Looking back on my older photography posts I discover that in April I will have had my Sony A7 III camera for three years. I think this is a good time to review what I think about the recent progress that Sony has made and where the A7 III and my photographic needs stand.
First off, the A7 III is a wonderful camera. It produces images that I never could have imagined possible ten years ago when I started using the Sony mirrorless cameras. When I moved from my Sony A-850 DSLR to the NEX mirrorless cameras it was incredibly disappointing. The autofocus didn’t deserve the name. It was manual focus or nothing. The battery life was laughable and the viewfinder was pretty sad. I could get some good results from it, even results indoors that I might not be able to get with my DSLR but frustration was a constant part of the Sony photographic experience. If I knew then how long it would take Sony to reach the A7 III level of capability I probably would have bitten the bullet and moved on to Canon or Nikon. But I didn’t and now finally I am truly pleased with the system. Sure, there are still some quibbles, I wish the LAEA5 adapter would allow me to autofocus my mechanical autofocus A-mount lenses with the A7 III but that is just that, a quibble. If I wanted, I could buy an A7R IV or an A9 and get that functionality but that would be kind of crazy from my point of view. So here I am with a very good digital camera and a chance to compare it to the newer Sony models. After all, the A7 III is a generation before the IV series and a notch down from the professional A9’s and two notches down from the flagship A1. So here are my thoughts.
Back when the Sony A9 first came out I was curious to see what the advantages of such a camera would be. I rented it and gave it a tryout. What I found was that it was a sports camera and the A7 III was not. I know that was what it was touted as but it wasn’t apparent until I had it in hand just how inadequate the A7 III was for things like tracking autofocus or just how inadequate the file buffer was. The A9 was light years ahead of my camera. And even the autofocus I typically used for macro shots of insects and birds was more precise and faster and had additional capability that my camera lacked. For instance, the A7 III can stay in magnified view when focusing repeatedly on a subject that I’m getting ready to capture. But once the shot is taken it returns to unmagnified view. The A9 can stay in magnified view indefinitely for shot after shot. That is a great advantage.
So, the A9 has capability that I do wish I had. But image-wise I think the A7 III files are at least as good as the A9 files. There has been an A9 II update a few years back. I haven’t tried it out. From what I’ve read the improvements are part of the autofocus upgrades and allow for even better sports and wildlife action shooting. I’m sure it’s very capable but once again the sensor hasn’t progressed in terms of high ISO capability. In fact, based on the DXOMARK testing the A7 III still has the highest ISO rating of any full frame camera on the market.
Recently Sony came out with a $6,500 flagship camera, the A-1. From what I understand it is an even more miraculous sports camera than the A9 series. It has a ridiculously large writing buffer and can take thirty shots per second or something obscene like that. But its sensor is not rated to a higher ISO rating. It does have a 50-megapixel sensor. But that also means you get 50+ megabyte file sizes which is starting to get cumbersome. Maybe someday I’ll try it out just for laughs but that price tag is outrageous.
So here I am. Other than my camera not being able to autofocus my two favorite a-mount lenses, the Sony 135mm f1.8 lens and the Minolta 200mm f4 Macro, I really don’t need any of the new cameras. Even the new Sony A7S III really doesn’t interest me. I’m not a videographer and its high ISO numbers surprisingly still don’t match the A7 III. This was a bit of a shocker for me. The A7S series is supposed to have the best low light sensitivity of all the A7 line. But apparently the video improvements are what drove the new model and high ISO was left as is.
If I were a sports and wildlife photographer then the A1 or at least the A9 II would be the cameras I wanted. If I was a purely landscape guy then the A1 or the A7R IV would provide me with the resolution I crave. If I was a videographer and I didn’t want a full-blown video camera I’d be looking at the A7S III. But I’m just a general-purpose photographer that does some landscape and some macro and a little bit of wildlife and no video. So, all of those other cameras are overkill and sometimes inferior for my needs.
For yourself this review might help point you in the direction of which Sony full frame ILC is right for you.
