For the past few years, Sony has been very active in the photography world, releasing one mirrorless camera after another. Back when I first handled a Sony NEX-series camera, I had no idea that the company would step up into the full-frame market with serious competition to challenge both Canon and Nikon. Without a doubt, Sony caused quite a bit of stir with its full-frame mirrorless cameras and the recent release of the Sony A7 III shows that the company is continuing to push hard to bring out serious tools at very appealing price points. Having handled pretty much every Sony mirrorless camera to date, I have been keeping a list of issues I find to be problematic with the Sony mirrorless system. Some of the issues have been addressed overtime by Sony, but others have been there from the get-go.
Please keep in mind that this is an opinion piece, based on my personal experience with the Sony mirrorless system. Every manufacturer has issues, and I could probably compile a similar list of problems for Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Pentax, Panasonic, Olympus and Leica. I am really hopeful that Sony management will review the below list of issues in detail and address them in the future.
1) Filter Stack Coating Issues
Ask any service technician who has previously cleaned Sony sensors, and you will most likely hear a complaint – Sony sensors are a pain to clean! The reason for this is Sony’s “experimentation” with coating on their filter stack (basically, the stack of filters in front of the camera sensor). Ever since Sony rolled out the first Sony mirrorless camera, the company has changed the coating on their filter stack several times. It is hard to say why Sony cannot figure out the right coating, but as a result of these changes, service centers that offer sensor cleaning products and services have gone through changes in their products and sensor cleaning procedures. Some have been hit so hard with complaints from customers, that they are no longer offering sensor cleaning services on Sony cameras.
PL has also been the victim of Sony’s poor filter stack coating practices. Ever since we started selling the Sensor Gel Stick, we have had a number of issues with Sony sensors. Initially, we realized that the original version of the Sensor Gel Stick would not work on certain cameras from Sony, Fujifilm and Leica due to differences in filter stack coatings, so we made changes to the chemical of the gel to be less sticky. After testing the new version on a number of different cameras from these brands, we labeled the product Sensor Gel Stick for Sony Cameras and started selling it. We had a lot of success and many happy customers, until one day when we started receiving complaints from customers. On some of the Sony mirrorless cameras, the product ended up leaving residue on the filter stack. After investigating a couple of Sony cameras sent by our customers for cleaning, we found out that some Sony cameras indeed were not compatible due to differences in filter stack coating. Keep in mind that all this time, none of our customers using the same product with Fuji and Leica cameras experienced any problems, it was only happening to Sony mirrorless cameras. This forced us to go back and make changes to the Sensor Gel Stick for Sony Cameras and ended up costing us thousands of dollars in lost revenue due to refunds and sensor cleanings. The most recent version of the product seemed just fine, until we got again hit by some complaints. At this time, we are uncertain if it is yet another change of coating on Sony sensors, or perhaps some weird chemical that Sony uses to clean sensors at service centers, but a small percentage of Sony customers are still affected by the residue issue.
Keep in mind that the filter stack coating issue is not unique to our products. As I have pointed out earlier, a number of other cleaning products are also clearly incompatible. I requested one of our customers that had experienced a problem with the Sensor Gel Stick on his Sony A7R II to send me his camera for cleaning and investigation. When I inspected the filter stack, I could clearly see where the customer applied the Sensor Gel Stick. There was a little bit of residue, which I knew that I could clean up easily with a wet cleaning solution. However, there was pretty serious damage to the filter stack coating that was very evident:
The above damage to the filter stack is caused by either mold (due to extreme humidity), or by a wet cleaning solution that contains too much methanol. I have seen this type of damage before and it usually is the latter on Sony cameras. Apply a strong methanol liquid to a wet cleaning brush and put too much pressure, and you can easily cause similar damage to the filter coating. I asked the customer if the Sony sensor was cleaned by a third party service center before and indeed, the camera was previously wet-cleaned by a local camera store, confirming my suspicion. The only thing the customer can do is send their camera to Sony for a filter stack replacement, which will surely cost him.
