Sony a7: A Feature-Rich Full-frame Mirrorless Camera [Review]
The full-frame camera selection has been almost exclusively a professional-level market for many years. Even now, very few full-frame cameras are available for less than $2,000 brand new. This places them well beyond what a beginner or even intermediate photographer would be comfortable spending.
The Sony a7 rocked the digital camera world by being both the lightest and least expensive full-frame camera available. In addition, it’s a mirrorless camera, which means it does not have a system of internal mirrors like a DSLR. Instead, the sensor functions as viewfinder, image creator, and autofocus system. The mirrorless design helps cut down on weight. But being lightweight and having a budget MSRP only scratch the surface of this camera. Quality-wise, what does the Sony a7 bring to the table?
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Table of Contents
- MSRP: $999.99 body-only, or $1,199.99 with kit lens
- Kit Lens: FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens. FE lenses are Sony full-frame mirrorless camera lenses. OSS refers to the “Optical Steady Shot” in-lens image stabilization.
- Sensor: 24.3 MP Full-frame sensor (sized 35 x 24 mm)
- Number of Autofocus Points: 117 Phase Detection points, 25 Contrast detection points
- Built-In Flash: None. The A7 has a hot shoe attachment that can be used to add an external flash.
- Continuous Shooting: 5 frames per second
- ISO Range: 100-25,600, with a digital drop to ISO 50. Unlike a digital boost, digital ISO drops are very useful. ISO 50 allows for even slower shutter speeds in bright lighting. The camera software reduces the overall light sensitivity without adding image noise. Digital ISO boosts use software to increase sensitivity past the highest native ISO level. However, they also add extreme amounts of image noise to the photograph, making them nearly unusable.
- Video Recording Capability: Full HD 1920×1080 (60, 24 fps), 4:3 Aspect Ratio Full HD 1440×1080 (30 fps), HD 1280×720 (30 fps), SD 640×480 (30 fps)
- Image Format: JPEG and RAW. JPEG is the image format used by most devices to display photographs. The a7 has JPEG Standard, JPEG Fine, and JPEG Extra Fine. Extra Fine uses the full 24.3 MP of the camera. Fine uses half photo resolution, and Standard a quarter of the photo resolution. Lower photo resolutions are great for conserving memory card space. RAW is the highest quality image format. It preserves all of the original image data, whereas a JPEG is compressed. RAW photography gives the best results when editing images on the computer.
- Wireless Connectivity: Yes; the Sony a7 has Wi-Fi and NFC (Near Field Communication). With the PlayMemories mobile app, compatible smart devices can be used to remotely control the a7. Images taken can also be sent directly to the smart device for easy storage and sharing online.
- Battery Life (CIPA Rating): 340 images per charge
- Weight: 474 g (1.04 lb / 16.72 oz)
- Dimensions: 127 x 94 x 48 mm (5 x 3.7 x 1.89 in)
The a7 weighs in at 474 g (1.04 lb / 16.72 oz), which is less than an average sized DSLR like the the Canon T7i at 532 g (1.17 lb / 18.77 oz). And far less than a full-frame DSLR like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which weighs in at 890 g (1.96 lb / 31.39 oz). The a7 also has a plastic and magnesium body instead of the plastic-only design normally used in cheaper cameras. Magnesium is very light and corrosion resistant, yet strong and durable. The front panel of the camera is entirely plastic, with a well textured hand grip.
On top, the camera has three dials; the mode dial, a front dial, and a dedicated exposure dial. The 921,600 pixel tilting LCD screen is not not fully articulating but can tilt up and down. Taking shots above and below obstacles is much easier with the a7. But side angled photos are more difficult to compose without an articulating LCD. There’s also a rear thumb dial in addition to 9 fully customizable buttons of the back of the Sony a7. Notably the Sony a7 does not have a built-in flash unit. However, there is a hot shoe above the electronic viewfinder to add a separate flash unit.
While the a7 is durable and resistant to the elements, Sony does not actually call the a7 “weatherized.” Instead, Sony uses the words “weather safe,” which is an odd way to phrase it. Photographers in the past have claimed the a7 is not truly weatherized, so Sony seems to have changed the wording slightly. The Sony a7R and a7S use a pure metal body, so the a7 is probably not as safe as those two. With weather sealing around the buttons and a double layered body, it would take a fair amount of weather exposure to give the a7 trouble. The operating temperature is listed as 0℃ to 40℃ (32℉ to 104℉). While the a7 may not be as weather resistant as its siblings, it’s not a fragile camera by any means.
