FIRST LOOK: Sony ILC-a7

    Sony's new, 24-megapixel ILC-a7 is one of a pair of 'full frame' Compact system Cameras (CSCs) announced today. The other is the 36-megapixel ILC-a7R, which has a higher percentage of metal in its body and lacks a low-pass filter in front of the image sensor to optimise resolution. Both models are almost identical in appearance and both feature dust- and moisture-resistance.
     

     The illustration above shows the palm-sized ILC-a7 camera with the Sony G 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens. (Source: Sony.)
     Photo Review had the use of a late pre-production unit with the new the Zeiss Sonnar T FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens (INSERT LINK) and we were able to conduct some of our normal tests and publish the results. Only JPEG images have been used in this review as the camera wasn't supplied with software for converting raw files into editable formats.

    The bodies of the new cameras are almost identical and both models offer similar features. The table below provides a comparison of the most important similarities and differences.

     

    ILC-a7

    ILC-a7R

    Effective resolution

    24 megapixels

    36 megapixels

    Body construction

    Aluminium alloy chassis with magnesium alloy top plate and polycarbonate front plate

    Aluminium alloy chassis with magnesium alloy front and top plates

    Focus system

    Fast Hybrid AF with 117 points (phase-detection) or 25 points (contrast detection)

    25-point contrast-detection

    Focus magnifier

    35mm full frame: 5.9x, 11.7x; APS-C: 3.8x, 7.7x

    35mm full frame: 7.2x, 14.4x; APS-C: 4.7x, 9.4x

    Flash synch speed

    1/250 second

    1/160 second

    Electronic front curtain shutter

    Yes

    No

    Maximum burst speed

    5 frames/second

    4 frames/second

    Viewfinder

    XGA OLED 1.3 cm colour electronic viewfinder with 2,359,296 dots; 100% FOV coverage, 0,71x  magnification, 22 mm eye point (from eyepiece frame), -4 to +3 dpt adjustment

    Monitor

    3-inch TFT colour LCD with 921,600 dots; tiltable up by approx. 90 degrees and down by approx. 45 degrees

    Dimensions (wxhxd)

    Approx. 126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2 mm(body only)

    Weight

    Approx. 416 grams (body only)

    Approx. 407 grams (body only)

    RRP

    AU$1999 or US$1698

    AU$2499 or US$2198

     Who's It For?
     The new '7-series' cameras are bound to attract the attention of both professional photographers and serious enthusiasts because they combine high imaging performance with a small form factor that is convenient to carry. Olympus is the company most likely to be affected by the release of the new cameras because Sony has managed to cram the 'full frame' sensor into a body that is roughly the same size as the recently-announced OM-D E-M1, which is only slightly larger than the highly-rated E-M5.
     
     

    The illustration above shows the Sony ILC-a7 and Olympus OM-D E-M5 side-by-side. Note the similarities in the body sizes – and the differences in the sizes of their sensors.

    Sony has recognised the relative paucity of lenses currently available for the E-mount system and will release the new cameras with an adapter that will allow Alpha-mount lenses to be fitted.

    Build and Ergonomics
     The ILC-a7's body has an  aluminium alloy chassis with a magnesium alloy top plate and polycarbonate front plate. It carries the label, 'Made in Thailand', indicating it is sourced from the Sony factory in Ayutthaya, about an hour's drive from Bangkok, where the NEX and SLT are made.

    Dust- and moisture-proof sealing has been applied to critical areas, including around the buttons and dials. A double-layer structure interlocks panels and components to prevent water and dust from entering the camera body and an anti-static coating has been applied to the sensor to repel dust, while ultrasonic vibration activates each time the camera is switched off to dislodge unwanted particles.
     
     

    The front panel of the ILC-a7 with no lens fitted. (Source: Sony.)
     The body of the a7 combines aspects of the popular RX1 and Sony's NEX designs, with a generous grip and well positioned controls. The top panel has the familiar three-dial control layout that was introduced on the NEX-7. But the dials are better labelled, making it easier to understand and use them.
     

     The top panel of the ILC-a7 with the Zeiss Sonnar T FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens that was supplied for our review fitted. (Source: Sony.)

