Sony A7 versus Nikon D750 and A7r versus D810

US UT ARCHES Nov2014 Sony 13777.jpg

I just spent some time in Utah and California with Sony/Nikon body pairs. As you might expect, I have a few words to say about that ;~). 

Sony’s A7 models (A7s, A7, A7r) are an interesting line of full frame mirrorless bodies at aggressive prices. These cameras take lenses in the Sony FE mount, can use E mount lenses in crop mode (ala DX on Nikon FX bodies), and most existing lenses in other mounts can be adapted to the Sony bodies (though without autofocus and often without exposure coupling). But the particular things that tend to intrigue Nikon DSLR shooters about these Sony bodies are:

  • Two of the cameras use the same basic sensors as the Nikon DSLR bodies (24mp and 36mp Sony sensors), and the third offers a low-light 12mp sensor wonder that is a bit like the Nikon 16mp sensor.
  • The bodies are significantly smaller and lighter than the Nikon DSLRs. 
  • The prices for an equivalent full frame camera are lower (A7 US$1500, Nikon D610 US$1700; the A7r/D810 differential is even higher).


After shooting with a Sony mirrorless and Nikon DSLR side-by-side in a number of situations now, I think I have a pretty good feeling for the primary differentials, so I’ll cut right to the chase: you still get what you pay for. 

You very well may be a candidate for a Sony A7 model over a Nikon DSLR, but let me point out the things you need to very carefully look at and make sure you’re okay with:

  1. Sony really needs to put more effort into respecting raw data. The Nikon DSLRs can output 14-bit raw data that is not compromised. The Sony A7 cameras output 11-bit raw data that has lossy compression in it. The A7 cameras are also not speed demons at saving that altered raw data to the card, either, though they’re not bad in basic write speed. When I wrote about this in my Sony A7 reviews, I got hammered by a lot of Sony users who wrote “we don’t see any difference.” Well, you very well might not see differences between a Sony raw file and a Nikon one. However, I’m a bit uncomfortable with “massaged data” as opposed to a more true raw data. I’m also disappointed by the 11-bit aspect of the Sony cameras: too much post processing manipulation and you risk posterization.  
  2. True native lens selection is still evolving. Sony’s been on a rush program to get more FE lenses to market. As long as you’re in the mood for basic 16-200mm focal lengths in f/4 or variable aperture zooms plus a few fast primes centered tightly around 50mm, then the Sony cameras have plenty enough options today. However telephoto options are weak at the moment, as are fast zooms and primes outside of 35/50mm. Coming by the end of the first quarter of 2015 we’ll get a 90mm prime and a 28mm f/2 prime that has adapters to go wider. Still, for me it’s 16-35mm f/4, 24-70mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4, and 35/55mm primes as the only solid lenses I’d use. So, can you live with those choices for the time being? Are you okay with the near term Sony lens road map?
  3. Autofocus performance and control will be your nemesis. Autofocus performance isn’t terrible on the Sony A7’s. Indeed, on the middle camera, the A7, it’s reasonable for most tasks. But it’s not up to sports/active subjects, and I think Sony needs to look more closely at how we control where and how the focus is done. As a high-end DSLR user, I’m used to changing not only the method of focus (9-point, 21-point, etc.), but the position where that focus is done on demand, and to even control when focus is done (AF-ON). The Sony cameras are still sub-optimal at those things, in my opinion. 
  4. EVFs need control, too. It seems that none of the mirrorless camera makers have discovered that we want to be able to change the way the EVF presents its view on demand. By this I mean that there are two things the EVF can do: it can show you the actual exposure, or it can show you a faux exposure so you can compose. There are times when I want one or the other, but having to menu dive to change the EVF’s behavior is unacceptable: we need this to be something that’s controlled via configurable button.
  5. Smaller has consequences. As many have noted, the D750’s hand grip is deep and easy to hold. The Sony A7 cameras have smallish hand grips that some might find not as good. Likewise, to keep the system on the small side, Sony has emphasized f/4 constant aperture zooms instead of f/2.8 constant aperture zooms, which has some consequence for those shooting in low light.
  6. Batteries are more limiting. The A7 is 340 shots CIPA, the D750 is 1230 shots CIPA. That’s a pretty big difference, and shows just how much power is being consumed by driving the image sensor and EVF all the time. Moreover, the Sony is slower to jump back to shooting if you power it down. Once again we have something that probably doesn’t bother the shooter of more static subjects, but could be an issue for someone shooting a lot of action. 


