This “review,” like all of my equipment reviews, is not intended to be a technical review, or to compete with or go head to head with the more serious reviewers, like dpreview.com. I strongly recommend that you read those sites when doing your purchasing “due diligence,” as well as reviewer comments on selling sites such as B&H and Amazon (taking them, of course, with a grain of salt and in the context the reviewer presents). My reviews are more of a pragmatic, hands on take on my personal use. It might be useful to read my blurb here on the blog about the intent of my reviews. It will also be informative to understand my general photography approach. I have friends who shoot sports, wildlife, birds, etc. Much of what I say here will probably not apply, so read within context.
Last year, I made a momentous decision, trading in my impressive, Nikon D7000 (which I carried as a second – and it most served the function of “bag ballast” more than that of a primary tool), for a Sony NEX-6 “mirrorless” camera (see, “My Review of the Sony NEX-6“).
The draw, as noted in the blog, was the SLR-like performance and quality, in a very portable package. The biggest negative in the SLR world (in my view) is lugging large, heavy pieces of equipment around. The NEX camera and lenses substantially alleviate this issue. The tradeoff is the potential for loss in image quality and and possibly versatility. But we often get all wound up in “gear” and artificial “definitions” and “standards” of quality. All items of photographic equipment, are tools and they only need to be able to accomplish the purpose intended. Making a compelling image, in the end, is more critical than creating the highest possible (technical) image quality. I think this point is important to put the following into perspective.
In spite of the above observation, there is nothing as “sexy” as a quality-built tool. When I moved into the NEX-6 territory, I began experimenting with a couple of the Zeiss-branded fixed focal length lenses. All I could say was “wow.” And with the combination of the very convenient and small 16-50mm zoom lens and the relatively small, Zeiss f1.8 fixed lenses, the photographic possibilities were exciting – and all in a very small package.
However, the NEX series uses an “APS” size sensor and I had been “spoiled” (or maybe better said: “influenced”) by the “full-size” sensor of the D800.
So when Sony announced the “full frame” A7/A7r series, many of us who had embraced the mirrorless concept anxiously awaited their release. I took delivery of my A7r, shortly after the first of the year along with the Sony-Zeiss 35mm f2.8 lens. Shortly after that, I also received the Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom lens. The draw of the A7 series, in my view, is its “full frame” sensor (with the A7r sensor being essentially the equivalent of the Nikon D800e’s industry leading full frame sensor).
It is not an “apples to apples” comparison
Why not just own the D800e? For me, a primary consideration is that the A7r body is much smaller and lighter. When packing gear for travel, and even when walking around with the camera hanging from your neck, this weighs heavily (pun intended). The A7r and similar lens combinations are also less expensive (though it is a relative comparison). Thus, if it were an “apples to apples” comparison, the Sony vs. the DSLR would be compelling. Unfortunately, it is not such a comparison. The Zeiss Lens is 2 stops slower than the Nikkor. But the cost differential is $1,000. So a significant question is whether the 2 stops are worth the $1,000. For me the “jury” is still out on that. The primary advantage of the 2 extra stops has traditionally been the ability to make images in lower light situations. Now that digital sensors have progressed to the point where the image quality is really quite good at higher ISO settings, this may have become less of an advantage.
The second notable advantage is the ability to render images with nice “bokeh” (out of focus backgrounds). It seems clear that the 2 stops continue to make a difference here. However, with the f1.8 fixed lenses, I am finding less need for the longer zooms to produce that kind of imagery. So the comparison is difficult.
I took a serious “plunge” when the A7 was announced, and sold all my Nikon Gear. The replacement was to be the A7r, the Sony Zeiss 24-70 f4 zoom and the Sony “pro” 70-200 f4 zoom. As of this writing, I am still waiting on release and delivery of the 70-200. But after carrying the A7r/Zeiss 24-70 combination in the field, I am not sure I would advise doing what I did, if you already own a high-end DSLR and “pro” lens combination. Don’t get me wrong. I am not regretting my decision. For me, the portability and “packability” of the smaller combo, is huge.
I am not ready to say recommend a complete changeover from existing DSLR Gear
The Sony A7r
We recently returned from a week in Ireland, and I had several opportunities to shoot with the A7r and the 24-70; all handheld. During the week, I selectively used this combination when more “serious” landscape opportunities presented themselves. I used a variety of ISO ranges, largely because of the handheld situation. We were on a tour and many of the locations and the short durations of our stays, did not lend themselves to the use of a tripod. Also, unfortunately, as we were on a bus tour, I did not arrive at most of the locations during ideal lighting conditions. Most of images show that weakness.
I found the controls and menu system on my NEX-6 a bit clunky, and missed the versatility of the controls of my Nikon D800. The good news is that the A7 series is much more “DSLR-like” in the controls and setup, and I have been able to set up the A7r essentially the same way I had my Nikons set up. One thing I have grown accustomed to – really missed on the NEX – and is “back” on the A7, is the ability to set the auto-focus so that the shutter button does not activate it, but it is activated by a separate button on the back. The A7 allows this. The menu system is logically set up and very easy to use and find things. There are several customizable buttons on the camera back. I have been able to set it up to switch between ISO settings, move the AF bracket, and change shutter speed and aperture very easily. There are also “user 1 and 2” settings on the camera dial, as well as a dedicated exposure compensation dial. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out how to do is set the AF so it works with the shutter button in one mode and not in the other. Most of the time, it is not an issue, but occasionally, you want to hand your camera to someone to take a photo and you have to explain to them that the focus button is on the back.
