Occassionally I like to share my thoughts on any new camera equipment I might purchase mainly because I know it helps others with their purchasing decisions. That said, for me, a camera is a means to an end, a working tool that so long as it produces a decent image, I'm happy. Having worked in the electronics industry for over 30 years, gone are those days when I slaver over new technology and gadgets. I prefer instead to keep a camera a decent length of time so that I can become totally familiar with its functions and idiosyncrasies. That was until I came across the Alpha A7r.
Up until this point I was more than happy with my Nikon D800E - a great camera in many ways and as close to my large format view camera as I'm going to get on my budget. However, the weak link, I was beginning to find, was the rather average image quality that was achieved from using the Nikon 45mm PC-E Tilt/Shift lens - a focal length I use very often. The resolution wasn't exactly poor but only average compared to using my 25mm Carl Zeiss lens or the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8. At the time of purchasing the kit I so much wanted to buy the Nikkor 24mm PC-E lens but the image quality when hooked up to the D800E was poor (terribly soft and copious amounts of chromatic aberation). For anybody interested in my experience of the above equipment you may wish to check out these two earlier articles http://www.markbanksphotography.com/index.php/news/26-living-with-the-d800e-lenses-pt-1 & http://www.markbanksphotography.com/index.php/news/27-living-with-the-d800e-lenses-pt-2
For the last 7 years I've been co-leading photography workshops with Joe Cornish and it was at one of these workshops this summer that he proudly showed me his latest aquisition of the Sony Alpha A7r. At first I didn't really think it was any more versatile than the kit I already had until he produced from his bag a Kipon Tilt/Shift adaptor that he proceeded to connect to the A7r before connecting a 40 year old Nikon 35mm lens to it. Due to the Sony being a full-frame mirrorless system, this allows adequate space for a variety of adaptors to be inserted between the body and lens. Indeed, there are a number of adaptors available for all kinds of cameras now including Micro Four-Thirds (Olympus & Panasonic Compact System Cameras).
It was when I found out about these adaptors that I realised that I could use my fabulous Carl Zeiss 25mm (Nikon fit) and attach it to the Sony with full tilt/shift function.
After doing some more homework on the Sony I decided to take the plunge and purchase one, trading in my D800E & 45mm PC/E lens. I also decided to purchase the Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 Distagon lens (Nikon fit) so that I basically had high quality wide and normal focal length prime lenses in my kit bag. At the same time of course I ordered the Kipon Tilt/Shift adaptor (£200) and two standard (non tilt/shift) Metabones adaptors, one for the Sony and one for the new Olympus OMD-EM5 that I purchased at the same time, so that I could mount both Zeiss lenses onto either camera body for total flexibility.
Although the body is around a third smaller than the Nikon it still feels rather good to hold, although I recently purchased an L bracket which when attached is even better to hand-hold, bizarrely. All the dials and switches feel solid and turn with reassuring, deep-notched clicks. The best button is the shutter which has a satisfying clunk when pressed. A particularly nice feature is the ability to assign a number of functions to three custom function buttons dotted about the body for quick access (I set button C1 to 100% Zoom mode for review purposes, C2 for quick access to the Creative Style menu (mainly to switch between colour & black and white modes) and C3 for focus peaking (a very necessary feature when using the adaptors as mentioned in more detail below).
Having been used to the on-board Nikon software it has taken a little while to become accustomed to the menu system displayed on the rear screen but I have to say that I now prefer the layout. For my taste it's a bit more intuitive.
One of my biggest grumbles with the Nikon was that I just couldn't take a decent hand-held image which meant that I only ever used it for serious work using a tripod. I wrongly assumed this would be the case for the Sony too, mainly because it apparently uses the same 36 million pixel sensor (one of the reasons I also purchased the Olympus to use for family snapshots and holidays). Surprisingly though hand-held images from the A7r look great. Due to a misunderstanding on my part I assumed I would be able to source an adaptor so that I could also use my Nikkor 70-200mm f.2.8 zoom lens - probably the best lens I've ever owned. This proved not to be the case which meant I had to sadly part exchange it for Sony's own 70-200 f4 lens which actually looks great in it's off-white livery but I'm not expecting it to be as good optically as the Nikon. With the Sony lens attached however, hand-held images are sharp and there is no sign of shutter vibration which has been reported to be an issue on more than one occassion. In fact, I haven't experienced any at all so far (hand-held or on a tripod) and neither has Joe as this is a question I asked him specifically. I think it's worth pointing out that although I find it a better camera to hand-hold than the Nikon, I'm not advocating it's use as a wildlife or sports camera.
