Is this little camera what architectural photographers have been wanting in a DSLR?

Today I got my hands on the yet to be released Sony A7r (due in Dec 2013). Below are my first impressions.



[Before i get too far into this post I want to let you know that Sony is currently demonstrating this camera all over the place. I know the Australian tour is happening right now, so if you want to check it out i’d suggest doing a Google search and seeing what’s happening near you.]

This little camera is a 36mp full frame monster. It’s using the same image sensor as the Nikon D800 which means its on par as the highest megapixel DSLR currently available, except it’s not a DLSR. It’s a mirrorless camera. What makes it even more remarkable is that it can be used with almost any lens via an adaptor, albeit with a few quirks (see below). So for anyone with Canon, Nikon, or Leica glass this makes for a very interesting camera indeed. On top of this it’s got built in wi-fi to connect with your iphone or ipad and it’s going to retail for around $2400, making it significantly cheaper than a Nikon D800, or Canon 5D iii. Anyone else excited yet?

sony a7r 300x217 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

What I got to do today is try out the A7r with my Canon 24mm tilt shift and Canon 17mm tilt shift via a Metabones adaptor. I only had about half an hour with the camera, so it was more about seeing if my Canon lenses would work, how the live view performed, and my overall sense of the camera layout. What I didn’t get to do is use this camera for a professional shoot, or review a wide range of images. I can’t even view the RAW images I took because Lightroom doesn’t currently support the camera.  So for image performance i’d suggest checking out some of the other reviews currently online. If you’re interested in using tilt shift lenses and shooting architecture then stay tuned.

Some background

To understand why I like this camera so much I need to give you some background. For the last several years i’ve been shooting architecture with a Canon 7D primarily with the 24mm TSE ii and the 17mm TSE. I’ve been holding off upgrading the 7D body because I wanted something like a Nikon D800. Canon however are yet to match the D800 and instead are focusing on video users and high speed shooters who want features like high ISO performance and high burst rates.

When the Nikon D800 was released it felt like one of the big camera manufactures was finally going to provide a DLSR for slow shooters who wanted quality over speed. So tired of waiting for Canon to release a camera of this type I seriously looked at how I might incorporate a D800 into my kit. Unfortunately Canon lenses won’t work with Nikon bodies (even with an adaptor) and so it meant a complete change of ecosystem. The problem however, apart from the cost, was that I was never convinced by the Nikon tilt shift range. They felt clunky and outdated and the reports online about their poor image quality was not reassuring. So a change to Nikon would mean a better image sensor, but potentially lower quality glass. I didn’t like that trade.

The other factor that turned me off the D800 was it’s terrible live view. I use live view on 99% of my shots while i’m on a tripod. I zoom into the frame and focus manually to make sure everything is pin sharp. So it’s a really important part of my workflow and it’s strange that a camera clearly focused on slow photographers after quality, not speed, failed to recognise the importance of live view.

So i’ve been waiting a long time for a very specific type of camera. I wanted the image sensor of a D800 with the lens quality of the Canon tilt shift line up. On top of that I also wanted a usable live view. And I think the Sony A7r may have just made that possible.

Lenses generally

Sony is releasing several native lenses for the A7r, but not all that many at this stage. It will however accommodate many, many lens from other manufactures via adaptors. That’s mind blowing in itself. It’s almost like an open source camera body. This is most probably a result of the camera being mirrorless, and the room saved between the image sensor and a lens allows for all sorts of adaptors to accommodate many existing lenses out there.  Below is a picture of the A7r with the Metabones adaptor for Canon lenses. You can also see the large tripod plate mounted to the adaptor, not the camera.

a7r with adaptor 300x272 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

Sony A7r with Metabones adaptor for Canon lenses.

Canon tilt shift lenses on the A7r

Below are pics of the A7r with both the Canon 24mm and 17mm tilt shift lenses.

IMG 8607 300x200 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

Sony A7r with Canon 24mm TSE ii

A7r with Canon 17mm TSE 300x199 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

Sony A7r with Canon 17mm TSE

Both the Canon 24mm TSE ii and the 17mm TSE physically work with the Sony A7r. The size of these lenses seems strange at first when paired up with such a small body, but it works just fine. The adaptor I was using has it’s own tripod mounting thread so the camera isn’t supporting the weight of the lens.

Tilt shift movements

IMG 8614 300x200 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

Shift fully down

IMG 8615 300x200 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

Shift fully up

All shift movements were fine, but I did have to reverse my tripod plate to allow for this. I’m using a geared head and the plate is admittedly large, and when attached to the lens adaptor in its normal direction, it stops the tilt shift from moving fully down.

Vignetting

The 17mm TSE did have noticeable vingetting when fully shifted up or down, but this is to be expected with this lens on a full frame body. Apart from that the lens / body combo appeared to work very well together.

