The term "groundbreaking" gets used a lot in the technology world. But when it comes to cameras, there are few announcements that make us truly believe that change is in the air.
There's no doubt about it: A7 is a groundbreaking camera. It's a full-frame interchangeable lens camera (ILC) for less than AU$2000. Not only is it cheaper and lighter than some equivalent full-frame SLRs, it packs almost as many features — including a 24.3-megapixel sensor.
Design and features
Featuring a compact body design made from magnesium alloy and polycarbonate, the A7 feels sturdy despite its light weight (416g body only). There are dual control dials for exposure control, as well as a dedicated exposure compensation dial at the top of the camera. The body is sealed against dust and moisture and there is a headphone and 3.5mm microphone jack on the side of the camera for video-makers.
Also on-board is an OLED viewfinder that borrows the same three-lens optical system as used in the flagship A99 SLR but gets a boost to contrast. In use, the viewfinder is responsive and very pleasing to use. Buttons and dials are intuitively placed, and there are up to nine customisable function buttons for those who like to have their favourite shortcuts under thumb.
The 3-inch LCD screen pivots out from the body from the base hinge, though does not move 180 degrees up and down. It's not a touchscreen either, so don't try pressing on options to change them — it's all old-school dials and buttons here.
Sony has brought across many of its most successful features from its NEX and Cyber-shot cameras, including Sweep Panorama. This works particularly well on the A7, offering seamless panorama stitching. There are very few visible stitching artefacts, and ghosting is even kept to a minimum in scenes with moving objects.
Overall, the design of the A7 is very well thought out. However, we would have preferred if the positioning of the rear adjustment dial was in the place of the exposure compensation dial as it's easy to confuse the two when the camera is held up to your eye.
There is no built-in flash on the A7, however, the multi-interface shoe accepts an external flash unit as well as other accessories. Flash sync speed is 1/250 second. For photographers and video makers, the A7 also offers the added bonus of zebras and peaking, the latter available in a red, yellow or white overlay. There are also lighting optimiser and built-in HDR modes as well.
On top of Sony's automatic mode, the dial also offers full PASM control, scene modes, Sweep Panorama, video recording mode and two custom slots. The shutter speed selections range from 30 seconds to 1/8000 second.
Unfortunately, unlike many other professional-grade ILCs and SLRs, the A7 charges its battery in-camera rather than using an external battery charger.
The second A7
Alongside the regular A7, Sony is also offering the A7R. For all intents and purposes, the A7R is much the same as the other model on the outside, with a few key exceptions internally. The A7R is an all-magnesium alloy body, which means there's less flex, providing a sturdier hold for larger lenses. Mode dials at the top are all made from aluminium, while the sensor does away with the anti-aliasing filter and gets a resolution bump to 36 megapixels.
The A7R: much the same on the outside, but it's what inside that counts.
Astute observers will note that Sony actually made the sensor for the other 36-megapixel full-frame camera on the market currently, the Nikon D800. Sony has told us that the sensor has been tweaked to improve performance over the SLR's version.
The A7R is designed for incredibly high-resolution output, as well as getting the most out of the sensor for applications like landscape photography. This means that it has a reduced continuous shooting speed rate of 4 frames per second (fps) compared to the 5fps rate from the A7. It also misses out on the hybrid AF system. Sony intends to sell the A7R for AU$2499.
General shooting metrics (in seconds)
- Start-up to first shot
- JPEG shot-to-shot time
- RAW shot-to-shot time
- Shutter lag
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Continuous shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The A7 can shoot at 5 frames per second in speed priority continuous mode, which leaves focus fixed from the first frame. It takes approximately six seconds to clear the image burst using a class 10 SanDisk Extreme Pro card. In regular continuous mode, the A7 can shoot at 2.5 frames per second which activates AF between each frame.
The A7 uses a hybrid AF system that combines both phase and contrast detection. The system works by first using the 117 phase points to move the lens on to the focus point and then the contrast system comes into play to fine-tune focus. A new option called Eye AF helps to detect a subject's eye for precise focusing, even when there's shallow depth of field. A small green frame appears over the eye to show that the camera has focused correctly.
In use, the AF system is generally accurate, however when left to its own devices in the wide area setting, it can get confused and focus on the object that is closest to the camera, rather than your actual subject, which may be in the centre of the frame. Overall focusing times are slower than those found on an equivalent SLR which is a shame, because this is really the only main area where the AF system falters.
A small but important note: the sensor that automatically switches between the viewfinder and the monitor is sometimes not quite sensitive enough in detecting when your eye is on the viewfinder, especially if you wear glasses.
Pairing the camera and NFC-compatible smartphone is easy.
In terms of connectivity, the A7 comes with built-in Wi-Fi and NFC for use with the PlayMemories app (iOS or Android. The app is easy to connect and set up, requiring you to enter the device-specific password in the app to establish the connection if you don't have an NFC-compatible smartphone. You can copy across images at original size, 2 megapixels or VGA resolution.
The benefits of a full-frame sensor are clear to see when looking at images taken on the A7. On standard picture settings, the A7 delivers photos with colours that are true to life and vibrant without looking over-saturated. Automatic white balance is accurate, with a slight warmness to indoor images.
We only received one lens to test alongside the A7, a 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom which is provided in a kit configuration with the A7. Sony is actually promoting the fact that you can use other lenses (not just Sony E-mount lenses) on the camera with an optional adapter. The company is even offering a free Metabones lens adapter with every purchase made (until 31 March 2014).
This lens doesn't quite deliver the full potential from the A7's sensor, we feel, as it's quite sharp in the centre but has the typical issue that plagues zoom lenses — a drop-off in sharpness towards the edges of the frame.
A comparison of RAW and JPEG files straight from the A7. As you can see, the default JPEG settings performs some minor lens corrections for barrel distortion, as well as a touch of smoothing and noise reduction.
Images stay clean up to and including ISO 1600. From here on, the A7 introduces noise that starts to affect image quality, particularly when shooting JPEG on default settings. RAW files tend to alleviate this issue a little bit, with some more usable detail able to be pulled out once noise reduction is performed.
Video quality from the A7 is incredibly good. For the majority of our testing, we filmed at 50p/28Mbps in PS mode which delivered crisp and clean results. Shooting at 50p also gave very clear and fluid motion when filming fast-moving subjects. Colours are very accurate with a decent amount of punch and saturation, though things never look too saturated or unreal.
Audio quality from the built-in microphone is very good. In the example below we were shooting at 1080/50p with the internal microphone, wind filter off. Video recording is available in AVCHD or MP4. Full manual exposure control can be achieved by selecting the dedicated video mode icon from the mode dial.
Click each image for the full-resolution version.
Offering excellent value for money, the Sony A7 opens up the magic of full-frame photography to an entirely new audience. Coupled with excellent image quality and a glut of features — and a world of lenses with a free adapter thrown in the mix — it's a difficult package to let pass you by.