Sony Alpha A7R is a giant leap for mirrorless cameras – USA TODAY
Progress rarely can be tracked with a straight line. The long arc of advancement for most technologies involves plenty of twists, turns, dead ends and false leads. For mirrorless digital cameras, in particular, it’s been a tortuous few years, punctuated by both bold strides and tentative steps forward, as each manufacturer struggles to carve out a new niche.
Sony has frequently been at the head of this advancement, particularly when it comes to sticking large sensors in smaller-than-you’d-expect bodies. This trend culminated this past fall with the announcement of the Sony Alpha A7R (MSRP $2,299.99) and A7 (MSRP $1,699.99), the first of a line of compact interchangeable lens cameras employing the same full 35mm sensors that actual professional DSLRs use. Promising top-of-the-line image quality, compatibility (native or otherwise) with just about any lens from the past half century, and debuting at a price on par with Canon and Nikon’s entry-level full-frame offerings, Sony has officially put every other camera manufacturer on notice.
Design & Handling
For those unfamiliar with Sony’s previous mirrorless efforts, the Sony A7R can feel like a bit of a contradiction. It has a design that is unabashedly modern, though the blocky, polygonal body is capped with a large, pleasantly curved grip. The body itself is sturdy and very well built. It’s a relatively small camera, but it has a reassuring heft. It’s still quite a bit lighter than either the Canon 6D or the Nikon D600, but it balances well even with larger lenses attached. The A7R is weather-sealed, though you’ll give up most of that protection when using non-weather-sealed lenses and adapters.
Shooting with the A7R is generally quite pleasant, overall. The electronic viewfinder is large, bright and sharp. Its central location makes it workable for both left- and right-eye dominant shooters while the excellent tilting rear LCD gives you even more framing options. The A7R’s compact nature and excellent control layout would make it the ideal shooter if not for a few key performance issues and one of the loudest shutters we’ve ever heard.
There are two main things that separate the A7R from its cheaper sibling, the A7. The first is the image sensor, which is a 36.3-megapixel behemoth that is on par with the Nikon D800. While 36 megapixels can seem like overkill, we’ve talked to plenty of pros — even those who primarily publish in smaller digital formats instead of print — who swear by the extra resolution. Our own experience suggested the same, as it’s a powerful tool that allows not only for extensive cropping, but also drastically improved image quality through downsampling.
The second feature is one that is sorely missed on the A7R: phase-detection autofocus. The result, unfortunately, is that the A7R is truly dreadful at tracking motion. Not just sports or extreme action, but any unpredictable subject moving toward or away from the camera will give it fits. I used the A7R over the holiday season and found that my 18-month-old nephew’s slow (unpredictable, if adorable) walk around the room was still too much for the A7R to cope with.
Otherwise the A7R has a phenomenal feature set that is on par with any high-end mirrorless offering. On the hardware side you’ve got a 1/2-inch XGA OLED electronic finder and tilting 3-inch 921k-dot rear LCD for framing. The camera is also capable of 1080/60p video with full manual control, as well as both headphone and microphone inputs. For enhanced connectivity the A7R also has NFC and WiFi built into the body, allowing you to control and transfer images remotely.
THE SCIENCE: See how this product scored in lab tests
The Sony A7R is the first non-Leica mirrorless camera to feature a full-frame image sensor, and being first often comes with some performance sacrifices. Fortunately, there are precious few cut corners with the Sony A7R, and our lab tests reveal a camera that produces images that are every bit the equal of pro-level full-frame DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.
In our time with the camera the main issues that cropped up were the awkwardly loud shutter, sluggish autofocus and anemic continuous shooting speed. When you actually capture images, however, the results are very impressive. The A7R’s sensor has class-leading resolution, excellent dynamic range that’s just about on par with the Nikon D800E, and color accuracy that is about as accurate as you could want.
Qualms with its speed and focus abilities aside, the A7R is a fantastic camera worthy of all the praise it has been receiving. Though it has a significant Achilles’ heel in the form of action shooting, the extensive feature set, massive resolution and excellent image quality has us very excited. All that said, compared to the A7 it’s difficult for us to recommend the A7R for anybody but studio and landscape shooters. If your subject moves much, shooting with the A7R will too often devolve into a frustrating game of “catch-up.” It’s also embarrassingly loud, calling attention to itself and making it useless for discreet photography of performances or people on the street.
Those issues aside, the A7R shows that the mirrorless category can extend its reach not just from novices through the enthusiast sector, but all the way to the professional ranks. Whatever someday replaces the A7R will have to be faster, offer more reliable autofocus, and have better lenses to choose from, but the A7R stands as a watershed moment when the arrival of a mirrorless camera that can serve professional shooters as well as a DSLR became simply a matter of time.