A Rolling Review of the Sony A7R


 

January 04 2014 - Moving Forward with Olympus OM Lenses

Since acquiring my Sony A7R in early December, I've had the opportunity to try out and build up an assortment of lenses and techniques that work for me. I'm still very much in the figuring it all out stage but thought I'd give an update now, considering the camera is still fairly new and there seems to be a lot of interest in it at this time.

The first thing I've changed is the manual lenses that I'm using with it. Originally I thought I'd be using the Canon FD line up of high and medium high end glass, such as the 17mm f/4 and the 24mm f/1.4 L lenses. While these lenses work fantastically on the A7R, they do have one main drawback - their mass.

While researching alternate, manual focus lenses for the A7R I came across a thread on FredMiranda.com regarding the use of OM lenses on the Sony FF body via a OM-->NEX adapter. I've always been an Olympus fan and their OM glass has made quite a name for itself over the years. There are a few known issues with using the OM's on the Sony;

  • OM glass in good condition isn't cheap. And it's getting more expensive thanks to people like me who are using it on the Sony cameras.
  • The adapters increase the overall length of the lens by almost double for anything under 100mm. This is due to the way the older Olympus bodies had a very deep lens cavity from the back of the lens to the film surface. (This is a double edged sword because it's also the reason the lenses work so good compared to the Leica M mount which is very shallow...)
  • It can be difficult to find good OM glass without mould, fungus or dust simply because OM lenses haven't been manufactured for decades as opposed to the M-Mount lenses which are still made new.
  • There are some CA issues with most OM glass - even the very expensive stuff.

All that being said, I was very keen to try it. Even better was the fact that I had two great OM lenses already in my old camera bag from a $200 impulse buy of an OM-T about 8 years ago. I was thinking of going back to film at the time, and ended up with the camera and 3 lenses, a cheap Vivitar Series 1 70-210 f/3.5 Macro, an OM 50mm f/1.8 and an excellent copy of an OM 24mm f/2.8 lens. I figured it couldn't hurt to buy a $15 Ebay adapter and try them out - considering that the Sony / Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 ZE is $1000 and I had a similar lens for 'free' in my closet! :)

Olympus OM 24mm on the Sony A7R

Olympus OM 50mm on the Sony A7R

As the thread on FredMiranda grew longer and longer, I could see that there were going to be some impressive performers in the OM lineup. My adapter was ordered from China and was taking forever to arrive so I decided to act quickly before the OM market became to demanding and prices started increasing even more than they already were. Two lenses stood out among the crowd for me - the OM 28mm f/2 and the OM 21mm f/2. Actually the OM 21mm f/3.5 was the standout but I assumed the f/2 would be even better - and suited my needs more so I zeroed in on it. (I did much of my OM lens research at the excellent lens database on MIR.com.)

I'd always wanted a 28mm walk-around prime lens after spending most of the summer of 2007 with a Sigma DP1 and it's fixed length 28mm f/2.8 lens. When I used the Sony RX1 with it's 35mm fixed lens for the summer of 2012, I also carried the Sony RX100 II as a backup, mainly for its 28mm wide end. I also wanted the fastest glass I could afford - mainly for use with semi-macro flower shots and wide angle, single shot astrophotography on my back country excursions. The 21mm was a bit of a splurge, but I knew that even in the extremely unlikely case that Sony / Zeiss would put out a prime lens in that focal length, the odds of it being f/2 was very, very slim. It would also cost even more than my beautiful OM cost me - so I took the plunge and sold my Canon FD glass before putting in a few orders through various online sources for a 28mm and 21mm f/2 lens. I also made one more OM purchase - a beautiful OM 135mm f/2.8 that cost me less than $200 and was in brand new condition. Certainly much cheaper, smaller and lighter than the Sony 135mm f/2!!

Olympus OM 135mm on the Sony A7R

I still have a lot of testing to do with the various lenses that I own but preliminary results are impressive. The 50mm does what that focal length is meant to do - produce nice creamy bokeh and sharp detail where needed. The 24mm is also a very impressive performer, considering I got it for almost nothing and it's very small even with the adapter.

The 21mm and 28mm lenses are very impressive performers too. Extremely sharp in the center and very good at the corners - certainly as good or better than any AF lenses that may come out in the next few years anyway. The 36mp A7R demands very good hand holding technique and even then, a tripod or monopod is almost needed for every shot to ensure critical sharpness if you care about that sort of thing. For most of my shots I don't need perfect sharpness but I will be using a tripod more than I used to - especially for more formal landscape shots. There are zero color shifting issues such as the ones I had with the Zeiss 18mm f/4. There is a certain amount of vignetting that is easily fixed in Lightroom (and not noticed on the majority of shots) and also some easily-fixed CA, depending on the shot of course.