Autofocus

I tested auto focus with a Canon 24-105mm lens via the same Metabones adaptor. It was…waiting, waiting…. very, very slow. It was similar to the auto focus speed when using live view on a Canon 7D. It’s not what I would call usable for street photography, or portraits. Auto focus isn’t a concern for the majority of my work because a tilt shift lens is all manual anyway. But if you’re looking for a camera body for all things, then this is where you’re going to get stuck, at least if you want to stick with your existing lens set. Getting a native Sony lens for this body will likely auto focus just fine, but that means buying more lenses.

Auto focus aside, the camera body does have another feature which in part overcomes this shortfall. It has focus peaking which shows areas in your preview in focus with a red overlay. Imagine the corner of a wall displayed as a red line when it’s in focus and as you twist the focal ring other parts of your image become red. Probably sounds odd without an image, but it makes it remarkably easy to manually focus.

Overall feel

This is a small camera. There’s no getting around that. If you like big camera’s then the A7r is going to seem odd. There’s almost something that physiologically links big cameras with quality. Once you get over that though, this camera starts to make sense. With a large lens mounted it works much like a sports photographers setup. The tripod mounts to the lens (or lens adaptor) and the camera dangles off the back. While mounted to a tripod the feel of the camera means very little. It sits there and as long as I can adjust dials and use a remote trigger then it performs it’s task. Handheld though I didn’t find the camera sexy, or ugly. It wasn’t like holding a Nikon DSLR where the body grips your hand like a glove, but it wasn’t awkward either. After finding the main dials I started to really like it and I can see this little box growing on me.

Dials

The layout of the dials are surprisingly good. On many of these smaller cameras (and the lower end DSLRs) there’s often dials missing, so I was happy to find dedicated dials for both aperture and shutter speed. They’re not obvious at first because they’re neatly mounted on the front and rear face of the camera, but work well with an index finger and your thumb. Plus there’s a dedicated dial for EV adjustments and a round thumb dial similar to Canon on the rear face for play back control and other menu features.

A7r dials 300x210 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

Main dials for shutter speed and aperture

Shutter sound

This camera has a noticeable shutter sound. Other commentators have noted this as a flaw, saying quiet action for events and street photography would have been ideal, but I actually like knowing the camera has taken a photo, especially on long exposure shots where you can be waiting 30 or more for the shot to finish. On other mirrorless cameras with almost silent action this lack of sound felt foreign. This may just require getting used to, but i’m pleased the A7r retains this DLSR like character.

Live View

The A7r uses an all digital viewfinder and has a 3″ rear screen which was very sharp. It provides a 14x zoom and focusing at this magnification was easy. So in terms of live view performance the A7r easily out performs the Nikon D800. I didn’t however get a chance to test it in a low light scenario, or in black and white mode which is often when live view struggles.

IMG 8616 300x200 Sony A7r review for architectural photographers

 

Iphone and Ipad connections

I didn’t get a lot of time to test out the built in wi-fi features of this camera, but Sean from Sony did show me how to connect a phone by tapping it against the camera side. From what he tells me you can use it as a remote trigger and control the camera. I’d actually prefer to use a standard remote trigger to avoid draining my phone’s battery, but what did spark my interest was the ability to preview an image on the larger screen of an ipad. No idea how fast that feature works, but it’s a nice bonus feature on top of an already feature packed camera.

Image size

Obviously a 36 mp sensor is going to deliver a big picture, but what really strikes me is that image size of a panorama made with a tilt shift lens and this camera. I use this technique all the time for many shots you would never think are panoramas simply to get more pixels into the shot. So if you take three images and allow for a 30% overlap (and my poor maths) then this delivers an image with 84mp! That’s clearly in the medium format range and is going to allow for some serious print sizes. Of course, if you just want photos for magazines and online, then none of this matters. The extra mega pixels are just going to clog your hard drive.

Accessories

Accessories is the ouch moment when considering a change of camera brand. At the moment all my gear is set up for my Canon DSLR. All sorts of things would change if I decide to give the A7r a go. Things like needing to use SD memory cards instead of CF cards. Different batteries, getting new remote triggers. Figuring out if my flash radio triggers will still work for projects needing lighting. Will other speciality products like time lapse sliders work with it? All of these things are the little pain points which either cost money, or stop you from using this camera with your existing equipment. So far, none of them are deal breakers, but they are worth considering.

My conclusion

I’m really impressed by the Sony A7r. I’ve been waiting for this camera for a long time and I never expected Sony to be the company to provide it. In many ways it combines a Nikon D800 with Canon lenses and adds a whole lot of other features too. For the type of work I do it makes sense. Even better is that it doesn’t lock me into a completely different manufacturer either, it’s an addition to my kit, not a complete change. That said theres a couple things i’m waiting for. The first is I want to see what Canon does by the end of the year before the A7r is finally released. If Canon somehow magically produced a camera with an equivalent sensor, i’m not sure i’d make a change to a Sony body. Secondly, I want to see more image results of the A7r. I want to know what the dynamic range actually is and how it’s performing in different scenarios. Ideally I’d like to test it on a professional job and see it fits into my workflow. (Sean if you’re reading this, maybe this is something that Sony can help arrange?). All that said it’s definitely on my hit list of gear and Sony has to be given credit for adding one hell of a camera to the market.