If you’re at all like me and you shoot film primarily and shoot digital only occasionally, the Sony a7 series cameras are a terrific system to consider.
I suspect that if you’re a film photographer like myself, you’re wondering how I could say that the Sony a7 series of cameras is the best camera for you. After all, there are loads of different kinds of film cameras, and the preferences that dictate what kind of film photographer you are will guide what kind of digital camera is right for you. Further, I acknowledge that there is rarely ever one universal truth or, in this case, one singular camera that is best suited for everyone. As such, I speak purely from a personal preference.
Let’s start off with all manual 35mm cameras. That list includes the Nikon F2, Pentax K1000, and Canon AE-1, as well as hundreds more makes and models of cameras. If you’re in this boat, you may or may not have a built-in meter, and even if you do, you’re used to setting your shutter speed, aperture, and focusing manually. With literally any of the a7 series cameras, you can use your film camera lenses on your digital camera with the help of an inexpensive adapter. Often, these adapters can be had for around $20. One of the built-in features of the Sony's that help get sharp focus is the ability to utilize focus peaking to quickly obtain acceptable focus like you would if you shooting film. If you’re a landscape photographer like myself or if you just really care about optimal precision in your focusing, you can also (or instead of) use the focus magnifier function. That is, you can temporarily zoom in to a specific part of the frame, focus the lens to get the sharpest focus, and then compose your shot for the best framing. This method, while it takes a little longer to execute compared with an autofocus lens, allows you to continue using your lenses from your film gear. It should be noted that while I have previously only mentioned 35mm SLR cameras in the above paragraph, just about any lens from a 35mm camera. That is, you can also use rangefinder lenses to include Leica lenses or lenses intended for M-mount cameras.
The main issue that people have noted about using the Sony system is the poor battery life. Given that the Sony a7 is always using live view to see what you’re focusing on, it does admittedly go through batteries pretty quickly. Compared with the battery life of your typical DSLR, yes, the Sony has poor battery life, but the DSLR isn’t relying on live mode exclusively. While I’m not aware of a head-to-head comparison of the battery life of a Sony a7 III or anything similar with a reputable DSLR using only live view, I cannot help but feel the Sony would stand up just fine. Why would you need to use live view on the DSLR? Technically, you wouldn’t, but you would likely find subpar focus if you didn’t. Keep in mind, however, that the need for live view is specific to using manual lenses.
For the shortcoming of the battery life, the main benefit to the Sony system when using all manual lenses is the ability to use aperture priority mode. For many people using manual focus lenses, myself included, aperture priority is their go-to camera setting, and that functionality may well breathe new life into your vintage lenses. When it comes to autofocus film cameras (for example, the Nikon F100) the benefit of the Sony system does, admittedly, fall off. Personally, I would not retrofit an old autofocus lens on any modern camera. That may just be me, and that may be part of why I prefer the Sony system. Further, in cases of someone using modern autofocus lenses for newer SLR film cameras (i.e., Nikons F100 or F6), adapting modern SLR glass makes no sense whatsoever. As such, I do not suggest adapting autofocus lenses to an a7 series camera nor would I even necessarily suggest the a7 series camera to a film photographer with such lenses.
Medium Format Film on Sony a7 Series
Let’s say that you’re a film photographer that shoots medium format film. Personally, I have and shoot with a Mamiya 645 camera as well as a Mamiya RB67 and a Mamiya RZ67 (yes, I really love Mamiya cameras). For the Mamiya 645, adapting lenses is just as quick and easy as adapting lenses from any other system. For photographers using other 645 SLR systems, you should have a similar experience. In fact, for any medium format system which has interchangeable lenses and uses a helicoid focusing mechanism, it should be just as easy to use those lenses on any of the Sony a7 series cameras. This includes everything from the Mamiya 645 and Pentax 645 systems all the way to the Pentax 67 system.
It should noted that along with this quirk of using medium format lenses comes excellent sharpness from edge to edge of the lens. Why, you ask? The image circle cast for a medium format lens is, by design, considerably larger than that of a lens intended for 35mm. As such, you would only be using the very center of the image circle, and as we all know, the center of the lens is indeed the sharpest.
Why Not Another Mirrorless Camera?
Finally, for the benefits and shortcomings I mentioned above, you may wonder why I would promote the Sony system over the mirrorless systems from other companies. That would be a fair point. The first thing that I would say in response would be that I would never personally consider a crop sensor camera for the purposes of retrofitting film camera lenses. I don’t really have a good reason why other than that I wouldn’t want to waste any of the image circle from full frame lenses. As for other full frame mirrorless cameras, they may well be just as good, but the advantage Sony has, having been on the market longer, is the deepest adapter market, allowing you to adapt just about any lens.