As I noted in my column today, third-place camera maker Sony has a lot of incentive to take risks and to try crazy new things — and, wow, has it been doing that.
Among its most jaw-dropping achievements: the Alpha 7 (or A7), the world’s smallest, lightest, full-frame SLR camera. Translation: The sensor inside is enormous — the size of a piece of 35 mm film from the olden days. The sensor is as big as those that usually come only in gigantic, heavy, $3,000 professional cameras. But the A7’s body is so small that you can carry it in a coat pocket.
It costs $1,700. That’s a lot when there are decent pocketable cameras for $250, of course. But the price is still low enough that full-time pros aren’t the only ones who can afford this gear.
Despite its tininess, the A7 features an excellent control layout, including 10 customizable keys and four control dials. Headphone and microphone jacks are on board, along with a micro-HDMI jack (so that, with the right cable, you can see what you’re shooting on a big TV). You can transfer pictures to your phone over WiFi, for instant posting online.
And, by the way, Sony says the A7 is the world’s only full-frame camera with a tilting screen, which is great for shooting floor-level photos, or over-your-head shots like this one:
(OK, there’s one other camera with a tilting screen: the A7R. It’s a more expensive sister camera to the A7 — $2,300 instead of $1,700. It’s identical in most regards, but there are a few differences aimed at pros. First, it has a 36-megapixel sensor instead of 24. Second, it comes without an optical low-pass filter, which, as far as I can tell, means you sometimes get sharper images but at greater risk of Moiré patterns. Third, it’s slower to focus.)
The A7’s body is solid as a rock. It’s made of magnesium, and you can use it in the rain.
What the A7 does not have, by the way, is a built-in flash. That’s typical of full-frame cameras; the sensor is so light-sensitive that you won’t need a flash often. But if you do need more light, you’re expected to buy an external flash.
The photos are spectacular, exactly as you’d hope. The color fidelity is amazing; the clarity, astounding; the dynamic range (from brightest whites to deepest blacks), exceptional.
The lens situation is a bit complicated. There’s a new type of lens designed just for the A7 and its full-frame sensor; Sony calls them FE-mount lenses. There are three available now, a 28–70 mm zoom, a 35 prime, and a 55 prime. (A “prime” lens is one that doesn’t zoom.)
By March, they’ll be joined by a 24–70 mm Zeiss lens and a 70–200 mm zoom. Sony says the lens lineup will grow to 10 by the end of this year and 15 by the end of next year.
But you can also attach any of the 25 lenses available for Sony’s NEX cameras (called E-mount). Those lenses aren’t designed for a full-frame sensor, though, so your photos wind up cropped — the light won’t cover the entire sensor.
You can even get adapters for other brands of lenses, like Canon or Nikon, although most of them require sacrificing autofocus.
Hi-def video recording is spectacular on the A7. Thanks to a dedicated Movie button on the right side of the camera, you can start filming no matter what mode the Scene dial is in. (If you turn that dial to Movie mode, though, you can use all of the camera’s manual photographic controls — for video.)
Now, before you commence hyperventilating, there are a few important footnotes to observe.
First, it’s handy that there’s a dedicated exposure dial on the top, so you can tweak the brightness or darkness of a shot without fiddling with menus or buttons. It’s not so handy, however, that it gets turned so easily in your bag or pocket that you have to check its position each time you start shooting.
Second, the A7’s autofocus can be slow. In low light, really slow. This will not be a sports photographer’s camera. (Especially since its burst mode tops out at 1.5 frames a second, refocusing all the way, or five frames a second without refocusing.) Despite the majesty of that Texas-sized sensor, the A7’s autofocus gave me a disconcerting number of blurry shots. This one, for example, really should have been sharper.
Even so, Sony has made its point loud and clear. The towering, unassailable Rule of Full-Framers has fallen: Shooting full frame no longer means traveling with an additional piece of luggage. Next year’s Sony full-framers will be even better; meanwhile, at this very moment, similar rival cameras are under development at Sony’s competitors.
The big news, in other words, isn’t necessarily the Sony A7 — but, rather, the new era of beautiful photographs that began with its birth.
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