Frustration and Reward - A Year With The Sony A7R

The internet is saturated with reviews of Sony's first generation A7r. I know because I have probably read most of those published up to October 2014 and a few more since. A recent email exchange with a friend asking me for my thoughts and advise on the Sony A7r, prompted me to take stock of my personal experiences with the camera since taking the decision to switch from DSLRs to Sony's mirrorless system.

This isn't intended as an in-depth technical review (there are plenty of really technical and detailed reviews, sample images, charts and figures already available) but rather, it's a quick mishmash of honest thoughts, likes and dislikes that I've experienced working with the Sony A7r over the last 14 months.

Why Sony A7r?

A little over a year ago, after much research and deliberation, I took the plunge to a full-frame mirrorless system. Taking into consideration as many requirements as possible, my final choice was Sony's A7r and, to be honest, it has been both a fruitful and frustrating experience. My two primary reasons for switching were for this camera's impressive dynamic range and the inherent size advantages of a mirrorless system´s more compact design. While I have undoubtedly benefited from the first, the latter, well... not so much.

Sony A7r in its most compact form with a native 35mm F2.8 lens next to my Canon DSLR

Any ol' glass just won't do.

To truly exploit its awesome digital sensor the A7r demands high quality glass in front of it. In the 3rd quarter of 2014, native lenses with Sony's full frame E-mount (known as FE-Mount) were still relatively scarce and generally more expensive than their DSLR counterparts. One of the heavily marketed advantages of Sony's new system was the possibility of mounting any number of non-Sony lenses via the use of an appropriate adapter. A year ago, my stock focal length for landscape photography (16-35mm) wasn't available in an FE-mount so I went with Canon's new EF 16-35mm F/4 L IS. This is a relatively larger and heavier lens compared to Sony's recently released FE-mount equivalent. While the camera's size and weight advantage was instantly negated by this adapted lens, I did benefit from the ability to marry this great lens and incredible sensor for landscape and commercial work. The use of an adapter undoubtedly makes Auto Focus (AF) slow, especially in low-light. However, as I have always used manual focussing for landscape photography, I have no regrets about this wonderful Canon and Sony partnership. Furthermore, from what I have been reading, the general consensus is that the Canon is a optically sharper lens across the whole frame compared to Sony's new FE 16-35 F/4.

The good news for Sony FE users is that over the second half of 2015, both Sony and Zeiss have clearly demonstrated their commitment to the new mount with the increased range of native FE system lenses now becoming available. I also have no doubt that other third party manufacturers will follow suit.

Working with the camera.

I like to best describe the A7r as a technical camera. A considered and methodical approach provides the very best results for landscape, commercial property and product photography. This is the approach the A7r is best suited to. If you have fast-paced photography needs requiring lightening auto focus speeds, Sony's A7r is not even a close fit. Frame bursts and snappy auto-focus are clearly not this camera's forte. For this kind of photography, I use a Sony A6000 with Zeiss, Sony and Sigma prime lenses. This combination provides a blisteringly fast, accurate and capable experience. I should clarify that I have found auto-focus speed with native FE and E-mount lenses on the A7r more than acceptable. Once again, Sony seems to be listening and responding to its critics, offering newer and faster focusing versions of the A7 system with upgraded auto-focus and in-camera stabilisation on their new mark 2 models. In fact, Sony can now offer a flavour of the A7 series camera to suit most requirements, but unsurprisingly, no one model will cover all photographic needs.

The A7r's "customisability" is supported via a huge choice of menu options. Flexibility is undoubtedly a very desirable and useful feature. Unfortunately, if your memory is anything like mine, it can also make the seemingly infinite list of settings seem daunting and feel counter productive. Coming from a Canon system, I certainly struggled in the early weeks. However, as with most things, practice helps the process become second nature and the choices in set-up can ultimately help speed up workflow and accuracy.

Design ergonomics and the camera's weather-sealed build quality are excellent. The A7r has survived several good dousings of rain and seawater without problems. Button placement is generally OK but Sony still manages to throw some curve-balls with a couple of poorly placed ones which haven't been addressed in the updated models either.  I guess they didn't feel the need to so perhaps this is just me being picky!

