Sony Alpha 7R Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Small, light, full-frame camera
- Excellent image quality when shooting Raw
- Solid build quality
- FE lenses are of superb quality, equal to the sensor's high resolution
- 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
- Autofocus can be slow in low light
- Auto ISO tends to keep shutter speed at 1/FL sec, often resulting in soft images
- High-res sensor requires dedicated approach to shooting
- JPEG quality not as good as we'd like to see (less relevant for this camera's market though)
- Limited selection of FE lenses
- Tools for shooting with third party lenses need improvement
- Long viewfinder blackout time
- 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
- Short battery life
- Exposure compensation and rear scroll wheel too easy to bump accidentally
- 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
Sony's a7 and a7R made quite a splash, marking the first time mass-market mirrorless cameras took on full-frame SLRs. As the smallest and lightest 36.3MP camera on the market, the Sony a7R joins a pretty exclusive club, one that heretofore had only the Nikon D800 and D800E as members. Unlike the Nikons, the a7R has the unique ability to adapt to nearly every 35mm lens ever made thanks to a wide array of available adapters, most of them limiting these lenses to manual focus. The a7R also supports existing E-mount lenses without an adapter (though the images will be cropped by default), as well as the company's existing Alpha-mount lenses via adapters. There are only five native FE-mount lenses (one being a tele zoom we haven't seen yet), but Sony promises fifteen lenses by 2015.
We expect the higher price of the Sony a7R (compared to the a7) means that it will attract both serious enthusiasts looking for something new and professionals looking for a more portable full-frame camera, with many from both groups wanting to experiment with legacy or off-brand lenses. We also think many people will be drawn to the a7R because it's seen as 'the better one,' thanks to its higher price and higher-resolution sensor. There's a greater risk of the latter group being disappointed, though through no fault of the camera.
It seems reasonable that a7R users are more likely to shoot Raw, so it's safe to say most will be happy with the image quality from the a7R. Though the default JPEGs still show most of the same issues we saw from the a7, some issues won't play as large a role in the a7R's 36.3MP images as they did in the 24.7MP images of the a7. Still, we recommend JPEG shooters capture Raw when it's important, or if they think they'll be cropping extensively. Alternately, turning off High-ISO Noise Reduction gives some relief from most of the issues we found with the JPEGs, whether ISO is set high or low (oddly).
At low ISOs, noise is comparable to full-frame SLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800, keeping plenty of detail until the very highest sensitivities. Sony compresses its Raw files in a lossy and non-optional manner, which raises some concerns about a camera so likely to be bought by demanding Raw shooters. We wish Sony allowed users to save an uncompressed and un-suppressed Raw file, but we didn't encounter the theoretical limitations imposed by Sony's methods to the extent that we found it to be a problem.
One advantage to the Sony a7R is that its high-resolution sensor is matched by the high optical quality of the native FE lenses, providing confidence that cropped images can still make impressive enlargements. We were pleasantly surprised at the sharpness of the two FE primes (35mm F2.8, 55mm F1.8). The 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 makes a few compromises, but produces respectable results for a kit lens (it's only available in kits with the a7 in some markets and it wouldn't be our first choice for making full use of the a7r's capabilities). The 24-70mm F4 is noticeably better, and clearly worthy of its higher price.
Shooting with the a7R is an enjoyable experience. We like its relatively small body. It feels solid and looks good, and once you get used to its controls, it's not hard to operate with your eye to the viewfinder. As we said of the a7, the exposure compensation dial is too easy to accidentally change, and the scroll wheel on the back of the camera turns too easily, and has a default setting you'll want to change right away. We'd prefer a more substantial grip, but after extensive shooting, we got used to it. We're happy to see Sony replace the NEX-style menu system with a hybrid of the Alpha's tab-based system. We like the relative simplicity of the control arrangement, though, and the custom buttons and function menu make accessing most commonly used settings easier.
The a7R's Wi-Fi feature is excellent, offering remote control, direct uploads to Facebook and Flickr, and downloadable apps that add features to the camera. Mobile devices that support NFC make photo transfer and upload easier, requiring a simple tap. Popular Sony features such as HDR, Dynamic Range Optimizer, and Sweep Panorama all work as you'd expect.
