OK guys, today is my second day with the Sony A7, and I am nose deep in testing, and racking my brains to figure out how this camera actually fares against my trusty NEX7. I’ll try to be clear but that’ll be hard, as my thoughts are pretty muddy themselves.
I remember the first time I saw a drawing of the A7, way before the first real picture was ever leaked. I remember the bout of anger than ran through me. Sony bastards had taken a *perfect* design, the NEX7’s sleek, sexy and functional one, and broken it to bits by adding this massive and ugly faux prism on top. Boy, I was mad. I’ll tell you what, the anger has gone, because what I thought was purely a marketing decision (emulating an SLR shape to accomodate the US market, OM-D like) was apparently in fact an operational one. The A7 has two huge things to fit in its very compact body : an enormous imaging sensor (nearly FOUR times the size of the EM-1’s, whose body has extremely similar dimensions to the A7), and a very large EVF module. If the NEX 7 and A7 had to be compared on the count of the EVF alone, the new camera would kick the older one to the moon, and back. Not to say the NEX7’s EVF is bad, far from it. It was for a long time class leading, and I still enjoy it and find it perfectly usable, but the A7’s EVF is a thing of beauty, and immensely useful. It is a huge improvement over the N7’s, and almost worth the upgrade alone.
I guess what I’m trying to say, is that the N7’s design still is very superior and better in my view. Until now, the N7 seemed like a complex and sophisticated device. Today, compared to the A7, it just appears for the elegantly simple and effective tool that it is. The N7 works with two wonderfully dampened metal top wheels (identical in design, look and feel, and unmarked) and a back thumb wheel. All three of them are “hot” or “live” controls, meaning they are active at all times, not needing any button press to change settings on the fly (unless you purposefully lock the back wheel). This is made possible by the straightforward shooting modes (other than Auto) than the N7 offers : Aperture, Shutter, Manual. In A mode the left wheel controls aperture, and the right one exposure compensation. The back thumbwheel can change ISO at all times, which includes an Auto value ranging from 100 to 1600. In Shutter mode the left wheel = shutter speed, right = exposure comp. In Manual, the left wheel controls shutter speed, and the right, aperture, with no Auto ISO available. Additionally, the small unmarked button next to the shutter release, cycles to as many as five pages of custom settings, one of which can host up to three custom settings, making the N7 both amazingly simple to use, and almost infinitely configurable.
Now, the situation that arises with the A7 is this : Auto ISO is now available in Manual mode. And yes, this is not entirely new, as it also is on the A58, for example (and A99, for that matter). But this much requested function is nearly useless on the A58, since if you’re not entirely happy with the exposure the camera choses in this configuration, you have to press a button before rotating a wheel to override the camera’s chosen ISO value. That’s a pain in the butt, and defies he whole concept of greater control that is the core of Manual mode. Now, the A7 ‘s Auto ISO in Manual becomes fully useful because of the *dedicated physical exposure compensation wheel* that lies on top of the camera. Pick your aperture and shutter, enable auto ISO (with selectable range from 100 to 6400), and if the resulting exposure is not right where you want it, you can just turn the exposure compensation wheel either way to alter it. In other modes than Manual, if the exposure compensation wheel is a little firm (it has to be this way not to be knocked accidentally) or uncomfortably placed for you, you can still assign exposure compensation to either rotating dials of the A7. But basically I believe Auto ISO in Manual is the primary reason of existence for this separate, physical exposure compensation wheel. That and wanting to look like the Fuji X Pro, lol…
So instead of having a clean, flat metal top à la NEX7, the A7 has the protruding exp. comp. wheel, AND a thicker and dedicated, physical mode dial. It takes the function of the center button of the back wheel on the N7, allowing this very button to be mapped to a number of custom functions of your choice (I chose to let it enable TrackOn AF). And, of course, the biggest protruding part of all on the A7’s top plate is the humongous EVF housing, with hotshoe on top. So where the N7 has both wheels, shutter, power ON and function buttons flush in the top plate, the A7 has a raised exp.comp. wheel, shutter button with (very nice feeling) ON/OFF metal switch around it, mode dial, and last, the EVF “hump”.
