More thoughts on the Sony a7R

Gary Hart Photography: Rocks at Sunset, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

Rocks at Sunset, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/15 seconds
ISO 100

Read my original thoughts on the Sony a7R in my November 25 post, “New trick, old dog.

It’s been about two months since I switched my primary camera from a Canon 5D Mark III to a Sony a7R. After a lifetime of seeing the “actual” world through my viewfinder, (for me at least) there has been some adjustment to trusting a digital facsimile of the world. I’m actually surprised by how long the adjustment is taking, but I’m getting there (and your results may vary). And this is really more my problem than the camera’s—I have no significant complaints with the camera’s interface or handling.

Another thing to prepare for is a lot more sensor dust. Unlike and SLR, which has a mirror and shutter to protect the sensor, a mirrorless sensor is pretty much exposed to the elements when the lens is removed. At the very least you’ll want to blow the sensor after each use, and do more aggressive cleaning very regularly.

On the positive side of the ledger, I appreciate the a7R’s extreme customizability. And I’m finding focus-peaking and (especially) the focus magnifier to be a godsend for my shooting style—I obsessively seek subjects from near to far in my frame, and am more than happy to forego the speed of autofocus for the precision of manual focus. As my trust in the a7R’s electronic focus aids grows, I find manual focusing so effortless that I never even attempt autofocus (nor do I miss using it).

But more important than interface and usability pluses and minuses, I continue to be blown away by the quality of the images I get from this camera. The a7R’s dynamic range is the stuff of dreams, and the sharpness and resolution continue to thrill me. I’m admittedly not a pixel-peeper, but I’ve not encountered any of the lens concerns some have reported online—my Sony/Zeiss 16-35, 24-70, and Sony 70-200 lenses are sharper than my Canon L glass. Period. I purchased the Metabones Canon-to-Sony adapter fully expecting to use my Canon lenses a lot, but so far have only used the Metabones once (it works fine).

I do have a concern about the sturdiness of the the a7R lens mount—all my lenses wobble too much where they connect to the body, and with minimal pressure can be removed without pressing the unlock button (some more easily than others). Conducting workshops gives me unique exposure to other cameras, and I can say that I’ve seen several a7Rs and they all exhibit this problem. But in a refreshing change of pace from my Canon experience, it appears that Sony has quickly (albeit tacitly) recognized the problem and improved the mount in its newer a7S and a7II bodies. While I’ve heard nothing about a lens mount recall of the first generation Sony a7 bodies (a recall that I feel would be justified), I won’t stress it too much because I found a simple and inexpensive solution: The Fotodiox TOUGH E-Mount completely fixed the problem on my a7R. I consider the Fotodiox mount a must for any Sony E-mount body the preceded the a7S. Installation is quite simple, but here’s a word to the wise: Before attempt the replacement, watch the video on the Fotodiox page; also note that you’ll need a Phillips #000 screwdriver (despite the picture on the website, one isn’t included with the mount).

And since we’re talking about things you might want to purchase, the a7R does not come with a battery charger. Instead, Sony gives you a USB cable that plugs into your camera and connects to the provided adapter (or any other USB adapter—I can plug their cable with my iPhone, Kindle charger, or computer). The problem with this is that the battery needs to be in the camera while you charge, making it impossible to charge a battery while you use the camera, not a great scenario for such a power-thirsty camera. You could spend another $50 or on Sony’s charger, or you could do what I did and buy a third-party charger. For about $27 on Amazon I got a Wasabi charger that includes two batteries (haven’t tested them, but at the very least they can be backups that hold me until I can get a primary battery charged), a car charger, and European adapter. I also ordered one more Sony battery as my primary backup (but I’m kind of obsessive about having backups).

And speaking of backups, perhaps the best indication of my level of commitment to the new Sony is that I just ordered a Sony a6000 (and the Fotodiox TOUGH E-mount). I can’t afford not to have a backup body, and the a6000 is a perfect complement to the a7R—in addition to its rave reviews, the a6000 is quite compact, is only around $700 (even cheaper if you shop around), takes all my EF mount lens, and with a 1.5 crop sensor, gives me extra focal length when I need it (in other words, it’s more than a backup). So it looks like I’m all-in with Sony. Stay tuned….

A few words about this image

The image at the top of today’s post is from my Big Sur visit early this month. I share it here because it’s a great example of why I’m so excited about the dynamic range of the a7R. Since I don’t blend images (just my personal style), I needed to capture this scene with one click. Even with the great dynamic range, I used a Singh-Ray 3-stop graduated neutral density filter to hold back the sky, had to pull the highlights down and shadows up the shadows a little in Lightroom, and do a little dodging and burning in Photoshop. But all things considered, this was a remarkably straightforward capture with the a7R (not much work to expose and process).

