The a7R Experience

November 02, 2014  •  7 Comments

This Recurring DreamThis Recurring DreamFalls Creek Falls · Falls Creek · Gifford Pinchot National Forest · Carson · Washington · USA

Photos of Falls Creek Falls from this lower perspective are becoming increasingly common these days, and while the novelty of it could be expected to wear off, hopefully the visceral impact of it won't. It certainly doesn't feel that way when you're standing there flanked by steep canyon walls rimmed with towering old-growth trees like oversized palisades, skin refreshingly cooled by waves of mist generated by the 91-foot-tall lower tier, eardrums under constant assault by the endless hydraulic reverberations. No, I don't see myself ever becoming numb to this scene, be it under conditions of abundant sunshine, clouds, rain, or, someday hopefully, snow and ice.

The dynamic range rendered above was captured via a single raw file with the Sony a7R.

 

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A lot of people have been asking me lately about my experiences with the Sony a7R mirrorless full-frame camera, so I thought I'd finally share them in a blog post for quick and easy reference.

First let me explain my reason for making the switch from my Canon EOS 5D Mark II (5DII, we'll call it).  The 5DII was a pretty substantial upgrade from my prior Canon 20D (8 MP versus 21 MP, APS-C crop versus full-frame, weather sealing and general build and construction, and so on), but I found myself extremely dissatisfied with the poor dynamic range it exhibited when compared to cameras from Nikon and Sony, including those utilizing the Sony Exmor CMOS sensor (i.e., the Nikon D8x0 series and the Sony a7R).  When I first broadcast that I was exploring the idea of moving on from Canon because I was disappointed with their stagnation in improving their sensors' low-ISO dynamic range and noise performance, there seemed to be a segment of responders who treated my inquiries like I was engaging in a pissing contest, for lack of a more precise term.  Forget about your equipment and just go out and shoot and It's not the camera that makes the photograph, it's the photographer were common refrains.  (The most presumptuous and insulting one was, Quit wasting your time talking about equipment and go work on your composition...not directed at me specifically, but rather offensive nonetheless.)

The thing these folks didn't seem to understand wasn't that I thought better equipment would make me a better photographer, but that I wanted equipment that would help me realize my photographic vision more easily and efficiently.  I wanted to spend more time in the field confident that I'd captured all the imaging data I needed to bring my vision to bear and less time in front of the computer working to overcome the equipment-related limitations faced at the time of capture.

The simplest explanation for why I made the jump to Sony rather than to Nikon was that I wanted to continue to be able to use my legacy Canon lenses via aftermarket adapters while swapping them out for native (non-adapted) lenses as opportunities presented, and monitoring the trends in new product developments and rumor sites for the respective brands led me to place greater faith in Sony continuing to push the boundaries to bring innovative, why-didn't-anybody-else-think-of-that?-type products to consumers.  Stagnation just doesn't seem to be in Sony's lexicon.

That said, allow me to sum up my feelings about the a7R as simply as possible:  I love it.  Is it a perfect camera?  Certainly not, and you can read the itemized nitpicks below for more details.  I suspect the next iteration of a7x cameras will address many of the issues discussed, but as it is it's a fun camera to use that simply helps me get the job done much more easily than did the 5DII.  As I'd hoped, I now spend far less time laboring on the computer at multi-exposure blending.  In fact, I can't think of a single composition I've made with the a7R that's required blending more than two exposures for dynamic range--and the large majority of them have needed only one.

So without further ado, on to the details...

CONS:

Loud shutter. Not an issue for me since I don't do street or wedding photography that requires me to be more discreet.

Dual shutter curtains--mechanical and electrical. The downside to this is that if you're shooting with a long lens, you could get motion blur from the mechanical shutter slap, necessitating a higher-(or slower-)than-usual shutter speed. Not too often is this an issue for the type of photography I do, but I do encounter situations where it could often enough that I'd still like to see a firmware update that allows for a time delay after the mechanical curtain. I suspect that the reason I haven't seen this by now, however, is that it's not possible to fix via a firmware change. See http://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/52584736 and http://www.sonyalpharumors.com/the-shutter-vibration-issue-explained-by-joseph-holmes/ for more nitty-gritty details on this issue.

My Metabones adapter has a tiny bit of axial wobble on it, which I eventually learned is a feature of the E mount ring rather than the adapter itself. Fotodiox supposedly has an aftermarket fix for this, but I don't feel comfortable monkeying around with the camera that close to the sensor. Ultimately, it just means that I need to take care when I'm taking multiple exposures I'm intending on blending so that I don't wobble the camera and tilt the horizons--but even if I do, that's easily addressed in Photoshop via freely rotating the out-of-alignment layer.

With filter adapters and holders on the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, you get a little bit of vignetting and thus lose a bit of your wide-angle range. The useful range on the f/2.8L II thus becomes 18- or 19-36mm with a Lee Foundation Kit and adapter attached, with brackets for three filters. I recently upgraded the f/2.8L II to the new f/4 IS version (with a 77mm-diameter filter thread instead of the f/2.8L II's 82mm), and I'm pleased to announce there is ZERO vignetting with filters attached even at f/22. Awesome!

Internal glare/reflection issue from the Metabones adapter. I have the Mark III, but the Mark IV has fixed this issue. I've only seen the glare thing come up in a tiny handful of shots, so this hasn't been a big issue for me at all.

The rear wheel dial, which controls ISO, white balance, and some others, is a bit too easy to turn accidentally. Just have to maintain awareness when using the camera to avoid inadvertently changing up a setting.

Overly-sensitive electronic viewfinder--temporarily shuts off the LCD screen if your hand gets too near the EVF (such as when you're trying to shield the LCD screen from glare on a sunny day). Another very minor issue.

