Sony A7RIII, una recensione leggermente in ritardo

One could start by saying that the A7R3 is the first Sony I’m not eager to change.

The first very old 7R struck me in 2014 when I began my adventure in the world of the 35mm format: it took gorgeous pictures, it was very compact, and it cost less than those reflex catafalques of the time. Certain; the focus literally sucked, the viewfinder didn’t reach enough and the sensor wasn’t stabilized.

I had the second version in my hands exactly one year later: the stabilized sensor expanded the creative possibilities almost infinitely, the focusing had improved and you could even try a little something with the continuous autofocus, the range of available lenses was literally exploding, there were full-sensor 4k movies and finally the viewfinder could be defined as good (and it still would be today). Here too, however, it must be said that as regards the autofocus there were lights and shadows; SLRs remained much more reliable machines. The gap was narrowing and in any case the mirrorless revolution had already largely begun. The exaggerated image quality, the advantage of having an electronic viewfinder, the stabilized sensor and the compactness of the system were clearly the symptoms of what was to come next: SLRs were already dead they just didn’t know it yet. However, the knot of autofocus remained to be resolved.

In 2017 with the A9 in spring and the A7R3 in autumn Sony sentenced the dear old DSLRs to death without the possibility of appeal. Suddenly, at least for those who did not yet own a full frame kit, it almost made no sense to buy a camera other than a Sony mirrorless.

We come to her.

Same sensor but new electronics, new viewfinder, double SD slot (the second only UHS-I unfortunately), single and continuous focus finally usable in 90% of occasions, almost one stop more of dynamic range, pixel shifting (only on static objects and on a tripod), speed/general operability finally free from criticism. Pretty much the perfect camera.

It’s quick to say what isn’t perfect because otherwise there’s very little to complain about, so I thought I’d make a very short list:

1) in situations where you try to use the AFC on subjects in continuous movement and relatively close and with non-optimal light conditions (shadow, dirty light) the percentage of out of focus photos can even reach 40-50% of a burst

2) it films very well in 4K if you don’t have great demands, but at the same time if you increase your demands because you also want to start experimenting and doing things right (at the same level as its photographic sector) the general level of movie output is quite low

3) with teleconverters, AFC can no longer be used and you have to stick with AFS

4) on a tripod, using the multiple shot with self-timer, I found that apart from the first photo, all the others in the sequence are slightly shaken; in my way of understanding photography, a micro-shaked photo is to be thrown away so this function is to be considered unusable. I have not had the opportunity to try on other specimens of the same camera, but on the A7R4 with the same lens and conditions, the defect does not exist. It is necessary to add that the multiple shot does not normally produce blur shots if not due to the fault of whoever is holding/using the camera; for this reason I am not able to establish whether it is the fault of the shutter, whether it is only a defect related to my camera or whether it is a defect that affects all A7R3 specimens

So, to be ruthlessly honest, this camera does not excel if you use it in just those two areas for which it was not designed, i.e. extreme sports/naturalistic photography and high-level video productions. Of course, thinking wrongly, one could also hypothesize that some functions of the machine were limited specifically in order to then sell us other models, but the fact remains that in 2017 there was no other machine that offered such a complete and so revolutionary package. This is a fact.

Again to be precise, I would like to point out that I started to notice the first out-of-focus photo sequences after a few years going to take nature photos with the Sony 200-600 G in the particular situation described above; this is to underline that in 3 years I have practically never seen the camera miss a focus. If, on the other hand, the scene is well lit and with the subject a little further away (for example a car/motorcycle race) the percentage of photos in focus approaches 100%. I went home countless times with hundreds of shots and not a single one out of focus before discovering the limit of the camera.

And then there are the movies and here too we need to clarify. I never bought the camera with the intention of making professional-grade videos; simply after 3 years I started wanting to get serious even in the video making and I started trying to figure out what good I could pull off with the camera I already had. Here the discussion becomes a little longer.

From the various tests that I have done, I have drawn a whole series of personal considerations that always lead to the same conclusion and that I prefer to put down in a list rather than make a novel out of it, and these are:

1) you have to choose whether to film in APSC or in FX; in the first case you have the complete reading of the pixels with oversampling, while in the second the machine uses line skipping which is the worst reading mode you can have on a video camera (the image is softer, in some cases you see aliasing complete with jaggies, there is always a sort of pixel texture as it moves as if everything were artificial and plasticky if you look closely in detail)

2) there doesn’t seem to be double native ISO with videos, therefore the much vaunted S-Log3 mode with the amount of overexposure it requires (overexposure that will be obtained by acting on the ISO because the image must always be created according to our tastes therefore the aperture must be kept down to give us the depth of field we want, while the shutter speed must not go below 1/50th at 25p for any reason) and with the insufficient 8-bit 4:2:0 encoding it is practically useless: the image literally crumbles if you try to touch highlights and shadows, and with colors you can’t get anything “scientific” and perhaps not even “beautiful” starting from the file obtained on the machine (it is literally a certainty that buying an external recorder to have the exact same 4:2:2 instead of 4:2:0 is wasted money)

