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.
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.
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.
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.
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.