Reflecting on mirrorless: 12+ months with my Sony A7s

January 08, 2016  •  5 Comments

Sony A7s It’s 15 months since I first set hands on a Sony A7s. That encounter left such an impression that, in the time since, I’ve sold my Nikon bodies and fully committed into the Sony E-mount system. The initial move happened almost spontaneously and had as much impact on my personal projects as it did the contents of my kit bag. 

So, then, the purpose of this post is to establish what makes a seasoned Nikon DSLR shooter make the switch to Sony mirrorless? I’ll answer both in isolation and with the benefit of a year's experience using the camera.

I was already thinking about an upgrade path from my primary Nikon body when I first used the Sony. I knew about the A7s from blogs like PetaPixel, which were proclaiming great things about the model’s low light performance. As a specialist night photographer, I couldn’t help but notice. Then came the chance to try one first hand: getting the shots I did in the challenging conditions of that first shoot spoke volumes about the camera’s technical strengths. Ultimately that was all I needed to convince me to take the plunge. 

One year on I’m happy to stand by my decision but my usage has given me an insight way beyond the headline features. I’m therefore not going to go into detail about image quality or low light performance- if you need further convincing than my images themselves and want to explore further, you can find enough about those areas on any number of blogs. Doubtless they’ll cover it a lot more scientifically than I would. 

Instead this post focuses on stuff that you might not have read elsewhere; little details & areas of handling that complete the picture and would make it unappealing to return to a conventional DSLR.

1// Size & weight
The very first thing I noticed is the camera’s lack of bulk and weight. It’s obviously small but, handheld, never feels like the diet’s gone too far. Neither does it give you the impression it can’t possibly live up to everything its spec promises. Its diminutive sizing and tactile ergonomics make it easy to use for extended periods. Physically there’s no shortage of thumb-dials (shutter speed, aperture & +/- EV) and customisable buttons, even if the final ergonomics and internal menu structures could be improved.
Installing and manoeuvring the camera on a tripod is a cinch as it feels well balanced with any lens pairing- and I’ve used many. It does look a little odd when hooked up to a long lens- that is, if you notice the camera at all. It’s dwarfed by the Canon 100-400L, for example, and that’s just a mid-sized telephoto lens. The reduction in bulk is also very welcome for carrying kit around between locations and it’s a twofold benefit: I can travel lighter in terms of downsizing my camera bag and carrying less weight; and I no longer look so like a lone-working pro with a tonne of expensive gear, making me feel like a reduced target for opportunist thieves. My working practises mean such eventualities are possible (if unlikely) so it’s good to do everything possible to minimise the risk.

2// EVF View of the view
I never gelled with live view through my DSLR days. It wasn’t camera specific. I tried several Nikons and Canons, all with the same, lack-lustre outcomes as if the darkness of night was too much of a challenge for the systems. Not so the EVF live view of the A7s. Even at night there are even times when it can amplify the available light so your view is improved over that of a conventional optical viewfinder. A fast lens is needed in this instance, whilst anything slower than an f/4 lens can make setting up in a truly dark environment quite challenging. 
The EVF tends to be a little brighter than the monitor so I had to learn to overexpose according to the viewfinder- but now I know where I stand with its calibration, I can get to within small margins of my ideal exposure first time, every time. That’s a great boon to productivity as the EVF doesn’t just show exposure adjustments. I’ve also taken advantage of the option to apply WB & tonal/ style settings to my EVF preview. It’s truly WYSIWYG and almost eliminates the need for test shots. Simply dial in the settings until it looks ‘right’ and you’re away.

3// Smart remote app
Smart remote connects to my phone and camera via WiFi. Sure, other systems are available but your wallet will be lightened by a couple of hundred quid minimum if you want similar functionality for your Canon or Nikon. 
The electronics are pretty cool full stop but it’s so much more than a long distance shutter release. Looking at my phone I get a real-time view of my camera’s composition- invaluable when planning complex lightpainting images, as I can easily be in frame to place reference markers on the floor etc. The phone app also offers full control over the camera’s settings, and once the exposure has finished and the image is written to the in-camera SD card, a lower res version flies through the air to my handset. If it’s over/ underexposed, I can correct the shooting parameters in the app without needing to return to the camera to reshoot. This saved me a load of time (and risk) when standing on one riverbank with the camera positioned across the water. 