The last DSLR I owned was the Sony A-850 back in 2011. At the time, it was at the cutting edge of sensor technology. It had a 24-megapixel sensor that could be cranked to ISO 6400 (to truly awful result) with a huge bright optical viewfinder and some really cool Minolta and Sony lenses like the Sony 135mm f\1.8 and the Minolta 200mm f\4 Macro and on and on. That was the last full-frame DSLR Sony ever rolled out.
Shortly after that, Sony began the great mirrorless debacle. There were A-mount translucent mirror cameras, e-mount mirrorless cameras that could use A-mount lenses and other lenses with various adapters. The early e-mount cameras were touted for their tiny size but what went along with this new line of mirrorless cameras was a lack of usable auto-focus, long black out periods while shooting and almost no native lenses. For the Sony and Minolta faithful these were the wilderness years. Like the Israelites marching endlessly through the desert, we Sony shooters trudged despairingly from one mirrorless camera mirage to the next always hoping to reached the promised land of a competent full frame mirrorless camera. And then finally in 2017 there was the A9! Can I get a hallelujah? And we were there. Of course, after renting the A9 and proving that it was real (to torture the religious metaphor further) like Doubting Thomas, I then waited until the A7 III was available to save a thousand bucks. But finally, life was good. I started to round out my lens collection and anticipate being able to get more specialized lenses in e-mount, things like 200 – 600mm zooms and long macro lenses.
But just to prove that the Sony mirrorless line had arrived, the DSLR heavy hitters Nikon and Canon rolled out full-frame mirrorless cameras with their own new mounts. And this proves the point because this was the only way for Nikon and Canon to prevent their users from jumping ship. It is now possible to get all the advantages that mirrorless provides like an electronic viewfinder that works in any light level from pitch black to direct sun without sacrificing the advantages that DSLRs provided, like excellent autofocus and professional lenses. You might think this competition from Nikon and Canon would bother me. A Sony fanboy would fear the competition from its rivals would harm his brand. But in actuality, it will force Sony to step up their game. For instance, I foresee Sony improving the weather-sealing on their A9 level cameras to compete head to head with the mirrorless cameras that their competitors make. But by the same token Nikon and Canon are going to have to provide sensors at Sony’s level even in more modest cameras.
And finally, this new situation takes away the biggest detraction that Nikon and Canon used in the past, that the only real cameras were DSLRs. Without a doubt they were the ones who blinked first in this staring contest. Sony no longer has to prove mirrorless is better. Canon and Nikon just did. So, here’s my prediction. In ten years, there won’t be a single new full frame DSLR camera to be bought. I would have said five years but as in everything else I am conservative.
Sonyalpharumors.com has a photo of this new pro sports lens discovered out in the wild (https://www.sonyalpharumors.com/sony-400mm-f-2-8-versus-canon-lens/) . At over $10,000 each probably the only buyers will be pro sports shooters (and a few old rich guys, of course). Looks like Sony is serious about the sports market. I’m guessing at some point if the market materializes for them they’ll put out a 600mm f/4. Of course, they might get some competition from sigma. They’ve got some telephotos and unlike with wide angles the long lenses would easily adapt onto the e-mount with no need to change the lens formula. Should be an interesting situation for the Canon and Nikon pros. I’m sure being able to use the no-blackout, 20 frames per second A9 for football or soccer would be a very tempting choice for the guys who do that for a living. Good work Sony. Now let them come out with the A7 III. I hope it has the same good autofocus as the A9.
Today I was watching a video on photography by Tony Northrup
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Za2AeCujDZk&feature=youtu.be) . Basically, it’s one of those “Here are my predictions for 2018” videos. Tony goes through Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax and Fuji. He has a variety of predictions and comments. Some interesting, some obvious, some debatable. What I found significant was a couple of statements he made about Canon and Nikon. Apparently both Canon and Nikon are expected to produce full frame mirrorless models in 2018. And in addition, Tony noted that last year Sony passed Nikon to become the second largest producer of full frame cameras and that the way things are going Sony will pass Canon in 2018 to become the largest.
