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Sony A7r wedding photography

The Future of Photography?

Sony A7R wedding photography has become a popular option with pros and many versions have been released in the last two years, During this time, these cameras have earned quite a reputation for quality and capability… some photographers even going as far as to claim these sweet little cameras are the next big thing in photography! Being primarily a pro Canon Wedding Photographer, I’ve frequently tested other manufacturer’s mirrorless cameras in search of the perfect small portable personal camera that I could capture my daily life with. I’ve tested machines from Leica, Fugi, Olympus and others. None of which really performed quite like my Canon pro kit… thus my new shiny toys were often overlooked to collect dust.

As a pro photographer, I’ve amassed a large catalog of Canon EF glass and I would very much like to use these lenses on a Canon mirrorless full frame camera. But, such a camera currently doesn’t exist. I figured that Canon would quickly react with a mirrorless full frame of their own given all the popularity and hype surrounding these cameras. However, it has been two years and still nothing has come to fruition. So I’ve decided to taste the kool-aid… I picked up my Sony A7r on the second hand market with less than 10k shutter actuations for slightly under 1k USD.  For my photography style this seemed like the right model to start with, and to see what all the talk is about.

I have quite a few ZEISS ZE manual focus lenses and decided to adapt them with an Metabones III EF Adapter. This got me up and running quickly without any further investment in a new set of glass for my Sony. Ok. So I get it. This camera is freakin awesome! After shooting with it for a few months, I just can’t believe the capabilities its allowed me. Having more dynamic range has made shooting night portraits not only more fun, but a more frequent affair. Having a smaller camera with crazy high image quality has made every day shooting another reality – there is just no reason not to pack this little camera for a day trip, or even a short walk to the park!

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Form Factor

The first hands on impressions were very favorable. The sleek lines, swiveling LCD screen, and button customizability options are beyond belief, yet very welcomed. It relies on a single SD card slot and it performs well enough for the A7r’s meager four frames per second burst rate. The petite sized camera also suffers in the battery life, with the addition of an always on LCD or optical viewfinder batteries draining at a feverish pace. I’ve noticed roughly 300 shots per battery charge seemed to be my average. This means even more additional batteries on a wedding day.

Of course the smaller size and weight are the obvious big advantage and carrying a few extra batteries is not a big deal. As a wedding photographer though, I’m often on my feet for many 10 to 12 hour days; carrying very heavy equipment can literally drag me down. This camera system helps in that regard, halving the size and weight of not only the camera, but many of the lenses too. This advantage can be very appealing for photo journalists and event photographers alike. However, being smaller alone is not enough reason for me to completely change camera systems. Many tout the smaller form factor as the greatest strength of the camera. While I do agree, that it’s an advantage, for me it’s the image quality that really steals the show

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Image Quality & Improved Dynamic Range

36 Megapixels + Full Frame = Happy Photographers. When this many pixels are paired with a high resolution lens, like the ZEISS Otus 55mm 1.4, incredible images that approach the look of Digital Medium-Format can be achieved. This is perfect for magazine shooters or anyone that would need to do a lot of print work! We’ve been using this camera heavily during the posed or portrait sessions with the bride and groom, knowing images from this camera will blow up and print exceptionally well.

But, it’s not all about the mighty megapixel, the RAW files also have more latitude. Sony’s low-power column parallel ADC architecture works cooperatively with the sensor to produce some incredibly clean images at a large ISO range. With the addition of this on-sensor ADC, Sony cameras can mitigate most noise and banding artifacts. A lower base ISO (basically below 1600) lowered the entire noise floor making it easier to use higher ISOs when needed.

This is especially helpful when it comes to dynamic range. Often as wedding photographers, we’ll need to photograph live events in very dimly lit reception halls. We could use flash, but this can draw attention to us, and the moment could be lost. With more dynamic range we are able to push up the ISO and later apply noise reduction with Lightroom in post production, without losing as much fine detail (especially in the shadows & blacks). Using this method with the A7r yielded much higher quality final images than we could have achieved with our Canon 6d. Best of all; we can forgo flash for another part of a wedding day and capture more candid moments!

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Digital Viewfinder & Swivel Screen

The Digital Viewfinder is an incredible tool for modern photographers! Having the ability to see what the image will look like in real time, with the addition of more focusing tools is a huge advantage of the mirrorless camera. In the past we’d have to tinker with optical viewfinder focusing screens or just shoot in live-mode utilizing our DSLR LCD screens for any manual focusing lenses that we used. Access to digital magnification inside the viewfinder makes all the difference in the world for focusing manually and we use this feature a lot!

My initial thoughts of the swivel screen were that its was a gimmick. But, let me tell you, I was dead wrong. Being able to maneuver the screen makes it much easier to get down low to the ground or additionally overhead vantage shots that would have been difficult, if not impossible with my pro DSLR’s static screen. It’s also worth mentioning that the TFT LCD screen looks quite nice and bright at 3 inches with 921,600 pixels.

Firmware

Over the last couple years, Sony has backed their new platform and has made many improvements to the overall operating system for the A7 family. Sony also has a community support page that is frequently supported by the Sony staff to help improve their product. It seems that they really have been listening to their community, as many updates have come out addressing photographers needs, most notably dramatically improving startup and operating times.

These updates also apply to the existing line, which gives me confidence that Sony will not abandon its existing customer base. In addition, Sony makes these downloads available for free on their website. You can visit their main support page or you may visit the Sony A7r specific page for the latest software updates.

