The incredible Sony a7R III will finally be unleashed upon an eager public this week (order HERE on Amazon.com). But, while you’re waiting to get the camera in hand to test out and try, we sent one of our amazing writer/photographers — Theano Nikitas — to Sedona, Arizona with Sony to test the camera out shooting models and gorgeous red-rock vistas.
Theano has been a freelance writer and photographer for over 20 years, covering everything from 35mm to medium format film cameras to, like the a7R III and a9, the latest DSLR and mirrorless digital camera systems. When not writing about photography, she’s off shooting shooting fashion and dancers in New York City as well as Kitesurfers along the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I’ve known Theano since meeting her on the Nikon D500 press trip and I feel privileged to share her expert opinions on the new Sony a7R III.
All A7R III sample images are copyrighted to Theano Nikitas and are used here with her permission.
SONY A7R III KEY FEATURES
- 42.2 MP BSI full-frame 35mm Exmor R CMOS sensor (same as AR7 II)
- No optical low pass filter
- Dust & moisture resistant
- BIONZ X processor
- 3.69 million dot OLED tru-finder
- Touchscreen LCD & physical joystick from the A9
- 399 Phase Detection AF points + 425 Contrast AF points covering 68% of the sensor area
- ISO 100 to 32000 good for 15 stops of dynamic range
- 4K @ 24p & 30p + HDR capability (with Hybrid Log Gamma & S-Log3)
- Super 35mm Mode
- Full 1080p HD video at 120p
- Pixel Shift Multi Shooting
- Up to 10fps in 14bit RAW
- 5-axis in-body image stabilization to 5.5 stops
- 2x Battery life (uses A9 battery)
- 2x speed Eye AF
- USB 3.1 (Type-C) & externally power the camera via USB
- Two card slots (UHS-II)
- E-shutter (shoot silently) & new mechanical shutter (avoid rolling shutter)
- My Menu lets you customize and move up to 30 menu functions
- Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
Michael S. Palmer: Sony stuck with the same 42.2 MP BSI full-frame 35mm Exmor R CMOS sensor from the a7R II and, instead, focused on processing power. What are the results? Are the still images improved or the same as before?
Theano Nikitas: I’d be hard-pressed to answer that definitively since I still need to process more RAW files in Capture One and Sony’s new Imaging Edge software (which just became available for Mac). But out of camera jpegs are stunning and, if I absolutely had to say one way or the other, I’d lean towards saying that I prefer the new camera’s image files.
Having just returned from a press trip with Sony to Sedona and seeing photos from other journalists on a high-resolution monitor at the end of the trip, the output from the a7R III is stunning. I thought images looked amazing on a laptop screen but seeing them on a large screen monitor was truly impressive.
MSP: From what I’ve seen, dynamic range is still quite similar to the A7R II and the D850. How is the dynamic range capabilities overall, and how does it compare to similar camera systems?
TK: I think the A7R III and the D850 are pretty close in terms of dynamic range. I think the dynamic range is an improvement over the a7R II but whether it’s the one stop difference that Sony claims is difficult to quantify. Again, I want to compare processing RAW in Capture One and Sony’s Imaging Edge software to get a better feel.
I have to admit that I’m often a pixel peeper when it comes to image noise and while the A7R III is quite capable of producing clean files at higher ISOs (I don’t have exact comparison numbers yet), I’ve always been impressed with Nikon’s controls over image noise so the D850 might have an edge here.
MSP: Sony touted the weather sealing during the press event, but is it as rugged as a Nikon D850 or Canon 5D Mark IV or Olympus OM-D EM1 Mark II? How does this weather sealing compare to the a9?
TK: I wasn’t about to put the A7R III (or the a9) to any torture testing since I don’t think my insurance would cover any damage and there’s not a whole lot of information about the weatherproofing of the new camera. Although the build quality feels quite good, I would probably give a nod to the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5D Mark IV for ruggedness—and Pentax has always been great about delivering excellent weatherproofing in their DSLRs. I do also like the feel of the Olympus OM-D EM1ii, too. But I would have complete confidence taking the a7R III out in inclement weather or to a sandy beach.
MSP: Sony cameras are blazing fast and have excellent image sensors, but mirrorless cameras don’t always feel as great in the hand as DSLRs. How does the A7R Mark III feel in your hand? Is it a good size/shape for most hands? What would you improve?
TN: Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of DSLRs — even with their extra weight and bulk versus mirrorless, and even though I have smaller hands than my (mostly) male colleagues — but I was very comfortable shooting with the a7R III. I really love the deeper grip and most of the controls were within easy reach. I prefer to assign Eye-AF to the C3 button to the left of the EVF rather than leave it at its default setting (center button of the 4-way controller)—it’s just easier for the shorter reach of my fingers. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d love to have a custom button within reach of my left thumb without having to let go of the camera.
