REVIEW: Sony Alpha 7S
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This article, originally published on August 7, is reissued here to highlight the addition of a MICROCAST track.
1: The 1940s flappy mirror box design (DSLR) is ancient tech that is marketed by old men for old men, and it's holding back imaging technology.
2: Sensor size and megapixel count don’t matter if they’re not optimized. It’s all about getting as much light as possible onto that sensor to make the most of its size.
So, more megapixels means less light per pixel, and a larger sensor with fewer megapixels captures more light and detail than a sensor twice its size.
With the ever increasing push for high megapixels in both the full-frame and APS markets, there were really no options for low-light performance or image quality that warranted the almost exponential price and size premiums over the smaller Micro Four Thirds system cameras (like the Panasonic Lumix GH4).
Armchair enthusiasts point to reviews and beat their chests about this, but real world experience has told me that unless your photography requires that extra 5% of performance that the highest-end (double-sized and triple-priced) DSLRs provide, anything bigger than the Micro 4/3 sensor was a waste… Until Now.
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
Physically, the Sony α7S is identical to the other two in Sony’s α7, full-frame e-mount range. It is roughly the same size, shape and design as the Olympus EM-1, and if Sony and Olympus weren’t already bedfellows, I’d have some snarkier things to say about that similarity. It is a great physical design, however, and despite the angles and edges it falls pretty well even into my larger hands.
The body is leaner than the Panasonic GH3/4 and is practically anorexic when compared to the old man flappy mirror cams. Its slim proportions, however, are offset by the large glassware attached to the front. But it can’t really be helped - the glass has to serve light to a full-frame 35mm sensor after all.
It has a very ‘retro camera' look to it. It evokes something of a black, machined, metallic rendition of classical roman sculpture, and every surface feels like quality. Even Apple devices feel decidedly cheap when fondled alongside the α7S. Every button has a satisfyingly clicky feedback sensation, without the actual click. The shutter button and multifunction wheels are metal, and most importantly, they feel metal. In the hand, it gives off the physical satisfaction of the old manual Minolta XD without all the annoying winding, light meter adjustments, and film processing.
The only real sacrifice that Sony asks us to make is in the battery life department. The α7S’ slender form really doesn’t leave much room, and battery life suffers accordingly. To say it was terrible would be accurate, but somewhat harsh. Accurate, because it really does have the worst battery life of any camera I’ve ever used...ever. Unfair, because anyone who shoots kit in this thing’s price range will always carry extras. As a bonus though, the camera can be charged with a USB cable, so I found myself juicing it up from the portable battery pack I carry around for my phone.
Brave New World
Once you get over fondling the sexy industrial design, point the 24-70mm F4.0 Zeiss-branded standard lens at something and press the machined metal shutter, feed light directly into the sensor without the lethargic thumping of a mirror in in the way, then the magic begins.
With its mere 12.4 megapixels, spread across the full massive (by modern standards) 35mm Exmor CMOS sensor, the α7S brings a whole new meaning to Robert Browning’s classic truism “Less is More.” Fewer pixels means each pixel is larger and can absorb more light. This makes for crisp details in standard lighting and downright unbelievable performance in low-light situations. The BIONZ X image processor is quick, capable, and beautifully calibrated to the sensor.
Image quality is staggering. I want to say mind-blowing but thanks to imbeciles on social media everything is mind-blowing these days so it loses impact as a descriptive term. But really, what it gives up in resolution it makes up for in almost medium format levels of sharpness, colour, lighting, hell - EVERYTHING!
This is as close to seeing with my own particularly well functioning eyes as any consumer camera has ever come. You can smell grass, feel the asphalt, and hear the bustling city streets; the clarity of the images stirs your imagination and activates your senses.
In sunlight, I do find myself missing the crisp, large, detailed images that the Nikon D800 and Sony α7R can churn out. It’s not so much that those cameras are sharper, but that you can crop your shots down to appreciate the sharpness in more intimate detail, especially on retina/4k displays. They also give you leeway to shoot and crop later. With the α7S, you’re under more pressure to get it right when you shoot because excessive cropping reduces the size of images a bit too much. I found myself taking time to compose my shots a little better, but because we only had one lens to test with, I did have to crop down more than I would have liked.