[Look at the top corners of each shot and you'll notice the vignetting on the 28mm at f/5.6 and f/11 and then the 21mm at f/5.6 and f/11. It's not horrible but it's there.]


[Voila! Vignetting gone with a simply adjustment in Lightroom.]

I will be doing many more tests with the various lenses as the months move on - most of my shooting is done in the spring / summer / fall. I will also be acquiring the Sony / Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 when it becomes available in the next few months. This is one of the main reasons I have a battery grip - the native zoom lenses will not be small and the grip provides a nice balance and extended battery life with shooting formals for a day. Here's a few more product shots of the OM lenses on the A7R;

Olympus OM 21mm on the Sony A7R

Olympus OM 28mm on the Sony A7R

December 03 2013 - First Impressions

I recieved my Sony A7R from Henrys Canada on November 29, just in time to try it on a few weekend trips. Due to a shortage of FE autofocus lenses at launch, the only lens I could order with the camera in native mount, was the excellent, tiny and very light 35mm FE Zeiss lens. I also bought a Zeiss 18mm f/4 Distagon T* rangefinder lens off EBay to try on the camera via a LTM --> NEX adapter.

My overall impression of the camera is that it's very light and small for a full frame (FF) kit. It's bigger than my RX1 was, and the 35mm f/2.8 isn't quite as good as the f/2 lens on the RX1 but it's close enough. Obviously the strength of the A7R is having almost an infinate number of lenses I can use on it as long as I'm willing to use alternate and manual focus glass. The amazing thing about the size is that it's the same size as the Olympus E-M5 but has twice the sensor, or more! This gives some very shallow depth of field and some incredible dynamic range as well as allowing lenses to be used at their 'real' focal length - a 24mm lens is 24mm again.

For more information on why I think the A7/R is a revolutionary camera, especially for us climbers, skiers and backpackers see my original blog on the subject.

Sony A7R

First Outings with the A7R and FE 35mm

The first official outing for my A7R was a snowshoe trip with my kids. The weather was pretty dismal for landscapes but I thought I'd try anyway. We drove the 150km to the Chester Lake parking lot along the Spray Lakes road in Kananaskis Country to the west of Calgary, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. You can read a more detailed trip report with more photos (from the RX100II and A7R) here.

The A7R / 35mm Zeiss FE are a great combo. The package is very light and the quality of the lens is high. The lens does exhibit some purple fringing in some scenarios but not too bad. The most annoying thing for me was that the eye sensor which switches between the rear LCD and the EVF when you move the camera close to your eye got some moisture on it and from then on the rear LCD didn't display until I managed to dry off the eye sensor. In my opinion this sensor is a bit too sensitive. Not a huge deal but beware of this - if you get the camera damp or wet the rear LCD may not want to engage until you dry the sensor.


[My daughter, Kaycie at f/2.8 with the A7R and 35mm FE lens]


[The Chester Lake outflow stream at f/8]


[Excellent Sony color and auto white balance. Amazing dynamic range too!]

Handling, Output and Configuration

Handling is easy and intuitive with the A7R and there are a host of easily configurable buttons and options. You should never have to menu-dive after getting the camera set up, except maybe to format the card or connect to a wireless network (yes the camera can do that!). The shutter noise reminded me instantly of my first NEX camera - the NEX-5. It's a double sounding racket that is a bit of a shock after using the RX1 for 4 months! I really hope the next version can solve this 'issue'. 

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is the best I've ever used. The previous best one I've used would either be the Sony A99 or the Olympus E-M5. I've heard that the new Olympus VF-4 and E-M1 are even better but suffice it to say, that EVF's have come a LONG way in the past few years. With focus peaking features and all the benefits of live view, I personally don't ever need to have an OVF again. The only exception might be for range finder shooting (i.e. Leica) because that's a different style altogether.

