I am not a Sony shooter, but, for the last couple of months, I’ve gotten a chance to play with the Sony a7S III and use it for an assortment of projects. Here are my impressions from the outside looking in.
The other day I was having coffee with my mentor from the American Society of Cinematographers. He’s a very well-established cinematographer responsible for the looks of several highly-regarded movies and TV shows. So, I tend to listen to pretty much everything he says in search of any nuggets of advice I can use in my own work. I can ask him anything. But, as often happens when two cinematographers or two photographers start a discussion, things frequently dissolve into discussions of cameras. All shooters love to talk about their gear. Like a proud parent cornering the mailman to share iPhone photos of their child's recital. Sure, the mailman has never actually met the child in question. But, just the same, the child’s riveting performance as a young Macbeth simply was so legendary that it’s information every man on the street needs to hear about.
I’m mainly a Nikon and Arri guy, for stills and motion respectively. At the time of our chat, I hadn’t yet received my Z 9 in the mail, so I didn’t yet know about its amazing capabilities in the video department firsthand. But he had just purchased a Sony a7S III and was understandably going on and on about its capabilities. He’d even gotten a chance to use it to shoot several episodes of a major network television show and found himself impressed by its performance. To be clear, he hadn’t shot the entire series with the a7S III. That honor went to the much larger cinema workhorse Sony Venice. Instead, he’d bought the a7S III just to have as a personal camera and found that it could also pinch-hit from time to time for B roll or as a crash cam for the TV show. Whatever the reasoning, he was clearly excited by what he was getting.
Aside from scanning past YouTube headers, I didn’t know much about the Sony a7S III. I knew it was full frame. I knew it was 12MP. I knew it was Sony’s low light king. I’d only ever really used one other Sony camera before, the a7R III. And while I did like the quality of the high resolution files of that camera, I never really fell in love with the ergonomics. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great camera, just not the camera for me. So I can’t say I really ever gave Sony serious consideration. At least not in terms of stills. But, nonetheless, I did keep hearing good things about the a7S III on the video side of things. And when my mentor seemed so enthusiastic about his recent purchase, I decided to activate the power of the press and see if I could get my hands on one to test out.
Now, in an effort to head off the inevitable arguments in the comments section, I will point out two things in advance. One, I am still a Nikon man. My Z 9 is the absolute bee's knees and everything I need for my work; I have no intention of changing brands. This was purely an exercise in curiosity and an effort to better understand what tools are available that might aid my work. This is not a comparison between Nikon and Sony, Canon and Sony, or anyone else.
This brings me to point two. The objective of my time with the camera was to get familiar with its capabilities and see what it could potentially add to a cinematographer’s workflow. This is not a full detailed review. The camera has been out for a long time and you can likely find a full detailed review elsewhere. Instead, I’ll be looking at the camera from the perspective of a working filmmaker and photographer who is already happy with his existing gear, but simply knows that an informed consumer is always a smarter consumer. It pays to know what tools are available. Both for your pocketbook and for your efficiency on set. So consider the opinions I share below as an effort for me to share information. Not as an effort to determine once and for all brand superiority. Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into talking about my time with the a7S III.
As luck would have it, that time was greatly delayed. The discussion I recounted in the opening paragraph happened a few months ago. And, while I put in my request to get a loaner of the a7S III right after I left the coffee shop, due to the global shortage for all things technology, it took four or five months until I actually received a loaner unit in the mail. As sheer coincidence would have it, I literally received my loaner a7S III on the exact same day I received my new Nikon Z 9. Literally, the same UPS guy returning to my door with a very confused expression on his face.
Now, as I said before, I’m not going to get into comparing the two cameras. They are very different cameras designed for very different purposes. But, the Z 9 definitely got far more attention in the first month. Not so much because of anything technical. Rather, practically speaking, due to the fact that the a7S III is only 12MP, I knew I was really only interested in the a7S III’s video capabilities. So there were limited reasons for me to take it out on still photography jobs or to use it as a walkabout camera for stills. It was there for video.