3) in APSC mode for obvious reasons the image quality is in my opinion clearly inferior both in terms of three-dimensionality and in terms of rendering at high ISO: the FX mode abundantly buries the APSC one in everything except sharpness

4) if you try to get a good finished movie (without any need for post-production) with natural colors and good dynamics, the best possible movie is obtained with full sensor and default PP1 color profile without touching any of the many other settings available

5) the autofocus does a great job and is very reliable; having bought and used the Sony PZ 28-135 a lot the only flaw I found is that when reflecting surfaces are framed (like a car that glitters in the sun at some angles) the machine is unable to focus anything for periods even by a few seconds and I think it’s due to the lens because with all my other G, GM and Zeiss optics it never did. Luckily it doesn’t happen so often and generally the experience of using the A7R3 with the PZ 28-135 remains very good; simply the autofocus is a little less granite than with the other more recent and/or performing optics (this is the idea that I got without doing too scientific tests)

6) if you want to make the most of the full frame sensor without even a shred of crop, the best choice is to use the camera in PAL (not NTSC) and settle for 25fps instead of 30fps; by running the video on any not even very recent mid-range TV, it is sufficient to enable the “Intelligient Frame Creation” function on the medium setting to view it in a much more fluid way than a 25fps movie without any such artifice would be

7) being the PZ 28-135 built not to suffer from focus breathing, this effect is practically absent even when the focus varies a lot, and above all you can zoom in and out as you like, obtaining an almost perfect video

8) the usability ISO limit in my opinion is only slightly lower than that of the photos: beyond 5000/6400 ISO it is not recommended to go up and sometimes already at 5000 ISO you start to see a sort of pixel/grain/chromatic noise matrix that wanders here and there across the image ruining it significantly

9) in PAL it is possible to give up 4K 25p at 100Mbps in favor of FullHD 100p at the same bitrate. At 100p the footage will be so fluid that even handheld it will seem stabilized, but unfortunately on a camera of this type you find yourself having to make choices like this: you quadruple the framerate, but the quality of the images is literally reduced by 4 times when already on his own the 4K is all a compromise. This is why I only film in 4K 25p at full sensor; it is the modality with the best final result overall speaking

10) except for conditions that greatly favor the presence of strong aliasing on video (very dense textures, hair, etc.), the machine is often able to produce easily salable 4K movies; videos in which normal users and not “experts” will not be able to notice anything other than a truly pleasant and satisfying overall result

This year the camera will have been on the market for 6 years and for the price it can normally be purchased for (around €2,000 with an extended official guarantee net of discounts and periodic cashbacks) in my opinion it remains the best mirrorless camera out there to choose. For an electronic item to still be a best buy after almost 6 years is quite a record.

Of course there is also the 7R4 at around €1,000 more; but if you don’t need the extra resolution, the AFC with teleconverters and an even more refined focus, the 7R3 has very little to envy them.

The 7R5 has recently come out and costs about twice as much; here too, however, if you don’t need the new generation autofocus with dedicated chip and the 8-stop stabilizer at all costs, from a purely photographic point of view, the 7R3 happily holds up to the task and continues to do its duty with complete fluency. Where there has been the real revolution is in the video sector: even if I haven’t had the opportunity to try it personally, it seems that finally the 4K 30p FX uses pixel binning instead of line skipping in order to finally return a very clean movie (not like with oversampling of course), all with 4:2:2 10-bit encoding and 300Mbps on internal SD card. The same pixel binning is used to get 4K 60p 10-bit 600Mbps but with a forced 1.24x crop that sounds very much like a disaster for any canonical focal length. 8K movies, on the other hand, were limited to 4:2:0 encoding with full 1:1 pixel readout in the same region of the sensor cropped at 1.24x. Even if everything is obtained without particular overheating problems thanks to the new passive heat sink, the limitations of the video sector are still evident and leave that taste of incompleteness in the mouth: at the end of 2022 for €4500 I would have at least expected a full sensor 4K 60p.

Let’s say that after two years of deep sleep the competition has given itself a lot to do: first Canon with the R5, then Nikon with the Z8 not even two weeks ago, and finally also Panasonic which has decided to abandon the terrible contrast autofocus in favor of phase detection with the S5II.

Something tells me that in the near future we will see some good ones. Canon should launch the R5II with monstrous specifications, then maybe a high resolution model and a top of the range (R1?) in 2024. Nikon with the Z8 for only €100 more than the 7R5 offers a machine with superior functionality to the Sony’s A1 using the same core technology (BSI stacked). I don’t think the real generational leap occurs only by increasing the pixels, or rather, it’s not the leap I expect; the time should finally be ripe to see real hybrid machines without too many compromises and/or limitations. It will be curious to see what kind of machine Sony’s future A9III will be, whether it will be a simply cheaper A1 or something new. Maybe we’ll see those Exmor T sensors on full-frame machines sooner or later too.

For me 42Mpx in 2023 are still overkill for almost anything.

My beautiful A7R3 is still a performing and satisfying machine and I can’t wait to continue using it. Provided you use high-level optics (GM, Zeiss) it allows you to print images that are real masterpieces and will continue to do so for several decades.