Sony a7R Experience

We really enjoyed using the Sony a7R. Many were dismayed by what they perceived as a negative tone in our a7 review (a camera we nevertheless gave a silver award), but some of that came from the fact that we prefer the a7R. There's so little apparent difference between the two cameras, it struck us as a little odd to have such a strong preference, but it's nonetheless true. As is usually the case, our opinion of a camera is heavily swayed by its image quality.

Does that mean the Sony a7R is the perfect camera for every enthusiast looking for a full frame? Certainly not - there is no such camera. But we've built up a certain affection for the a7R, and enjoy setting it up to see what we'll get with a given lens or in a unique lighting situation. The a7R is the ultimate expression of what Sony meant by introducing their full-frame mirrorless camera: It's a well-heeled-enthusiast's camera that delivers versatile, truly useful results. However, those who would buy the 36.3MP Sony a7R would do well to be careful about shutter speed, which we'll get to below.

Fit and handling

We already covered the design, fit and feel of the nearly identical camera in the a7 review, but we'll include a short synopsis here. The sharp angles and slab design pays homage to cameras past with a modern twist. That's in sync with Sony's overall minimalist design philosophy, and the slim profile reveals the engineering required to create such a small full-frame mirrorless camera.

Most of the photographers to whom I hand the a7R note how far back the shutter button is compared to the cameras they use. Conversely, most also don't notice there's a front control dial for aperture adjustments. It's a bit of a mystery why Sony keeps jumping back and forth on dial and shutter button positioning, putting the shutter button out on the grip with the NEX-7 and back on the top deck on the RX1/R. Having included a grip on the a7R, it's hard to understand the choice to keep the dial, rather than the shutter button, above the grip. Indeed, why not put both out on the grip? Bottom line, though, neither bothered me after a short time working with the camera.

I like having the power switch around the shutter button, as it reminds me where the shutter button is before I begin using the camera, and I can position my hand on the grip accordingly. The grip's a little wide and not deep enough, but isn't worth going on about. It is worth noting that the camera powers on slowly, something I'd like to see fixed, and the movie record button is in a safe, but perhaps too-safe, position on the right side of the thumb-grip; and pressing it in tends to move the camera in a way that's noticeable in the video, generally when stopping recording.

Front and rear control dials work great when shooting in manual mode, and the mode dial is stiff enough to prevent accidental turning. The EV compensation dial is often set unintentionally, usually when I pull the camera from a ride in the bag. By default I disable the rear 'control wheel' as it controls ISO when spun. It turns so easily, I've often knocked the camera from Auto ISO to ISO 50 (the first setting). I can see the value for those who adjust ISO frequently, but I prefer to activate settings on purpose, not have an unmarked dial make changes with no notice. The control wheel can be assigned another purpose, but I prefer to deactivate it altogether, reserving its function for menus.

Presence

The shutter sound of the Sony a7 and a7R have earned a lot of ink, and for good reason: It's noticeable, whether the room is empty or politely occupied. What's probably not been said is that it's not just loud, but slow. Even at 1/8,000 second, it seems like the camera is taking its sweet time. It's as if the camera is admonishing the photographer to take more time - think it through. While it sometimes gets a bit too much attention from subjects and prospective subjects, it's become an endearing quirk.

There is also something to be said for having the a7R's full-frame image sensor in a smaller body. True, that size advantage is less significant with the 28-70mm or 55mm lens attached, but the 35mm lens and hood are impressively small, and are a joy to carry around. I certainly won't decry the Sony Carl Zeiss 55mm F1.8 for its extra length and weight, as it's an amazing image maker in its own right.

ISO 100, F7.1, 1/100, FE 55mm F1.8 ZA lens. Exposure adjusted +0.33 EV, converted to JPEG.

Though portraits are not generally where you think of using a 36.3MP image sensor, the detail you get from the camera and lens is pretty amazing, allowing you to reduce the resolution if you like in post, or crop aggressively. You can also include more of the subject's environment while still capturing plenty of detail, useful if you decide to crop later.

The a7R's live view gives you the choice of whether it previews or ignores the brightness of the exposure (via the 'Live View Display' menu option). For most manual shooting, or when applying exposure compensation, most people will want to be able to preview the effects of the exposure they've chosen. However, portrait shooters using strobes will appreciate the option to ignore the current exposure so that they can focus and compose their shot while working with modeling lights, even when the exposure is set for strobes. It's not something SLR users will be used to thinking about, but it's a useful feature in a camera such as this.

