Review: Sony Alpha 7R Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera

Almost perfect, shame about the battery life

Our score: 4/5
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Published: November 5, 2013 2:01 PM
By Bruno Labarbere
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
The Sony Alpha 7R is an eagerly awaited camera because—along with its Alpha 7 low-pass-filter-clad counterpart—it’s the first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera to use a 36-Megapixel full-frame sensor. Spec-wise, that’s enough to rival the best professional SLRs, but this Sony snapper also happens to rock a compact and easily portable build.  Impressed? You will be …

Handling4/5



Review: Sony Alpha 7R  with R1 and NEX 7
Sony RX1, Sony Alpha 7R, Sony NEX-7

With a body as wide as the NEX-7 and as thick as the RX1, the Sony Alpha 7R sits well in hand thanks to its shapely grip handle and surprisingly lightweight design, especially when loaded with the Sonnar T* FE 35 mm f/2.8 lens Sony sent us to test it with. Fingers fall naturally over the controls on the camera’s upper edge. You don’t need especially large hands to find your thumb right in line with the mode-selection dial, exposure-settings dial and rear thumb-wheel. Similarly, your index finger finds the front settings wheel and shutter-release without even having to try. Note that the shutter-release button has a very soft press that’s reminiscent of squeezy shutter-release bulbs. That can take a little getting used to. Oh, and in case you were wondering, there’s no way of plugging those kind of remote releases into the A7R, as it doesn’t have the right connection. The A7R makes a clear, sharp noise when taking a photo, like two thin blades of aluminium hitting against one another. It’s a duller and deeper sound that we might have liked, but that’s just us nitpicking.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  with RX1 and NEX 7
Sony RX1, Sony Alpha 7R, Sony NEX-7

Again, the controls on the back of the camera all fall in the right places for easy handling. We found the playback button a bit too low down, but that’s no doubt debatable. The “C2” and “Menu” buttons next to the viewfinder can be tricky to reach, as the camera body dips inwards above the screen. Still, they’re not likely to get pressed by accident. The same goes for the video record button too, which is right around the corner of the camera’s body to the right of the screen. In the end, that’s not such a bad place for it. All the wheels and dials are nicely notched for precise control and handling. The only exception is the settings wheel around the four-way arrow buttons which, like on Sony’s NEX cameras, is too smooth and loose feeling , and can get knocked round unintentionally.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  TRIO
Sony RX1, Sony Alpha 7R, Sony NEX-7

The SD card slot is found under a little hatch on the side of the camera to the right of the screen, which keeps the memory card accessible when using the A7R on a tripod. It’s in its own separate compartment rather than with the battery. There's a guide to help you get the card in the right way round, but its dark finish makes it hard to see when using the 7R indoors or in low light. A bit of white or yellow paint would have made all the difference. On the other side of the camera, the HDMI and USB connections, as well as headphones and mic ports, are housed in two unmarked compartments. They have robust, hinge-mounted covers that push closed and lock with a click.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R gamma, colour temp, delta E
 Gamma, colour temperature and Delta E

The Alpha 7R has a 3” vertical-tilt screen with 921,600 dots. The aspect ratio is 3:2. The display is generally pleasant to use, even if a more extreme tilt or swivel would have made it even more practical. Touchscreen controls would have made a nice addition too. Still, that doesn’t stop this display picking up greasy fingerprints. The onscreen image isn’t perfectly accurately calibrated, but it’s far from the kind of crazy colours seen in some lower-end cameras. Blacks and dark greys with less than 50% white are reproduced well, but light greys and whites tend to get overexposed. Colour fidelity is OK but there’s room for improvement, with an average Delta E at 4.8. The strongest deviations are seen in grey shades and pinky/peachy flesh tones. Note that Delta E measures the difference between perfectly reproduced colours and those actually displayed onscreen—colours can be considered accurate with a Delta E of 0 to 3. The colour temperature of 7029 K also makes the onscreen image a little cold.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  tilt screen
Sony Alpha A7R tilt screen

