Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review - The Sony Alpha 7 is the world's first full-frame CSC and is heralded by some as a major game-changer. Find out if it lives up to the hype in the What Digital Camera Sony Alpha 7 Review
Full frame sensors are generally considered to offer better low light performance, shallower depth of field, lenses deliver their ‘true’ focal length, better dynamic range and ultimately, more detail.
With the arrival of the Sony Alpha 7 and its stablemate the Alpha 7R, Sony is the first manufacturer to shoehorn an full frame sensor into a system camera. The most affordable full frame camera available, does the Alpha 7 signal the end of traditional DSLRs?
Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review – Features
Unlike the 36.4MP Alpha 7R (which we’ll test independently to the Alpha 7), the Sony Alpha 7 (A7) features a 24.3MP sensor, but unlike the A7R, the A7 sticks with a more conventional design that includes a optical low pass filter to reduce and control the effects of aliasing.
As we’ve seen with a number of cameras recently including the Canon EOS 70D and Olympus OM-D E-M1, the A7’s sensor features on-chip phase-detection with 117 phase-detect points that combines with the A7’s 25-point contrast-detect AF system. The result is the A7’s hybrid Fast Intelligent AF system which is married to a new BIONZ X image processor that’s 3x faster than the previous chip and promises to make AF tracking effortless.
The AF is only sensitive down to 0EV light levels, which is not quite as good as the -1EV of the D610 or the -3EV offered by the Canon EOS 6D, so it’ll be interesting to see how it copes in poorly lit conditions.
The BIONZ X processor also helps the A7 achieve a burst rate of 5fps – good, though it’s perhaps a little disappointing to see this drop to a pedestrian 2.5fps if you want AF and exposure active between shots.
The new processor also offers diffraction-reducing technology to help correct softness that can be caused as you stop the lens down beyond its sweet-spot, while Sony’s also tinkered with the algorithm for the area-specific noise reduction, which varies the level of noise reduction applied across an image in an effort to retain more detail at higher sensitivities. Speaking of which, the A7 offers a native ISO of 100-25,600 that can be expanded to an ISO equivalent of 50-25,600.
With the large sensor sitting do close to the lens mount, dust is a worry, but the A7 features both ultrasonic vibration systems and a charge protection coating to combat this.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) has been borrowed from the flagship A99 and offers a XGA OLED Tru-Finder with a 2.4m-dot resolution and 0.71x magnification, though the optics have been re-worked to provide improved clarity corner-to-corner.
Also at the rear is an articulated 3in LCD display with a 921k-dot resolution that can be angled outwards for waist-level shooting or pulled downwards should you want to compose shots with the camera raised aloft. Its worth noting though that because it isn’t hinged at the side, its only really suited to landscape-format shooting the majority of the time.
There’s no built-in flash or an mini external speedlight bundled with the A7, so you’ll need an optional dedicated ‘gun. As we’ve seen with a raft of Sony models since the arrival of the A99 last year, the A7 uses what Sony terms a Multi-Interface Shoe, so those with older flash kit that features the Minolta/Sony hotshoe contact will need an adapter. The flash sync-speed is very good though, with the A7 capable of syncing at shutter speeds up to 1/250sec.
It’s no surprise to see the A7 supporting Wi-fi and NFC connectivity, allowing you to share images with your smart phone or tablet, making them easy to share on the move if you desire, while the dedicated app for both Android and iOS will also allow you to control the camera remotely should you wish.
The A7 is also well specified for movie shooting, offering full HD 1080p footage at either 60 or 25p in the AVCHD holder format. Perhaps more importantly though, it offers full live manual control and 3.5mm jacks inputs for both a microphone and headphones, allowing you to monitor audio during recording, while there’s the option to record clean video output via the A7’s HDMI port.
New and Existing lenses
The A7 uses the same lens mount as previous Sony NEX system cameras, but will these optics designed to function with the smaller APS-C sensor, Sony is bring out five new lenses as well, designated FE.