Feel and Handling
The A7r is nominally, but noticeably larger than the NEX series bodies. But is is also noticeably smaller than even the next nearest neighbor DSLR (and palpably smaller than the D700/800 Nikon Series), it feels good in myhands. With the 35mm Sony-Zeiss f2.8 attached, it is still pleasingly small and low-profile.
The Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 attached, yields a different story. It is larger than I had hoped (in my pre-arrival imagination). When added to the A7, while still smaller and substantially lighter than the DSLR with the 24-70 f2.8 attached, it is still a fairly large combination. Reality comes home to roost. It is currently impossible to design a relatively fast (constant f4) zoom lens with coverage for a “full frame” sensor, in a very small package (the lens is nearly 4 inches long and 2 3/4 inches in circumference). Thus, while ½ (or less) the size of the 35mm equivalent, and probably about 1/3 of the weight, it is still a chunk, and is a full 2 stops slower. I expect the 70-200 will be about the size of the current “consumer” extended zooms available for the “mainline” DSLRs today. The positive is that its size still makes it very “packable.” The negative is that it is still large enough to be almost awkward to carry around.
Finally, I have read about the issue of “shutter slap,” which apparently shows itself at certain “medium” shutter speeds; but generally only with long lenses which are mounted on a tripod with an auxiliary foot. This concern is apparently restricted to the A7r (and not the A7). I haven’t had an opportunity to use longer lenses, tripod mounted yet, but did try to shoot all my handheld shots at relatively fast shutter speeds. Based on my early results, when using the 24-70 and fixed lenses, I plan to go back to my traditional shutter speed and aperture combinations. I noted an unusually large number of images shot here at higher ISO than I think necessary (primarily to attain higher shutter speeds).
The Zeiss 24-70 is small enough to be packable, but still large enough to be almost awkward to carry handheld
Sony-Zeiss 24-70 f4 lens
The “Zeiss” design and manufacture is estimable. The image quality appears very good and the build of the lens also solid. I did not experience “zoom creep” once during the week. The zoom and manual focus mechanism is well damped and very responsive. The auto focus was very adequate in my view. And, using the widest aperture at the longer range of the focal length produced reasonably nice out of focus background bokeh. The lens produces images of the quality one would expect from a quality lens manufacturer. I am not sure it has the “look and feel” that was so obvious with the f1.8 lenses they produced for use with the NEX and Fuji cameras, however. I need more time and experience with this lens before I can make a final judgment.
By comparison, the NEX-6 with the 16-50 lens attached is very much more portable, and as such, much more enjoyable to carry around. For 80 of the “walk around” shooting I did, it was preferable, just because it was so small and light. With a maximum aperture of f5.6 at the long end (the 16-50 on the NEX APS sensor, is roughly the equivalent of the 24-70), the bokeh developed is not as nice and clearly not as pronounced. One additional observation involves the use of filters on the Zeiss 24-70 lens. I shot with a standard B&W polarizer and there was significant vignetting at the widest lens setting. I have ordered the slim version of the filter.
It may well be that my assumptions and conclusions about the APS vs. “full frame” sensor are overblown. I have been “wowed” by the images I have been able to make with the NEX-6 with the Sony-Zeiss 24 f1.8 attached, and even with the Sony-branded 50mm f1.8 fixed lens. They have yielded 13 x 19 inch prints from my Epson printer from which I cannot distinguish shots taken by my Nikon D800. I am comfortable that I could go much larger than that without any noticeable degradation. It may well be that only serious pixel-peepers will really discern a difference. And I am not convinced that the difference really “matters.” That being the case, I am almost wondering if the APS sized mirrorless cameras aren’t already “enough” for all but the most die-hard image makers, or for special purpose uses? The “NEX” nomenclature has now been abandonned by Sony, in favor of simply their “Alpha” branding. So the “upgrade” to the NEX-6 is now known as the Alpha a6000 (but it is the same body, with some significant upgrades, including 24mp).
On balance, I will probably continue to carry the NEX-6 for a daily use, a hand-held, walking around, and travel rig. For the time being, I will use the A7r as I traditionally did, to shoot from a tripod in more dedicated landscape situations, or when Image Quality is an absolute critical issue (e.g., in low light conditions). Given these conclusions, I am not sure it is yet time to say this combination clearly equals or beats a DSLR setup. Said differently, If you already own a DSLR and quality lenses, I would probably not recommend a switch from a DSLR. There are many compromises.
On the other hand, if you are not already “invested” in DSLR equipment, it may well be worth the look, given the relative equality of image quality, the reduced size, weight and cost, and the general direction the industry is moving. I especially think this it true for those of you who are “general” photographers who like to carry a camera, shoot a variety of subjects and conditions, travel, and shoot handheld. Like every other equipment choice, the key is what your personal wants and needs are. For me, the “portability” for packing and travel was worth the risk and as noted above, I do not regret my own decision. These days, I use a much smaller tripod and the entire “rig” fits in my medium small, messenger style carry on back, for airline travel.
Nobody is seriously going to suggest that these mirrorless combinations will go head to head with a DSLR in any kind of “action” photography (particularly sports and wildlife). For these endeavors, at this point, they are not ready for proverbial “prime time.” But as a landscape, travel, portrait and general photography they are pretty impressive rigs.
Filed under: EQUIPMENT REVIEWS, PHOTOGRAPHY, TRAVEL | Tagged: Andy Richards, Carl Zeiss, Cliffs of Moher, Clonnmacnoise, color, digital, DSLR, Dublin, Ireland, LightCentric Photography, Nikon, PHOTOGRAPHY, Sony, Sony A7r, Sony Nex-6, Sony-Zeiss 24-70, travel, Zeiss |