Although the Sony Alpha 7 mirrorless, fast-shooting camera is impressive in its ability to capture some stunning images, we still prefer it over its sibling, The 7R.
Sony Alpha 7 Review
- Full-frame Image Sensor
- Burst speed 5fps
- Autofocus snappy.
- High ISO performances are impressive.
- Sharp, tilting rear LCD.
- Focus peaking.
- Excellent OLED EVF.
- Excellent control layout.
- It is compact, dust- and water-resistant.
- Available vertical shooting grip
- Compatible with adapters for third-party lenses
- Sensor design includes OLPF.
- No PC sync socket.
- There is no flash built in.
- An external battery charger is not provided.
- The Native Lens Library is still in its early stages.
Sony's Alpha 7 mirrorless camera ($1,699.99 body only) is the first of two new full-frame mirrorless cameras. The model badge is the same as the Alpha 7R but they are very different internal. With a 24-megapixel sensor and on-chip phase detection autofocus sensors, the Alpha 7 can shoot at a speed of 5fps. Although the camera is impressive, it's a pleasure to use. However, we prefer the Alpha 7R at 36 megapixels, which has won our Editors' Choice Award for mirrorless full-frame cameras. You can get a 50% increase in resolution, and images that are sharper thanks to the sensor design which omits low-pass filter for an additional $600.
The Alpha 7 is quite compact, especially when considering its full-frame sensor. It measures 3.75x5x1.9inches (HWD), and only a pound with a lens. Leica M (Typ240) ($4,999.99 on Amazon) is the first full frame mirrorless camera with Live View. It measures 3.1 by 5.9 by 1.7 inches but weighs 1.5 pounds. Some of the extra weight in the Leica comes from its brass construction, optical viewfinder and built-in OLED EVF. It is waterproof against moisture and dust; it was fine in light rain. Lenses do not have an o-ring gasket surrounding the mount so it's not recommended to use the camera in heavy rain.
To attach lenses to the Alpha 7, the E-mount is the same as the previous Sony NEX camera models, such as the NEX-6 (at Amazon). The APS-C sensor can be physically smaller than the Alpha 7's 35mm full frame image sensor. You can use older lenses with NEX cameras, even if they only cover an APS–C circle. The Alpha 7 will crop the images automatically to fit the APS–C sensor size once these lenses have been attached. The FE designation is given to lenses designed for full-frame Alpha 7R and 7R.
Although the Alpha 7's 24-megapixel image sensor has the same size as that found in Leica M and the Alpha 7R, it lacks an optical low pass filter (OLPF). The OLPF is designed to reduce the possibility of color moiré effects in images. When photographing certain textures such as feathers or textiles, they can appear in rainbow patterns.
This blurs an image slightly, but at the expense of fine details. It's easier to reduce moiré via software when working with high resolution images, which is one of the reasons that they've long been omitted from medium format digital cameras. As image sensors have increased in resolution, and modern lens designs in sharpness, more full-frame 35mm and APS-C digital cameras have omitted the filter, the logic being that it's better to address moiré when it does pop up in an image rather than to sap detail from every photo. It is up to you and your subject matter whether you need this filter.
The Alpha 7 is not a popular choice for landscape photographers. They don't require the speed and burst of shooting that the 7R offers, so they will probably stick with the 7R. If you regularly photograph fabrics, birds, or other moiré-inducing objects, you'll want a camera with an OLPF.
Physical controls, display, Wi-Fi
You can control your shooting with the A7 by using a variety of well-designed physical controls. The rear and front control wheels are located at the top of your camera. They can be accessed by using the handgrip. The top plate houses a standard mode dial, the power switch and shutter release, an EV compensation dial (3 stops in either direction at 1/3-stop increments), and the customizable C1 button—by default it adjusts autofocus pattern, but when the camera is in manual focus mode it enables quick frame magnification as a focus aid.
The Menu button is located to the left and C2 to the right of the eyepiece. C2 can be customized and used to change the default focus mode. Other controls can be found to the left of the tilting rear LCD. A toggle switch and button give you quick access to manual mode when the camera is in the up position. The bottom also has exposure lock.