The hype surrounding this camera lies in having a full-frame sensor in such a small body at an affordable price. Most full-frame cameras on the market are DSLRs. Thanks to their space consuming optical viewfinder and phase detection autofocus systems, they are usually much larger than mirrorless cameras. The camera also has to be large because a full-frame sensor is itself, larger than an APS-C or Micro 4/3rds sensors. “Full-frame” is the same size as the 35mm film a film camera would use; 35 or 36 x 24 mm. Most digital cameras have sensors somewhat smaller. APS-C sensors are the most common type found in the low to middle tier DSLR market, and are sized approximately 23 x 15 mm. Micro 4/3rds sensors sit at 17.3 x 13.0 mm. And point-and-shoot cameras generally max out with 1″ sensors, sized 12.8 x 9.6 mm.
While a full-frame sensor is not at all mandatory, there are significant advantages to buying the largest sensor you can afford. One often overlooked point is that the pixels of a full-frame camera are larger than that of a smaller sensor camera. The Sony a7 has 24.3 megapixels of image resolution. Inexpensive point-and-shoots like Sony’s own Cybershot line, max out at around 20 MP. While the resolutions are comparable, the sensor area of the a7 is nearly seven times that of a Cybershot camera. Therefore, the individual pixels are also many times larger.
Larger pixels can collect more light and create a much stronger signal for the camera to sense. The strong signal means background noise from the other electronic components won’t have as much of an effect. On a small sensor, this background noise can create false signals the camera interprets as pixels activating. The result is random pixels of noise in your photos. Tiny, closely packed pixels can even create noise interference with each other. It’s actually better to have less megapixels if you’re going to purchase a compact camera.
Another benefit is that the depth of field control on full-frame cameras is the best available. Depth of field is how much or how little of a scene is in sharp focus. Having all of the scene in focus is easy enough. But with a full-frame sensor and a wide open lens aperture, you can achieve an extremely thin depth of field. However, this isn’t necessary for everyone.
For someone who likes macro photography, this will be a huge draw. The reason for this is quite simple; a full-frame sensor has no crop factor. Any sensor smaller than full-frame has a “crop factor.” The crop factor describes how much smaller the field of view is compared to a 35mm view.
With a full-frame sensor you need to move the camera closer to the subject than you would with a camera with a smaller sensor. When you do so, the depth of field for the same view becomes narrower. If you try to take the exact same scene with an APS-C sensor, you’ll need to move the camera back slightly. When you do so, slightly more of the scene will be in focus, which increases the depth of field. Taking the same image with a 1″ sensor, you’ll need to have the camera far back compared to a full-frame sensor. Even with the same aperture, a lot more of the scene will be in focus with a full-frame sensor. Therefore, if maximum depth of field control is important, you want the largest sensor you can afford.
What additional features does the Sony a7 have?
The Sony a7 uses a hybrid autofocus system that combines the best elements from phase and contrast detection. Most mirrorless cameras use contrast detection, which searches for the highest image contrast. Many smartphones and most compact cameras use contrast detection, and as you’ve no doubt seen, it’s fairly slow. The lens has to pan in and out as the sensor analyzes the image to determine the optimum focus. Phase detection, used by most DSLR cameras, uses paired autofocus sensors that analyze light hitting them from the subject. If the received images differ between the pairs, the camera knows the focus is off and makes adjustments. Phase detection is much faster than contrast detection but it’s not nearly as accurate.
Hybrid autofocus is a feature found on many mirrorless cameras and it combines both speed and accuracy. The Sony a7 has 117 on-chip phase detection sensors rather than a dedicated phase detection autofocus system. It also has 25 contrast detection AF points that work together with the phase detection system. Focus is quickly locked in with phase detection and then perfected with contrast detection.
The a7 also introduces Eye AF, which locks onto the pupil of your subject even when the head is partially turned aside. This allows for perfect focus on the part of the face that attracts immediate attention. Lock-on AF is the same as Continuous AF in other cameras; the Sony a7 will track the subject as it moves across the area. Activating Flexible spot AF lets you tell the camera exactly which AF points to work with for extra versatility. And the other areas can be excluded; a handy feature if your subject is not moving much.
The electronic viewfinder of the Sony a7 is truly a pleasure to operate. The a7’s Tru-finder EVF has some of the finest exposure and focus controls available for a camera priced below $1,500. For example, the photographer can zoom in on the EVF display before taking the picture. Sometimes simply relying on the EVF image means you might actually miss optimum focus. But with the Tru-finder zoom of the a7, you can make micro focus adjustments to ensure your image will be focused perfectly.
Bokeh on the EVF or LCD often look great in-camera. But once you view on your computer screen, you realize you just missed perfect bokeh focus. The a7’s EVF is designed to display bokeh just as well as the in-focus portions of the photograph. The a7’s Tru-finder helps get perfect composition and focus with little guesswork.
Focus peaking is another extremely useful tool that’s finally becoming available to the intermediate camera market. This feature creates colored lines on a subject in the EVF showing where the camera’s focus is sharpest. Focus peaking is much faster than zooming in on the EVF, yet still allows for precision focus control.
