Last week, Sony surprised us all when they announced their latest a7R mirrorless camera. I had the chance to use the new a7R IV shooting a number of different portrait studio sets at the launch event, and in this first-impressions review I offer my opinions on its updated body design and performance.
While this article covers many features new to the a7R IV, there are still plenty of goodies not mentioned here. Be sure to visit B&H Photo’s product listing for a complete list of specs to drool over as well as to place preorders.
Refined Ergonomics and Controls
If you’ve used the third series of Sony a7 cameras, the first few things you’ll notice when picking up the a7R IV is a different contour to the grip, buttons that are more squishy and have more travel, a revised joystick, and an exposure compensation dial that now has a lock button.
I’m not sure if the grip is noticeably any deeper, but I can feel the difference in contour and it fits my hand a little more comfortably either way. Photos of the old and new cameras side by side do show the difference pretty well. Sony has identified five fundamentals in their Alpha camera system and with every major announcement they’ve repeated these goals on stage: lens [selection and quality], image quality, speed, battery life, and compactness. While it seems like Sony is still tinkering with the optimum grip shape and size for their full-frame mirrorless cameras, they are likely feeling uncomfortably close to overdoing “compactness” with each revision. My personal faith lays in the fact that this is the same company that made the a99 II released in 2016 which is the only camera I can remember where I thought the grip was actually too big and too deep.
Buttons and Dials
Because of how often they are interacted with, the buttons feel like the biggest physical change that photos of the camera probably don’t convey. They are like going from a MacBook laptop with minimal keyboard key travel to a mechanical keyboard that requires some added motion to press in. While I haven’t tested it in this way, I think photographers that use gloves are going to appreciate this revision the most. Along with the button switch, the aperture and shutter speed dials also have a different friction and feel to them. If I could nitpick, I’d like the new controls to also have a more rubbery feel to them, but the current design probably weighs durability with function more faultlessly.
Apparently some of you were accidentally shifting the exposure compensation dial because Sony decided that the a7 IV should now have a lock button on it. While I don’t recall ever having this problem with previous releases, this change can please both sides as it can be left as unlocked or locked depending on how much it affects your workflow. Now seeing that this locked/unlocked button is an option, I would have liked this same mechanism to be used for the shooting mode lock as well. I’ve always hated the press-and-hold-to-unlock button that Sony added in starting with the a7R II, but again I don’t seem to have the problem of inadvertently shifting the control knobs.
The biggest disappointment with the controls aren’t their physical characteristics but how sluggish they are when using them. Like the Sony mirrorless cameras before it, there is a delay between scrubbing the shutter speed or aperture dial, for example, and the change reflected in the viewfinder or rear monitor. If I’m only moving one click — one third of a stop — then it’s not very noticeable. Once I start moving three clicks, or one stop, or more than that, the effects of the delay become more and more pronounced. If I scrub three clicks very fast, it’s in the air if the camera is going to register all three clicks and move me one stop, and the worst part is I need to pause to check if it did or not. I used to own the original a7R and shoot landscapes in a very measured manner, and at that time it wasn’t much of a concern to me how slow the camera would react. Now that I have switched back to DSLR and primarily photograph birds when I’m not reviewing gear, the sluggish controls are jarring to me.
Memory Card Slots
A couple other noteworthy changes include no more memory card door release switch, now opting for a simple pull on the door, and now both card slots are UHS-II compatible. Slot 1 has been moved to the top position, whereas it was the bottom position on the a7R III, and if you are reviewing this camera and are using both the a7R III and a7R IV side by side you are guaranteed to be tripped up by this. In all other cases, the Slot 1 and Slot 2 positions now finally make sense.
5.76-million-dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder
One of my favorite improvements with new a7R IV is the higher resolution 5.76-million-dot EVF. I had the a7R III on hand, a camera that sports a 3.69-million-dot EVF, and switching between the two EVFs back and forth it was obvious to me that the new a7R IV screen is less digital looking. It is still not a rival to optical viewfinders in image clarity by any stretch of the imagination, but of course the benefits of an EVF’s real-time displayed information should be weighed as well in the EVF versus OVF debate.
