Sony Alpha A7R review

4 out of 5
£1699

For

Small size, incredible low ISO full-frame image quality, excellent viewfinder quality, tilt-angle LCD, button customisation. focus peaking for accurate manual focus adjust

Against

Poor battery life, some autofocus inaccuracy - and less capable than the more budget A7, full FE lens system yet to materialise, high ISO quality not class-leading

The Sony Alpha A7R is a specialist camera if we ever saw one. Visually it looks nigh-on identical to the Alpha A7 - the other full-frame compact system camera released alongside this one - but it’s that capital "R", which we’ll call "resolution", that makes the camera’s key play.

For the 36-megapixel full-frame sensor in this camera comes without the low-pass filter for precision sharpness and huge file sizes. The A7R is, roughly speaking, a Nikon D800E crammed into a small body and finished off with the Sony E-mount.

If all that sounds somewhat baffling - low-pass what now? - then there’s every chance that this isn’t the camera for you. It knows its place and it’s not pretending to be the one-solution-fits-all option. If, however, you’re looking for big quality from a small body and understand the R’s limitations - as well as its points of excellence - then the £1,699 body-only option could be your dream ticket to photographic wonderland.

Alpha to zeta

As we touched upon in our original Alpha A7 review, the A7R’s place in the compact system world brings with it some required learning. For it utilises the Sony E-mount lens system, but in order for lenses to cover the entirety of that full-frame sensor they need to be the "FE" designated ones.

READ: Sony Alpha A7 review

And, right now, there are only two FE optics at launch - the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 that’s not that great, and the 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss that is astoundingly good. There’s also a 55mm f/1.8 Zeiss in the pipeline and yet more to come.

You can use any older E-mount lenses on the A7R if you want to, but the camera will auto-crop into the sensor, giving a lower resolution output and adjusted focal length equivalent. Not necessarily a big problem, as it keeps things versatile.

Sony also continues with the A-mount - the Minolta-fit lens system that's always been there for the company's DSLR and DSLT cameras - so If you want to use such lenses on the A7R then you can with full autofocus via the LE-EA4 adaptor, sold separately.

More resolution, less features

Now we’re up to speed, there’s that other question: why does the A7R exist given the A7’s presence? For starters the R is four hundred quid more, and for that money you get a bit more here but a bit less elsewhere.

Yes there’s more resolution - at 36-megapixels rather than the A7’s 24-megapixels - but that comes at the expense of the autofocus system. No on-sensor phase-detection to be found here, it’s all contrast detection instead.

At first this didn’t worry us too much in principle. It’s still a fast system in daylight, roughly equal to the A7. It’s not going to be for sports photographers - the 1.5fps continuous shooting speed makes that clear from the off - but it’s the accuracy that slips up and puts this more expensive camera behind the A7’s better capabilities.

We found a series of oddities where the camera would just refuse to focus on the selected focus point, instead opting for the background with more contrast. Now we get that more contrast is an attraction to the system, but when instructing the camera to focus up-close and it instead wanders off and does its own thing it’s a frustration. This didn’t happen every time by any means, of course, but it was a noticeable difference between the two Alpha bodies.

As we said about the A7, we’d like the 7R to have a finer approach to focus too - such as with Panasonic’s G-series. In low-light scenes we struggled to latch onto even bright lights dotted around a scene, with the camera’s generalised "green rectangle around all" approach failing to deliver on-point focus more times than we’d anticipated.

If you’re a manual focus kind of person then the quality lenses we’ve used feel smooth when rotating their focus rings and the presence of "focus peaking" - whereby subject edges are highlighted with a colour to show they’re in focus - is useful for both stills and video.

Low-pass, high-quality

But that extra £400 does bring with it astounding image quality. Some of the JPEG results we were achieving straight from camera were exceptional, in particular an image of the sun clipping the hilly rainforest of St Lucia, viewed from Stony Hill house.

Sony Alpha A7R review - sample image at ISO 100, f/11, JPEG straight from camera - no adjustments made

The way the light was dealt with in that scene; the shot’s colours and sharpness just looked richer than what we’d produced from the A7. And due to no low-pass filter being present that huge resolution clearly comes into its own.

That’s at the lower ISO sensitivities, which begin at ISO 100 and level up to ISO 25,600 at the top end. In this regard the A7R responds a lot like the Nikon D800 - if you want the resolution then it’ll be a real draw to the product, but with extra pixels you might expect diminished high ISO resolve. Although that's not really the case - as with that Nikon the Sony can certainly hold its own and produce jaw-to-floor quality.

