Forget All That Noise! Shooting Stills with the Sony A7s

 

1-640 sec at f - 4.0ISO 3204
1-640 sec at f – 4.0 ISO 320, Sony FE 70-200 f/4.

The first mirrorless cameras had a tough time competing. It was the birth of EVF’s (electronic viewfinders), the cameras had small-ish sensors, most had slower autofocus performance and of course, they were smaller. Some scoffed at the idea of carrying around a  “toy” instead of their “Pro DSLR”. Fast forward to today, and Panasonic, Olympus, and Fuji are demonstrating tremendous innovation with their mirrorless cameras, and Sony has been rocking the NEX line of mirror less APS-C for some time now. Perceptions of compact cameras are changing, and the technology is changing even faster. All of a sudden, it seemed totally possible to have a compact, full frame,  mirror-less camera with interchangeable lenses.

The A7 series is born

Zoomin' and flashin'. Blam!
Zoomin’ and flashin’.

With the A7 series, Sony put pro-level image quality in a small package. The first model released was the Sony A7 which is a terrific bet for anyone that wants great image quality for portraiture, twenty-four megapixels, and a quick AF system for fast-moving targets like kids or sports. The hybrid autofocus system combines phase detection and contrast detection, making it fast and accurate.

The Sony A7r has a totally different sensor with even more megapixels- thirty-six million of them. Sony also removed the anti-aliasing filter, which only adds to the image clarity and sharpness. The A7r also has more dynamic range and color quality and captures slightly deeper color and detail than the A7. Sony really did make three different cameras out of one concept. Each with it’s own strengths and quirks.

When the A7r was released, the landscape, fine art, and architectural photographers took notice.  Pro DSLR’s were starting to feel really heavy all of a sudden. What could the next sensor possibly be? Fifty megapixels? Sixty?

1-160 sec at f - 9.0 ISO 400, Sony FE 24-70 f/4
1-160 sec at f – 9.0 ISO 400, Sony FE 24-70 f/4

Twelve.

That’s it. The Sony A7s has a twelve megapixel sensor.

The main reason for a twelve megapixel sensor is video capture. This is a sensor built to handle sharp, high quality video. This is the first full frame sensor with no line skipping or pixel binning. It is designed to read every pixel on the sensor, in addition to using Sony’s XAVC-S codec.  All of this leads to sharper and generally better looking video. The bigger pixels improve low-light autofocus, which works very well in near darkness.Plus, uncompressed 4k video can be outputted from the HDMI to an external recorder which will be available soon from these guys in addition to an impressive list of video features that we will get into in more depth in part 2!

Some may tend to fixate on resolution, and for some shots, it is better to have higher resolution. But resolution isn’t necessarily the main factor in determining image quality. In fact, if the sensor has good dynamic range, low noise, and some quality lens, the photos will actually print pretty large.

A pleasant side effect of less pixels is larger pixels. When there are larger pixels, there is less pixel density, which tends to lead to less noise in your images. That theory seemed to work for Sony and photographers and videographers have started to notice.

10.0 sec at f – 4.0 ISO 6400, Sony FE 23-70 f/4. Beach under moonlight.

A pleasant side effect of less pixels is larger pixels. When there are larger pixels, there is less pixel density, which tends to less noise in your images. That theory seemed to work for Sony and people have started to notice.

The Sony A7s has, almost single-handedly, changed the conversation from who has the most megapixels to who’s got the best low-light sensitivity.  The fact is, the ability to  go multiple stops higher in ISO than thought previously possible is incredibly useful to so many photographers. Everyone seems to want a camera that gets better low light photos. The $6,000 pro-level DSLR used to be the only ticket into the low-light club, but with the A7s the barrier of entry in to that club is incredibly lower.

Anyone who likes to shoot in available light can use faster shutter speeds in more situations, with less noise and more detail.  That is great news for shooters that like take photos without a lot of fuss and lighting. I love lighting stuff up, but sometimes you just want to capture the scene. This sensor technology let you do that. Street shooters have been waiting for an answer to the Leica style camera, and with the A7s you can easily adapt Leica lenses with an inexpensive adapter.

