WHAT THE SONY A7s OFFERS IN GOOD AND BAD LIGHT

On the photographic internet people obsess and argue over small differences in resolution and noise levels. In actual fact many cameras, even different sensor systems, produce remarkably similar results, as I've often found in my comparison tests. The Sony A7s, however, seems to me to be significantly different.

Other cameras have high ISO performance that is approaching the A7s, but these are large, bulky and noisy DSLR's. Because not only is the new Sony FE mirrorless camera superb in low light, it's also small, light and totally silent. If you have any aspirations to be a photographer whose primary goal is to observe rather than influence what's in front of you then the Sony A7s is the camera for you. It's a camera for those who want to take photographs, but would rather not carry camera / lens combinations that signal that intent and of course often change what happens in front of those very combinations.

This is a camera that also frees us up from the constraints of low light levels and offers an easy to carry and use window into worlds that have, up to now, been difficult to document photographically. It opens up possibilities in new areas and literally sheds light on what have been always regarded as 'problem' photographic situations. It looks far from revolutionary with it's retro film SLR styled design, but that may well be what it is. A revolution in what we can document and how we document it. I've always shied away from this word in the past, but the Sony A7s is genuinely awesome. 

BAD LIGHT

Sony A7s Sony SEL1018 10-18mm f/4 OSS E-mount Wide-Angle Zoom Lens

I wrote yesterday about shooting inside a stately home with the A7s and this is an example of what it does. Unlike the picture above, the interior of this house is VERY dark. So dark in fact that one of the staff who was showing a visitor some detail had to get a torch out. I've been there before but I didn't actually see much and my attempts to take some photographs, with an A7 and a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 didn't yield particularly useful results. The lens was always wide open and the resulting files were either very noisy or 'detail-free' due to the applied noise reduction.

Yesterday couldn't be more different. Using my 10-18mm at f/4, I got some decent depth of field and more importantly pictures that actually showed what I could only see in reality with extreme difficulty. 

Sony A7s Sony SEL1018 10-18mm f/4 OSS E-mount Wide-Angle Zoom Lens 100% blow up

As you can see from the 100% blowup above, the noise levels are very low yet lots of detail comes through. Add in the fact that I took this hand held at 0.3 second at ISO 12800 and you will perhaps understand why I'm so enthusiastic for this camera. 

I've added some noise reduction in Photoshop to the raw file, but this is still capable of decent size print reproduction. 

Sony A7s Sony SEL55F18Z Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens

Above is an unedited out of camera jpg. again shot at ISO 12800 with my 55mm f/1.8 lens at f/2, so you can see what that output is like. Again the image is sharp with lots of detail. Also like all the images I shot in the house, the dynamic range is superb also. 

Now there are very few occasions where I work in light this bad. In all the weddings I shot I never went below ISO 3200, even in the darkest churches. (because they did usually turn the lights on!!) I did shoot some factory interiors some years ago with a Nikon D3 at ISO 128000, but it took me ages to get usable images from that and they were nowhere near as sharp and clean as these A7s files.

At the top end of the ISO range, up to ISO 409600 things do get worse for stills and I can't imagine my ever wanting to use that setting. With the full pixel readout and downsizing, this however would be very useful for video. 

I would also mention here that the EVF on the A7s, like on the other FE cameras, is the best I've used in low light. The EVF on my Leica T, which is the sharpest I've used in good light, gives up when the light levels get low. Not so on the A7s, which has a very clear image even under the circumstances I've been describing. 

Now this is early days and I still have to explore just what the A7s will do at high ISO's. But a great start and I'm sure I can better results than I have already, with a bit of experimentation in Photoshop. A camera that lives up to the hype as the low-light champion? Well yes I think so, though some comparison tests with my Df and Fuji X cameras will confirm that (or not) Certainly the A7s offers a genuine improvement in high ISO sensor performance that makes some other manufacturers claims about their cameras the hot air that they in fact are. Now all Sony need to do is make some more light, small, fast primes that I can use on it!

GOOD LIGHT

Up to now my focus has been how the Sony A7s performs in low light conditions at high ISO's. However an unexpected sunny afternoon allowed me to see that it's also seriously impressive in good light as well

Sony A7s Nikon Series E 100m f/2.8

I took out the above combination, Voigtlander 20mm f3.5 Color Skopar SL II Lens - Nikon Fit, Nikon Series E 100mm f/2.8 used via my Metabones Nikon > Sony E-mount adapter. 

