As a long-time Canon shooter I can admit, it’s hard to entertain the notion of changing gear. Not so much because of the tools themselves, but because of the investment and overall familiarity. Yet in the search to locate the ideal full-frame upgrade that best suits my interests, I wanted to try something a little different from the equipment I’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
As one content to watch the mirrorless revolution from afar, it was time to see what I might be missing. Having wanted to try the Sony Alpha a7R mirrorless full-frame for some time, I decided to call on my friends at LensRentals.com and lease a package to see if it might be a good fit. Here’s a list of the gear used in this article for those interested:
- Sony Alpha a7R
- VG-C1EM Battery Grip
- Sony 35mm f/2.8 ZA Sonnar
- Metabones Canon EF Lens to Sony NEX Camera Smart Adapter II
- Sony NEX camera to Leica M Lens adapter
- Leica f/3.8 18mm Super-Elmar M wide-angle lens
- SanDisk 32GB Extreme Pro UHS-1 SDHC memory card.
Controls – In a Nutshell
The controls on the a7R are pretty straight-forward. There are two recessed jog wheels on top allowing quick thumb-and-forefinger aperture and shutter control, with a third well-placed wheel (also on top) dedicated to 3-stop exposure compensation.
Another jog wheel on the back of the camera spins to adjust ISO on the fly and shooting modes are accessible with a click. No touchscreen, but the screen tilts conveniently for easy framing. The on-board menu is intuitive and easy to navigate.
Users can choose between full-frame or APS-C shooting modes, a nice feature when shooting with adaptable APS-C lenses. The a7R does not have on-board timelapse, but there is an app available for download that handles this task nicely.
Tethered shooting is also possible via Sony’s free software download. As far as video, the a7R captures 24 and 60 fps video at full 1080 resolution with the option of uncompressed HD video output. XLR audio is available via adapter and the hotshoe is adaptable to most outside flash manufacturers.
No optical viewfinder means total dependence on the rear display or by using the 2.4M-Dot OLED electronic viewfinder, giving users a large live preview of what the sensor sees with 100% frame coverage. The tiltable 3.0″ 1,229K-dot rear LCD adjusts for easy framing at varying elevations.
The VG-C1EM Battery Grip is a must. With the grip attached, the camera feels right and the vertical controls are well positioned. Every knob, wheel and button on the camera and grip alike has a precision feel and provides solid feedback in the field. With two batteries in the grip chamber, I was able to shoot 36mp raw stills all day (or night) with plenty of battery to spare.
The a7R display gives a readout of each battery’s current power status, indicating which battery needs to be charged. The corresponding number on the battery sleeve makes it a breeze to identify which battery to replace when time is short.
A battery comes with the grip as part of the lease so you’re good to go there, but if you’re planning to shoot video or timelapse you might consider picking up a few extra batteries as well.
Small is the New Big
This camera is small. I mean very small. My crop-sensor Canon looks like a medium format giant comparatively. Any smaller and this camera would be hard to handle without a housing or steadicam. A lightweight (or mid-weight) tripod with a suitable L-bracket would be the ideal permanent residence for this camera. In the image below we can see why, this thing is unapologetically all sensor.
Sony’s 36.4-megapixel EXMOR CMOS sensor and upgraded BIONZ X processing engine combine to reproduce a fine, natural detail with diffraction reduction to combat the soft edging that can occur when shooting at smaller apertures.
Improved area-specific noise reduction divides an image into zones and applies a native adjustment for each specific area. The low-pass filter has been removed for added sharpness and deeper clarity and the list goes on and on.
This camera was clearly designed as an ultimate stills shooter and placed in the most compact package available. The bar has officially been raised and the competition most definitely has their work cut out for them.
Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA Sonnar
One downside is that only five lenses are currently available from Sony that are fully compatible with the a7 full-frame system. E-mount NEX glass will work, just not at full-frame. Alpha full-frame lenses can be attached and used with success via adapter. This should change next year as more Alpha FE full-frame lenses are slated to hit the market.