Once adjusted as stated, the Sony a7R was quite usable as a portrait camera. AF is quick enough, if a little slower than the average SLR in low light, and its resizeable AF point can be pointed at any element of the image (like an eye), for quick follow-up shots without the need to recompose; that is, unless my composition changed, at which time I'd have to move the AF point. That last bit was made easier once we discovered how to access the AF point control more quickly by setting the Custom 1 button to Focus Settings (not the more logical-sounding Focus Area). Before that discovery, it was a four-step process that really put us off the camera.

My only objection for portraits is the extended viewfinder blackout time. I've found shorter viewfinder blackout times are essential to creating a rhythm and maintaining connection with the subject. Expressions change quickly, and the a7R's blackout time leaves me out of touch with my subject for the better part of a second. When the pace of capture speeds up, the a7R won't join you.

Portable full frame

Natural light portraits are also quite good with the 55mm/a7R combination, offering a good focal length and aperture for low light shots, or better-lit shots like this one.

ISO 100, F2.8, 1/160 second, FE 55mm F1.8 ZA lens

Here's a case where the Sony a7R's small size made it easier to bring along to lunch than a full-size digital SLR. Of course, we bring full-size digital SLRs to lunch all the time, and it's not that much different, since you'll still want a bag or a strap for regular carry, but it's less of a burden in terms of bulk.

While I generally default to using the center point for autofocus, the advantage to framing with a mirrorless camera is that the camera can use face detection to make portraits easier. When it works, the a7R's face detection finds most faces that occupy a large portion of the frame, and optimizes exposure and focus for the faces it finds. However, it occasionally struggled to find faces that had glasses and beards.

Low light shooting

Shooting in low light is also an enjoyable experience with the a7R. You'll get shots you didn't think possible, usually with impressive detail. Blur is occasionally an issue, though. Determining whether its the AF system, the noise suppression system, or the camera's tendency to select too slow a shutter speed for the sensor's resolution was the puzzle.

While I captured many impressively sharp images with the Sony a7R, there were also quite a few that were soft, despite the camera's repeated focus confirmation. Out of four frames in this light, two are reasonably sharp, while the other two are soft for one reason or another. The camera's ISO 6400 setting contributes to softness, but all of them are at this setting, and the raw images show enough detail.

Overall, the Sony a7R autofocused well for a contrast-detect system. As long as shutter speeds were fast enough to remove motion blur, I got in-focus shots, so I was impressed with the camera's AF accuracy. Occasionally in very low light scenarios, the camera struggled, but I'm so used to giving a camera a high-contrast area to focus on, I felt right at home with the a7R.

Lenses

The three FE lenses we used most were the Carl Zeiss 35mm F2.8, the Carl Zeiss 55mm F1.8 and the 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens. We received the 24-70mm F4 lens just before the review was finished, so we managed to capture a few images with that as well.

I preferred working with the primes most of the time. The 35 and 55 are astonishingly sharp, worthy of the 36.3MP sensor in the a7R. All three lenses are well built, but only the 35mm keeps the a7R small; the other two are quite a bit longer, particularly with their lens hoods mounted. The 35mm's lens hood is tiny by comparison (it is shown mounted on the lens in the above photo). There's some wobble as it focuses, but it's quick, and focus is usually pretty accurate.

The 55mm F1.8 is exceedingly sharp and also enjoyable to use, as the above two portraits reveal. It also has a very thin depth of field wide open, and produces nice background blur. As an interesting bit of trivia, the front element is concave rather than convex.

Though it arrived late, the 24-70mm F4 constant aperture lens impressed me as well. Its zoom ring is a little stiff at first, and tough to work with gloves, but image quality is sharp, and the optical image stabilization works well.

Adaptation

Thanks to its short flange back distance and the ready availability of adapters, the Sony a7R can accept many full-frame lenses. That's where the real fun comes in for a lot of people who've been itching to use their favorite lenses from yesteryear as they were intended, as well as some of the new high quality optics that have recently entered the fray, generally for Canon and Nikon mounts. In the spirit of that fun, Roger Cicala of LensRentals.com sent us two gorgeous Carl Zeiss ZE lenses to try, as well as a Metabones EF - E mount adapter. We liked the idea of 'keeping it Zeiss' for this review, because, thanks to Roger's help, we could.

