JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective

Started Jan 25, 2014 | User reviews
quezra Veteran Member • Posts: 3,915
JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
71

If you've come across DPReview's A7 review, you'll probably have been told that:

The areas that need the most improvement are related to JPEG image quality.

They 'hope' that a 'firmware upgrade' will address some of these issues, which we will come back to later in the review. So this review is a response to their assessment of JPEGs on the A7. It should be pointed out just how much they're implicitly complimenting this camera, if the area they think is most in need of improvement is the JPEGs (which I will show you are marginal issues even by DPR's own admission). It means the rest of the camera is pretty darn good if these minor issues are the biggest fault they can find in the camera!

How can you tell they're minor? Well let's look in detail at the faults they find with the JPEG engine:

  • JPEG quality disappointing compared to peers – crude sharpening, over-aggressive processing and occasional posterization

Ok, these sound like very serious problems! And for those of us who've been using JPEGs primarily on our A7, shocking indeed, given the extraordinary claims Sony had made about their new JPEG engine. How did we all miss such terrible issues? Well let's look at each of these areas in turn.

Crude Sharpening

A perennial complaint of JPEGs of yesteryear, the return of sharpening artifacts should indeed be a serious issue for the JPEG engine. Looking at the review, they show an example at ISO 16,000(!) and go on to say:

On the plus side, the JPEG has done a good job of preserving detail in the face, while smoothing the beige wall to the left. Our processed Raw file uses the same noise reduction over the entire image, meaning a balance has to be struck between smoothing the background and retaining detail. As such, our chosen settings, while appearing to retain more detail, have neither the well-defined edges or smooth background of the camera's JPEG.

Amazingly, it seems to be they're acknowledging it did a better job than them. And don't forget, we're talking about an ISO16,000 picture. If the JPEG engine is doing a better job in defining edges on an ISO 16,000 image than you, most people would put that down in the "Wow, amazing!" category. But were they merely using a high ISO to demonstrate the issue reaches all the way down?

Where the context-sensitive approach falls down is at transitions between areas it concludes to be smooth and those it considers detailed - leaving a pronounced 'halo' of noise at the edge of smooth regions. This, combined with the camera's tendency to sharpen edges, can leave a rather unpleasant result if you zoom in. Our test scene suggests the problem becomes visible around ISO 12,800.

Ok, so... it starts at ISO 12,800. And we're helpfully informed it only occurs in very specific areas. So how would it look in print results?

We printed the central 19 x 13" of a similar image to the one shown above (such that the whole image would have been 30 x 20") and, although the effect was clearly visible, and the radical difference in noise levels across the image is slightly unusual, the results were pretty usable.

Verdict:

DPReview have clearly tried to make a mountain out of a molehill. When we think it's barely been a couple of years since we were impressed with usable ISO 1,600 images, the fact that they can nitpick with a straight face about edge detail at ISO 12,800 viewed at 100% size shows how far JPEG engines have come. It can also now be exclusively revealed that Sony's JPEGs are actually very usable up to ISO 6,400 (one stop less than the limit where they identified sharpening artifacts appearing, unsurprisingly).

If you are coming from a smaller sensor camera and this is your first full frame, the 7 full stops of usable ISO range from JPEGs no less will feel positively luxurious. If you've been shooting FF cameras for a while, you probably aren't using JPEGs anyway, but in case you are, bear in mind you "only" avoid sharpening artifacts below ISO 12,800.

But wait, there's one last thing. You can actually edit your JPEG settings very simply in-camera. From Fn > Creative Style (or Menu > Camera > 4 > Creative Style if you have customized your Fn button), you can adjust sharpness by +/-3 (that's 7 different levels) to get it 'just right'. Sony have imported the full plethora of JPEG customization options from their NEXes, and you can store two different settings of each option (yes, you can have two different "Standard" settings!).

Sony: 1 - DPR: 0

Over-Aggressive Processing

Another serious problem that has afflicted JPEGs in the past. DPR asserts:

Overall, the noise suppression is too aggressive in the JPEGs, making particularly the a7 images seem artificial at times. Naturally this can be turned down, but the default settings look way too much like a brush stroke filter has been applied. This gets worse as ISO rises.

Well naturally this can indeed be turned not just down but also off! Amazing! You'll find three different levels (Normal, Low, Off) under Menu > Camera > 5 > High ISO NR. I recommend Low (it is still very good, while giving a much closer rendition to 'film-like' grain at higher ISOs than previous NEX camera JPEGs), or if you're planning to PP a lot, Off. Ok, so problem solved.

