This is a pretty long blog so I'll make it easier on you to jump around to different sections that may interest you. As the title suggests, this article focuses on the Sony A7S full frame 12.2 megapixel digital mirrorless camera. I'll be writing about various topics as they pertain to this camera, and showing plenty of example photographs I've taken with it over the past 6 months with various lenses - both native FE mount and alternative mounts. I am not an official camera reviewer. You can go to sites like dpreview for full specs and photos of charts and graphs or see Ron Schaffer's excellent review with Leica M glass. I am an amateur landscape / family photographer who loves adventure and landscape photography. My trips include everything from family camping trips in the Okanagon Valley to canoe trips in the Canadian Shield. I mostly enjoy climbing peaks in the Canadian Rockies and have over 415 of them so far. I climb, hike, scramble, ski and snowshoe into some very remote areas and I always like to take a camera along.
I'm a bit of a camera and tech junkie (I work in the tech industry) and over the years I've owned an embarrassing variety of camera gear. :) This includes the main cameras from all camera makers including but not limited to;
In December of 2013, I acquired my first Sony A7 series camera, the 36 megapixel Sony A7R and wrote an article detailing its usage with Olympus OM glass. After using the A7R for about 6 months I realized something - I didn't need or have the computational equipment capable of handling the huge RAW images it produced. Don't get me wrong, I loved almost everything about the camera except for the massive RAW output. Yes, I tried using smaller resolution JPEG's but that didn't work for me either. There were a few niggles in addition to the file size including;
As I used my Sony RX100 mark II for long ski trips in the spring of 2014, I began to question why I had so much invested into a system that was proving to be too much hassle for me in regards to finding good lenses and processing my images after each trip. I like my photography to be part of the adventure I'm having, whether canoeing, hiking, biking, climbing or skiing. I don't want my photography to be the adventure. I sold a bunch of my alt lenses and the A7R and bought back into the micro four thirds (m43) camp - a tiny Panasonic GM1 with some great m43 glass. I used the GM1 with a 15mm f/1.7 Pana-Leica lens on my climbs of Mount Cirrus and Joffre and loved it. The 16mp files were plenty big and the IQ was fantastic too. I still highly recommend this camera for people who want quality in a tiny and portable package (now there's the GM5 which has a built in viewfinder and is even better than the GM1).
For my remote back country canoe trip in July I choose to use the Olympus E-M10 with a few lenses such as the Olympus 60mm macro and 75-300mm telephoto, along with the tiny new Sony RX100 mark III. With a built-in viewfinder, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and great photo and video image quality, the RX100III is a very usable and practical adventure photography kit. Of course there are also limitations with RX100III, such as no telephoto, a small sensor and limited dynamic range, not to mention no lens expansion options. Nothing's free.
By the time summer 2014 was rolling around, I realized I missed the clarity, shallow DOF options and mostly, the low light abilities of a full frame sensor and began to seriously look back into the A7 line of cameras. That's when I discovered the amazing Sony A7S. The "S" stands for sensitivity (ISO) and the camera was highly touted for it's following abilities over other A7 and full frame (FF) cameras:
I was very intrigued by the first three improvements. Nothing comes for free, and in the case of the A7S the cost is sensor resolution. This is a 12.2 megapixel camera. Yes - you read that correctly! A $2,500 full frame camera has been released in 2014 with 'only' 12mp. Another benefit of the A7S that was recognized almost immediately by alternative lens shooters was its improved capabilities with especially wide angle lenses over the A7R and even the A7. Presumably the larger pixel wells and a different S/N ratio works in favor of the A7S with adapted lenses - I don't think Sony specifically designed the camera for this benefit but rather it's just the physics of light and larger pixel wells on the sensor itself. This was the third reason I cracked and decided I simply had to get my hands on one of these beauties and try using it for the summer and fall of 2014. The decision didn't come lightly, because compared to a Sony A7, the A7S wasn't cheap! This is probably the main reason why reviews of this camera are hard to come by. There are not lineups of photogs buying a 12mp camera that costs a $1,000 more than a 24mp camera that looks exactly the same - i.e. the A7. (See this article for a detailed comparison of the three Sony A7 models.) As of late 2014 there is now a model II of the A7 coming soon with image stabilizaton. As attractive as this option is, it won't make ISO 102,000 usable for single-shot astrophotography images so it won't help me any! ;) (People also seem to be forgetting that image stabilization is mainly useful for static scenes. It won't make the camera sensor perform any better with WA and UWA lenses, or freeze motion with telephoto lenses.)
In this review of the A7S, I'm going to explain why I think this is a revolutionary camera and why I love using it with alt glass and obviously native Sony FE lenses. I'll also explain why I think it's the perfect carry-everywhere camera. I think this is a revolutionary single-shot astrophotography camera and will probably revamp my interest in deep-space astrophotography as well. I will also detail how you can use the 12mp sensor to make huge resolution files that will be appropriate for huge prints with loads of detail - the same way the 36mp A7R can be used. You can pretty much get all the benefits of the A7S and A7R combined in this one camera - the reverse is not true of the A7R as it cannot match the low light abilities of the A7S.
I will also look at several alt lenses on the A7S and explain how they can be profiled in-camera using a Sony camera application called the Lens Compensation App, which has some limitations as well.