There's no question, the Sony a7R looks even better with the Planar 85mm F1.4 ZE mounted. The Metabones adapter includes a tripod mounting plate, compatible both with standard 1/4-20 thread socket and Arca-Swiss QR. The weight of the Planar's substantial glass lifts the camera off the table.

ISO 1600, F2.8, 1/640 - Planar T* 85mm F1.4 lens; white balance modified to warm the image

In this cloudy sky shot there wasn't enough contrast for the focus peaking's 'low' setting to show in-focus indication. I had to change peaking to medium to get any response, and even then had to focus-bracket, as the model's eyes didn't reveal any peaking indicators.

ISO 100, F14, 1/125, Makro-Planar T* 100mm F2 lens.
100% crop 100% crop

It took some focus bracketing to get the sharpest image, despite the focus peaking, but the Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar delivered. The red focus peaking highlights moved from the numbers to the hands to the outer bezel of the Elgin watch as I focused. It was the middle setting that delivered the most sharpness across the image.

Shooting in manual focus takes time to re-learn, but having Focus Peaking set to Low made it relatively easy to get sharper images. Having your point of focus turn red is a little odd, since that's where you have your attention, but it really helps. In low-contrast lighting, however, focus peaking can fail you, as there's not enough contrast for the system to pick a sharp point. Switching Peaking to medium does help, but focus accuracy falls. When focusing on objects with only horizontal or vertical lines, the peaking system seeks out only vertical lines when the camera is held horizontally, and only horizontal lines when the camera is oriented vertically.

Owners of Sony and Minolta Alpha-mount lenses can also avail themselves of many adapters, including the $350 LA-EA4, which includes the translucent mirror technology from Sony's SLT cameras, albeit at the cost of greater bulk. We did not shoot with this combination, however, preferring the lighter options.

Wi-Fi

One of our favorite aspects of the Sony a7R is its built-in Wi-Fi feature, which works better than others I've tried recently. It's not super fast, but it's fast enough we haven't stopped using it. In situations where we'd normally make do with our smartphones to capture a quick shot, the a7R has allowed us to create better shots, ones we'd be more proud to share, as well as more likely to keep. The 1.7MP file size that's transferred from the camera to the phone is far from the camera's full resolution, but offers sufficient quality for posting to Facebook and Instagram. As a result, my friends got to enjoy images I captured on a real camera, rather than my smartphone.

ISO 320, F4, 1/1000 sec - Click the image above to see the 1616 x 1080 image transferred to the phone. Click here for the original JPEG.

Transferring photos is as easy as calling them up in Playback mode, pressing the function button, selecting the 'This Image' button, and touching an NFC-capable smartphone to the right side of the a7R. In a matter of seconds, the image is on the smartphone and ready to share. See our Wi-Fi page for more.

Overall

Though there's very little difference in specs, the experience between the a7 and a7R is different. Naturally, the a7R's lack of a low-pass filter helps it excel too.

As I've described, I like using the a7R more, and that's reinforced when I load the images onto my computer and start peering around at what I've captured. Of course, image shake and shutter shock or motion blur did affect some of our images before we adjusted our expectations - and the shutter speeds. Shutter shock, at least, is avoidable in the a7 in electronic first curtain mode, but camera shake on a high-res sensor can still be an issue with both cameras. Regardless, it was an important lesson to learn so that we could share it with you.

The fun of shooting at 36.3MP is in the sometimes ridiculous detail you can capture. Though they're expensive and few, the lenses Sony's created for this system are a good match to the sensor in the a7R. That it's easy to add legacy and high-quality full-frame lenses to the a7R through the use of a multitude of adapters increases the enjoyment.

ISO 640, F5.6, 1/1000, 24-70mm F4 lens - cropped to 5.2MP image from Raw. Click here for the original JPEG.

At the Seahawks Superbowl parade, my position in the crowd was pretty much fixed, and 70mm didn't leave me many opportunities to cut out clutter. But knowing I was capturing such high resolution I was able to concentrate on getting the subject in focus and finding a good moment in the chaos. The 36.3MP, 7360 x 4912 pixel image allowed me to crop a 5.2MP, 2809 x 1873 pixel image, which still offers enough detail to make out Richard Sherman's eyelashes.