Verdict:

Yes, the default is quite strong, but you can also think of it as the strongest setting (it is). Some people really like all their noise eliminated and have no plans to pixel peep. Personally, I found Sony's old JPEG 'default' to be intolerable and their 'low' to still be too strong (there was no option to turn it off on my NEX-5N). But I also think back to the days when I'd first bought the NEX-5N and was not in any way a pixel peeper - it was in fact the default settings that blew me away and made me fall in love with the camera in an instant. It was only years later when I started to pixel peep all the time that I started to become dissatisfied with default NR, and then later even their low NR in the old engine.

You see, Sony assume their JPEG users are most likely that sort of shooter - not particularly a pixel peeper and expecting the camera to get the image 'right' for common 4x6 prints, and while that assumption might not fit into DPR demographics, it is probably correct for the real world. The mistake DPR made was in assuming the 'default setting' user is also as much of a 100% view pixel peeper as they are. Today I am indeed a (slightly paradoxical) pixel-peeping JPEG user, yet I am fully satisfied with the results I get from low NR, even though it can be a very subjective thing.

We'll be nice to DPR and call this one a draw.

Sony: 2 - DPR: 1

Occasional Posterization

Now this one was bizarrely the one they spent the most time illustrating, given that it's also the least likely you'll be able to notice. Let's see what they say:

An odd artifact that we noticed several times in the JPEGs is the tendency toward posterization in subtle gradations, again, often in out-of-focus areas. It's certainly not a problem that appears in every image but it's something we noticed often enough to be concerned about it.

Ok, fair enough and well-done for spotting something everyone else missed! Ok let's see the evidence:

As you can see, the problem isn't image-destroyingly bad - indeed, whether you can even see what we're talking about will depend to a large degree on the device you're viewing the site with. But, once you've looked at the image's red channel, it should be much more obvious what we're talking about. Look closely again at what should be a smooth background of the portrait on the Experience page, and you'll see it in a real-world setting.

Wait what? We can barely see it and probably only if you look in the red channel? Do you really think a standard default-settings-only JPEG user has software that can isolate his red channel for him?

Any users hoping to post-process their JPEGs will be particularly disappointed, since these hard steps between tones become exaggerated as soon as you start adjusting the image brightness. Obviously we'd recommend shooting Raw if you plan to do any significant post-processing (with any camera), but potential a7 owners need to be aware that its JPEGs offer even less processing latitude than usual.

See here's the thing DPR. "Significant post processing" and "JPEG" and "default settings only" could certainly be realistic choices of different types of users, but put them all together for a moment and think. Does there really exist a JPEG user who also is heavily into post-processing (a very technical art indeed) yet unaware of his in-camera settings? I can imagine a RAW user heavily into PP not being aware of JPEG settings since he never uses them. I can imagine a default-settings JPEG user whose extent of PP work is "Auto Correct" in Picasa. I can even imagine a JPEG-only pixel peeper who does moderate post-processing but how could he have got to 2014 without knowing there are in-camera settings outside of "default" or the standard limitations of JPEG? In your efforts not to make your 'findings' a total irrelevance, you had to concoct a chimera of a photographer that picks all the suboptimal choices in every aspect of digital manipulation. Such a mythical person needs to read up on post-processing, not blame the camera.

So what's a simple workaround if you do spot these things cropping up in your camera?

Turning the cameras' 'High ISO NR' to 'Off' improves matters (at all ISOs), because the standard processing appears to be supressing noise to such a degree that you lose the 'dithering' effect that noise usually brings to tonal transitions. The downside is that you have to put up pretty noisy high ISO images (noise reduction, in both JPEG and Raw is still being applied in the 'Off' setting).

Oh jeez, the same thing that reduces heavy post-processing also removes posterization. Well then.

Verdict:

Posterization, if you can ever see it, usually requires carefully set up conditions to see, usually with the help of software tools. If you are deluding yourself that you can do heavy post-processing from JPEGs, you will be disappointed, just like you'd be disappointed trying to do heavy post-processing of JPEGs from any other digital camera ever made. This part of the review looks to me like DPR spent a lot of time (=money) investigating the issue, actually discovered it was practically irrelevant, but rather than report to their editors that they'd wasted their time, concocted a fantasy photographer for whom this might be an issue.

Sony: 3 - DPR: 1

Conclusion:

After I read DPR's review, I went through all my 1,000+ photos taken with my A7 to look for hints of these issues. I only could find some posterization issues in images I had post-processed (duh!). Not one from a straight-out-of-camera image. Not one instance of heavy noise reduction (I had set mine to low from day 1). Not one instance of sharpening artifacts (possibly coinciding with the fact that I barely had any ISO 6,400 images and no ISO 12,800 images!).