The A7 will be bundled with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS (Optical SteadyShot), while there’s a trio of Zeiss lenses to choose from: 35mm f/2.8, 55mm f/1.8 and 24-70mm f/4 OSS. This will be followed by a Sony G-series 70-200mm f/4 OSS and by the end of 2014 Sony hope to have at least 10 dedicated lenses in the line-up.
If you’re upgrading from a NEX-series CSC and intend to use you current lenses, you can, but to avoid heavy vignetting in the corners of the frame, you’ll want to select the APS-C crop mode to On. Thanks to the 24.3MP resolution on tap though, you’ll still end up with images a little over 10MP once cropped.
What if you’ve got a load of A-mount lenses? There are two new A- to E-mount lens adapters in the shape of the LA-EA3 (contrast-detect AF with lenses that feature built-in focus motors) and LA-EA4 (featuring Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology to offer AF with all lenses).
Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review – Design
Whereas the NEX-7 before it went for a more low-slung, rangefinder-esque look, with the EVF positioned to the far left of the body, with the Sony Alpha A7 Sony has opted for a more traditional central position for the EVF, resulting in a more conventional DSLR-style of design.
Proportionally though, it’s much more compact than a DSLR, sharing similar dimensions to Olympus’ OM-D E-M1. For some though, the styling could be seen as a little challenging – it hasn’t got quite the same aesthetic qualities that we’ve seen from the likes of Olympus or Fujifilm, with quite a functional, utilitarian look that looks a little over-simplified from some angles.
Sony have done extremely well with the shape and size of the handgrip, so when you pick the Alpha 7 up it feels incredibly comfortable in the hand, with any concerns that it may be too small disappearing immediately. The fit and finish is also very good too – the body has been formed from magnesium alloy, with dust and moisture sealing, while the exterior controls deliver the right balance between stiffness and ease-of-use.
While the NEX-7 had many charms, the curious dual control wheel placement at the rear of the camera really did hamper handling, so it’s a relief to see a more traditional front and aft arrangement on the A7, with both falling to the hand nicely. There’s also a more traditional mode dial – virtually identical in appearance to the one found on Sony’s full frame RX1 compact.
Also along the top-plate is an exposure compensation dial, one of the three programmable customization buttons and the on/off switch wrapped round the shutter button.
While the rear is dominated by the 3in tiltable screen and EVF, it’s also the area that’s most densely populated with the A7’s various controls. What’s most impressive though is the level of customization available. The two programmable customization buttons (along with the third one on the top of the camera) can have any of 46 functions assigned to them via the menu, while the central button at the middle of the control wheel can have one of 47 functions assigned to it.
The wheel itself is used for scrolling and adjusting settings on the A7, while it also acts as a 4-way control. Here you can access drive mode, white balance and display modes, but again, the left, right and down points can be programmed, with 39 functions being able to be assigned to them.
As well as this, there’s also a dedicated Function button offering quick access to the A7’s shortcut menu.
Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review – Performance
The combination of contrast-detect and phase-detect AF sees the Sony Alpha 7 deliver prompt AF acquirement in the majority of general shooting situations I tried it in, even coping well in relatively poorly lit conditions. Swap over from Single-shot AF to Continuous AF and while subject tracking is possible, it shouldn’t be relied upon for fast-moving subjects. I found it struggled to maintain focus or even lock-on in some instances.
To sum-up then, the AF performance is good for single shots, but we’d have to say its not as rapid or as versatile as the AF system employed by the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which really does set the benchmark for system camera AF performance.
While there are Wide, Zone and Centre AF modes, I found I used Flexible Spot for the majority of the time. There’s a choice of three AF area sizes to chose from depending on the precision you’re after, while Custom Button 1 allows you to select Focus Area and then use the D-pad to move round the frame or if you prefer, you can use the dual control dials to move the AF area left and right and up and down.
