Half a year ago I tried Sony Alpha 7R for the first time. My interest in this camera stem from its 36 megapixel sensor and a compact body for a 35mm sensor size. What I thought about it then can be read in my blog from last November. At that time body and lens were still preproduction samples. Some weeks ago I took another look at A7R with production samples and this time I had it for two weeks. Another reason for this second test was the availability of Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* labeled Sony FE 35mm F2.8 ZA lens. This lens is designed and manufactured by Sony with Zeiss set quality parameters.
My wish for A7R is to have a camera which would give me the best hand held resolution in big exhibition prints. If I was looking for a camera to be used on tripod I would go for something else, like a small view camera or Alpa with the best digital back. I am comparing here to Olympus E-M1 simply because I really wanted to know where A7R would be of advantage.
Both the body and the 35mm lens have by now been reviewed at many sites across the web. E.g. Dpreview.com has tested both body and lens, Photozone.de has tested the lens on this body and DxOMark.com has again tested both body and lens. Because of this I won´t go into every detail and specification and omit here everything I was not interested in.
A7R has provoked also some issues which have been discussed at internet forums: Shutter shock, light leakage and Sony´s compressed (11-bit) RAW file. Maybe there are more but at least these have been discussed. As I was shooting with 35mm lens hand held, I did not run into the area of shocking shutter mentioned in these discussions: short tele on tripod. I did not notice shutter shock issues. I did not shoot in conditions where light leakage is said to be seen: long exposures. I did not notice it. A compressed and lossy RAW file is something I would not like to have. While I can bring those issues up at contrasty edges with heavy tweaking, they were not visible in normally processed (LR 5.4) prints (Epson 9900). So, I did not go digging for problems, I just shot pictures.
Touch and feel
Like said in my previous blog on A7R, I liked shooting with it. Only now not as much as I remembered from half a year ago. The main reason for this is Olympus E-M1, which I have used a lot by now. E-M1 is so much more responsive in everything giving A7R a sluggish feel after it. It all starts with turning the camera on. While E-M1 is ready practically instantly, A7R takes its time. This is the most notable difference but the same trend goes through everything I did with either camera. From previous preproduction body, the shutter releasing has now been vastly improved. It is a lot smoother and more predictive. Where I had problems was raising shutter button back halfway up without letting focusing or exposure change. It is easy and a lot used with E-M1 but turned out to be almost impossible for me with A7R.
EVF in E-M1 is better both in bright sunshine and dark interiors. The first is because of E-M1´s automatic adaptation to ambient light. A7R´s EVF can be set quite bright but not like E-M1, and then it is too bright in lesser light. Secondly it has more noise when there is less light. E-M1 has again shorter viewfinder lag.
With A7R one has to work more patiently and not try to be faster than the camera processor allows.
During my previous time with A7R I did not realise that zebra is usable also with still photography. Zebra is adjustable in A7R and it makes Sony the second camera maker to my knowledge which has an excellent light metering system shown in EVF. Compared to Olympus orange/blue colors, zebra shows single channel saturation better. On the other hand it is more difficult to judge smaller areas with zebra, because zebra, like the name says, is shown as moving stripes. And then, of course, Olympus has nothing compared to zebra for video shooting. All in all my exposures with A7R were spot on when RAW files were opened in Lightroom, thanks to zebra.
FE 35mm F2.8
This 35mm lens felt to be a perfect compromize in use. Slower speed makes it smaller than most lenses of same focal length for 35mm cameras. It really makes great a combination with A7R by size and the total feel in use.
Even with moderate speed such a small lens design leads into vignetting as examples below show. Vignetting is strongest at largest aperture and it is always seen unless subject matter fades it. (These images are shot at camera´s automatic exposure setting and there were no other tweaks in Lightroom)
Distortion is not of regular ball shape and it is luckily corrected quite well with Lightroom lens profile. For landscape work there is no need to have distortion correction on most of the time. With buildings the lens profile makes life easy.
Bokeh is average and out of focus highlights show the shape of seven bladed diaphragm already at f/4.
Resolution from this lens - body combination is excellent for prints up to A1 size at every aperture up to f/11 over the whole frame. Only corners at f/2.8 may show how big the difference between center and corners actually is. Center of image is outstandingly sharp.
A Lightroom or Sony RAW Problem?
When you click on the image below, you can see how Lightroom shows jaggies with some of the fence lines. The crop is 200%. Out-of-camera JPEG doesn´t have this problem. The problem does not exist against neutral, blue or green background, only against reds, oranges and yellows. Those jaggies can be seen in A1 prints and they actually are irritating for a perfectionist like me. I can´t help seeing them... People who did not know to look for them did not notice them at all. At print sizes A2 and below jaggies are too small to be seen. Also in the detail of image above you can see some jaggies. They can´t be seen in A1 print with naked eye.
Prints and details
I printed quite a few images at sizes up to A1 and compared them to E-M1 prints. Side by side A7R shows more details if the image has lots of very small details, especially in central area. Still, the difference over the frame is surprisingly small and people whom I asked just "what´s the difference" never told A7R and E-M1 prints being different because of details. It was always something else based on various personal preferences. With many subjects there is nothing to show any difference at all.
Theoretically, on sensor level, A7R has a 50% linear resolution advantage over E-M1. For camera/lens combination, Photozone.de figures show it (with this 35mm lens) having at best an 20% advantage over the height of landscape image compared to Panasonic GX1 with Olympus 12-40mm PRO Zoom lens at 17mm focal length. And GX1 has an AA filter while E-M1 has none. With E-M1 we really are ending up with a very small difference, especially if we look over the width of a landscape image, not just image center. Note: Comparing MTF numbers of two camera-lens combinations is actually not this simple. There are many factors which affect MTF results. Also Imatest MTF50 tells only about the ability to shoot a flat paper target. Real subjects have so many other and diverse qualities.
Beyond small details (and above mentioned jaggies) there really is no other factors I could say giving A7R or E-M1 prints any advantage above each other.
In my earlier comparison with Nikon D800E and Olympus E-M5 I gave some studio examples to be printed. Try them out, they are the harshest differencies in favor of megapixels you can think of. With real subjects many other things affect a lot.
Am I shaky or what?
In my previous test with A7R I was schocked to realize how long exposure times I had to use to get really sharp (pixel level sharp) images with A7R and 50mm lens. Now with 35mm lens and the new smoother feeling shutter actuation my sharpness procent at 1/30 seconds is merely 22%. Roughly one in five! By sharp I mean here sharp at pixel level, no shakiness at 100% level. With E-M1, IBIS and 17mm focal length I can do better at 1/3 seconds. That´s over 3EV steps. Naturally I can´t blame A7R here, it´s me and the camera. Worse still, the difference in favor of E-M1 grows when my shooting position is compromised in any way.
The only way to beat this difference in shutter speed abilities would be rising ISO in A7R. Sadly the limit to rise without getting more noise is here just one 1EV, as can be seen also in above linked dpreview.com comparison chart.
Making a compromize
I have been looking for more hand held megapixels in the meaning of details from Nikon D800E and Sony A7R. With both I can have more megapixels, but more actual details only under limited circumstances for various reasons. With Sony one of those reasons is also their limited set of lenses. My reference of quality is prints at size A1 and I have found that small gains in details against bigger losses in usability and usable circumstances (subject, light level) are not worth having another set of cameras and lenses. There are so many things one can wish for, sadly one may run into more problems when a wish comes true... Shooting with view cameras has been my bread and butter, benefits and problems of this kind of work are so well known for me, maybe I should not look anywhere else if I really want to go for big landscapes?