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