-Firmware version 2.0 (Nov 2015) improved the startup time of the camera significantly

-Firmware version 3.0 (Dec 2015) support for selectable uncompressed 14-Bit Raw files

-Firmware version 3.10 (Mar 2016) added support for the latest line of lenses

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ISO performance

Another strong feature of this small camera is its very capable ISO range. Although, it’s not the strongest ISO performer in the A7 series it’s very usable up to ISO 3200. While the settings do go much higher (in fact all the way to 25,600), we’d rather limit artifacts that could appear on our final images. We’ve also noticed some significant differences in the lens cap test for this sensor, which makes comparing it to the Canon, an apples to oranges affair. But, the files do hold together better when pushed in Lightroom. This is largely attributed to Sony’s onboard ACD that keeps the banding and grain at a bare minimum on the lower ISOs. It also works to keep the higher ISO cleaner than the Canon 6d. Additionally, noise reduction can be applied more liberally in Lightroom to further scrub out the noise without losing as much fine detail. Overall the ISO performance makes this camera very capable in low light situations.

Expansive Menu System

This camera has a lot of customizable options and because of this it has a lot of menus to trudge through in order to find the settings you need. Fortunately, it does have a lot of customizable options. In all honesty, once you have the camera dialed in to your preferences, it’s like wearing your favorite pair of gloves. That being said, it took a very long time to put these gloves on and learn the menu system!! Even after months of usage, I find myself searching menus on occasion when something advanced is required.  Alpha Creative Skills created a wonderful menu walkthrough video to explain what all the menu options are for.

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Limited Native Lens Selection

Currently the availability of native pro lenses has been sparse and slow coming. This has been a major crutch of the system so far. On the flip side -thanks to its tight flange distance and wide availability of third party adapters- it can be used with almost any legacy lens from most manufactures. For more information about legacy glass adaptation check out this video from Brian Smith. Obviously, this is fantastic if you already have a collection of manual Zeiss, Leica, Contax or other legendary legacy manual focus lenses. These optic options can look stunning and create something original to your style! However, the lack of auto-focus will turn many pros away.

Designing an entirely new line of lenses takes time, but Sony partnered with ZIESS to build and design some of the lenses to speed things up! One of these native lenses is emerging as a rockstar of the photography world. The first of which is the ZEISS 55mm 1.8, for what is often considered as a starting prime in the world for Canon/Nikon, is a powerhouse on the Sony. This small lens is blowing up the DXOmark charts and is quite possibly the best used lens deal out there ($700 used), in my opinion.

Sony is also putting serious engineering into designing a new set of G Master lenses aimed directly at pros with zooms like the 24-70 & 70-200 2.8. The G Master 85mm 1.4 is of particular interest to our studio. ZEISS, independent from Sony, has created two new series for the Sony A7 system, further validating the platform. These two lines consist of an older fashioned manual focusing Loxia series, that’ll surely be a hit with videographers, as well as the uber modern autofocus, fast prime Batis series. It’s also rumored that Sigma is working on developing an Art series for the e-mount. With all these options, and more appearing constantly, we feel like this could be the system of the future!

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Subtle Nuances & Belly-aching

Using this camera and getting used to the small details took me some time; especially since I’ve been accustomed to shooting with the same camera system for quite awhile. But, I’ve always found that the best way to learn something new is to do it! So I’ve been carrying a hybrid Canon/Sony kit and when the action slows, I’d get a little more familiar with the Sony. Over time I’ve found myself reaching for it more and more and it’s become part of my wedding day workflow! But, not without some minor growing pains here and there. Unlike with my DSLR, I will never change lenses on the mirrorless without turning it off first. This takes an extra moment and could lead to missing a shot if not planned for appropriately. Since the sensor is charged when the camera is turned on and there is no mirror protecting it, it’s much more likely to attract a lot of dust, which is more likely to stick to the charged sensor.

Another common gripe is the extra small batteries and their extremely short life. For wedding days we recommend investigating in the grips for their ergonomics and of course the extended battery. The camera also lacks a seconds time in the date function, which makes syncing the time of multiple cameras a little more tedious… a problem that could certainly be resolved with a simple firmware update. And, the last of my nitpicking would go to the occasional digital viewfinder lag that is apparent only in very dark scenes. This is really not much of an issue 99.5% of the time.

The final and most serious complaint of this camera is the autofocus system. While this camera has many strengths and is quite capable of creating incredible images, it does require some practice. Having a more complicated and less accurate AF system certainly holds with it back from being the primary camera system. However, these issues have been addressed in the 2nd iteration of the A7RII! We will undoubtedly be review this camera soon, so stay tuned…

Final Thoughts

Overall the Sony A7r is not only quite a capable small camera, but a very capable camera in general. With its mighty sensor, advanced focusing tools and a futuristic digital viewfinder, its made a place in our studio! What had started out as a fun new camera for shooting everyday life has become part of my wedding day photography workflow. I’m not even considering leaving my Canon system at all. However, I do openly embrace the future! Only time will tell if this system has what it takes to topple the current duopoly. But for now, it certainly seems to have an advantage. If you are looking for a small camera that is capable of creating incredible images, than this is an excellent choice.

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More Resources

Are you interested in learning more about this camera? There are lots of great, useful resources all over the web to help us photographers achieve our photographic dreams! We have included some of the articles and resources that were helpful for us when researching our own gear purchase.

Sony Official – Sony A7r Tech Specs

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