Sony Alpha 7R at a glance:
- 36.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor
- Sony Bionz X processor
- ISO 50-25,600
- Sony E mount
- NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity
- 2.359-million-dot EVF
- 3in, 921,600-dot LCD screen
- Around £1,699 body only
- See sample images taken with the Sony Alpha 7R
Sony Alpha 7R review – Introduction
I first heard speculation that Sony was planning a full-frame compact system camera at the photokina trade show back in 2010. However, it was really only after the release earlier this year of the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1- the world’s first digital compact camera with a full 35mm-sized sensor – that the talk really started to hot up.
In its RX series, Sony has created a strong line-up of cameras that have exploited a gap in the market – and it is this philosophy of identifying niches that lies behind the Alpha 7 and 7R.
By placing a 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor in a mirrorless compact system camera, Sony has created another world first. Of course, Leica has used full-frame sensors in its digital rangefinder cameras for some years, but the high price tag of the M-system cameras excludes many photographers. So Sony has not only fitted a full-frame sensor into a camera that is smaller and lighter than a Leica M-series digital rangefinder, but it has done so at a fraction of the cost. The Alpha 7 costs £1,350 body only, while the Alpha 7R is £1,700. These are not pocket-money prices, by any means, but a Leica M (Type 240) will set you back around £5,000, and that’s before you have bought a lens for it.
Furthermore, the Sony Alpha 7R isn’t just the start of a new system. The short flange back distance of the E mount means that virtually every DSLR lens can be mounted on the camera via an adapter – even those coveted Leica lenses.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Features
Without doubt, it is the Sony Alpha 7R’s 36.4-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor that is going to make all the headlines. It is similar to that used in the Nikon D800, but Sony has developed a new ‘gapless’ design where there is no space between the micro-lenses. This is intended to draw more light into each photodiode, to reduce noise and improve low-light performance and dynamic range.
The gapless micro-lenses are placed at slight angles as they spread out towards the edges of the frame, the idea being to improve light gathering and sharpening of images at the very edges of the frame. Although the short 18mm back-focus distance of the E mount is one of its main selling points, the distance also means that light will be hitting the lens from very close range, which may cause an issue with distortions when using wideangle lenses.
Ensuring that the maximum possible resolution of the sensor is realised, the Alpha 7R does not have an anti-aliasing filter. I’ll discuss the resolution of the camera in more detail later, but needless to say, the amount of detail that can be resolved from this combination is extremely impressive. Basically, Sony is offering the resolution of the Nikon D800E in a far smaller and lighter body, in a camera that is again cheaper than its Nikon counterpart.
For the first time, Sony is giving a designation to its Bionz processing system, calling the processor in the Alpha 7 and 7R the Bionz X. It is about three times as fast as the previous Bionz system, and it allows the camera to have a sensitivity range of ISO 50-25,600. One thing that isn’t fast, however, is the shooting rate, which is only 1.5fps. This can be increased to 4fps if the camera’s AF and metering are switched off between shots, which would be acceptable in some situations such as shooting in a studio environment, using a small lens aperture. Given that the Alpha 7R isn’t really designed with sports and wildlife photographers in mind, the shooting rate shouldn’t be particularly restrictive, especially for landscape, travel and even studio photographers.
Like most new cameras, the Sony Alpha 7R has built-in Wi-Fi and NFC (Near Field Communication) to allow remote shooting and image transfer to a smartphone or tablet, via the Sony Play Memories mobile app. Also like most recent cameras, the Alpha 7R can be charged via Micro USB – or, as Sony brands it, the Multi Function Port. As I discussed in my test of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 (AP 7 December), this is extremely useful for charging on the go. Of course, a conventional charger is included in the box.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Lens compatibility
Although the Alpha 7R is compatible with all existing Sony E-mount lenses, these lenses are designed for APS-C-sized sensors and have a smaller imaging circle. As such, the Alpha 7R will automatically crop the image to a lower 16-million-pixel resolution when they are used, in much the same way that APS-C-format DSLR lenses are cropped when used on a full-frame model.
With such a short back-focus distance, theoretically nearly all 35mm SLR lenses can be fitted to and used on the camera via an appropriate mount adapter.