Shorter battery life than the 5DII. I'd estimate about 20-30% fewer shots per charge, I suspect due to the EVF and LCD screen and also the smaller battery size. I carry two spare packs on day trips and have never needed to reach for the last pack so far (and I tend to do a lot of long exposure work).

Lightness of the body means the center of gravity is shifted forward when using heavier lenses. I use a Hejnar L bracket on the adapter itself (rather than one that attaches to the camera body) to offset this forward shift a bit. Ultimately a good ballhead takes care of most of this problem anyways, though.

Slow autofocus through the Mark III adapter. My understanding is there's no major issue when using native lenses (without an intervening adapter). Again, not an issue for me since I use manual focus exclusively.

PROS:

Considerably lighter than my Canon 5DII, even with the Metabones adapter. When you're doing steep or long hikes, every ounce shaved off matters.

LCD screen swivels up and down. Wished it could swivel left and right, too, but it's already a HUGE bonus as-is compared to the 5DII. I shoot a lot from a near ground- or water-level perspective, and the greater ease of composition and leveling this feature affords is tremendous.

Great OLED LCD performance. I can still zoom in and focus even with 6 stops of filtration on the lens. It may not be ideal not having an optical viewfinder when working in the dark, but I just do a super-high-ISO test shot to help me visualize my composition and overcome this limitation.

Live histogram.

Incredible dynamic range. No more hours and hours doing exposure blending...at most I'll need to blend two exposures, but usually I can get away with recovering highlights and shadows or just double-processing a single raw file, making the blending much, much easier. The cleanliness of the recoverable shadow detail is remarkable--Canon's utterly asleep at the wheel when it comes to sensor technology, and the words from their camp over the past few months doesn't instill any confidence that they're keen to address this any time soon.

With aftermarket adapters, I get to keep my Canon glass (and sunstars)!!

I get to anticipate good Sony/Zeiss glass!! (Though I did opt to go with the Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS rather than the new Zeiss 16-35mm f/4, specifically because of the cleaner sunstars made by the former.)

Resolution is incredible. Same as the D800e/810. You can do a lot with 36 clean megapixels! Just make sure your glass can stand up to the heightened scrutiny such resolution affords.

Less expensive than the Nikon 800e/810 or the Canon 5DIII and I suspect the rumored 5DIV (or whatever the next 5 series upgrade will be designated).

Never thought I'd evolve TOWARD a Sony system, but Sony's proven themselves to be relentlessly innovative while Canon seems content to rest on its name and laurels.

So there it is. I hope you found this helpful, and if so, feel free to refer others who might be curious about the a7R to this blog entry. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a message here or find me on Facebook.

Happy shooting, and be kind to one another!

Tula

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UPDATE, 2/13/2015

Wanted to provide a brief update on the mechanical first curtain issue (the impetus thankfully given by respected photographer Sarah Marino, who inquired about this very blog entry), which can introduce noticeable shutter-shock blur in images shot at longer focal lengths and shutter speeds of longer than, say 1/100s.  I've not empirically tested the limits to where I can say it occurs exactly at X focal length or Y shutter speed or some X(Y) factor thereof, but it has caused me to 'miss' a shot two I would've wanted otherwise.  Think distant ridgelines cloaked in fog, distant trees in isolation, and so on.  In some instances I'm able to overcome the shutter shock by using a neutral density filter(s) to slow down the shutter speed and render any shutter-shock blur unregisterable (that may not be a real word, but whatever...).  However, this also means that the object being photographed itself can become subject to motion blur if the shutter speed is slowed down too much, e.g., distant trees with branches or leaves moving slightly in the wind.  Likewise, it may also mean introducing long-exposure effects that I may not want, e.g., discrete puffs of fog smeared to a featureless haze.

The scuttlebutt is that Sony has a full-frame mirrorless 50MP camera in the offing, ostensibly to be dubbed the a7RII or perhaps the a9.  In my estimation, particularly as it relates to the a7R, the bump in resolution is a virtual afterthought (and I hope it doesn't mean poorer low-ISO shadow noise/detail performance due to a smaller pixel pitch).  Instead, the mechanical first curtain issue absolutely needs to be addressed in the next iteration of this otherwise superb camera.  If you're contemplating the move to the a7R but can afford to wait for the major kinks to be worked out (particularly if you anticipate shooting long on any regular basis), I'd highly recommend doing so.


Comments

7.Sean Farrow(non-registered)
Sony A7R II is announced, 42.4MP sensor, FIXED shutter slap issue... hideous price tag. If they sort that I may consider jumping ship.
6.Jörgen Trued(non-registered)
a7r is the premier camera to bring out into the field. Lightweight and precise. I am happy I git into the Minolta world in 1985 and still use some of the lenses from the AF heydays. The a7s is a perfect complement to the a7r. I have gradually moved into 4K filming.
5.Todd Sadowski(non-registered)
I'm a D800 shooter and not overly motivated to change things up, but Sony sure is making things interesting! Glad they can up the anti and hopefully drag the rest along with their innovation. Keep rockin' the shots, Tula! Enjoy following your work!
4.Matt Anderson(non-registered)
So, much of my work is between 100mm - 300mm on landscapes ( and sports )
It sounds like the a7r isn't for me...
Most of my images are f/2.8 1/500 second or faster.
3.Sarah Marino(non-registered)
Hi Tula - I am seriously considering an upgrade to a Sony mirrorless body, possibly using my adapted Canon lenses. I am curious if you are still happy with this set-up. Also, have you moved away from any of the Canon lenses yet? So many of the posts about Sony lenses seem to be coming from the gear fan-boy perspective so I am curious to hear about your experiences since I have a lot of respect for your work and opinions.
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