Sony’s NEX lineup of APS-C equipped mirrorless cameras has earned a solid fan base over the years. And with the release of the Sony a7, users now have the option of a full-frame sensor at their disposal. Initially release, spring 2014, it was the world’s first full-frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. And it was Sony’s first attempt to redefine their NEX lineup into the new Alpha denominator. Up until this point, digital SLRs reigned king when it came to full-frame sensors. With the release of this camera, however, Sony aimed to test that ongoing dominance.
They wanted to show that mirrorless could indeed compete even with its smaller footprint. Not only that, they desired a segue into the semi-professional marketplace, an element the previous NEX lineup lacked. It inherits the same 24MP sensor from their a99 SLR camera, along with better processing, software, and a re-designed layout. All in a compact body at a price never seen before, positioned perfectly to compete with Canon 6D and Nikon D600 SLR cameras.
Today we assess the strengths, weaknesses, and address whether this camera is still relevant in today’s market.
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Sony a7?
It features a 24.3MP CMOS sensor and an updated Bionz X processor, which offers more resolution than the Canon 6D and directly comparable to the Nikon D600. The sensor includes an Optical Low-Pass Filter (OLPF), which reduces the chances of moiré occurring in certain scenes, but also slightly reduces its fine details compared to the a7R. Nevertheless, the image quality it delivers is excellent, with a surprising amount of dynamic range for post-production adjustments or to create HDR effects from a single file. Its 24-megapixel sensor offers plenty of room for post-production cropping, and the files lend themselves well for large format print.
The video capabilities of this camera are sufficient, though a bit old-fashioned in today’s age. It shoots 1080p full HD video up to 60 fps using the AVCHD 2.0 progressive format and the more web-friendly MP4 format. Do know that when shooting in the MP4 format, recordings are limited to 20-minute segments, while AVCHD limits to the industry-standard 29 minutes and 59 seconds. The video quality is quite strong, with minimal aliasing or artifacts. While it lacks the sharpness of the more modern Sony cameras, it is easily sufficient for those who output solely to 1080p.
It features Auto ISO when filming. Auto ISO is essential as it allows the camera to automatically compensate for changes in light using ISO, for a more gradual transition to exposure. While at the same time, it maintains the desired shutter speed and aperture settings. Without it, filming in changing scenery is quite tricky.
For those who prefer external recorders, you’ll be pleased to know that the camera supplies a clean HDMI output, perfect for videographers looking to work with uncompressed footage.
It features zebras for highlight clipping indication.
Low Light Performance
Low light performance is excellent, though not industry-leading considering the camera’s age. It features a native ISO range from ISO 100 to 25,600. Users can expect usable images up to ISO 3,200 without any real requirement for post-production noise reduction. It’s not until ISO 6,400 does the camera suffer from loss of detail and color resolution. Though it’s essential to recognize the cameras built-in noise reduction will result in a significant loss in detail and produce artifacts when shooting above ISO 3,200. Thus shooting in RAW is best to retain quality. For videos, ISO 1,600 is entirely usable.
It features a 117 point hybrid autofocusing system, where 99 points use phase-detection and 25 use contrast-detection. These 99 points, however, are clustered around the center of the frame, which means focus recomposing is a crucial technique for the most precise focusing. Focusing performance is quick, and the system offers ample customization to tailor its performance to the shooting circumstances. Overall, even in today’s age, the focus is quick. And while it’s on the slower side when focusing on the edges of the frame, the performance overall is good enough for most applications.
It features helpful manual focusing assist aids like peeking and magnification to ensure precise focus in photos and videos. Users can choose between three colors for peeking and set the magnification to a custom button for more immediate access. Overall, for those who prefer manual focusing, it delivers an excellent experience.
Display & Viewfinder
It features a center-mounted OLED electronic viewfinder with a resolution of 2.36M dots and a large 0.71x magnification. The viewfinder is large and is quite fast, with minimal lag when focusing. And it also includes a proximity sensor to enable the display as the eye approaches. At the time of release, this was among the top viewfinders available. And, while not breathtaking in today’s age, it delivers a pleasant viewing experience.