Now you might be wondering if similar type of damage can occur on filter stacks from other manufacturers. After many years of selling the Sensor Gel Stick and dealing with all kinds of customer issues, I have never seen a single case of filter stack coating damage on other brands. The only case I have heard of was a customer who bought a fake Sensor Gel Stick from Amazon, which ripped his filter coating out of his Nikon D4 camera. And even then, it most likely had to do with poor placement of the IR filter on the camera in the first place – that’s how hard it is to remove coating on those cameras. To put it simply, based on my experience, filter stack coating damage is more common on Sony cameras compared to other brands.
2) Horrible Menu System
As you might already know from my Sony camera reviews, I am not a big fan of the Sony menu system. I find it to be confusing, extremely poorly organized and too complex to use for most photographers out there. Just take a look at how many options there are in the menu system in my Recommended Settings for Sony A7R III article, it is an utter mess. How is a Sony user supposed to know or understand what “Reg Cust Shoot Set” (a menu option in Page 4, Shoot Mode / Drive2) is supposed to do without digging through the badly written manual? What about “Swt. V/H AF Area” or “Del. Reg. AF Area”? It seems like Sony UI designers could not find a way to fit enough characters in the menu system, so they just started truncating words in a nonsensical manner. And what’s worse, they shorten words differently in different pages of the menu. For example, the word “Detection” is shortened as “Dtct” in one menu (Face Dtct Frame Dsp), while the same word appears as “Detect.” in a different menu (Phase Detect. Area). You will find similar occurrences of other words throughout the menu system. Interestingly, even when a Sony camera overheats (a common issue on a number of Sony mirrorless cameras), it shows “Internal temp. high.” with nothing else on the screen. Seven more characters surely could have fit to fully write out the word “temperature”, but no, it had to be shortened…
Even if one can figure out what each menu item stands for, the organization of those menu items is extremely poor. For example, you would think that things related to face detection should be in the same place in the menu right? Well, not on Sony cameras! On the Sony A7R III, you will first encounter face detection settings on Page 6 of Shooting Menu (AF2), after which you will find another setting on Page 9 of Shooting Menu (Exposure1) and two more related menu items can also be found on Page 14 of Shooting Menu (Shooting Assist). So if you need to tweak the face detection settings of the camera, you will need to go through 3 different sub-menus! I understand that Sony decided to group items by their function, but why not just have a single “Face Detection” sub-menu, through which one can go through all the related items? The same thing can be said about many other menu options, which seem to be scattered all over the menu system. To find something as basic as “White Balance” in the menu, one has to scroll through 12 menu pages. And good luck with turning off the annoying focus beep – after going through 13 pages of Shooting Menu 1 options, it is only 9 pages away in Shooting Menu 2! Don’t even try to look for the word “Beep” (what all other manufacturers refer to it as), as you won’t find it anywhere. Sony decided to be unique and call it “Audio signals”. With the word “Audio” referring to a bunch of video settings in the camera, it is no wonder why people get confused.
What’s worse, is that Sony adds a learning curve for existing Sony shooters wanting to switch to a new camera. For example, the same “Audio signals” menu item on the Sony A7R II used to be located under the “Setup” menu, which makes sense. When Sony released the A7R III with its new menu system, it moved it to Page 9 (Custom Operation2) of Shooting Menu 2. I’m still trying to figure out how this makes sense, but imagine someone who is already familiar with a previous generation camera having to learn all these menu options and their new locations. Sony has been heavily criticized for its cluttered menu system by many photographers and industry experts. Instead of finding a proper UI designer and coming up with a simpler and more organized menu system, it seems that the company has been just shuffling menu items from one place to another. And with each new iteration of the Sony mirrorless cameras, the menu system is getting worse and worse. One would think that this would not happen on less premium models, but that’s not the case – even the Sony A6500 has pages and pages of menu options (see Recommended Sony A6500 Settings) that are as badly organized as all other Sony cameras.
