One year ago I became the happy owner of a new Sony A7 camera. I wanted to get this camera since it's conception, however, I ended up with it more out of necessity than desire. My previous camera – mirrorless APC-C sized Sony NEX-5R – which I bought as soon as it was released in 2013 got stolen along with all my gear. It served me well and I was able to get many nice pictures with it like this one:
And although I was very sad to lose it together with all the lenses, I was also excited about the possibilities that the new full-frame A7 with the inherent philosophy of mirrorless design would offer. So, was the excitement justified or did it turn out to be gimmick of a camera? There's no certain answer. As with everything, there's some good and some bad.
Before you continue reading on, however, you should note that all opinions in this article are personal and based on my use cases as landscape, travel and lifestyle photographer.
Sensor - it's downright amazing. When I picked up this camera it was the 9th highest ranking sensor on DxO Mark. Second to only such legendary cameras as the Nikon D800/800E/810, A7R and several medium format cameras. Now it's down to 15th place, which is still a great ranking, given that it's three years old. And real-life pictures lived up to expectations. With my APS-C I never would have imagined that you can get perfect looking images at ISO 1200!
No shutter-shock issues - this is a strange "good" point, but that was the main reason why I didn't get A7R with an even more amazing sensor and crazy-high 36 MP count. Unlike the Sony A7R, the Nikon D810 or even the Canon 5DS R, this camera doesn't suffer from shutter-shock blur. This is in part to its lower resolution, but mostly because it has an electronic first curtain and no mirror that can cause pre-capture vibrations. The A7R on the other hand doesn't have an electronic first curtain and the vibration from it affect the stability of the camera resulting in a noticeable blur in photos.
Body – I personally like body's design and the layout of the controls. Control dials are of a good quality and located in places you expect them. Coming from APS-C Sony body, controls were plenty, even though they completely fade compared to mirrorless Fujifilm and Olympus cameras. Another feature I adore, is weather-sealing that allows the camera to stay comfortable in conditions that even I can hardly bear.
Size – that’s one of the two most killer features of the A7 family. It’s super compact for interchangeable lens Full-Frame with no other camera coming close (except for maybe Leica M9). In fact, even the APS-C sized Fujifilm XT-2 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 are bigger. Also, the A7 seems even smaller in real-life than on the specifications page, due to a more protruding hand-grip from the body, which also makes this camera comfortable to hold.
Value – that’s the second most killer feature of the A7 family. This camera costs only $1300 and for that price you will not find a better combination of image quality and capabilities in any other camera. Every other camera that outperforms the A7 sensor-wise started at $2500 minimum and went as high up as $45,000. So you can say it's a pretty darn good value.
Lens selection – what can I say here? Lens selection for the camera is not small in and of itself, but just non-existent when it comes to middle-level lenses. Just look at this chart which says it all:
In the e-mount world, you only have a choice between a shitty $250 lens or the super quality GM series priced well over a thousand dollars (which by the way, due to their enormous size kill all the advantage of a small body). What I’d like to see, is more lenses like the gold value FE 28 mm F/2.0, which is my favorite lens by far. Any affordable portrait lens longer than 50 mm is completely absent from the Sony line-up which leaves no other choice but to turn to third party manufacturers.
…But everything is not great here either. It seems like in order to minimize the size, Sony got in over their heads and made it very difficult to produce native e-mount lens due to the short distance from the mount to the sensor. This results in manufacturers like Sigma not making native lenses for e-mount, instead pushing you towards getting an adapter for Sigma or Canon lens. But adapters, besides costing additional money and weight, do not work all that flawlessly.
Other manufacturers who make manual focus lenses like Samyang/Rokinon, just build the adapter into their “native e-mount” lenses, which makes them longer and heavier than Canon or Nikon versions.
Crude remote-control app – I think the remote control apps are a pain on any camera today, except maybe Hasselblad and Nikon. On Sony, it just kills me everytime, to the point where I stopped using it almost completely. The process is full of pain, from pairing the device to camera to transferring photos. The app doesn’t even allow you to transfer RAW photos for backup or post-processing in Lightroom mobile, so if you plan to travel with only your camera and iPad, you'll still need to get a card-reader for it.
Viewfinder – I really don’t understand why they make viewfinder sit in the middle of the camera. It's not like it's nessesary, since there's no mirror that it needs to be aligned with. I know that other manufacturers like Fujifilm and Olympus follow this trend too, probably to appear more DSLR-like, but it’s a bad trend, Sony! Before SLRs kicked in, all rangefinder cameras had their viewfinder on the side and for a good reason. When it’s off to the left side, like on A6300, you don’t constantly need to poke your nose against the camera body trying to use it! And if you prefer to aim with your left eye, it really makes no difference to you – you will touch the camera with your nose anyway.