And that is actually sort of amazing. Tony Northrup is a former mirrorless skeptic. Up until the second generation of the A7 system he doubted that a full-frame mirrorless camera would ever have the autofocus ability to compete against the professional grade Nikon and Canon models. But in just three years Sony has gone from a novelty camera manufacturer to where they are now. Now, having been the victim of years of Sony dithering I can state categorically that their success has nothing to do with superior implementation of their products. Anyone who has had to deal with the Sony camera menus knows that’s simply not the case. So, what it must be, is that the time of the DSLR is past and the advantages of the mirrorless camera are now so obvious that even Sony can’t help but succeed.
So, if it’s to be mirrorless cameras going forward, who will be left standing when the dust settles? Will Canon and Nikon pivot and reinvent themselves as mirrorless camera companies? Will Sony parlay their electronic and video expertise to dominate market? Or will one of the other mirrorless companies like Fuji or the micro four thirds manufacturers take advantage of their smaller form factor to pull ahead?
Who knows? Certainly not me. But at least I feel like I’ve won the first part of the bet I took when I stuck with Sony when they went from DSLR to mirrorless. Now all they have to do is get out of their own way and give their customers the cameras and lenses they want to buy. This year they came out with two amazing cameras, the A9 and the A7R III. Both cameras are essentially ground breaking. The A9 is the first mirrorless camera that could easily be used by either a professional sports shooter or a wedding photographer and perform as well as if not in some ways better than the Canon and Nikon equivalents. The A7R III is a versatile high megapixel camera that can perform at the level of Nikon and Canon enthusiast cameras for everything from landscape to portrait to occasion shooting while providing the very best picture quality available. What remains for them is to finish off the line up with updates of their high ISO stills / video camera (the A7S III) and the basic A7 III plain vanilla version. Once the larger battery, better autofocus and joystick control of the A9 is introduced into these updates, Sony will have provided mirrorless shooters with the tools they’ve been waiting for. And it will become difficult for Canon and Nikon to convince the market that mirrorless cameras haven’t already matched DSLR performance and in some ways surpassed it. When I tested out the A9 last summer and saw what it’s like to shoot continuously with absolutely no blackout between frames I knew that mirrorless was the future. And when I saw how good the autofocus on that camera was I no longer doubted that Sony might be a part of that future.
So, the great mirrorless game is afoot. Who will take an early lead and who will be left at the gate? Predicting these kinds of things is almost impossible. But I’ll string along with Sony for the foreseeable future. They’ve chosen wisely and are now fighting on their own electronics turf instead of on the DSLR field. I like their chances. But I have to say that after following along with these guys for all these years I have a sort of fatalism about how clueless they can be about avoiding obvious problems. Please Sony, don’t screw it up.
So, even though it wasn’t the A7 III or the A7S III it was an A7 series camera that came out yesterday. And even though I really don’t need 42 megapixels for my file size I must say I am sorely tempted to buy this sucker. It’s coming out at the end of November so I’ll pay attention to the reviews (and maybe rent it first to make sure I’m a good fit for it). Basically, they’ve taken the A7R II and added a lot of the good stuff from the A9 to it. It doesn’t have the enormous AF coverage that the A9 has but the AF capability is said to be close to the A9 performance. It’s got a 10 fps mechanical shutter, dual card slots, enhanced high ISO capability, enhanced auto-focus modes, larger buffer, improved video options, a joystick, touchscreen AF placement and a lot of other fantabulous stuff. It sounds pretty compelling. Well, I was hoping for the 24 megapixel sensor of the A9 in a slightly less capable package for a lot smaller price tag but this A7R III checks every other box. Could this be photog’s next camera? I wouldn’t bet against it. Stay tuned friends. I’ll share my thoughts as the reviews come in but it sounds really interesting.