The level of body mounted controls means that A7 is quick to operate in the field, but to get the best from it, I’d recommend diving into the Custom Key Settings area of the A7’s menu to tailor the A7 to your liking. For example, straight out of the box and the control wheel allows you to adjust the ISO while shooting.
Some may like this function, but I found it all too easy to inadvertently jog this and either increase or decrease the A7’s sensitivity. I disabled this and instead set Custom Button 3 to this function, making it a much more fluid way of shooting, especially when the dual control dials and exposure compensation button are factored in.
Sony’s thankfully dropped the rather convoluted menu system used on the NEX-7 and instead providing a revised Alpha menu system, with five main tabs which offer a host of sub-menus. Another welcome update is that greyed-out settings within the menu when a particular configuration has been set are now annotated explaining why this is the case, rather than being left in the dark and trying to work out what setting might have induced this.
The A7’s electronic viewfinder’s clarity and resolution cannot be faulted, with the 3-lens optical arrangement delivering a highly corrected display. Not only that but the fast refresh rates and impressive magnification make it one of the best EVFs I’ve used, and while there will be times in extremely bright or very poorly lit conditions where a optical viewfinder may be missed, on the whole any qualms over shooting with an EVF are soon forgotten, especially when you take into account the correctly exposed preview you’re provided with.
If there are any refinements I’d like to see though, it would be a slight shortening of the pause when the camera’s raised to your eye as it does seem a little too long currently.
The rear 3in display is also excellent, with the level on contrast and clarity really impressive, while the wide dynamic range and excellent viewing angle all add to the pleasurable shooting experience. While the on-body controls are comprehensive, some may feel touch-sensitive display should be present.
Personally, I didn’t see this as a glaring omission during shooting, perhaps with the exception of being able to tap the area of the screen where you want to focus, but in playback it would have given the A7 that extra layer of operability. Being able to pinch-and-zoom while reviewing images and swiping through shots would have been preferential to jumping in to the centre of the frame at 100% when you want to look at an image in greater detail as you do on the A7.
This is a little frustrating in some instances and I would have preferred the option of gradually zooming in on a desired area. The overlaid display information is good however, with the screen being as busy or as stripped back as you’d like, while I found that virtual-horizon incredibly handy.
Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review – Image Quality
Colour and White Balance
Set to its standard colour mode and the A7 delivered no nasty surprises colour-wise, with lifelike colours that provided a pleasing punch in blue skies and greens in landscapes. There are other colour modes on tap also which can be adjusted for saturation, sharpness and contrast.
The Auto White Balance didn’t provide any nasty surprises either, with on the whole reliable colour rendition, even under artificial light sources.
The A7’s 1200-zone evaluative metering system has been used in numerous Alpha SLT cameras, so it’s quite a familiar system and in the main delivers pleasingly accurate results, whether its balanced or more challenging conditions. A handy feature is the A7’s zebra pattern display, which while intended more for video use, will provide a quick reference to areas in the frame that may see highlights blown out.
Sharing an identical resolution to the 24.3MP Nikon D610, its no surprise to see the A7 resolve detail down to the same level. Our test charts reveal the A7 is capable of resolving down to 32lpmm (lines per mm), but we’d stress to get the best out of the sensor that one of the Zeiss primes is used as the 28-70mm OSS lens doesn’t do the sensor justice and lacks ‘bite’.
Both Raw and JPEG files display no signs of image noise at lower sensitivities with excellent levels of detail. Looking at Raw files first at higher sensitivities, and the A7 performs well when compared alongside comparable files from the Nikon D610. At ISO 3200 and while luminance noise is evident, it’s very fine and detail is maintained nicely. Interestingly, our test images displayed noticeably less chroma noise than those from the D610 at this sensitivity.
