A7: One Legacy / Manual Shooter's Dream Realized

Started Jan 25, 2014 | User reviews thread
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Jefenator Senior Member • Posts: 2,609
A7: One Legacy / Manual Shooter's Dream Realized

This is teenage me in 1989.

Selfie - 25 years before the term became official.

I came up with manual focus, manual advance 35mm SLRs and resisted the onslaught of motorized, pushbutton auto-everything cameras in the 1990s. Going digital in 2001, I would have loved to have retained my preferred shooting experience, but of course back then that was not really an option. Somehow, it took 12 years for my ideal digital camera to finally come out.

I think of the A7 as the digitized 35mm SLR I’ve always really wanted. Unlike other full-frame offerings, this one hits the key points of being moderately priced, physically unimposing and very accommodating for manual focus.

Old meets new: Nikon FE & Sony A7, both sporting 50/1.4 lenses

Of course, you can never really go home. My old Nikon FE could be figured out in about 30 seconds. After unboxing my A7, I spent the entire evening just trying to figure out where the heck Sony put everything. (And I’m coming from another high-end Sony mirrorless!) This camera demands that you spend some time and energy to learn the layout and set it up properly. But there is a payoff.

I liked the Tri-Nav control setup on my NEX-7 but the A7 is a major improvement. They somehow managed to double up on dial quantity but place everything in such a way that you are highly unlikely to ever turn the wrong knob (like I used to do often). All the while, everything is easily accessible. Brilliant! The exposure compensation dial has a nice firm action, which should effectively prevent accidental adjustments. At first, I scowled at the sight of a dedicated mode dial, but I now find myself using it quite often.

This is due largely to the presence of two memory recall modes, which I love having! (Putting the dial back to M, S or A can be like having a 3 custom mode.) I routinely go from tripod studio shooting (aperture priority, 2 second timer, low ISO, tungsten WB) to outdoor landscapes (manual exposure, single shot, low ISO, daylight WB) to nightclub shots (1/80s, continuous shooting, AUTO ISO, Auto WB). I can now switch between these configurations, and pre-adjust the exposure compensation before I even power up the camera!

The new ability to do AUTO ISO in manual exposure mode is proving to be a huge asset, by the way. Great way to work in low light. (It doesn’t give me a pass to make dumb decisions - it does prevent the camera from doing so automatically.)

The new menu system is an improvement, except that more often than not the thing I’m looking for is not in the first – or even second – place I go looking for it. A month in, I’m getting more familiar and once you know where you want to be going, you can navigate there pretty quickly.

As with the old NEX-7, once you’ve set the custom keys to your liking, there should be little need to bother with menus. The A7 has more custom keys with more assignable functions. The possibilities can be almost bewildering but I find myself actually using custom keys less than before. (If you are frequently changing AF and/or JPEG settings, you’ll probably still need all the help you can get.)

It could just be me, but I’d say the colors with the A7 are just a bit more vivid than with the 2-year-old NEX-7. Vivid in a natural way without being slightly overdone like I see with Canon. I particularly notice this in the sky with landscape shots.

Corner Crops. Both camera / lens combos calibrated with WhiBal card.

All of these refinements add up to a huge overall improvement – well worth the cost of an upgrade IMHO. But I still haven’t addressed the real elephant in the room: the new format.

Some may consider full-frame an exercise in overkill. I will go ahead and admit: most of my IQ requirements would be met with less than 20 megapixels and I’ve found that APS-C works great in that range.

I will also confess that I am a pixel peeper, and while closely comparing captures at 24MP, I was shocked by how effortlessly and consistently the A7 outdid the NEX-7 at the pixel level. I had wondered if the coarser pixel grid would allow me to “let my gut out” as it were, and the answer is: most definitely yes. The bigger pixels are like butter to work with. Critical focus is much less “touchy” and lens performance seems to degrade quite a bit less outside the optimal aperture settings.

Infinity Test: NEX-7 w/ Leitz Summicron-R 35mm vs A7 w/ an old 50mm lens I got for free

Most of this likely wouldn’t get noticed at screen resolution or a few feet back from a print, the way just about everyone will ever experience my work. What I do notice from a distance is the greater subject isolation and lower noise.

Nifty Fifty back in full action!

ISOs compared

For me, there’s also the shooting experience. I really like my old manual primes, but they never quite jibed with the crop body – at least not in the wide-to-normal range I prefer. (That’s probably why I wound up getting 3 APS-C e-mount primes for my NEX.) On the A7, my beloved old 24mm, 35mm and “nifty fifties” immediately make SO much more sense. It feels wonderful to be out using them again.

I should mention low light once more. With an extra-fast 50mm on the larger sensor and the newer EVF, the A7 works wonders with manual focus in conditions that used to be a real nuisance. (Practice will still will be required – and rewarded.) The greater usable ISO range is also very welcome; every stop counts when lights get low.

Bar Gig

I’ve heard the A7 referred to as an “artisan” camera and I think that actually sums it up pretty well. I could see how, even with AF, folks who want something quick & easy might not like it so much. (When I hand it over to a non-photo-nut friend, they always get this blank look, like I just unlatched the case to a view camera.) As for me, I find it dovetails beautifully with my contemplative, hands-on approach.

The A7 is also a darling for tripod studio work like this. Leitz Macro-Elmar 1:4/100 @ f/22

Overall, for my quirky usage, the A7 has no real competition. Sony could have screwed a bunch of things up and I would have still bought it and kept it. As it is, I think they got a lot more right than wrong and I am grateful to them for having the guts and the vision to create this.

Different Bodies, Same Lens

 Jefenator's gear list:Jefenator's gear list
Sony Alpha a7 Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 IS STM Sony FE 55mm F1.8 Sony FE 90mm F2.8 macro Sony Alpha NEX-7 +8 more
Sony Alpha a7
24 megapixels • 3 screen • Full frame sensor
Announced: Oct 16, 2013
Jefenator's score
Average community score
bad for good for
Kids / pets
Action / sports
Landscapes / scenery
Low light (without flash)
Flash photography (social)
Studio / still life
= community average
Sony Alpha a7 Sony Alpha NEX-7
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