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Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (with 28-70mm Lens) review: A welcome step-up from smaller sensors

This compact interchangeable-lens model is a great step-up from APS-C models, as long as you don't demand action-shooting performance.

Lori Grunin
Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
9 min read

There's no question that the cheaper model of Sony's full-frame interchangeable-lens duo looks mighty attractive, thanks to its lower price tag. The less-expensive 24-megapixel model (Alpha ILCE-7, aka A7) boasts faster performance and a better autofocus system than its slower, AA-filter-free 36-megapixel sibling (Alpha ILCE-7R, aka A7R). But despite those advantages, I still generally like the A7R better for its superior image quality. However, compared to similarly priced and bigger full-frame dSLRs, the A7 is a very attractive alternative as long as you don't need to shoot action.

Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (Body Only)

Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (with 28-70mm Lens)

The Good

<b>Sony's Alpha ILCE-7</b>, aka the A7, delivers excellent photo and video quality in a well-designed camera that's enjoyable to shoot with.

The Bad

The long startup time and short battery life disappoint.

The Bottom Line

Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (A7) is a great alternative to similarly priced entry-level full-frame dSLRs, as long as you don't need speedy continuous shooting.

Note: the design and feature set for the A7 is identical to the A7R, so much of my discussion of the camera is, well, also identical.

The A7 incorporates the lower-resolution sensor in order to use Sony's hybrid autofocus system; Sony says that it couldn't put the phase-detection pixels on the 36-megapixel sensor for the A7R. If you need both resolving power and autofocus speed, you're out of luck for now.

Both new sensors have redesigned microlens arrays. While most modern sensors use gapless microlenses, these also required some tweaking on the edges near the lens mount to prevent vignetting, since the sensor's such a tight fit in the mount opening.

Image quality
While the higher resolution and better resolvability of the A7R's sensor beat the A7's, the A7 still fares quite well. It produces sharper images than the 6D and D610 at midrange ISO sensitivities, but it also looks like Sony's performing more aggressive processing on them; you can see the artifacts on the out-of-focus edges.

Sony Alpha ILCE-A7 photo samples

See all photos

In general, the A7 produces excellent photos. On one hand, you can start seeing artifacts in JPEGs as low as ISO 800, but processing raw lets you alleviate the edge artifacts and recover some detail. Depending upon subject matter, you can get usable JPEGs as high as ISO 6400 that print nicely as large as 13x19, and even at ISO 12800 there's a reasonable amount of retained tonal range and detail to make those shots usable when scaled down a bit.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 6400

I really like the A7's video. It's not insanely sharp, but it's pretty good, with just a tiny bit of aliasing. It delivers nice tonal range, albeit with some clipped highlights. Even in low light at ISO 3200, it produces saturated colors without a lot of image noise. Also, for those who care, Sony lets you set shutter speeds as low as you'd like -- it doesn't cut you off at 1/30-second like most cameras. The built-in microphone delivers surprisingly warm, full-bodied sound, too.

I wouldn't call the A7's performance stellar, but it's much better than the A7R and is relatively on par with its dSLR competitors. Unfortunately, it's not much better -- and in some cases worse -- than the NEX-6. And its overly long startup time is a big sticking point, not to mention its short battery life.

It takes a whopping 2.8 seconds to power on and shoot, even longer than the A7R; that's because you have to wait for it to fully power on before touching any of the controls or they simply won't register. Depending upon what you're photographing, that could be insignificant or could count for several lost opportunities. And because the battery life isn't great, you don't really want to leave it on all the time.

Time to focus and shoot in both good light and dim runs about 0.4 second, which is good for dim but not great for bright conditions. Shot-to-shot time is fast, though, at about 0.2-second for raw or JPEG. And while it can sustain a solid burst -- it doesn't slow until after about 27 shots for raw and it doesn't slow at all for JPEG -- with continuous AF that's for a fairly low frame rate of 2.1fps.

Because it has the same image processor but smaller files, it's more responsive than the A7R at least. And the hybrid autofocus system feels faster and a lot less frustrating to use than the contrast-only system in the A7R. It does have the same manual focus peaking and a sharp EVF as its big brother, so manual focus is just as fast and easy. Both cameras incorporate the same excellent EVF and LCD screens as on the SLT-A99, and as with the A7R I do wish the LCD could tilt down further for easier overhead shooting.

Unfortunately, it also has the same embarrassingly loud shutter. While there's some dispute as to whether or not it causes significant shake from vibration -- I didn't find it an issue -- it still outs you when you're shooting for stealth. And while I love the bright, contrasty LCD and huge, vivid electronic viewfinder, they contribute to the camera's terribly short battery life given that the camera is targeted at people who photograph a lot. The only thing zips along merrily on this camera is the battery-level icon.

Design and features
Although I don't consider the A7 a beautiful camera, in a lot of ways it's beautifully designed; it feels very comfortable, with a substantial grip, sturdy dust-and-moisture-resistant magnesium alloy body, and enough heft that it counterbalances fairly well with big A-mount or other lenses.

Sony has advanced the design over the NEX-7, which these models essentially replace -- Sony's still selling the NEX-7 but it will likely die once all existing units are gone -- and it's substantially streamlined in comparison. On the top right sits an exposure-compensation dial, programmable button and power switch/shutter button, along with a mode dial that has the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, two custom settings slots (and you can tweak them from a central location rather than having to resave when you make a change), sweep panorama, and a dedicated movie mode. Sony's Multi Interface Shoe perches on the huge EVF box.

To the right of the LCD sits a thumb-operated switch that toggles its button function between focus mode and exposure lock. The function button below that brings up frequently needed settings -- drive mode, flash, flash compensation, autofocus mode, autofocus area, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity, metering mode, white balance, Dynamic Range Optimization/HDR, and Creative Style.

