A 61 megapixel sensor, 15 stops of dynamic range, 5-Axis Optical IBIS, 10 frames per second shooting capabilities. You're killing me here Sony. Do I want this camera? Hell yeah. Will I be getting this camera? Absolutely not. Here’s why.
When news of Sony’s latest release dropped last week, I looked on in amazement at the camera that I saw before me. Every time another spec of the new a7R IV was put in front of me, my jaw slackened a little more and my knees buckled like a newborn giraffe’s. What an absolute behemoth of a camera. I looked down at my Canon 5D Mark IV and gave it a little pet to reassure it. Then I watched some initial user reviews from pros, influencers, and everything in between and the one thing they all had in common was their sheer, stunned astonishment at the extraordinary piece of technology in their hands. It was like they were Charlie holding a golden ticket to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Gushes of delight from beginning to end. But once my gaping maw returned to standard position, I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be buying this apparent gold-standard camera for a couple of very simple reasons that I’d like to expound upon.
To make my point, I’d like to draw upon the car ownership situation here in my home of Japan and use it as an analogy for my Sony conundrum. First, have a look at the picture below.
They are the two cars I currently drive at home. You’ll notice the bigger Nissan on your right has a white number plate and the smaller Suzuki has a yellow number plate. The yellow plate cars are called "kei jidosha" and along with some other specs, must have engines under 1,000cc. When I first arrived in Japan I laughed my little Australian head off at the idea of cars with engines less than 1,000cc. I mocked my Japanese friends and insisted we had lawnmowers at home more powerful. Yet here we are 15 years later and I’m about to buy my very first brand new car. What am I going to buy? A 660cc engine minivan. Now, after you’ve stopped laughing at the idea of me actually spending money on something that’s got barely more grunt than a toy Matchbox car, let me give you the reasons why.
It all comes down to the use-case scenarios of cars here in Japan, particularly where I live. Or, in other words, what situations will I mostly be using my car? If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll know that cities like Tokyo or Osaka are crowded. Like really crowded. And the roads are filled with cars and traffic lights and stop signs and gridlock and single lane carriageways that all mean you’re not going anywhere too quickly. It’s why the trains are always crowded: to escape the even more crowded roads. And in the countryside, such as where I live in Kyushu, you have tiny little roads full of farmers and bicycles and tractors and potholes which all conspire to keep you at barely 30mph. Oh, I forgot to mention that the speed limits on most urban roads are about 40-50 kmh (25-30mph) and 60mph on the freeways. And there are enough speed cameras and police patrols making their presence felt to ensure that you don’t really get the chance to exceed those limits too much.
This all brings us back to my impending purchase of a 660cc minivan. In this country of so many amazing feats of vehicular engineering genius, I often look longingly at some of the cars I see at the dealerships or on the roads. Indeed, there’s a new Lexus just next door that is beautiful, just beautiful. But I look at that car and think it’s wasted here. Completely, utterly wasted. It could probably hum through the gears without a misplaced cog and hit 200mph in a blink, but when would that actually happen? The roads here are narrow, crowded, and strictly policed. I doubt that Lexus would hit 3rd gear 90% of the time. Is it a gorgeous car? Yes. Is it better than almost anything out there on the roads? Yes. Is it overkill in this context? Abso-friggin-lutely yes. And that’s why so many people opt for the yellow plate "kei jidosha" cars: because they’re far more practical and they easily cater for the needs of most drivers (as well as being 70% cheaper to run).
And so we come back to the new Sony a7R IV. What an amazing camera. A 61 megapixel sensor, 15 stops of dynamic range, 5-Axis Optical IBIS, 10 fps shooting capabilities, 567 phase-detection AF points at 74% coverage, real-time eye AF. The list just goes on and on. In almost every department it has upped the ante. It’s the very embodiment of what I hoped Canon’s foray into the full-frame mirrorless market would produce. It really looks like the gold-standard in the overall spec department. But when I stepped back and took a more circumspect view of things I came to the same conclusion as I did about the Lexus next door: the use-case scenarios for myself (and probably most others) mean that all those wonderful features and capabilities are not really given a platform to shine. And that being the case, it means I really don’t need them. That’s not Sony’s fault of course, but it’s the current reality and a reflection of our times.
What do I mean? Well, most of my work is seen online for various travel and photography websites. When I submit my photos for online sites and publications, I’m mostly required to save them at 72ppi in the sRGB color space, which is standard for web and SEO practice. Add to that the fact that more than 50% of people now use their mobile phones more than computers to use the internet and you can see that a 61 megapixel sensor that can create unbelievably sharp, crisp images at huge print sizes is not something I really need, unfortunately. And for those uploads to Facebook or Instagram, we also have to deal with their horrible compression algorithms on top of everything else.
Moreover, if I do create hard copy prints of my images, they are mostly photo books for clients or stock standard photo series sizes such as 5 x 7, 6 x 4, A4, A3, 18 x 12 or 30 x 20. For me personally, most of my bigger prints tend to be sold on canvas. With the printers I like to use, they require 220ppi in sRGB, and the very nature of the canvas fabric itself means that you lose some of the sharpness and crispness of an image once the ink hits the roll, which kind of abrogates any big image quality or megapixel advantages you might get with something like the Sony a7R IV. Indeed, I recently sold a 40 x 30 inch canvas to a client in California and they were ecstatic with the result, meaning my Canon 5D Mark IV is doing its job splendidly in the context it’s serving. So the upshot of all this is that while the Sony a7R IV is undoubtedly the most impressive camera I think I’ve ever seen at that price point, I really don’t need the jaw-dropping features it has under the hood, given that most of my work is online, at the smaller end of the spectrum for print work, or on canvas. And I’d hazard a guess that most other photographers are in a similar position.
Of course, I would never argue that my new 660cc minivan will ever be in the same ballpark as the mercurial Lexus next door, but when I’m driving through narrow, muddy rice fields full of hidden, potholed surprises, I’m reminded that it is a perfect car for the context it’s in. Likewise, I won’t put up some futile argument that the Canon 5D Mark IV's specs can hold their own against the new Sony a7R IV's, but when I think about the final output destinations for 95% of my work, I understand that it serves its purpose perfectly. And for that reason, I won’t be making the jump to Sony despite my longing leers.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.