Sony needs to find ways to properly organize and simplify its menu system. Why reinvent the wheel and come up with own ways to do things when there are plenty of best practices out there from companies like Nikon, Canon and Fuji? Anyone who has handled cameras from these brands know that they have nailed their menu systems and made them easy to use.
3) Custom Buttons and Customization Issues
Sony engineers thought it would be a good idea to allow their users to be able to heavily customize the behavior of their cameras by assigning any function to custom “C” buttons. While many Sony shooters love this ability, others who are not as savvy are only confused by too many options and lack of basic labeling. For example, take a look at the top of the Sony A7R III to see what I mean:
See those C1 and C2 buttons? Those are the customizable buttons without any labels on them. This means that you have no idea what these buttons do – they could be set to anything. There are two more buttons like this on the back of the camera – C3 and C4. The C3 button has a little lock to the left of it, so you know that it is at least used to lock something. The C4 button is actually a trashcan, which you know is used to delete pictures. But the C4 label is not even on the button, it is on the side of the button:
From this, one could conclude that the primary function of the C4 button is to delete images and the secondary function of the C3 button is to potentially lock images. However, the “C” labels mean absolutely nothing! If someone hands me a camera from Nikon, Canon, Fuji or other brands, I will be able to figure them out pretty quickly without going through the menu. If someone hands me a Sony, I have no idea how their camera is set up and what these buttons do. It would probably be easier to reset the whole camera and start over, instead of trying to figure things out. And this is something I learned not to ever do after a couple of encounters with frustrated Sony shooters. One participant in my workshop ended up resetting his camera after things weren’t working out and he was so lost! Poor guy, he desperately starting looking for some guide online that he used to set up his Sony camera, mumbling and swearing in the process. He was used to the behavior of his custom buttons before and he had no idea how to bring those back. Throughout the workshop, he kept on pressing the wrong buttons, which caused even more aggravation.
Another workshop participant who switched from Nikon to Sony was so frustrated with his camera’s menu system and inability to perform basic functions quickly, that he swore not to ever use another Sony again. He loved the image quality, but he could not stand the ergonomics. He ended up switching back, which cost him a lot of time, money and frustration. It seems that only savvy users who invest plenty of time in their cameras and menu systems can truly take advantage of all the customization options. And even then, see what happens when you reset their cameras to defaults…it won’t be fun, I can promise you that!
4) Apps and Lack of Basic Features
Back in the day, Sony entertained the idea of selling “Apps” to photographers with its “PlayMemories Camera Apps“. On cameras like the Sony A7R II, you could spend from $4.99 for a “Multiple Exposure” app to $29.99 for a “Digital Filter” app. Even for basic things like remote camera control, you had to use an app, since that function was not found in the main camera menu. The problem with these apps was that they were full of bugs and issues, and they slowed down cameras, so most Sony shooters ended up not bothering with them (to be honest, most people didn’t even know how to get those apps in their cameras in the first place). In short, apps sucked big time. Imagine the frustration of a photographer who is out in the field, trying to fire up an intervalometer, only to discover that they don’t have it in their camera, and that they need to connect to a wireless network to pay $9.99 and download this basic feature. How stupid is that? When you pay over $3K for a camera, you would expect such basic functionality to exist without any extra apps and payments. Heck, even the much cheaper Fuji X-T20 has a built-in intervalometer, let alone a full-frame camera. With so many pages of menu options, you would think that Sony cameras should provide features like intervalometer and multiple exposure blending, but they are not there.