During my test I used a standard third-party E-mount adapter by SRB Griturn (www.srb-griturn.co.uk) to use a manual-focus Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens on the Alpha 7R and found that it worked very well. With focus peaking and manual focus area magnification, it was possible to manually focus this old lens quite quickly.
Another option is to use a Metabones Canon-mount Smart Adapter, which has electronic communication between the camera and lens to allow the Alpha 7R to autofocus with Canon lenses. I tried the adapter with a Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 lens and found that the lens did indeed autofocus, although it was quite slow.
Those with Sony A-mount lenses for Alpha DSLR and SLT cameras can also use these via the LA-EA3 and LA-EA4 adapters. The adapters maintain autofocus with the lenses, and the LA-EA4 also has a built-in phase-detection SLT mirror system so the speed on autofocus is roughly the same as when using a Sony SLT model.
Image: Petit Piton, St Lucia, shot with the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 lens and a Metabones adapter. The pull-up image shows just how sharp corner definition can be
Sony Alpha 7R review – Build and handling
The Alpha 7R could be described as functional rather than stylish. That doesn’t mean it’s an ugly camera, but it does lack the retro charm of, say, the Olympus OM-D EM-1. As some have commented on forums, the magnesium-alloy body of the Alpha 7R looks a little like the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 with an additional pentaprism-style hump for the electronic viewfinder and a handgrip – and they aren’t far wrong.
The camera is comfortable to hold, and the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6mm kit lens is a good size to accompany the camera. The combination is also very light, making it ideal to take travelling. I certainly didn’t feel the effects of carrying around the Alpha 7R, the kit lens and a few wide and standard optics in a small shoulder bag for an entire day.
While out shooting with the Alpha 7R I got caught in rain showers quite a few times, but the camera suffered no ill effects. The body is weather and dust-sealed, and although Sony makes no commitment in defining exactly how much water resistance the Alpha 7R has, the camera and kit lens can certainly be used in reasonably rainy conditions.
With a straightforward button layout and design, the Alpha 7R doesn’t throw up any surprises. On the top-plate are a mode dial, shutter button, exposure compensation dial and a custom button, with the power switch jutting out from in front of the shutter button. There are front and rear control dials, giving the camera the feel of a DSLR, while on the rear is a standard button arrangement. As with other recent Sony cameras, there are a number of different customisable buttons on the Alpha 7R, so you can really tailor its controls to your own needs.
The only thing that I feel would improve the handling would be a touchscreen. While I don’t like using them for changing menu settings, I do find they are extremely useful for quickly selecting the AF point. At present, it can be a little time-consuming to shift AF points, especially with so many available in manual-selection mode. A touchscreen would make the process far easier, as it does in other cameras.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Dynamic range
Image: This edited raw image shows that detail can be recovered from dark shadows
The Alpha 7R has a moderate dynamic range of 12.2EV at ISO 100, which is understandable given the pixel density of the sensor. With 36.3 million photosites on the surface of the sensor, each one will receive less light that a comparable 24, 16 or 12-million-pixel, full-frame sensor.
As a result, the dynamic range will always be less, although that is not to say it is poor. Raw files can be edited to around +2EV exposure before luminance and colour noise become too much of an issue, and there is usually plenty of detail that can be revealed in shadows. Similar is true for highlight areas.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity
There have been only a handful of cameras that have completely outresolved our resolution chart. Although the recent Pentax K-3 and Nikon D5300 came very close, only the Nikon D800 and D800E DSLRs, along with the Pentax 645 and Hasselblad H4D-40 medium-format cameras, have done it with ease. The Alpha 7R can now be added to that list. All the lines at the end of the chart are clearly visible, and they remain so until the very highest sensitivities are reached, even in JPEG files.
Noise is reasonably well controlled. There are some signs of luminance in raw and JPEG files at ISO 800, but this isn’t an issue unless you are looking at images at 100%. By ISO 1600 there is a little more luminance noise, and colour noise is visible in shadow areas on JPEGs. This is easily removed when editing raw images and, again, the resolution means that even when making reasonably large prints it shouldn’t prove to be detrimental.
