On a multi-day assignment in Portland last week, I took advantage of my day off between assignments to experiment with the Sony a7R III and try it out in my normal workflow.
First, we’ll start with the parameters of the experiment. If any of you have read my posts in the past, you are likely to know that I am a Nikon man. I’ve been shooting with Nikon bodies and lenses for the last dozen years now, and after an extended wait, I finally received my spiffy new D850 and have it primed and ready for service. So, this won’t be an article suggesting a change to Sony over Nikon. Nor will it be a comparison of the two cameras. I also won’t be pixel-peeping or running off a list of specs. You can get those from the brochures. I was more interested in knowing what it feels like to actually work with the camera. As many will surely know, a camera always looks great on a spec sheet or in the shop window, but until you actually use them in the field and learn their individual benefits and quirks, it's hard to really know if it's the right camera for you. I know how it looks on the page, but how does it feel in the hand?
Also, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all camera. The right camera for you is always going to based around your very unique needs, where the images will end up, what genre you work in, and your personal preferences. With the exponential growth in the mirrorless camera market and the advanced buzz for Sony’s video capabilities, I was intrigued to see how the camera would integrate into my own personal workflow. But, it's important to remember that what is right for me may not be right for all. And visa versa. So, knowing it is impossible to make a pronouncement for all, I will instead speak about how the camera specifically relates to my way of shooting. Hopefully, that will help you better envision how it would work within your own workflow relative to my own.
Personally, I am a commercial photographer with an emphasis on lifestyle, fitness, and activewear. I need a camera that can provide images large enough to be used in a brand’s advertising campaign while being able to shoot frames fast enough to react to athletic motion. My shoots are split between studio and location, so I need to have something sturdy that can go into multiple shooting environments. I need to be able to grab focus quickly, even when the subject moves in an unanticipated way. And I need to switch seamlessly between still and video when a client needs motion assets to complete their project.
Having to travel to Portland on assignment, I decided to set up a quick test shoot on my day off with a talented local model, Chaudrey, who I’d worked with on previous trips. Wanting to test the camera in more difficult situations versus a more easily controlled environment, I decided to take the camera out onto the streets and limit myself to the use of natural light. I could have taken the camera into the controlled studio and shot under ideal conditions, but instead, I wanted to simulate a more rushed shoot where time is of the essence, you have to deal with what the environment offers you, and you have to expect the unexpected. If the camera can handle that, I know it can handle studio work. But the same can’t always be said of working the other way around.
I chose to limit myself to one lens, the Sony FE 24-70 f/2.8 GM. Again, in my Nikon workflow, this zoom range is where I mostly live, so I wanted to recreate that on the Sony body to give a better comparison of the differences when working with the different body. And that body is where I’ll begin.
The Sony a7R III is a very small camera. Maybe not small compared to an iPhone or a compact camera, but the first thing I noticed upon putting down my Nikon and picking up the Sony is just how incredibly tiny the camera felt. I expected this, of course. It is a mirrorless camera and one of the primary features of a mirrorless camera is that it is lighter due to the lack of, well, a mirror. But somehow, actually holding the rig in my hand drove home just how small the camera really does feel in operation.
Now, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well again, that depends on your personal preferences. I usually shoot with a Nikon full-frame body with a battery grip plus a 24-70mm f/2.8 VR lens. So, while not as heavy as say a Phase One, it’s not the lightest setup in the world either. One would naturally expect that the lessened weight of the Sony would be a welcome improvement. I expected that myself. However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, I think I actually prefer the added weight. There’s something about the added weight that just feels more substantial. When I twist and contort into a shooting pose with it, the larger Nikon feels more balanced. The best way I can describe it is that working with the larger camera feels like I’m working with a camera and lens. Working with the Sony A7RIII, in the configuration I had chosen, felt more like I was holding a lens that just so happened to have something attached to the back of it.
Again, that’s not necessarily a negative. If I were a travel photographer or a landscape photographer where weight was a priority, choosing the mirrorless setup would be a no-brainer. If I were a street photographer or would be just mounting a pint-sized prime lens to the body, I think that would make for a terrific combination. When chatting about my experience a day later with one of my assistants who owns a Sony mirrorless, he mentioned that he sticks with the 55mm prime. Were I to own the camera, I may opt for that setup myself. But, for the parameters of the test and sticking with my traditional short zoom setup, the a7R III felt a bit unbalanced and delicate. It may be plenty sturdy. I decided against intentionally dropping the loaner to find out the answer. But, just as a purely subjective opinion, it did feel a bit less durable, possibly due to the uneven balance between the lens and body.
On the subject of mirrorless cameras, it is probably a good time to discuss the viewfinder. Naturally, because of the mirrorless system, you are not really looking through the lens so much as you are looking at a screen depicting what the lens sees. So, I did feel at times like I was watching television when pressing my eye to the back of the camera. It wasn’t bad. It was something I’m sure one would get used to rather quickly if you owned the camera, but it was a slightly different sensation.
While looking through a Canon or Nikon TTL viewfinder is a more comfortable experience, the Sony viewfinder was bright and clear and worked well. Although, judging by the viewfinder and the camera's heavy reliance on menus (more on that later), I think that the camera is probably best designed for those who will be shooting in live view mode. It works with a traditional eye-to-camera approach, but I think the live view setup is likely where it will shine.
Subjectivity alert: personally, irregardless of manufacturer, I’m not a fan of live view. I just don’t like shooting that way. Pressing my face to back of the camera body makes me feel grounded and part of the scene in a way that staring at the tiny screen does not. But, as you will have no doubt noticed by my use of the word “personally,” that is my own preference, not a technical flaw.