Fear of The Dark
When the light begins to change, and other cameras begin to feel a little strange, the α7S comes into its own. It can shoot up to a truly perception befuddling 409600 ISO. I can’t show you what that actually means because I couldn’t find anywhere in Tokyo dark enough to need more than half that. Of course, shooting at high ISO levels introduces noise but up to 12800 ISO images are great, and if you invest in faster glass it’s all you will ever need…
...unless you need more, in which case up to 32000 ISO is still plenty usable depending on what you are using it for. From 64000 ISO, noise becomes an issue, but the massive ISO range means that even with noise you can capture discernable images and footage in near darkness. When paired with its silent shooting mode, this could make for an excellent spy camera.
From Here to Eternity
With just the F4.0 24mm-70mm general purpose zoom at 12800 ISO, this camera shattered my perceptions of what was capable in low light. I was snapping shots on the move with one hand and they were not a blurry mess. I can only imagine how much fun the 55mm f1.8 would have been. It would allow me to shoot nighttime city streets at 200- ISO, and not only would I capture all the action in low light, but with image quality levels that my brain can’t compute.
1/8sec F4.0 12800 ISO - Full Gallery
The α7S has great dynamic range, especially when shooting RAW format shots. You can bring a lot out in post because it captures so much light. If you are a RAW shooter, you may hardly ever need use the exposure compensation. Even with JPEGs, there is so much light taken in by the sensor, it captures such detail that the shots can withstand quite a significant amount of Lightroom fondling.
The camera’s focus speed and accuracy were also stunning, and when I would set a focus point, it was nailed every time. When paired with the amazing sensor, I could set the ISO to 800 or 1600 for lightning-quick shutter speeds, in sunlight, for street shots, and would have a good chance of capturing subjects walking toward the camera before they fell out of focus. It was a refreshing experience. I could literally point and shoot, and unlike point-and-shoot cameras, it generally took what I pointed at.
On par with Olympus’ latest offerings, and in all honesty a better experience than even the best pentaprisms on high-end DSLRs, the α7S’ electronic viewfinder was a delight to use. It was so good, in fact, that I tended to prefer it to the rear display. When paired with focus magnification and focus peaking, it made manual shooting a joy. Better than any of the old film cameras I’ve used.
When the α7 range launched, sony announced the merging of their Alpha (α) and NEX camera lines, and that they were going with the e-mount as the sole mount for all of them. To accommodate for the larger sensor, the full-frame specific lenses developed for the α7 range are named FE to indicate their ability to cover the full frame sensor.
The α7S can also use standard e-mount lenses, and when doing so, the sensor automatically switches to APS mode and crops down the image. This gives α7S shooters a rather extensive catalogue of glass to chose from.
Sony also has two adapters to let shooters use their old alpha lenses with the α7S. The LA-EA3 is the simpler of the two, allowing the camera to control the lens settings, but lacking phase detection autofocus. The LA-EA4, however, transplants their translucent mirror system from their Older alpha line, providing high speed, phase detection auto-focus and a proper drive motor to ensure that old α-Mount lenses perform on the α7S as they would on an α99.
When Two Worlds Collide
The α7S is Sony’s first MILC where video is a primary, marketed feature and not just an additional one. At 12.4 megapixels, it shoots native 4K, so there’s no need to bin pixels or crunch down sizes, which makes for extremely crisp, detailed, Panasonic GH4-beating 4k footage with almost no moire and aliasing (if the promo videos are to be believed).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t try it for myself because there is one tiny catch: it doesn’t record 4k in-camera. You need to attach an external recorder to accept the uncompressed 4k HDMI stream. Owning this gear is no problem for the hardcore video guys out there because that’s just a prerequisite for getting the best, uncompressed video from any interchangeable-lens camera. But for hybrid photographers who travel light, the weight and price of the added recorder along with the special rigging needed to mount it all together seem like an unnecessary waste of time, money (¥40,000/$400 for the recorder, ¥15,000/$150 to ¥50,000/$500 for the rig parts depending on the brand), and effort.
It does record 60fps 1080p and 120fps 720p in-camera at a respectable 50mb/s using Sony’s own XAVC S codec. Based on their professional XAVC codec, it is robust, high-quality, and comparable to the other codecs available for video specific ILCs. It does a bunch of other codecs too:
1920 x 1080/60p@28Mbps
1920 x 1080/60i@24Mbps
1920 x 1080/60i@17Mbps
1920 x 1080/24p@24Mbps
1920 x 1080/24p@17Mbps
HD - 1440 x 1080/30p@12Mbps
VGA - 640 x 480/30p@3Mbps
With only a week of review, there wasn’t the time really get into video in general as much as I would have liked, let alone explore a bunch of lesser consumer codecs that anyone shooting for an edit would likely never use.
