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In a market of cameras seeing mostly minor marginal improvements, Sony has released a handful of models that are pleasantly unlike anything else. The a7 and its big sibling the a7r are making a big statement in the full frame realm: shooting full frame doesn't have to be a pain in the neck (pun intended).
The a7, the cheaper and lower resolution option of the two, feels excellent to hold and it's the lightest full frame interchangeable lens camera on the market. But when you cram all of the benefits of full frame into a body that's smaller than even entry-level DSLRs, you're bound to sacrifice some features—aren't you? The features on this small shooter are actually quite surprising.
Sony a7: Body & Design
There's a certain comfort to having something to actually hold on to—the a7 sits at a happy medium to the discomfort of heavy gear and the awkward hold of a tiny camera. The a7 fits nicely in the hand and handles well enough for all day shooting (though the battery life won't support all day shooting—more on that later). The power in such a small body is rather refreshing.
Often, smaller cameras sacrifice with their control scheme—less real estate equals less dials, knobs and controls, etc. This isn't the case with the a7. There's certainly more physical controls on a DSLR, but most won't miss them with what's included on the a7. Dual control wheels sit at the front and back of the grip for shutter speed and aperture.
At the back of the camera, there's a switch for manual and autofocus—along with a handy button that you can hold to use manual focus for just one shot. There's a handful of the typical shortcuts, and a few different buttons to change the function of the other physical controls. But the most surprising feature on the back of a camera where space comes at a premium is the tilting LCD. It's a nice feature for awkward and low angle shots. The top of the a7 finishes off the rest of the physical controls with a mode dial, EV wheel and another function button.
Instead of an optical viewfinder, Sony included an electronic viewfinder. The difference between the two is mostly a personal preference. The electronic viewfinder looks like an over-processed image with stronger colors than in the actual photo—but you can preview the shot more accurately and use features like focus peaking that aren't available with an optical viewfinder.
The menu is as straightforward as the physical controls. There's several options on the LCD views, including one that displays all the shooting information with shortcuts that makes navigation more like a DSLR.
Sony a7: User Experience & Performance
Often, cutting the size of a camera means sacrificing either image quality or performance—the a7 didn't seem to be seriously lacking in either department. The speed on the a7, considering the large sensor and the price, is right on the mark. It shoots at 5 fps, which isn't bad considering, but what's particularly impressive is that it will shoot RAW plus JPEG at 5 fps—without any gaps. It can shoot a long burst, then shoot another one, if you wish. The a7 can shoot longer bursts in RAW without slowing down. The a7r, which has much larger file sizes, is noticeably slower, particularly after the first few shots using RAW.
A typical sacrifice of mirrorless cameras over their larger counterparts is the autofocus. But, I didn't notice much of a difference between the a7 and my own DSLR (which isn't full frame like the a7), at least in the way of autofocus speed. The a7 uses a hybrid autofocus system, and it's quite solid. There were a few shots (out of hundreds) that didn't focus quite fast enough, and a few low light shots that were disappointingly soft when I viewed them on my computer later. But, there were more that didn't focus on the right point. To put it simply, the autofocus on the a7 is fast, but not always very intelligent.
But, no camera will focus on the right elements 100 percent of the time, and the a7's manual focus system is remarkably simple to use—and get right. The focus peaking system—combined with the electronic viewfinder—highlights the portion of the image that is in focus in red, so there's no guesswork.
The most disappointing aspect of the a7 in the performance arena, at least for me, was the battery life. I can shoot with my DSLR all day, the battery on the a7 quit just before lunch. The battery is rated at 340 shots, I took 610 images using RAW + JPEG, so it doesn't take much more power to shoot both at once. There are ways to help lengthen the battery life, like turning off the wi-fi and LCD. Sony offers a battery grip that can add two batteries to the a7, but it costs $300 (extra batteries are separate from the grip) and adds bulk. But, the versatility to have a lightweight shooter or a camera with longer battery life is available.
Sony a7: Image Quality
The point behind a big full frame purchase is for excellent images, and the a7 lived up to my expectations. The photos were detailed, right down to the texture. Colors seemed to be right on the mark too, not overly saturated, even without chancing the settings. Of course, with a full frame sensor, there's a much smaller depth of field, creating excellent, soft backgrounds, while the subject still has nice, crisp lines.
The a7 also did okay at higher ISOs, with a soft grain around ISO 4000, but no overwhelming noise. There was a bit more trouble getting sharply focused images in lower light, but the a7, overall, produced excellent images.
I tested the camera with the kit lens, a 28-70mm. It's not a bad lens, but the it's not fast either, at f3.5-5.6, typical for a kit. The low light image quality could be stepped up a bit by adding Sony's f1.8 50mm.
Comparison: Sony a7 and a7R
Sony also introduced the a7R alongside the a7. Outside, the two cameras are nearly identical, but there's a few key differences in the technology. The a7 is a 36 megapixel option, to the a7's 24, which means that the a7 is a faster performer. Where the a7 didn't slow down shooting continuous RAW, the a7R slowed after the first few shots and only shoots at 4 fps. The a7R also eliminated the optical low pass filter, which increases the resolution even more, though introduces moire with some subjects.
The a7 has the better autofocus out of the two, with the on sensor phase detection, though the contrast detection autofocus on the a7R still performs well. Both cameras' shutter releases are rather loud, but the a7 is noticeably quieter because it uses an electronic system.
The resolution of the a7 is plenty for most, and the camera is faster, quieter and cheaper. But, for those that need the extra resolution and detail without the low pass filter, the a7R is there. Really, it comes down to preference and the type of photography.
The Sony a7 is an excellent camera wrapped up in a small body. Most of the time, you end up paying a premium for compact size, but the a7 is actually a few hundred dollars less than comparable full frame DSLRs. Of course, with the smaller size comes a few downfalls, like the shorter battery life and a somewhat finicky autofocus. But, the image quality for the size can't be beat.
There's not much on the market like the a7 (except of course the a7R). Nikon's latest announcement, the Df, is a small full frame option, though still a DSLR and larger than the a7. It offers a 1400 shot battery life, but comes at a much higher price point.
Sony is certainly a manufacturer to watch, with products that are different from anything else on the market. The a7 and a7R are, no question, their best products introduced this year.