Now remember how DPR ended their review calling for a firmware update to 'fix' these issues? This is where it gets confounding. DPR writers got slammed in the official review for failing to notice that there were simple switches to toggle if you really didn't want to risk these issues. They defended their decision, insisting that these as 'default' settings should be judged because that's what people would pick the camera up using. But if DPR were actually aware of options available, why would they be calling for a firmware update to fix the issues when the solutions already existed in-camera? This is the baffling part that suggests they really didn't explore the options, made more puzzling by the length they went to illustrate these "issues".

Usually DPR reviews are seen as valuable and help to illustrate a lot of the different dimensions of a new camera. But they have failed here because of their over-emphasis on non-issues, and give a very skewed picture (did they post-process?!) of the A7, and missed an excellent chance to tell you other stories about the image quality. If you are a JPEG user interested in the capabilities of a FF sensor, you can safely discount everything DPR said about JPEGs in their review. Before this review, I'd been telling friends this was the best JPEG engine I've ever used, and despite what DPR 'experts' have said, those of us who've spent time with the JPEGs have stood by what we said (see some expert views here and here). Just take the 10 minutes or so to tweak your settings at the start, and I hope you will enjoy many years of beautiful images from a splendid camera.

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nyoneway Junior Member • Posts: 38
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
4

brilliant response.

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djp58 Regular Member • Posts: 351
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
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Wow - you nailed it! Thanks for the extremely well documented write-up.

David

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Marla2008
Marla2008 Senior Member • Posts: 2,419
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
3

Well argumented opinion. I personally returned it (way before the DPR review was out) because I thought jpeg output is horrid, so I guess both opinions co-exist...

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anagram4wander2 Regular Member • Posts: 324
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
3

Thanks for taking the time to do that.. Reminds me that I need to write a review for my a7r soon.

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OP quezra Veteran Member • Posts: 3,915
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
4

Thanks guys, it is really just a summary of a lot of points that were made in the 1,000+ comments on the official review - so an easy place to refer to rather than keep going round in circles.

I agree JPEG judgement can be subjective, but the subjective aspect of taste shouldn't be part of the review. The point is that the actual 'problems' they identify are marginal or trivial to fix because of the range of settings available.

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le_alain Senior Member • Posts: 1,943
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
2

I agree with dpreview analyse on jpegs, evan at the lowest ISO.

smearing even NR off and oversharpening

it's feel great  for some picture, overprocessed for other.

So I shoot only raw

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blue_skies
blue_skies Forum Pro • Posts: 11,479
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
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I wish that DPR would select you to proofread their reviews - well done!

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Cheers,
Henry

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robert614 Senior Member • Posts: 1,445
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
3

Well written review.

Regards,

Robert

forpetessake
forpetessake Veteran Member • Posts: 4,892
DPR was quite objective
7

DPR did a good job, objectively evaluating the camera. It's a breath of fresh air among all the glowing and dumb reviews, which became popular recently. As an A7 owner, I know it's a great camera, with the worst jpegs I've seen for the last two years.

When I got A7 it was evening already, so all my initial images were taken at ISO1600-6400. Naturally, my first subjects were the dogs. I was surprised to see OOC jpegs coming out worse than from my other NEX-5N. You can easily see it on animal fur, how it's horribly blurred in the areas of low contrast, how contrasty edges would jump up and show ugly artifacts around them. I had to dial noise reduction to OFF, which actually left a fair amount of noise reduction nevertherless. The AWB was also way off, worse than on NEX. The OOC were pretty good at base ISO and natural light, but every camera has no problems with that.

Bottom line, default A7 jpegs at even moderately high ISOs are probably the worst I've seen in years, setting noise reduction to OFF mitigates the problem, but to get really good results one must shoot in RAW.

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OP quezra Veteran Member • Posts: 3,915
Re: DPR was quite objective
8

forpetessake wrote:

DPR did a good job, objectively evaluating the camera. It's a breath of fresh air among all the glowing and dumb reviews, which became popular recently. As an A7 owner, I know it's a great camera, with the worst jpegs I've seen for the last two years.

When I got A7 it was evening already, so all my initial images were taken at ISO1600-6400. Naturally, my first subjects were the dogs. I was surprised to see OOC jpegs coming out worse than from my other NEX-5N. You can easily see it on animal fur, how it's horribly blurred in the areas of low contrast, how contrasty edges would jump up and show ugly artifacts around them. I had to dial noise reduction to OFF, which actually left a fair amount of noise reduction nevertherless. The AWB was also way off, worse than on NEX. The OOC were pretty good at base ISO and natural light, but every camera has no problems with that.