    The mode dial is located beside the viewfinder housing and is clearly labelled with 10 settings: Auto, Program AE, Shutter-priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, Manual exposure, Scene Selection, Sweep Panorama and Movie. An exposure compensation dial is semi-inset into the right hand rear corner of the top panel, while a control dial is located on the top of the grip, just in front of the shutter button.

    The power on/off lever surrounds the shutter button. To its right is a small C1 button, to which can be assigned a wide range of adjustable functions. A hot-shoe on the top of the EVF housing allows users to attach various accessories, including flash guns and video lights. Stereo microphones straddle the EVF housing towards the front of the top panel, while a monaural speaker is situated beside the image sensor position mark left of the EVF housing.

     The illustration above shows the ILC-a7R accessorised for shooting movies. (Source: Sony.)
     The rear panel is dominated by the 3-inch monitor, which can be tilted upwards by roughly 90 degrees and down by around 45 degrees. To its right is a fairly conventional array of button controls, which includes an arrow pad with surrounding dial and directional settings to access the Display, Drive and White Balance adjustments.
     

    Angled view of the rear panel of the ILC-a7, showing the adjustable monitor plus the array of button controls. (Source: Sony.)

    Other buttons access play and delete functions, with the latter being customisable. An additional Fn button is situated just above the arrow pad. Above it is an AF/MF lever switch with a central AE-Lock button. The second dial control is semi-inset into the camera body just above it.

    The Menu button is located just above the top left hand corner of the monitor, while the Movie button is situated to the rear of the right hand side strap loop. Interface terminals can be found beneath two lift-up covers on the left hand side panel, the upper one containing sockets for attaching an external microphone and headphone, while the lower one houses the USB and HDMI terminals.
     

    Left side view of the ILC-a7, showing the interface terminals. (Source: Sony.)

    The battery is located below a lift-up cover in the base plate. A metal-lined tripod socket is situated in this plate, in line with the optical axis. Memory cards reside in their own compartment on the right hand side panel.

    Features
     Like most modern interchangeable-lens cameras, the a7 includes a high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) that provides a clear and colour-accurate view of scenes and covers the full field captured by the image sensor. The EVF on the a7 has a fast refresh rate that makes it ideal for recording movement, both when shooting stills and recording movies.

    And it adds the convenience of being able to display camera settings and playback recorded images and video clips without the user having to take their eye from the scene. This is a great advantage in bright outdoor lighting, where LCD monitors usually become unreadable.

    The LCD monitor is similar to those on recent SLT-series DSLRs and its tiltability provides flexible shooting positions. Sony's Quick Navi Pro function displays frequently-used shooting functions on the monitor screen, giving users a quick way to adjust them without having to scroll through menu pages.

    Both a7 cameras are highly customisable and users can assign up to 12 functions to the Fn button and apply any of 46 functions to the nine customisable buttons, highlighted in blue in the illustration below.
     

    The customisable buttons on the Sony ILC-a7. (Source: Sony.)

    Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC (Near Field Communication) provide fast and easy connection to smart-phones and tablets that use the Android operating system, once the PlayMemories Mobile app has been downloaded from www.sony.net/pmm. The download is free of charge.

     Using NFC to connect an a7 camera with an Android smart-phone. (Source: Sony.)
     Two applications are currently available for the a7 cameras: Direct Upload for uploading photos to networking services and Smart Remote Control, which enables the camera to be controlled from a smart-phone.  More apps promised for the future include Multiple Exposure, Lens Compensation, Photo Retouch and Picture Effect+.

    Multi frame noise reduction captures four frames and combines them to reduce noise at high sensitivity settings, enabling users to shoot with the equivalent of ISO 51200,  when required with minimal blurring through camera shake plus optimal recording of detail and contrast. The Auto HDR mode is another multi-shot function, which records three frames when the shutter is released and composites the best details from the highlights, mid-tones and shadows.

    Sony's D-range Optimiser (DRO) is a single-frame mode that can analyse and correct images to improve details in highlights and shadows. It can be used when photographing moving subjects and is supported in the continuous shooting modes. Like most modern cameras, the a7 cameras come with in-camera special effects. There are 13 Picture Effect modes (listed in the specifications) plus a similar number of other effects, which include adjustments such as Posterisation, Pop Colour, Retro Photo, Rich Tone Monochrome, Miniature, Watercolour and Illustration.