The color and detail of the photos are great too. Lots of contrast and more than enough dynamic range for most uses. I used Lightroom 5 release candidate 1.3 to process the ARW (RAW) files. An update to Lightroom is expected soon with a production release version supporting the new Sony's. Overall, I found the files very malleable and easy to work with. Remember to ensure that your hardware can work with the 40mb (RAW) files though!! My MacBook Pro is at its limit and processing a 9 stitch pano was pushing it... :)

The day after Chester Lake I decided to head out on my own to climb a small sub-peak of Mount Kidd near Kananaskis Village. I didn't use the A7R much because I was in thick trees for much of the day, but I did manage a pretty nice panorama. The west half of the complete pano is below;


[A panorama from Mount Kidd Junior stitching 9 vertical shots ]

Early Conclusions

I have many, many more outings ahead with the Sony A7R. I will continue to update this blog with new findings and observations but here's my first (early) conclusions.

Pros

  • Excellent image quality
  • Small / light for a full frame package
  • Responsive and many buttons to make shooting quick and intuitive
  • Lots of lens options if you're willing to go the alternate route
  • Very good EVF / LCD
  • Comfortable to hold and handle

Cons

  • Some purple fringing on the FE 35mm - a bit disappointing for a $700 lens...
  • Very loud and jarring shutter sound
  • Eye / Rear LCD sensor is very sensitive and doesn't work if wet or fogged up

Who is the A7/R for?

In my opinion, based on many years with many digital cameras, the Sony A7/R is not for everyone. I think if you mainly shoot autofocus zooms or are really attached to AF lenses you should probably not get an A7/R right now. Sure - there are two native lenses available in the FE35 and the FE28-70 but you will get far more usage out of the excellent sensors if you are willing to use a vast array of alternate glass. In a few years I'm sure there'll be more AF / native FE mount options but for now something like the Olympus E-M1 will give much faster AF and a huge assortment of excellent lenses for far less money than the Sony's. I predict that there'll be a lot of used A7's on the market within 6 months of launch because many folks are buying into a system they don't have the patience or money to fully utilize. I think if you're looking at buying the A7/R you should be in the same market as someone purchasing a camera like Nikon's D800/E or Canon's 6D or 5DIII.

Just like it doesn't make much sense to buy the excellent sensor in the D800/E and then use a cheap zoom lens on it, it doesn't make very much sense to buy the A7/R only to complain about no cheap glass. I plan on using very high end alt and native mount lenses on my A7R, such as the Canon FD L lenses and Zeiss FE native mounts. I hope to buy the 24-70 f/4 and 70-200 f/4 Sony and Zeiss lenses when they are available, but these are not cheap!

If you're a landscape photog I would recommend the 36mp A7R. If you're more of a generalist photog I would say the A7 is a better choice simply because your computer will have a much easier time with the 24mp photos. :)

Alternate (non-native) Lenses on the A7/R

There is much discussion on the 'net around the use of alternate lenses (non-native) via adapters on the A7/R cameras. The Sony E-mount is very amendable to using third party and older manual focus lenses of all kinds. The hype, before the camera shipped, was that we'd be able to use lenses like the Leica 24mm Summilux f/1.4 on a full frame $2200 camera instead of on the $7000 Leica M Type 240. The reality did not match the hype, however. Due to the complexity of wide angle lenses on a short mount and huge sensor like the one in the A7R, the initial results of using small, MF rangefinder lenses was rather dismal. Examples started showing up with corner smearing and color casts.

As the hype slowly continues to die down, it's obvious that many alternate lenses work excellent on the A7/R cameras and there is no "one brush paints all" solutions. Some very expensive lenses like the Leica Summilux 50mm don't seem to work that great compared to much cheaper 50mm alternatives. Some wide angle lenses like the CV Voightlander 21mm f/1.9 seem to work pretty good on the A7's, while others like many of the Zeiss Biogons simply don't work well. I found out pretty quickly that the Canon FD lenses seem to work very well on the A7R - my Canon FD 24mm 1:1.4 L lens is testing quite remarkably and I hope to have real world samples from it soon. This could be my dream astrophotography wide angle lens.

With my Zeiss 18mm on EBay and a number of other options ready to test, including a couple of Olympus OM lenses I have a long and interesting road ahead of me using alternate lenses on the A7R. I will obviously be reporting on these as I test and use them and will update this blog as I do.

Canon FD L 24mm on the Sony A7R
[The excellent (and expensive!) Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens on the Sony A7.]

Zeiss 18mm f/4 Distagon

The first alternate lens I tried on the A7R was a Zeiss 18mm f/4 ZM (Leica mount) lens. This is a gorgeous lens that I had good success with on my Leica M8.2 where it was a 23.4mm equivalent due to the 1.3x crop factor of the M8.2. I thought the lens would work well on the A7R when I ordered it - before any of the Sony's were shipping. Unfortunately as the day of receiving the camera moved closer and closer I could sense that the 18mm wasn't going to work very good on it. The 'net was starting to fill up with hot debates about why certain alt glass (especially wide angle) wasn't working as expected but generally it has to do with the immense number of pixels on the large sensor and the small distance between the rear lens elements and the angles of light hitting the sensor edges. 