I had been told from more than one source about the A7r's ability to go through battery power rather quickly therefore I did buy a second battery (they are rather small after all). But in general whenever I have taken it out for the day I only ever find the battery draining to around a quarter all day unless I'm doing long exposure work when I might need to insert the 2nd battery. This is no different than my experience with the D800E though (that said, I do tend to turn off my camera between images or when waiting around).
Whilst upgrading my equipment I knew I would need to purchase some adaptors so that I could use my Nikon-fit lenses. I knew I needed to buy the Kipon tilt/shift adaptor as this was the main reason for me upgrading. The adaptor appears well engineered and all moving joints have a high quality damped feel to them. There is a small (approx 2mm) radial left and right movement when attached to the camera and lens which worried me initially as I did wonder about light leakage. So far though I haven't experienced any, which is good news as most of the images made so far have been long exposures which, theoretically at least, would have highlighted the problem even more. I also decided to purchase the Metabones adaptor which is a plain, straight forward adaptor when I don't need the tilt or shift capability. In reality this is the adaptor I use most and is much easier to fit than the Kipon as you might expect. This again has a little left/right radial movement but not as much as the Kipon (around 1mm) but again I found no issue with light leakage.
Due to both adaptors not carrying electronics to and from the camera body you cannot zoom into the image to focus (unlike if you were to use Sony's own lenses). This would have been a disaster if it was not for the camera having 'focus peaking' - a relatively new feature finding its way into cameras that displays the most sharpest areas by means of coloured (I chose red) noise that "sparkles" around high contrast edges. So far this has proved to work perfectly. It would have been a totally different story if the camera didn't have this feature though.
[UPDATE: I've since found that there is indeed a zoom feature that works when the adaptor is fitted. I've assigned this feature to the bottom button within the scroll wheel on the back of the camera. Many thanks to Andrew Whyte (@LongExposures) for informing me of this.]
I've been asked about image sharpness using these adaptors and I have to say that images from my 25mm Zeiss lens appears as sharp as they did when fitted to the D800E without the adaptor. This is a very high quality lens however and I guess it's quite possible that using lesser quality glass will certainly have an impact on image quality when married up to the high resolution sensor found on the A7r.
I already knew that the dynamic range of the Sony would be incredible due to using the same sensor as the Nikon D800 - and I was right. I never cease to be amazed at how much detail this sensor can pull out from the shadows which is particularly useful for when you haven't quite timed a long exposure image as well as you could have or when you have needed to use a graduated filter over mountain peaks as in the image below (click to enlarge). Equally, the sensor is capable of pulling ample amounts of highlight detail that you might have thought lost on the back of the screen. Quite simply I would say that if your fieldcraft technique is sound, you shouldn't experience any dynamic range issues in post-production.
I haven't needed to change the way I process any images taken with the Sony over the way I processed the Nikon images. My software of choice, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, deal with the files admirably but I have recently updated my iMac to an i7 version with fusion drive which has certainly helped loading speeds.
Of course there is no such thing as the perfect camera and the A7r is no exception. There are one or two issues I would like to see sorted in a new version or better still a software upgrade (come on Sony, if Fuji can do it so can you)! The first is the slow write speeds to the SD card (and yes, I'm using a high speed card). I wouldn't like to think I was using it for wildlife but for landscape work it's fast enough. The second issue is the quality of the screen in low light. Yes, it's ever so slightly better than the D800 but not a patch compared to comparitively priced Canon's, which for a manufacturer of premium televisions is remarkable! The third issue is the time it takes to display the image at 100% on the back of the screen when you press the zoom button (i.e. when you want to examine all areas of the image closely to check it's sharp). This is so slow, you actually think you hadn't pushed the button and try again (then of course it proceeds back to the full image display again). My final complaint is that it only has the ability to display in native 3:2 and 16:9 crop format and doesn't have all the other crop factors I have available on my Olympus OMD-EM5 which cost only a third of the price (again Sony, let's have a software update for this so that we can use the camera in 5:4, 1:1, 4:3 and heck why not 22:9 - there is after all 36 million pixels to crop from)? All that said, compared to using a View Camera, these are petty quibbles for me.
Without doubt, the big attraction to buying the Sony for me is the flexibility it affords. I'm only at the start of the journey and I'm really look forward to adding different lenses, bellows, panoramic adaptors and so on in the future -and I can't wait!!
This blog is my first impressions of the Sony A7r and of course I've only scratched the surface when it comes to my experience using it so far. Time is my biggest enemy when writing these blogs so it's likely that I may not have answered a burning question you may have. Therefore, please feel free in contacting me via Facebook or Twitter (click the links on this website) and I will do my best to help with any questions you may have.