The Alpha 7R has a Tru-Finder OLED electronic viewfinder with 2,359,926 dots and 100% coverage. The image is very sharp and highly detailed. You need to stare at the electronic level for ages to finally spot a hint of aliasing. A focus peaking mode is on hand for help with manual focusing—we recommend setting it to "High" to make the peaking easier to see, especially when using manual lenses (see inset, below). The EVF image only lags when the exposure time heads over around 1.5 seconds. Otherwise, it’s nice and smooth. Advanced users can adjust the EVF’s colour temperature, but only with a seemingly arbitrary set of values. One strange thing about this EVF is that it shows an exposure scale of ±5 EV whereas the camera's physical exposure correction dial only runs to ±3 EV. As a result, the two highest and lowest values don’t serve any real purpose, since as soon as you head past ±3 EV the arrows fall off the scale and just sit there flashing, so you’ve got no idea if you’re at -4 EV or +5 EV or beyond. There’s an eye sensor to automatically switch between the EVF and the LCD but it’s a bit over-sensitive. Olympus is king of the hill on that front.

And while we’re on the subject of lining up shots, remember that any APS-C lenses you decide to use with the Alpha 7R won’t be able to cover the full size of the full-frame sensor. The A7R automatically recognises these lenses and crops the image to show you in real time what the final snap will look like. Here’s what you get with an E-mount 18-55 mm kit lens.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  APSC crop

Up until now, the Alpha 7R was walking its way to a five star score for design and handling. However, the A7R stumbles at the final hurdling, missing out on the five stars it deserves due to its dodgy battery life. From a practical point of view, it definitely seemed like a good idea to load the A7R with the same battery as Sony’s NEX interchangeable lens cameras—that’s the NP-FW50 7.7 Wh, 1080 mAh Li-ion battery. But while this battery does a good job in the NEX-3N, it’s hard to imagine how the same model could be expected to run a camera with a sensor that’s 2.25 times bigger and has 2.25 times as many pixels, not to mention an OLED viewfinder, Wi-Fi and NFC. On a single full charge, the battery level already drops to 80% after around 40 shots—and that’s when shooting indoors in battery-friendly temperatures. When shooting outside in the cold, the power gets drained even more quickly. After around 240 shots, it’ll be time to load the Alpha 7R with the second battery you hopefully remembered to order alongside the camera. Oh, and while you’re at it, you’ll need to pick up the stand-alone battery charger so you can leave one battery charging while using the other in the A7R. Sony unfortunately only supplies a USB charging cable as standard, so unless you pick up the optional charger, the A7R will effectively be out of use while charging. You can save power by switching to in-flight mode in the “Connectivity” menu, which cuts out NFC and Wi-Fi. Plus, it’s a wise idea to set the “C3” custom button to LCD On/Off, as that can help keep the camera running for a few extra photos.

For anyone thinking of loading the Alpha 7R with Leica lenses, these battery woes may be reminiscent of the M9, which also had a pretty disastrous battery life. Still, six years down the line, Leica has managed to put things right with its latest M, and Sony will hopefully do the same
one day. In the meantime, it’s worth picking up two or three extra batteries (and the charger) or the battery grip accessory.


Responsiveness3/5



The Alpha 7R is way too slow to start up, taking almost three seconds to switch on and shoot a first photo—and that’s with Wi-Fi and NFC off! Plus, anyone hoping to save time by using a manual lens will only be able to gain a few tenths of a second. Slow is bad enough, but the Alpha 7R is also inconsistent. It sometimes starts up in 2.4 seconds and sometimes makes you wait the best part of 5 seconds. And that’s all the more disappointing since it’s an otherwise speedy snapper.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  responsiveness

With JPG photos weighing in at just over 10 MB (sometimes reaching up to 15 MB), the A7R is ready to shoot its next photo in less than a second. And it’s just as fast to turn around 35.2 MB RAW files and the heavyweight 45 MB RAW+JPG duo. What's more, the 4.2 fps burst mode is quite remarkable. In fact, it’s on par with the Nikon D800! It keeps on shooting at 4.2 fps for 19 JPG photos or 14 RAW shots, which gives you plenty of room for manoeuvre. Both in good light and in darker conditions, the absence of a phase-detection AF system isn’t really a problem, as the A7R focuses quickly.

