On release day I picked up a Sony A7r. I've been looking forward to this camera for a long time and when the specs were released a few months ago I couldn't wait to try one out. I spent hours in November reading all the different websites that were sent pre-release models of this camera for review. And when I got tired of reading...I went to Youtube and watched videos of folks that were sent pre-release models of this camera for review. Though usually within an hour I was somehow led thru a tangled web of "Similar Videos" to watching some redneck nearly melting his face off with a homemade firework at his dining room table.
Lets be clear on one thing. This is not a "product review". You will not see "out of camera" jpegs. Everything was shot raw and everything you see has been processed in Lightroom. You will learn why this is the camera for you. You will learn why this is not the camera for you. You will not see ISO comparisons because I don't shoot over ISO 1600 for the most part and there is no camera I've seen that has excellent looking images at any ISO over 1600. There are some impressive ones (about the only good thing the Nikon DF has going for it), but until cameras can shoot at ISO 8000 with current ISO 800 noise, you're not going to impress me, just personal preference here.
On December 2nd the day arrived to unbox my A7r. Bought locally at Jumbo Electronics at the Mall of the Emirates and it came with a leather case and a 8GB 94Mb/s SD card. I haven't shot on SD cards for a while...when did these things get so damn fast? Wow.
If you've ever shot or even held a Sony RX1, you can rest assure that the A7r's build quality is just like it. The grip is nice, the magnesium body looks and feels amazing. I've read a few places about it being too small. It's a compact camera numb nuts...it's supposed to be small.....that's the damn point of it.
Lets get this thing charged up.
The A7 and A7r use the Sony NEX NPFW50 batteries. The battery is small which results in less than ideal battery life and the charger is internal via micro-USB and takes HOURS to charge. Quit bitching about it and go buy another battery. And while you're at it, go buy an external battery charger so you don't have to wait 4 hours for this thing to charge. Shame on you Sony for not including an external battery charger for a camera targeted more towards the prosumer/professional market. But I got over it and ordered an external charger and a spare battery. With that being said...I've taken the camera out and shot all day with it and did this on one charge. You couldn't shoot a full wedding on that, but most people aren't taking more than 300 pictures a day. It'll do you just fine and the micro-USB charger port is quite handy for charging on the go. And honestly, I'll take the small light battery and carry a spare over increasing the size and weight of this camera ANY DAY!
One of the great thing about this camera is the ability to use a huge amount of lenses. Damn near every popular mount has a "to e-mount" adapter out there. This is great news for those of us who have a fair amount invested in glass from the likes of Canon or Nikon. Sony makes adapters for their A-Mount lenses, Fotasy, Fotodiox and RainbowImaging adapters can be found on Amazon for Leica M-Mount, Nikon and Canon mount. Metabones makes an adapter that keeps communication between EOS lenses and the camera which enables AF (though about as slow as using LiveView on a Canon DSLR) and keeps lens data in the EXIF intact and most importantly allows you to change the aperture in camera on EOS lenses without an aperture ring. Don't confuse their speedbooster with the adapter however.
So why is this a big deal?
Well for starters, Sony only released 3 full frame lenses (Sony/Zeiss FE lenses). One is a 28-70mm kit lens that is only sold with the Sony A7. The second is a 35mm/2.8 and last is a 55mm/1.8. I haven't had a chance to try out the 55mm as it was just released a few days ago and is inbound. This naturally gave Sony a bit of bad press. The reviews of both the 35 and 55 as well as my own experience with the 35mm are very positive. The rendering, colors, size, weight are all great.
Secondly, vintage lenses are amazing. The are mostly all manual focus (depending on how old you refer to as "vintage"). The build quality is arguably better than any of today's lenses. And they simply "feel" great. And because there's a chance you or your parents have a ton of them lying around collecting dust. Almost every lens I've been using aside from the FE35mm has been a manual focus lens , but if you feel intimidated by manual focusing, or plan on shooting things where you'll really benefit from auto-focus then consider the A7 with it's improved phase detection AF system. When using manual focus you have two things to assist you.
Focus peaking works pretty good and the focus zoom works great (if the button is changed to something more convenient than the default, more on this later). You'll be surprised on how quickly you can focus manually with focus peaking turned on. I found myself slowly over the past month moving away from it and strictly using focus zoom. With focus peaking you can pick it's sensitivity as well as choose between white, yellow and red highlight colors.
If you feel pretty well versed with manual focusing my suggestion is go into the settings menu and change your C1 button to focus zoom. One click brings up a small rectangle on screen. You can move this if you'd like. Second click zooms in 7% and third click zooms 14.4%. Either pressing C1 the fourth time or half pressing the shutter will bring the view back to normal. You can also enable focus assist in the menu which automatically zooms when you start manually focusing. I was not a fan of this so I disabled it.
