Sony A7S review + Things you didn't know + Tips!
The Sony A7S mirrorless camera [B&H link] is probably the best small video camera ever made. It's not perfect, but man it's good. it's also a fantastic camera for photography.
It has the best low light capabilities of any current camera and it is one of the best in the dynamic range category too, even though it has a lower resolution than many others today at only 12.2 megapixels. That isn't as low as it sounds though. It has an image size of 4240 x 2832, compared to the Canon 5D Mark III's 22.3mp images at 5760 x 3840.
Lets take a look at a video shot on the A7s in 1080p, mostly in 60p slow motion.
- It has a full frame sensor, which means bokeh, and lots of it!
- Very high quality HD video. One of the best around.
- Amazing high ISO performance. The best you can currently get from any DSLR or mirrorless camera at high ISO settings. It will get usable footage all the way up to about 102,400 ISO (depending on how picky you are about noise) and it will go all the way to an incredible 409,600 ISO. Keep in mind that some cameras have better ISO performance at lower ISO settings compared to the A7S.
- Around 14 stops of dynamic range in video (and about 15 stops in raw photos). Higher-end stills cameras get this much DR when shooting RAW still images, but in video this sort of dynamic range is only found on pretty expensive cameras, and even at high prices only a few cameras get above 11 stops or so. (Each extra stop is double the amount of light, so that's a pretty big difference compared to the 10 stops or so that your average DSLR does.) Keep in mind that when shooting in this color profile you will be limited to a minimum of 3200 ISO, so you will likely need some ND filters, otherwise you'd have to close your aperture or raise your shutter speed, which is often not something you want to do when shooting video. You can use internal ND filters like I often do [LINK], screw-on variable ND filters which is also something I use [LINK], Square ND filters (in a matte box or filter holder) or even ND filters inside an adapter [LINK].
- Decent screen and decent viewfinder, although there's room for improvement. Both are a little too small. The viewfinder allows you to have the camera much closer to you which is far more comfortable With this camera, large rigs are optional, not necessary. I love how nice it is to shoot on this camera compared to my 5DIII.
- Fantastic audio quality in-camera, without using any additional external preamps, volume boosters or audio recorders. This is a big step up over any other small camera I have used.
- Video autofocus! Incredibly useful in many situations. I have bought Sony lenses for this, because it allows me to shoot incredibly quickly. The two videos above were both mostly shot using the A7S autofocus.
- Face tracking and object tracking, basically your own personal focus puller, which mostly leaves you free to do other things and get shots you otherwise wouldn't be able to do easily. Obviously you should use manual focus for a lot of things too, but this is an incredible tool to have. The face tracking is automatic, and you can also register people's faces if you want. And the object tracking has to be done once per shot, but it's very easy when you set it to the function menu or custom button.
- The low light autofocus is incredible for both stills and video. It can autofocus in a room lit by a couple of candles.
- The crop mode works very well (unlike the Sony A7 camera which had a crop mode that looked like you were shooting with a £20 mobile phone.) You can use it as digital zoom when shooting video while still getting great image quality. There is also a digital "Clear Image Zoom" option, which allows you to double your zoom, even on top of the crop mode, although the image does get softer in this mode. The standard "Digital Zoom" mode isn't any better than cropping in post.
- Battery life is okay, about 1 hour and 45 minutes if using a good quality battery. Most mirrorless cameras are similar but some do have better performance. Most DSLRs will be about the same when shooting video but they will last far longer for photography because the screen isn't constantly turned on.
- A standalone battery charger is included, unlike many other NEX/A7 cameras which require you to buy your own charger, or use the camera itself as a charger via the USB port.
- Lots of dials and buttons on the camera's body. Very customizable, although not completely perfect.
- There's a function button which brings up your own little menu of your favorite settings/options, although not all menu settings can be assigned to this function menu.
- The size of the camera is absolutely lovely to shoot with.
- It's a world camera, meaning you can switch between region settings to get beautiful 1080p at 24p and 60p in NTSC mode or 30p, 25p and 50p in PAL mode. (It's possible that the USA and Japan versions are not switchable, but the important thing is that all versions offer 24p and 60p, as far as I know.)