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is large and bright with all the camera information you could possibly need including histogram and a useful pitch and roll indicator. The EVF does get a little "choppy" in very low light sometimes making composition difficult. There is an easy workaround for this by raising the ISO setting temporarily while you compose and focus and then dropping it back down to the required setting. The rear tilting screen is also very useful and was a major consideration for me at the time of purchase. While lacking the more flexible articulation of some other cameras, the screen´s up and down tilt helps considerably when challenging high or low angles are in play or you just simply don't fancy kneeling or lying on the cold wet ground while you compose and set-up the camera.

Menu à la carte

Much has been written about Sony's menu system and I have to agree with the general consensus - it certainly leaves a lot to be desired. There are so many intricate and illogical layers covering a huge number of functions. This gives the camera great flexibility but it is the menu's layout, the order and the headings that have come under heavy criticism. I personally don't care much about the aesthetics but trying to find items you seldom use can take much longer than is necessary. Its just plain crazy! This is also true of the A6000 as they are very similar and from what I've seen, the "trend" continues in Sony's updated A7 "mark 2" models. You will get used to it, but it takes time and lacks the flow and intuitiveness of some rival manufacturer's interfaces. Sony really need a complete overhaul towards a more logical and efficient experience.

A Pocket Full of Batteries

Compared to a DSLR, battery life on the A7r just plain SUCKS! I have all the unnecessary battery-burning options turned off and power saving options enabled...but believe me when I say it REALLY SUCKS!! I understand the camera's small form factor is enabled by a smaller battery design but, while the A6000 uses the same battery and does "reasonably" well, the A7r just burns through them so much quicker that it can be quite scary at times. To help combat this, I've been using a battery grip to help reduce the need to change batteries. The additional upside of the battery grip is that it provides better balance and stability with larger, heavier lenses. The downside? – it adds weight and bulk. The photo below helps illustrate why the advantages of the camera body's compact form are pretty much negated if you don't use native lenses and/or don't want to worry about constantly switching out dead batteries.

Not so compact! - Sony A7r with battery grip attached, L-Plate and Canon 16-35mm

Not So Flash

One of my biggest gripes is with Sony's hot-shoe. Getting non-Sony flashes and flash remote control units to seat-in correctly onto the hot-shoe contacts without fuss is nigh-on impossible. There is a plethora of advise and hacks on the internet dedicated to this problem. It's so hit-and-miss, really time consuming, frustrating and usually results in a stream of profanity! The same problem exists on the A6000. What a pain. Sony really need to sort this one out for their future models.

The Earth shakes and flocks of birds take flight

Some of the biggest criticisms the original A7r model has suffered on the internet has been surrounding the camera's shutter system. "It's so loud it can be heard across entire continents!!" "The vibration from the shutter causes the earth to tremble". OK, perhaps a slight exaggeration? But, that's the general gist of the criticisms and there were certainly many detractors (and trolls) on the forums a year ago that swore that time, space and acoustics were catastrophically affected each time an A7r was used to take a picture.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. For me personally, neither "problem" has been a problem. Yes, the shutter is audibly less than subtle but I don't reach for ear-defenders and brace myself each time I'm about to press the shutter release button. In fact, I quite like it. It's purposeful and satisfying. As for the "shutter-shock" issue (the vibration caused by the shutter resulting in blurred photographs) this has to one extent or another, been around for a long time on some other camera systems particularly when using longer telephoto lenses. As I predominantly shoot on a tripod, with a grip and with a remote for added stability, I haven't come across this personally. Sony seem to have addressed this better in the new Sony A7rii by introducing an electronic front curtain (EFS) and rolling (silent) shutter modes.

Love it or Hate It (A.K.A. The Marmite Analogy)

Here's my verdict, for what it's worth. The Sony A7r is a highly flexible but quirky instrument. It was a huge step for Sony when it was first launched and some say it was a game changer.  However, as with all cameras, it is far from perfect. It clearly polarised opinions as many cameras do. I get the sense that the A7r probably has detractors and fanboys in equal numbers.

A good all-around photography tool it most certainly is not. General purpose photographers need not apply. What the Sony A7r does fit is a niche for landscape photographers in particular. The camera will punish a sloppy approach but hugely reward concentration and care with beautifully sharp images full of dynamic range and detail. In my opinion it's worth learning to live with and managing its shortcomings for the results than can be achieved.

I know I've used the following analogy before but it works so well and certainly holds true in this case. Sony's A7r is like Marmite - you will either love it or hate it. And I have grown to love it!

rush (Marbesa beach)

the rockpool