The a7R III (like the a9 and other a7-series models) feels well-balanced, even with longer lenses such as Sony’s 100-400mm lens.
MSP: How is that new “joystick” on the back?
TN: I absolutely love the addition of the joystick! I know I wasn’t the only one who has been wanting this feature for a very long time. It’s a little stiff to operate and the edges seemed a little sharp (or maybe it’s just my “delicate” fingers) but that’s really a small nitpick since I’m thrilled to be able to move the focus point so quickly and easily in one fell swoop.
Also, for back button focusers, the new AF-ON button is an excellent addition.
One of my biggest issues with mirrorless, regardless of brand, is that shutter buttons and release seem a little mushy. The a7R III shutter button feel is far better than others but my DSLR preference kicks in here with a more definitive or tactile feel when depressing the shutter.
MSP: How are menus?
TN: Sigh. Sony’s menus system has, I think, always been one of the a7-series’ Achilles Heels (battery life being at the top of the list). While it has gotten better, the a7R III—like others in the a7-family–is afflicted with menu bloat. There are so many options that it’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for. And even if you know that a certain feature is in a particular menu, you may have to scroll through 14 pages to get to it. One solution might be to have clearly labeled sets of sub-categories within each menu.
MSP: The a7R III boasts the same OLED TrueFinder and high-res touchscreen LCD screen as the Sony a9, which are excellent. Any thoughts here?
TN: Excellent, yes, but I found that—especially in the bright sun of Sedona—the LCD was sometimes impossible to see because of the sunlight. That’s not unique to the a7R III, though. Although I tend to prefer optical viewfinders, the a7R III’s bright and clear EVF is generally a pleasure to use. And, there’s little to no blackout (depending on continuous shooting speed) in the EVF so you can follow your subject while shooting.
MSP: the a7R III is capable of shooting up to 10fps with either the mechanical shutter (audible, but no rolling shutter issues) OR the electronic shutter (silent but rolling shutter if you or your subject are moving too much). How does this feel in the field and how does it compare to other high-end DSLRs you’ve used?
TN: The first time I picked up the a9 at the press launch, it was so quiet and lacked the feel of a DSLR shutter, that I didn’t think it was working. For me, hearing that sound is particularly important during continuous capture when photographing dancers and runway since I only want to shoot about 3-4 images in a burst and I gauge how many shots I’ve taken by the shutter noise and feel. So I prefer using the mechanical shutter on the a7R III.
However, the a7R III performs admirably at high speed. With the a9, I felt like I went from driving an old Ford to driving a new Ferrari and it’s a similar feeling with the a7R III. It takes a little adjustment to get used to this camera’s speed and incredibly fast AF. Sony set up a studio test shoot when the camera was announced and shooting dancers with Profoto D2’s at high speed was pretty amazing.
MSP: How accurate is the a7R III’s metering system?
TN: I’d say it’s generally quite accurate, although I found (again, especially in Sedona) that the camera had a tendency to very slightly overexpose under bright conditions. But that’s an aesthetic preference, in part, and I prefer my images to be a little underexposed (and that usually makes it easier to pull out shadow detail, too).
MSP: The a7R III features a similar AF system to the a9 and can track moving objects really well. How did it perform for you overall and what are your thoughts on the Eye AF feature?
TN: Tracking continues to be excellent in most cases and Eye-AF’s increased speed and accuracy is impressive. It can be a little tricky to get the composition you want given the speed of the camera’s continuous capture. The a7R III delivers incredibly sharp images.
IN-BODY 5-AXIS IMAGE STABILIZATION
MSP: Outside of speed and body-size, my favorite feature in mirrorless camera systems is in-body image stabilization. It makes a world of difference in low-light shooting and video production. How does the a7R III compare to other mirrorless systems from Olympus and Panasonic?
TN: I haven’t shot with Panasonic in a long time, so I can’t speak to those cameras. In-body image stabilization might be a toss-up between the a7R III and the Olympus OM-D EM1 Mark II but at this point, I’d probably lean towards Sony’s SteadyShot—it was a lifesaver while shooting video handheld at the end of a long travel day with lots of caffeine in my system. And it works well with still shots too (this is especially important with so many pixels).
MSP: Most cameras shoot 4K today, but not all 4K is treated the same. How’s the a7R III’s video quality and how does it compare to cameras like the Nikon D850, Canon 5D Mark IV, Panasonic GH5, and Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II?