4// Battery life
Many A7-series users report poor battery life. There’s a big sensor and a lot of electronics to power, so it would be understandable if taken at face value. It’s not my experience, though. On several occasions I’ve eked out hundreds of frames from a single charge- more than I’ve ever managed from previous cameras. The night of the Perseid meteor shower, for instance, I shot 10-second frames, continuously for nearly two hours. That’s close to 600 frames of constant use, not just of the shutter mechanism but the rear monitor. Of course I have multiple batteries across the two cameras but the simple act of changing a battery mid-series can nudge the camera out of alignment, so the stamina of each unit matters. 

Perseids over St Stephen'sPerseids over St Stephen's

5// Continuous display in hi speed mode
If you’ve been reading carefully, a subtle reference in that point 4 might have you pondering, like there’s a question to be asked but you’re not quite sure what. It’s the rear monitor. 
A neat thing happens when shooting the A7s in continuous (speed priority) mode, like you would for star trails or a lighting composite: the rear screen stays live, previewing the last image captured in the current series. Being able to examine progress via the screen takes much of the guesswork from knowing when to stop. A simple glance at the screen will confirm how effective your added light has been; if clouds are intruding on your startrail; or whether the light stream has passed fully through the frame.
Whilst it’s a helpful function I can’t think of a strong reason why this would be purposefully built in to the camera. On that basis it may be a bug rather than a feature but whatever. It does what it does and I like it.

6// Custom keys and settings shortcuts
Several customisable buttons feature around the body of the A7s, each of which can be set to perform many key menu functions. ‘C1’ gives me quick access to focus mode whilst ‘C2’, next to the viewfinder, is set to zoom in when focusing manually (another help in its own right). The function button gives a quick view and easy access to more in depth focus, quality & appearance settings when shooting then, during image preview, the same button can be used to select and send images to a smart device via wifi. This recently helped me get some images to my agency within moments of having captured them- no computer needed.

It’s only right to balance such praise and evangelism with an acknowledgement that the A7s isn’t perfect. The menu structure is chaotic, with seemingly related options kept apart on different menu pages. Why aren’t the several settings related to filming grouped onto a single menu screen, away from stills-only settings? 
Apps like the Smart Remote bring great functionality but introduce further inconsistencies into settings and structure- not every button behaves in the same way in every app. 
The tilt screen is a feature I found myself more than expected but the size of the mechanic components means that movement is a little restricted. Plus, with a tripod QR plate installed, the screen doesn’t always re-seat first time.

Really, though, these are niggles and mostly impede the initial setup rather than day-to-day use. I suppose that should be night-to-night use in my case. Which brings me to my concluding point. The A7s is right for me. I regularly exploit its strengths in low-light. I wouldn’t accept compromised images but the pace of night means I can usually take what time I need to get things right. The points I make here are specific to me and my requirements & usage; that said, they’ll withstand any scrutiny. Making the jump to the Alpha mirrorless series may not be for everyone but if you’re thinking about it, I hope this helps you do so with eyes open. 


Comments

Andrew Whyte - photographer
Kasey-
I haven't yet felt restricted by the resolution although it was something I thought about beforehand. I've just taken down an exhibition of prints, mostly shot on the A7s, where the image area was up to 1.8 metres. These were presented on acrylic, backlit. It was the absolute limit of what you could get from a single A7s frame but at no point was I concerned about the quality. There've also been a couple of times where I've wanted the chance to print large so have shot a panoramic; the low-light performance means that I can halve or even quarter the exposure time by raising ISO by a stop or two. This makes night-sky panoramas an easier option because less is happening per-frame- less movement, less change within the scene.
I can't absolutely say that it's the right camera for you but, for me and the work I do, there's nothing I'd rather be shooting with.
Kasey(non-registered)
Great review of the A7S. For the past few years, I've been shooting night shots with a Canon G9X point and shoot, and would love to get a full frame mirrorless to replace it.

Just curious, do you ever feel limited by the "only" 12 megapixels provided by the sensor? When I look up reviews, folks seem obsessed with pointing out the lack of resolution of the sensor. Yet, I recall the days of people taking amazing photos on digital cameras that saved to a floppy disk.

Any thoughts?
mark(non-registered)
I like your comment about being less of a target. I always feel my camera really stands out and ive been usibg it to take pictures in the philippines and its made me think it would be nice having something like the as7 as im limited to where i can go with my camera here with being shot or held at knife point. Nice to hear about all the features you like !
Zé De Boni(non-registered)
I guess that you will make profit by using the vertical grip: longer battery life and longer distance from the LCD screen to the baseplate.
You could add the front courtain shutter (with no need for the mirror up process) to your arguments.
HowardH(non-registered)
A very thorough and considered perspective based on long-term real work use - the low light video quality is also pretty special :)
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