    Sensor and Image Processing
     The sensor in the ILC-a7 is a new Exmor CMOS chip with approximately 24,700,000 photosites, of which 24.3 million are used to produce the image. The a7 includes a low-pass filter to minimise moiré. (This filter is not present in the a7R.)

    The sensor is coupled to the latest BIONZ X processor, which delivers 16-bit processing and 14-bit ARW.RAW files, to preserve the maximum amount of detail with rich tonal gradations. Sony has introduced two new technologies to optimise image quality. Detail reproduction technology prevents outlines from being over-emphasised, while diffraction-reducing technology minimises the effects of diffraction at small aperture settings (large f-numbers).

    Large scale integration of data supports high-speed processing, while area-specific noise reduction applies differing levels of adjustments to different areas, based on edges, patterns and tonal uniformity. The new cameras support an extensive sensitivity range, from ISO 50  to ISO 25600, with the Auto modes limited to ISO 100-6400.

    Both cameras provide users with four image size options: 3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratios at both 'full frame' and 'APS-C' sizes. Details of image sizes for each setting can be found in the specifications at the end of this review.

    Video
     Like other recent interchangeable-lens cameras from Sony, the a7 (and a7R) give users the choice of AVCHD and MP4 movie recording formats. With the former, Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) recording is supported in the following modes: 50p at 28Mbps, 50i at 24Mbps, 50i at 17Mbps, 25p at  24Mbps, 25p at 17Mbps. Two resolutions are available for MP4 movies: 1440 x 1080 at 25 fps, 640x480 at 25 fps.

    Users can shoot movies in the P, A, S and M shooting modes and gain the  advantages of aperture and shutter speed adjustments to control depth-of-focus and how movement is recorded. Shutter speeds are limited to a minimum of 1/25 second in Auto Slow Shutter mode. The lowest sensitivity in movie mode is ISO 200.

    The Clear Image Zoom function has been enhanced for video recording, enabling users to frame subjects more closely without sacrificing pixel count. Pro-style movie features include an audio recording level control and display.
     
    The provision of microphone and headphone jacks gives users professional sound production capabilities. An optional XLR adaptor kit adds the ability to use professional microphones and inline connection for soundtrack recording. Separate control of the left and right channel inputs is available via this adaptor.

    The HDMI terminal makes it easy to transfer Full HD movie signals to an external monitor or large-screen display. Uncompressed movie recording is also supported via this interface and it also enables users to view still images at large size and in high resolution on wide-screen 4K compatible TV sets, equipped with TRILUMINOUS colour displays.

    Performance
     Images shot with the sample camera and Zeiss Sonnar T FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens, which is reviewed separately, (INSERT LINK) contained an impressive amount of detail and showed accurate colour reproduction with well-managed saturation in the default camera settings. These subjective assessments were confirmed by Imatest testing, which showed the camera to be capable of meeting and even exceeding expectations for the sensor's resolution across a wide range of sensitivity settings.

    We were unable to measure ARW.RAW images from the camera through the lack of a raw file converter so we will repeat our tests when a final production unit is supplied. In the interim, we have permission to publish the results of our Imatest tests on JPEG files. The graph below shows the results of tests across the camera's sensitivity range.

     

    Long exposures at night showed no evidence of noise right up to ISO 6400 and very little noise at the two higher sensitivity settings. Colour reproduction remained good at the highest sensitivities and there was no visible softening of images.

    Auto white balance performance was similar to other cameras we've tested. Shots taken under incandescent lighting remaining partly corrected, while shots taken with fluorescent lighting being virtually cast-free. For both lighting types, the pre-sets slightly over-corrected but manual measurement delivered a neutral colour balance. In-camera micro-adjustment of 15 steps on each colour axis (G/M and A/B) is provided for tweaking images as you shoot and white balance bracketing across three frames is available.

