Equipment Review: Sony A7 Compact System Camera + Carl Zeiss FE 24-70mm F4 + Carl Zeiss FE 35mm f2.8

The past few years has been a tough year for the camera industry. Simply put the camera manufacturers are squeezed at both ends of the spectrum, the smartphones are getting smarter with good camera features to boot (you can read my Nokia 1020 piece here.)

The product offering is also more compelling as consumers’ lives are evolving and revolving around online presence through social media so sharing pictures quickly is one of the main features that people are looking at. Hence close integration of mobile apps with the camera is an essential part of the Compact System Camera’s eco-system.

And at the other end of the spectrum, common complaints are coming from DSLR users of being bulky and heavy. Not much of a choice when one wants Image Stabilisation (not necessary for me) and fast Autofocus (AF) motor in a lens. Add that to weather sealing and magnesium alloy frame and the weight with batteries is not going to be that small and light.

If we are to look at the future customers using Singapore’s demographics, the aging population will welcome the lighter packages. Heck even the younger set would like to bring a lighter and yet capable shooter when they are out on holidays.

With the double pressure coming from both sides of the spectrum, as early as 2008 manufacturers such as Olympus and Panasonic tried to corner the market with the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras. Sony and Fujifilm tried it with their NEX and X system with a bigger APS-C sensor with the later even coming out with a unique X-Trans sensor that forgo the use of the Anti-Aliasing filter providing sharpness and contrast to the pictures.

Nikon and Canon, with their sizeable DSLR market viewed the emergence of the Mirrorless CSC with some ‘disdain’ in the early years. And when they see that the market is reacting favorably to the CSC cameras, they tried by making the camera bodies smaller and lighter with the Nikon Df and Canon 700D being the epitome of that approach.

However, it is still not small enough for some people and the introduction of the Nikon 1 and Canon EOS M has came a wee bit too little and too late. The chief complaints about the two system is that one is paying too much for a small sensor for the former and having a totally new mount for both systems. If they could somehow leverage on the APS-C format DSLR lens that both has in their stable, the outcome would be much better.

Sensing that the competitors is not hitting the mark, Sony served the first serious salvo since the introduction of the NEX – the Sony A7/7R.

There’s a lot of things to like given their specification but I will highlight some:

  • It is light. (416g)
  • It is small. (126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2 mm) (W/H/D)
  • It comes with Sony’s own full frame sensor
  • It uses the NEX E-Emount creating a new series of Full Frame enabled lens called the FE (Full Frame E Mount)
  • The sensor has 24MP good enough for a lot of things and definitely more sufficient for Internet sharing.
  • The super competitive pricing starting from SGD1,999 just for the A7 body option, SGD2499 with a kit and the 36MP sensor of a behemoth resolution – the A7R at SGD2799 for the body alone

The Camera Feel & Ergonomics

The first time I have the chance to touch it was pretty positive except for the louder than usual shutter snap noise coming from the unit. Not surprising as the shutter is now more exposed to the opening of the lens mount and do not have sound proofing afforded by a deeper DSLR body. All that being said, I got used to the shutter speed as I shoot more. Subjects however may hear it if they are near enough, something that I would love to avoid doing street photography.

As mentioned, the body of the A7 is pretty compact. Although not as compact as the smallest camera, it is still small enough for me to put it inside a winter jacket pocket with the Carl Zeiss 35mm f2.8 lens. Once you matched it to the A7 kit lens, the Sony’s own FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 Lens or the slightly larger Carl Zeiss FE 24-70mm f4, it would certainly require a small camera bag.  For a DSLR user myself, having a small bag definitely wins over bringing tons of glass in a backpack.

Being small definitely has its problems. If one is used to the medium sized DSLR such as the D7100 or 60D/7D size, the little pinky will have nothing to rest on. That’s where the vertical grip becomes useful.  I have tried it once during the media launch of the A7 and having the grip is an indispensable accessory to have.

It certainly give it more presence in the hands and it became much more stable as a shooting machine. Add the benefits of having two batteries residing in the grip for longer shooting session and easier shooting in portraiture orientation, buying the grip is a no brainer.

