The Alpha 7R was one of the best cameras we tested in 2013, but what of its sibling, the Alpha 7? Phil Hall tests the 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame CSC, Sony Alpha 7
Sony Alpha 7 at a glance:
- 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame sized CMOS sensor
- 2.4-million-dot electronic viewfinder
- ISO 100-25,600 (extended to ISO 50)
- 117-point phase-detect AF system with 25 contrast-detection points
- 5fps high-speed mode
- Street price around £1,549 with 28-70mm kit lens
Sony Alpha 7 review – Introduction
Along with the 36.4-million-pixel Alpha 7R that we tested at the end of 2013 (AP 14 December), Sony also gave us the 24.3-million-pixel Alpha 7. While sharing many of the same key features as the Alpha 7R, including the same design and a virtually identical build, the Sony Alpha 7 also has a few new features of its own. Not only that, but it’s the most affordable full-frame camera yet.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Features
Unlike the Alpha 7R, whose 36.4-million-pixel sensor omitted an anti-aliasing filter, the Sony Alpha 7 uses a more conventional 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor. As we’ve seen with a number of cameras recently, including the Canon EOS 70D and Olympus OM-D E-M1, the Alpha 7’s sensor features on-chip phase-detection AF with 117 phase-detection points, which combines with the Alpha 7’s 25-point contrast-detection AF system. The result is the Alpha 7’s hybrid Fast Intelligent AF system, which is married to a new Bionz X image processor that is 3x faster than the previous chip and promises to make AF tracking effortless. However, the AF is only sensitive down to 0EV light levels, which is not quite as good as the -1EV of the D610 or the -3EV offered by the Canon EOS 6D, so it will be interesting to see how it copes in poor light.
The Bionz X processor also helps the Alpha 7 achieve a burst rate of 5fps, which is good, although it is perhaps a little disappointing to see this drop to a pedestrian 2.5fps if you want AF and exposure active between shots. The new processor also offers diffraction-reducing technology when saving JPEG images. This technology helps correct the softness that can be caused as you stop the lens down beyond its sweet spot, while Sony has also tinkered with the algorithm for the area-specific noise reduction, which varies the level of noise reduction applied across an image in an effort to retain more detail at higher sensitivities. The Alpha 7 offers a native ISO of 100-25,600, which can be expanded to an ISO equivalent of 50-25,600.
The Sony Alpha 7 uses the same E lens mount as previous Sony NEX compact system cameras, but existing lenses will have heavy vignetting or will need to be used in a 10-million-pixel crop mode, as they are designed to be used with the smaller APS-C-sized sensors of NEX cameras.
A range of new full-frame, E-mount lenses, designated ‘FE’, is available for the new camera, with the Alpha 7 coming bundled in a kit with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens. There is also a trio of Zeiss lenses to choose from in the form of the 35mm f/2.8, 55mm f/1.8 and 24-70mm f/4 OSS. These will be followed by a Sony G-series 70-200mm f/4 OSS and, by the end of 2014, Sony hopes to have at least ten dedicated lenses in its line-up.
Sony A-mount lenses can be mounted on the Alpha 7 via the new LA-EA3 adapter, which offers contrast-detection AF with lenses that feature built-in focus motors, and the LA-EA4 adapter, which features Sony’s translucent mirror technology to offer AF with all lenses.
There’s no built-in flash on the Alpha 7, but it does have the multi-interface hotshoe used on other current Sony cameras. Those with older flashguns that feature the Minolta/Sony hotshoe contact will need an adapter.
The Alpha 7 supports Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, allowing images to be shared easily with a smartphone or tablet, while the dedicated app for both Android and iOS allows you to control the camera remotely.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Build and handling
Although the shape of the Sony Alpha 7’s body is identical to that of the Alpha 7R, the materials are slightly different. The all-magnesium-alloy body of the Alpha 7R has been replaced with a polycarbonate front-plate and magnesium top-plate on the Alpha 7. The magnesium-alloy front-plate of the Alpha 7R is designed to be stronger to support heavier lenses, which is a little odd given that the Alpha 7 has phase-detection AF and is therefore more likely to be used with heavier telephoto lenses when taking wildlife images.
