The "original" Sony a7: is it still relevant?
Sony started an exciting new chapter in mirrorless camera history, by announcing the first practical FF mirrorless with the original a7. But this was almost a year and a half ago, and, since then, the range was enriched by three further models. Including the second generation of this camera, featuring IBIS and several other improvements. So the question is, does the a7 still represent a good option nowadays?
We had the opportunity, thanks to Sony Hellas, to have an a7 at our disposal for some time now, and here is a short review, as regards this question.
Not having any extended experience with Sony cameras, the first thing I have to say is, I found the camera quite easy to setup. I had help from Ralfs Foto-Bude, a youtube channel I highly recommend. That said, Sony menus are a handful: there are many options and several ways to get to them, so a little help is needed, initially, to find your way through.
The a7 is a nice camera to handle. It has the ideal weight and size, as long as you use smallish to medium size/weight lenses; there is of course an additional battery grip which helps with longer lenses. There are several customizable buttons and, in addition to the two control dials and exposure comp. dial, there is very little missing in field conditions. The grip is nice and even has a cleverly placed notch in the middle which makes it easier to hold. In general, the camera feels robust and solid, while remaining light and small enough.
All in all, especially when used with adapted legacy lenses, the camera gave me a similar vibe to Olympus OM film cameras. It has approximately the same weight and size and soon enough the whole process seems totally natural. Which brings us to a major advantage of the a7 family of cameras: they are a joy to use with adapted manual lenses. It's so easy and intuitive to focus manually: just one f-button can be used to display a focus box, which can be moved along the frame; another press magnifies the view and, all along, you have excellent focus-peaking to aid with precise focusing. The EVF is large and clear, and so is the back screen, so no issues with seeing exactly what you are doing.
Someone with experience in older, legendary film cameras, such as the OMs or the Nikon FMs, will find the whole experience very natural and appealing. And, of course, being a FF camera, you don't have to consider focal conversion issues with your lenses, as with smaller sensors.
Speaking of handling, and everyday use, there are a few bugging issues though. EVF sensitivity is one of them; it reminds me of the initial (pre-firmware update) Olympus E-M5, in that the eye sensor is too sensitive. Another disturbing issue is shutter noise. The first time I pressed the shutter, I thought something broke inside the body. It is that loud, especially if you are used to the discreet clicks of other mirrorless cameras. Definitely don't use the a7 for street photography, if you like to remain unnoticed. It also gives the impression that the shutter will introduce unwanted vibrations.
Battery life is also not that great, although quite useable of course. On the other hand, the battery meter is rather accurate (Fuji and Olympus are notoriously unreliable in that regard).
But, having a FF camera, is, for most people, all about image quality. Indeed having a juicy 24Mp sensor inside this camera, is generally considered the main reason to purchase it. I don't want to refer to "FF junkies", once again, but, sure, I know of people that didn't even consider mirrorless until there was a FF option, with this model. So let's put things in perspective.
Unfortunately, we didn't have the option to test the camera with high quality native lenses yet; this I'm sure will be taken care of in the near future and we will have more to say. The thing is, the a7 is not the latest FF camera or the latest incarnation of the specific sensor, and, speaking of today, there certainly are cameras with better overall image quality, using better versions of the same core sensor. Also, let's be fair: smaller sensor cameras have gone a long way and it's really difficult to find real-life differences in regards to image quality. This is even true for Sony's own APS-C sensor cameras.
That said, image quality from the camera is excellent and enough to satisfy anyone but the most paranoid pixel peeper out there. Sony is famous for its sensor's DR and Color depth and, given the right circumstances, the a7 is capable of impressive results. There is, in internet circles, the recurring question of the 11+7 bit compression Sony uses in all its cameras, and how much it degrades image quality. I didn't have the chance to test this under controlled conditions, so I have no answer to that. Let's leave it at that there certainly are FF cameras with better IQ; but this was not the original question.
Trying to answer if the a7 still represents a good value, let's consider this: the camera can now be had with less than 1000€ new. You can find near mint examples in the used market, practically new, close to 800-850€, in my experience. If you have to have FF (and there are some stupid reasons to think you do, but also a lot of perfectly valid reasons), you can only get some older/used DSLRs at this price range, none of which can compete with the a7 overall. And if you are looking at adapting lenses, with no hassles, the a7 is an ideal option. Finally, if you believe that the Sony aX line of cameras will only continue to get better (and the system already shows considerable potential, with exciting new lenses being introduced constantly), then the cheap a7 is a great way to get into the system and build up. All in all, I'll admit I developed a love/hate relationship with the a7, but gradually started warming up to it. I'm eager to see how the system evolves in the future, and signs are definitely positive.
The kit lens (Sony 28-70 f/3.5-5.6) was used during this test. There is a certain snobbery against kit lenses, which is, more often than not, rather unfounded. This is a light (made of plastic but quite good quality) lens, it focuses fast, it handles well and its image quality has nothing to envy over similar FF kit lenses (such as 24-85 Nikon). In fact, almost all seem to agree that it's not that far behind the Zeiss 24-70 f/4, for the E-system. Most importantly, if you get it in a kit with a a7 camera, it comes quite cheap. It seems to be sharp enough when used as a walkabout lens, for travel photography and such. But don't expect wonders, in absolute contrast/color reproduction and especially in bokeh rendering, which is, in my opinion, quite busy and ugly looking.
This concludes this short initial review. Special thanks go to Sony Hellas and also my partner in crime, pro photographer and journalist Nikos Vitsilakis. Here is a small gallery with the camera, with more to come soon!