Now, don't get me wrong, I would love to have a faster AF 35mm lens come from Sony instead of the 2.8 (F2 even!). My other 35mm prime is the absolutely amazing Sigma 35mm/1.4 which I can not say enough good about. 2.8 is a bit slow for a prime, but one thing this lens does bring to the party is weather sealing and it's small and light. The Sigma is far from all three of those. The Sony overall is a great lens and I recommend it if you want a good 35mm with auto-focus.
What about all them megapixles?
You can browse the interweb yourself and read the dozens of reviews with full size photos and some with raw files available (stay clear of youtube.....trust me). Here's a quick 100% crop of a fountain horse. This was shot with the Canon FD 35mm/1.4 wide open (F/1.4) handheld at 1/80th at ISO 100. No...unless you're printing huge you don't need this many megapixels...that's a fact. But people said the same thing with the 100Mhz Pentium processor. As technology progresses so will the megapixels as the companies like to use it as a marketing tactic. Storage space has dropped in price exponentially over the years, so you can actually store more photos at today's photo resolution size per dollar than you could 13 years ago when we were at 3 megapixels. Embrace the megapixel overlords!
Cool things not mentioned enough in reviews
Customizable Menus and Buttons
By default the spin wheel on the back of the camera set to change ISO. I found it very easy to accidentally turn and was often in some other ISO than I had set just a few minutes prior. So I changed it and disabled it. The C1 button is next to the shutter...since I manually focus a lot and use focus zoom I set C1 to do this. Not only are the three custom (C#) buttons customizable but damn near every one of the buttons on the back of the camera you can set to do whatever you want. Some of the high end DSLR's have lots of customization, but nothing like this. Don't like the layout of the quick menu? You can change that too to have everything YOU want access to at the click of a button.
If you're like me your camera is often set on some sort of selective point auto-focus. Sony has this neat technology that works amazingly well called Eye-AF. You can leave your camera set in whatever focus mode you're already using, and at the press of a button, it focuses on your subjects eyes when using an auto-focus lens. And it works really damn good! No more having to move your spot focus around or focus and recompose. Just hold the button down (also customizable, so if you don't like it...you can set the center wheel button to something else) and viola.
Electronic View Finder (EVF)
It's fantastic! One of the biggest things I see people bitching about is the EVF's on a lot of mirror-less cameras. And I'll be honest...I'm not fond of the EVF on my Fuji x100s. If I'm going to hold my eye up to the camera on the Fuji I'll use the regular viewfinder and never turn the EVF on. The A7r however is a totally different ball game. The refresh doesn't feel all laggy like all other EVF's I've seen, it's crisp, it's customizable as well and while I've never been a fan of the EVF, I now see what they are capable of and Sony I feel has set the standard or at least my expectation. It takes a little getting used to, only because it's different.
So why is it not for me?
For starters, there is no flash. If this is important to you, then this alone is reason not to get this camera. There are other cameras out there for you.
It doesn't look like a cool "professional looking" DSLR (and isn't quite as sexy as the x100). Perception as I mentioned in my article The DSLR lives on is still in the minds of many that DSLR's are what pros use. And some people want that look. You laugh, but I swear to you, I've heard people say that when I'd ask them why they want a DSLR when they would ask for advice.
No good "zoom" lens. Non-photographers (pro and amateur) types really like zoom lenses (and there are plenty of pros and hobbyists that like zooms too, lets not turn this into a zoom vs prime). They don't understand background compression or distortion. People see something cool and want to take a picture of it. This is what happens when that guy at work comes showing you his pictures and you simply smile and nod. A shitty picture of a sunset on a beach in Hawaii reminds him/her of how amazing that sunset on the beach was. When I explain to someone I'm shooting with an whatever millimeter prime their natural response is "well mine zooms to 250mm's". It's a selling point and it makes life easier for point and shoot type of folks.
This camera was made for the pro-sumer market. Even though it has the green square "auto everything" mode on the dial, that's not really the target audience. The mode is there to sell cameras, so someone doesn't take it home and is unable to take pictures with it.
This camera, like all others, is a tool. It maybe exactly what you're looking for. It might not be for you. Know what you want to do with a camera? Look at your pictures on your phone....that's probably the stuff you're going to be shooting once you have a camera. It won't make your shitty pictures better. It won't make your good pictures better. The bottom line is the A7/A7r are VERY capable cameras and I'm absolutely thrilled since moving over from the Canon DSLR's I've shot with for nearly the past decade. Sony has never been a big (as big) player, like Nikon or Canon in the photography world. They make some great products, but they tend to do stupid things like proprietary hardware, format or memory (you know where you can shove that memory stick). They've done so many firsts like the Walkman, Camcorder, CD Player, E-book player, hell, even the first transistor radio. They are the reason we're using BluRays. And now we have the first mirror-less, fullframe compact camera. And before the Leica crowd gets their panties in a bunch....if a year ago (or even 2 months ago) someone referred to your $7000 M9 as a compact camera, would you not correct them "Errrhmm...excuse me, but it's a raaannnge finderrrrr"? But now all of a sudden, the Leica crown claims it was the first fullframe compact camera.
Have a Merry Christmas!