So, SonyAlphaRumors was right. The mythical A9 is real. For $4,500, even I can become a professional Sony photographer and capture 20 frames of a hummingbird’s wing beat in one second. I’ve not yet had a chance to go over in detail all the double plus goodness of the specs but I noted that it has a fully electronic shutter and a new type of stacked sensor. And of course it has all the goodies that Sony has needed forever like dual memory cards and a bigger battery. The auto focus has 693 phase detection points and supposedly re-focuses the lens 60 times a second! The ISO maximum is 51,200 but is magically extended to 204,800 when you want to take pictures in the dark. It has a minimum exposure time of 1/32,000th of a second, a maximum of twenty frames per second with continuous auto-focus and it can cure the whooping cough in adults. It is the ubercamera.
Will I buy it? Probably not. But I will rent it. My though process is the following. I want to know if the auto-focus is very good. The only way to determine that right away is to try the camera. Once I know that I’ll be able to determine if I’ll continue as a Sony photographer. If it doesn’t auto-focus as least as well as a conventional Nikon or Cannon camera (not the top of the line mind you, but just a regular old mid-range DSLR from the big two) then I’ll be exiting Sony. If it does prove to have reasonable auto-focus then I know this improved feature will eventually find its way to the A7 series. That fact will be enough to keep me in the Sony camp.
Sony has announced the release for June. I’m guessing the rental places will have it shortly after that. That means I can rent it for a family gathering I have in July. That should give me all the testing targets I’ll need to give it the thumbs up (or thumbs down).
So now that I’m through acting cool let me say how I feel about this camera viscerally. Man, this sounds like a great piece of tech! 24 megapixels is the sweet spot in my mind for resolution. Even for landscapes I think it’s plenty enough. If the auto-focus really is as good as their claiming it will be amazing. And the 20 frames per second will make action photography doable even for old guys like me. This could be the greatest technical innovation since sliced bread. So, thank you Sony. You finally put your cards on the table and now I can judge whether you have a full house or a busted straight. For all of you Sony shooters out there, we are about to find out what the future will be for us. Because over the next year or two, this new tech will begin trickling down to the A7 cameras and Sony will become the premiere camera company (or it will fail and they’ll be cast into the outer darkness along with the Delorean and Betamax).
I thought it might be interesting to Sony Shooters to read about the perspective of someone who came to the brand from the Sony DSLR entrance. Prior to 2009 I was using Pentax DSLRs for my hobby photography. I had a few specialized lenses but other than a good macro lens and a decent mid-range zoom I hadn’t committed much in the way of funds to the system. In 2009 I purchased the Sony A-850. It was the budget full-frame 24 megapixel from Sony and it was a very interesting camera. 24 megapixels was the top of the line at the time for the whole industry and I liked the colors it produced. Mechanically, the shutter and mirror were quite noisy. The auto-focus wasn’t up to Canikon standards. The usable ISO range really didn’t extend beyond 400 unless you were willing to do a significant amount of post processing. But the fact that Sony had not one, but two full frame models available made all Sony users happy and excited about the future.
Then it happened! Sony pulled the rug out from under the users. They announced that there would be no more DSLRs. They introduced the DSLT (digital single lens translucent), basically a beam splitter was added to the light path and the optical viewfinder was replaced with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). In a roundabout way they had gone to the mirrorless side without admitting it. The uproar was long and heated. Many users decided to go to other manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Pentax, etc.), others stocked up on older Minolta and Sony DSLR models and hoped to wait out the changes. Some bought into the DSLT concept.
Personally I wasn’t sure what to do. I read about the ~½ stop light loss caused by the translucent mirror (beam splitter) and the possible image degradation that could entail and decided I didn’t want to go there. I looked at the full frame Canon and Nikon offerings available and felt that professional options were shockingly expensive ($5,000 – $7,000) while the semi-pro models were uninspiring. What was a hobbyist to do?