Luminance noise at ISO 6400 is still very fine, with a pleasing organic look to it, while chroma noise is still controlled very well – again, results are better than those from the D610, which looses out with slightly more pronounced chroma noise and not quite the same level of detail.
JPEGs see a slight role reversal, with the D610 managing to deliver less waxy looking images at high sensitivities, with files from the A7 a little too over processed for our liking.
Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review – Verdict
The A7 is not without its faults – even with the on-chip phase-detect AF, focusing performance for moving subjects is restrictive, burst shooting is also slow, there’s the odd handling quirk, while aesthetically its not going to win any prizes, but it also does a lot of things very well.
The specification is very comprehensive, while the level of customization means you can really tailor the A7 to handle how you want. The grip is comfy and the presence of more traditional dual controls and revised menu make it much more intuitive to use than any other Sony system camera we’ve tested.
That’s not forgetting the fact that its smaller and lighter (with the exception of the A7R) than any other full frame interchangeable lens camera available, and the most affordable too.
While Sony should be applauded for offering sophisticated adapters for existing A-mount users (there are also a host of third-party offerings for other lens mounts), new users should bare in mind the relatively limited lens line-up. While the 28-70mm lens offers versatility, the optical performance doesn’t deliver the results that the sensor deserves, while the 35mm and 55mm Zeiss optics are excellent, they’re not cheap.
If you’re prepared to invest in the extra quality that these lenses provide or intend to use existing glass, you’ll be rewarded with excellent images from a camera that’s perfect for the photo enthusiast looking for a high quality but lightweight camera.
Sony Alpha 7 (A7) Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a few of our sample images captured with the Sony Alpha A7. For a full range, head on over to the Sony Alpha A7 review sample image gallery.
The full frame 24.3MP Sony Alpha 7 CSC and its sibling the Alpha 7R are perhaps the two most eagerly awaited compact system cameras of the year.
We’ve got our hands on a full production sample of the Alpha 7 and have been lucky enough to come out to the small Caribbean island of St Lucia to put it through its paces.
Yesterday was our full first day with the camera out on location, and first impressions are very good. Shooting a beautiful sunrise across the sea, and the hybrid AF system worked very well, locking on quickly without hunting – impressive considering the relatively poor light first thing. I used the Flexible Spot AF mode and its pretty easy to toggle the AF point around, while assigning the downward access point on the 4-way control dial at the rear means this can be accessed pretty quickly. Using it in this manner requires you to use the dual control dials to toggle the AF point left to right and up and down, which isn’t perhaps that intuitive way to begin with, but it becomes second nature quite quickly.
The level of customisation is incredible, with pretty much every button on the Alpha 7 allowing you to assign a custom control to it, with some buttons offering the choice of up to 49 functions. The on-demand grid lines ensure straight horizons, while the 3in pull-out screen makes it much easier to compose low-down shots. The display itself delivers a good level of contrast and punch, while the ability to drop the ISO down to 50 allowed for pleasingly long exposures desired in these situations.
3.2 sec @ f/16, ISO 50, AWB
The much more conventional control layout compared to the NEX-7 is very welcome, with the dual control dials making shooting a much more natural and intuitive process, while the exposure compensation dial falls easily to the hand. The electronic viewfinder is excellent, and along with the large and bright display offered by the Olympus OM-D E-M1, has to be one of the best I’ve used.
While the Alpha 7 will be available as a bundle with the new 28-70mm lens, I’ve been using the fixed Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 and love the combination. The compact proportions of both body and lens mean its perfect for carrying around all day, while the balance feels just right. Combine that with LEE Filters Seven5 CSC filter kit and you’ve got a very high-quality landscape kit that’s a fraction of the weight of other full frame cameras.
I’ve just been able to play around with JPEG files for now, but the level of detail and dynamic range looks good, even on the rear display. I haven’t had a chance yet to really crank-up the ISO yet, but will report back on that later.
To see more of the images I captured in St Lucia with the Sony Alpha 7, head to our online gallery.