I don't like buying expensive cameras like the A7S and then putting cheap or crappy glass in front of the sensor. To this end, I decided that if I was going to invest in the A7 series again, I wasn't going to mess around - I would also buy the two most expensive and highly rated zoom lenses to go with it. The Sony/Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4 OSS and the Sony G FE 70-200mm f/4 OSS are among the best zooms in those focal ranges and aperture values that I've ever used - and they'd better be at $1200 and $1600 respectively! The lenses were kept at a max aperture of f/4 to limit their size and weight, but with OSS and the incredibly high sensitivity of the A7S sensor, there is no issue with a relatively slow lens. To be honest, you don't need any other lenses with this camera, other than maybe a small prime in your favorite focal length. I had the Sony/Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 but ended up selling it in favor of the cheaper and faster Olympus OM 50mm f/1.2. There are a few manual focus lenses now available from Zeiss, the new Loxia line which includes a 35mm f/2 and 50mm f/2. The Loxia line isn't cheap - but advantages are obvious, native FE mount with full electronic information sharing (i.e. lens compensation, aperture and exif) and I'm sure the Loxia glass will produce stunning results. If Zeiss produces a WA or UWA lens I will have a hard time not buying it. :)
My first test of the Sony / Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4 OSS lens on the A7S was on a very tough 2.5 day climbing trip that I did with three friends from Edmonton. We climbed 3 mountains and many thousands of vertical meters of height gain in a very short period of time. My only complaint about the lens on this trip was it's slight tendency to pull the camera forward while climbing and the subsequent banging around that it did against my body or even against rock on steep pitches of climbing. One thing I certainly couldn't complain about was the quality of the images the combo produced!
[A large, stitched panorama from part way up our first mountain. The 24mm wide angle is perfect for lining up vertical panorama's. ++]
[The small nature of the A7S+24-70mm FE combo meant that I could carry it around my neck, even while climbing. This means much easier action shots because all I have to do is point 'n shoot the camera at my friends climbing around me, rather than spend precious moments on a steep snow / ice slope with burning legs while struggling to get a large DSLR out of a carry case.]
[A great summit panorama from our second peak of the day, once again showing that for huge landscape images you can still get amazing resolution out of the 12mp sensor on the A7S by using modern stitching software. ++]
[For some reason, the output from the A7S likes B&W conversion.]
[Another B&W - this time showing the advantage of a zoom lens.]
[Another very high resolution stitch - 7-10 vertical photos. ++]
After the King George trip, I was excited to try the A7S / FE 24-70mm combo again. I got my chance on a father / son canoe trip to northern Saskatchewan. We did a 4 day trip on the Churchill River near the remote hamlet of Missinipe. Canoe trips are both great for photos, and tricky. They're great because you can carry more gear than hiking and climbing trips. They're tricky because there's lots to keep track of on a canoe trip. You're trying to stay dry, navigate, fish and experience the terrain as you move quickly through it. Having the two FE zooms along made perfect sense on this trip. I also shot RAW+JPG and ended up liking the JPG output so much I used it for about 50% of my trip photos.
[My son fishes from our first camp on French Lake. Note the DR of the scene from the bright sky to the dark foreground shadows.]
[This sunset shot illustrates how easy it is to handhold the A7S and shoot at higher ISO's to compensate. This is ISO500. No noise at all!]
[Another handheld shot. This one is at f/16 to produce a sun star. This meant an ISO of 640, again, not an issue!]
[Handheld, ISO 25,600! Barely any noise in the shadows. The A7S starts to sing when the light gets low. The ability to shoot the f/4 zoom lens in the dark is something that gives me great creative freedom. This cannot be understated. I've used a Canon 6D with a 24-70mm f/2.8 and f/4. Those are large, heavy systems and can't shoot in the dark or low light like the A7S can - not even close.]
I did another late summer trip in Banff National Park with my friends from Edmonton. This time we climbed over 4,000 meters in 2.5 days up 3 peaks. I carried the A7S with the 24-70mm lens again. The first night I was alone and managed to capture some great nightscapes with the slow zoom lens, wide open at f/4. Once again, I was delighted with the output from the lens / camera but I was getting a bit tired of lugging the 24-70mm lens up and down mountains! Even though it's a wonderful lens - and light compared to most 24-70mm full frame zooms, it's not as small and light as I'd like it to be. It's mainly the bulk of the lens that's an issue for me. It's weight is actually pretty good considering the quality and the fact that it's a stabilized lens.
[55mm shot of the mighty Mount Alberta with the 24-70mm zoom lens.]
[Once again, the A7S handles dramatic differences in lighting between the valley floor and the summits thousands of meters higher.]
[This is an 'impossible shot'. I wanted to capture the climbers coming across the lefthand slopes, but I also wanted to capture the exposure they were dealing with. To do this, I had to take a quick panorama against the harsh morning sun! The A7S & 24-70 pulled it off brilliantly, even the sky managed to retain a deep blue color (with some PP of course). ++]
[Amazing mountain scenery captured easily by this dynamic duo.]
[Another example of a shot where I had no time to get ready - an impromptu vertical panorama, 5 vertical shots starting at the climber and going rapidly left before I follow him up. ++]
[Pointing the camera down, half pressing 'til I hear the 'beep' of AF confirmation and taking the photo before resuming my tricky down climb!]
