The recent rise of the compact system camera (CSC) has seen some photographers ditch their DSLRs in favour of their smaller mirrorless counterparts. They’re more portable, often more affordable, and they tend to offer faster frames per second performance too.
The one area in which CSCs can’t quite compete with top-of-the-range DSLRs is image quality. Their compact size means they use smaller sensors; typically either APS-C or Micro Four Thirds formats. Well, that is until now. Sony has released the first affordable ‘full frame’ CSCs – the A7 and the A7R. Are these the cameras which sound the death knell for the DSLR, or is there some way to go before mirrorless cameras can truly rival their heavier cousins? We put an A7 to the test to find out...
Features & Build
Nestled in the heart of the Sony A7 is its unique selling point – the sensor. The 24.3MP full-frame Exmor CMOS chip measures 35.8x23.9mm and will kick out images with a resolution of 6000x4000, matching the sensors of professional D-SLRs.
The sensor’s paired with the BIONZ X image processor, which claims to be 3x faster than the previous BIONZ engine. It also offers advanced Noise reduction controls. The chip and processor partnership gives the A7 an ISO sensitivity range of 50-25,600 and it also allows images to be captured at up to 5fps. This frame rate drops to a slower 2.5fps if you want the camera to continue focusing while shooting though.
The A7 utilises a Fast Hybrid AF system. It’s made up of a combination of contrast detection and on-sensor phase detection to offer an enhanced focusing performance. Any of the 117 phase-detection points are selectable in its Flexible Spot mode, with Wide, Zone and Centre focusing modes also available a button-press away.
The high-end components are encased in a weather-sealed magnesium body. It has a rubberised, front finger grip and rear thumb pad, and the sturdy design weighs 416g (body only).
The metallic top-plate houses a rotating mode dial. From here, the M, A, S, P, Auto, Scene, Sweep Panorama, Movie and two User modes are also selectable. There’s also an Exposure Compensation dial and the first of three Custom buttons, which can be assigned to give access to various functions. Two other dials control the shutter speed and aperture, and on the rear of the body you’ll find an uncluttered array of buttons, dials and switches.
Occupying the rest of the rear is a 3.0in LCD screen with 921k dots. This is tiltable, which will assist with framing shots away from your eyeline. If you prefer to compose the traditional way, there’s an electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 2,359k dots, neatly displayed shooting information and 100% field coverage.
Sitting above the EVF is a hotshoe for flash or other attachments. This is a handy feature to have, as there’s no built-in flash on the A7.
The camera does include Wi-Fi and NFC wireless technology though, so it can be paired with a range of smart devices, such as a mobile phone or tablet, to offer remote shooting or one-touch sharing.
Performance & Handling
The A7’s smooth, metallic body sits very comfortably in your hand, while the rubberised grip areas offer excellent purchase. The finishing on the buttons also reinforces the impression the A7 is a premium product.
The shutter button, encircled by the on-off switch, falls naturally under your index finger. The rest of the rear button layout is easily accessible to your thumb, making it quick to change settings. The dials rotate with a positive, finely-tuned action, and despite the fact it’s nearly half a kilo, the camera doesn’t feel cumbersome.
Operating the A7 is intuitive. The three Custom buttons can be set to a host of frequently-accessed functions, and the rotating D-pad controls ISO with a flick of the wheel.
The EVF is excellent. It is large, bright and crisp, and displays lots of handy shooting info around the frame edges. Occasionally the electronic view lagged behind while we were focusing and composing at the same time, but on the whole it was superb.
The rear LCD screen is impessive too. The ability to tilt the monitor on its vertical axis makes it easy to compose interesting shots from unusual or awkward angles.
The A7’s autofocus performed well. It was quick to lock onto subjects, including those lacking in contrast. In low-light situations the AF-assist lamp instantly illuminates to help give accurate focusing. Sometimes the focus would ‘sway’ as it hunted, but generally we didn’t find this much of a hindrance.
Be aware that the A7 is power-hungry, owing to the full-frame sensor and the constant use of the screen or EVF. As such, the battery doesn’t last too long, so a spare is a good idea if you plan on heavy use.
The Speed Priority Continuous shooting mode offers a frame rate of 5fps. In this mode, the A7 was able to fire off a burst of 31 RAW files before the buffer filled. These took 15.4secs to be written to our 16GB, 95MB/s SD card. When shooting Jpegs, the A7 could shoot 70 pics. These took 27.3secs to be saved to the memory card.
In the standard Continuous shooting mode, which offers 2.5fps, we could capture 63 RAWs before shooting slowed. It took 14.5secs to write these images to the card. Switching over to capture JPEGs, we found the A7 could shoot 84 images. These had a write time of 26.1secs. For single files, a RAW picture took 2.1secs to be written, while a Jpeg took 1.8 secs.
Value for Money
The Sony A7 is the first afforable full-frame CSC to enter the market. As such it has no peers for a direct price comparison. But a D-SLR with an equivalent chip would set you back at least £2000, so at £1235, the A7 is the least expensive way of getting hold of such a sensor.
Currently there are only a few lenses compatible with the A7, though any Sony A-mount lenses will work via an adapter. Sony hopes to have at least 10 dedicated lenses for this new CSC range later this year.
If it’s only a top-spec CSC you’re after, and the full-frame sensor isn’t a necessity, then there are other options to consider. The Olympus E-M1 is bristling with features and is of similar build quality, but it costs £1299 (body-only) and has a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor with 16.3MP. If you’re looking to spend less on a CSC, then you can find the Fuji X-Pro1 for £829 (body-only) with a 16MP, APS-C format sensor.
If you’ve been waiting for a CSC with a full-frame sensor, then there’s nothing offering better value than the Sony A7.
The Sony A7 is the first consumer-level, full-frame CSC to hit the market. It is solidly built, well priced, and comes with all the functions you’d expect. But aside from the impressive sensor, there are no other features to get particularly excited about. While the A7’s build and image quality is fantastic, the limited number of available lenses, slower focusing system and shorter battery life means that D-SLRs still offer more scope for full-frame shooting.
- Body price: £799 (As of June 2016)
- Resolution: 24.3MP (6000x4000px)
- Sensor: Full-frame CMOS 35.8x23.9mm
- Lens mount: E-mount
- ISO range: 50-25,600
- Shutter range: 30-1/8000sec
- AF system: Fast Hybrid AF (contrast & on sensor phase detection)
- AF points: 117 phase detection AF, 25 contrast detection AF
- Burst rate: 5fps
- Monitor: 3.0in, 921k-dot tilt-able LCD display
- WiFi: Yes
- Flash: No Hotshoe: Yes
- Video: Yes, 1080p
- Storage: SD, SDHC, SDXC
- Battery: NP-FW50
- Connectivity: USB 2.0, micro HDMI, NFC
- Weight: 474g (body only)
- Dimensions: (WxHxD) 127x94x48mm
- Visit: www.sony.co.uk
This review was first published in the April 2014 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.