Sony realized how bad the idea of apps was, and finally decided to abandon the PlayMemories crap in the third generation of A7-series cameras, which is great. With the disappearance of the apps in camera firmware, many of us expected to see things like multiple exposure and intervalometer roll into the firmware as built-in features. Guess what Sony did? Nothing! The company removed the app functionality and went silent on any potential to add those features back. This angered many Sony shooters, especially those who already paid for the apps. Those features are now gone and there is no way to add them back. Sony shooters even tried to push for an online petition to bring back apps to the latest Sony cameras, but to no avail. It is disappointing that Sony changes directions without thinking about their end users.
5) No Lossless Compressed RAW
From day one, Sony crippled its A7-series cameras by running lossy compression on its RAW files. I documented the issues in my original Sony A7R review, showing example images of how destructive Sony’s lossy compression can be in images when compared to lossless compression in cameras like the Nikon D810:
With the release of the A7R II, Sony updated the firmware to allow for “Uncompressed RAW” option, which finally allowed Sony shooters to be able to take a full advantage of their sensors. However, many Sony shooters quickly found out that shooting Uncompressed RAW produced monstrous files and ate up their memory card and hard drive storage space, in addition to slowing down their cameras while shooting (since write operations also slowed down). With the lack of the Lossless Compressed option, most Sony shooters went back to shooting lossy Compressed RAW images, arguing that they could barely see the differences, while those who wanted the best quality had to keep shooting Uncompressed, essentially wasting a lot of space (uncompressed RAW files are double the size of compressed RAW).
We are now in the third iteration of A7-series cameras and Sony still has not rolled out this basic feature. I honestly cannot understand why it is so hard to add this option – Canon has always shot in lossless compressed, while Nikon, Fuji and many others provide lossless compression options that do not sacrifice image quality, while keeping RAW image size under control.
6) Sony Cameras Eat Stars
If you haven’t heard of the “star eater” issue that Sony A7-series cameras exhibit, you should know that due to Sony’s spatial filtering that gets applied to images shot at long exposures (4 seconds and longer), RAW images end up containing less data, essentially removing small stars when shooting astrophotography. In extreme cases, this algorithm can remove over 60% of stars in images, as documented by a number of photographers. Ian Norman from Lonely Speck did an excellent analysis where he compared images that were 3.2 seconds, and 4+ seconds long to see how RAW data is affected.
As Ian’s before and after comparison shows, the issue is rather serious – lots of stars are removed in long exposures by the Sony cameras. Because of these problems, Ian and many other astrophotographers stopped recommending Sony A7-series cameras for astrophotography needs. They also organized an online petition that gathered over 7400 signatures from Sony shooters. Sony released a 4.0 firmware update for the Sony A7R II that was supposed to improve the situation, but after careful analysis by a number of people such as Jim Kasson, it was concluded that the issue still remained largely the same, that the update only slightly improved the “star eating” issue.
Sony’s intentions might be good with spatial filtering, essentially resulting in superior shadow noise performance, but at the end of the day, the results from Sony cameras when compared to other cameras on the market speak for themselves when shooting astrophotography, with small stars getting removed from images. I think it would have been better if Sony provided an option in the camera menu to turn spatial filtering on and off, instead of applying it automatically.
7) Lack of Firmware Updates
Speaking of camera firmware, Sony is unfortunately not known to fix issues pointed out above, or add new features in its camera firmware. I don’t know why so many camera manufacturers, including Sony, have such a hard time with providing firmware updates. Fujifilm has done such a phenomenal job with its Kaizen philosophy, that the firmware updates alone strengthened the bond with its now very loyal fan base. I have personally invested in the Fuji’s GFX 50S, because I knew that the company would not abandon the camera after its release. In fact, I recently updated my GFX 50S to firmware 3.0, which added a new “Focus Stacking” feature, something I did not expect at all to see in a firmware update.