In practice, I found the video shooting experience to be a little clunky. The lack of image stabilization on the lens or in-body makes anything handheld a shaky affair. If one were going out specifically to shoot video then preparing a tripod/monopod/shoulder rig in advance would be fine, but if you are out and about and a video opportunity happens, it’s going to look like very high-quality family camcorder stuff.
There was a dedicated video mode on the mode dial but no (apparent) dedicated video options in the settings menu, so it took a lot of button pressing and wading through unnecessary menus to change stuff up. That said, when the settings are sorted and shots are stabilized, the result is beautiful. All the crispness and detail that comes out in the stills, comes out in the video.
The Number of the Beast
As I’ve mentioned already, this a beautiful piece of industrial design, but let’s face it - Sony almost always makes really beautiful, really high-quality cameras, so in a way the α7S was expected to look and feel stunning.
However, anyone who has used a Sony camera (and many of their other consumer electronics products) will also know that one area where Sony always seems to fall down in is interface design. It’s not terrible, but coming from a Panasonic mirrorless camera, it feels like going from Windows 8.1 to Windows 3.1. The menus navigate strangely. Some settings-related options are in the wrong settings categories. There is no dedicated video options section, and in general it just feels tedious.
The tedium turns to frustration with the button layout, which, when compared to just about every other brand of camera on the market, is entirely illogical. The video button is on an obscure part of the hand grip and it's very uncomfortable to press. The angle also makes it the one button on the whole camera that doesn’t give good, tangible feedback. When navigating photos, the zoom, return, and options buttons seem to have been selected at random and sometimes ask for strange hand juggling when reviewing shots. Even Sony’s own A99 makes reviewing shots easier. Changing focus points required 10 or more button presses and I found myself using manual focus with focus peaking more often just because it frustrated me so much to change the focus points. It would be fine if it had a touchscreen, but…
IT DOESN’T HAVE A TOUCHSCREEN!
This is probably the only actual problem I had with this camera. If it had one, all the button issues and little niggling frustrations would evaporate, because touchscreen. But it doesn’t. It’s 2014 and there is no touchscreen. Unbelieveable. Yeah I know, people like the manual, mechanical camera experience but if they want to do Street Fighter combos to make their camera work they can turn the touch screen off. Not giving us the option, especially at this camera’s price point, is very poor form on Sony’s part.
My short time with the α7S was a beautiful and blissful affair - enough to whet my appetite for the creative possibilities it could unlock, but just not enough to really come to terms with the interface enough to unlock them.. As a result, this review was a little thin on the actual nuts and bolts abilities of the camera.
That said, I am now having a really hard time accepting the image quality from my Panasonic GH3, which is by no means a bad camera. At the same time, I didn’t enjoy the hand-held video shooting experience of the α7S as much as the GH3 and GH4. Strange button positioning aside, I think that might be a personal habit issue more than the camera itself.
I see the α7S like I saw the Panasonic GH1 five years ago. Back then, the Canon 7D was the big cheese, and the GH1 was more a proof of concept; three generations later, the GH4 is the vanguard of hybrid photography. Likewise, Sony has taken the full-frame sensor away from its exclusive DSLR domain and done with it something that conservative camera makers seem hellbent on avoiding. In doing so, Sony has signed the death warrant for their own DSLR range, and by extension, everyone else’s. There is no reason why anyone without an investment in lenses should even look at DSLRs anymore.
In the mirrorless market, competition is tougher. The Panasonic Lumix GH4 is fast becoming the king of the hill and with its cheaper entry price and superior usability, it’s a very difficult decision to make.
Would I, with my investment in M4/3 lenses, take a Sony α7S over a GH4? I want to say I don’t know, but The α7S’ sensor is everything I’ve always wanted in a digital camera. Since I do take more photos than video for work, I think I might even be willing to deal with the lack of touch screen for the massive photo quality upgrade. So, a tentative “Yes.”
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All Photos & Videos by Senior Contributor Nayalan Moodley, AKA DarcNoodles - Darc.jp.
Thanks to Mr. Jin Tomohari and Ms. Haruka Kitagawa at Sony for providing a review unit. For Sony’s official specs and details see: Sony α7S.
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