Following the announcement of the Sony a7R III, I had the chance to use the new a7-series flagship mirrorless camera for an evening of studio shooting. Here are my first impressions on handling, Pixel Shift Multi Shooting, the much improved autofocusing system, and 10 fps continuous shooting.
If you need a refresher on all that’s new with the a7R III, check out the announcement linked above first. Here I’m just going to dive in to the shooting experience aspect.
The a7R III introduces some features we’ve seen on the a9 camera released earlier this year such as a Multi Selector joystick, a fuller grip housing a bigger battery, the touchscreen for adjusting focal point, a squishy video recording button, dual card slots, and an AF-On button.
The Multi Selector is for many people a big upgrade over the previous directional pad, and to me it’s a great way to choose focus points or to move around a full-sized photo in image playback. For navigating the menu system, I prefer the old directional pad; Up button goes up, left button goes left, but with a Multi Selector this is less accurate and I end up sometimes wasting time moving in directions I didn’t intend to go.
Another way the a7R III lets a user move around in image playback or choosing autofocus points is with the touchscreen. This feature has made its way to a few different Sony cameras already, but I don’t recall ever using it beyond checking it out once when I first set up these cameras. I imagine if I did video, this would be a more important tool to have, but for stills I’m perfectly fine with the Multi Selector getting the job done. In my short experiences, the touchscreen operation also has an undesirable lag between sliding your finger across it and seeing the changes being made in the viewfinder. The Multi Selector has always felt snappier and more precise in its movements.
Inside the larger grip of the a7R III there’s now the new NP-FZ100 battery being used. This battery has 2.2 times the capacity of the NP-FW50 batteries used in the a7R II. For starters, I’ve never really cared much about the whole battery issue outcry of Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras. It’s always been a fair exchange in my opinion: I get to use a camera with a shooting experience better than DSLRs, and I pay up with battery life to do so. Of course, having more longevity is a definite plus and highly encouraged, but it’s not like it’s ever been a make or break situation in using a more advanced camera system. Anyways, with the a7R III, using it in a fairly aggressive manner for review purposes I got it down to about 30 percent battery in a few hours of shooting stills and much of that time using burst capture and SteadyShot activated. From experience, I know I would be on my second battery if this was the a7R II; probably my third battery if the a7R II was performing in the way the a7R III can. The optional $348 battery grip can be used for housing two batteries together, plus adding another shutter button and Multi Selector for vertical shooting.
Pixel Shift Multi Shooting
The all-new (for Sony) Pixel Shift Multi Shooting makes it way first to the a7R III. This mode produces an extra-high-detail image by shooting four independent raw stills and then combining them together in post. Between each of these stills, the camera sensor moves in one pixel increments so that the averaging of RGB pixels becomes more accurate, therefore the outputted single raw file gains more precision in fine detail and color accuracy. Below is a video from Sony that shows how this feature works which might be easier to understand than having it described.
I can’t speak to the results of using this mode as the new Sony software for combining Pixel Shift Multi Shooting raw images, Imaging Edge, is unreleased. However, I can talk a bit about the operating the function itself.
Via default menu system, a custom My Menu add-on, or customized physical button, there is now a Pixel Shift Multi Shooting mode that can be toggled either off or on with configurable timer options of 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 15, or 30 seconds between each of the four frames. But why? Why would anyone want a pre-set timing of anything other than the minimum when any movement between frames will ruin the effect? The Sony people that I asked didn’t seem to know why those options existed either. In my opinion, there should only be two options: the shortest possible time they can do and a manual trigger mode. Having a manual trigger mode would be helpful for windy conditions where you can wait it out and fire, probably from a remote, when the wind calms (fun fact: wind doesn’t settle every 4, 5, 15, or 30 seconds on the dot) or when there are objects moving in and out of frame such as people or cars.
Also, what’s the deal with one second being the minimum? In our initial briefing, we were told the minimum was 0.5 seconds, only for that to turn out not true I got my hands on the a7R III. That would have been a little better, but doesn’t the sensor have to move around much faster than that for in-body SteadyShot image stabilization? I don’t understand what difference there is between that and this. Pentax doesn’t seem to have an issue with their K-1 camera which does pixel shift shooting near instantaneously. It’s unfortunate that Sony entered the pixel shift game late and is still not on par with what the others already have been offering with this feature for years.
Twice as Fast Eye AF, Low-Light Autofocus
Sony has taken what it’s learned from making the a9 and applied it to the a7R III’s autofocusing. These aren’t identical autofocus systems spec for spec, but the bridge between the a7 series and the a9 has shrunk considerably.
For the hands-on test shoots, I photographed both models working through the motions of posing as well as dancers going and going with non-stop movement. Most of this time, I was purely using Eye AF tracking. It is just phenomenal what the improved Eye AF is capable of. The first generation was an interesting proof of concept and a very useful way to make sure the most important part of your frame is in focus when shooting portraiture. This new Eye AF with double the speed has now elevated that concept and nails it for even fast moving action. There is no noticeable difference to me between the regular face tracking, a much larger point to find and focus to, and Eye AF.
I didn’t have very much time for shooting anything in what would be considered true low light conditions, but the little time I had with that I could see autofocus wasn’t slowing down or beginning to hunt as the sunset waned outdoors. This is something I look forward to testing more soon.
10 fps Continuous Shooting
Sony has made a big improvement to the a7R continuous shooting mode. Previously, the a7R II could only do 5 fps for up to 24 JPEG images. Now we have 10 fps for up to 87 compressed raw files and/or JPEGs, or 28 uncompressed raw files, with the a7R III. I didn’t time it with a stopwatch, but I can confirm it’s about as fast as one would probably need for practical application. I found the a9 to be overkill in that area while punching it at 20 fps, so to me it’s great news that the a7R III can still hit that useful sweet spot and cost a couple grand less. It was also fast enough that the studio lights being triggered with a transmitter on my camera certainly could not keep up.
Clearing the buffer has always been a strain with Sony mirrorless cameras, and with 42-megapixel images coming in large quantities faster, this may be cause for alarm. Luckily it’s only mildly annoying with the a7R III. The buffer is very real, but it does clear decently quick and absolutely way faster than the a7R II did. More options than before are now available while the images being written to the card, such as playback and the Fn menu. In Sony’s press release they also tout that the menu is now accessible while writing to the card, and while technically that’s true, it sure did seem like most of the options themselves inside the menu were grayed out and temporarily inaccessible.
I’m hesitant to jump in on claiming anything in the area of image quality as my raw files are patiently waiting most likely until December before they see the light of day and can be read in Capture One Pro. What I’m wishing to see is greater latitude in pushing and pulling images with minimal artifacts, lower noise at higher ISOs, and finer detail resolution. Remember that this is the same sensor that was used in the a7R II, but at the same time everything around it down to the circuitry has been updated.
The Sony a7R III is priced at $3,198 and is available now for preordering with shipments beginning on November 30.