Picture Quality5/5



Since the A7R isn’t selling with any specific kit lens, we tested ours with the Zeiss Sonnar T* 35 mm f/2.8 FE lens, one of four models Sony has released alongside its new full-frame Alphas. This lens was widely criticised when announced with the A7 and A7R—mainly for its hefty price tag—before anyone had even had a chance to use it. And the naysayers may need to rethink their position, as this lens actually does a good job—a very good job even—managing to do justice to the sensor’s 36 million pixels.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  image quality
The ring of blur: the bottom row of images show part of the scene further to the left of the frame than the top row

This lens is very sharp at full aperture, with quality peaking at f/8 in terms of detail and consistency over the frame. Although it’s mostly irreproachable, between f/4 and f/5.6 a ring of blur is clearly visible about two thirds of the way from the edge of the frame. And that’s even more noticeable since the edges of the frame are actually clear and sharp. Strange.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  ISO test

The new BionzX imaging engine performs incredibly well here, keeping moiré effects to a minimum in spite of the fact that there’s no low-pass filter. In some shots, you might just be able to spot a small bright red fringe around very highly contrasted areas, but only if you zoom into shots at 100%.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  red fringe
Red fringes in highly contrasted zones, but only visible when you zoom in 100%

The ISO test results are just amazing. As if we needed any more convincing, the ISO shots are clear confirmation that the A7R sets a new standard for image quality. Unless you’re looking to make large-format prints bigger than 1 x 1.5 metres, you can shoot away happily up to 6400 ISO without a second thought. Beyond that, digital noise does kick in, but even at 12800 ISO, overall quality is better than what many other cameras are capable of at 1600 ISO.

There is some vignetting in the corners of the frame at the very highest ISO settings. Plus, the A7R has a slight tendency to under-expose shots, and this becomes more noticeable as the ISO setting increases. Still, it’s not really a problem for shooting in real-life situations. In fact, it actually makes sense, since it keeps the scene looking realistic when the light starts to fade.

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  detail
An amazing level of minute detail is captured, from intricate patterns on the banknote (top left) and fine feathers (top right) to fabric texture (bottom left) and tiny details from the map (bottom right).
The full scene from which these close-up shots are taken can be found in the Face-Off.

Hats off to Sony! Image quality is close to perfection with the A7R. Shots are incredibly sharp, finely detailed and mouth-watering to look at. Honestly, this is top-notch stuff that pro users will be able to savour in RAW or JPEG X.FINE format (although with the latter option you’ll end up with 27 MB files!).

Review: Sony Alpha 7R  real life

 Review: Sony Alpha 7R  sample shot


Video5/5



The Alpha 7R clearly benefits from Sony’s many years’ experience making professional camcorders. It can film AVCH v2 video in 1920 x 1080 pixels at 60, 50, 25 and 24 fps (or 60/50i) or MP4 video in 1440 x 1080 pixels at 30 or 25 fps. The video bitrate can reach up to 28 Mbps (60/50p). All of the exposure modes (PSAM) are available, as well as creative filters and a digital zoom. The ISO Auto function runs up to 6400 ISO but the sensitivity can be user-set at any time while you film.

Audio quality is excellent. The built-in microphones are perfectly located on either side of the viewfinder’s housing at the top of the camera. As a result, stray fingers aren’t likely to cover them up by accident. If that’s not enough, an external mic can be plugged into the mic mini-jack. Used with the headphones socket for audio monitoring, you can hear just how powerful, precise and vibrant the recorded sound actually is. That’s a real bonus for anyone looking for a lightweight camera for video journalism.
4/5 Sony Alpha 7R DigitalVersus 2013-11-05 15:01:00

Pros

  • 36-Megapixel full-frame sensor
  • Exceptionally good picture quality
  • Fast autofocus
  • Big, comfortable, good-quality viewfinder
  • Plenty of controls, good layout, practical handling
  • Video: excellent image quality and sound
  • Compact and light
  • Good range of connections
  • Compatible with a wide range of manual lenses
  • Compatible with E-mount APS-C lenses for NEX cameras (with automatic cropping)

Cons

  • Battery life is way too low (240 photos)
  • No stand-alone battery charger (USB cable only)
  • Slow to start up (3 seconds)
  • Big file sizes can prove challenging for some computers when editing
  • No touchscreen
  • No built-in flash
  • No way of entering the focal length when using manual lenses

Conclusion

The Sony Alpha 7R is an impeccably good camera that's not far from flawless. Picture quality is exceptionally good, the controls and lightweight build ensure first-rate handling, and the autofocus is fast in spite of the fact that it only uses a contrast-detection system. The A7R doesn't have much to envy of pro-level SLRs, and it'll no doubt cast a shadow over Leica's M. However, the Alpha 7R misses out on a five-star review for its low battery life and sluggish start-up time.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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