clock menu more-arrow no yes
Sony Alpha a7 and a7r
Sony Alpha a7 and a7r

Filed under:

Sony Alpha A7 and A7R review

Sony does the supposedly impossible

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Every once in a while, a product comes along that changes the dynamic of an entire industry. The iPhone did it in 2007, the Mustang did it in 1964, and Converse did it with the All Star sneaker way back in 1917. Now, Sony is poised to upend the camera industry with the new Alpha A7 and A7R mirrorless cameras.

The A7s are the most advanced and expensive mirrorless cameras Sony has ever produced. They may look similar to the company’s line of NEX cameras, but the A7s have one significant difference: a *much* larger image sensor. Bigger sensors simply produce better pictures, and the full-frame sensor in the A7s is one of the biggest you can get in a consumer-level camera.

Of course, these aren’t the first full-frame cameras out there. But most cameras with big sensors are big and heavy and destined to spend most of their time at home. Sony’s earlier fixed-lens RX1 shifted this notion a bit: it’s a remarkably small camera with a great big sensor stuffed inside. But with a fixed lens and a price tag nearing $3,000, the RX1 made little sense for most buyers.

The new A7 and A7R are still expensive ($1,699.99 and $2,299.99, respectively) but they are significantly cheaper than the RX1. And they let you change lenses. They’re directly comparable to a full-frame DSLR such as a $1,899.99 Canon 6D or a $1,999.95 Nikon D610 — and the A7s are smaller, more portable, and much more approachable for photographers serious and amateur alike.

Most people take pictures with their smartphone (just look at the top three cameras on Flickr), but not because they take the best pictures — it’s because they’re small and portable and always with us. What if you could have a camera that has all of the flexibility and picture quality of a professional DSLR, but can fit in almost any shoulder bag? With the A7s, Sony offers just that.

Video review

Also available on YouTube.


Hardware / design

Compact concepts

The Alpha A7s are virtual twins from the outside — their name badges are their only cosmetic difference. The cameras look a lot like Sony’s NEX-7, but they’re slightly larger and have a viewfinder in the middle as opposed to on the far right. Both are solid and well built, with metal materials and big rubber grips; they feel worth their price tags. The A7 has more plastic panels than the A7R, which relies more on metal, but I didn’t notice any handling difference between the two. At just over a pound, the A7s aren’t super lightweight, but they are significantly lighter than a Canon 6D or Nikon D610 (26.7oz and 30oz, respectively). Compared to the Canon and Nikon, the A7’s 5 x 3.75 x 1.94-inch footprint is tiny. It's much easier to carry around all day, and much less intimidating to your subjects when you’re actually taking photos.

Sonya7_a7r-329-10Sonya7_a7r-329-5Sonya7_a7r-329-6Sonya7_a7r-329-7

Compared to full-frame Canon or Nikons, the a7s' footprints are tiny

Most importantly, the A7s feel good to shoot with. The rubber on the grip is easy to hang on to, even if you have sweaty hands, and there's an abundance of dials, buttons, and switches at your fingertips. I’ve criticized Sony in the past for not putting enough physical buttons and switches on its cameras, but that is not at all a problem here.

The only real design issue I have with the cameras is the electronic viewfinder. The hump atop the camera’s center adds another inch or so of height, and looks like a throwback to cameras of yesteryear. I wish the A7s had the more integrated and modern viewfinder design of the NEX-6 or NEX-7, which is tucked away neatly in the corner, leaving a flat top. Fortunately, the A7’s viewfinder is an absolute gem, with a big, bright, high-resolution display. Many traditional photographers take issue with electronic viewfinders (and rightfully so, since most have been utter crap for years), but the A7’s half-inch XGA OLED viewfinder is just as good as a traditional viewfinder to my eyes.

Sony's only real design misstep is the large viewfinder hump

If you don’t want to shoot with the viewfinder, the A7 has a 3-inch, articulating display you can feast your eyes on. It’s sharp, it’s crisp, it has great color accuracy and viewing angles, and its tiltable design makes getting pictures from unique perspectives much easier. Despite those qualities, I still found myself shooting with the viewfinder more often than not just because it is so nice to look at (especially outdoors in bright light, where it can be difficult to see the rear LCD). Call me a traditionalist, but nothing beats taking pictures through a proper viewfinder.

The A7s aren’t as retro-inspired as Fujifilm’s X-Series, but they are handsome cameras that straddle the line between modern design and nostalgic qualities well. They don’t rewrite what it means to be a camera, and that’s probably a good thing, since their design makes it easy for anyone that’s used a camera before to pick them up and go take pictures.

Sonya7_a7r-1020-16

Performance

Powerful performance

Using the A7 is a joy thanks to the intuitive control layout of its dials and switches — it didn’t take me long to learn the system and make exposure adjustments just by feel. I’m pretty familiar with Sony’s control schemes by now because I shoot regularly with Sony cameras, but the A7s are still the most intuitive ones I’ve used yet. I really like how the three-wheel setup of the NEX-7 has been reworked, with one in front and two in the back of the A7, making it much easier to switch things on the fly.