I have to stress that the A7S / FE 24-70mm OSS combo is the most flexible and usable camera / lens combo I've ever used. A lot of folks don't realize how unbelievably handy it is to have an image stabilized, high quality wide angle to short tele lens mounted on a sensor that can handle photos from near-darkness to full, brilliant sunshine. I see comments all the time from people who don't understand that for a climber to not have to worry about ISO or what time of the night or day they're taking photos, is very liberating. Those early morning ascents can now produce stunning wall-hangers even at 12,800 ISO values - no problem! Expensive? Yes. But the expense comes with an ability that no other camera shares (yet) - the ability to be free from ISO / low light concerns with almost any aperature value.
[Compare the two Sony FE AF lenses to my other 'alt' lenses. They are smaller and lighter than comparitive lenses from competitors, but still huge next to small primes...]
'Alt' is short for alternate, which is simply code for adapting and using lenses that were made for other cameras on my camera - in this case the Sony A7S. The A7 series originally delighted the so-called 'alt shooter' crowd. There was finally a real potential to fulfill the seemingly impossible promise of a small, light full frame digital camera that could accept small full frame lenses from the film era, including but not limited to;
Soon after the A7/R cameras started being used by serious amateaur and professionals alike, it was apparent that it wasn't going to be quite this easy. Most alt lenses wider than 35mm had severe color casting, vignetting and corner detail smearing - even worse on the A7R than the A7. The lenses that worked well were among the most expensive lenses money can buy, including the wide angle zoom from Leica, the so-called WATE 16-18-21mm f/4 which is over $7,000 to purshase new. Leica lenses, in general however, didn't work very well either. Lenses that cost over $3K and work well on the Leica rangefinders were only starting to work at f/8-f/11 and even then with corner issues and smearing / loss of detail at infinity.
Something I hadn't tried on the A7R, but have started using successfully on the A7S is the Lens Compensation App which is available from the Sony store for $9.99. I think a lot of people (including me previously) don't realize the power that a camera with the ability to download and install software applications has. Think about all the nifty things your phone can do with apps. Now open your imagination a bit and think about how many things nifty software could do on your camera. This includes things such as;
There are things that have to be improved by Sony or by the makers of these third party apps. These include;
There's two main things I look for when buying (older) alt glass;
[The Olympus OM lenses are a very nice fit, look and balance on the A7 series and especially on the A7S. I used these with an A7R too, and they worked well even with its 36mp sensor.]
I delved back into the market and eventually started building my collection of alt glass again - concentrating on Olympus OM glass. The reasons for concentrating on the OM lineup was;
My favorite two OM hiking / mountaineering lenses are the 24mm 1:2.8 and the 135mm 1:2.8. This combo can take pretty much any landscape shot that I need, including nightscapes, panoramas, people, flowers, compressed landscapes, wildlife and more. I actually prefer the 28mm focal length for walkaround landscape shooting, but find it limited for shots where I want more foreground or need to fit more into the scene for stitching. The next two OM lenses that I love to take along are the 18mm and the 50mm. Following is some more in-depth analysis of these lenses as I use them on the A7S.
[The tiny and excellent Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 is also very expensive. But it fits perfectly on the A7S and works extremely well on it too.]
This lens is not cheap. A good copy will run you around $700-$1000, and this is for a used one. If you manage to find a new or like new one, you could easily spend more! That is a lot of money for a MF lens, but there's a few reasons this lens costs so much;
One thing about an ultra wide angle (UWA) lens is that they can be tricky to use properly. Everyone thinks that wide angle is what landscape is all about but 18mm is extreme. The thing with UWA lenses is that using them properly requires a good, creative eye. Just point 'n shooting will only produce scewed perspectives that don't look natural. The reason UWA primes are so expensive is partly because they're extremely hard to manufacture but also because much fewer of them are sold because they are so difficult to use properly. I bought the OM 18mm mainly for single shot nightscapes, mostly of the Milky Way. I've also used it for landscape stitching where I needed the extra room its width provided.
[A single shot from the 18mm of the Milky Way. ISO 25,600 at 25s and f/3.5 (wide open)]
[I needed the wide angle of the 18mm for this stitched pano or I couldn't fit the upper and lower lakes in the same shot. I took 8-10 vertical single shots and stitched them in PS CC. The shadows were black - the A7S has great shadow / hilight recovery ability. ++]
[The OM 24mm f/2 or f/2.8 lens is probably my favorite all-use OM lens.It's wide enough for most landscape applications including vertical stitches and it's not too wide to screw up the perspective.]
It has to be noted that the f/2.8 version of this lens is pretty much as good as the f/2 version, and is 1/4 the price. At f/8 or f/11 you are not going to notice much difference between the f/2.8 and f/2.0 versions. The only reason I owned both is that I like the ability for shallow depth-of-field with the f/2 lens (wide angle flower shots are a favorite of mine). The f/2 lens certainly vignettes worse than the f/2.8 one does. With a polarizing filter the f/2 will shot dark corners whereas the f/2.8 will not.
[Another wide angle vertical stitch with the 24mm f/2. ++]
[I didn't have the f/2 version on this trip, but here's a great action shot from the 24mm f/2.8 showing off its capabilities.]
[Another panorama with the OM 24mm f/2.8 ++]
[The OM 28mm f/2 lens is another perfect landscape / walkaround option on the A7S. It's deadly sharp even wide open and has very little vignetting or color shift.]