However, the body has the same level of weather-sealing as the Alpha 7R, so don’t worry if you take it out in wet conditions.
Sony has done extremely well with the shape and size of the handgrip, so when you pick up the Alpha 7 it feels incredibly comfortable in the hand, with any concerns that it may be too small disappearing immediately.
With front and rear control dials, shooting mode and exposure compensation dials, as well as an on and off switch wrapped around the shutter button, the Alpha 7 feels very much like using a DSLR. What’s most impressive, though, is the level of customisation available. There are three programmable customisation buttons that can have any of 46 functions assigned to them via the menu, while the central button at the middle of the control wheel can have one of 47 functions assigned to it. Even the direction control buttons can be customised to one of 39 functions.
The level of body-mounted controls means that it is quick to operate and customise the controls of the Alpha 7 to make it feel like your own personalised camera. For example, straight out of the box, the control wheel allows you to adjust the ISO while shooting. Some may like this function, but I found it all too easy to inadvertently jog this and either increase or decrease the sensitivity. Instead, I set the ISO to custom button 3, making it a much more fluid way of shooting.
Sony has thankfully dropped the rather convoluted menu system used on the NEX-7 and instead provided a revised Alpha menu system, with five main tabs offering a host of sub-menus. Another welcome update is that greyed-out settings within the menu, which appear when a particular configuration has been set, are now annotated to explain why this is the case, rather than leaving the user in the dark, trying to work out which setting might have induced it.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Autofocus
The combination of contrast-detection and phase-detection AF sees the Alpha 7 deliver prompt AF acquirement in most general shooting situations I tried it in, even coping well in relatively poorly lit conditions. Swap over from single-shot AF to continuous AF, and while subject tracking is possible, it shouldn’t be relied upon for fast-moving subjects. I found it struggled to maintain focus or even lock on in some instances.
To sum up, then, the AF performance is good for single shots, but we’d have to say it’s not as rapid or as versatile as the AF system employed by the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which really does set the benchmark for AF performance in a CSC.
While there are wide, zone and centre AF modes, I found I mostly used flexible spot. There are three AF area sizes to choose from, depending on the precision you’re after, while custom button 1 allows you to select the focus area and then use the D-pad to move around the frame. If you prefer, you can use the dual control dials to move the AF area left, right, up and down.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Viewfinder, live view, LCD and video
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) has been borrowed from the flagship Alpha 99 and offers a XGA OLED Tru-Finder with a 2.4-million-dot resolution and 0.71x magnification, although the optics have been reworked to provide improved clarity corner to corner. The Alpha 7’s EVF clarity and resolution cannot be faulted, with the three-lens optical arrangement delivering a highly corrected display. Not only that, but the fast refresh rates and impressive magnification make it one of the best EVFs I’ve used. If there are any refinements I’d like to see, though, it would be a slight shortening of the pause when the camera is raised to your eye as it seems a little too long.
The 3in, 921,000-dot articulated rear display is also excellent, with a really impressive level of contrast and clarity, while the wide dynamic range and excellent viewing angle all add to the pleasurable shooting experience. Although the on-body controls are comprehensive, some may feel that a touch-sensitive display should be present. However, I didn’t see this as a glaring omission during shooting, perhaps with the exception of being able to tap the area of the screen where you want to focus, but in playback it would have given the Alpha 7 that extra layer of usability. Being able to pinch-and-zoom while reviewing images and swipe through shots would have been preferable to jumping into the centre of the frame at 100% when you want to look at an image in greater detail, as happens on the Alpha 7. This is a little frustrating in some instances, and I would have preferred the option of gradually zooming in on a desired area.