Sony Alpha A7R review - sample image at ISO 1000 - click for 100 per cent JPEG crop

We used the A7R with a variety of lenses and adaptors for this test. Perhaps most interesting of all was the Canon 24mm f/2.8 via a Metabones adaptor - it delivered superb results. Sony doesn’t seem shy of the third party adaptors, even if it can’t vouch for any of their support.

The 28-70mm FE zoom lens, however, delivers soft edges. The A7R doesn’t come in a kit option because it’s aimed at those who are more likely to use primes and shoot meticulous scenes, such as landscapes from a tripod. If that’s your bag then we look forward to seeing what Sony’s own FE 24mm lens can do - which is due in 2014.

Sony Alpha A7R review - sample image at ISO 400 - click for 100 per cent raw crop

If you want to use the camera as a super-sharp street snapper then it’ll also deliver the goods, with decent in-camera black and white options and great results up to ISO 800 whichever settings you choose. It’s a shame the shutter has more of a NEX-style double-clack than the single and assertive clunk of the standard A7, but oh well, we found it quiet enough to discreetly face side-on to our body and snap some candid street pictures.

If you know what you’re doing - the low-pass filter absence will mean moire issues if you intend on shooting pin-stripe suits and the like - then the Sony Alpha A7R’s image quality will blow your socks off. That’s what this camera is all about, sublime image quality.

The raw files are also a gateway to greater things. There’s plenty of scope to shift around that raw data. After tinkering with highlights, shadows and vibrance we’ve been able to squeeze every last drop of potential out of some files, such as this pool at dusk shot. The original was far more silhouette.

Sony Alpha A7R review - sample image at ISO 800, raw file with heavy post-adjustment - click for 100 per cent crop

Fully featured

Aside from the occasional autofocus hiccup, the A7R’s features are by and large on par with the A7. Which, for the most part, is great news.

However, the biggest moan we have about the camera is battery life. It’s just not good enough. We wouldn’t buy an A7R without at least one spare battery, so consider that in your purchase plan. Not a major problem if you have spares, but something to be aware of nonetheless.

In use we did find the Sony menu system occasionally fiddly, but the ability to customise it in full - and the presence of a custom "C" button on the top by the shutter - came to the rescue. Once we’d adapted to the Sony flow it all sunk into place and we got on just fine with the camera. A touchscreen option might have been on the nice-to-haves list, but we doubt that’ll be a deal-breaker for many.

Otherwise it’s all good. Which other full-frame cameras come with a tilt-angle LCD? None - well, if you exclude the A7 that is. It’s no gimmick either: we used the 3-inch panel for waist-level work a whole lot. We’d much rather have this feature than a touchscreen.

When the bright sunlight gets too much there’s also a built-in electronic viewfinder which is as good as they come. Ok, so it might not be preferable to an optical equivalent, but that 1.23m-dot OLED panel is crisp and we didn’t find ghosting when panning a bother either. Top work.

It’s a really small overall package too. Not pocketable small, but all things considered this is full-frame without the bulk - and that’ll be a gift for many. The solid body is dust- and weather-sealed - believe us, the test 7R has seen unpredictable rainforest downpours and plenty of fine-grain sand - and feels reassuringly weighty without being heavy.

Verdict

To some the A7R’s presence may baffle. A pricier and, in part, less featured A7 - what’s the point? Well, our friends, this specialist kit is all about superior image quality. And it’s here that the Alpha A7R really stands out.

At low ISO settings the 36-megapixel full-frame sensor’s results are full of detail, look spectacular straight from camera, or you can tweak the raw files as you desire for sharp results that, and even despite the resolution hike, are a step ahead of the standard A7.

If you have a particular way of working then the A7R will be a dream camera. Small, distinct and able to deliver great image quality - it’s got plenty to shout about. But as a do-all-things kind of full-frame camera it lacks the autofocus ability and more accessible price point that otherwise made the A7 so appealing. Further limitations to low-light focus, battery life and the number of native FE lenses available - landscape shooters will be waiting for that wide angle - may further hinder that purchase decision.

But with all that said, we’re still excited about the A7R because when we look at the images we captured they fill us with joy. A lot of the downsides we can forgive and think those photographers aware of what's what will think the same. This camera is a creative tool that has its photographic eye firmly on image quality. And that’s what will make it a full-marks standout full-frame winner for some, but certainly not all.