1-640 sec at f - 8.0ISO 320, Sony FE 70-200.
1-640 sec at f – 8.0ISO 320, Sony FE 70-200. The herons in this area were mean and feisty.

While I don’t consider myself a birder or an action photographer, shooting moving subjects with a fast-focusing and sharp telephoto is always a good time. The Sony FE 70-200 f/4 is one telephoto that is nothing but fun and wicked sharp. Some people need the extra stop of light that they get from a 70-200 that has a f2.8 aperture, but do you really need that 2.8 f-stop if your camera gives you ISO’s in the thousands. That will be debated, for sure, but either way, an f/4 zoom is almost always lighter and less expensive than a typical f2.8 zoom. If you are traveling, on a budget, or keeping the pack weight down, it’s a great way to go.

When I am traveling, the lighter the better and I always want a small, lightweight system. A couple of years ago there was no such thing. If you wanted image quality, you needed a bigger camera. When compared to a medium format film camera, this camera is pocket-sized and it is not a problem at all to carry it everywhere. All I need is a Black Rapid wrist strap to stop me from the dropsies, because when the camera is this light who needs a full strap?

My go-to travel tripod is a MeFoto Road Trip Carbon. This tripod is as versatile as it gets. It breaks down super small, has a built-in monopod and weighs 3.1 pounds. It’s built to handle higher end gear so the wight capacity tops out at 17.6 pounds. I wouldn’t put that much camera up there, but the legs are sturdy and the twist are weather resistant and last forever.

The tonal qualities of the images from the A7s is what really surprises me. Of course, I expected the camera to produce rich RAW files, but I was still taken by surprise. Some early reviews stated that they give almost a medium format feel to the images. I can say that it is about as close as I have seen to medium format from a 35mm size sensor.  I suspect that it is the large pixel size that helps maintain the tonal richness and detail, even when under-exposing the shadows. This is a major plus for low-light and black and white shooting.

1-640 sec at f - 4.0 ISO 400, Sony FE 24-70 f/4.
1-640 sec at f – 4.0 ISO 400, Sony FE 24-70 f/4.

This camera gives you a depth that is hard to put your finger on, but it’s there. There is just an intangible quality that makes it so much fun to shoot. I love to see what the RAW files look like out of the camera, so the following gallery is made up of all RAW files that were exported as jpegs from Lightroom 5. No edits were done besides any default processing put there by the program. Some appear edited in the previous gallery, so changes made by my edits can be seen compared to the flat RAW.

Photographing fireworks at 1/13 of a second is usually not the way it is done. Normally a long exposure is taken to catch the opening of the firework. I wanted to see how a much higher shutter speed captured  the explosion. The spot where the fireworks were all exploding is blown out, but they illuminated the treeline with color and smoke that is very interesting to see. And, yes, that is the correct metadata… thirty-two THOUSAND.  You are even able to see tonal differences in the trees, not to mention that these fireworks were 10pm at night in total darkness.

It is not just the noise levels that are impressive. Most cameras processors can get rid of noise- at a cost. That cost is detail, sharpness, dynamic range and overall image quality. This camera seems to soak up the light without destroying the parts of the image that matter.

We are officially in the low-light era of photography now, ladies and gentlemen. There is so much more latitude with this sensor, that it is almost revolutionary. The options for people who love to shoot long exposures, astrophotography, or the kids playing at dusk have just been expanded exponentially. Where there is freedom of exposure settings, there are opportunities that were just not there before.

There is no turning back- cameras will now be judged more than ever on their low light capability and dynamic range. That’s a welcome change of pace from the megapixel race.

Get it here.

1-100 sec at f - 13 ISO 100, Sony FE 24-70 f/4.
1-100 sec at f – 13 ISO 100, Sony FE 24-70 f/4.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will focus on the video capabilities of the A7s.

