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Book Review – “The Sony a7 and a7R; The Unofficial Quintessential Guide”

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I miss the Magic Lantern Series! I know that’s not a ringing endorsement from out of the blocks; but just sayin‘. There was something reassuring about their consistent format, with a lot of information about the particular camera and its features and just enough “how to” photography information without it being a “how to” book. In the nearly 40 years that I have been buying and using photographic gear, I have yet to see a “manual” shipped with the item that was detailed and understandable. So, third party writers had to step in, work with the gear, speak with manufacturers and users, and then give us that detailed, clear “manual” explanation. The best in the business were – in my opinion – the Magic Lantern Series. As print books have largely gone away, so have these useful books 😦 .  The closest thing to this series that I have been able to find for the Sony α7 series cameras is “The Sony α7 and α7R,”  published by rockynook publishers and co-written by authors Brian Matsumoto and Carol Roullard.

I miss the Magic Lantern Series

There are still some print books out there that purport and attempt to do this job. Unfortunately, in my view, they are not as consistent, or as good. They tend to be a hodgepodge. They are often written by different authors and therefore reflect their style of writing and perhaps more than they should, sometimes their particular prejudices based on their own photography.

There are two “series” out there today that seem ubiquitous and I had hopes, would be something like the Magic Lantern Guides. But alas, they were not. The “From Snapshots to Great Shots” series is one. I have purchased a couple of them and they are frankly, disappointing – at least as they relate to the reason I bought them (see above). Their coverage of the equipment is superficial, and they all have the same, beginner “how to” stuff in every chapter. Many, if not most of us who buy the more sophisticated cameras, like the Sony α7 series, really do not need the “how to” stuff that is in every one of these books. The other series is the series by David Busch. There is no doubt that David is a knowledgeable, talented and accomplished photographer. But I can pick up any one of his series and 80% of content is virtually identical. It is “how to” photography (usually beginning to intermediate) stuff. The books are several hundred pages and $40 dollars. I just want the 20% about the camera. That is what the title and marketing says after all. Both of these series seem to me to be a set script in which the editors just go in and put in the 20% part about the cameras. And then, altogether too often, that coverage is superficial and nothing more than what is found in the not so good online pdf files available from the manufacturer.  Did I mention that I miss the Magic Lantern Series? 🙂

I want to see a book that is about the camera – like the titles imply

I really don’t mean to be hypercritical (maybe just critical 🙂 ). I appreciate that the writers of all these series are talented, qualified photographers, and are trying, in many cases, to make a living. I am not saying there is not a place out there for these combination “how to” / “missing manual” books. There are certainly many shooters out there who have not read generic “how to” books and who have the camera and could benefit from the books. But if it is a “how to book,” tell it is a “how to “book and if it’s marketed as a book about the particular camera, then I want to see a book that is mainly about the camera – like the titles imply.

As best I can tell, at the time of writing this, there are 5 published books dedicated to the Sony α7 series. One is in German (Sony Alpha 7/7R) and one is in Japanese (Sony Alfa 7R & Alfa 7 Super Book). Until I brush up on those two languages, I won’t find much utility in them. I would be interested in comments from any readers out there who are conversant in these languages. The other 3 are the David Busch Guide, the Snapshots to Great Shots book, and the book reviewed here, published by rockynook photographic publishers.

The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the A7/A7r settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the A7 even better or easier

I have several of the rockynook books. I like them. I like the fact that they dedicate their publications to photography. There are some really good volumes of work in the rockynook library and I heartily endorse them. I gave this book my “suggested” rating. I did pick up some good stuff from the book and it will remain on my bookshelves. And, at the moment it is the only one among the English books that comes close to my criteria above. While I would not call it indispensable, it is a nice addition to my library.

The book delivers what its title implies, mostly. It is much more like the old Magic Lantern Guides and is about the α7 series of cameras, how they work, and what they can produce. It is clear from the book that they have both spent significant time shooting with both the α7 and α7R cameras. The authors definitely bring their own shooting style to the book. The book is laid out consistently, with each chapter having an introduction and a “recommendations” section. The authors are pretty consistent throughout, using a logical “how you would shoot this” approach to how the α7/α7R settings and options handle the situation, and often some unique options that make shooting with the α7 even better or easier.

But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera

Chapter 1, “Getting Started,” discusses the camera and its layout and highlights the differences between the α7 and the α7r models. It also gives you enough information about how digital cameras work, in general, so if you were contemplating purchasing the α7, you can see the relative benefits and costs. There are nice photos and diagrams of the camera from front, back, and top, to show the control layout in the introductory section, and then a “walk” through the menu layout in Chapter 1.

If you were looking at the book either in a bookstore or online, based on the Chapter titles, you might be tempted to dismiss the book as just another “how to” book in the guise of a book about a specific model. But the authors do tie the general photography concept approach to the specific settings, menus and options on the camera.

So, even though Chapter 2 is titled, “Basics of Digital Photography,” the subheadings are all camera-specific and relate to the concepts. Chapters on using the camera in its different shooting modes (automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) follow, along with specific examples of where the authors (an perhaps you) would use different features. Finally, there are chapters on additional customization, downloadable apps, flash, and lens (both Sony mount lenses, and adapted “legacy” lenses).  I thought the chapter on using flash was particularly good, in that it described the various Sony – branded flash units that work with the camera, and under what circumstances a user might purchase the different units.  I appreciate that the book is a “Sony” book.  However, I would like to have heard (and perhaps the authors just haven’t explored this) about third party branded flash units that might work with the camera.