So I decided not to worry and instead enjoy my A-850 until I decided which way to go. But a funny thing happened. I was shooting some indoor occasion events for my family and was unhappy with the low light capability of the A-850. I wanted usable 3200 ISO. It wasn’t there. I rented the Nikon D3S and liked what it had. That camera produced usable 6,400 ISO. But it cost $5,000. At about this time Sony launched some true mirrorless cameras. These cameras were branded as the NEX series. They had a new mount (e-mount) that possessed a very short registration distance that would allow the NEX cameras to utilize lenses for almost any other lens mount by means of adapters. It also had a very small body size. I watched the several iterations of this camera line until I found one that caught my interest. This was the NEX 5N. It had an APSC-E sensor but it was claimed that it had usable 3200 ISO. So I bought it. Well, the ISO claims were exaggerated. I estimated that good noise performance didn’t extend above 800 ISO. On top of that the auto-focus was extremely unreliable. Using magnified view and manual focus it was possible to produce extreme sharpness but as is obvious to anyone trying to photograph moving objects or even people indoors it is impossible to get a static object as a target every (or even most of) the time. So this was a limited camera.
Fast forward to 2013. Sony introduced the A7 cameras. These were full frame mirrorless cameras. They were slightly larger than the NEX cameras (but still very small). Initially two models were introduced. A 24 mpx A7 and a 36mpx A7R (R = resolution). The cameras are very interesting. The sensors are excellent but the cameras have their quirks. Both cameras have mediocre auto-focus even though the A7 added on-sensor phase detect sensor pixels. Also the A7R suffers from a very powerful shutter mechanism that introduces vibration into a number of different shooting categories. These problems continued to irritate Sony users. Also the new full-frame mount had a very limited range of native full-frame e-mount lenses (designated FE by Sony).
In 2014 Sony launched the A7S. This was a full frame (like all the other A7 cameras) but it had a 12 mpx sensor that had ISO settings that went all the way up to 400,000! Also it was the first full frame camera to shoot 4K video (although requiring an external recorder to handle this high data storage rate setting). This camera was something of a sensation. It became the king of low light photography and video. Sony was onto something good here. The auto focus was still not great but it was improving slowly. In the case of the A7S the camera’s low light capability seemed to improve the ability of the AF to work in low light conditions.
In 2015 Sony started to roll out the Mark 2 versions of the A7, A7R and A7S. These cameras featured improvements over the original versions that showed that Sony was actually listening to complaints. The A7 II had much improved auto focus (still not great but almost good). The A7R II got rid of the crude shutter, added on-sensor phase detect auto focus and boosted the pixel count to 42 mpx. And all three cameras introduced 5 axis stabilization to the line. This was a very popular feature. And over the last year and a half, Sony (and Zeiss and several of the 3rd party lens manufacturers) have released a large number and a good range of focal length lense (many of them of a very high quality). This has been enthusiastically applauded by Sony’s customers. Finally, Sony has begun to refine auto focus to allow for motion tracking. Maybe it is starting to look like Sony might someday provide a truly capable sports camera. This better auto focus capability started out in the A6000 and A6300 crop frame (APSC-E) cameras but the phase detect on sensor auto focus is starting to approach DSLR phase detect capability. Finally! Admittedly, Canon and Nikon far exceed what Sony provides in this department. Some have speculated that Sony is holding off on releasing the true state of the art until they’re ready to unveil their A9 professional model. I hope that is true. Rumors say that may be in September at Photokina. Time will tell.
So let’s recap. Sony has been torturing their camera customers since abandoning the DSLR model in 2010. After many disappointments and false starts their A7 cameras have finally reached a point where professional photographers can use them for most (but not all) photographic styles. To me it seems that 2016/2017 should answer the question of whether Sony can solve the remaining short comings in the systems. My opinion of what those shortcomings are:
1) General auto focus capability.
2) Tracking auto focus.
3) Battery life.
4) Gear durability (for professional duty).
5) Support service for professional users.
If Sony handles just the first two items they will ensure that their market share will increase substantially. If they take care of all five Canikon will be in big trouble.