I love the 28mm focal length but I have to be honest that I don't use this lens very much, thanks to the excellent performance of the two 24mm OM's that I also own. As a walk around lens, this one performs admirably, vignetting much less than the 24 1:2 especially on the A7/R. Apparently Sony is coming out with a 28mm FE prime soon. This will render the OM28 pointless for me. Even a bigger reason for me to sell this lens is my recent acquiring of the Leica MATE (28-35-50).
[This is one of the fastest lenses money can buy - the Olympus 50mm f/1.2. It's a highly regarded lens that takes some incredible photos on the full frame sensor of the A7S! Compare this lens to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and you'll appreciate the size difference between the MF OM lenses and more modern AF lenses.]
[Incredibly shallow depth of field at f/1.2 while still retaining sharpness, color and contrast.]
[One more example of the shallow DOF at f/1.2 on the full frame A7S with great contrast, color and sharpness. The OM 50mm 1:1.2 really sings on this camera.]
The OM 50 f/1.2 is a great lens! I owned the FE55 f/1.8 lens which is obviously a full AF prime on the A7S. This lens is even nicer than the very highly regarded 55 IMHO. The Sony is very sharp and very capable but I like the soft rendering of the OM much better, especially for shallow DOF and portraiture. This lens also costs much less, even my copy which was literally brand new (old stock). This lens isn't going anywhere - I'm keeping it for the foreseeable future!.
[The Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8 is a very cheap medium telephoto lens that has great balance, color and contrast on the A7 series cameras. It also has a built in hood which is handy to keep flare under control.]
I love the OM 135mm f/2.8 for its ability to compress the landscape and obviously for portraits and medium telephoto shots. It's small and light enough to carry almost everywhere and it's cheap too - it'll run you only around $150 for a mint copy with the original Olympus hard leather lens case. The Olympus OM 2X-A Tele-Converter also works with this lens, making it a pretty darn small 270mm f/5.6 - perfect for wildlife or that distant peak! Contrast is a bit low straight OOC (out of camera), but a little bit of PP fixes things up very nicely.
[A medium tele lens is great for compressed landscapes.]
[Compressed landscape with the 135mm OM at f/8. ++]
[The 135mm is perfect for taking photos of nearby peaks in all their glory. It has great contrast and color - and it's cheap!]
I much prefer the way the Leica M mount lenses fit on the A7 series to any other alternative lens mount that I've tried. The reason is simple. The M mount lenses are designed to sit much closer to a full frame sensor than many of the other mounts such as the Olympus OM and Canon FD or Nikon AIS. This means a much smaller overall lens size when mounted. Note on the above product shots of the OM lenses on the A7S, how deep the adapter is between the sensor and the rear of the lens? In some cases, such as with the OM 18mm, the adapter almost doubles the amount that the lens protrudes from the front of the camera. Obviously this is not the preferred situation, but it's simple physics of the lens, the mount and the Sony A7S design.
Of course, nothing's free. Due to Leica M lenses sitting so much closer to the sensor, they introduce some interesting design challenges, especially if they're wide angle. When the A7/R cameras were first announced there was huge excitement in the alt lens crowd. People were convinced that Leica M lenses on the A7 series would be the answer to everyone's dreams. They were proved wrong early on. Most lenses in the wide to ultra wide range (less than 35mm) didn't work that well on either the A7 or the A7R. I tried the Zeiss 18mm ZM f/4.0 lens which should have been perfect on the A7R, but it was pretty horrible with corner color casts, smearing and massive vignetting.
[The Zeiss 18mm f/4 ZM did not play well with the A7R...]
There are a few M lenses which are rumored to work fantastically on the A7 series and especially the A7S. (Ron Scheffler has just completed an excellent phlog on this topic - thanks Ron!) These include the following;
I decided to try the Voightlander 15mm f/4.5 lens before even considering laying out the kind of cash true Leica lenses demand. I managed to score a 9.8/10 condition copy. I have owned a Leica digital M before - the Leica M8.2. I loved the rangefinder experience and have been drooling over this system ever since. My dream would be to own a M240 with the 16-18-21, a 28mm summicron, 50mm summilux and a 75 or 90mm summarit-m. Maybe a nice 40th birthday gift some day...
[The Voightlander 15mm f/4.5 is very small on the A7 series cameras - much smaller than even the Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5]
After some initial testing with the VC 15mm I decided that I was going in a different direction with my M lenses. Although it is small, and performs reasonably well on the A7S, I didn't like that I couldn't use filters (due to vignetting). Obviously I don't use CPL filters on such a wide lens, but GND's can be handy for water effects. I also noticed some corner smearing that made me nervous about real world application.
Due to a 2nd hand deal on a Leica WATE that I couldn't pass on, I ended up selling the VC 15mm before I could test it extensively. (See Ron's article for a review)
I'll state up front that this is the most expensive lens I've ever purchased. I bought it 2nd hand and saved a lot of money over buying a brand new one, but it still cost me an arm and leg. I've bought Leica lenses before (I owned a Leica M8.2) and I know what my money is buying and in the case of the Wide Angle Tri-Elmar-M (WATE) I knew I was paying for the 3 things all Leica fans are willing to sacrifice a lot of $$$ for;
I fully acknowledge that to most people, the idea of spending so much money on one lens is absolutely ridiculous. I make good money, but I'm by no means rich. So why do I think Leica lenses are worth it? See the above 3 points. :)
[The best performing, wide angle primes that I tested on my A7S. Note how large the relatively small OM18 is compared to the MATE and WATE mainly due to the huge adapter it needs?]
