Earlier this year I acquired a Sony a7R. For those of you not familiar with it, it's a mirror-less full-frame camera with a 36 MP sensor.
I tend not to buy a lot of new gear. It's easy to get into that trap with photography (Gear-Acquisition-Syndrome or GAS). But I've rarely noticed that the latest camera makes up for anyone's weak photographic skills. The best way to take better photos is to learn how to take better photos. Nonetheless, sometimes you do notice that you can't get some shots you want with your current gear. So, my rule of thumb is to upgrade (so to speak) once I find the current camera is just not able to get some of the photos I want.
This has taken a while. My main camera for a while has been the Sony a900. While this is a very good, full-frame 24MP DSLR camera, it also came out in 2008. There's been quite a few technological changes since then.
So, what's the advantages of the a7R?
- It's much smaller and lighter. I've been doing a lot of international travel and fieldwork in the last few years. Having a camera that is both smaller, and easily able to fit into my bags is helpful. The battery can also be charged via a standard micro-USB cable. This reduces the numbers of chargers I need.
- It lacks an AA-filter. Many DSLR cameras come with an anti-moire (or AA) filter over the sensor. This has the effect of slightly reducing sharpness. The result is that the a7R produces slightly sharper images. This is useful for some applications like landscapes or macro photos.
- It has a 36 MP sensor. This isn't necessarily a good thing. The cost of packing more pixels into a sensor is often an increase in 'noise' in the photos. However, for landscape photography, where I am usually shooting at ISO50-ISO200, it's not a problem. It also means that prints can be made much larger. This large print option is a good thing. Noise is actually very well controlled in this sensor as it benefits from Sony's new gapless sensor array.
- It does video. I appreciate that most DSLRs do now. But when I got my a900 it didn't. I still recommend an external microphone.
- I can operate it with my phone or iPad. Sony has a nice app I can use to operate the camera, using the camera's own WiFi. When I say operate, that means the screen of my device shows the image. And I can adjust the camera's setting with the device. This includes a useful bulb-function. This is helpful for shots I want to take where I can't stand behind the camera. I really like this feature.
- It has a dual axis electronic level. This is helpful for panoramic shots.
- It has less noise at ISO1600+ than the a900. Technological advances do help improve images.
- It has focus-peaking. This feature kicks in with manual focus, and lets you see what regions of the photos appear in focus (as coloured lines on screen). Thus for the landscape photography, you can see if the main subjects in your shot are in focus or need some tweaking.
- It's lens-brand independent. In this sense it's more like an open-source camera when it comes to lenses. You can add adapters to it to shoot with almost any rival brand's lenses. Usually camera's lock you into only one system of lenses.
Nonetheless, it has some disadvantages as well.
- It lacks body stabilisation. The a900 has the Steady Shot Stabiliser in the body of the camera. This gives me 2-3 stops of extra leeway when shooting handheld with the a900. On the other hand, I can shoot at higher ISOs with the a7R than I can with the a900.
- It shoots at a lower frame rate (frames per second or fps). It shoots at 1.5 fps compared to 5. This precludes using it for wildlife, sports or anything involving action.
- The a900 has a better Auto-Focus system.
- The shutter-shock problem. For the most part I've escaped this by shooting on a 2 second delay, and on tripod. If shooting hand-held I like to keep the shutter up over 1/100 second, which also seems to avoid the problem.
- I've found it harder to shoot nocturnal macro shots with it. The optical view finder of the a900 just seems better in very low light conditions.
- It burns through batteries. The batteries it uses are smaller than the a900. And there's a lot more electronics going on inside the a7R.
Where the a7R simply excels is with landscapes. It's my first choice in the camera bag for when I'm intending to take landscape photos. I've been able to take photos with it, that I couldn't before.