3) Camera Construction and Handling
The A7R has Sony’s original design, which incorporates large dials on the front side of the grip and the rear of the camera, similar to what Sony has done on other mirrorless cameras like NEX-7. Because of this, the camera on/off switch, along with the shutter release were moved to the top of the camera. While these dials and the shutter release are easy to operate, I do prefer the ergonomics of the A7 II instead, which as I have pointed out in my Sony A7 II review, are superior and more intuitive to operate. Aside from the grip and the top layout, the rest of the camera and the button locations on the rear are pretty similar when compared to other A7-series cameras.
The camera is built with a both magnesium alloy and plastic parts and can generally withstand challenging weather. However, based on Roger Cicala’s teardown of the A7R, where he did not see any rubber gaskets or other protective / sealing components, the A7R is definitely not weather-sealed like cameras such as the Fuji X-T1 or the Olympus OM-D E-M1. Still, you should be able to use it in challenging weather conditions – just be mindful of the weather and don’t expose the camera to heavy rain, saltwater or dust.
Operating the camera is pretty easy and although you can program pretty much every button on the camera to behave it the way you want, there are some simple things that should have been done by default, such as the ability to move a focus point by just pressing the multi-function dial on the rear of the camera. By default, there is no quick way to change your focus point! I ended up modifying the three buttons (left, right and bottom) to trigger focus point change, but even after the change (Custom Key Settings->Left, Right, Down Button->Focus Settings), I still first have to press one of the buttons and only then I can start moving it. The Up button is permanently set to DISP (Display), so there is no way to assign that one to Focus Settings, making this even less than a working solution. Setting a focus point should be dead simple, so I am not sure why Sony makes it so painful. I hope Sony changes this behavior in its future iterations of the camera, because simple things like this should be a no-brainer to implement.
The Sony A7R features the same high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) from the Sony A7 with 2.4 million dots. It offers 0.71x magnification, which is around the same as what full-frame DSLR cameras typically have. The clarity and colors are great, but if you compare the EVF on the A7R with the Fuji X-T1, you will see that the latter gives noticeably better overall experience. The EVF on the X-T1 has bigger 0.77x magnification and it feels clearer and smoother in comparison.
Sadly, camera responsiveness and start up time are Sony’s weaknesses. The A7R occasionally slows down when changing camera settings and performing in-camera operations, similar to what I have seen on other Sony NEX cameras. But those are minor issues compared to the slow start up time – all A7 series cameras suffer from this. When you first insert the battery, it can take 3-4 seconds for the camera to initialize. Now if the camera was previously turned on and there is not a huge delay between the last start up time, the camera will initialize much faster and the waiting time will be halved, which is not too bad. But even then, by the time you turn the camera on and can take the first picture, you are looking at waiting for around 2-3 seconds. In comparison, the Fuji X-T1 starts up noticeably faster (whether you have the battery newly inserted or not) and feels much more responsive when shooting. Overall though, most mirrorless cameras suffer from slower start up time when compared to DSLRs, as there are more electronics to initialize – that’s one of the downsides of mirrorless cameras today.
Another gripe is the menu system, which sadly has been a mess. Unfortunately, stuff is just all over the place. Settings are not easy to find with main icons, sub-menus and often random locations for certain settings. There is no logical grouping whatsoever, so everything seems random and out of place. I hope Sony addresses these menu and navigation issues in the future, because the cameras could get a lot more user friendly. On a positive note, it is not the worst menu system out there (Olympus OM-D menu system is even more complex to understand) and once you set everything up, you won’t have to change menu settings that often.
If you have Sony / Minolta A mount lenses, or perhaps other lenses from manufacturers like Canon, Sony and Leica, you can adapt those easily to the Sony FE mount with special adapters. That’s one of the strengths of the Sony A7 cameras – the short flange distance allows one to mount pretty much any lens on the market. Sony A and Canon EF lenses can be used with smart adapters, maintaining autofocus capabilities. If you use Nikon F lenses, you will be limited to “dummy” adapters and your only option will be to use those lenses in manual focus only mode.
Overall, there is not much to complain when it comes to camera operation and handling. The camera balances nicely in hands, especially when it is paired with a lightweight lens like the Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2.