To test the lens for color shift, smearing and vignetting my choices were very limited considering the time of the year! Obviously I'll be running more comprehensive 'tests' that mean more to me (actual photographs from the field) once I take the lens out more often. I simply stepped out my back door and took snaps of the back yard. The snow made it very easy to spot color shifts and vignetting. Smearing was a bit harder but the lower corners should show that at least. Following are tests at 16mm at various apertures. Please excuse the dust spots and dreary weather. This is a very high level test, only meant to demonstrate color shift and vignetting. You'll have to either take my word for it or find other tests that this lens is sharp from f/4 in the corners on the A7S.
[16mm f/4 from an earlier test sequence. The Sony PlayMemories app works very well to correct the vignetting. There is very little color shift but I could correct for that too.]
[Wide open at f/4 with no corrections focused at around 1.5m]
[16mm at f/5.6 focused around 1.5m with no corrections]
[16mm f/8 focused around 1.5m, no corrections]
[16mm f/11 focused around 1.5m, no corrections]
The vignetting is pretty limited, remember I'm shooting at a partially light blue / white canvas! Next are some 100% zoomed shots. I set the lens to about 1.5-2 meters for Hyperfocal distance - best at f/8-f/11. You can download a full size JPEG and full size ARW by clicking the appropriate links below;
[Click here for a full size JPEG or click here for the ARW file. It's important to remember that I'm testing for vignetting, smearing, color and focus shifts by hyperfocusing at 1.5-2m. I could have a deadly sharp fence by focusing on just the fence, but I am not doubting this lenses ability to focus on things... ;)]
I compared the WATE directly against the OM 18mm at 18mm f/11. I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the OM 18 performed, but in the end the WATE out performs it in both sharpness across the frame and CA (which can be fixed either in the PlayMemories app or PP quite easily). Is the WATE worth the extra money? Not at 18mm IMO. If you only need an 18mm lens on your Sony A7S, I would recommend buying a used Olympus OM 18mm in good condition. If possible try to find one with the filter adapter ring. This will cost you at least 4 or 5 times less than the WATE!
But. If you are looking for wider (16mm) and less wide (21mm) and ultimate IQ then the WATE is definitely the way to go. I'm not aware of any lens around 16mm or any at 21mm that will come even close to matching the WATE on the A7S, and if you start buying premium lenses in those focal ranges you will end up spending close to the same amount anyway. (NOTE: The Sony FE 16-35mm lens is testing very well as a fully AF solution.)
[The WATE on the A7S is a potent low light lens, wide open at f/4 and ISO 8,000 for 30s.]
[Another shot on the WATE at 16mm, ISO 51,200 for 30s]
I wan't planning on buying this Tri-Elmar, but I got extremely lucky and managed to find a local copy on Kijiji and somehow managed to pay only 2/3 of what it's worth. (This means I can always profit from a sale if it's not up to snuff.) I figured there must be someone out there who has tried this lens on a Sony A7 series camera and reported back, but I found very few mentions of the MATE on any Sony A7 camera, much less the Sony A7S. I think the MATE is even rarer than the WATE, and is older so many folks are no longer interested in it. Due to the MATE's relative obscurity amongst mainstream photogs, there simply aren't many sample floating around on any camera, much less the specific ones I'm interested in.
I guess I'm the guinea pig on this one...
Right off the bat, I got a bit of a scare with the MATE. I mounted it on my A7S using a Metabones M to NEX adapter. Everything worked out until I tried removing it. It was hopeless stuck on the adapter! :( I tried everything to remove it but was very scared of damaging my new (expensive) lens. Eventually I resorted to disassembling the adapter before it finally popped off. My Fotodiox M to NEX works no problem with the MATE and the Metabones (and Fotodiox) work no problem on the WATE. Very strange.
[As you can see, the Leica Tri-Elmar MATE lens fits very well on the A7S. It balances perfectly and weighs slightly less than the Sony Zeiss 24-70 FE OSS lens - but is much smaller in size of course!]
[The lens hood is large, but protects the rare front element very well. I think I'll use it a lot just for that reason.]
After exchanging a lot of cash for this lens, I brought it home to put it through it's paces. Things I noticed almost immediately;
[The two Leica Tri-Elmar lenses make for 6 total prime lenses in all my favorite focal lengths. And notice how tiny they are!]
Just like with the WATE, I simply stepped out my back door and took snaps of the back yard for my initial impressions of the MATE. The snow made it very easy to spot color shifts and vignetting. Smearing was a bit harder but the lower corners should show that at least. Following are tests at 28mm at various apertures. Please excuse the dust spots and dreary weather. Again, I am not going to get into detailed tests and 100% views. Other testers might be interested in that sort of thing but I'm not.