Bottom line, default A7 jpegs at even moderately high ISOs are probably the worst I've seen in years, setting noise reduction to OFF mitigates the problem, but to get really good results one must shoot in RAW.

I'm not going to make this an argument thread, but I will point out how interesting it is that we both have A7s and 5Ns yet came to opposite conclusions about the JPEG processing.

So given such a subjective gulf, we can only refer to the tangible issues mentioned, and those, by DPR's own admission, are very marginal and easy to switch off.  Imaging Resource, SoundImagePlus and others say they are some of the best JPEGs Sony has ever done - DPR only says that there are specific issues which in their actual text they agree are marginal - no professional review I've seen has used the hyperbolic language you've used like "worst I've seen" or so on.

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osv Veteran Member • Posts: 9,970
Re: DPR was quite objective
2

quezra wrote:

forpetessake wrote:

DPR did a good job, objectively evaluating the camera. It's a breath of fresh air among all the glowing and dumb reviews, which became popular recently. As an A7 owner, I know it's a great camera, with the worst jpegs I've seen for the last two years.

When I got A7 it was evening already, so all my initial images were taken at ISO1600-6400. Naturally, my first subjects were the dogs. I was surprised to see OOC jpegs coming out worse than from my other NEX-5N. You can easily see it on animal fur, how it's horribly blurred in the areas of low contrast, how contrasty edges would jump up and show ugly artifacts around them. I had to dial noise reduction to OFF, which actually left a fair amount of noise reduction nevertherless. The AWB was also way off, worse than on NEX. The OOC were pretty good at base ISO and natural light, but every camera has no problems with that.

Bottom line, default A7 jpegs at even moderately high ISOs are probably the worst I've seen in years, setting noise reduction to OFF mitigates the problem, but to get really good results one must shoot in RAW.

I'm not going to make this an argument thread, but I will point out how interesting it is that we both have A7s and 5Ns yet came to opposite conclusions about the JPEG processing.

So given such a subjective gulf, we can only refer to the tangible issues mentioned, and those, by DPR's own admission, are very marginal and easy to switch off. Imaging Resource, SoundImagePlus and others say they are some of the best JPEGs Sony has ever done - DPR only says that there are specific issues which in their actual text they agree are marginal - no professional review I've seen has used the hyperbolic language you've used like "worst I've seen" or so on.

i tend to look at real testing with measurements, ala what norman koren did when he compared jpegs from multiple platforms; pics of the same subject matter, taken by imaging resource, and run through imatest.

wrt the a7r jpegs: "No sharpening peak, as claimed. Outstanding MTF." were his exact words... the resolution measurements for the a7r jpegs laid waste to every crop sensor camera that he looked at, but the take home was that the canon 6d creates bad jpegs, with way too much sharpening... although i wonder what imaging resource did with the canon jpeg settings, i haven't checked it.

http://www.imatest.com/2013/11/sharpness-texture-log-f-contrast-imaging-resource/

given that, how many posts have we seen from people who think that canon jpegs are better than sony jpegs?

sean lancaster
sean lancaster Veteran Member • Posts: 7,291
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
4

quezra wrote:

You see, Sony assume their JPEG users are most likely that sort of shooter - not particularly a pixel peeper and expecting the camera to get the image 'right' for common 4x6 prints, and while that assumption might not fit into DPR demographics, it is probably correct for the real world. The mistake DPR made was in assuming the 'default setting' user is also as much of a 100% view pixel peeper as they are.

First, I think you did a very nice job of providing a meaningful and valid response. Kudos to you.

Now, I would be highly, highly disappointed with dpreview if they didn't run a FF camera review by pixel peeping. Pixel peep the heck out of every camera for that matter. Give us more information; not less.

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OP quezra Veteran Member • Posts: 3,915
Re: DPR was quite objective
1

osv wrote:

i tend to look at real testing with measurements, ala what norman koren did when he compared jpegs from multiple platforms; pics of the same subject matter, taken by imaging resource, and run through imatest.

wrt the a7r jpegs: "No sharpening peak, as claimed. Outstanding MTF." were his exact words... the resolution measurements for the a7r jpegs laid waste to every crop sensor camera that he looked at, but the take home was that the canon 6d creates bad jpegs, with way too much sharpening... although i wonder what imaging resource did with the canon jpeg settings, i haven't checked it.

http://www.imatest.com/2013/11/sharpness-texture-log-f-contrast-imaging-resource/

given that, how many posts have we seen from people who think that canon jpegs are better than sony jpegs?