The Alpha 7 is well specified for movie shooting, offering full HD 1080p recording at either 60p or 25p in the AVCHD holder format. More importantly, perhaps, is that it offers full live manual control and 3.5mm jacks inputs for both a microphone and headphones, allowing you to monitor audio during recording. There’s also the option to record clean video output via the Alpha 7’s HDMI port.
Sony Alpha 7 review – White balance and colour
Set to its standard colour mode, the Alpha 7 delivered no nasty surprises colour-wise, with lifelike colours that provided a pleasing punch in blue skies and greens in landscapes. There are other colour modes available, which can also be adjusted for saturation, sharpness and contrast.
The auto white balance didn’t provide any nasty surprises, either, with reliable colour rendition on the whole, even under artificial light sources.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Metering
Image: The Alpha 7’s metering is very dependable, delivering consistently pleasing exposures
The Alpha 7’s 1,200-zone evaluative metering system has been used in numerous Alpha SLT cameras, so it is quite a familiar system and in the main delivers pleasingly accurate results, whether in balanced or more challenging conditions. A handy feature is the Alpha 7’s zebra pattern display, which, while intended more for video use, will provide a quick reference to areas in the frame that may see highlights blown out.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Dynamic range
Image: The dynamic range is very good, retaining good levels of detail in both the highlights and shadows
At ISO 100, the dynamic range of the Alpha 7 is 13.14EV, which is about the same as the higher-resolution sensor of the Alpha 7R. This actually makes the 36.4-million-pixel sensor of the Alpha 7R look even more impressive, given that it is the more populated of the two.
In real-world tests, I found plenty of latitude for recovering highlight and shadow detail when processing the Alpha 7’s raw files in Adobe Lightroom.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Carl Zeiss 55mm f/2.8 lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.
Sharing an identical resolution to the 24.3-million-pixel Nikon D610, it’s no surprise to see the Alpha 7 resolve detail down to the same level. Our test charts reveal that the Alpha 7 is capable of resolving down to 32lpmm (lines per mm), but I would stress that to get the best out of the sensor, one of the Zeiss prime lenses should be used as the 28-70mm OSS lens doesn’t do the sensor justice and lacks ‘bite’.
Both raw and JPEG files display no signs of image noise at lower sensitivities, with excellent levels of detail. Looking at raw files at higher sensitivities, the Alpha 7 performs well when compared alongside files from the Nikon D610. At ISO 3200, while luminance noise is evident, it’s very fine and detail is maintained nicely. Interestingly, the Alpha 7 test images displayed noticeably less chroma noise than those from the D610 at this sensitivity.
Luminance noise at ISO 6400 is still very fine, with a pleasing organic look to it, while chroma noise is still controlled very well. Again, results are better than those from the D610, which loses out with slightly more pronounced chroma noise and not quite the same level of detail.
In terms of JPEGs, the D610 manages to deliver less waxy-looking images at high sensitivities, with files from the Alpha 7 a little too overprocessed for my liking.
Sony Alpha 7 review – Our verdict
I enjoyed shooting with the Alpha 7 thanks to the comfortable and well-proportioned handgrip, dual dials, logically positioned customisable controls and intuitive menu system. That said, I’d see like to see an improvement in some areas. Despite the on-chip phase-detection AF, focusing on moving subjects is still too slow, while the burst mode of the Alpha 7 is too sluggish. Reviewing images could also be refined, while the design might not be to everyone’s taste.
With only three dedicated optics currently available, this could be an issue for new users, especially when the 28-70mm kit lens doesn’t perform to the level we’d hoped. For existing users, there’s the option of using one of Sony’s sophisticated adapters for A-mount lenses, while there are a host of third-party options too.
The Alpha 7 is a great camera for the photo enthusiast looking for a high-quality, lightweight camera that will reward with excellent images, but be prepared to invest in Zeiss prime lenses to do the sensor justice.