TJ Hansen

Photographer at MPEX.com

19 thoughts on “Forget All That Noise! Shooting Stills with the Sony A7s

  1. Right on the money! I have both the A7R andA7S, and they’re both winners! Hard to say this after being a Canon fan-bois for many decades…

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  2. Hey, kinda late on this, but what picture profile are you generally using for your stills? I understand that RAW is the way to go, but I figure that the profile does affect the RAW image. Thanks

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    1. Mike,
      Picture profiles do not affect the RAW format, but will affect video files and JPEGs the most. The profiles are designed to give you control over the color density/saturation, gamma, knee, and other aspects of the image that are only super important to deal with when making a compressed image, ie; video files or otherwise compressed image files. RAW files still come out the same whatever picture profile or ‘Creative Style’ you use. That’s my understanding, hope this helps!

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      1. They actually affect the raws a lot in terms of dynamic range, noise and details. I shoot with an a7rii and an a7s and use different profiles on each of them based on the level of light in my scene. PP7 is good for low light because there is so much DR with this setting. This is good if you’ve street lights etc. One thing to mention though it automatically brings your iso to 3200 to preserve the shadows in order to get less noise. The a7s can handle this with ease however so don’t be put off.

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  3. As far as everyday shooting goes, have you had any issues with the 12MP? Have you had any instances where you couldn’t crop enough to get the look you wanted? I don’t usually crop a lot but I do straighten my lines, does that mess with the over all quality of the final product? Have you printed images from this sensor yet?

    Thanks for the good read!

    Jacob

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    1. Jacob,
      I’m glad you enjoyed it!
      I would say that the resolution only affects it when the final product is a very large print. I have printed 13X19 at 300dpi with no problem at all. I wouldn’t go larger than that unless you printed at a lower resoution. If you are posting mostly online, the 12mp files are great! The large pixel pitch (size of the pixels) lends a really good look to the image, not to mention the noise-less nature of the files. If you want large gallery prints you will probably be better off with something like the A7R or even the 24mp A7II. Hope that helps!

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  4. It does, thank you.

    Do you have any complaints about the low ISO quality? I am asking because I would essentially be using it as an everyday camera for daylight, indoor shots, night shooting, etc.

    As far as printing goes, what would be the lowest dpi you would recommend? I’ve printed at 11×14 as well as 12×18 but I don’t know if I’d ever want to print bigger than that.

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    1. Low ISO is great. Matched with a sharp lens and some good light, it is as good as any camera I have used. As far as DPI, I have not printed below 240 DPI, but the main consideration for print resolution is viewing distance. If the viewer can get right up to a print, you want a higher print resolution. You can put a 12mp file on a billborad, as long as people will view from far away. Up to 13×19 in my experience is fantastic!

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  5. “Matched with a sharp lens and some good light, it is as good as any camera I have used.”

    I’m assuming then that the older manual focus lenses that I have wouldn’t be a good fit then?

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    1. In my opinion, they are great! I use an old Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 all the time and it is amazing. Some of the old lenses can vignette or flare, but I love the way they look. I think you would be fine!

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    2. Jacob, it depends on which old manual focus lenses you have. I don’t own a single FE lens – I mainly use old film lenses, and my collection perform superbly on my a7s and a7r. My oldest is a 1969 Leica 135/4 tele-Elmar-M, which makes stunningly detailed pics, and it wasn’t expensive (£270 from a dealer).

      There are loads of reviews on the web, where ppl write about their experiences with these a7 bodies and old lenses. Plus checkout images for your lenses with a7 bodies on Flickr. My modest portfolio can show what’s possible with old lenses, even after just a few years of taking photography seriously.

      http://www.anthonymak.org

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  6. Great review TJ. I must agree, there are times when I leave my a7r behind even in good daylight, because stills out of the a7s are just so good. I was persuaded when I saw Steve Huff’s pics in his review. That said, ive not been brave enough yet to use it for landscape photography above my a7r. How do you think the a7s I and II compare to the a7r ii for stills? Which is also great in low light.

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    1. Anthony,
      I definitely think that the A7s series is great for all types of photography, although the low resolution makes it a dicey choice for a lot of landscape shooters. In myopinion, if resolution is not a concern, it’s great, but, very large prints would be better handled by your A7r… unless you were shooting at very high ISO. When using high ISO (above 3200 or so) the A7s files are just great.

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