Zebra patterns are another valuable tool that at first seem similar to focus peaking. Except zebra patterns actually show where the image is potentially overexposed. When looking at a subject in the EVF, a series of bright stripes along the head may appear where the lighting is most direct. This means the image will probably be overexposed and slightly washed out in that area.
How does the Sony a7 compare to the Nikon D610?
The price bracket of the a7 makes it hard to compare to other full-frame cameras. It’s the first full-frame camera to be reachable with a beginner to intermediate budget. Features aside, MSRP is one of the most important considerations for any shopper, beginner or professional. The Nikon D610 is also one of the least expensive full-frame cameras available. Let’s see how they match up.
Advantages of the Sony a7
Size and Weight: The Nikon D610 at 850 g (1.87 lb / 29.98 oz), is almost twice as heavy as the Sony a7 at 474 g (1.04 lb / 16.72 oz). It’s also significantly bulkier at 141 x 113 x 82 mm (5.55 x 4.45 x 3.23 in) for the D610 vs 127 x 94 x 48 mm (5 x 3.7 x 1.89 in) for the a7.
Electronic Viewfinder: The Tru-finder EVF displays an incredible wealth of information compared to the traditional optical viewfinder of the D610. Histograms, zebra patterns, focus peaking, and more, are all readily available tools in the a7. The D610 can display a histogram, but only after a photo is taken. And it has none of the other tools the EVF of the a7 offers.
Autofocus Points and System: The a7 has 117 phase detection points with 25 Contrast detection points. The D610 only has 39 phase detection points.
Price: The Sony a7’s MSRP of $999.99 body-only is significantly less expensive than the Nikon D610 at $1,599.95 body-only.
Advantages of the Nikon D610
Number of Available Lenses: The Nikon F-mount series currently has 278 lenses usable with the D610. The Sony FE-mount series currently has 71 lenses usable with the a7. While the vast majority of users won’t own more than a dozen lenses, Nikon offers a much larger selection.
Battery life: At 900 images per charge, the D610 has far more stamina than the Sony a7 at 340 images per charge.
Flash Unit: The Nikon D610 has a built-in flash with a range of 12.0 m (at ISO 100). The Sony a7 does not have a built-in flash.
The Sony a7 crams an incredibly diverse set of features into its compact design. The Nikon D610 has a traditional DSLR design but lacks a lot of functionality for such an expensive camera. DSLR vs mirrorless depends entirely on your personal preferences; neither is better or worse than the other. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and more portable than DSLR cameras. But the EVF system and smaller batteries mean they have less stamina compared to DSLRs. A photographer who already owns a dozen Nikon lenses will give the D610 much more attention. For a buyer not invested in a brand of lenses, the Sony a7 has a lot to offer compared to the Nikon D610.
How does the Sony a7 II compare to the Sony a7?
The Sony a7 II is the newer version of the Sony a7 with a few more features. The MSRP is significantly more expensive at $1,599.99 body-only for the a7 II vs $999.99 body-only for the a7. But what does that extra $600 get you? For one, in-body image stabilization. In-lens image stabilization is standard for both OSS kit lenses. But five-axis in-body IS means any lens you use on the Sony a7 II will have image stabilization. Whenever a photographer shoots handheld, small motions from their hands and body can create motion blur in the photos. The more image stabilization a photographer has, the more motion blur can be reduced or eliminated. If you regularly shoot without a tripod, this is an extremely useful feature. However, the sensor stabilizer of the a7 makes it somewhat larger and heavier as well.
The a7 II is over 100 grams heavier at 599 g (1.32 lb / 21.13 oz) and thicker at 127 x 96 x 60 mm (5 x 3.78 x 2.36 in). Battery life is only slightly improved at 350 images per charge. But the a7 II has an all-metal aluminum-magnesium body, just like the higher end a7R and a7S. And the hybrid AF system is improved on the a7 II; according to Sony, it is 30% faster than the a7. Overall, the Sony a7 II brings many upgrades to the a7. But whether in-body image stabilization, increased AF speeds, and a fully metal chassis are worth the extra money depends entirely on the user. The a7 remains an excellent camera for the price.
One might be tempted to think that the cheapest model of a premium category means a heavy sacrifice in terms of quality and functionality. The Sony a7 completely shatters this idea. The a7 is a full-frame, full-featured camera that’s also relatively inexpensive. It delivers in every area, from image quality to autofocus. It’s durable, if not weatherized, and has features for every level of photographer.
Beginners will find the usual scene and artistic modes, like HDR (high dynamic range) and Monochrome, very handy. The exposure dial is readily available for easy adjustments without navigating a series of obscure menus. 117 selectable autofocus points allows for a wide variety of creative focus compositions. And a suite of professional tools, like zebra patterns and focus peaking, are there to help make the most of that full-frame sensor. The Sony a7 is an absolute bargain for the image quality and features it has to offer.