4) Shutter Shock
As I have previously stated, the shutter shock of the Sony A7R was one of the main reasons why I was not initially impressed with the A7R and could not recommend it to our readers. I was really hoping that Sony would fix this problem with a firmware release, but it never materialized and I believe at this point it is safe to assume that Sony will not address it. Perhaps there is a technical / design limitation, or perhaps Sony is planning to address it in the upcoming A7R II. Still, shutter shock is a significant issue that only cripples this particular camera out of the four A7 cameras. Basically, the problem is related to two particular design issues. First, the shutter mechanism itself is not dampened. Keep in mind that with mirrorless cameras, the shutter has to remain open for normal camera operation, since the sensor directly receives light from the lens (whereas all DSLRs by default have their shutters closed). During the capture of an image, Sony designed the A7R to lower the shutter curtain and open it, start the image capture, then repeat this process again at the end of the capture. Once image is captured, the shutter has to open back up to resume normal operation. Now count how many times that shutter moves: 1) shutter curtain lowers before the start of the exposure, 2) comes back up at the start of the exposure, 3) lowers at the end of exposure, 4) opens back up to resume EVF / LCD operation. That’s four times the shutter is going up and down. The good news is, what happens at the end of the exposure does not matter, but the first two shutter movements are where the problem lies.
Now compare this to a DSLR, which by default has the shutter closed. The shutter opens up at the start of the exposure and closes at the end of exposure – twice less. Does this mean that DSLRs are shutter shock free? No, they are not – any time the shutter moves, whether just up or up and down, the shutter mechanism can always cause camera shake. So this particular issue is not isolated just to the A7R. However, because the camera is so much lighter than a DSLR and the shutter is engaged twice at the beginning of the exposure, the effect of the shutter shock is significant, causing pretty drastic camera shake. How drastic? Just take a look at the below crops that clearly demonstrate this issue:
You don’t need to have a trained eye to see that the crop on the right looks very blurry compared to the crop on the left. And the difference between the two images? 10 minutes of time between the shots. When light conditions were poor, the camera was set to 1/2 (half a second) of exposure time, which was long enough to not matter for the shutter shock. But when light conditions improved and I was closer to the sunrise time, the correct exposure was 1/10 of a second at f/8. At faster shutter speeds, the shutter shock was significant enough to make the image on the right unusable.
My setup was not the issue – the camera was mounted on an RRS plate, which was mounted on an RRS BH-55 ballhead, which was mounted on a Gitzo Systematic Tripod. I did not move the camera or the tripod and I engaged the camera with a timer. So it was not my hand, or anything else that could have caused the image on the right to be blurry – it was the shutter shock.
Depending on what focal length you use, shutter shock can be an issue at different shutter speeds. In the above case, my focal length was at 28mm and the shutter shock seemed to be most apparent between 1/5 and 1/30 of a second. When I used longer lenses such as the 55mm f/1.8, the shutter shock was visible at faster shutter speeds between 1/50 and 1/100 of a second. And that’s what makes this issue so painful, as there is no set range for the “danger zone” – it varies by focal length.
In order for me to alleviate the shutter shock issue in this particular case, I had several options: 1) use a neutral density filter to reduce the shutter speed and 2) increase ISO by at least two stops to increase the shutter speed and get it out of the “danger zone”. Some people suggested using a battery grip or even came up with ways to hang a heavy object to reduce shutter shock, but those options do not completely eliminate shutter shock and can be impractical in the field.
The only true solution that can cure this problem is to add the Electronic Front Curtain Shutter (EFCS) feature, which is already present on all other A7 cameras. With this feature, the camera will start the exposure without engaging the shutter mechanism. I am not sure why Sony designed the A7R without this much-needed feature – my guess is that the engineers underestimated the effect of shutter shock on a lightweight body.
Still, as of today, the shutter shock issue remains a huge problem for the Sony A7R and it is the primary reason why I cannot recommend it to our readers. Denying shutter shock on the Sony A7R is like denying gravity – I would not take anyone who states that it is not a problem seriously.
5) Charging and Battery Life
Battery life is pretty bad when compared to a DSLR. Although I turn off the camera frequently to preserve battery life and have all the extra things like image playback turned off, the battery just does not last for more than a few hours of shooting. In comparison, I could be shooting with my Nikon DSLR for a few days and still have plenty of juice left. Not sure if Sony can work on optimizing battery life, but plan on getting a few of those batteries, especially when working in the cold! Rated at 340 shots, the NO-FW50 battery with only 1020mAh of power that is used on the Sony A7 series feels too underpowered for these cameras. I don’t think Sony can do much with reducing power consumption, so I really hope to see higher capacity batteries, even if that comes at the cost of heavier and bigger camera.
What about charging the battery? Just like the Sony A7 / A7 II, you will receive a small AC adapter with a USB cable attached to it and charging is done by hooking up the cable to the camera. While this works OK for a single battery, it is quite ineffective and impractical for charging multiple batteries. Sony started shipping a dedicated charger with its Sony A7S cameras, so I hope the same external charger will be included with the upcoming A7R II.