[28mm f/4 with some corrections via Sony PlayMemories app]
[28mm f/4 focused around 2m, no corrections]
[28mm f/5.6 focused around 2m, no corrections]
[28mm f/8 focused around 2m, no corrections]
[28mm f/11 focused around 2m, no corrections]
Unlike the WATE at 16mm, the MATE at 28mm pretty much loses any vignetting by f/11 with no corrections necessary to my eyes. I also did some comparison shots between the Sony FE 24-70mm at 28mm and the MATE at 28mm. Just as with the OM 18 when compared to the WATE, the Sony actually performed pretty well compared to the WATE. It's not as sharp across the frame and doesn't behave nearly as well at hyperfocal range for some reason, but when comparing 'bare bones' shots you'd have to look closely to tell which lens was used - but you'd be able to tell on close inspection.
So - is the MATE worth almost 3 times more than the FE 24-70mm? For most people - definitely not. I'm not even sure if it is for me yet. Unlike the WATE, where there's no debate that it is the best optical solution for UWA - the MATE isn't the only solution that's viable for 28, 35 or 50mm on the A7S or the Leica M system. Although it's very hard to find a good performing 28mm on the A7S, there is a Sony FE 28mm coming out soon and the FE 24-70mm is no slouch either. Then there is the excellent Sony and Loxia 35mm lenses. At 55mm, the Sony FE f/1.8 is considered one of the sharpest lenses money can buy! There are only a few reasons why I'm keeping my MATE for now and most of these reasons aren't for everyone;
I managed to get out cross country skiing with the A7S / MATE combo hanging around my neck. I skied 22km and was never really bothered by the gear around my neck. I managed to test the lens and am really loving the ability to hyperfocus and get very sharp photos to infinity. Here's a shot at 28mm f/11, directly into the sun.
Just like the Leica M mount, the Contax G mount is designed to place the rear element of the lenses much closer to the film plane than some other alt lenses which results in a much smaller overall package size when mounted on the A7S. The G lenses suffer from all the same issues as the M ones, the wider the lens, the more corner smearing, color shifting and vignetting on the A7 series cameras. But - when I got an opportunity to buy a complete set of black Contax G lenses at a price that was too hard to resist, well - I couldn't resist! Most G lenses are a silver or champagne color. While color isn't a big deal (obviously not impacting performance), a black G lens in pristine shape is worth a lot more than the silver one, because of their limited production run. The lenses I bought were literally brand new with boxes and I paid hundreds of dollars less than current prices - this meant I could profit or at least not take a loss on reselling them.
The Contax G system is an auto focusing range finder system, kind of like the Leica LTM and M mount, but with AF. The weirdest thing about the G system is that the lenses have no manual focus option (i.e. ring) at all! Think about it. Which other lens that you know of, has NO OPTION for manual focus? This is part of the reason why these lenses are 'cheap' even though they're Zeiss - because they're also quirky to use. There is an adapter made in China that claims to give AF functionality to the Contax G lenses on the A7 cameras. This was just too good an opportunity for me to pass up. And if the AF adapter ever needs improvement (it does BTW...), it comes with a Bluetooth 4.0 chip which allows it's firmware to be updated. It also allows manual focusing (by wire) - supposedly better than other G-->NEX adapters on the market today.
The following G lenses are known to work very well on A7 cameras:
The following G lenses are questionable and haven't been shown to work very well on either the A7 or A7R. I haven't seen them tested or used on the A7S yet. So I decided to try. ;)
There are only three other lenses in the G lineup. The 35mm is supposed to work pretty well on the A7 cameras but the other two aren't special and don't work properly with the Techart adapter anyway:
I did not have high expectations for this unit. I've read some rather discouraging reviews and comments on the web about sub-par AF in regards to both speed and accuracy. My first surprise was how quickly the unit shipped from China - It only took 3 or 4 days. It took 3 more weeks to finally get my Contax G lenses in the mail - from the USA. I immediately mounted the G28 onto the adapter and my A7S. This was tougher than I expected. It's hard to explain, but mounting a G lens is weird. You'll understand when you try it. There's a double twist before the lens is actually mounted. I also immediately noticed that the G lenses don't have a MF ring like almost any other lens on the planet. This may not seem like a big deal but it's much bigger than I thought it would be in 'real life'.
To my surprise, the AF was not only reasonably fast (about the same speed as a Sony RX1/R) but it was also reasonably accurate, especially wide open. (Note 1: I was using the latest version III of the adapter.) I've read about it taking '3 seconds' to lock focus - mine was nowhere near that slow in good light and wide open, although stopped down past f/4 it took a few seconds to find focus. I could easily auto focus with all four lenses. The G21 and G45 were the fastest at less than 1 second to lock focus wide open. Even more surprising was the fact that 3/4 of the time I could AF at around f/8-11 if outside in good light. This was much better than advertised as Techart recommends only using the AF wide open. Don't get me wrong - this is nowhere as fast as the native FE AF lenses, but I thought it would be great for landscapes and portraits. (Note 2: Before you slam me for being too positive on the AF capabilities of the Golden Eagle, continue reading... ;))
After using the adapter around the house and liking it quite a bit, I tried using it outside on a hiking trip, the way I would normally use it. This is where things quickly get more negative for me and the G system on the Sony A7S. :( I had three major issues with the Techart Adapter while trying to use it in the field.