The other advantage the Z 9 had is that it is my camera, not a loaner. It’s the camera that is going to be with me long-term. So, it makes sense to get it into action as soon as possible. I then ended up loving the Z 9 so much that I pretty much never wanted to take it out of the action. So, in addition to several still projects, I also used the camera to shoot three film projects and a number of interviews. It easily achieved all the tasks I threw at it with aplomb. But the a7S III stayed in the picture as a B camera in the early weeks while I planned a few film projects on which it would be able to take the lead.
One thing I did know about the a7S III is that it was a vlogger’s dream camera. At least according to many vloggers on YouTube. And, while I have absolutely no interest in being a vlogger myself, the part of that praise that I thought might be applicable to my own workflow is the camera’s portability and ease of use. I’m not so much a content creator as someone working on narrative and/or advertising projects. What I shoot is generally well planned out in advance and tightly structured around a specific screenplay and visual ecosystem. In other words, I’m not necessarily running and gunning. Not that there's anything wrong with running and gunning. I'm just too much of a control freak for that to be my first choice. I’m coming in with a plan, executing that plan, then assembling the final result in service of a larger vision.
But, just because I work from storyboards, doesn’t mean that there’s never room for improvisation. And even on the most handsomely budgeted projects, there is always going to be a time when you need to think quickly, act even quicker, and it pays to have a camera system capable of running and gunning so that you can get the key shots necessary to complete your film. So, going in, this is where I saw the a7S III fitting into a professional workflow. I'd also heard lots of stories about how well the camera could perform in low light. So this is the type of project I was seeking to create so I could put the camera to the test.
I actually went about organizing a few projects. One big one, that would take running and gunning to the ultimate test, kept getting delayed due in part to my other shooting obligations and then my lead actress’ fun time with the pandemic which shall go unnamed. In the interim, I got to use the a7S III for several interviews. A talking head is probably the opposite of run and gun. But, this experience did highlight one of my favorite parts of the a7S III. The S-cinetone picture profile.
Eleven picture profiles came built into the a7S III with various gamma curves and color settings. I’m sure the Sony users reading this article will be very familiar with what each of these picture profiles do. But, I had to do a bit of research to figure out which profile to use and when. I’d heard about the S-cinetone because it’s also an option in the larger Sony Venice. But I hadn’t used it before. So, I tried it first. It’s not a log format like some of the other options. Rather it’s designed to give you a look ready to be delivered straight out of the camera with minimal grading.
I don’t claim to be a Sony pro or know all there is to know about each profile. But, what I will say is that the S-cinetone really did look amazing right out of the gate. Specifically skin tones. It ended up being a great choice for interviews because all the footage I shot was all set for editing. I’m not likely to do extensive grading on an interview anyway. So, knowing I can just worry about setting my color temperature and exposure correctly, roll camera, and get excellent skin tones was a real joy.
After knocking out several interviews with the camera, I got back to the business of putting it to use in more of a narrative environment. I still wanted to play to the camera’s strengths as a run and gun workhorse, but I also wanted to see how it would behave in a more controlled environment. I ended up finding a great chance to use it to shoot a spec commercial project here in Los Angeles. It would be a fast shoot with multiple locations and multiple shooting scenarios. There would be daylight exteriors with bright highlights and dark shadows, magic hour exteriors, nighttime exteriors with practicals, and carefully controlled night interiors which I would have the opportunity to actually light. I felt the project would give me the maximum ability to see how the footage performed both in a controlled environment and in a run and gun scenario when the camera’s small form factor would allow me to get in and out of areas with minimal fuss.
Because the final product would be heavily graded, I ditched S-cinetone and opted to use picture profile 8. This one had a gamma of S-Log3 and color mode of S-Gamut3.Cine. Sony users can correct me in the comments if I am wrong, but, from what I’ve read, this is the setting with the maximum dynamic range. I knew I’d be in some high contrast environments, so I thought this approach would give me maximum latitude.