ISO 2000 – Please do not judge the camera by my pictures, that’d be very unfair. I totally feel like I am *not* mastering the camera at this point, and not getting the output I want out of it. Which is pretty normal on the second day of ownership, I’d say.
OK, so the A7 gives you a lot of extra controls, and a lot of extra customization options. You get no less than nice different external controls that you can map to your liking, plus two accessible shortcut menus, one of each is configurable, with up to 12 personal functions. So trust me, it is NOT an easy camera to use out of the box.
The one thing I am truly enjoying on this camera is how good and workable both the EVF and the screen are for manual focus. I personally NEVER use magnification. I shoot live beings that always end up moving, even if in the slightest way, so Focus Peaking is the only viable and truly effective manual focus aid for me. And unlike what has been reported by various early reviewers, FP works absolutely great on this camera, better than on any other NEX to date. The one thing that does sadden me though, is that if you enable Auto ISO in Manual mode, exposure preview isn’t 100% accurate, hence not entirely reliable. The camera will slightly impact exposure on the LCD (or in the EVF) to visually translate your compensation, but only within a limited range that doesn’t match, IMO the actual -/+3 stops of the exp. comp. wheel (if anyone has a better explanation and wants to contribute on this, please do so in the comment section !).
I guess my expectations may be too high. I briefly tried the Nikon D600 about a month ago and I can say with reasonable certainty that its output is vastly superior to the A7’s at high ISO in low light. Which doesn’t mean the A7’s is bad, far from it, I’d rate it a very solid stop, or two smaller ones, over the N7.
As I said, don’t judge the camera by any of my low light pictures, which are all unsatisfactory for me, so far. I’m sure with proper experimenting and testing, it can do better than this.
But feel free to judge it by those, because this DR and color response are for real
A word on the “zebra” feature, that nodody mentions much. It’s mostly aimed at (and used by) videographers, in the first place. You remember the “blinkies” you can turn on in Image Review on most digital cameras ? Well imagine instead of those annoying white flashing zones, that you get a much more subdued white and black stripes pattern sort of “rolling” over the washed out zones of you image. You can configure the sensitivity of those, from 70 to 100, the latter meaning pure, blown white (I set mine at 95, and find it pretty helpful). It’s a very tricky feature to describe with words, but is pretty intuitive to use in person. Where it can get slightly confusing is when (as in my case) you have it turned on along with Focus Peaking, because at times it means a lot of shimmering and shining stuff in your frame.
So how do I judge the A7 so far, and more specifically vs. the N7 ?? It’s a tough question to answer !! One thing I do think is that if offers terrific value. Best DR in the market in a nearly pocketable body, and plenty of super useful controls to boot. Great build and pretty sleek finish, too. And, icing on the cake, FF.
How it will benefit MY photography over the N7 remains to be seen. My kid will be riding tomorrow and that’s gonna be the ultimate test. I still have fresh in mind the output of the N7 in that frightfully dark barn, as well as the D600’s IQ in the same conditions. I’ll see on what side of the spectrum the A7 errs, and decide what to do with it accordingly. Please remember that this is the worst time of the year to judge a camera. Light has packed where I leave, and will stay gone for the next 5 months, or so, so that means a lot of indoor situations that are gonna pose high ISO and WB issues, not that many cameras can gracefully deal with. On a positive note I’m really hopeful about the A7 and very well see myself keeping and loving it, but my bond with the N7 is such that I’m not gonna be turned over by the A7 overnight. For any of you contemplating the opportunity to pick up an N7 now, let me assure you it remains the exceptionally fine and capable camera it was at release, and it totally can give the mighty A7 a run for its money.