Viewfinder quality itself isn’t bad by any means, but anyone who used a virtual reality headset will know that there’s a place for improvement in terms of pixel-density and color accuracy. I know that many people complain about the viewfinder blackout when shooting sports, but for me it’s hardly an issue as I don’t shoot fast moving subjects that often, and when I do, it still isn’t a bottleneck to get the best shot possible.
What does happen quite often, however, is that camera switches constantly to viewfinder from LCD when I wear white or a bright coloured shirt. This faulty eye-proximity sensor not only annoys me a great deal but also led to some missed street-photography moments.
Useless apps – Sony’s PlayMemories Apps are a pain in the butt. Not only are the apps significantly overpriced (starting at $10 per app) and extremely slow, the store itself requires steel nerves to sign up and start using (I constantly got region mismatch error!).
The apps themselves are so slow, that even TouchesShutter app that is great in theory because it allows you to wave your hand in front of the eye-proximity sensor of the viewfinder to trigger the shutter without disturbing the camera. But when it launches, it takes a good 5 seconds and then requires you to set all the settings to what you desire, because the apps do not have them transmitted from the camera, you start to think that it would be much easier to physically connect a remote to the camera and press a button on it, even if it’s only for 1 shot.
So, taking all of that into account, after a while I completely gave up on the apps, except for rare use of PlayMemories app to make a self-portrait or instantly upload captured image to Instagram.
Bad JPEGs – I haven’t been a JPEG shooter for a long time, but after this video and for the sake of this review I decided to see how good the A7 actually is with JPEGs. I will let you be the judge of that:
Updates – Sony is not committed to make cameras function better via software updates at all. Since the release date, there have been only 3 (!) updates for the A7, and 2 of these were to only add new lens support! In modern day, where software is just as important a part of the product as the hardware itself, I think such an attitude is unacceptable. Even more unacceptable is the fact that when Sony rolled out a software update for 14-bit Uncompressed RAW support, they limited it to only the latest generation of cameras: A7 II, A7S II and A7R II. Such lack of desire to make a product better over time as well as early support ditching, makes the relationship feel non-reciprocal and decreases loyalty to the brand
Terrible user-interface – menus, navigation and graphics are very crude. They feel like they come from Symbian smartphone form 2005 and will be alien to anyone who’s used to modern smartphones. This would hurt less if there was a hope that Sony would one day might fix it via a software update, but I’m sure this will never happen (see above).
On the related note, I don’t understand why they don’t feature a touchscreen in their “pro” cameras, because even my NEX-5R has it. Apparently some smart-ass at Sony, decided that it’s un-pro. To him, I may only wish to select focus point with A7 buttons for the rest of his life.
In general, I wish all manufacturers learned from Hasselblad X1D with its perfect and modern day interface and controls.
Functionality isn’t professionally oriented – sometimes using a Sony camera means you need to be stoic for no apparent reason. It drives me crazy that there’s no 5 shot bracketing with 1 stop interval, no 60 second in-camera exposure, no time-lapse feature, no focus bracketing and so on. Sony attempts to cover these fails by offering apps, but as we know they are not only extremely slow, but also fun-oriented and not suitable for professional use.
Another completely ridiculous thing, is that Sony doesn’t have a protocol for remote camera control that can be utilized by third-party software. That means if you do product photography work you cannot use such tethering software as Helicon Remote for focus stacking and even Capture One isn’t allowed live view (except for in second generation of A7 family)
Video quality – on the A7 it sucks big time. It wasn’t designed for professional use as a video camera and that’s okay, but when my iPhone 6 can get seeming better videos during the day, you know something is not right.
In short, the A7 is a great value camera for anybody who wants to get started with Full Frame photography and isn’t going to use it in dynamic situations. Given that, I can say that it’s almost an ideal camera for landscapes and still life, however, even in these scenarios the lack of certain features is apparent and irritating.
So, knowing all that I know now would I have bought it a year ago? That’s a tricky question and the answer to it is yes. At the time, there simply wasn’t any camera for a comparable price that could offer the same level of image quality for landscape photos.
But what if we re-phrase the question a little bit and ask “If it was time for an upgrade came today, would I buy another Sony camera or not?”, then the answer will be different. Today I would absolutely NOT buy the A7 II. Why? Because of the things mentioned in the ugly part of this review and the knowledge that equally priced Fujifilm X-T2 offers the same image quality PLUS the pleasure of use as well as commitment from the manufacturer to make it better overtime. But then again, if I had a bigger budget allowing for the Sony A7R II, I would go for it, because it simply offers the most superior image sensor and features in compact body to date.