If you’re thinking about purchasing filters (like the graduated neutral density filter I used here), you can’t to better than Singh-Ray. For a 10 percent discount on the Singh-Ray site, use the discount code gary10.

A (growing) gallery of Sony a7R captures

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

New trick, old dog

Nightfall, Big Sur Coast, California

Nightfall, Big Sur Coast, California
Sony a7R
43 mm
4 minutes
ISO 200

Way back in 2008 when I got my first live-view camera, a Canon 1DS Mark III, I couldn’t understand what all the hubbub was about. I’d been looking through a viewfinder for thirty years and saw no reason to do things any differently. But when a 5D Mark III entered my life in early 2012, its improved live-view interface caused me to waver a bit—in particular the live-view focus capability, an on-screen level, a histogram that appeared before capture, and the ability to compose at odd angles without being tethered to the viewfinder. While I incorporated these capabilities into my workflow in the field when conditions dictated, for the most part I remained the same viewfinder shooter I’d always been.

Enter mirrorless

A few years ago, camera manufacturers, looking to replace point-and-shoot business rapidly succumbing to ubiquitous smartphones, realized that removing the mirror box from an SLR (single lens reflex: a mirror deflects the lens’s view up through the viewfinder, then flips the mirror up and out of the way of the sensor when the shutter fires) camera would allow them to put an SLR-size sensor in a much smaller body. These first mirrorless systems picked off many enthusiastic amateurs looking for better image quality than a smartphone or point-and-shoot without having to lug bulky gear. But the pros still considered mirrorless cameras fancy toys, or at best, a viable second camera.

Then, in late 2013, Sony released its full-frame, a7 mirrorless cameras and partnered with Zeiss for compatible lenses. Sony was the maker of the esteemed 36 MP Nikon D800 sensor (which they put in their mirrorless a7R body), and Zeiss has long been regarded one of the world’s finest lens makers. Suddenly, they had our attention.


While I was mildly intrigued by what Sony was doing, I remained committed to my Canon 5DIII. Given my significant investment in Canon glass, and confidence that Canon would be coming out with something better soon, I gave little serious thought to switching.

But, despite the consensus that Nikon and Sony cameras have surpassed Canon in image quality, we’ve reached the end of 2014 with nothing but cricket sounds coming from Canon’s corner of Tokyo. Contrasting those cricket sounds is the celebratory din from pros I respect who abandoned the Canon ship in favor of Sony, and are thrilled with Sony’s improved dynamic range, high ISO performance, and significantly higher resolution. Hmmm.

Budding relationship

Then my good friend Don Smith (and fellow long-time Canon shooter) made the Sony plunge, and I got to see the camera and its results up close on our trips to the Grand Tetons and Columbia River Gorge. Don couldn’t stop raving about the quality of the Sony image files, and I couldn’t get over the compactness of his camera bag.

So this month I did it. I pulled the trigger and went all-in on a Sony a7R and three lenses: a Sony 70-200 f4, and Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4 and 24-70 f4 lenses. Hedging my bets, I also purchased the Metabones Mark IV adapter that enables me to use my Canon lenses on the a7R.

Was it love at first sight? Hardly. Like any new relationship, there are growing pains—in this case, it’s adjusting to a completely new way of shooting. I’ve always been a keep-it-simple, full control, totally manual (metering, focus) shooter—I just don’t want my camera making any decisions for me. Relying exclusively on an electronic viewfinder for composition, exposure, and focus is a paradigm shift that caught me off guard.

So the Sony and I are still negotiating certain aspects of our relationship. I will acknowledge that things like pre-capture focus-peaking (dots that highlight in-focus areas before I shoot) and exposure zebras (diagonal lines that appear where my image is over or under exposed) are potentially quite useful, but I still have trust issues—just because you tell me you’re sharp, doesn’t mean I have to believe you.

And I’ve always felt that spot metering was the way to go in manual exposure mode (it’s all I’ve ever used), but I’m coming to the conclusion that the way to go with the Sony is to let the meter see the entire scene and base my exposure settings on the pre-shot histogram. I wish it gave me the RGB histogram before the shot, but I’m willing to compromise for the sake of photographic harmony.

But there’s no denying the image quality, and for that alone, I’m quite confident that this relationship will last. Without doing a lot of pixel-peeping tests (I leave that stuff to other photographers while I’m out taking pictures), the dynamic range if the a7R just blows me away. I’m guessing that I get at least two more stops of dynamic range than I got with any of my Canon bodies, a game-changer for a landscape shooter.

