Written by John Rettie, posted by Jessica Gordon
Are we finally seeing the end of the line for traditional DSLR cameras, even for professionals?
That's the question being asked by many with Sony's introduction of a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera body that features a full-frame sensor. Can a camera that weighs one pound—one-third of the weight of, for example, a Nikon D4—produce images of the same quality? We ventured to find out.
A brief recap is in order: the Sony Alpha 7R features a 36.4-megapixel CMOS Exmor full-frame sensor without an optical low pass anti-aliasing filter. It costs $2,300. The Alpha 7 is identical except it has a 24.3 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor with a Fast Hybrid AF system that combines phase- and contrast-detect AF for faster autofocusing. The Alpha 7 can also shoot at up to 5 fps continuously with non-stop AF tracking. It does have an optical low pass filter and costs $1,700.
SHOOTING WITH THE SONY ALPHA 7 & 7R
I've used a Sony A55 camera quite a bit in the past year and I've grown to appreciate the versatility of the choice of using the electronic viewfinder or the 3-inch rear screen for composing pictures. Unlike DSLRs, the switching from the two methods is instantaneous as you move your eye to the viewfinder.
Although the view through the Alpha 7's 2.4-million pixel OLED EVF might not be quite as clear as that on an optical viewfinder, it is very good and I did not find it getting in my way of shooting. In fact, I got so used to it I did not realize I was looking at an electronic image. The big advantage, of course, is that you can see what you're going to capture before you take the shot and you can also choose to review an image in the viewfinder before moving on to the next shot if you wish, without removing your eye from the viewfinder.
As you'd expect, the cameras have a ton of choices for setting different parameters. In all, there are nine customizable buttons, and 46 assignable functions that can be adjusted based on shooting preferences. Even the front and back dials, rear control wheel and an exposure compensation dial are fully customizable to suit one's shooting needs. I only had the opportunity to shoot for a few hours so did not really get to experience all the options or figure out the best settings.
Despite its small size, I liked the camera's ergonomics. The grip is small but big enough to hold the camera, at least with a small lens, with one hand. A photographer with big hands would probably be better off with the vertical grip accessory which adds more depth to the camera as well as adding a second battery. Speaking of batteries (that was one of my main concerns) battery life is shorter than I'd like. Not surprising really as the battery has to be small to fit in the slim body and the EVF consumes more juice. It would certainly behoove users to carry extra batteries with them for longer shoots.
The other feature in the Sony Alpha 7 that consumes juice is the built-in Wi-Fi. The camera can be paired to a smart phone so images can be transferred to the phone and the camera can be operated remotely. Sadly, as is all too often the case with Wi-Fi, getting a connection can sometimes be difficult as I discovered when trying to pair with my iPhone. (I eventually got the Sony Alpha 7 to connect wirelessly with my iPhone but it took some trial and error.) The camera also includes NFC, which works much better than Wi-Fi for smartphones and tablets that include NFC capabilities.
I didn't notice any real difference in performance between the Alpha 7 and the Alpha 7R. It did take a bit longer to write files to the SD card with the Alpha 7R especially when shooting RAW and JPEG. I did not have the opportunity to shoot any action with the Alpha 7R, so didn't notice and difference in frame rate. The Alpha 7 can shoot at 5 fps and it proved to be plenty fast enough to capture images of a race horse.
Image quality, of course, is the bottom line. During an initial thumb through the images in Photo Mechanic, it was difficult to tell which ones had been shot on which camera—both produce excellent images. (You can see some samples I shot with the cameras below.) Obviously once I zoomed in, there was more detail on images captured with the Alpha 7R. The downside, however, is a noticeable increase in noise compared to the Alpha 7 in photographs of musician Ben Folds performing in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Having said that, the noise looks quite pleasant (if that's the right word), and even at ISO 10000, it's not too objectionable.
Moire is the other concern with the Alpha 7R. I shot some subjects that might have created moire patterns but I could not see any problems in portraits or even some gauze wire.
Overall I came away impressed with these two cameras. It's difficult to argue against the benefits of doing away with the flipping mirror in a DSLR camera. I feel that the benefits outweigh the disadvantage, which is more psychological, as the OLED EVF is just about as crisp as an optical finder and refreshes fast enough for just about every use other than perhaps fast action sports like football.
Should Canon and Nikon be worried? Perhaps not right away but maybe in the future. It's also worth remembering that because of the slim body, it's possible to fit lenses other than those from Sony with an adapter. Ones for Canon and Nikon lenses are available so you could even use this camera body with your current lenses.