TN: From the one video I’ve shot and others that I’ve seen, the a7R III is a highly capable camera when it comes to 4K. Gorgeous colors, crisp images—overall, beautifully rendered.
MSP: I’ve found that the Nikon D850 shoots very lovely 4K video, but it’s accurate-but-SLOW autofocus ruins the experience. The Sony a9, on the other hand, has one of the best video AF systems on the market today. How does the a7R III video AF perform in the market, and how does it compare to the a9?
TN: I haven’t shot a ton of video with the a7R III or the a9 but AF works quite well on both cameras.
MSP: Sony may have finally put an end to all the poor battery life jokes with the a9 and now the a7R III. They’re claiming twice the battery life of the Mark II. I found this battery worked wonders with the a9. What was your experience on the Mark III?
TN: Let’s put it this way: On the press trip, they supplied us with the battery grip and an extra battery. I never used the battery grip since I wanted to keep my camera bag light and never had the need for an extra battery. I was able to shoot probably close to 2000 RAW + JPEG, including some 25-second exposures, without depleting the battery.
IS THERE ENOUGH SONY GLASS?
MSP: Sony is really pushing the full-frame mirrorless market forward and making many pros consider switching away from Nikon & Canon. In my humble opinion, Sony makes outstanding pro quality lenses, but are there enough Sony lenses for working pros? Or is it easy enough to buy an e-mount adapter?
TN: If you look at the G Master line-up alone, there’s a solid selection for many pro’s—from the 16-35mm to the 70-200mm. Probably the two mainstays for pro’s are the 24-70 and 70-200mm, with the 85mm f/1.4 especially important for wedding and portrait photographers. The new 100-400mm is really nice but at f/4 it’s a little slow for wildlife and sports shooters. Sony’s new 400mm f/2.8, still in development but announced along with the a7R III, along with Sony’s two teleconverters, should close the gap for wildlife and sports shooters.
In some ways, I think it’s an illusion that there may not be enough pro-level lenses. There are a number of excellent G lenses (not to be confused with G Master lenses), too. Granted, the rest of the e-mount lenses may not be as fast, but there’s a good variety, including the 12-24mm f/4. We have to remember where Sony started and how far they’ve come, especially with the e-mount lenses. Nikon and Canon have been in the camera business long enough to make multiple generations of the same lenses.
And, there are excellent, third-party e-mount options as well, so I think that “not enough lenses” isn’t really a valid argument for most—or at least many–pro’s who may be thinking of converting to Sony mirrorless.
MSP: What’s your overall recommendation for the Sony a7R III? Who is this camera for and who should skip it? Do a7R II owners need to upgrade?
TN: The a7R III may be described as the best of both worlds—resolution and speed and that’s a winning combination for many photographers. If you don’t need the fast capture, or double the battery life, then maybe the a7R II is sufficient. But product and architectural photographers, for example, will probably be enticed by the new pixel shift feature.
BONUS ROUND: SONY 24-105MM F4 G OSS
MSP: Everyone adores fast glass and fast primes, but sometimes a slower, quality zoom is more appropriate when you need flexibility and/or to keep your camera safe from the elements. Along those lines, Olympus and Canon have really hit it out of the park with their 24-100-ish-mm lenses. What are your first thoughts on the new Sony 24-105mm F4?
TN: When the a7R III and the 24-105mm lens were announced in NYC, that’s what we were given to shoot with for our initial testing at the press event. I wasn’t thrilled with the focal length at first. Sony followed up with a several day shoot in Sedona where we had access to all their lenses and I really surprised myself when I spent a lot of my time shooting with the 24-105mm. It was the perfect focal length for landscapes and portraits.
MSP: How’s edge-to-edge sharpness across the focal lengths?
TN: From what I’ve seen, it’s quite good. Of course, there’s some corner distortion at wide angle (especially at 24mm) but that’s to be expected.
MSP: Any fringing or errors that you noticed (keeping in mind that this was a pre-production unit)?
OKAY THIS TIME WE’RE REALLY DONE
MSP: Theano, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you SO much for sharing your images and first impressions of the Sony a7R III. Last question: are you buying one?
TN: Thanks, Michael! Always great to chat with you. As far as your last question…It would be a tough choice between the a7R III and the a9, since I’d love to add either one to my camera bag. I also have the tiny Sony RX100 V on my wish list, along with the RX10 IV (which is an amazing camera with its 24-600mm lens and incredibly fast AF and continuous capture). Sony’s produced so many amazing cameras lately, it’s difficult to narrow down my favorites.