User Interface

As of this article, I will try to rank the usability of a camera by using my own User Interface Simplicity Scale. The higher the ranking, the easier it is for me to use. Do note, I use old cameras before so my experience will not mirror your’s 100%. The scale will be different from people who are only exposed to current User Interfaces. I will only limit to DSLR/CSC cameras that I have recently reviewed:

  1. Fujifilm X-Pro1, E1/2
  2. Sony A7
  3. Pentax K
  4. Nikon D300/D200
  5. Canon 5D/7D
  6. Canon 700D
  7. Fuji XT1
  8. Nikon Df
  9. Nikon D5300

Any DSLR user will feel right at home with the A7 with both front and rear wheels for aperture and shutter, using the back dial as the ISO setting and , the camera can be easily manipulated without going into the menu. This is a far cry IMHO from the ‘difficult’ NEX cameras with their ‘angst-filled’ menu.

Speaking of menu, the A7 in some ways took over the NEX problems. If not for the excellent dials and wheels and the fast menu page, I would have spend a lot of time flipping through the menu. The key culprit is the way the settings are all over the place where both shooting and none shooting options are mingled together in an illogical way (at least to me).

For example, things like “APS-C size capture” should be in the shooting menu instead of the general setting menu And since the camera has so many menu, a video tab would be better to gather all video related settings into a page. After so many years developing cameras, this is one area that Sony has consistently failed to impress.

The other thing I did miss is the lack of a shutter screw hole for one to use a plunger style shutter release cable. Normally I would also install a soft release button to make the shutter button taller and it makes the camera more sensitive to shutter press and the camera didn’t shake that much. Even the Sony RX10 shutter button allows the use so it is quite disappointing that A7 do not sport it.

So what if you need to trigger the camera on the tripod? There are two options – get the remote controller from Sony or install the PlayMemories App and activate the Remote Shutter App. For my own experience, I would rather have a wired shutter release option as it is more direct, faster and definitely much more practical.

The Apps

The thing about new cameras nowadays is that it needed to do much more than just taking photos. For smartphones it is easy because when I buy phones, it is the ability to call, sms, send messages and update status is to me more important than having the best shooter available. It is good that manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC and Nokia are trying their best to better their cameras so much so, compact cameras are not needed for candid, spur-of-the-moment snap shots.

The app list is actually quite small to the point it is more of a bane. And to me the most important 2 Apps are Direct Upload and Remote Shutter App (we look at this later). There is also the photo retouching which I think Sony would do better utilising the Android Photo Apps instead.

The Remote Shutter App

Yes remote shutter app is something most camera companies would have installed in their web enabled cameras. Not much of a surprise if the camera gave up all its controls over to the smartphone app. However the Sony A7 did give a pleasant surprise – I can actually control the camera directly and shoot pictures with it. Although I do not have full control of the camera unlike the Samsung iteration of the same type of system, there is enough controls for me to do the shoot.

So what happens now is that the smartphone/tablet has become a wi-fi tethered device so that whenever I shoot, the smaller versions of the shot is immediately transmitted to the tablet/smartphone. This is absolutely great for studio shooting.

That said, the Remote Shutter App still cannot allow the use of the Bulb Mode to shoot fireworks for example and one still has to spend money to get a wireless remote controller for that privilege.

Direct Upload App – Sharing through Facebook/Flickr

I activated the Direct Upload App, thinking that it would be set up pretty quickly. Guess what, I was given a mini browser login page for both my Facebook and Flickr account. If the screen is a ‘whopping’ 4 inch screen with a touch enabled screen it would not be a problem. But the A7 keyboarding is tedious, much like one has to do the same with a PS3 dual shock controller and if you get any of the login credentials wrong, you have to do it all over again. In the end I totally gave up. There should be a better way to do this.

In the end, I just download the Android PlayMemories App and proceed to transfer the resized imaged from the camera to the phone and share from there instead which is much quicker

Sony + Carl Zeiss FE Lens

I can easily say the bug bear of the Sony system is that their mid range lens are in some ways not as competitive in the IQ department as their main competitors. Maybe I am a bit more picky but I could have gotten a good third party lens to meet my needs whereas Sony alternatives are limited.