In ways, I can see the priority in having a true-to-life EVF being lessened as features like Real-time Eye AF and Real-time Eye AF for Animals take human error out of perfect focusing, but I fully welcome the display advancement in this area and Sony’s choice to include a better EVF for the a7R IV.
Image Quality and Performance
The headlining feature of the a7R IV is its whopping 61-megapixel Exmor R backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, making it the highest resolution full-frame camera ever outputting files 9,504 by 6,336 pixels large. If 61-megapixels is more than you need, unfortunately at this time there is no “small raw” option; you either get the full 61-megapixel file or in crop mode you get 26-megapixel files but the full framing is hard cut away. Sony a7R IV raw files weigh in at about 61.8 megabytes, and JPEGs are around 15 megabytes.
One of the side effects of working with massive resolution images is having final post-processed images that may never see the light of day as full 1:1 reproductions. And much like how in the video world how 5K downsampled to 4K, or 4K down to 1080p, the end product looks much cleaner, a 61-megapixel file being downsized looks really terrific in terms of tonal gradation, resolving subtle details, and the clarity and sharpness that can be achieved. Photos from the Sony a7R IV are some of the most realistic looking images I’ve seen from any camera, straight out of camera.
Also helping with the realism of these images is the sweeping dynamic range that does everything it can to never truly clip highlights or shadows. For most scenes, everything remains in play in the editing stage. With 15 stops of dynamic range, the a7R IV is not a noticeable bump from the 14.7 stops capable in the a7R III. However, I’d wager most people that will buy the a7R IV are not upgrading from the fairly similar a7R III, rather are going to be making a more dramatic change from older equipment. With that, 15 stops is going to be a much bigger improvement over many other cameras that were sold a couple years ago and are being replaced in a photographer’s kit.
The new camera is capable of shooting ISO 100–32,000 natively, with expansion to 50–102,400. In my testing, it looks to me around ISO 3,200 is about the turning point in image quality for my taste and would be the maximum I would shoot with for a useable photo.
Even with the substantial bump in megapixels, the a7R IV impressively still fires up to 10 frames per second with autofocus and autoexposure active. It can keep at this for up to 68 compressed raw images, or by my count 24 uncompressed raw+JPEG images. With 68 compressed raw+JPEG photos filling the buffer, it took my camera around 28 seconds to completely clear. For the 24 uncompressed raw+JPEG files, it took about 21 seconds to clear the buffer.
Having only shot the Sony a7R IV for portraiture in well controlled, studio-lit situations, I can’t offer a complete report on how the improved autofocus performs. The camera does sport even more phase-detect autofocus points, now 567, that in theory should return even more precision. For those that live by portrait shooting, however, the Real-time Eye AF (and Real-time Eye AF for Animals) worked extremely, extremely well for me. Most of the time I could just leave the camera in Wide autofocus area, have it automatically pick up and continuously track the subject’s eye thanks to Real-time Eye AF, and not even think about focus ever while shooting and connecting with the subject.
For added control, I do have one tip: custom map a button to have it switch which eye is tracked in focus. By default the camera will automatically switch between eyes depending on what it thinks is closest or more visible, but in some trickier portrait setups the camera doesn’t get it right all the time (it will be perfect focus, but not the eye you hoped for). Having a custom button to switch if the left or right eye immediately and reliably goes into perfect focus is real power.
If you make money by shooting portraits, it honestly just makes good business sense to get one of these cameras with Real-time Eye AF regardless of any other flashy specs because of the implication of not having to worry at all about one of the most critical elements to your final images that you need to sell.
Pixel Shift Multi Shooting
In my eyes, the Sony a7R started off as a landscape camera when the original model first debuted. Since then, it has really set the bar in many different areas outside of just high resolution and great dynamic range. The new Pixel Shift Multi Shooting (PSMS) mode makes it clear though that all landscape photographers are still home to the a7R series. The a7R III had a PSMS mode that would compile four individually captured raw photos into one image with 169.6 megapixels worth of extreme detail. Now, the a7R IV takes it even further and can combine 16 captured raw photos into a single 240.8-megapixel image. That’s a resolution of 19,008 by 12,672 pixels. The catch is that PSMS files need to be merged together inside Sony’s own Imaging Edge software. It’s an added trip in the post-processing workflow, but Sony has been improving their editing applications since the feature first premiered and you can now get in and out with the combined image fairly quickly.