When I was looking at these images last night and editing them I did think that sensor development and pixel count has been going the wrong way. Because the images the A7s produces are beautifully sharp and detailed with great dynamic range. They also upsize better than any other files I've created. I was able to get them to 21MP with no problem at all. The interpolated versions looking better than many of my camera file output at 'normal' size.

So the pixel size and density really does make a difference. It also makes a nonsense of all the fuss about AA filters. The A7s has one, but the sensor still produces incredibly sharp files. Due to the cleanness of the high ISO results I used f/11 on both lenses most of the time. So the images I got in sunlight were around the ISO 320-640 mark. Apart from the fact that these files look like ISO 100 on most other cameras, there seemed to be no softening from the AA filter. In fact the whole thing is a bit of myth these days, because if cameras don't have one, the manufacturers achieve the same result with in camera software anyway.

OTHER STUFF

The A7s also has a interesting option. There are three options for high ISO NR. Off - Low - Normal. Below are two jpgs. shot at ISO 2000 and you can see the difference between off and normal.

In the gallery above you will see some black and white shots. These are high ISO images and I found that the green channel was the cleanest. As you can see in the sample below the A7s does produces a rather nice high ISO B/W image.

One negative is that whatever is going on in the camera it needs more battery power. I've found I go though batteries a lot quicker than with my A7r. Perhaps that explains why the camera came with two batteries and a charger. 

WHAT NEXT?

Using this camera is making me seriously think about what I've got on the shelf and more to the point how long it will be staying there. The A7s has single handed made a lot of my other cameras look like also rans.

For example, if Fuji persist with the X-Trans sensor, then I suspect I may well get out of the system altogether in the not too distant future. Much as I like using the cameras and especially the lenses, the A7s files are better in terms of ISO performance, sharpness and dynamic range. Plus of course they process quickly and easily via my preferred Adobe ACR / Photoshop option. Lenses are still thin on the ground for the Sony system, but as I found yesterday using my MF Voigtlander / Nikons is really no problem. The focus peaking on the A7s seems to be somewhat better and less unpredictable than on the A7 and A7r and with the higher ISO / DOF advantage it's easier to get crisply focused images. I was actually blown away with what my Nikon Series E 100mm achieved when stopped down. 

Sony A7s Nikon Series E 100mm f/2.8

So, Sony have seriously raised the bar with the A7s. It surely must be the most significant Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L camera yet released. The combination of quality results at all ISO's, the dynamic range, small and light design and of course the video capability make it a compelling option. It is a revelation to go out with a camera that will handle anything I might want to do with it.

Low ISO high-resolution Location images - CHECK

High ISO low light images - CHECK

"Pro level' video - CHECK

High quality jpgs.- CHECK

OLED EVF that works well in low light - CHECK

Fast AF - CHECK

Ease of use with MF lenses - CHECK

Ability to use a wide range of 3rd. party lenses (including apparently W/A Leica M lenses - CHECK

Lightweight - CHECK

Small - CHECK

So not much missing there.

Finally I met another Sony user yesterday. He was using an A7r with an old Zenit 50mm attached and we chatted about Sony FE camera for a while. One of the things he mentioned was how he wanted the 'full-frame experience'. It's occurred to me that I seem to want this too, since I now have three 35mm film size / full frame' sensors cameras. My two Sony's and my Nikon Df. And I see to want to use them more and more. 

Despite my liking for a lot of DOF (which of course the A7s offers me now) I seem to always be coming back to the larger sensor. It's probably my photographic history and experience, but somehow the shots I take with my 'full-frame' cameras look 'right' to me. There is also no doubt that the bigger sensors produce better looking files that are much easier to edit and 'enhance'. There is just more information there. 

It has also occurred to me that the A7s is perhaps the direction mirrorless should have taken, instead of the smaller sensor options. The FE series, in terms of camera bodies, have small footprints and with the right lenses combinations can be achieved that are smaller and lighter than DSLR's and offer all the mirrorless advantages as well. Because the bulk of m4/3, Fuji and the revamped Sony NEX series aren't really 'point and shoot' compact cameras, even though the manufacturers seem to see them as an upgrade to those. 

It's always struck me that mirrorless is a choice, in the main, for those who take their photography seriously and are interested in more than snapshots. And the A7s is a VERY serious camera. For me, it's the best all-round camera I've ever bought and used and it's the first camera I've never felt in some way inhibited by. I really do feel that I can go anywhere and shoot anything with it. It's a strange feeling, but I must say I think it's going to be addictive. 

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Many Thanks

David Taylor-Hughes