Tempted by the Sony A7r

Yes, because of some irrational lust, full 35mm sensor size keeps tempting me! I know I don´t need it but...

Speaking of Sony, a year and half ago I tried Sony NEX 7. The files were nice but there was not much more to it. I did not even write about it. Half a year ago, in May, I wrote about my reality check with Nikon D800E. Now I am going to write about Sony A7R.

My blog on Nikon D800E and EM-5 turned out to be quite controversial, as expected. Maybe I wrote badly or maybe some people got so agitated that they didn´t understand what they read? I never said that Olympus E-M5 has better sensor specs than Nikon D800E. On the contrary. But really, what I wrote about was about my needs for a camera. Even it was intolerable for many Nikonians. Some wrote that comparisons based on somebody´s needs are stupid. All tests should be objective. Sure. Dream on.

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So, here we go again, Sony reflected through my usage of Olympus OM-D…

I had Sony´s brand new A7R with Sony´s brand new, Zeiss branded, FE 55mm F1.8 lens for a day. Both were 0.9 pre-production samples. I must say it´s a beautiful tool for pure photography. Now, Nikon had this long teaser campaign for their new DSLR, the Nikon Df. They used the saying "pure photography" to describe it. What an utter BS! In my mind Nikon did Hasselblad Lunars with Df. An ordinary DSLR coated into a fancy cupcake of dials everywhere. Confusing, not pure.

But Sony A7R (or Alpha 7R) is pure, it is very simplistic by design, an easy to use tool. It has all the dials and buttons you need and nothing else. It has the same great sensor as Nikon D800E and according to DxOMark.com these two have the best image quality measurements there are for any FF size digital camera. Unlike many others, I think what DxOMark shows has it absolutely right. But, mind you, it only shows what it shows, nothing else. And don´t read the scores, compare the measurements.

You really can´t compare D800E and A7R objectively as cameras because they are so different. They are suited for completely different needs. While their DxOMark scores are equal, these cameras best each other easily in so many ways. One of the biggest drawback with D800E for me was size and weight. With A7R this drawback has vanished. Body by body it has practically the same size as Olympus OM-Ds have.

This comparison of OM-D E-M1 and Sony A7r is from Camerasize.com

This comparison of OM-D E-M1 and Sony A7r is from Camerasize.com

While camera bodies are almost equal by size and weight, lenses are not. Olympus´ mFT sensor requires much smaller lenses than Sony´s 35mm sensor. If we think only about the optics (the actual lens elements) inside the lens, mFT optics needs merely 1/8 of the volume (and weight) of similar 35mm optics. Lens barrels with mechanics evens it out slightly but the reality is that the more lenses you have the bigger and heavier will your Sony bag become compared to your Olympus bag. Already the FE 55mm F1.8 lens is markedly longer than e.g. M.Zuiko 75mm F1.8 lens.

That´s why I would like to have my Sony just with two lenses, a 35mm lens and an 85 mm lens. There is already a Sonnar type, Zeiss branded, FE 35mm F2.8 lens for A7R but no information about when there will be a lens at roughly 85mm (or maybe slightly longer) focal length. Thinking about lens speeds F2.8 would be very suitable for me for a 35mm lens, but the 85mm lens should be preferably twice as fast.

Sony A7R in practise

If we start "practise" with E-M1 and A7R as measured by DxOMark.com, it is easy to see that A7R is better by roughly two stops or maybe slightly less. E-M1 at ISO 200 and A7R at ISO 800 are roughly equal. That´s pretty much what can be seen also when RAW images are opened in Lightroom 5.3 (RC). At ISOs 100-200 the A7R has by far the better image quality than can be had from E-M1. And that range is the only area where I am interested in in A7R. Actually A7R loses compared to OM-Ds when it is forced (because of dim light) into high ISOs. Namely, OM-Ds can stay at ISO 200 for handheld shots up to the situation where A7R is forced to go up to 3200 (EM-5) or 6400 (E-M1) with same field of view and depth of field in each image. Crazy? No, tried and true, and and actually a quite conservative statement in the benefit of A7R.