The reality of the market is that the 3rd party lens makers will make for the more prolific brands Canon first and Nikon second and if there’s special needs like the Fujifilm Zeiss Touit lens.

To be fair to Sony they also have Carl Zeiss. It is like MFT Olympus/Panasonic asking Leica to do their lens. But we all know the cost of these lens. They are fantastic glass but one has to be willing to pay for it.

As for my case, Sony passed me two Carl Zeiss Lens – a 35mm f2.8 and 24-70 f4, the later not even launched yet. And if I were to get the A7 now, I have to rely on Sony’s kit lens to start the system.

Carl Zeiss FE 35mm f2.8 – a nifty and small lens. I personally wish it could go faster than f2.8. It is great as a walk around lens and can shoot in most conditions. However it doesn’t feel or weigh like a premium piece of glass.

Carl Zeiss FE 24-70mm f4 - When it comes to pedigree, the CZ branding wouldn’t go wrong. However I am pleasantly surprised by the Kit lens performance to be honest when shooting in bright conditions. The contrast/colour difference is quite stark but it can be said it is more of a matter of taste now.

However when it comes to night shoot, both lenses do focus hunt quite a bit which kind of remind me of the ‘trying’ times I had with the X100 when it first came out. It reminds me doesn’t mean it is as bad but I do expect it to be better since the NEX cameras do focus pretty fast so this is a disappointment coming from an expensive piece of glass.

Shot with CZ FE 24-70mm f4 at 24mm

Shot with Sony 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 at 28mm. To me it is a bit more washed out.

I can say now is that the Zeiss lens is way heftier than the A7 kit lens and there are some serious glass inside unless they added lead to the lens. Not a huge surprise given that it was a constant f4 lens. The other main difference is that the Carl Zeiss lens do extend when zooming in whereas the kit lens do not.

After reviewing the Sony Alpha 700 (the first flagship when Sony took over the Minolta A Mount) – which is a fantastic piece of gear, also reviewed with Carl Zeiss – while I was a freelancer with The Straits Times, the Sony lens range did expand but the price of mid to high level lens it commands will struggle against the quality of equivalent Canikon and the value proposition is even worst when you compare with 3rd party lens (during the time I got Sigma 70-200 f2.8 Macro, 18-55 f2.8 Macro, Tokina 11-16 f2.8 all for Nikon). In the end I didn’t jump on the wagon unless one has the fantastic legacy Minolta lens.

So the same issues crops up with the A7 now. At the back of my mind would still be this: can i get good quality 3rd party lens if I adopt this system without paying through the nose by getting a Zeiss glass?

At the moment is not that clear… hence i didn’t jump in as early as I would like to. It was unlike the X100 where it only comes with one lens and a fixed one. I also got the XE1 without much testing but a slow and calculated decision making process while looking at the pictures coming from the XPro1, X-E1 and the kit lens and I have adapted my Nikon F Mount lenses – Tokina 11-16mm f2.8, AIS Nikkor 35mm f2.8 and 50mm f1.4 – to much great effect. Can I do the same for the Sony A7? Yes you can via the NEX-F Mount adaptor and then use focus peaking to get focus.

If you do have the Alpha Mount lens then getting the translucent adaptor – the LA-EA4 – from Sony would help you get some AF love while using the A7. The older LA-EA2 works great too.

Carl Zeiss 85mm f1.4 A-mount with the adaptor to E-Mount.

Other Competitors

Therefore for me Fujifilm is in a unique position because they are at once a film company (hence the ability to match colours well) and also a fantastic lens company (they produce arguably one of the best video camera lens in the market).

Fujifilm lens are not exactly cheap but it doesn’t command top dollar to get top quality – their best value lens is actually the XE1/XE2 ‘kit-lens’ which is not at the quality of the kit lens we are used to but much much better.

