Some Context - Camera Innovation
Sony has been shaking up the market recently with pure innovation and it begs the question- What are Nikon and Canon doing?
Although this review is primarily for the Sony A7r, I wanted to first give some context. The Sony A7 series is composed of 3 professional cameras with very different strengths. Each camera sports full-frame sensors in a compact size with no sacrifice image quality.
The Sony A7s is DxO's best tested sensor for low light and beats the $6500 Nikon D4S for ISO performance at 1/2 it's price and about 1/3 it's weight. The Sony A7r is essentially a mini D800 with an improved sensor and more options for lenses than ever before. I used to shoot Canon and have nothing against them, they are excellent for weddings and sports, but unfortunately their sensors simple don't even come close for dynamic range and color depth in real world use.
Traditional DSLR's have been lacking in innovation for some time. The Sony A7 series has Focus peaking, Zebra stripes for video, 1080p at 60fps, NFC pairing, WIFI (Essentially a built in $300 CamRanger for FREE), Installable Smart Apps, Tiltable LCD (no lag compared to DSLR live view), USB charging (like a cell phone), Automatic "eye" autofocus, Focus magnification, an EVF with real time histogram, and more!
Unfortunately, stronger autofocus and ergonomics seem to be the only things that DSLR's have going for them, and I don't foresee that being the case for long. The Sony A7 series is literally the first of its kind and Sony is rumored to be announcing its successor with better build and AF sometime around February 2015 at the CP+ Show.
***Update 11/20/14*** Sony has just announced the Sony A7 Mark II camera with improved grip, XAVC-S video, XLog-2, and most importantly the first ever 5 axis on sensor stabilization ever featured in a full-frame mirrorless camera.
With that said, lets get to the topic at hand.
The Sony A7r
I'm gonna put myself right out there and state that the Sony A7r is currently (November 2014) the best camera on the market for landscape & architectural photographers looking anywhere near this price point. Period.
Unless you're going medium format, or larger and more expensive with hardly any gain with the Nikon D810, I think that the A7r is currently the best value for anyone shooting primarily on a tripod. Industry leading dynamic range and color depth in addition to a 36 million pixel sensor (without an anti-aliasing filter) gives you incredible detail in both resolution as well as highlight/shadow retention. The ability to adapt almost any lens on the market regardless of brand makes this not only the smallest full-frame interchangeable lens system but also the most flexible by leaps and bounds.
Massive Lens Selection (Despite Limited Native Options)
When I originally got into photography I shot Canon and eventually switched to Nikon for a variety of its benefits, namely the ability to use older AF-D lenses. The Sony A7r is essentially a mini D800 with an improved sensor and more options for lenses than ever before. Yes, Sony's FE mount currently has limited native lenses. BUT... Sony's E-Mount has an 18mm flange distance to sensor and allows you to use Canon, Nikon, Sony, Zeiss, and even Leica glass. You can even adapt old Canon FD lenses that won't even work on Canon's own DSLR's. Seriously? Yes.
Sony is also working crazy fast to put out more lenses. Coming out around Q1 2015 you can expect a 28mm f/2, Sony/Zeiss 35mm f/1.4, Sony 90mm f/2.8 Macro, and 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (Update 2015: These mentioned lenses are all available). Zeiss also makes it's own incredible Loxia & Batis lines of prime lenses for the Sony A7 cameras.
Resolution in a camera means nothing without good optics that are capable of resolving to that same level of detail. This is where the partnership of Sony (known for their sensors) and Zeiss (unparalleled optics) really shines. To show the true capabilities of this camera I've paired it with the Zeiss Sonnar T* 1.8/55 ZA which was rated by DxO Mark as the best autofocus lens ever made. Click on the images to enlarge and review.
Tethering & Outstanding Control When Composing
As an architectural photographer I am regularly taking advantage of tethering options. The ability to see your image larger on location allows you to better catch details in your composition and even make minor edits to help you better convey your vision to a present client or art director. Many photographers have spent hundreds of dollars on separate devices that allow their DSLR's to wirelessly tether to an iPad or even phone (most of which are still larger than camera screens). Instead of spending an extra $300 on an annoying device that hangs from your tripod, the Sony A7 cameras literally have this built into the body and also have NFC pairing.
With the free Sony PlayMemories app (Android & Apple) you can control shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and countless other settings as well as triggering the camera and getting a live 100% viewfinder of sorts showing you the current composition. While traditional tethering only aids you in image review, this type of workflow can actually be used to achieve good composition in tight or difficult locations. I don't think you realize just how much this has changed my workflow- you can literally back your camera right into a corner and instead of needing to twist your head around to see in your viewfinder, just compose in comfort looking at your phone. I'm 6' 4" tall and constantly setting the tripod to much lower levels. This way I never need to crouch over or get on my knees to see my framing.