- Almost unlimited manual focus lens options using adapters.
- There are a few really nice Sony lenses that are worth their asking price if you want video autofocus.
The 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 FE OSS which is a nice stabilized lens for around £200.
The 10-18mm f4 OSS E-mount lens, which works as a super wide stabilized lens in crop mode just like it would on a crop-sensor Sony, and also works as an insanely wide 13-16mm lens in full frame mode.
The 28mm f2.0 FE which is a decent fast wide lens for £300.
And the 55mm f1.8 FE (£500) which is five times more expensive than the Canon equivalent, but is one of the best performing lenses in the world of photography, and the difference really shows in some situations, even in 1080p video where the fantastic contrast of the lens makes for some exceptionally beautiful images, because it's not as easy to add contrast to a video in editing (without ruining your shadows and highlights) compared to a raw still image.
(Note that the above are rough prices on eBay UK, the official Sony prices are usually higher.)
- The list of Sony full frame FE-mount lenses is fairly limited, but Sony seem to be releasing more pretty quickly, in a mix of prices ranging from affordable all the way to super-expensive. If tons bokeh isn't really important to you then you have a much larger selection of autofocus and stabilized lenses with Sony's crop-sensor E mount options, but keep in mind that for photography, while the full frame 12 megapixel gives decent images, in crop mode the 8mp resolution is just too low.
- Beautiful 4K using an external recorder.
- It works very well as a small-studio camera, but best done with an AC power adapter [LINK] and an external monitor [LINK]. Here's a video shot in my home studio.
As an example of using the A7S as a small-studio camera, here is a video that was not edited at all, and was not shot using the S-log2 color profile. This is an example of getting a nice image direct from the camera without any fancy color grading involved. Sorry about the audio quality, I was testing out the Sony ECM-AW4 wireless microphone which is not very good.
This camera has many issues, most of which would annoy professional stills photographers more than filmmakers.
- No internal 4K. You could add an additional 4K camera to your bag like the affordable Panasonic LX100 or DMC-G7, which is anyways a good idea because it's pretty important to have a backup camera, but that won't give you a combination of 4K and 14 stops of dynamic range like you would get from the Sony A7S with a 4K recorder.
- Sony's lenses have an utterly abysmal manual focus. It's all electronic, and it focuses forward or back more or less depending on how fast you move the focus ring, not how much you move it, like any other lens would. Manual focus on the E / FE lenses is absolute garbage for both photography and video, so I recommend choosing no more than 1=3 Sony lenses if you want autofocus, and then get get manual focus lenses like Samyang, Nikon, Voightlander, etc.
- You need to jump over to Manual mode to set custom white balance, then back to video mode. You can also just stay in manual mode and shoot video from there. That isn't ideal but some A7S shooters actually prefer that due to the better zoom-in for fine focus adjustments.
- The main rear dial is pretty terrible. It clicks inwards when you try to turn it, so you often end up changing settings you don't want to. Most of the buttons and dials are too easy to press on this camera, so in some situations you may end up with settings accidentally changing.
- There are some incredibly dumb software issues. I'm not sure if the people making the software were incredibly stupid or did these things on purpose. There are just so many annoying things in the firmware of this camera. Some of them only minor annoyances that happen very often (like the constant warning messages) and some of them serious, like a risk of wiping your card and erasing all your work. There are so many things wrong with this camera's software that the subject requires its own page. Read about that here (LINK).
- The screen tilts a little, but does not flip out to the side. This means that filming yourself or shooting from strange angles isn't as easy as some other cameras. And the screen does not tilt downwards when you have the camera connected to a tripod or quick release plate.
- If using the S-log2 color profile, you have to expose the image "to the right", which means bring your histogram exposure reading further right (brighter). This is not always easy to do when shooting quickly...
- In video mode you are limited to a +2 to -2 exposure compensation, which means shutter and aperture priority modes often underexpose your image in S-log2 mode, as does the automatic ISO. This can be an issue if you're shooting in fast paced environments and still want the high dynamic range this camera can produce, so always keep an eye on the histogram when shooting in S-Log2.