It features a 3.0-inch TFT LCD with a resolution of 921K dots that tilts up 90° and down 45° for more comfortable high or low angle shooting.
Sony has redesigned the menus with this camera, moving from the tile menu of previous NEX cameras to the more traditional folder-based approach. With this redesign, any similar settings are now grouped into hierarchies into their overarching categories, more akin to Canon’s 5D Mark III. While discrepancies exist, the overall layout is functional and well-organized.
It features the customizable function (FN) menu. This feature allows users to save 12 most-used settings on a single contextual page for more immediate access.
The camera provides a total of 9 customizable buttons, in which users can assign any of 46 total functions. Once you master the physical layout, it’ll reward you with ample functionality, personalization, and control. These 9 buttons give users ample freedom to customize the camera to suit their shooting style and behave accordingly. It also features three dedicated custom buttons, C1-C3.
If features two Memory Recall (MR) states on the Mode Selection Dial, these states allow users to preset shooting configurations for immediate access.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
Ergonomics are improved compared to both the previous NEX cameras and are far more tailored towards the semi-professional demographic.
Firstly, it features a deeper and more contoured grip, making for a more comfortable hold. And although it’s much larger than previous NEX cameras, it remains surprisingly small, considering it houses a full-frame sensor. It still manages to weigh a mere 470g body only, making it considerably lighter than a comparable DSLR. Its small form allows for easy and convenient storage into large pockets or messenger bags without much hassle. And its form factor also makes the camera quite comfortable during prolonged use with minimal fatigue. Not only that, but the design lends the camera well for one-hand control. Sony has strategically located all of the exposure settings for immediate access with the right hand.
Secondly, it features a magnesium alloy frame and polycarbonate build, which provides a fair bit of weather sealing. The entire construction delivers a sense of quality and solidity. While this camera doesn’t provide the same rugged sealing as the competing SLRs, it certainly provides enough resistance to protect your investment.
It features dual adjustment dials to control aperture and shutter speed.
It has built-in Wi-Fi and NFC pairing for wireless image transfer and to remotely control the camera, though slightly limited in the manual controls offered. Sony’s remote app functions as a wireless shutter and live preview. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support any remote adjustments for photos or videos.
It has a headphone input.
It has a microphone input, and also allows users to adjust the microphone input sensitivity as needed.
Unlike the new Sony iterations, this camera retains the in-camera PlayMemories app store. Using the app, users can purchase and download additional functionality not native to the camera, such as timelapse, star trails, and lens compensation, to name a few.
It has a built-in panorama mode.
It features autofocus micro-adjust, which helps fine-tune the attached lens for precise focus.
While the camera supports continuous shooting speed up to 5 fps, it does so by locking autofocus and exposure after the first shot. If you want continuous autofocus and tracking, you’ll have to do so at 2.5 fps. Thus this is not the perfect sports and wildlife camera. However, that said, it has a surprisingly deep buffer of 27 RAW or 25 RAW + JPEG. So, if autofocus isn’t vital, it remains capable.
Unlike the more recent Sony camera, this camera doesn’t support the newer XAVC S codec, which delivers a higher bit rate. Thus, users will not have significant room for post-production grading or adjustments before the footage deteriorates. When shooting at 1080p 24 fps, the camera supplies only a 24 MBps data rate, and 28 MBps when shooting at 60 fps. With that, if the codec falling apart in post-production is a concern to you, it best to consider another camera. And while the video quality is sufficient, it does lack fine detail. It looks somewhat blurry in comparison to the new Sony iterations.
It does not support 4K recording.
Autofocus performance is quite quick in suitable or bright light, but as soon as the light levels drop, the performance slows. Once the camera approaches ISO 6,400, the performance reaches a point where it becomes virtually unusable, and manual focus is required.
The autofocus is also not the fastest and is undoubtedly not tailored towards sports like the competing SLRs. Overall, if you change angles and often refocus while shooting burst, you may find the performance a bit frustrating.