I had two loaner lenses to go along with the camera. The Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM and the FE 50mm f/1.2 GM. For no reason at all aside from personal choice, I think I enjoyed using the 50mm a bit more (I’m a fast 50mm kind of guy), but, because I’d be composing for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, the extra breathing room in the 24mm was greatly appreciated.
One thing I didn’t appreciate so much in the 24mm however was the focus breathing. I might have perhaps picked the wrong Sony lens. Again, I am not familiar with the entire lens lineup for Sony. I just opted for the focal lengths and apertures that I needed for the project. But the 24mm did breathe a great deal more than I expected. I’ve read that certain Sony cameras have a breathing reduction feature which crops into the frame a bit to correct for that. But I wasn’t able to figure out how to activate it on the a7S III prior to the shoot. Again, if Sony users know how to activate this, share that info in the comment section for other users. In my case, I simply needed to plan accordingly for the breathing and adjust my approach.
One area where the camera definitely did pay off was in the size department. This may seem ironic to regular readers of my columns as I am not always the biggest fan of small cameras. In fact, one of the main reasons I never really jived with the previous Sony cameras is simply because they felt too small. I have big hands and like a big sturdy body. And, completely out of personal preference, I never found I really enjoyed holding the smaller Sony bodies. This is especially true for still photography. Video, on the other hand, has different ergonomic requirements. So, whereas I still prefer a bigger body for stills, the smaller body for video did come with certain advantages.
The main advantage to the smaller body is that it was inconspicuous. For a camera whose main strength is its ability to run and gun, the fact that it is literally smaller and less noticeable was a big help. If you are in a situation where you need to just jump into an environment and grab a shot quickly without disturbing the scene, this camera would be a good choice. I can see why vloggers who want to be filming themselves at all times would find the portability of the system to be convenient.
Another terrific feature of the camera is the autofocus. Including my loaner time with the a7S III, I can say officially that I’ve shot with Sony, Canon, and Nikon autofocus systems in the last month. I’m not even about to stir the hornet’s nest to try and compare autofocus speeds between the three. I will say, however, that, following the release of the Z 9, the difference between the three is fairly negligible at this point. There is a difference. Just not so big a difference as for that to be the basis for you to choose one over another. But, looking at the a7S III in a bubble, it definitely does a great job of not only acquiring focus but staying locked onto its target throughout the shot. I am still a proponent of manual focus for narrative storytelling. But for run and gun shots where you need to throw it into auto and go, the a7S III didn’t let me down once.
One feature I didn’t get to use, but that I like in Sony cameras is the intelligent hotshoe. This allows you to mount smart accessories directly into the camera’s hotshoe without needing to resort to external wires. I didn’t have any such accessories to play with, so I didn’t use the feature. But, I like that it’s there.
The camera also has a very useful set of monitoring tools with zebra patterns, audio levels, and histograms. I had no trouble nailing exposure which was especially important given I was going for a darker vibe. The one quibble I had was again more centered around ergonomics. I know Sony users are probably used to this, but as someone who usually shoots with cameras blessed with top LCDs which display your settings without needing to access the rear LCD, I did find myself constantly wanting to look at the top of the camera just for a quick reference of my current aperture and ISO settings. Not being able to do so wasn’t the end of the world, but it did slow things down a bit. Especially when I found my body contorted into a strange position to get a difficult shot, being able to easily see my settings without having to access the LCD would have been greatly appreciated.
I did put the EVF to good use. When I requested a loaner of the a7S III, I almost immediately second-guessed myself and thought I should have requested the FX3 instead. It’s the more “cinema” version of the a7S III. Since I was really only interested in the video aspects of the a7S III, the FX3 might have made more sense despite its lack of a built-in EVF. But, as things actually worked out, the a7S III’s EVF came in super handy on an extra sunny day and for extra stability when handholding.