- The image stabilizer (which Sony call "Optical Steady Shot") doesn't work with some crop-sensor Sony lenses like the 16-50mm f3.5-5.6.
- Video autofocus can have some jittering in the edges of the image when focused close with some lenses.
- Photography autofocus is a bit hit-and-miss.
- Menu a little messy, but usable.
- Lots of messages on the screen. Read about that here (LINK).
- The information on the screen and viewfinder could be more organized and more customizable, but it's not as bad as the 5D Mark III which places your histogram almost over the entire image.
- Speaking of histograms, the one on the A7S does not display the RGB values, and overall isn't very accurate.
- The viewfinder sensor is far too sensitive and there's no adjustment for it, so every time you want to do a low shot and you're too close to the camera, the screen turns off. Incredibly annoying.
- Rolling shutter (jello skewing of the image when moving fast) is pretty bad in full frame mode, which isn't a problem if you're keeping the camera stable. You will want to jump into crop mode to reduce rolling shutter when fast camera motion is needed.
- The 120fps 720p mode isn't great. It's limited to crop mode only, and in certain combinations of flat color profiles and high ISO can have some terrible banding in the shadows of the image. It's still a nice addition though, much better than not having 120fps at all.
- The focus peaking isn't great.
- The viewfinder is too small and the eyecup isn't very comfortable.
- For photography the battery life is very bad, since there's no option to use the screen only for viewing images, or to have the viewfinder off until you bring your eye to it. You do have the option to always see everything in the viewfinder, but it's very far from ideal because then you can't use the screen at all, at least not without digging through the menu to turn it back on first. A normal DSLR will often last an entire day of photography with one battery, but with the Sony you get the same usage time as video, only about 1 hour 45 minutes. What you end up doing is either turning it on and off constantly, or setting it to turn off after a minute or two without use, but that's not ideal because there's a few seconds of delay to turn the camera on.
- The automatic switch-off doesn't always work.
For amateur filmmakers: If this is within your budget, go for it. You will love it. If the cost here is too much then I think you would also be very happy with Sony's a6000.
For professional filmmakers: If you care about dynamic range like I do, this is it. Sure it has room for improvement but it gives me amazing video in a small package that is also extremely fast and enjoyable to work with.
For amateur photographers: If you have the budget and you want a camera with lots of manual focus lens options that will give you tons of bokeh, dynamic range and low light sensitivity then you will love this. But you will likely also be happy with many other cameras.
For professional photographers: It makes a superb second camera because it's so different from your DSLR. For example, you suddenly have the ability to shoot handheld with nothing but moonlight or candlelight. - BUT, if this will be your main camera, there's a good chance you will come across some things that slow you down or annoy you.
A pro "tog" needs something that is fast to work with, has long battery life, has menus that make sense, etc. Most professional DSLRs would be a better stills option compared to this. The many software issues (read about that here), pointless limitations, slow usability, bad controls, messy menus, mediocre photography autofocus and constant warning messages might annoy you as a pro. However, I've spoken to quite a few photographers who use an A7 series camera without noticing the issues too much, so maybe I'm just a little spoiled by DSLRs.
There are a few other limitations that make it less than ideal for professional photographers. A lack of dual card slots means I could never use this as the main camera for wedding photography (dual card slots allow for an immediate backup, which is a must for weddings). The same thing applies to the A7, A7 Mark II and A7R cameras.
Almost all the other issues are software-based and could be fixed in a firmware update, but Sony don't seem to want to do that. There are small improvements in new camera releases (for example, slightly less software issues in the A7S compared to the A7) but there have been no big firmware updates to any of the cameras to address these issues.
Links to buy your Sony A7S:
You can help support this blog by purchasing through these links. The cost remains the same for you but I get a small commission.
● eBay UK link: http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/710-534...
● eBay USA link: http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-532...
● Amazon UK link: http://amzn.to/1qtY6G3
● Amazon USA link: http://amzn.to/1qCmdkx
● B&H Link: http://bhpho.to/1rf9Zfg
● Adorama link: http://bit.ly/1lFs8GL