If you didn’t watch the launch event livestream from Sony, you may have missed this detail in the coverage. And if you did watch the launch event, you may be scratching your head and trying to connect the dots in your head like I did. On stage, Senior Technology Manager Mark Weir spent a suspiciously long amount of time talking about the a7R IV’s crop mode, a feature that has been a part of Sony’s full-frame cameras since the beginning and that I’d guess almost nobody takes advantage of, opting to crop in post instead. So why now talk about crop mode?
To be fair, the crop mode of the a7R IV is unlike any crop mode seen before. Because of the monster 61-megapixel sensor, putting the camera into crop mode outputs 26-megapixel images. This means that not only is the a7R IV the highest resolution full-frame camera, it’s also the highest resolution “APS-C” camera. The trick doesn’t stop there either. As the sensor is being cropped in but the autofocus points are staying in the position they were for full frame, this means that in crop mode there are 325 autofocus points covering nearly the entire frame, a number that’s not that far off from the 399 autofocus points of the a7R III.
This was all explained by Weir on stage, sucking up precious introduction time to the a7R IV, and this led me to believe that Sony was hinting towards combining high-end APS-C cameras with full frame at some point in the future; that the a7R IV in some respect was purposefully trying to cannibalize some of the holdouts for a never-to-come a7000. When I questioned two different Sony marketing employees, I was assured that this was actually not the intent. It was merely a way to emphasis how much megapixel power the new camera had, and that any further reading into it was just a part of coincidence.
In practice, having the crop mode handy on the a7R IV was actually a useful tool when pairing the camera with the new FE 35mm f/1.8. I had mapped the focus hold button on the lens to switch between full frame and crop, and this allowed me two different looks to my images at my fingertips. Because 26-megapixels is more than enough for anything I would need, there’s no real penalty in using crop mode anymore.
Vertical Battery Grip Accessory
Along with a new super-resolution camera, we also got a matching battery grip to go along with it. Although it has a completely forgettable name, the VG-C4EM, for some photographers it will become a vital piece of kit to pair with their new camera. One of the two days of shooting time with the a7R IV I used this new grip. The button layout and feel to them match up very well with the camera body, and it also features a separate joystick which is essential to my personal shooting. It has a truly deep grip, not just deep for mirrorless, with finger room that rivals any DSLR.
My only complaint while using the battery grip is reaching with my thumb to the control ring on the back of the camera. It’s not impossible or all that uncomfortable of a reach, but it’s a noticeably different location than shooting in landscape and does require a full thumb stretch. I’m sure if I were to own the a7R IV it would only be a matter of time until muscle memory helped with this.
Should I Buy the a7R III or a7R IV?
What’s impressive to me in itself is that Sony is apparently willing to ship a new model of camera that has only incremental upgrades over its predecessor rather than holding off and waiting for several marquee features to develop and distinguish it more obviously. That’s showing off the level of power they have with their production line. This is not to say the Sony a7R IV is not impressive; it’s one of the best cameras ever made. Much of that honor, however, is achieved simply because the a7R III was already one of the best cameras on the market.
As of right now, the a7R IV is priced $1,000 above the a7R III, although the a7R III is technically on sale for $500 off to make that the case. It would not be surprising to see the a7R III get a permanent price drop. If the difference will truly only be $500, the case is easier made to just get the a7R IV which obviously has the newer and better technologies but also will likely get future firmware updates longer than the III. If the difference between the two does remain $1,000 though, that’s a whole lot of cash that could go into a nice lens instead and makes it hard to justify the IV over the III unless some of the new features really speak to you. If you just can’t help yourself to own the latest and greatest, this won’t apply, but I think the a7R III is still such a well-made camera that it could be a smarter choice to get 80% of the camera the a7R IV is and save a good amount of cash. The smartest move of all if upgrading isn’t completely necessary at the moment might be to just wait until Black Friday or holiday sales this year and see what happens to the prices to these high-end Sony cameras.
The Sony a7R IV is available for $3,498 and preorders are starting now. Cameras start shipping to customers on September 12, 2019.