The updated interface combines the Quick Navi control-panel from the SLT models with a less confusing version of the NEX interface. In essence, it operates like most other cameras now, with a Fn button that pulls up most of the frequently used settings, which lets you scroll through the options without having to go another level down. It supports tethered shooting, albeit only via Sony's Remote Camera Control software at the moment (unless someone knows of current third-party support that I'm missing).

While it incorporates the usual limited AVCHD codec options and full manual exposure and audio-level controls, it can output clean HDMI for more flexibility and can take Sony's XLR mic kit.

Canon EOS 6D Nikon D610 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R Sony Alpha ILCE-7/7R Sony Alpha SLT-A99
Sensor effective resolution 20.2MP CMOS
24.3MP Exmor CMOS 24.3MP Exmor CMOS/
36.4MP Exmor CMOS
24.3MP Exmor CMOS
35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 24mm 35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x
OLPF Yes Yes No Yes/No Yes
ISO range ISO 100 - ISO 25600/ 102400 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp) / ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 25600
ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 51200/ ISO 102400 (exp, via multishot NR)
Burst shooting 4.5fps
15 raw/unlimited JPEG
(5 fps with fixed focus and exposure)
2.5fps (5fps with fixed exposure and focus)/
1.5fps (4fps with fixed exposure and focus)
13 raw/14 JPEG

VF Optical
97% coverage
100% coverage
Reverse Galilean
Tilting OLED
0.5-inch/ 2,359,000 dots
100 percent coverage
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
AF 11-pt AF
1 center cross type
9 cross type
(Multi-CAM 4800FX)
25-area contrast AF Hybrid AF system
25-area contrast AF;117-pt phase-
25-area contrast AF
Dual phase -detection system
11 cross type;
102-pt focal plane
AF exposure range -3 - 18 EV
(center point)
0.5 - 18 EV
-1 - 19 EV n/a 0 - 20 EV -1 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 30-1/2,000 sec (f2), 1/4000 (f5.6); bulb 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles n/a n/a 200,000 cycles
Metering 63-area iFCL 2,016-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II n/a 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering exposure range 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV -2 - 17 EV
IS Optical Optical Electronic (movie only) Optical Sensor shift
Best video H.264 MOV
1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
H.264 MOV
1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p/ 25p/24p
all at 24, 12Mbps
AVCHD: 1080/60p/50p @28Mbps; 1080/60i/50i @ 24, 17Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28Mbps, 1080/60i/ 24p @ 24Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 1080/24p @ 24Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps
Rated estimated max HD video length at best quality 29m59s 20 minutes n/a n/a n/a
Audio mono; mic input mono; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack
LCD size 3 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3.2 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
3 inches tilting
921,600 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC
Wireless flash No Yes No
(No on-camera flash)
(No on-camera flash)
Battery life
Live View (CIPA rating)
1090/220 shots
900/n/a shots
270 shots 340 shots
410/500 shots
Wireless connectivity Wi-Fi Via optional WU-1b Wireless Mobile Adapter $59.95 None Wi-Fi, NFC None
Size (inches, WHD) 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8 5.5 × 4.5 × 3.2 4.5 x 2.6 x 2.8 5.0 x 3.8 x 1.9 5.9 x 4.5 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 27.2 30.1 17.6 17.2 28.7
Mfr. price $1,899 (body only) $2,099.95 (body only) n/a $1,699.99 (body only)/
$2,299.99 (body only)
$2,799.99 (body only)
n/a $2,699 (with 24-85mm lens) $2,799.99
(fixed 35mm f2 lens)
$1,999.99 (with 28-70mm lens)/n/a n/a
Ship date December 2012 September 2012 July 2013 December 2013 October 2012

It uses the same Wi-Fi implementation as recent NEX models, including support for Sony's proprietary PlayMemories app ecosystem. Some complaints: I dislike that you have to have and log into a Sony account using the horrible keyboard interface on the camera in order to download, at least the first time. You should be able to queue it from your computer or mobile device like Android or iOS 7. And who is going to read terms of use and privacy policies on their camera screen??

However, I didn't have nearly as much problem connecting or maintaining a connection on either Android or iOS 7 as with some other cameras, and the NFC works well for connecting relatively quickly via Android. The (free) updated Smart Remote Control app is pretty useful; it now lets you adjust exposure settings and use touch focus, even without a power zoom lens on the camera. The interface for the app is a little sluggish, but otherwise it's quite nice.

It supports direct upload to Flickr via a new (free) app, but there are no new apps specifically developed for the A7/A7R. And keep in mind that the apps are available in only 23 countries (the list is at the bottom of this page). Plus, it feels nickel-and-dimey for Sony to charge you $5 or $10 an app for relatively basic capabilities like multiple exposure, time-lapse, or in-camera lens corrections when you've already shelled out $1,700 for the camera.

Overall, there's almost nothing missing. I do wish it had dual SD card slots and a flash; though I rarely use (or recommend) on-camera flash, it's nice to have it in a pinch.

For a complete accounting of the A7's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

I think the biggest problem with the A7 is its name; that is, by naming the A7 and A7R so similarly, Sony confusingly forces a comparison between two models that might otherwise constitute unrelated purchase decisions. As an alternative to Canon and Nikon's entry-level full-frame dSLRs, it's great as long as you don't need the burst performance or optical viewfinder, and if the long startup time won't make you crazy. And if you need real continuous-shooting speed in this price segment (or less), you're probably still better off with an APS-C dSLR or Micro Four Thirds ILC.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Olympus PEN E-P5
Sony Alpha NEX-6
Sony Alpha ILCE-7R

Nikon D610
Canon EOS 6D

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (Body Only)

Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (with 28-70mm Lens)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8Image quality 8
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