Sony Alpha A7 £1050
16th Oct 2013 | 13:44
We go hands on with Sony's full-frame compact system camera
The compact system camera market is still relatively new in the camera world, but it's still able to produce new cameras which shake up the system just a little bit.
Sony is no stranger to innovation, with its seemingly constant desire to be seen at the forefront of the latest technologies on offer, so it doesn't come as too much of a surprise that it is first to the market with a compact system camera featuring a full-frame sensor.
The A7 comes in two varieties, one with a 24.3 million pixel sensor and one (the A7R) with a higher resolution, 36.4 million pixel sensor and no anti-aliasing filter.
As you might expect, the A7 is slightly cheaper than its AA filter-less sibling. However, when you compare both to other full-frame cameras on the market, they suddenly appear to be pretty good value for money.
Along with the exciting new sensor, the A7 is equipped with a new processing engine. The Bionz X processor claims to be up to three times faster than the equivalent in its predecessors. There's also a new AF algorithm which boasts very quick autofocusing speeds.
Although the A7 uses the existing E-mount, current E-mount lenses have not been designed for full-frame, so if you choose to use those the camera can automatically crop to APS-C mode. To get the most from the camera, a range of five new lenses have also been announced today, including both zoom lenses and prime optics, some built in conjunction with premium lens manufacturer Zeiss.
Sony says that it will continue to develop extra FE lenses, meaning that there should be 15 available by the end of 2015. A converter is also available for mounting any existing A-mount full-frame optics that you may have – remember that Konica Minolta lenses are also compatible.
Build Quality and Handling
Although the camera itself is considerably larger than NEX cameras which feature an APS-C sized sensor, probably the first thing you'll notice about the A7 is its small size compared to other full-frame interchangeable lens cameras such as the Nikon D600 or Canon EOS 6D.
That said, it still has a reasonably chunky grip which gives excellent purchase, especially when using the camera one-handed. There's a satisfying number of dials and buttons on the camera, which will be appreciated by the enthusiasts that the camera is aiming itself at.
The majority of the buttons on the camera are grouped on the right-hand side, making them easy to reach with the thumb, another bonus when using the camera one-handed.
On top of the camera is a mode dial for switching between the various exposure modes on offer, including aperture priority and shutter priority. There's also space here for up to two groups of customisable settings, useful if you often find yourself shooting in a particular type of condition, such as low light.
Just above the hand grip is a scrolling dial which can be used for making changes to settings such as aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode you're shooting in. It's naturally placed to be found when using the camera one-handed, and feels like a natural extension to your finger. On the back of the camera, where your thumb would naturally sit, is a second scrolling dial which can also be used to set aperture or shutter speed. If shooting in fully manual mode, you can use the front dial for aperture, and the back dial for shutter speed, a very fluid way to work.
Also on top of the camera is an exposure compensation dial, also useful when shooting one-handed and easily – but crucially, not too easily – changeable with your thumb.
One of the best things about Sony cameras is the amount of customisation they offer. The A7 is no different, with three buttons labelled as "c" for customisable. You can also customise some of the other buttons, making the camera very user friendly depending on how you like to work.
The A7 offers a tilting LCD screen, while it's not fully articulated – more useful for portrait shooting – which is great for shooting from awkward angles. You can tilt it down for composing from above, or up for shooting from high angles, such as above your head.
There's also an electronic viewfinder, which offers an incredible 2.4 million dots in its half-inch size. An eye-sensor makes for a seamless transition between the EVF and LCD, and is very useful. The EVF itself is also very bright and clear, making it very nice to use. Electronic viewfinders have suffered from a bad reputation in the past, so it may be difficult to convince traditional full-frame users of the benefits of working with one, but they are varied and include the ability to instantly see whether you've captured the shot you need.
Anyone familiar with previous Sony cameras should be at home with the menu system, which is for the most part reasonably arranged. Sony has chosen to use the Alpha menu system for the A7, rather than the NEX menu system, which we think is a blessing as the latter can be a little hard to navigate at times.
It's fairly tricky to give a definite evaluation of performance at this stage of a release cycle, but, we've had the opportunity to test out a pre-production version of the A7, and so far the results are very promising indeed.
Autofocus performance, one of the key selling points of the A7, is indeed very speedy. It's probably true that it can't quite match the lightning-quick speeds of some of the Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market, such as the Olympus OM-D, but in terms of cameras with very large sensors it is very quick. Our initial thoughts are that it seems quicker than other full-frame cameras, such as the Nikon D600, but we'll be keen to put this fully to the test at a later stage.
We've been very impressed by the performance of Sony sensors of late, and we can see no reason why the A7's sensor shouldn't also live up to the high expectations the company sets for itself. The sensors inside Sony's other full-frame offerings, including the Alpha 99 and the RX1 and RX1 R, were also excellent performers. By pairing it with the new ultra-fast Bionz X processor, we should see some very impressive results.
Judging by the samples we were able to take with an early pre-production sample of the camera, we should be in for a treat with the A7. Colours are very well represented, with beautiful saturation that's not overly vibrant. Meanwhile, that full-frame sensor is capable of resolving lots of fine detail, although naturally not as much as its more expensive sibling.
We'll be looking forward to putting the camera properly through its paces at a later date.
Sony has done it again – introducing a camera which is ahead of the curve of the other cameras which are on the market. What everybody will probably start to ask now is... is this the end for traditional DSLRs?
Look out for a full review of the Sony A7 in due course.
Please note, these images were taken with a pre-production version of the camera and may not be representative of final image quality.