Build, Design, and Weather Sealing
The Sony A7r may be a compact camera, but it isn't built like one at all. I've owned over a dozen cameras in the last few years and triple that in lenses and I am of the firm belief that equipment is to be used however your creative vision requires. Though I take extraordinary care of my gear, we as professionals count on our equipment to keep up with us and the Sony A7r has never let me down. The Sony A7 series is weather sealed (within reason) and very durable. Every button and dial has a satisfying tactile feel and though I've never dropped mine I am confident it would be just fine.
I truly suggest you hold one in person as it's definitely a different world than DSLR's although even my massive hands have adjusted. Battery grip options are available if desired and also help with it's battery life. Many complain that the battery life in inadequate but I easily get 450+ shots on a charge and if you do the math you'd actually have to pack 8-10 batteries to simply make up the difference in camera weight between the Sony A7r and a 5D MK III or D800.
Almost every button and dial can be customized to your preferred workflow. Ignoring the 5 dials, you have 9 buttons you can custom set for up to 46 different camera functions. I haven't seen this much flexibility from even the most expensive DSLR's on the market. Most compact cameras are a hassle to operate when compared to these comparable DSLR's but the Sony A7r puts full control at your fingertips and offers the best quick select function menu I've ever used.
Another brilliant design feature is that the Sony A7r can be charged via USB just like your phone. This means any portable power packs or chargers that are coming out everyday for phones can also be used to charge your camera on remote location. These small batteries are extremely affordable as well. I literally connect a 4800 mAh RavPower charger to my Sony A7r and charge it while it's in my bag. I can also just charge it in my car like I would a cell phone. And yes, I also have two traditional chargers.
Autofocus is one of the few areas that mirrorless cameras still struggle in when compared to their DSLR counterparts. When shooting weddings I have always had a Nikon D800 or D600 with me in addition to my Sony A7r as I was almost expecting it to be useless in many situations - But that is not the whole story.
I've honestly never once had AF problems with my Sony A7r (at least not that I wouldn't have also had with DSLR's). I've shot plenty of times in dim lighting with the kids. When shooting my last wedding I shot more with the Sony A7r than the D800. Yes, DSLR's are still going to be more reliable when push comes to shove but don't think that these mirrorless cameras can't hold their own.
People call me insane, but in some ways I actually prefer the autofocus of the mirrorless cameras. The Sony A7R's focus points cover significantly more of the viewfinder which helps avoid focus-recompose user error. Cameras such as the Sony a6000 are insanely fast and the rumored "A9" replacement coming for the A7 series will most likely have that same 179 point AF with a HUGE 92% viewfinder coverage in AF points. On top of that, the Sony A7r has an automatic "eye" AF that will locate and focus specifically on the eye of your subject. Sounds like gimmick but I've used it through weddings at f/1.8 in dim lighting with strobes and it has worked. The images are sharp (and I am known for extreme pixel-peeping)- see for yourself below.
I honestly think that the autofocus debate is mostly in people's heads. As soon as people get romantic with their gear innovation comes and sweeps the market over. No, I don't shoot sports professionally but then again very very few do. If you're primarily shooting sports or action then this obviously isn't the camera for you, but I've have no problems tracking people moving towards me with a decent hit rate. The Sony A6000 would be even more reliable if used correctly.
The Shortcomings & Conclusion
Yes, I've mentioned many great features of the Sony A7R but no camera is perfect nor meant for every use. As I mentioned already, this camera is primarily ideal for tripod shooters. Although it's worked well for me at weddings, it is definitely not as ergonomic or quick as some of the other options.
This camera is about pure image quality while remaining portable. Landscape photographers who hike miles for the perfect shot feel every ounce in their bag during the journey. The Sony A7R has really challenged the idea of the professional camera. At the end of the day all that matters is that you have the equipment you need to pull off your creative vision. As a strong advocate for innovation, I challenge you to remain open minded regarding the onslaught of new equipment coming out. Every photographers workflow and demands are different and a certain camera to one person may not be the same to another.
The lack of native lenses can indeed be limiting if you're looking for a very specific niche and require fast autofocus. Yes, you can adapt nearly any lens you can think of but you typically either loose AF or at least a lot of it's speed. This camera has really been built for the tripod shooter who is manually focusing anyways.
Some minor quirks include the viewfinder sticking out a little more than I would prefer, slower than usual turn-on time, and the magnification button first takes you in to 100% without giving you the option to move in incrementally. Some of the little quirks could be fixed with firmware and we'll see how much they improve on it's successor. The shorter battery life is definitely something to keep in mind, although USB charging and compact batteries makes up for most of that.
Ask any questions in the comments below and i'll be sure to get to them!
Some Sample Images
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