Sonya7_a7r-329-14Sonya7_a7r-329-15Sonya7_a7r-329-12

There are also two custom settings on the main mode dial that let you set up the cameras for specific shooting needs and quickly access those setups again. The mode dial features a set of fully automatic and special scene modes, including Sony’s intelligent Superior Auto mode, but the A7s perform their best in the various manual modes, and the abundance of physical controls rewards manual shooting. It’s also much more satisfying to take a fantastic picture when you’ve controlled the camera yourself instead of letting it do the work. (You can call me a traditionalist here, too.)

The A7s are fast thanks to a new processor and I didn’t experience any wait times or lag when the camera was writing data to its SD card, or when turning the camera on from sleep mode. Scrolling through images I had already taken was fast and snappy as well. Both cameras are quite loud in operation, which makes them less than ideal for taking pictures in quiet environments. The A7R’s shutter is significantly louder and more obnoxious than the A7’s, and sounds it as if it’s breaking apart inside the camera every time you snap a frame. It’s not a comforting feeling to get from a $2,300 camera. Also, carrying a spare battery is almost a necessity since the battery dies after only a few hundred shots. As with other recent Sony cameras, the A7s require that you charge them through the Micro USB port, which is slow and not very convenient when I want to use the camera and charge a second battery at the same time.

The 24-megapixel A7 is ever so slightly faster in burst mode than the 36-megapixel A7R, but their 5-frames-per second and 4-frames-per-second maximum burst speeds won’t impress any sports photographers. Neither will their pokey autofocus, which is the most disappointing part of both cameras. The A7 features a hybrid contrast- and phase-detect autofocus system, while the A7R relies solely on a contrast-detection system. That makes the A7 faster to focus, but neither is exactly quick; most modern DSLRs will run circles around them. I also noticed that the autofocus systems tended to miss focus quite often, forcing me to take a series of shots in hopes that at least one of them would be in focus. Fortunately, Sony has an excellent manual focus system with peaking features (the areas in focus blink in the viewfinder) that’s very easy to use.

I like that the A7s have built-in Wi-Fi and NFC, and can be paired to Android and iOS smartphones. Sony has apps available that let you wirelessly transfer images from the camera directly to your smartphone or use your smartphone as a remote viewfinder. I love being able to quickly transfer images to my phone for instant sharing with friends and family and the bragging rights that come with posting a photo to Instagram that just can’t possibly be from a smartphone.

Sonya7_a7r-680-13
Lens ecosystem

Through the lens

The defining thing that separates the A7 and A7R from the earlier RX1 is the ability to change lenses. The A7s use a version of Sony’s E-mount, which accepts the new FE full-frame compatible lenses as well as the older E-mount lenses designed for Sony’s smaller-sensor NEX cameras. Unfortunately, the selection of FE lenses is extremely limited right now, though Sony says that it will be rapidly expanding it.

Lens options are extremely limited (and expensive) right now

I tested the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS zoom, the Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8, and the Carl Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lenses on both cameras. The zoom is available for purchase in a kit with the A7 for $300 more than the body alone (or on its own for $499.99), and it’s not nearly as impressive as the camera itself. It’s not particularly bright, it takes forever to focus, it’s all plastic, it’s massive, and the zoom ring isn’t very smooth. On the upside, it does have image stabilization and the pictures it produces do look pretty good (the ones that are in focus, that is). If you are considering the A7 at all, you should probably get the kit with the lens.

Sonya7_a7r-850-8

While the zoom lens is acceptable, the A7s really come alive when they have a fast prime lens attached. The 35mm lens, which sells for $799.99, is remarkably compact and is sharp even when the aperture is opened all the way up. It’s also much quicker to focus than the zoom and has a much nicer feel thanks to its all-metal build.

Likewise, the 55mm lens ($999.99) is bright (it lets in even more light), quick to focus, and produces great images in difficult light. It’s about twice as long physically as the 35mm, however, so it makes it more difficult to just throw the camera in my shoulder bag on my way out the door. I also prefer the wider field of view of a 35mm lens, which lets me capture both my daughter playing in front of our Christmas tree and the tree itself. The tighter 55mm lens is usable for portraits, though dedicated portrait photographers will likely want something even longer.

Sony has a Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS lens planned for early next year (it sounds promising but won’t be cheap at $1,199.99), but the system is still lacking any sort of long telephoto lens. That pretty much rules the A7 cameras out for sports and wildlife photography. It is possible to mount Sony’s NEX lenses on the A7 cameras, but you lose a significant amount of resolution when you do (the A7 cuts down to 10-megapixels, while the A7R goes down to 15 megapixels with an NEX lens). Sony also offers $199.99 (manual focus) and $349.99 (autofocus) adapters to mount Alpha DSLR lenses to the A7s, but those add a significant amount of bulk to the package.

Note: A Sony representative reached out to me after this review was published to let me know that a Sony G 70-200 f/4 OSS zoom lens is also planned for the A7 and A7R, which addresses the lack of a long telephoto lens. It will be available next March for $1,499.99.