Startup time could use improvement, as sometimes the camera isn't ready quickly enough to catch the moment. If you accidentally switch the camera off then on again, startup time can go from an already slow two seconds to five or more. Autofocus, though, is very good for a contrast-detect system. It occasionally hiccups in low light or when presented with a low-contrast subject, but we prefer it over the a7's hybrid AF system. Contrast-detect AF is potentially more accurate than phase-detect, and given the a7R's high resolution, we're pretty confident calling it up to the task, especially when used in single-point AF mode.
The a7R is able to shoot continuously at just over 4 fps, though the camera will lock up for 8-14 seconds while the buffer is cleared. Battery life on the a7R isn't sufficient for a day of heavy shooting, so you'll want to pick up a spare battery, and an external charger (since none is included in the box).
Its extreme adaptability makes the a7R interesting for those with legacy lenses, and those who like to shoot primarily in manual focus mode. Sony's peaking function works reasonably well, but we still had to focus bracket a lot to get most shots just right. (Shooting with non-FE lenses is discussed more in this article.)
Like the a7, the a7R suffers from a rather short-sighted Auto ISO implementation. What was a nuisance-level problem in the a7 is amplified by the a7R's very high resolution sensor. Left to its own devices, the camera's Auto ISO makes the wrong decision about shutter speed based on focal length. We think anyone choosing the camera because of its 'best of the best' reputation and shooting it like a snapshot camera will run afoul of this tendency often, and blame the camera. In one respect, they'd be right: the camera should either choose higher shutter speeds or allow the user to adjust the minimum shutter speed; but truly, the a7R's high resolution means its not meant for the average snapshooter. As we said of the Nikon D800E, the a7R is better treated like a medium-format camera: it should either be shot on a tripod, or shutter speeds should be set higher to avoid camera shake.
The a7R's video is good but not stand-out. The internal options - with 24p video at up to 24Mbps and 60p at up to 28Mbps - are absolutely sufficient for day-to-day usage. Autofocus works pretty well in video mode, with only occasional focus flutter, and focus peaking will help get better results for anyone willing to manual focus. Higher-end users will appreciate the range of lens compatibility, the mic and headphone sockets, and HDMI output for external recording, but the camera's partial sampling of the sensor (line-skipping) means, like the D800(E), it's likely to show moiré to a degree that may rule-out professional work.
The Final Word
Creating a high-resolution full-frame mirrorless camera that's reasonably portable was inspired. That Sony was careful to craft lenses that are not only of sufficient quality for 24.7MP but equally stunning at 36.3 essentially mitigates the current lack of quantity in native FE lenses. If Sony intends to maintain this kind of quality as the lens selection grows, their full-frame mirrorless line promises to be a premium camera system indeed. With only one major exception, the Sony a7R is ready to serve up remarkable images shot after shot.
The major exception we speak of is the camera's natural demand for greater care when selecting shutter speed. It's this we'd suggest Sony target with a firmware upgrade. Other issues, like startup time, buffer clearing, and battery life we also mentioned about the a7, and they're still true of the a7R. We think plenty of users will be willing to overlook or work around them, given the combination of size and image quality the a7R offers.
When it comes down to it, the Sony a7R's image quality, created by a combination of its high-resolution sensor and premium quality optics, make it an impressive image-maker. That fact trumps most quibbles we have about operation, JPEG processing, and even pre-processing in Raws. Its autofocus system nails focus most of the time and is fast enough for all but action photography.
It's the satisfaction we get from knowing the camera is capable of capturing excellent images that improves our assesment of the Sony a7R. So while it's not a camera we would recommend to everyone, we think for its core audience of dedicated, Raw-shooting perfectionists, the Sony a7R deserves a Gold Award.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.
Sony Alpha 7R
Category: Semi-professional 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
When it comes to getting high image quality from a small, full-frame camera, the Sony a7R has it wrapped up. It's worth the higher price and pairs well with Sony's impressive FE lenses.
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