I’m close to being done with the a7S review. In this post, I’ll depart from my usual objective reporting and give you an impression of what operating the camera was like.
When I first got the camera, I thought of it as sort of like a Nikon D3 or D3s, both of which I loved enough to buy multiple copies. Same resolution. Full Frame. Great in dim light. Makes sense, in a superficial way.
It turns out that what the a7S is good for and what the D3s was good for are miles apart. Oh, there’s one aspect that’s the same: they are both great low-light performers, the a7S more than the D3s — sensors are getting better. The D3s is a run-and-gun camera, with really rapid auto focus. I remember taking pictures with the D3s and a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens of a row of musicians during a Carmel Bach Festival rehearsal a few years ago. I was sighting down the row, shooting wide open, so that the musician in front and the one in badk were pretty far out of focus. It was a nice look. Then the player I was lined up on leaned back and the lens snapped into focus on the one behind so fast it was shocking. That’s not going to happen with the a7S. First off, it focuses only by contrast detection, like the a7R but unlike the a7. Not only is that inherently slower, since the AF system can’t take a reading and jump immediately to something close to the in-focus position, it means that the camera can’t do very effective predictive focusing of a moving subject.
Sure, there are advantages of contrast autofocus over phase detect — no forward or back focus (unless it focuses on the wrong thing), more choice of focus points, choice of the size of focus points — and there are reasons to include both like the a7 does, but alone, it’s just not as good a system, in my quasi-humble opinion. It was never a problem with the a7R, because I used that camera very deliberately, but when I used the a7S and the Zony 55 or the Sony 70-200 f/4 G lens in fast moving situations, it was frustrating. I kept comparing it to the D3s, and it kept coming up short.
To give you an idea how much the a7S AF slows things down, when I pressed one of the focus-lock buttons on the 70-210 in bright light, the frame rate in continuous mode would double.
This is not really saying that there’s anything wrong with the a7S’s autofocus; it’s more that I had the wrong idea of what camera to compare it to. If I’d thought more clearly at the outset, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. The AF works pretty well in really dim light, probably a bit better than the AF on the D3s in similar darkness. It’s only the difference between “terrible “and “pretty darned slow,” though.
A lot of the handling of a camera is the user interface, and the a7 user interface is one I know and don’t love. It’s pretty much the same as that on the a7 and a7R. Perfectly serviceable, but no fun to use, Not enough direct access, controls too light, too easy to change something without knowing it, and way too many menu items. I do like the fact that it’s so configuable, including the two memory settings on the control wheel on the top of the camera, and the assignable function buttons. Sony’s user interface has been making progress with each generation since the NEX-7, and I think they’ll get there eventually. But here’s a hint to the Sony engineers working on the next camera: get yourself a Nikon D4 and use it for a while.
The a7S silent shutter opens up new picture taking possibilities, and could be reason enough to buy the camera for some. It would have changed my photographic life to have had this feature when I was taking pictures for the Carmel Bach Festival. I imagine that this camera is a godsend to still photographers working on movie sets who can finally say goodbye to cumbersome, heavy sound blimps,
Then there’s video. That’s really the reason I got the camera; I want to do some synthetic slit scan work with 4K video and the camera in the portrait position. For that I’ll need an external recorder, and the Sony-recommended one isn’t yet available. I’ll report on that at a (much) later date.