To adjust ISO, a flat dial control can be turned to change drive mode or adjust the Live View feed's information. It also allows you to set white balance and adjust live view. It has a button at its centre that can be used to select items from menus. When shooting, it activates Eye AF which prioritises the autofocus system in order to hold onto an eye.
When shooting, the delete button doubles to be C3. There is no default behavior but you can change it via menu. You have complete control of how your camera works with all the controls at the rear. You can modify any control that you don't use or isn’t in the correct place to meet your specific needs.
Fn is another control button located on the rear. The Fn button opens an on-screen menu which provides fast access to up 12 functions. It includes drive mode, flash mode, compensation, focus mode and area as well as ISO and the ISO metering patterns, color output and white balance settings.
The record button is located at the top of the camera. It can only be used to begin videos.
It can be tilted up and down by being hinged, however it is not a variangle LCD like that found on the Panasonic Lumix DMCGH3 ($1,099.99 Amazon). The LCD does not support touch input. The LCD measures 3 inches and packs 921k dots of resolution. This makes it impressively sharp. The depth-of-field preview button is not available on the camera. Instead, the Live View feed will change to display the focal point, depth of focus and exposure while you adjust your lens' aperture.
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Wi-Fi and Interface
An OLED panel that has a resolution of 2,359k dots, the EVF can be found in both the NEX-7 (at Amazon), and in other APS C Sony mirrorless cameras. Although it's one the most impressive digital cameras, we prefer the LCD EVF found in the Olympus E-M1 ($1,099.00 on Amazon). OLEDs tend to have a sharper view and give more detail. The LCD gives a natural look to a scene. In very low lighting, the EVF may lag slightly. However it is more smooth than previous year's Sony EVFs.
Alpha 7 comes with Wi-Fi built in. By default it's a pretty simple implementation—it allows for transfer of images to your iOS or Android device via the free Sony PlayMemories Mobile app, available from Apple and Google Play. You can send images to your smartphone by broadcasting an SSID. NFC pairing may be possible if you have NFC support.
This function is available even if your camera shoots Raw. The Alpha 7 will extract the JPG from the Raw image and then send it to you. For video, you will need to transfer the MP4 file. AVCHD footage must still be transferred via cable or memory cards. Images and video can be transferred to a computer or viewed wirelessly via a compatible HDTV.
This menu system differs from the previous NEX cameras. The menu system is largely text-based and offers many options. Once you have the camera set up to your satisfaction, you will not need to waste too much time. It's also helpful that Sony allows photographers to control how the menu system functions.
The menu is broken down into six sections, Camera Settings, Custom Setting, Wireless, Application and Playback. Scrolling down and left to navigate between them is easy. To access specific settings, scroll up or down. You can still use the tile-based NEX menu, but it will display a splash screen that contains large icons representing each submenu. Once you're done with that, the menu interface remains unchanged.
Sony's PlayMemories App Store was launched along with the NEX-6. It offers a variety of apps that can be downloaded in order to expand the capabilities of the camera. Sony has created an app library for APS-C NEX cameras. However, there is only one Alpha 7R and 7R app available. The Smart Remote Control allows you to remotely control your camera using your tablet or phone.
This remote is quite robust. You can tap on an area in the Live View feed and focus the camera, then fire the shutter. You also have full control of the shooting modes, so you can access all settings. They vary a bit by shooting mode, but you can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance, and set the self-timer—all from your phone or tablet.
Direct Upload is the other option. This app allows you to upload images to Facebook and Sony's PlayMemories online services if you are near Wi-Fi. Sidecar apps add Flickr support. This simple and straightforward method makes it easy for friends to share photos with family members.
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It is possible to attach almost any 35mm lens to an Alpha 7 using the adapter because of the short distance between image sensor and mount. Sony SLR photographers can purchase the LA-EA3 and LA-EA4 adapters for $348.00 each. This will allow them to use autofocus with all A-mount lenses made by Minolta and Sony.