One thing that could be improved is the JPEG processing. The intelligent noise reduction and associated sharpening that analyses the scene and edits the image accordingly can look a little artificial when viewed at 100%. At lower magnifications it isn’t really visible. I would prefer a slightly more universal colour noise and luminance noise reduction for an even finish.
As photographers have discovered with the D800, and more notably the D800E, it is vital that images are focused precisely and camera shake is reduced as much as possible. Obviously, the camera shake is often no different than when using any other camera, but the high resolution does magnify the situation when looking at images at 100%. However, this didn’t mean that I couldn’t take extremely sharp images handheld. It is important to shoot at a suitable shutter speed, even with image stabilisation. I found that I generally shot around 1EV faster than I would normally have to with a DSLR and a lower resolution. Again, the key is to learn how to use the camera to get the best from it.
With any new line of cameras, the lens line-up is important. I had the opportunity to try the FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens, which is the kit lens for the Alpha 7, the Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA and Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lenses. The fixed lenses are extremely sharp in the centre, with some slight fall-off in sharpness towards the edges of the frame with the 35mm lens. However, the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens is disappointing. It shows a sudden and significant drop-off in sharpness at the edges of the frame at the 28mm setting.
I also used a Canon 24mm f/2.8 lens, via a Metabones adapter, and found the lens to be very good at the corners, with images looking full of detail and very sharp. However, the lens is designed for the longer flange back of the Canon EF mount. To manufacture a very good wideangle lens, smaller lenses may have to be sacrificed for larger wideangle lenses that produce sharper results. I am eagerly awaiting the Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS lens to see how well it works with the Alpha 7 cameras. The lens is due out shortly and we hope to test it early next year. A macro, wideangle and another wide-aperture prime lens are also due for release towards the middle of 2014.
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens set to f/5.6 . We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Metering
Image: This image of a sunrise was taken with a 3sec exposure
The metering of the Alpha 7R performs as expected. When in evaluative metering mode, the camera assesses the whole scene and produces a print-ready image. This does mean that there is some blown-out highlight detail in JPEGs, although the raw files have a higher tolerance. With a dedicated exposure compensation dial included, adjusting the exposure is simple, but the Alpha 7R has a few other features.
In the camera’s menu system is the somewhat curiously named Zebra feature. Primarily aimed at videographers, Zebra mode displays moving white & black stripes across areas of the image that have blown-out highlight detail, making it easy to spot areas that are overexposed.
Of course, spot and centreweighted metering are also on hand for more precise metering tasks.
Sony Alpha 7R review – White balance and colour
Image: The in-camera black & white mode produces images with a nice contrast
There is not a lot to report regarding the white balance of the Alpha 7R. Auto white balance works well, producing a reasonably neutral white balance. At times, skies do look a little cyan on the rear screen, but the images are still on the right side of blue.
As for the colours themselves, they are almost identical to what we have seen on other recent Sony cameras. The vivid mode isn’t too garish, and the black & white mode has a good level of contrast. One mode that I particularly appreciated at this time of year was the autumn mode. It makes reds, oranges, browns and yellows look really rich.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Autofocus
Image: The Alpha 7R is great for travel and street photography, although the shutter is loud
Unlike the Alpha 7, which has on-sensor phase-detection autofocus, the Alpha 7R uses contrast-detection AF. As with the recent entry-level Alpha 3000, contrast-detection AF is very fast and snappy, particularly when using the fixed lenses. In low light the AF is a little slower, but still usable. There are a total of 25 contrast-detection AF points in automatic selection modes, and it is also possible to manually choose any area of the screen to focus on, with three different sizes of AF point.
Those wanting to use their existing Alpha-mount lenses via the LA-EA4 adapter will be pleased to know that focusing is almost as quick as when using a Sony Alpha 99. I used the 85mm f/1.4 lens, which focused fast enough for documentary and portrait images, although it lacked the snap of the 70-200mm f/2.8, which has an SSM lens.
