Sony a7 Series: The Best Digital Cameras for Manual Focus Film Photographers

Sony a7 Series: The Best Digital Cameras for Manual Focus Film Photographers

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. 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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I bought an A7IIl especially for manual photography. I use new E mount lenses (like Voigtlander) rather than adapting old manual lenses - as I don’t own loads of lenses, shelling out for a couple of new lenses (having EXIF data is a real bonus) isn’t a big issue for me. The fact there are a lot of customisable buttons on Sony cameras is a real benefit as I simply have my most used options to hand and I always turn the LCD off when out taking photos.

I don’t get your point about poor battery life as it’s well known the third generation Sony cameras came with much improved battery performance, even better than Canon’s newest mirrorless cameras. You are comparing to DSLR which is a bit unfair and should be comparing to other mirrorless systems.

This article seems a little off base.

I use a Sony A7 III and the battery is freaking crazy good. I can easily get 2,000+ shots on a charge, and more if I'm shooting rapidly.

The focus peaking, on the other hand, is not so hot.

Having acquired an A7Riii just a month ago, at least partly to use with my Leica and Voigtlander LTM lenses (and partly to digitise my negatives!) it's great to see that someone else reckons I've made a good choice!!
I have already set the two top right-hand configurable buttons to focus-magnification and focus peaking and, like you say, find them very natural to use. I'm also really pleasantly surprised that, even with my 15mm super-wide Heliar, which is tiny compared to the Sony equivalent, it just works so naturally with the Sony

My experience has been that the A7’s look pretty bad with adapter lenses. I always figured this was because of the notorious too-thick glass stack on the sensor.

I don’t have any experience with Canon R’s, but Nikon Z’s do better than A7’s. All the manual focus adapter you could want are available for all the systems - the argument that Sony is best because of adapter availability is stupid.

The Nikon Z cameras are notably better than the Sonys with rangefinder lenses because of the thinner sensor stack. And I haven't had a problem finding any adapter for the Z bodies, though I imagine some of the rarer mounts (like, I don't know, Alpa or Praktica or something) might be hard to find.

My Leica M lenses and Contax G lenses are considerably better with the Nikons, especially wider-angle lenses.

I disagree with this assessment. APS-C sensor cameras should be highly considered for using classic glass. Most classic glass has poor edge sharpness, which is especially noticeable on full frame cameras. APS-C cameras are very forgiving in that regard. They are also just as capable of creating stunning images using classic lenses while also providing a better financial value. I shoot with classic lens on many of my Sony APS-C mirrorless cameras. Not one single person has, can, or will ever be able to tell if a photo was shot on APS-C or Full-Frame.

I used to have a Nex-5n. That camera was brilliant for manual focus lenses. The images looked fantastic, and the touchscreen has touch-to-zoom that made focus easy.

Your absolutely right. I use the A6000 & A6300. The focus peeking and magnification is awesome for manual focus. I nail it every single time! My wife uses the A5100, and it also works great!

On the one hand using medium format lenses on a full frame camera gives you perfect sharpness, but at the same time you don't want to waste the image circle of a full frame lens on an APS-C camera?

Also, even if you don't want an APS-C camera, and we can't all be good enough to create stunning images with APS-C format cameras, there are still both Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic to consider. Sony might have been the first player on the full frame mirrorless market, but not any longer.

It seems to me the author is not very honest, or he investigated the topic not too good. If we're talking about the MF stills, Sony cameras are losing their leadership. Both Canon and Nikon give you great quality cameras now. However, I'm not informed enough about the Canons, but I can say a lot about the Nikon.
Nikon today has the shortest distance between mount and sensor, so it gives you a huge profit. You can adapt almost any lens on Nikon Z. Techart has a Sony E mount to Nikon Z adapter. The adapter supports not only MF lenses but AF too. Even on Aliexpress, you can find a huge amount of various adapters for Nikon.
This article is too complimentary to sony. No matter how you love your camera, you should compare it honestly.

Until Zeiss and Voigtlander start producing manual lenses for Z and RF, I’m definitely sticking with Sony. Saying that, Sony are nice and compact (for a fullframe) plus have plenty of easy accessible custom buttons which means I don’t have to go near the LCD when out taking photos.

I actually like the focusing better from Canon than Sony. I have the 90D (not FF) and the A74IV, but still prefer the Canon's MF--I use alot of Zeiss ZE. It is way more precise and faster, and I can focus usually w/o live view. I really didn't like the focusing on the A7III and sold it in February, and recently bought the RIV and it is somewhat better because of the viewfinder, but I actually still prefer Canon. Canon is more precise in focus peaking for some reason. I also use lots of Minolta/Konica and a little Nikon/Canon/Vivitar vintage glass. One thing I do like on Sony is when I use Loxia glass it starts the lens magnification when you turn the lens focus and I have a button preprogrammed when I am not using those two lenses.

Focus peaking on Sony cameras is pretty much useless. The auto magnification focus is what I use and I have a custom button set to magnify in even further if need be. I do also use the zone focusing technique a lot too when I stop down the aperture. Going from a 6D to the A7III with native manual lenses is so much better with the Sony.

Why would a photographer who prefers film, recommend to their readers to rely on aperture priority mode when using a digital camera? I would think that a strict analog photographer would work completely manually, with a handheld light metre, so as to teach the brain how to judge the light automatically. Many photographers have habits, find themselves in exact situations, and can thus determine the exposure without a light meter. At 10 am at a given latitude looking in the same direction, the exposure will be the same every (sunny) day. Analog users then apply a modified zone system to such a formula: overexpose the shadows and under develop the highlights. Why? Because full shadow detail will be complete after about 33% of development and all further development time is building up the highlights. (You must shoot the entire roll in the same light.) This extends analog dynamic range. I do not see the value in any auto camera settings except focus for faster moving subjects. As a sony A7 r system user, I would say the most valuable feature is micro focusing in manual focus.

Auto exposure film cameras have been around for decades. My favorite is a Nikon F100. It has autofocus, matrix meet and works with VR lenses. It’s like a film D700 but with a better grip.

What?!Sony has probably the worst focus peaking of ANY mirrorless I've ever used. Everything is always in focus and the features are lackluster at best.
Fuji and Nikon for example are miles ahead. My X-T3 has normal peaking, Split image, Micro-Prism, magnification...For a ~2000$ camera like the a7III this feature is laughable and far from "the best"

Forget focus peaking, auto magnification on Sony cameras works perfectly. Just turn the focus ring and it automatically magnifies (needs lenses with electronic contacts). I only use manual lenses with my A7III and find it a very decent camera for manual lenses. Nikon nor Fuji have the excellent Zeiss and Voigtlander manual lenses in X or F mount.

Ok, if your manual focus lenses are native with electronics. I think most of us including the author are thinking about adapted lenses. A7’s just aren’t better than other options (and in some ways are worse) when using adapted lenses.

Another free pub for Sony from Ftoppers

While this nicely maps out the rationale why you use the A7, none of the reasons seem to translate that well into recommendations. Essentially it appears the only takeaway is that you can use more adapters with a Sony. Focus peeking on any of the Nikon Z cameras is excellent as is their FTZ adapter so unclear on the specific A7 benefits. Battery life is also significantly superior to the A7. At that point why not pick up a used D810 and be done with it. There are also other correlations in the DSLR/ mirrorless Canon space. As with many others, keen to see where Sony is going with their cameras however I’m not sure edge case examples can win the day. This doesn’t detract from this being an interesting read though.