An adapter made by Metabones can be used to accept Canon EOS lenses. There are also mechanical adapters for Nikon F and Pentax K lenses, as well as lenses from other SLR systems. Even if the lens has autofocus, most adapt lenses are manual-focus only. The Sony/Minolta/Canon EOS and Sony/Minolta E-mount lenses are currently the exception. However, a Contax G rangefinder lens adapter is in development.
The Alpha 7 is a great platform to use for Leica M rangefinder lens platforms, particularly considering its $3,700 lower price than the M-E (Typ 228)($7999.00 on Amazon). The lenses can be mounted with a mechanical adapter. They are only manual-focus. These lenses are compact and can be used with modern lenses such as the Leica Summilux M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH.
These lenses are amazing from an optical perspective and cost $4,194.95 on Amazon. The rangefinder lenses can be quite limited when it comes to close focus. However, with the Hawk Peng Macro Helicoid Adapter, the limitations are reduced. Leica Elmarit M 28mm f/2.8 ASPH. The adapter allows for a focus distance of 0.2 meters, while the standard 0.7-meter range is possible.
With adapted lenses, the Alpha 7's 24-megapixel sensor does an excellent job. Sony claims that the 7R and 7R have both offset microlenses to enhance corner performance. However, they can also be used for native lenses. The lenses are designed to straighten the light coming in from the corners of the frame at higher angles so the sensor can collect it properly.
When used with rangefinder lenses (even a broad-angle lens like the Elmarit M 28mm f/2.8 ASPH), the Alpha 7 produces excellent results. This lens can be used in conjunction with the Alpha 7R. It shows moderate purple color shift around the corners. The microlenses of that sensor combined with its greater pixel depth cannot fully compensate.
Leica M (Typ 240), uses a similar system of microlens to enhance corner performance when paired up with M-mount lenses. The Elmarit 28mm performs better on this lens than the Alpha 7 and 7R at corners, it seems. Imatest indicates that the lens can manage approximately 1,347 lines per picture at the outside edges of a frame on the Alpha 7 (Typ 244), while it is only able to achieve 489 lines on the Alpha 7's edges. The 7R lens performs slightly worse and also shows color shift.
The Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm F/4.5 Aspherical is another ultra-wide-angle lens. For testing purposes, I had only the Leica Thread Mount lens version and not the M-mount version. Although the edges and corners are blurry when using the Alpha 7 lens, the Elmarit M 28mm ASPH. lenses work well with it. However, the Alpha 7 manages to not show color shift. The Leica M shows moderate color shifting, but the corners of the frame are sharper at F/4.5 than the Alpha 7. And the 7R has extreme color shift.
The Elmarit M 28mm ASPH. The symmetrical design is what the Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar15mm and Elmarit-M 28mm ASPH have in common. Wide-angle SLR lenses, like the Pentax SMC FA 31mm f/1.8 Limited($1,096.99 at Amazon) typically employ retrofocus designs—in very basic terms a reverse telephoto—and perform much better on the A7 and A7R. Even that lens had some edge softness when tested against the Leica M. However, it was still able to produce sharp edges on both the Alpha 7 and 7R.
Although the Leica M has one advantage over the Alpha 7 it is still worth paying more. The optical viewfinder and bright spot are faster than the Alpha 7 OLED EVF when shooting rangefinder lenses. With the 50mm F/1.4 lens and Leica M, I can get in-focus sharp shots very quickly. However, I had to resort to the magnification feature on the Alpha 7 to achieve the same results. When using a manual-focus lens, it defaults to C1 at the top plate.
It brings up either a 7x or rear LCD view of the frame through the eyepiece. For faster work, focus peaking highlights the in-focus parts of the frame. However, I discovered that I needed to slow down a 50mm lens to f/4 before peaking worked. While magnification can be very precise when working slow, I prefer to use an optical rangefinder for fast shots.
Granted, there are caveats to that—a rangefinder lens and camera need to be properly calibrated to really nail focus; if your M lens and camera aren't quite matched properly you'll never get an in-focus shot, but that's been the nature of rangefinder cameras since their inception.