Of course, a lot of the “features” are in-camera processing that can only be done if the user chooses to shoot in the camera’s jpg mode. They generally do not work if you choose to capture images in Sony’s native raw format, and most do not work if you choose the dual option of raw + jpeg. So, for you jpeg shooters, there is a lot of in-depth information.

have some personal “nits” about the book. A few specific examples:

In a couple of places in the text, the authors discuss mounting the camera on a tripod and being required to turn Sony’s OSS (“Optical Steady Shot”) off and to turn it back on when you take the camera off the tripod. But there is no place in the book that discusses OSS, how it works, and when and when not to use it. The Sony 70-200 f4 zoom lens for this camera has a button on the lens to turn OSS on and off. Are we to turn it off in both places or just one of them? To address the issue obliquely, but not directly, seem like a significant omission.

At times the recommendations sections almost imply that the authors’ recommendations are the only way to do things. In one point in the book, for example, they discuss the AF/MF button on the back of the camera. I have used an old John Gerlach technique for many years, programming the AF/MF button to activate AF and turning of AF activation on the shutter button. When you have the camera mounted on a tripod and have framed up a still shot and have focused on the point you want in sharpest focus, the last thing you want is for the lens to “hunt” when you activate the shutter button. This prevents that. The authors do not note this, but the α7/α7r can be programmed to do this. Instead, the authors note that it can be programmed so that it toggles between AF and MF. This is useful in instances like the microscopic images that the author shoots. I would like to have seen them drill down into these options a bit and mention the other potentially useful settings of these buttons.

There are times when I think the rockynook editing process could be better. There are occasions in the book where the authors use a slightly inconsistent approach which to a casual reader, could be confusing. In one place they may speak in terms of minimum and maximum aperture values, and in another they refer to the “smallest value” of the aperture ring, but mean the largest aperture.

“Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked”

And, there is on “nails on the blackboard,” pet peeve for me. I know, it is ridiculously nit-picky, but it annoys me. Throughout the text whenever the authors refer to raw capture, they use “RAW” in capital letters. Another prominent rockynook author, in his book, went to some trouble to point out that this is incorrect. When we see TIFF, or JPEG (or JPG), it is because they stand for a phrase (TIFF = Tagged Image File Format, and JPEG = “Joint Photographic Experts Group”). “Raw” does not stand for anything other than raw! As in “uncooked.” So it annoys me when people capitalize it. Why do I continue to bitch about it? Because this is my blog and because I CAN :-).  But funny thing ….. (“Pot, meet kettle”) ….. I have been consistently referring to the subject camera model as the “A7r” (capital “A” and lower case “R”).  As I was again pitching a fit about the capitalization of “raw,” I noted that the authors here (correctly) use the denomination a7R (just the reverse of my incorrect usage).  The “a” of course, is really the greek “alpha” symbol, and this exercise also forced me to figure out how to reproduce it here.  But I now stand corrected (and I have that going for me, and that’s a good thing 🙂 ).

The detailed, multi-page appendices section at the back of the book is a very nice feature with nicely explained, detailed menu settings and commands. It will be a valuable troubleshooting aid and quick reference.

The book delivers what it implies …. mostly

On balance, this is a good book and a good addition to the α7/α7R owner’s arsenal. At this stage, it is the only book I can suggest, as it is the only one that is really, in my view, an “about the α7 series book.” I have not read the David Busch book, and I will probably at least peruse it when I finally see it in a bookstore. I already own a couple of his books, so unless there is a lot of hidden secrets, I probably won’t buy it. But if I do, for the sake of fairness and consistency, I’ll review it.

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4 Responses

  1. Since you are picking nits, let’s really do it. 🙂 That camera is actually the SonyILCE7R/Ba7r. Write that ten times quickly.

    Mostly because I’m an idiot, I say take more pictures, learn by doing and Google for the information you need.Technical books seem so last century. — Ray

    • LOL, Ray! I would never suggest you are an idiot :-). I am old school, and still a reader. While I mostly read for pleasure on my Kindle app these days, there are certain books I still insist on buying hard copy of. Then I sit down and read them and highlight and dog-ear them. I get that I am fast becoming a dinosaur. But sometimes I like it when someone else does all the work of organizing a categorizing technical information. And sometimes, Google just can’t seem to find me the answer I am looking for.

      Example: A couple weeks ago, I was shooting beach sunsets. I have my a7R set so the AF on the shutter button is “off.” I AF when shooting from a tripod with the AE Lock button on the back. Then I use a wireless release. Well, it appears that the wireless release ignores the fact that I have the shutter set to “off.” It tries to AF. I have been trying to figure out if I can override that or its just “what it is.” Guess that’s the “learn by doing” thing?

      • Oh Kindle. You can’t highlight, cut paste and mark up on that can you? Or, can you? While Rebecca and I still make notes, my girls do all their homework including
        notes and computations on their iPads. We make them print and write because we don’t want then to forget that. A better place than Google is YouTube. Every possible thing is there. You can eve learn how to take your new camera out of the shipping box. Or, how excited Angela B. Pan is because the thing in the box is “solo awesome.”

        Being around a lot of musicians during the past few years has only reinforced what I do normally… I would never go out in the field without testing, practicing and rehearsing with new equipment, or even old equipment that I was going to use in a different way. That said, according to the forum on the Sony site, and assuming you have their version of the wireless release, yes it wants everything to be on full auto. A big reason for that is the way that the camera focuses… for instance, ever just hold the camera out and stick it in front something that you can’t get close to? The focusing sensor “sees” very differently than you do.

  2. […] series. The detail about the camera is generally superficial – “same old, same old.” I recently reviewed the third one here. But from it, I did learn some new things, and have some of the unique advantages of the Sony […]

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