Thanks for posting this fascinating link in this review thread, because it's great to see confirmation of what I'd only judged with my eyes in hard numbers. I hope anyone with doubts considers reading this review before accusing me of fantasizing about the JPEG quality of the new Sony engine.

And I love how, having compared a range of cameras (including compacts) and ranked them, they also add "All of the cameras discussed in this page make excellent images." That is exactly the point! There is no need for emotive and silly hyperbolic language like the DPR writers use that are simply not reflective of the quality in front of them.  If you habitually get better results from RAWs and don't find JPEGs impressive, that's fine by me.  But these aren't terrible by any stretch.

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nevercat Veteran Member • Posts: 3,193
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective

sean lancaster wrote:

quezra wrote:

You see, Sony assume their JPEG users are most likely that sort of shooter - not particularly a pixel peeper and expecting the camera to get the image 'right' for common 4x6 prints, and while that assumption might not fit into DPR demographics, it is probably correct for the real world. The mistake DPR made was in assuming the 'default setting' user is also as much of a 100% view pixel peeper as they are.

First, I think you did a very nice job of providing a meaningful and valid response. Kudos to you.

Now, I would be highly, highly disappointed with dpreview if they didn't run a FF camera review by pixel peeping. Pixel peep the heck out of every camera for that matter. Give us more information; not less.

I do think in a different way. The quality of the pictures of todays cameras with the same sensor size is so slim that only by pixelpeeping the low light/high ISO shots you may see some difference. At this moment I think other things are more important then the IQ of a camera, things like features, price, size, weight, and the most important handling.

The only thing testers must look for are real defects in the pictures, defects shown in real life pictures, in prints or when shown as a picture on you TV or computer screen. And it would be nice when a tester should show how to tweak the xamera settings to get the best pictures out of the camera, instead of looking for non visible differences. When I look at the numbers at DXO I often see there diferenses in high ISO that are less then a 1/2 stop, but it looks like a lot as the two numbers are like ISO 1100 and ISO 1600.

socode Regular Member • Posts: 356
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective

nevercat wrote:

The only thing testers must look for are real defects in the pictures, defects shown in real life pictures, in prints or when shown as a picture on you TV or computer screen.

Black-box testing on an entire system is the most obvious way test anything, and can catch gross problems or integration issues that fall between cracks. It's also crude, and indicates you can't test specific components objectively, or have no model to understand how individual aspects work. How could you match exact framing and light levels between different camera systems to compare sharpness, bokeh, or color rendition?

I can't see how eradicating verifiable and repeatable information would be a benefit. If you'd prefer that - ignore anything that looks rigorous, you'll be able to find a set of blogs and opinion pieces that fit.

osv Veteran Member • Posts: 9,970
Re: DPR was quite objective

quezra wrote:

Thanks for posting this fascinating link in this review thread, because it's great to see confirmation of what I'd only judged with my eyes in hard numbers. I hope anyone with doubts considers reading this review before accusing me of fantasizing about the JPEG quality of the new Sony engine.

i agree... that testing was done on the log-f chart, which is a bunch of alternating lines, a compression nightmare... if the sony jpeg compression was so bad, how come it scored basically the same as the nikon d800 jpeg in the peak measurement? those two cameras have basically the same sensor.

  • Peak (maximum) A measure of the maximum sharpening MTF overshoot. Sharpening is excessive if too high.

this jpeg compression issue is very similar to watching people argue about video compression.

i used to shoot video for a living, and i was even employed full-time as a video compressionist for awhile... i have a fairly good idea what it takes to make clean video, and what it should look like.

every time that i see someone say "h.264 is garbage", maybe call it a "bad codec", or something equally stupid, i just shake my head, lol

mediman30
mediman30 Senior Member • Posts: 1,202
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective
1

Thanks for your time sharing your experiences with the A7! I will be getting mine soon.

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Jefenator
Jefenator Senior Member • Posts: 2,767
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective

You make a compelling argument against the official DPR review. Sounds like the JPEG settings might be a bit like the rest of the camera: not all dialed-in and ready to go out of the box, but worth working on.

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OP quezra Veteran Member • Posts: 3,915
Re: JPEGs on the A7, from a JPEG shooter's perspective

Jefenator wrote:

You make a compelling argument against the official DPR review. Sounds like the JPEG settings might be a bit like the rest of the camera: not all dialed-in and ready to go out of the box, but worth working on.

Thanks Jeff, well you know, my dad who's been shooting Minoltas, Canons and Yashicas since the 1980s (now using Canon SL1) loved the out-of-the-box settings, so it's really all about taste! (he got a whole 3 weeks to play with it before bringing it to me here in the UK, and the only thing he changed was the diopter!)

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