This being such a new relationship, we haven’t spent a night together yet. And until we do, I’m not about to discard my Canon (does that make me a bad person?). I’m less concerned about the a7R’s night image quality than I am about my ability to compose and focus in low light using the electronic viewfinder. So stay tuned….

An evening out

While I haven’t done a full-on night shoot yet, I did stay out quite a bit past sunset on my first shoot. The image here is from that first date, a triple-date actually, to Soberanes Point in Big Sur with friends Don Smith and Mike Hall. While Don’s experience with his new a7R was the tipping point in my decision to switch, he was just a few weeks ahead of me, and we were both still trying to figure things out (and laughing about feeling like beginners).

When the sky darkened, the low-light shortcomings of the a7R’s electronic viewfinder became apparent, as feared. About 25 minutes after sunset (when I clicked this), I could still see enough with my 24-70 f4 to compose and focus, but just barely. Shortly thereafter I switched to my Canon-mount Zeiss f2 (with the Metabones adapter) and found the light gathering capability of the faster lens helped a lot. I’m guessing that until I get some fast Sony/Zeiss glass, I’ll be shooting night with my f2 and 2.8 Canon lenses and the Metabones adapter, but I’m less concerned than I was originally. Again, stay tuned….

Final thoughts

I’m slowly coming to terms with the electronic viewfinder and am pretty sure I’ll grow to like using it most of the time. Some of the a7R’s shortcomings—for example, the shutter is noisy, most things seem slightly more sluggish than I’m used to, and the autofocus doesn’t compare to my 5DIII (though some of the other Sony’s are much better, and I’m not a big autofocus person anyway)—are of little concern to me as a landscape shooter. And because it’s a battery hog, I carry four batteries (they’re small and light), though two is probably enough for a full day of heavy shooting, unless I’m adding a night shoot. And the user-manual feels more like an afterthought (I’m afraid this doesn’t make Sony unique), but there are plenty of resources available online, with more appearing every day.

In addition to the a7R’s improved dynamic range, which by itself is enough in my book to justify switching, I love the new weight of my camera bag. The body is much smaller than my 5DIII, the lenses are somewhat smaller (which also saves money on filters), the combination of which means I can use my smaller bag (F-Stop Guru) and lighter tripod (Gitzo 1531—if I had to do it now, I’d be buying the RRS TQC-14) and head (RRS BH-30) most of the time.

Having a smaller camera bag and tripod has air travel benefits as well—I won’t stress the airport check-in weigh-in as much (I pack my tripod and head in the suitcase), and won’t need to debate flight attendants who refuse to believe my larger camera bag (F-Stop Tilopa) will fit in the overhead compartment (it will, but there can be flight-long ramifications to proving a flight attendant wrong in front of a plane full of cranky travelers).

I think the a7R is best for a landscape shooter—I don’t think I’d make the a7R my primary camera if I had to photograph anything that moves. All pros and cons factored in, it may just be the best landscape camera. The strongest recommendation I can make to anyone making a change is to allow ample time to get up to speed with the new camera. This is more than just learning a new control interface and menu system—unless you’re already a fulltime live-view shooter, it’s an entirely new way of shooting. In other words, take it on a few dry runs before going out when every click counts.

As with any new relationship, there will be growing pains. But I think this one’s going to last.

Really Right Stuff


Epilogue (January, 2015)

It’s been month and a half since I switched to the Sony a7R. And while I’m still getting comfortable with the full-time mirrorless paradigm, I have no significant complaints with the camera’s interface or handling (“It’s not you, it’s me”). The focus peaking is a godsend for a photographer like me, who obsessively seeks subjects from near to far in the frame. And I’m growing to appreciate the extreme customizability of the a7R’s buttons.

I do have a concern about the sturdiness of the the mount—all my lenses wobble a bit where they connect to the body, and with minimal pressure can be removed without pressing the unlock button (some more easily than others). I hope Sony makes fixing this a high priority, because while the body lenses are quite solid, this single flaw makes everything feel a little fragile.

But most important, I continue to be blown away by the quality of the images I get from this camera. The dynamic range is the stuff of dreams, and the sharpness and resolution continue to thrill me. I’ve grown to trust focus peaking, and find manual focusing so effortless that I never even attempt autofocus (nor do I miss using it). Perhaps the best indication of my level of commitment is that I just ordered a Sony a6000, giving my daughter my old Canon 5DIII. It looks like I’m all-in.

A (growing) Sony a7R gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

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