The native lenses perform better. Both the Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar F2.8 35mm F2.8 ZA ($598.00 Amazon) and Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar F1.8 55mm F1.8 ZA ($998.00 Amazon) both produce sharp images from edge-to-edge on the Alpha 7R and 7R.
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High Performance and Quality Image
Alpha 7 was the faster of the first full-frame Sony mirrorless cameras. The camera starts in 1.7 seconds and takes an in-focus shot. It focuses in 0.05 seconds in good lighting and then fires the image in 0.7 seconds in dimming light. When it is set to Speed Priority mode, the camera captures 5 frames per second.
The camera can capture images at 5 frames per second for 24 Raw+JPG and 27 Raw. It also takes 55 JPG photos before it slows down. The buffer takes 20.3 seconds to clear to SanDisk 95MBps card. Raw+JPG is 14.7 seconds, Raw is 29.6 seconds, and JPG is 29.6 seconds.
Alpha 7R is the only full-frame autofocusing mirrorless camera available. Both cameras have different autofocus systems. The Alpha 7 uses phase detection pixels, while the Alpha 7R has them on its sensor. However, they are all grouped in a central area as indicated by the Live View screen.
Contrast detection is used to determine if the camera must focus beyond that region. This same method drives the A7R. You have a variety of options for focusing, such as Zone and Center areas, which limit the focus area to the phase detection area; a wide area covering most of the frame and Flexible Spot focus, which puts you in complete control over the point of focus.
In 1.9 seconds the 7R begins and takes 0.9 seconds to fire and focus in good light. It will take 2.9 seconds in extremely dim lighting and only 0.2 seconds in normal light. The 7R is just one beat slower than Alpha 7, even in burst mode, which allows it to shoot 4 frames per second. This camera can maintain that speed for 14 Raw+JPG or 15 Raw shots, and it takes 18.7 seconds, 13.4 seconds, and 16.5 seconds respectively to clear the buffer from the SanDisk card.
The buffer of the 7R is not as fast as the Alpha 7, due to its larger images (36 megapixels). Although the 7R has more pixels than its predecessor, it is also much louder when you are shooting. An electronic first curtain shutter is available on the Alpha 7. This means that it produces one click to fire a photo. The Alpha 7R requires a louder click-click when opening or closing its shutter.
The Alpha 7 is being reviewed as a single body. However, it can also be purchased in a set (at Amazon) that includes the Sony FE 28/70mm F3.5-5 OSS lens ($398.00 Amazon) and the Sony FE zoom lens (1,999.99). The lens is available for just $500, which represents a savings of $200. However, testing has shown that there are some issues with the optics. Raw mode can cause distortions at the wide-angle as well as telephoto ends.
JPG files are automatically corrected for this effect. Edges that exceed f/8 don't look sharp. It's a good starter lens if you can live with the limitations. However, you will get more from the camera paired with one of the Zeiss ZE prime lenses. The Zeiss Zoom, which covers a range of 24-70mm at constant aperture f/4, will be available for purchase starting February. It is expected to retail for around $1,200.
Here in the PCMag Labs, we used Imatest for checking images for noise. The standard test revealed that the Alpha 7 maintained noise levels below 1.5 percent when it shot JPG using default settings. These settings reduce camera noise, but JPG images can suffer from ISO 25600. To see how the images performed at different ISO settings, I looked closely at ISO images taken on our ISO test scene using a calibrated NEC MultiSyncPA271W ($999.00 Amazon).
ISO 12800 has better JPG detail, even though noise reduction is enabled. ISO 6400, however, is where I would shoot with default noise reduction settings. Although the Alpha 7R also uses noise reduction and captures JPGs at ISO 12800 with acceptable noise through ISO25600, its 36-megapixel images are actually better than those of the A7.
If you change the High ISO Noise Reduction setting to Low or Off in your camera menu, you'll see more detail and less noise. If you are willing to work hard and take the Alpha 7 Raw, you will be pleasantly surprised by how detailed you can get ISO 25600. Lightroom can produce images that have very little noise and great detail at the highest ISO.