It uses the same W series battery as the previous NEX cameras. However, considering its a full-frame camera, battery performance isn’t great. Sony rates the NP-FW50 battery to deliver 340 shots per charge, which is average and right at the 350 shots per charge standard expected for mirrorless cameras. Thus, you’ll undoubtedly need extra batteries when shooting with this camera. Do know, however, the camera does support USB charging.
The rear display lacks touch functionality, and it also doesn’t fully articulate for front-facing vlogging. And while its brightness is good, the screen is easily washed out during outdoor use. The screen itself is quite reflective and has relatively poor contrast and colors when compared to more recent Sony iterations.
While the electronic viewfinder, in good light, is almost akin to an optical viewfinder in many respects. The viewing experience in low-light is quite a different story. Not only is the viewfinder slightly laggy, but it also projects quite a bit of grain at ISO 6,400 and higher. And this grain makes it quite challenging to focus if shooting at higher ISOs as well.
Unlike newer Sony models, it lacks the customizable My Menu.
It employs a similar video record button placement to the previous NEX cameras. And, unfortunately, that placement is still awkwardly recessed into the side of the grip. The benefit, however, is that video recording can begin even when shooting stills and not just using the dedicated video mode on the mode dial.
While the overall ergonomics are solid, the shutter button is awkwardly recessed, which requires some familiarization. It’s not on the front of the camera, like we’re used to, and, instead, its place on the top of the camera.
Compared to the competition, the grip is also quite shallow.
And, unlike previous NEX cameras, this camera demands a two-handed operation to navigate the menus in a way that previous cameras did not. Traditionally, Sony placed the menu button on the same side as the d-pad, but that’s not the case with this camera.
Unfortunately, this camera uses a micro HDMI port, instead of the mini size. The problem here is that the connect cables often bend and are difficult to stabilize when used with external recorders.
It lacks in-camera image stabilization. For those desiring stabilization, you’ll have to use optically stabilized lenses.
When shooting using auto ISO, you cannot set a minimum and maximum shutter speed. With that, the camera will often default to shutter speeds that may not be entirely conducive to movement in the frame to maintain sharp images. So bear this in mind if you shoot using aperture priority.
It uses the older micro USB 2.0 format, not the faster USB 3.0. Thus, file transfer speeds are on the slower side, the same with in-camera charging.
It lacks a built-in flash.
It lacks a built-in intervalometer for time-lapses. If you desire this feature, you will have to purchase this function through the PlayMemories store.
It lacks an electronic shutter, which means the camera is not ideal if fully discrete shooting is required.
Is this a good beginner camera?
With this camera, Sony has proven that bigger doesn’t always equal better. Even considering its small size, it easily rivals the larger, and bulkier, traditional SLRs. And considering the price these are available today, it makes an excellent choice for beginners. For the price, it’s the perfect entry-point into Sony’s full-frame ecosystem.
Is the Sony a7 a good camera for you?
It makes an excellent starting camera and a photography-centric tool.
Granted, it’s not the best option for sports, wildlife, or journalism with its rather uninspiring 2.5 fps continuous burst rate. Nevertheless, it’s capable if needed.
For those looking for a hybrid camera for both photos and videos, it’s not the best camera for these purposes at this price point. The main drawbacks are the lower bitrate, older codec, lack of stabilization and 4K. However, if you’re willing to overlook these, then it remains a viable option.
But, in the end, the Sony a7 remains one of the top budget-centric, and low cost means into full-frame mirrorless even years following its initial release. Sony has struck the jackpot with this camera. At the time of release, it was the lightest and most competitively price full-frame camera around. And even now, it maganges to remain quite a capable performer even in today’s modern and competitive age. With its excellent performance coupled with its small size, it makes discreet shooting in places that don’t allow larger DLSRs possible. And it remains inconspicuous while capturing all the beauty of your moments with only the detail a full-frame sensor can provide.
The Sony a7 remains one of the top budget-centric, and low cost means into full-frame mirrorless even years following its initial release. Sony has struck the jackpot with this camera. Even in today’s market, it maganges to remain a capable performer. Sony has proven that bigger doesn’t always equal better and it easily rivals the larger traditional SLRs. Considering the price these are available today, it provides exceptional value for money.