If I were to expand my Fujifilm lens, their 35mm is also a joy to have which is a 50mm in actual usage. All in their lens provide huge value for money. I can spend more than S$1-2K but their returns is as though you bought a 3K lens…that’s my feeling.

Can Sony do the same? The kit lens is a surprise to be honest and I hope that trend continues so that more affordable lens can come and make the system a successful one.  It will even be better if Tokina, Sigma, Tamron, Samyang (via the NEX mount) can do some lens offering for this system but it is early days yet.

Image Quality

It actually hits expectation. Even the signature cooler hue of the Sony images is also there. Sharpness and clarity is great with good graduation of colours in most of the pictures I took.  It is after all Carl Zeiss and I expect nothing less.

When it comes to daylight shoot, the A7 with the lens did a great job but using artificial light for both outdoor and indoor shoot, the White Balance doesn’t seem to keep up that well. As I shoot more JPEGs this is more of a concern for me whereas RAW shooters could adjust to their heart’s content.

All in, nothing major once you get the correct temperature in.

A bit cooler to the point it became a bit whitish in the skin tone.

One thing nice about having a slightly bluer tone gives a better black and white conversion effect. Done in post.

Big nose shot up close using the 35mm. I tried to get a bit more red into the picture to get a more healthy looking skin. Tried.

AWB working here. Skin tone gone blue/cooler where as the rest looked ok (the yellow from Fullerton hotel is subdued).


Sony’s Motion Panorama function. Love the colour graduation from this shot during sunset.

Once I did a custom White Balance, it looks great. I used the white napkin of the restaurant to get my neutral grey source.

Quite pleasant representation of red hue.

Cropped it in to avoid a photo bomber. Good thing about having a higher resolution sensor is to have that wee bit of flexibility.

Shoot under shade. Again the tone is towards cool. Some would love this over being too pinkish or reddish.

Using Ambient light for this shot during the blue hour.

Under AWB, did a LED Panel spotlight effect.

Attempting a panning shot. The refresh rate of the EVF is still a tad disconcerting when shooting sports like this as there is a momentary black out as the camera shoots and save the image and also need to refresh the EVF image concurrently. 

Good glass makes the subject pop beautifully.

Conclusion

For those who are interested, I can only say – it is a bloody fun camera to have especially when you have a Zeiss 35mm and the Zoom lens and if I have the money to get these two lens first, it is as good as having a complete event photography kit in a small package.

Again, this is a very interesting year for the cameras as people are scrambling to respond to the A7 Full Frame offering and at the price point of SGD2.4K which is anything but boring.

I have time on my hands to slowly choose the best system as I have all the gears needed to do travel, events, landscape, food and of course model/portraiture. The good thing for Sony now is that it has win half the battle with the great Full Frame Mirrorless Body.

The second half of the battle is to convince us the Sony lens is worth every penny we put in without resorting to use Zeiss expertise (and its resultant brand premium we are loathe to pay).

In the meantime, if one has the NEX system E lens, you could use it and then allow the A7 do the auto cropping like what Nikon D800/E doe for their DX lenses. However moving down the line, with sensor price dropping, I won’t be surprised that NEX system will slowly make way for the A7 cameras.

2014 is the year where the camera industry has to change to meet the ever shifting landscape that is digital photography. In some ways, the A7 has become the iPhone of the industry.

The Sony A7 is now available island wide at the recommended retail price starting from SGD1,999 just for the A7 body option, SGD2499 with a kit and the 36MP sensor A7R without Anti Aliasing filter at SGD2799 for the body alone.

More photos:

David Teo of 5Stones Flickr Set (with Kit and Adapted Lens):

http://www.flickr.com/photos/david5stones/sets/72157639055951806/

WilzWorkz Sony A7 Test Flickr Set:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wilzworkz/sets/72157639871209195/

2 thoughts on “Equipment Review: Sony A7 Compact System Camera + Carl Zeiss FE 24-70mm F4 + Carl Zeiss FE 35mm f2.8

  1. Pingback: News Reaction: Nikon Df + Sony A7 | WilzWorkz

  2. Pingback: First Look: Fujifilm X-T1 | WilzWorkz

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