If you begin with Raw images, adjust the Luminance Smoothing slider until it reaches 30. For the Alpha 7R and 7R, the rule that a smaller sensor will perform better with higher ISO settings is not applicable. The Alpha 7R's 36-megapixel sensor produces raw images at ISO 25600 with a slightly higher resolution than the Alpha 7. This gives the 7R more space to reduce noise without losing detail.
Conclusions and Video Quality
AVCHD video is available at 1080p60 quality. 1080i60, 1080p24 and 1080p24 quality are also available. Also, 1080p30 quality and VGA quality are both possible in the MP4 format. AVCHD footage is stunning. Sharp details and accurate colors are maintained, as well as excellent depth-of-field control thanks to the full frame sensor. Autofocus works just like when you are shooting stills. The camera also has a microphone input and a headset output.
There is an audio level control as well as a mic. The rolling shutter effect can cause the bottom half of the frame's advance to be faster than the rest. This creates an almost jello-like effect during fast pans. However, it is greatly reduced during slower pans of 60p. This is impressive considering the sensor's size. The audio track can clearly hear voices. Although the noise of the lens focus is quiet, if you adjust the camera settings during recording, they will be audible. An external microphone is essential if you plan to use the Alpha 7 for serious video editing.
The camera has a couple of ports. The hot shoe is located on the top of EVF. It has additional data connectors which make it compatible to a variety of Sony accessories. You can attach a small adapter to the hotshoe to allow you to use your camera with studio lighting, or to trigger it using the PocketWizard PlusX ($95.00 on Amazon).
There are also standard microphone and headset jacks to the left of the camera. Also, there is a micro USB and micro HDMI ports. The micro USB port doubles as a charging port—if you don't invest in an external charger you'll need to charge the battery in camera. Sony cameras support Memory Stick PRO Duo media in addition to SDHC and SDXC media.
You can get 340 photos from the Alpha 7 using the EVF. However, you will see a lot less when you use the LCD or Wi-Fi more. Sony should have provided a charger to charge the battery and allow you to use it while taking photos. The charger is $50, and the second battery costs $80. However, you can find them for less if they are on sale. A vertical grip for your camera can be purchased at $300.
It holds two additional batteries and doubles the life expectancy of the Alpha 7. The Leica M is actually a more affordable option than the Alpha 7 and 7R. It ships with an enormous battery, which can be used to take 800 photos using the optical finder. A second Leica battery costs twice as much as the Sony's, but that difference can be quickly closed if you buy a spare.
The Sony Alpha 7 has a lot of positive aspects. It's currently the most affordable full-frame camera available. The impressive autofocus system, burst-shooting capabilities and low price make it a worthy competitor to many D-SLRs. Because the distance between sensor and lens mount is so short, almost any 35mm lens can be used with this camera. This includes lenses that are not native full-frame digital options like Pentax K or Canon FD lenses.
The compact design makes it easy to use. It's not perfect—the two FE Zeiss primes are excellent, but the native lens library is its infancy so you'll have to use adapted Sony Alpha SLR lenses for any telephoto or macro work that requires autofocus for the time being, the standard 28-70mm zoom that is available as kit lens is a little underwhelming, and if you're an old rangefinder shooter looking for a poor man's Leica, there are some issues with corner and edge sharpness when using wide-angle M-mount lenses—but not to the extent that the 7R displays with wide-angle rangefinder lenses.
The camera's strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Sony has promised to release about 12 native lenses in the coming years. This includes a stabilized 70-200mm zoom that will be available by mid 2014. Excellent video quality, along with the OLED EVF (and control layout) are all excellent. We love the Alpha 7 but we prefer the Alpha 7R. The Alpha 7R's superior resolution sensor and OLPF-free design produce stunning images when paired up with the excellent FE Zeiss lense.
It also has impressive Raw image quality thanks to its highest ISO. Although it cannot match the Alpha 7's burst speed, it is capable of capturing a good number shots at 4fps. It also has an adequate autofocus to take most subjects. This may not be the best choice for action photographers. The Alpha 7 is faster than the Alpha 6 and can focus at 5fps if you are shooting sports, fast-moving action or any other type of motion. The 7R, for the majority of people, is a better camera and well worth the $600 extra.
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