The Sony Alpha 7R is good enough for most situations, except sports or wildlife. If you are planning to take any sports or wildlife shots, you really need the LA-EA4 adapter and an SSM lens. The Alpha 7R is not really designed for these types of subjects, but it is nice to know you have the option if you already own existing lenses.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Viewfinder, LCD, live view and video
Looking through the 2.359-million-dot electronic viewfinder, it would be easy to forget you are looking at a digital display were it not for the various settings that the EVF shows. The refresh rate of the screen is high enough that the viewfinder keeps up when panning or tracking, and it is great to be able to see the exact exposure of the image, and even preview the image just taken, without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. There is also a dual-axis level display so you can make sure your horizons are straight. Overall, it is an impressive EVF.
The 3in screen is of a similar high quality to the viewfinder, with a 921,600-dot resolution. It is generally bright and clear, although in the extreme sunlight of St Lucia, where I conducted this test, I did find myself having to turn the screen up to almost its maximum brightness when reviewing images. That said, the EVF can also be used to preview images, as well as for shooting, so bright sunlight should present no real problems. The articulation of the screen also proved useful when shooting low-angle images of the sun rising over a beach.
Small and lightweight with a full-frame sensor, the Alpha 7R should also prove popular with videographers. With various adapters available, and features such as focus peaking and Zebra highlight monitoring, it is possible to use a range of lenses and ensure that video footage is metered properly.
The Alpha 7R includes both external microphone and headphone sockets.
Sony Alpha 7R review – The competition
With its slight retro style, it is natural to compare the Alpha 7R to the Olympus OM-D EM-1, but they are very different cameras. The Alpha 7R has a sensor that is twice the size and has more than double the number of pixels than the EM-1. However, the bodies of the two cameras are similar in size, although the weather sealing of the EM-1 is better.
As far as DSLRs go, the Nikon D800 is the natural competitor. Both cameras share roughly the same resolution sensor and outresolved our resolution chart, producing superbly detailed images. Sony’s NEX-7 will also provide some competition with its 24.3-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor.
Sony Alpha 7R review – Our verdict
Taking a high-resolution sensor and putting it in a small and lightweight camera body is certainly a recipe for success, and there are no CSCs that can currently match the resolution of the Alpha 7R. The nearest is Sony’s own NEX-7 and even that is a long way short. In terms of noise control, raw images only show a hint of luminance noise, and images taken at between ISO 50 and 1600 are perfectly usable. Even at higher ISO sensitivities, images can be downsampled to 16 million pixels to reduce noise, so that it is on a par with, if not far better than, its competitors.
The only question is with the lens line-up. We will have to wait and see how good the new lenses will be, but in the meantime third-party DSLR optics work perfectly well. I’m sure that many DSLR users will find the Alpha 7R a very intriguing prospect, not to mention users of Leica rangefinder film cameras, who have a reasonably affordable camera on which to use their lenses. The price is a key factor: the Alpha 7R is within reach of many, and is even more affordable than the Nikon D800, which is itself reasonable.
Overall, the Alpha 7R promises to be yet another hit for Sony. It is certainly one of the best cameras I have tested this year. It may even be the best.
Sony Alpha 7R – Key features
Wi-Fi remote control
Remote control of the camera is possible via one of the Sony Play Memories camera apps, which is tucked away in the Application menu. However, it is possible to add a shortcut to the application menu via a custom button.
The Alpha 7R has no built-in flash, but has a multi-interface hotshoe that is compatible with the latest range of Sony flashguns.
Raw video footage can be output via the HDMI cable, so the uncompressed video can be saved to an external hard-disk recorder.
The Alpha 7R uses a standard NP-FW50 battery that has previously been used in all NEX cameras.
In playback mode, this button pulls up the menu to allow an image to be sent via Wi-Fi from the camera to a tablet or smartphone.
Sony rates the battery at around 340 shots with the LCD screen, but only 270 shots when using the viewfinder. I found that in practice the battery life was a little less, but I was reviewing the images and transferring via Wi-Fi. While I managed almost a full day’s shooting with the Alpha 7R, I would suggest that if you take a lot of images or like to reviewing images on the go, a second battery would be a good investment.
The Zebra setting can also be adjusted so that it displays detail over a certain amount. For example, set to 100 or higher, any blown-out detail is shown; set it to 80, and anything over 80% brightness will show the zebra pattern.
Cable remote control
The Sony RM-VPR1 remote-release control can be plugged into the multi-port/Micro USB terminal on the side of the camera.