPEGs), the a7's photos suffer from many of the same issues as Sony's compact cameras. These issues include posterization and clumsy sharpening and noise reduction algorithms. While this may not be a problem for some photographers, the aforementioned issues will become more noticeable if you 'push' and re-save JPEGs. For best results, you really want to shoot Raw on this camera.
As for the new FE-series lenses, we were impressed with the sharpness of the two primes (35mm F2.8, 55mm F1.8). The 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 is not as good, but produced respectable results for a kit lens.
The a7 shooting experience is a mixed bag. We like the small, light, and generally solid body, though the exposure compensation dial is too easy to bump, and the scroll wheel on the back of the camera spins too easily, and has a default setting you'll want to change right away. The grip feels a little too unsubstantial - we'd prefer something a bit more substantial, or nothing at all. Ostensibly, Sony has done away with the NEX-style menus found on their previous E-mount cameras - replacing them with a tab-based system (though the 'Tile' view suggests its not been re-thought as much as we'd hoped). It would've been nice if there was less button-pressing required when navigating them, though.
The Alpha 7 has the kind of manual controls you'd expect from a high-end Sony camera. There are several customizable buttons, as well as a shortcut 'Fn' menu that you can set to your liking. The Wi-Fi feature is top-notch, with remote control, direct uploads to Facebook and Flickr, and downloadable apps that add features to the camera (though not all are free). If your mobile device supports NFC, transferring photos is just a 'tap' away. Popular Sony features such as HDR, Dynamic Range Optimizer, and Sweep Panorama all work as you'd expect.
While the Alpha 7 is generally very responsive, there is some room for improvement. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the two second (and sometimes longer) startup time, which makes it all too easy to 'miss a moment'. The Hybrid AF system is quick to focus, though it hesitates more than one would expect - particularly in low light. As we've seen before with Sonys, the camera actually focuses better in low light with the AF assist lamp turned off. The a7 is able to shoot continuously at just under 5 fps, though the camera will be locked up for 10-20 seconds while the buffer is cleared. Battery life on the a7 isn't great, so you'll want to pick up a spare battery, and an external charger (since none is included in the box).
With so many adapters available, the a7 is a very attractive option for owners of third-party lenses (which is discussed in more depth in this article). While Sony has provided tools for focusing these old lenses - such as magnified view and focus peaking - they don't work as well as we'd hoped.
Something that frustrated us immensely is the camera's basic Auto ISO implementation. The camera is so attached to the 1/60 sec shutter speed (ostensibly to keep the ISO as low as possibly) that we found ourselves shooting in shutter priority mode (or using Program Shift) very frequently. The problem is that 1/60th second isn't fast enough either to freeze subject motion, or be sure of eliminating camera shake, especially with the unstabilized 55mm F1.8 prime. We hope that Sony can address this issue in a firmware upgrade.
One thing the a7 does quite well is video recording. There are numerous choices in resolution and frame rate, with 1080/60p (28Mbps) and 1080/24p (24Mbps) being the highlights. You have access to the same manual controls, focus aids, and continuous autofocus that you do when shooting stills. The a7 has a mic input (with audio level controls) and a headphone port, and also supports uncompressed HDMI output.
The Final Word
The Alpha 7 twins are arguably the most ambitious cameras Sony has ever made. By putting a full-frame sensor into a body nearly the same size as the Olympus OM-D E-M1, Sony has created a huge buzz around the a7 and its more expensive sibling, the a7R (which we'll cover in a future review). But, while it has done a remarkable job creating these two cameras, we feel that some refinements are necessary in order to make them more competitive with the likes of the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D610.
The areas that need the most improvement are related to JPEG image quality. While we recognize that some a7 shooters will be using Raw exclusively, those who are shooting JPEGs will see smudged details and strange artifacts, which are amplified if you edit and re-save them. Regardless of the file format you're using, the Auto ISO feature needs to be more intelligent, to avoid blurry photos due to the camera's love for the 1/60 sec shutter speed. Startup time, buffer clearing, and battery life were also a bit disappointing. We're hoping that a firmware upgrade can address at least some of these issues.
Ultimately, the Alpha 7 is a nice step-up for current NEX owners, and will certainly tempt those who want something smaller than conventional full-frame cameras. However, while Sony has done many things right with the a7, the issues raised in this review are significant enough to keep it from getting our top award.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Sony Alpha 7
Category: Mid Range Full Frame Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The Alpha 7 has broken new ground in the full-frame market, in terms of both size and price. While it's not perfect, the a7's compact size, broad feature set and very good raw image quality arguably make up for issues like relatively poor battery life and slightly overprocessed JPEGs.