Battery life was acceptable. Having spent the last several months shooting with the Z 9’s mega battery that never seems to run out, it was a shift to go back to the smaller Sony battery. I don’t own a large collection of Sony batteries, so I always had a V-mount solution ready. But, shooting in a narrative environment where I was able to turn the camera off between setups and wasn’t shooting particularly long takes, the battery that came with the camera was enough to get me through the day. Barely. But, it made it. If I were to own this camera, I would definitely buy myself a small armada of batteries to go with it.
I didn’t experience any overheating, although I mostly shot with the camera in mild to cooler temperatures. I know earlier Sony cameras had trouble with overheating, but I didn’t find this to be an issue at all with the a7S III.
The in-body image stabilization was quite good. I shot both handheld and from a tripod. For those shots when I needed to simply snatch the camera up in my hand, press it to my eye, and start rolling, the camera did a great job. Reviewing the footage, the shots didn’t appear to be obviously handheld. This was particularly impressive as the shoot day for my spec commercial coincidentally took place during a rare massive windstorm in Southern California that threatened to pick up both myself and my actress and fly us away at any moment. Just standing still was an issue, nonetheless keeping the camera steady.
As I mentioned earlier, my Sony a7S III loaner arrived at the same time as my Nikon Z 9. I also currently own a Canon EOS R5 and a Fuji GFX 100. Those are all very very different cameras with very different use cases. I only did limited side-by-side testing. One, I’m not a pixel peeping guy. I’m not picking cameras based on specs. I’m picking them based on my specific use case and which tool best allows me to access my creativity. But secondly, I only did limited side-by-side testing because it doesn’t take long to realize that whatever tool you choose to do your job, we live in a time where we are absolutely spoiled for choice. Each of those cameras I mentioned a second ago would be capable of shooting almost any project I could imagine.
There are obvious differences. For instance, the 102MP of the GFX 100 versus the 12MP of the a7S III. I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that you will notice a difference in your still images. But, I would also venture to say that the person who needs a GFX 100 is probably not the same person who needs an a7SIII. Likewise, I absolutely love my full body Z 9. But, if you prefer smaller cameras, are already in the Sony world, and don’t need internal RAW video, you will be just fine with the a7S III. What I’m trying to say is that whichever brand you’ve chosen, as long as you’ve chosen it because it fits your personal workflow, is probably a good choice.
So who should choose the a7S III? In my opinion, the reason to purchase the a7S III is the ease of use. So, for example, you're a vlogger who needs to have your camera pretty much ready to shoot at all times, even in extremely low light, doesn’t need to shoot a lot of stills aside from content for social media, and wants something light enough to carry around at all times, this could be the camera for you. Likewise, if you are a wedding videographer and want something light to carry around all day to snatch footage from the service and the reception, this could be a good choice for you. Or, if you are an existing Sony Venice shooter and you want a B camera to handle some dirty work but still provide footage that integrates seamlessly into your workflow, this could be a good camera for you.
As I said in the lead, my time with the a7S III was a curiosity rather than an attempt to replace what I have. But I enjoyed my time with the camera and learned about the tool and how effective it can be. Definitely wouldn’t hesitate to put it into real-world use for a shoot.
Some Things I Loved
- Ease Of Use
- Low Light Capabilities
- Exposure Tools
- Full Size HDMI Port
- Intelligent Hotshoe
- In-Body Image Stabilization
Some Things I Wished Were Different
- No Top LCD
- Focus Breathing in Certain Sony Lenses
- Not Really A Lot Of Megapixels on the Still Side
- No Internal Raw video recording
Without a doubt, I enjoyed my time with the Sony a7S III. I can clearly see why my mentor was so happy with his purchase and how effective it could be as a tool in a professional video workflow. If you are someone who wants a camera that allows you to be fast and efficient in your video capture, this could be an effective tool for you.