A few weeks ago, I started drafting a list of everything that Sony needs to fix on the a7 III. Then suddenly, in a move that caught everyone off guard, Sony announced the a7R IV. Have many elements on my list been resolved by this new generation of camera, or has the rush for an insane number of megapixels meant that certain details are being ignored?
Having bought my a7 III in December last year, it’s been something of a revelation, and the move to mirrorless (though with a few drawbacks) has made a difference in my work. However, the a7 III is certainly not a perfect camera, and there is plenty of room for improvement. With the a7R IV, Sony has made some changes, but in its desire to take the camera industry by surprise with claims of medium format quality, has the manufacturer forgotten to address certain aspects and forgone upgrades that many were expecting?
Speaking to a lot of Sony shooters — admittedly mostly a7 III shooters rather than a7R III shooters — megapixels have not been mentioned. While some are welcoming the 19 extra megapixels that Sony has managed to pluck from out of nowhere through some dark wizardry that’s been implemented into a completely new sensor, no one I spoke to said “I wish it had a higher resolution.” Perhaps, then, there are other reasons that Sony has suddenly dropped this bombshell (as will be discussed later), or maybe it’s a case of another camera manufacturer giving the market something it didn’t know it wanted.
Certain elements have been addressed: the autofocus box is no longer a color so drab and so hard to spot that it might well have been wearing a ghillie suit. The entire camera is slightly larger, and those who’ve been lucky enough to wield it have reported that it sits slightly better in the hand, especially thanks to its slightly deeper grip. There is a pair of UHS-II cards which perhaps should have been XQD, but at least the old UHS-I slot will no longer undermine the UHS-II slot. And the ports seem to have been reshuffled, meaning that the USB port may no longer be on a par with Joyce’s Ulysses in terms of accessibility.
In asking a7 III users what they’d like to see in the a7 IV, you’d expect to see a huge amount of overlap with what Sony users want to see in the a7R IV. A few are minor: from my straw polls, people want to be able to change drive modes more easily and would prefer not to have to wait for the buffer to empty first. We want a mechanical shutter that closes while we’re changing lenses so that the sensor is easier to keep free of dust. We want a lens release button that’s not on the wrong side (I think that ship has sailed), built-in ND filters, and improved IBIS. It remains to be seen whether any of these aspects have been addressed, but it’s worth noting that none of them has been mentioned.
Some things are already certain. A familiar refrain from users of third-generation Sony a7 shooters is the lack of a functional touchscreen. The first DSLR to boast a touchscreen was the Canon EOS Rebel T4i, and that was released in 2012. Given that many owners were looking forward to a bigger rear LCD with twice the resolution, there will no doubt be some disappointment that Sony has not offered any sort of upgrade, especially when other mirrorless manufacturers are demonstrating how it’s done. Furthermore, the screen still doesn’t fully articulate. Admittedly, this is a camera designed more for still shooters rather than videographers, but this does not bode well for those waiting for the a7 IV, not to mention the long-awaited, much-anticipated, and arguably overdue a7S III. If the a7R IV doesn’t have a funky flippy screen, those waiting for Sony’s other forthcoming releases might want to brace themselves for some bad news.
The fact that the menu system doesn’t seem to have been addressed is a massive disappointment. As detailed in this article, the menu has long been an afterthought in Sony’s R&D departments, cobbled together by a jaded intern who, after a night on the town, managed to grab a quick coffee with a stressed technician before designing something that’s just about comprehensible but sits a country mile from acceptable. Refinement of user experience is an alien concept among Japanese camera manufacturers, preferring to leave it to their European counterparts. I’d be happy to have a whip-round and see if we can treat a handful of folk from Sony/Nikon/Canon to a trip to Germany and Denmark so they can see how it’s done.
Some of the comments in this aforementioned article suggested that photographers would be happy using a computer that has nothing more than MS-DOS command prompt rather than the GUI that modern operating systems offer. Usability is not a concern for many customers. By contrast, if I'm spending thousands of dollars on a tool, I want it to feel refined, especially as I’m using it to achieve something creative. My camera is not a photocopier (and now that I think about it, photocopiers have touch screens and menu systems that make sense).
Quite why user interface is so absent from anyone’s radar in Sony is a mystery, and I’m asking anyone who has their hands anywhere near an a7R IV to do one quick test for me. Bring up the histogram and then change the ISO. If the histogram disappears, to me, it’s another nugget of proof that Sony has been in a hurry to get this camera to market. Refinement is one thing; fixing elements of basic functionality is something else.
So, why are megapixels more important than refinement? Why has Sony made this announcement now, when the a7S III, the a7000 (a.k.a. the a6700), and the entry-level full-frame camera (a5?) are still waiting in the wings? I have a few theories.
The first is simply because it can. Sometimes, it feels that Sony is a giant corporation that makes sensors and that its cameras are almost a byproduct. If it can undermine other camera manufacturers by releasing a product that blows theirs out of the water (while overlooking so many other aspects), then why not? Four years on, it’s still not clear whether Canon will be able to match the performance of the sensor in the a9. Imagine what the a9 II might be about to offer.
A second option is that Sony has caught a scent of what Canon and Nikon have been cooking and has moved quickly to undermine them. If Canon was brewing up a 50-megapixel beast that was about to go head-to-head with the a7R III, why not fart out a 61-megapixel camera simply to screw with them? Why do product cycles have to climax in dramatic events that Canon and Nikon have decided should take place once every three to four years? Maybe incremental improvements are Sony's next move in claiming market dominance.
Thirdly, the pricing of the a7R IV is a little ridiculous. It might not exactly be all of the “medium format quality” that Sony’s marketing department would like us to believe, but it’s certainly pushing the envelope. The pressure on Canon and Nikon to price their forthcoming high-resolution mirrorless cameras aggressively is now even greater. Certainly, the model of loss-leading with the bodies and creaming a profit from the lenses is one that Sony seems to be embracing wholeheartedly.
The other aspect of this aggressive pricing is the impact it will have on the price of the a7R III. As it stands, B&H Photo has it listed at just shy of $2,500. Arguably, its main DSLR competitors are the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5DS which are currently selling at $2,996 and $3,499, respectively, while the Nikon Z 7 sits at $3,396. If those are your choices right now, Sony is coming for you.
There might be a handful of other good reasons as to why Sony is pushing out a camera that doesn't feel like an upgrade beyond one significant headline. If you'd like to offer your thoughts, be sure to leave them below in the comments.