Manually focusing with this adapter is easy with bare hands, indoors when you're not in a hurry and you're nice and warm. Focusing with gloves, while hiking in a cold wind and trying to keep up to my hiking partner while ascending a mountain was MUCH harder than it should have been. The Contax G lenses don't have manual focus and don't even allow the camera to be set to MF, but even so, figuring out all the settings for a proper manual focus was too complicated. I'm sure I was doing something wrong, but trying to manually focus and then not trigger the AF while snapping the photo was almost impossible. I'd read the manual, but why couldn't I find a proper English manual on the internet anywhere?! I tried several options including disconnecting the shutter button from AF but nothing was optimal - especially with gloves and while moving. With my Olympus OM's I simply use hyper-focusing if I'm in a hurry. Set the lens focus using the DOF scale and snap the photo. It's quicker than AF in most situations! While taking a series of photos for a summit panorama, I had to refocus between each shot. This was a real PITA because the wind was cold and the scene was changing quickly (moving clouds) and at f/11 the focus would only lock ever 3 tries and took about 3 seconds to lock (remember, Techart recommends only using AF wide open).
Camera lockup and blackout issues plagued me all day. The new adapter is supposed to be better than the old one, Well, it's still pretty bad. It locked up the camera for me at least 20% of the time. I would turn off the camera, wait 5-10 seconds before it would actually power off and then turn it on again and wait another 5-10 seconds for the PlayMemories app to load and everything to be ready for the next shot. This is totally unacceptable for me. When I'm climbing a mountain, the photographs need to happen quickly. I see a moment I want to capture and I need to be able to photograph it almost instantly. Not 20 or even 30 seconds later... Because there's no pure MF option (even 'MF' is by wire) and because of the crashes, the G lens solution was unusable for me, even though the glass itself is great at certain focal lengths, and the AF works if you're not in a hurry and are using it wide open. I've heard from others that there are better MF options available, but I can't get used to lenses that can't be normally manually focused.
The adapter is 'fiddly'. I ran into an issue half way up the mountain where the little gear that drives the AF wasn't aligned with the lens properly. This was because changing lenses is a PITA with the Contax G series. They fit the adapter no problem, but there's a two-part twist that's hard to explain and even harder to manage with winter gloves on. It makes quickly changing lenses while trying to walk up a mountain very complicated. More work than it should be. Too much fiddling for my liking. This issue wasted at least 20 minutes while I stood in a gale-force winter wind and tried desperately to get the lens to work again - because even MF is 'focus-by-wire' there is no way to use the lenses unless that gear is operating properly and unlike most focus-by-wire solutions, the gear is exposed on the adapter and therefore can be bumped and misaligned easily.
So there you have it. For my uses (hiking, skiing, climbing) , the Golden Eagle adapter doesn't work well enough to consider. I'd be better off with a fully manual solution rather than trying to AF with either the camera or by wire using the tiny focusing wheel. That being said, I'll give a brief over view of the lenses themselves, both how they look and how they worked for my on the A7S when the adapter was cooperating enough for me to get a photo.
I had high hopes for this tiny gem of a lens but I'll admit, with an excellent Olympus OM18 and a very expensive Leica WATE, I never expected to keep it, even if it was a decent performer on the A7S - which it wasn't. Deadly sharp in the center, even wide open, the corners were too smeared to be worth a $1200 lens on the A7S. Auto focus is fast and very accurate with the Golden Eagle adapter at large apertures but after f/5.6 it slows considerably and is hit and miss on accuracy.
I used the Sony PlayMemories "Lens Correction" application to correct for vignetting and color shifting which worked pretty well, but I had to max out the settings in order to get even close to a usable image. It's not all terrible as the following image shows, but not worth the $$$ that this lens demands or comparable to what it could do on film.
[A landscape with the 21mm. Notice the slight color shift still visible in the corners and the smearing on the extreme corners as well.]
I also had high hopes for this tiny gem of a lens. I'm happy to report that for a lot of scenarios, this lens will make 95% of users very happy. It focuses fairly quickly wide open (nice for WA portraits) and eventually locks focus even at f/8-f/11 if there's enough contrast in the scene (be aware that it can take 2 or 3 tries and many seconds at small apertures). The extreme corners show some smearing, but nothing compared to the 21mm. Also, the color shifts are more correctable than the 21mm to correct with the Sony PlayMemories camera app. Remember that the app is also not without challenges. For example, say you have a profile set up for the CZ28 at f/5.6 but now you want to shoot at f/11. You need to go into the app, find the right profile and select before snapping a shot. This takes time, and with winter gloves on is a frustrating experience.
Colors are very 'Zeiss' and the micro detail is also there. If I didn't have a Leica MATE and great native Sony FE glass in this same focal length, I'd probably keep this lens.
[Pretty good sharpness even in the corners for the G28. Not perfect, but pretty darn good.]
[A stitched panorama with the G28. This shot was very hard to take because the camera kept trying to AF between shots. There was no way I could find that would set it to a focus and exposure and not try to re-focus. The camera literally cannot be set to 'MF' when the Techart adapter is mounted! ++]
The G45 lived up to expectations with regards to performance on the A7S. Aside from the issues I had with using the Techart III adapter, the lens itself performed top notch. It's small, sharp and has great rendering, color, micro contrast etc. If I didn't have the focusing issues and the excellent OM 50mm f/1.2 or other options in the same focal range already, I'd definitely keep this lens. I knew when I bought it that I was reselling it.
The G90, like the G45, lives up to its reputation on the A7 series, on the A7S. Just like the G45, if I didn't hate using the Techart adapter or not having MF on the lens so much I'd keep this lens. I have a Leica Summarit-m 75mm in this focal length already so I knew I would be reselling this lens when I bought it.