Image quality

The big picture

Dsc01560_329

Dsc01360_329

The full-frame sensors on the A7 and A7R are able to capture so much more light than smaller sensors, I found myself blown away time and again. Both cameras can shoot up to ISO 25,600 when necessary and images up to ISO 6400 are virtually free of noise and grain. Dynamic range is incredible, and the depth-of-field control offered by the bigger sensor is something I wish my smaller-sensor mirrorless camera could match. It’s incredibly easy to separate your subject from the background with the A7s and a fast lens, and that can even be accomplished with the slower zoom lens. The A7s produce the kind of image quality you used to need a heavy, bulky pro DSLR and expensive lenses to obtain, all in a package that can easily fit in my bag.

Dsc07406_329

Dsc07375_329

The 24-megapixel A7 is ever so slightly better at high ISOs than the higher megapixel A7R, but I found it hard tell the difference between the two. The A7 does tend to over-process high ISO images, leaving behind ugly JPEG artifacts that are noticeable if you look closely. They aren’t a problem in many situations and are completely a non-issue if you shoot RAW. The 36-megapixel images from the A7R do offer a bit more room for cropping after the fact, but the A7’s 24 megapixels are more than enough for me and most other non-pro shooters. Studio pros will want to pony up the extra money for the A7R, but the rest of us can put the $600 saved towards adding another lens to our collection.

The a7s produce the kind of image quality you used to need a heavy, bulky pro DSLR and expensive lenses to obtain

The A7s also shoot smooth 1080p video at either 60 or 24 frames per second that rivals comparably priced DSLRs. Pro videographers will appreciate the uncompressed HDMI output option to record to external drives as well as the built-in headphone and external microphone jacks.

At the end of the day, the A7s give you confidence. Confidence that you can get the picture you want even in difficult lighting. Confidence that you can carry around with you everywhere and not leave at home because it’s just too big and heavy. Confidence that you won’t miss those golden photo opportunities because your phone just can’t cut it.

At the end of my review of the Sony RX1, I said all that we need now was a full-frame mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses and the DSLR could be left behind. The a7 and a7R are those cameras, and for most people and most uses, they easily replace a DSLR.

Like the RX1, the a7s aren’t without their faults, namely a poor autofocus system, poor battery life, still fairly high price tag, and very limited lens options. But they are just the start, the first of a breed of camera that is sure to be the nail in the DSLR’s reflex mirror. Many photographers might hesitate to jump ship right away — the a7s aren’t ideal for sports photography and other specific disciplines — but once Sony builds out the lens options and improves the autofocus, it’ll be all but over.

Just like the first iPhone that didn’t have copy and paste, the first Mustang that didn’t have basics such as reverse lights, and the first Converse All Stars that didn’t even have Chuck Taylor’s signature on them, the first full-frame interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras are by no means perfect. But they are so much more advanced in both design and performance than other cameras that they already belong in the conversation.

The original goal for Micro Four Thirds cameras was to take the DSLR’s crown and provide a more portable interchangeable lens camera with the best image quality. In effect, Sony has taken up that mantle, taken the concept even further, and aimed right at the big players in the photography industry, much in the same way the iPhone went right after the incumbent smartphone makers of 2007. It might be a few years before we realize it, but when the DSLR is relegated to a niche status among specialty photographers and full-frame mirrorless cameras dominate the market, we’ll have the a7s to thank as the cameras that started it all.

At the end of my review of the Sony RX1, I said all that we need now was a full-frame mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses and the DSLR could be left behind. The a7 and a7R are those cameras, and for most people and most uses, they easily replace a DSLR.

Like the RX1, the a7s aren’t without their faults, namely a poor autofocus system, poor battery life, still fairly high price tag, and very limited lens options. But they are just the start, the first of a breed of camera that is sure to be the nail in the DSLR’s reflex mirror. Many photographers might hesitate to jump ship right away — the a7s aren’t ideal for sports photography and other specific disciplines — but once Sony builds out the lens options and improves the autofocus, it’ll be all but over.

Just like the first iPhone that didn’t have copy and paste, the first Mustang that didn’t have basics such as reverse lights, and the first Converse All Stars that didn’t even have Chuck Taylor’s signature on them, the first full-frame interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras are by no means perfect. But they are so much more advanced in both design and performance than other cameras that they already belong in the conversation.

The original goal for Micro Four Thirds cameras was to take the DSLR’s crown and provide a more portable interchangeable lens camera with the best image quality. In effect, Sony has taken up that mantle, taken the concept even further, and aimed right at the big players in the photography industry, much in the same way the iPhone went right after the incumbent smartphone makers of 2007. It might be a few years before we realize it, but when the DSLR is relegated to a niche status among specialty photographers and full-frame mirrorless cameras dominate the market, we’ll have the a7s to thank as the cameras that started it all.

Google

How to get more space in your Google storage

Google

The Verge guide to Android

Reviews

Best cheap laptop 2021

View all stories in Reviews