For the time being, I decided to try out Sony’s (Zeiss-made) 35mm f/2.8 ZA Sonnar glass and man was it fast. I regrettably didn’t get to use this lens much, but did want to try a factory lens to contrast with the manually-focused lenses I would primarily be using. The Sonnar 35 is incredibly compact and lightweight, focus is lightning quick and tack sharp with a buttery out-of-focus area when shooting wide open.
Ideally sized for street shooting, this lens definitely needs to be in the bag at all times. The example above is in full sun at f/2.8, note the detail present in the enlarged view at right.
Canon Lens Mounting
A few years ago I picked up a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens for my Canon crop-sensor cameras and learned a big lesson: I couldn’t focus the thing to save my life. I learned the hard way that a lens like this will outperform most viewfinders and, unless we upgrade the viewfinder prism to a higher resolution it’s impossible to gain focus with any speed or consistency.
With the a7R’s focus-peaking capabilities, this becomes a thing of the past. More on that in a few.
Here we have the Zeiss 50mm attached via Metabones II E-mount smart adapter. Never before has this lens been so easy to use. I had full electronic control over aperture and shutter speed from the camera with this adapter in manual as well as aperture and shutter priorities.
There is a vignetting issue when using the Zeiss with this adapter, as can be seen in the above image at left. It’s not too bad at f/2.8, but we do lose the corners and the effect becomes more exaggerated as the lens is stopped down. The pros at LensRentals.com are clear on this issue in their product overview.
Regardless, the Zeiss worked better on the a7R than I’ve experienced to date and I’m looking forward to using it (and others) more in the future. It’s nice to look forward to actually using a piece of gear to it’s fullest potential. This camera seems to want us to get comfortable with that feeling.
Basically, the Sony a7R could care less what lens we place in front of the sensor. With on-board sensor-based focus peaking, the a7R allows the user to visually track focus with real-time ease via contrasting red, yellow or white tones. The effect is adjustable across three sensitivity levels and works amazingly well.
Now, as we rotate the focus ring (in manual focus mode) we can actually see the focal plane (our color, red in this case) moving across the screen as we dial in focus. It’s an extremely useful tool that will dramatically speed up the creative process if you’re working with all-manual glass. Yet another potential game-changer from Sony’s little big man that commands respect from the competition.
Speaking of Game-Changers
If you enjoy shooting landscape and architecture, this is for you. Sony’s Exmor sensor and the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super-Elmar M were seemingly made for each other. This combination was a pleasure to work with, and provides the wide-angle solutions I need on a regular basis without breaking a sweat. Image quality is amazing and distortion is minimal, even in the corners.
Attached via the Sony NEX camera to Leica M Lens adapter, this one is all manual. Aperture is adjusted at the outer ring (like back in the day) and the adapter has no electronic pass-thru, so no aperture and focal plane EXIF data is recorded with this lens.
Leica rangefinder glass is of the finest (and most costly) to be found on the planet, and notoriously as difficult to use well. Not any more. With this lens, I turned on focus peaking and left it there. Daytime or night, the a7R-Leica combo consistently produced sharp images time and again with the aid of this incredible feature.
With a 4 frame-per-second burst, the a7R is by no means built for speed. Though as I tried shooting a friend swinging a golf club with the Leica at f/5.6 and a 1/125 shutter speed, I thought it performed remarkably well at full-speed under a setting sun. The 35mm Sonnar would have scorched this scene, I just didn’t want to take the Leica off..
So what does this mean to me?
It means I have a tool close by that can handle almost anything thrown at it. It’s small. It’s weather-resistant. It’s revolutionary in every way I’m accustomed to in my own workflow. I’ve never been so inspired to shoot, even things I’ve already captured just to make it better. It’s not about the equipment. It’s about aiming high and putting ourselves in the best position to do our best work, and to successfully serve our client’s needs.
The past few weeks have been a major learning – or rather re-learning – experience and I stand inspired as never before. In regard to my question of being a good fit, for myself the answer is a resounding yes. As far as my next full-frame investment, the scales are heavily tipped in the direction of the Alpha a7R as the camera for me.
If you have experience with this camera (good or bad) feel free to let us know what you think in the comments below.
Thank you for visiting. I’ll leave you with a few samples from my week-long excursion. Click to view in full resolution.
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