When was the last time Sony bothered to add a feature to its cameras? Aside from the firmware update that added the “Uncompressed RAW” option (which is something Sony cameras should have had in the first place), I cannot remember ever seeing any other new features added. And there are a number of important features Sony could add to its cameras! For example, for those who don’t need all 42 MP of resolution on cameras like the A7R II and A7R III, why can’t Sony roll out sRAW and mRAW options as Canon and Nikon have done on their cameras like the Nikon D850? In fact, instead of releasing firmware updates, Sony has more interest in pushing newer cameras. In less than five years (since the original A7 and A7R cameras were introduced in late 2013), we have seen a total of 9 full-frame Sony mirrorless cameras introduced (A7, A7 II, A7 III, A7R, A7R II, A7R III, A7S, A7S II, A9), which is insane!
So if you are wondering whether Sony is going to add intervalometer and multi-exposure features to the Sony A7 III, A7R III and A9, based on Sony’s history, it is not going to happen. If enough people complain, we might see those in the fourth generation Sony A7-series cameras, and that seems to be the best case scenario at the moment.
8) Weather Sealing Issues
The Sony A7R III is, without a doubt, a fine camera. Considering that it aims to compete directly with other high-resolution cameras like the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5DS R, one would expect that Sony would have similar weather-sealing capabilities. Indeed, Sony did a better job with weather sealing on the A7R III when compared to other A7-series cameras, putting more gaskets and protective seals to be able to withstand tough weather conditions. However, one area where the Sony A7-series cameras have practically no protection is on the bottom of the camera. This was first revealed in a test conducted by Imaging Resource, where a water torture test showed water getting into the battery compartment of the camera. It was later confirmed by Roger Cicala of LensRentals in a detailed teardown, who revealed lack of weather sealing on the bottom of the camera. It is hard to say why Sony has not been properly weather sealing its cameras, but I hope the company will address this issue in the next iteration.
9) Phase Detection AF Artifacts
While it is great to be able to shoot with a camera that has over 300+ phase detection autofocus points, it seems that cramming too many of those on a sensor can have a detrimental effect of introducing stripes in images when shooting back-lit subjects. Take a look at the below sample crops from the new Sony A7 III:
Both images were shot with strongly backlit subjects, with the sun rays hitting the lens either directly, or from an angle. As you can see, there are stripes / lines that are prominently visible in images, making some images look pretty bad at 100% view. This can be a problem for portrait photographers who like shooting their subjects back-lit. This thread on DPReview forums discusses the possibility of metal PDAF (Phase Detection AF) masks reflecting light, essentially creating striping artifacts / lines in images. But whatever the cause, it is an issue that Sony should bring out in an advisory, explaining the problem in detail, so that those who are considering a Sony camera should be aware of it.
10) Sony PRO Support and Service Issues
I have been an NPS (Nikon Professional Services) member for many years now. Since day one, I never had to pay a penny to be an NPS member. All I had to have was enough professional equipment to qualify, published work and a referral from another NPS member. I renew my NPS membership every year and it is a great program under which I can get priority repair service, replacement equipment during repairs and other perks. With Sony, I would have to spend $100 per year on Sony PRO Support. While Sony’s PRO support might offer more benefits than NPS, that’s another cost one has to budget for the system. On a three year term, the cost of the Sony A7R III would be $200 higher compared to the Nikon D850, which is something worth looking into as long term cost.
Those who have the privilege of having Sony PRO Support can get good service, but for most others who refuse to pay or fail to qualify (must be a pro photographer with minimum of 2x Sony cameras and 3x Sony G-Master / Zeiss lenses), the usual option is to get service through a Sony-authorized service center. And those authorized service centers are not owned by Sony – they are third party shops that Sony refers customers to. If you ask anyone who had a misfortune of working with such service centers, the feedback is typically very negative: long wait times, poor product support and service, product mishandling, etc. Unlike Nikon and Canon that have established and dedicated service centers with trained personnel, Sony does not yet have the resources to be able to offer similar-level service to all of its customers. As a result, many customers go through poor experience with Sony’s service.
If you are a Sony shooter, we would love to get some feedback about your experience so far! Please let us know what you think about the above issues in the comments section below!