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The screenshot above from Lightroom Grid view shows my ability (or lack of it) for sharp images at 1/60 seconds with A7R and 55mm lens. Green thumbnails show sharp images and red ones are shaken. Doesn´t look promising. With E-M1 I can have an almost all green field at 1/6 seconds with the same field of view. There are three possible explanations for so many shaken images with A7R. The first being of course me. The other ones are A7R´s mushy shutter button and noisy shutter. Actually there was only two things I did not actually like in A7R, the first being the shutter button which has no feel to it. You just have to press and press and then somewhere along the way it releases the shutter. Also it was very difficult to find the point where to raise the button up for another shot while keeping the same auto-settings. The shutter is very noisy and it sounds like some spring-loaded mechanism going on. I don´t mind the noise but maybe the shutter in this pre-production body was not up to final standard? This remains to be seen. The result for me was that 1/125 seconds is the slowest shutter speed I can comfortably use with A7R and 55mm lens. With the dim light conditions here in Finland during winter months there would not be too many shooting situations for me with the A7R. If I was looking for better handheld image quality than what I can have from E-M1, that is.

Brilliant image quality at low ISOs

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As an example of the brilliant quality available from this combination is this image. It is shot the lens wide open, @ f/1.8, ISO 100. RAW file was opened in Lightroom 5.3 (RC) and has my normal tweaks. Crops from center and farthest upper right corner are 100%. Sharpness and contrast drop only for an amazingly tiny area in the corner. Very impressive.

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Caravan shot is @ f/4.0, ISO 100. With f/4.0 depth of field does not really cover the caravan and shutter speed was already 1/80 seconds. Tripod anyone?

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This Sonnar type design gives a very smooth and peaceful bokeh. Here @ f/2.2. Single highlight spots are almost perfect circles.

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At the the other side of this retrofocus design is quite visible longitudinal chromatic aberration always when you go for shallow DOF. Magenta fringes in front of focusing point and green ones behind it. It is correctable with the Defringe tool in Lightroom. This was the only negative thing I saw coming from the lens.

In hand

I liked shooting with A7R in general. I said above that there were two details I did not like and the first one was shutter button. The other was placement of +/- esposure compensation dial. To rotate it I needed to change the position of my right hand. That´s not how it should be. The two dials and AF-lock button were perfect. The camera and lens were nice to carry with wrist strap. The balance and weight are great. Viewfinder is very good but E-M1 has slightly better: bigger, sharper (ocular lenses!) and I can see the corners with my varifocal glasses at one sight. I had big concern about exposure accuracy with A7R. I am so used to Olympus´ blinkies and the exact exposure determination which they make possible. Now it was back to histogram and judging EVF again. Mostly my corrections were in the range of 0EV to 1EV with some ranging from -1.3EV to 1.7EV. I was really surprised to see how evenly I managed to get it. Very small exposure compensations were needed in Lightroom. This shows how good and nicely balanced the EVF in A7R is. 

The A7R has has very little grip surface, almost all of camera is bare metal. This is because of getting heat out of sensor and the small camera. A7R is on the cramped side to be used with gloves on, EM-1 is far better with gloves. Without gloves metal surface feels quite cold here at a few degrees above freezing point. Right hand finger tips are all the time in touch with metal if the camera is carried with wrist strap. A quick fix with duct tape helps there.

More on details of this camera can be read for example at dpreview.com.

All in all

I wanted to love A7R, and it is still quite tempting, but I simply need my depth of field. No image stabilization and bigger sensor leads into a lot higher ISOs than I am now using with E-M1. Down the drain goes the benefits of bigger sensor. I have said that mFT sensor size with Olympus 5-axis IBIS and the most exact exposure determination in the world makes the Golden Compromise (TM). At least it is so for me. Now, here... Perhaps I should move somewhere where the sun is always shining and light is plenty. I spent all my professional career with large and medium format cameras and huge tripods. I am not moving back there. So, let´s see. I will re-visit the A7R when they have a production body and production FE 35mm F2.8 lens. Maybe it is summer and more light by then...