All that said, I actually like the A7 bodies. All three of them. Indeed, one of the reasons I like the A7 bodies is the same thing I wrote about earlier this week: consistency and predictability. I can move from the low-light wonder (A7s) to the mega-pixel version (A7r) and not have to remember which camera I’m using because the controls are the same. In the same places. Doing the same things. I hope that Sony doesn’t mess this up with the Mark II versions of these cameras that are coming (more on this shortly), but given what they did with the RX100 through three iterations, I’m not expecting them to. 

But the other reason I like these Sonys is that they’re more than “good enough” in terms of image quality (despite my raw reservations) and allow me to build a smaller, lighter kit for my general shooting purposes. All the Sony Zeiss FE lenses are excellent, and match the build/size/weight established by the bodies themselves. I’ve got a one-week travel photography trip coming up over Christmas, and the Sony’s would allow me to build a small, competent set without a lot of drawbacks for what I’ll be shooting. 

So what about the Nikon FX DSLRs I brought along, then? Well, they’re mature DSLRs. Very mature. Because of that, all the liabilities I mentioned with the Sony A7’s simply aren’t present in the Nikons. Image quality is as good as it gets from those sensors. Nikon’s long experience in tuning sensors and optimizing raw data shows, as does the speed of the EXPEED in dealing with handling that data, even when compressing it. 

Lenses are ubiquitous for FX, and if there’s something you think you need it’s probably available. It was nice to have the 20mm f/1.8 along for landscape work, for example. For the first time in years I felt my “full Galen” coming on (D750 body with the 20mm f/1.8 is a pretty light wide angle landscape package, and a 20mm prime puts me fully back to my shooting-with-Galen days). 

Focus performance is what you expect from a Nikon DSLR, and that’s where the primary difference still remains between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. First, mirrorless cameras, even the best, have a small lag between what you see in the viewfinder and reality, while the optical viewfinder on a DSLR is showing you real time. That means that when you do manipulate the focus controls—move sensors, change methods, initiate/discontinue focus—you’re doing so in response to reality, not a slightly offset view of it. As much as I quibble sometimes about control locations on the Nikon DSLRs (the AE-L/AF-L button I set for AF-On is a bit further to the left on the D750 than I’d like it, for instance, and the Direction pad used to move the AF sensors seems to move a bit with every camera iteration), the controls are all there. Which isn’t always true on mirrorless cameras. Couple that with fast performance and easy changes to how focus is achieved, and the difference between most DSLRs and most mirrorless cameras is simple: if you’re following and trying to stop action, the DSLR is still king of the hill. 

Thus for me the real decision between choosing a Sony A7 or a Nikon DSLR for any shoot these days boils down to the following pseudo logic: 

IF NeededLensesAvailableForSony 
      THEN
           IF (ShootingActiveObjects OR WantToMicromanageFocus)
                THEN NikonDSLR
                ELSE Sony A7
           ENDIF
      ELSE NikonDSLR
ENDIF

I mentioned Mark II A7 bodies in passing, above. I’m pretty sure we’ll see one of the A7 versions iterate in February, and all of them do so before the end of 2015. Rumors have it that they’ll get A6000-like focusing performance (quite good), but I haven’t heard that Sony understands that they need to address the focus control side of things. 

Updates in the pipeline means that you should probably be buying on price if you’re thinking about doing so this Christmas. One of the credible rumors is that the “Mark II” versions will be called A7 Pro, by the way, which seems to indicate that additional performance and features will be introduced and that the current cameras will continue on for awhile. We all know what that means: Pro versions will push the prices back up. 

Bottom line is this: we’re living in a land of plenty right now. Nikon’s got a couple of great DSLRs in the D750 and D810. The D810 is still the best all around DSLR you can buy, though the D750 isn’t that far behind. Mirrorless cameras, such as the Sony A7 models, are delivering most of what the great DSLRs do, and perhaps enough for many people to consider them instead of a DSLR. 

Thing is, I didn’t really care which camera was in my hands in Utah and California. I wasn’t shooting action. I had some slight preferences in controls and hand positions and integrity of the raw data, but frankly, the critical word in this sentence is “slight.” On the other hand, the Sony A7 bodies wouldn’t suffice for me in Africa. So for me, there’s room for both options in my gear closet. But if I had to narrow down to just one, it would still have to be a Nikon DSLR. 

So for Nikon, the D750 and D810 (and D7100) certainly have their place for enthusiasts and pros. But cameras such as the Sony A7 are nibbling away at the DSLR. If your use and need for a DSLR is more limited, the A7 bodies might be enough, and the bodies are more affordable than equivalent full frame Nikon DSLRs (though you’d probably have to buy new lenses). So the Canon/Nikon DSLR duopoly for serious cameras has been eroded a bit. It’ll be interesting to see how the two companies eventually respond. 


Thom’s Review of the Sony A7 and A7r

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