Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sony A7 review

I'm not giving up on my Leica and Rolleiflex cameras - I still intend to keep shooting film. However, I've been wanting to use my Leitz lenses on a digital camera for some time. Last year I bought an Olympus E-PM1 and an adapter to use the Leica lenses on it, but I was never really satisfied with the results - mostly because the 4/3 sensor format turned my 50mm Summicron into something like a 80mm telephoto lens. I also found the Olympus to be fiddly, and I hated having to use a screen rather than a viewfinder. What I really wanted was a camera with a viewfinder that could accept my lenses for what they are. A Leica M9 would be nice, but they are ludicrously priced. Then I heard about the Sony A7 and really wanted to get my hands on one after reading about its features. It has a full frame sensor, a viewfinder - and according to all the reviews, great image quality. And you can use it with Leica lenses via an adapter.
So last week I took the plunge and splashed down about $1700 for the camera body at DigiDirect in Sydney. I could probably have got an A7 cheaper online, but the retailer was offering a free Metabones Leica M to Sony E adapter, worth around $150. And also I wanted to have the thing in my hands right there and then, not fretting for two weeks for a delivery from a grey market outlet in Hong Kong.
When I picked up the camera I took it home and decided I couldn't wait the extra week until I got the adapter via a Sony redemption offer - so I went straight back to the shop and bought the Zeiss 35mm lens as well!
My first impressions?
Well, with the Zeiss lens it is a great camera. I can't really compare it with DSLRs because I've never been a digital user. But I was quite impressed with the camera and the images I got from it in the first couple of days walking round Sydney.
It's a compact camera that sits well in the hand with the grip, and it feels solid and well built. It's not quite small enough to slip in a pocket, but it fits neatly into my Crumpler bag as I cycle round Sydney. In terms of useability, I'd rate is as good - once you get to know how to use it. My main problem with switching to a digital camera was trying to work my way through the crazy number of features in the menu. There are about six different sub-menus, each with up to six further pages of menu options. With my Leica M2 I just go out and only have to think about adjusting the speed, aperture and focus - that's it! I can concentrate on thinking about the scene and composition. With the Sony A7 there were so many features and some that I didn't even have a clue about - 'DRO Auto', for example. What the hell is that all about? The user manual wasn't much help. It gives only the basics, and in a technical, few-words-as-possible reference list and menu format that seems designed for  engineers rather than idiots like me.
After a lot of twiddling through the menus I managed to sort out the basics - such as programming the three 'spare' function buttons with shortcuts to do what I thought would be most useful, namely switching ISO, magnifying the focus and changing between focusing modes.
The buttons and dials on the camera are some help - the exposure compensation, for example, but others I still have to work out - like what is AEL?
Once I had a basic idea of how to operate the thing, I went out with the aim of making the most of this camera's full frame sensor and its depth of field. I set it on to fixed aperture f2.8, ie as wide open as possible, and started shooting pictures with objects in focus in the foreground, and the background blurred. They came up really well, with nice out of focus areas ('bokeh').
Sony A7 with Zeiss FE 35mm
When shooting, I liked using the viewfinder and found the camera well laid out and easy to handle. The auto-focus worked well for me, and my only dislike was the loud shutter noise. I soon got rid of the neck strap and started using it carried around in my hand. The next day I went out and bought a wrist strap.
So it worked really well with the 35mm prime lens - super sharp pictures with nice colours, and without those horrible cyan skies that many digital cameras seem to produce. I shot in both black and white and colour, but found that it didn't make any difference when I downloaded the raw images, which all came out in colour!
So I was happy with the Sony-Zeiss lens - what about the legacy lenses? My adapter arrived within a couple of days from Sony and I was soon excitedly fixing on my 50mm Summicron DR lens. I found the Metabones adapter to be a bit stiff - and almost panicked when I first tried to switch lenses and found the lens wouldn't twist out. After being accustomed to reassuring Leica smoothness and 'fit', the adapter didn't feel like very high quality workmanship.
I tried shooting a few images with the Leica lenses and initially felt it quite odd to be using my familiar lenses on an unfamiliar camera. I found myself instinctively looking for the square rangefinder window in the viewfinder - and then remembering that I had to focus manually by sight only, like on an SLR camera. Of course there was the 'focus peaking' function, which helped by showing vivid red outlines around an object that was in focus. I'd also programmed the 'C1' button to magnify the viewfinder, and thus to help me with the fine manual focusing. For some reason I had to click this twice - first time getting a moveable square. I also found that the magnified view only lasted for an annoyingly brief second, then reverted to the normal view. I'm sure there's a way to program round this, but I have yet to find it.
Sony A7 with 90mmTele-Elmarit-M
Once I got used to the new setup, the images I got were great.  I took a few self portraits and a few around the house, and found the legacy lenses to have a more 'natural' look than the Zeiss. The Summicron seems to have a warmer look and also had that Leica 'soft but sharp' feel.
The battery life seems OK to me - I've read a lot of reviews saying it is poor - but my battery lasted all day, although I must admit I only took about 100 pictures. For me that's twice as many as I would take with a film camera - maybe I will turn into a digital shooter snapping hundreds of pictures in the hope of getting a good one.
So my overall verdict is that the Sony A7 is a great camera, with a few small drawbacks - the shutter noise and the complex menu and programming. My only other gripe would be that it is aesthetically dull - verging on ugly. After enjoying the classic lines of the M2 for so long, the Sony A7 seems like a functional ugly duckling.
I intend to be using it a lot more from now on, and this blog may have to change its title to "In Sydney With An Old Leica lens".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting review, thanks