It was too late to cancel so I tried it anyway - I have a Leica M --> NEX adapter from using a Leica Summarit-M 75mm on my former NEX-7. I took the 18mm on my snowshoe trip with my kids to Chester Lake. I knew right away that there was color issues when I saw the preview shots on the LCD in the field. When I got home and opened the files my suspicions were confirmed. Converting to B&W and using some vignetting remedies in LR worked pretty well, but I am not enough of a B&W photog to justify a $1200 wide angle lens just for B&W shooting... There are fixes available for PP correction of color casts such as CornerFix or the new flat field plugin for Adobe Lightroom but to be honest I'm too lazy to use these tools all the time. I want my out-of-camera (OOC) shots to be pretty good so that all I have to do in post-processing is adjust color / white balance. I don't want to be running batch jobs, taking reference shots in the field and all that jazz.


[An uncorrected wide angle shot with the A7R and the Zeiss 18mm f/4 T* ZM. Notice the color casts in each corner?]


[The above photo converted to B&W and the vignetting removed. The 18mm is very sharp and detailed on the A7R but just too much PP work for my tastes.]

Canon FD 24mm 1:1.4 L

The second alternate lens I tried on the A7R was the Canon FD 24mm f/1.4 L lens. This is an expensive lens from the pre-AF days when Canon pretty much ruled the world of photography. The FD L lenses are gorgeous beasts - especially the fast ones of f/1.2 or f/1.4! I bought this lens after seeing good results on the 'net from the 55mm f/1.2 and 85mm f/1.2. It was another gamble - like the Zeiss 18mm - but I knew I could sell this lens again since I bought it in brand new condition.

Unfortunately the adapter for the FD mount didn't come in until after the weekend so I haven't done extensive testing yet. BUT - I have tested it enough to get pretty excited! There are no color casts on the corners and the lens is deadly sharp. Even at f/1.4 the center is sharp - this is looking like an excellent low light wide angle option and also a very good candidate for single-shot wide angle astrophotography, which is something I'm very interested in. The lens looks gorgeous on the A7R and operates very smoothly. Of course it's heavy and quite large, but considering how fast it is - it's pretty darn small actually!

Why Use Manual Focus Lenses on the A7/R?

Why bother with manual focus lenses at all? Isn't that just going backwards? Well, it depends. Using focus peaking and manual focus lenses is just as quick as most autofocus systems once you're used to it. You also don't have to move the focus point or focus and re-compose anymore. With manual focus and focus peaking I just compose the shot and then manually focus until the part of the picture I want sharp is shimmering with the peaking lines - then I snap away. It's really very fast and easy. The reason to bother with older or rangefinder, manually focussing lenses is that they are much smaller than the equivalent AF lenses which need to have lens motors in them.

Another reason to use MF lenses over AF lenses on the A7/R is that you will usually spend much less money on an equivalent, or better lens. For example, my 24mm f/1.4 Canon FD lens is smaller and lighter than the 24mm f/2 Sony lens + Sony adapter and is a whole stop of light faster! It also cost about $300 less than the Sony lens... Another good example is the Canon FD 135mm f/2 lens. This lens is small and downright cheap compared to the Sony 135mm! If you really want to get crazy (which I probably will), the Canon 300mm f/2.8 FD L lens is over 6 or 7 times cheaper than a close Sony equivalent. 

MF lenses are also usually built tougher and out of heavier material than newer AF lenses. This isn't always a good thing (i.e. too heavy) but generally they will last much longer simply because there's less moving parts to break and a more solid casing to hold the moving parts that are there.

Things to Watch for when Buying MF Lenses

There are a few things you should be aware of before just running out and buying every old MF lens you can find for your A7R. :P 

  • Look out for internal dust and / or fungus
  • I only buy new or like-new MF lenses - it saves a lot of hassle and makes resale much easier
  • Try to get the original boxes - good for resale
  • Look for reviews before buying expensive glass that doesn't work on modern cameras anymore...
  • Buy good adapters from EBay but don't spend too much. For example my FD --> NEX adapter was $14.99 and works very well

As always, you might get lucky at a local garage sale, but generally you get what you pay for. Don't expect miracles from cheap, old MF glass. You could get lucky, but probably won't. :)

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