That personal preference to shoot with my eye to the camera both had positive and negative effects for me when shooting with the a7R III. One of the biggest complaints I expected to have with the Sony based on reviews I had read online was that the battery life was terrible. I fully expected to be pushing the limits of battery life during my shoot and anticipated having to call it quits as a result of running out of juice. But, in actual fact, the battery was more than sufficient. I shot stills and video for roughly three or four hours, maybe a bit more, and walked away having only spent about 25 percent of my battery.
Now, there was a particular factor that played into that. As I mentioned in the last section, I hate live view. So, I set my view mode to Viewfinder/Manual. In other words, the screen on the back of the camera was turned off throughout the majority of the shoot. Without the need to power the screen, the battery instead is reserved for shooting and powering the internal viewfinder. Had I left the monitor on, this likely would have had a different result. But shooting with the LCD screen off for the most part, the battery was more than sufficient.
That was the upside of turning off the screen, but there was a downside. The a7R III has a number of customizable buttons to help you be more efficient behind the camera. But, even with the custom buttons, the camera system really is far more menu dependent than a traditional Nikon or Canon. To really get the most out of an a7R III, you will spend a great deal of time digging into the menus to find the right combination of settings for the way you shoot.
Because I prefer to shoot with the viewfinder as opposed to the LCD screen, adjusting settings in the menu was even more tedious. I could either press my eye to the camera and strain to read the menu items through the viewfinder, or I had to switch back to the Monitor mode each time I wanted to change the settings.
Of note, there is an automatic mode, which will flip flop between the two. The screen turns off when the eye is pressed to the camera. The screen turns on when you pull back. But again, you are going to sacrifice some battery power in this method as the screen will essentially stay on all the time when your face isn’t pressed to the back.
Still, I can imagine that once you figure out your ideal personal settings, you can probably avoid most of the menu options. But one aspect that you absolutely cannot avoid is the lack of a digital readout on top of the camera separate from the LCD screen. Both Canon and Nikon have these digital readouts which allow me to quickly and easily see the adjustments I’m making to my ISO, white balance, exposure, and so forth without having to open any menus or look through the viewfinder. I’m so used to being able to quickly make these adjustments while holding the camera down at my waistline and resting my eyes that their absence on the a7R III was one of the things that stood out the most. It was one of those things I likely wouldn't have considered were I looking at the camera online but ended up being a feature that I really missed in actual practice.
Again, if you shoot with the monitor on at all times, you can set the LCD screen to show your settings there. But, as you’ve probably figured out by now, I tend to want to look at the LCD screen as little as possible while shooting. Other than occasionally reviewing an image or two, I prefer to operate the camera strictly by turning dials in the same way I did twenty years ago when I got my first manual film camera or more specifically, borrowed/stole my father’s camera to learn the basics of photography. It’s great that newer cameras have so many more bells and whistles, but, to me, no matter what tool you are using, it all still just boils down to basics of f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO/ASA. Other than adjusting those basic settings, I prefer a camera that just gets out of my way and allows me to focus all my attention on the scene.
But before I go off too much on an old man tirade about the joys of manual camera operation, I would be remiss not to point out the best feature of the a7R III. The two most intriguing elements of this camera that made me want to try it out are the weight and the 4K video. And while I didn’t react to the decreased weight in the way I might have expected, the 4K video was absolutely fantastic.
Shooting in my intentionally condensed time frame, I found switching back and forth between still and motion to be a breeze. The camera performed admirably in creating short motion assets on the fly. While I was shooting handheld on my march through downtown Portland, I could definitely envision incredible benefits shooting video with this mounted to a gimbal like the Ronin or Glidecam. Combining the light camera with a smaller and more compact prime lens would be a joy for creating really cinematic movement. I really did enjoy using the a7R III in that setup and would definitely consider renting it in the future if I working on a project where the motion needs outweighed the still photography demands.
I feel it is important to reiterate here that every photographer is different. I can only offer you my gut reactions from having put the camera into a live shooting environment based on the way that I shoot personally. Many of you will have different approaches and different demands, so consider that when picking the right camera for you. I think this camera should appeal to shooters who prioritize lightweight gear and need maximum portability. If your primary role is to create video and will be shooting with live view the majority of the time, this camera would merit consideration. Or, if you were a street shooter and planned to be on your feet all day and just wanted to pair this body with a more compact prime lens, this could be the answer to your dreams as well.
With that said, while I did enjoy shooting with the Sony a7R III, I’ll admit that I expected to like it even more than I did. I am a Nikonian and so it was never going to be a situation where I was going to dump all my Nikon gear and switch to Sony, but I did expect to be tempted a bit more than I ultimately was.
Ironically, I think many of the elements that make this camera special are specifically the ones that make it less of a fit for my personal workflow. By emphasizing the camera’s form factor, I think they have to remove certain functionalities like the top mounted digital readout and the emphasis on controlling the camera through menus versus dials and knobs. Were I just starting out as a photographer, as opposed to having muscle memory developed from years behind Nikons, Canons, and Phase Ones, my reaction to shooting with the Sony would likely be even more positive. The image quality and video were fantastic. I think for me, the ergonomics would take a bit of getting used to.
Not that I am completely opposed to lighter frames. My walkaround camera is a Fuji X100S. That mirrorless body with a fixed lens is one of the favorite tools in my arsenal. Small enough to fit in my pants pocket, I use it to shoot behind the scenes on set, and it’s the only camera I bring with me when I travel on vacation. Combining an easily portable form factor with old school manual functionality seems to be the sweet spot for me, at least where personal work is concerned.
But for more pressing professional needs, I don’t know that I feel the need to switch to a Sony mirrorless system quite yet. They are, however, no doubt on the right path. So, while I am still plenty happy with my DSLR setup, I am looking forward to seeing what else they have in store.