    Autofocusing was very fast and remained accurate at quite low light levels, including after dark. Hunting was never detected with the fast prime lens so it will be interesting to test this function with slower zoom lenses when they become available.

    Video performance was also excellent and the AF system was able to keep track with both camera movements when panning and subject movement within the scene. Soundtracks were clear with a surprisingly good stereo presence from the built-in microphones.

    Our timing tests were conducted with a 16GB Panasonic SDHC Class 10 UHS-1card. The review camera took approximately 1.5 seconds to power up ready for shooting. We measured an average capture lag of 0.1 seconds when the viewfinder was used for shot composition, and 0.15 seconds in with Live View mode. This lag was eliminated when shots were pre-focused with both viewing modes. Shot-to-shot times averaged 0.4 seconds.

    High-resolution JPEGs took 2.6 seconds to process on average, while ARW.RAW files were processed in 3.3 seconds and RAW+JPEG pairs in 3.8 seconds. In the regular continuous shooting mode the review camera recorded 10 Large/Fine frames in three seconds, regardless of the file format. It took 12.7 seconds to process a burst of JPEGs, 13.4 seconds for ARW.RAW files and 15.6 seconds for RAW+JPEG pairs.

    In the Speed Priority burst mode, the review camera recorded 12 frames in two seconds, regardless of the file format. It took 14.4 seconds to process a burst of JPEGs, 17.9 seconds for ARW.RAW files and 23.8 seconds for RAW+JPEG pairs.

    Conclusion
     Sony's new ILC-a7 cameras are certain to excite both professional photographers and serious enthusiasts alike – and they could put a dampener on enthusiasm for Olympus's new OM-D E-M1 camera. Although the E-M1 is significantly cheaper than the ILC-a7, it simply can't compete with the quality obtainable from the latter's  much larger sensor. And the higher resolution of the a7, provides an increased incentive to look in its direction.

    We feel the new Sony cameras present a challenge to other camera manufacturers to take a different approach and bring some excitement (and competition) to the middle and upper ends of the interchangeable-lens camera line-ups. We'd like to see some innovative products emerging from the Canon and Nikon stables  –  and maybe Pentax/Ricoh could use their innovative los-pass filter technology to revive to K-01 line.

    Olympus and Panasonic will likely feel the hot breath of competition on their backs. It will be interesting to see which directions they follow, whether towards full-frame CSCs or further innovations and improvements to their M4/3 products. Whatever, happens, this appears to be the beginning of a great time for digital photographers. But the M4/3 format will always win out over full frame in providing smaller, lighter and cheaper lenses.

