The Sony Alpha A7 - the world’s first full-frame compact system camera - is fast approaching its release date, and Pocket-lint has been testing out a near-complete sample in the sun-kissed Caribbean.
Is this a camera, complete with its affordable (for full-frame) £1,300 body-only price point, as bright as the sun’s tanning rays? We’ve been shooting to see what sort of results it can produce.
READ: Sony Alpha A7 hands-on
The Alpha A7 comes packing a 24-megapixel sensor, the same base sensor as found in the Alpha 99 SLT model. It’s considerably larger than an APS-C - as found in the now Alpha-named NEX compact system camera range - which is a boost for both image quality and a tighter depth of field to control.
We won’t delve too deep into the A7’s details in this brief write-up - that’s something we’ll save for a proper review. Since out initial write-up we've since obtained the latest Adobe Camera Raw beta in order to read the A7's ARW raw files.
The camera has been great to use so far with its 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens proving full-frame can sit on the right side of affordability. Its results are great at low ISO sensitivities too. Problem is the kit lens reveals soft edges and, having looked at the raw files, it's apparent there's a lot of distortion correction applied - furthering this softness. Centre sharpness is good, however.
Where it really steps up to the mark is when using one of the new full-frame E-mount lenses - as Sony’s compact system camera set-up now comes with "FE" lenses to cover full-frame, and non-FE ones for APS-C sensors - which, for now, consist of the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 55mm f/1.8 ZA and 35mm f/2.8 ZA models.
After climbing Gros Piton in St Lucia, followed by some friendly local dogs - more able than mountain goats, it seems - we stopped to snap our canine followers as they nodded off for a little bit of shut-eye. The fur detail captured at the ISO 100 sensitivity using the 35mm lens at f/2.8 shows up bags of detail. If you want the most out of the A7 we'd definitely recommend a prime lens for throughout-the-frame sharpness.
It’s also possible to push the ISO lower into its "expanded" ISO 50 setting. There’s less dynamic range, which will likely impact the resulting raw files and how far they can be pushed, but we opted for this setting to achieve the longest possible exposure during sunrise. Stopped down to f/22 on the 28-70mm kit lens and mounted up the a tripod we used the optional Sony infrared remote to fire off shots as the water came splashing in. Sharpness on the in-focus rocks looks top notch to us, although the raw file equivalent looked a touch darker with less push in the shadow areas - means there's plenty there to play with of course.
Further up the sensitivity range and there are some apparent minor issues. Edge sharpness isn’t great, when talking about the 28-70mm lens at its wider-angle settings. Centre of the frame is excellent, but an ISO 400 sample shot of palm trees over the bay showed that not only the processing begins to take a dip but that sharpness is something to keep an eye on. That’s likely the impact of so many pixels on even a full-frame sensor size, an issue we had with the Alpha A99. The A7's performance and results are still good, though, with a crisp enough results that, in context to the price and size, are impressive.
We also got a chance to use the new A-mount to E-mount adaptor, the LA-EA3, to test out the 100mm f/2.8 A-mount macro lens. Its performance was okay, but not outstanding. The focus system differs by jumping into the 25-point - and fairly centrally aligned - focus system, which is fine, but we spotted some chromatic aberration shown up as purple fringing towards even the middle of the frame from a bright reflection. Even after stopping down from f/2.8 to f/4.0 it was still apparent. Sharpness, too, didn’t look as bitingly sharp to us on any of the adaptor-shot images. We’re going to go back for round two to see whether we can get more pin-point sharp results over the coming days.
But what this adaptor-based shot did reveal is just how good the four-figure ISO sensitivities are. Water droplets on a leaf at ISO 1600 retains plenty of detail - despite previous criticism above - and colour is abundant too. It's here that raw shooting shows its true worth as there's a clear amount of additional detail to play with, even if that brings with it a touch more image noise.
Push as far as ISO 6400 and there’s a lot more grain and image processing apparent, where finer detail is lost, but that's ultimately to be anticipated at this resolution. The raw version is littered with image noise, not making for a particularly discerning result - indeed, the A7 doesn't seem to be a particularly strong low-light camera, in a similar fashion to the Alpha A99.
So there we have it. The Alpha A7 out in the wild for the first time. We look forward to using it over the coming days to really drill into it in much greater detail before delivering our full review next week, once we've had more time to reflect upon the highs and lows and see whether these points are repeat verifiable.
Given its price point and the number of third-party adaptors already on the market, we do still think the Alpha A7 could be the budget, small scale full-framer that a huge number of people have been waiting for. It's impressive with a prime lens, but there's still criticism to be had.