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Sony Alpha ILCE-7R (A7R) review: A compact full-frame ILC that delivers on photos

This full-frame interchangeable-lens camera delivers some of the best image quality we've seen under $3,000.

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Lori Grunin
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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

Want it fast or want it fine? Sony makes you choose between its two full-frame interchangeable-lens cameras: the faster, cheaper 24-megapixel model (Alpha ILCE-7, aka A7) and a slower, AA-filter-free 36-megapixel model (Alpha ILCE-7R, aka A7R). Despite disappointing performance, the A7R delivers in all other respects, and I generally like it better than the A7 for its superior image quality.

Sony Alpha ILCE-7R (Body Only)
8.2

Sony Alpha ILCE-7R (A7R)

The Good

<b>Sony Alpha ILCE-7R</b> delivers some of the best image quality we've seen for under $3,000 in a great shooting design and feature set.

The Bad

Disappointing autofocus speed and battery life mar an otherwise lovely camera.

The Bottom Line

As long as you don't need fast autofocus or great burst shooting, the Sony Alpha ILCE-7R is great, compact alternative to entry-level full-frame cameras from Nikon and Canon.

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
The A7R delivers on the photo quality, with great high-ISO sensitivity performance for its price class. JPEGs look clean through ISO 800 and remain good as high as ISO 1600; if you shoot raw, you can probably get usable images up through ISO 12800 depending upon lighting. The extra sharpness from the AA-filter-free sensor seems to be the primary reason; as ISO sensitivity rises, the sharper the native detail the better the noise reduction results, all other things equal.

Sony A7R delivers, even at high sensitivities (photo samples)

See all photos

Like the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, the A7 models employ the company's new Bionz X image processor with upgraded noise reduction and detail processing; the latter minimizes outlines for decreased ringing artifacts and adds new "diffraction reduction technology" that works in conjunction with larger lens lookup tables to ostensibly provide increased image sharpness at smaller apertures. I didn't do extensive testing at small apertures, but center sharpness as high as f22 with the 55mm lens looked pretty good on the few shots I did get.

It also preserves great dynamic range; I was able to recover clipped highlight and shadow detail from the raw files, even at higher ISO sensitivities.

Click to download
(note: all images are in the Adobe RGB color space)
ISO 100



ISO 800

ISO 6400

Furthermore, the video quality is surprisingly good, with only a minimal number of artifacts I usually see from AA-filter-free sensors. You still have to be careful with your frame rates to prevent moire, but even at 60p it was mostly good, and the general detail definition is quite nice. Low-light video also has nice tonality and good saturation.

Performance
It saddens me that the A7R is slow, loud, and piggy with power. Sony excuses the poor autofocus speed as a sacrifice you make for using contrast AF, but, sorry, we've been seeing fast-contrast AF from Olympus and Panasonic for years.

It takes forever to start up; while 2.2 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot may not sound like much, it translates into a lot of missed shots. And the autofocus doesn't kick in until the camera is mostly booted. It runs a not-terrible 0.3 second to focus and shoot in good light, but that rises to about 0.9 second in dim light. Those are the same results as the company's mediocre ILCE-A3000, which costs a fifth of the A7R. JPEG and raw shot-to-shot times are effectively the same at about 0.4 to 0.5 second. And I'm not sure what the continuous-shooting mode is intended to achieve; although it can sustain a reasonable burst of raw or JPEG (more than 30 shots), with autofocus it can only do about 1.2fps. The camera has a faster burst that fixes focus on the first shot, but that means if it doesn't lock correctly initially or if the subject moves -- usually why you're shooting burst -- you get a whole lotta nothin'.

The processing can also hold you up from changing settings or reviewing images, though given the files it's processing that's more understandable.

The various autofocus options can be frustrating, as well. For instance, its object tracking (Lock-on AF) either pulses repeatedly or picks its own (usually wrong) subject, depending upon your settings. Thanks to peaking and a sharp EVF, manually focusing is relatively easy and fast, though.

Then there's the absurdly loud shutter. Nothing like trying to be the quiet, unobtrusive photographer only to be outed by that cringeworthy shutter "THWACK!" There's some dispute as to whether or not it causes significant shake from vibration -- I didn't find it a huge issue -- but there's no denying it's loud. And while I love the bright, contrasty LCD and huge, bright electronic viewfinder, they contribute to the camera's terribly short battery life given that the camera's targeted at people who photograph a lot. The only thing zips along merrily on this camera is the battery-level icon.

The EVF and the LCD, though, perform well. Both use the same excellent screens as on the SLT-A99. I do wish the LCD could tilt down further for easier overhead shooting, though.

Design and features
Although I don't consider the A7R 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 pretty 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 is 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
n/a
14-bit
24.3MP CMOS
n/a
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS 24.3MP Exmor CMOS/
36.4MP Exmor CMOS
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS
n/a
14-bit
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/ 102,400 (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
5.5fps
n/a
2.5fps
(5 fps with fixed focus and exposure)
n/a
2.5fps (5fps with fixed exposure)/
1.5fps (4fps with fixed focus)
n/a
6fps
13 raw/14 JPEG

VF Optical
97% coverage
0.71x
Optical
100% coverage
0.70x
Optional
Reverse Galilean
Zeiss
n/a
($599.99)
Optional
EVF

Tilting OLED
0.5-inch/ 2,359,000 dots
100 percent coverage
($449.99)
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x
AF 11-pt AF
1 center cross type
39-pt
9 cross type
(Multi-CAM 4800FX)
25-area contrast AF Hybrid AF system
25-area contrast AF;117-pt phase-
detection/
25-area contrast AF
Dual phase -detection system
19-pt
11 cross type;
102-pt focal plane
AF exposure range -3 - 18 EV
(center point)
0.5 - 18 EV
(other)
-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 30-1/2000 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
(No on-camera flash)
No
Battery life
VF/
Live View (CIPA rating)
1090/220 shots
(1,800 mAh)
900/n/a shots
(1,900 mAh)
270 shots 340 shots
(1,080 mAh)
410/500 shots
(1,650 mAh)
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 16.7 (est) 25.9 (est)
Mfr. price $2,099 (body only) $2,099.95 (body only) n/a $1,699.99 (body only)/
$2,299.99 (body only)
$2,799.99 (body only)
$2,899 (with 24-105mm lens) $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 on Android. The (free) updated Smart Remote Control app is a lot more useful than I mentioned in the product video; 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 only available in 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 $2,300 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 A7R's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Conclusion
While it's easy to be tempted by the cheaper sibling, I think the noticeably superior image quality of the A7R makes a compelling case for spending the extra money if you've got it. Though the A7 is faster overall, it still has the same poor battery life, loud shutter mechanism, and endless startup time.

The Alpha ILCE-A7R is a great alternative to entry-level full-frame dSLRs like the Nikon D610 and the Canon EOS 6D if you're looking for something more compact, but not for shooting action.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Olympus PEN E-P5
0.8
0.2
0.2
0.3
0.2

Sony Alpha NEX-6
2
0.2
0.2
0.5
0.2


2.2
0.5
0.4
0.9
0.3

Sony Alpha ILCE-7
2.8
0.2
0.2
0.4
0.4

Nikon D610
0.3
0.2
0.2
0.5
0.4

Canon EOS 6D
0.6
0.3
0.3
1.3
0.4

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Sony Alpha ILCE-7R (Body Only)
8.2

Sony Alpha ILCE-7R (A7R)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 7Image quality 9
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