Before today’s launch of the Sony a7R IV in the U.S., I had the opportunity to use the new 61-megapixel camera on a few occasions. Ultimately, these hands-on experiences led me to purchasing it for animal photography and in this article I list a few reasons behind the decision.
First, a quick disclaimer. What I write below is not in defiance against any other camera system. Every major camera brand has absolutely killer options for bird and wildlife photography. My list consists of some features and specs I identified wanting in priority over other nice things to have in a camera, and everybody’s own personal requirements will be different.
Hey, don’t laugh. I didn’t think a million megapixels would be a defining factor either. Yet here we are.
As all the headlines are quick to point out, the a7R IV has a 61 megapixel sensor. For some genres of photography, this is surely overkill. For me, I crop just about every single photo of wildlife I shoot to enlarge the animal in the frame. With the a7R IV, I’m never cropping down into the “danger zone” territory where the final resolution is pretty much only good for Instagram sharing.
Relatedly, one thing that really impresses me is the fact that if I photograph an animal in horizontal orientation and later decide that a vertical crop works better for the pose or composition, I’m still keeping a whopping 26.7 megapixels of image resolution in a vertical 2:3 crop. Not only can I decide to go vertical, I can even play with the vertical crop a little bit and still keep 20-plus megapixels. All this trimming, and it still beats out the original size 18-megapixel files of the Canon EOS-1D X I’m used to.
Pushing all these megapixels through the camera’s pipeline seems like it would grind the a7R IV to a halt when action picks up, but what makes all this even more impressive to me is that it matches its high megapixels with high performance. Using the camera in my typical fashion, I never experienced a hiccup in its processing that caused me to miss a shot I wanted to take. The buffer depth and its speed to clear it did not bottleneck my creation process, and that was simply unexpected. Why turn away more megapixels if it’s not hurting the process?
The crop modes on previous Sony full-frame cameras always incurred such a harsh outputted resolution penalty that it was mostly ignored by everyone. Instead, most people opted to crop in post. However, the a7R IV removes the penalty by outputting large 26-megapixel files, and that’s awesome because using crop mode does have excellent advantages for bird photography.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this, but birds can be really small. I love photographing songbirds, and one thing that makes it challenging is how small they can appear in the frame even if it feels like you’re very close in real life. Also, have you noticed that many birds don’t like you being very close in real life? Having 500mm or 600mm of focal length sounds like more than enough for photographing a person’s DNA, but the reality is it can sometimes barely be enough to reach a songbird to fill an eighth of the frame even when you’re just 15 feet away. Crop mode gives me the ability to punch in and make the bird larger in the frame without moving. The benefit to that, aside from having a bird still there when I go to take the photo, is now my focus point (still 325 of them spanning almost edge to edge of the frame) can be much more accurate to find the tiny eye. The side benefit to me is species identification and observation without bringing binoculars.
Real-time Eye AF for Animals
This is a self-explanatory Sony feature that is not unique to the a7R IV. It’s definitely worth mentioning still because it’s quite unique in the current industry of all cameras. It’s not perfect or as reliable as Real-time Eye AF for human subjects yet, although it’s really solid for dogs and cats right now.
It worked on deer most of the time, although I’ve had multiple deer coats trick it into thinking they had eyes on their back. For birds I see it kick into action about 20 percent of the time. One thing that I only just learned recently though was that Real-time Eye AF works with any focus area. For some reason I thought the camera needed to be set to Wide area, and the eye is picked up anywhere in the frame. But it can be narrowed down too. For little birds this is great news because I can set the AF area to a small or medium flexible spot, get that spot over the bird’s head to really narrow it down, and then Real-time Eye AF takes it the whole way by giving me the eye on the head the focus point is on.
Sharpness, Tonality, and Colors
That is to say, I absolutely love the files coming out of the a7R IV. One thing I remember experiencing when reviewing the Phase One IQ3 100MP medium format back a few years ago was having photo thumbnails where my subject looked tack sharp, but when viewed full size in pure 100 megapixel glory, the focus was completely blown. So much resolution being shrunk down to a normal viewing size does interesting things like that. Now imagine what happens with a high-resolution sensor when the subject is actually tack sharp in the original full size. Shrunk down to a normal size, I’m guessing even the most sketchy of broken lenses would look like a G Master.
The same can be said for the tonality. Having advanced editing software like Adobe Photoshop smartly average out the already well-captured gradations of the a7R IV from the full photo as it’s shrunk down to a normal viewing size creates even more depth to an image. It’s something I notice from probably the most popular wildlife camera right now, the 45.7-megapixel Nikon D850 (which uses a Sony sensor), and I love seeing the same effect happening with the a7R IV.
Then there’s the color. The whole world knows that Sony was known for weak color science. Luckily, that word reached Sony and starting with the a7 III they worked on improving it. Now I can’t say how Sony treats their colors camera to camera and if it’s truly any different, but from what I saw in testing the a7R IV has the best colors I’ve ever gotten straight out of camera.
There any many upsides to an electronic viewfinder over an optical viewfinder. One of them, however, is not resolution. Part of what’s great about optical viewfinders with wildlife is that you are literally looking at the real life animal through your optics. For many people that photograph wildlife, there’s more to it than getting up before sunrise or waiting hours on end for a pretty picture; it’s the connection felt with these animals that gets us going. When I’m looking at an animal through an electronic viewfinder, I’m looking at a tiny video screen that’s really just blocking the real animal in front of me. I don’t know if that sounds like a minor difference, but it’s a big one for me.
The a7R IV blends that difference better than any previous Sony mirrorless camera with an upgraded 5.76 million dot OLED EVF. That’s 1.6 times higher than the 3.68 million dot EVFs of the a7R III and a9. I’ve held the a7R III and a7R IV, one in each hand, to look at the viewfinders side by side. The difference is noticeable. No, it’s not nearly the same thing as looking through an optical viewfinder, but the issue does disappear from my mind easier and I’m reminded less than I’m looking at a tiny screen rather than the real animal. I want those big benefits that an EVF offers, and with this camera I feel like the downside is kept to a minimum.
About five years ago I owned the original a7R and only photographed landscapes straight off a tripod, and what I loved most about it was that it was a high-resolution sensor with a barebones camera body built around it. All I needed in a camera outside a nice sensor was a way to control my shutter speed (with ISO and aperture almost never changing), and I’d put it to work. I remember when I first took it out of the box it looked like a toy camera compared the Nikon D800E I sold off to buy it, but with the same exact image quality coming out of it. In its fourth iteration, the a7R series has developed into something way more feature packed and higher performing than I could have ever imagined at that time.
I parted ways with Sony cameras for the past couple years as my interests continued to grow in other genres outside landscapes, and it’s amusing to me I landed right back into the system where I was five years ago but with a much more demanding list of what was needed. And still, the latest a7R is the one to meet my demands.