As is obvious from the shot below, taken at ISO 25,600, one of the biggest advantages of the A7S is that I can use relatively slow lenses like the Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 or the two Leica Tri-Elmars in almost any photographic situation. Believe it or not, this includes astrophotography. Single shot astrophotography isn't very hard, but it can be very expensive. In order to get a great Milky Way shot with most cameras you typically need the following:
Fast, wide lenses aren't cheap and most important for me, aren't small or light. And fast, wide lenses don't typically work well on A7 series cameras. For example, the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS isn't fast enough on the A7R. You could get decent night sky photos, but anything over ISO 5000 or so is going to be very noisy and 24mm f/4 at that speed isn't getting enough light. You could adapt the 24mm f/2 ZA lens but now you're carrying a huge, heavy lens that will be tough to manually focus in darkness. You could try some alternative lenses such as the Leica 21mm f/1.4 - but that lens is $8,000 and doesn't even work well wide open at infinity on the A7R! ;) The Sony A7S gets rid of the problems of shooting at night in three ways over most other digital cameras;
Following are some examples, with various lenses, of the A7S' ability to use relatively slow zooms or primes to take great nightscape photographs.
[The Milky Way at ISO 25,600 f/4 20s exposure. Taken with the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS zoom lens at 24mm.]
[Another shot at ISO 25,600 20s and f/4. Taken with the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS zoom lens at 24mm.]
[For this shot of the Milky Way, I used an Olympus OM 18mm f/3.5 lens at ISO 25,600 wide open for 25 seconds.]
I haven't started doing deep-space astrophotography yet, but the A7S will be wonderful for this venture as well. For deep-space stuff like taking photos of nebula you need some additional gear including;
The reason the A7S will be wonderful for this type of astrophotography is simply it's ability to shoot at high ISO, but even more important to adapt older alternative lenses. A new Canon 600mm f/4 IS will cost you around $13,000 while an old Olympus 600mm f/6.5 will cost around $1000 for a mint copy!
As I alluded to in the comments under some of the previous panoramic photos, modern software has lessoned the importance of huge megapixel sensors for some types of photos under certain conditions. Software stitching is not a 100% panacea for all photogs or all situations, but for me it's definitely a much used way to get extremely large, detailed and magnificent panoramic prints from relatively low resolution sensors. I've been using stitching software for many years now, and it's only getting better and easier to use.
I exclusively use Adobe Creative Cloud for panoramic stitching simply because it integrates so well with Adobe Lightroom. I just select the photos I want to stitch in LR and right click before sending them to PS - it doesn't matter if they're in RAW, JPEG or any other format, or whether I've already edited them or not. Once in PS I use some predefined actions that I recorded earlier, to make things even more efficient. Most 5-7 image stitches take less than a minute or two. The best part about modern stitching software is that you can stitch in any direction and almost any number of photos, depending only on the computer you're using. The following stitch is from 5 vertical shots taken across 3 times (i.e. 15 total shots in a 5x3 matrix) from top to bottom with a zoom lens to capture the mountain summit, it's glacier and waterfalls in a very high resolution, compressed view landscape photo.
[This is a very large composite photo taken with a zoom lens (Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8) in a 15 shot matrix, 5 across and 3 down. Using PS CC it did all the lining up, stitching and exposure blending for me. This is a massive digital file capable of a very large print. All from a 12mp sensor.]
Using a combination of modern technology (low light sensor and software) I was able to capture a shot that is no way inferior to what the 36mp A7R could have captured here. There are situations that are not as friendly for high resolution stitching and these include;
High resolution stitches work best in a static landscape shot but be creative! For example, you might have a situation where a single shot is all that's needed to capture the scene, but you are worried that a 12mp file isn't going to be enough resolution for the large print you want. Just hold down the shutter button and take a fast sequence of 5 shots. The slight shake that you will inevitably have, is good in this case (don't use a tripod). Because all 5 shots will be very slightly different, the stitch will have much more detail than a single shot. This is a very useful trick to get single-shot high resolution photographs out of a 12mp sensor.
Sorry this article got so long - I started it a while ago and then went on a lens-buying binge and had to keep updating it. Email me if you have specific questions and I'll try to answer them as best I can. I don't get paid to do these assessments, I only do them because I like writing and sharing my experiences and sometimes I'm bored with nothing else to do. ;)
My concluding thoughts on the Sony A7S are that it's not the camera for everyone. It's expensive and low resolution by modern standards - I really wish it was 24mp. For me, it's the best solution money can buy due to its incredibly capable low-light sensor and the fact that I can use incredibly small, light and excellent alt glass such as the Leica WATE on it. But I have to admit that for MUCH LESS money, you could buy a system that's not only smaller but also lighter, but also has more resolution and for 95% of photos won't look any different either on the web or even printed! A micro four-thirds system such as the new Panasonic GM5 with some tiny primes like the 15mm f/1.7 or 12mm f/2 is a very nice little package with great output. This causes me to pause and ask myself if sometimes pursuing the "best option" is a self-defeating or entirely meaningless pursuit.
As long as you're getting out there and enjoying what you love, there is no 'right' or 'wrong' gear to take photos with. Just remember, you won't always be able to enjoy life the way you can in your youth / health - and make sure you make some giant prints or books to enjoy your memories a little bit longer.