    SPECS
     Image sensor: 35.8 x 23.9 mm Exmor CMOS sensor with 24.7 million photosites (24 megapixels effective)
     Image processor: BIONZ X
     A/D processing: 14-bit
     Lens mount: Sony E-mount
     Focal length crop factor: 1x
     Image formats: Stills – ARW.RAW, JPEG (Exif 2.3), RAW+JPEG; Movies – AVCHD (V. 2.0 compliant); MP4 (AVC/H264)
     Image Sizes: Stills – full frame 4:3 aspect: 6000 x 4000, 3936 x 2624, 3008 x 2000; full frame 16:9 aspect: 6000 x 3376, 3963 x 2216, 3008 x 1688; APS-C format 4:3 aspect: 3936 x 2624, 3008 x 2000, 1968 x 1312; APS-C format 16:9 aspect: 3936 x 2216, 3008 x 1688, 1968 x 1112; Sweep Panorama Wide: 12416 x 1856 (hor.), 5536 x 2160 (vert.), Standard: 8192 x 1856 (hor.), 3872 x 2160 (vert.); Movies: AVCHD - 1920x1080 at 50p/28Mbps, 50i at 24Mbps, 50i at 17Mbps, 25p at  24Mbps, 25p at 17Mbps; MP4 - 1440 x 1080 at 25 fps, 640x480  at 25 fps
     Image Stabilisation: Lens based
     Dust removal: Charge protection coating on optical filter and ultrasonic vibration
     Shutter: Electronically controlled, vertical traverse, focal plane shutter; electronic front curtain shutter available
     Shutter speed range: 1/8000 to 30 seconds plus bulb, X-sync at 1/250 sec.
     Exposure Compensation: +/- 5EV in 1/3- or 1/2-EV increments
     Exposure bracketing: Three frames in 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0-EV increments or five frames in 1/3, 1/2 or 2/3 increments
     Self-timer:  2 or 10 seconds delay
     Focus system: Fast Hybrid AF with 117-point phase-detection and 25-point contrast-detection with Lock-on AF, Eye AF, Predictive control, Focus lock; AF illuminator
     Focus modes: Single-shot, Continuous, Direct Manual Focus, Manual Focus; Multi Point (117/25 point), Centre-weighted, Flexible Spot, Zone AF selection
     Exposure metering: 1200-zone evaluative with Multi-segment, Centre-weighted average, Partial and Spot
     Shooting modes: Auto (iAuto, Superior Auto), Program AE, Shutter-priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, Manual exposure, Scene Selection, Sweep Panorama, Movie
     Scene Selection modes: Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports Action, Sunset, Night Portrait, Night Scene, Hand-held Twilight, Anti Motion Blur
     Picture Style/Control settings: Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Clear, Deep, Light, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Night Scene, Autumn Leaves, Black & White, Sepia
     In-camera Effects: Posterisation, Pop Colour, Retro Photo, Partial Colour (Red, Green, Blue, Yellow), High Contrast Monochrome, Toy Camera, Soft High-key, Soft Focus (High, Mid, Low), HDR Painting (High, Mid, Low), Rich Tone Monochrome, Miniature, Watercolour,  Illustration (High, Mid, Low), Off
     Colour space options: sRGB (sYCC gamut), Adobe RGB (compatible with TRILUMINOS Colour)
     ISO range: Auto: ISO 50 - 25600 in 1/3EV or 1EV steps
     White balance: Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent (x4), Flash, Underwater, Custom, Color temperature setting (Approx. 2500-9900K)
     Flash: Hot-shoe for external flashgun
     Flash exposure adjustment: +/-3 EV in 1/3- or 1/2-EV steps
     Sequence shooting: Max. approx. 5 shots/sec. in Speed priority mode; 2.5 fps in normal mode
     Storage Media: Multi slot for Memory Stick Duo  and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards; UHS-1 compatible
     Viewfinder: XGA OLED 1.3 cm colour electronic viewfinder with 2,359,296 dots; 100% FOV coverage, 0,71x  magnification, 22 mm eye point (from eyepiece frame), -4 to +3 dpt adjustment
     LCD monitor: 3-inch TFT colour LCD with 921,600 dots; tiltable up by approx. 90 degrees and down by approx. 45 degrees
     Playback functions: Single image display (with or without shooting info, RGB histogram & highlight/shadow warning), 9 or 25 image index; enlarged display (9.4x - 18.8x magnification), auto review (10/5/2 sec or off), image orientation (auto, manual, off), slideshow, panorama scrolling, folder selection (Still/Date/MP4/AVCHD), movie playback (forward/rewind), delete, protect
     Interface terminals: Multi/Micro USB 2.0 (Mass-storage, MTP, PC remote), Wi-Fi, NFC (Type 3 Tag compatible),  HDMI micro, microphone (3.5 mm stereo jack), headphone (3.55 stereo minijack), Auto lock accessory shoe, Vertical grip connector
     Power supply: NP-FW20rechargeable lithium-ion battery; CIPA rated for approx. 270 shots/charge  (viewfinder), 340 shots/charge (monitor)
     Dimensions (wxhxd): Approx. 126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2 mm(body only)
     Weight: Approx. 416 grams (body only); 474 grams with battery and Memory Stick Pro Duo card

    RRP: AU$1999, US$1698 (body only)
     Distributor: Sony Australia; 1300 720 071; www.sony.com.au.

    TESTS:
    Based on JPEG  files from the Sony ILC-a7.

     SAMPLES:
     All sample images were captured with the Zeiss Sonnar T FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens
     

     Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.

     Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.

    30-second exposure at ISO 50 at f/2.8.

    30-second exposure at ISO 100 at f/2.8.

    20-second exposure at ISO 800 at f/4.5.
     

    10-second exposure at ISO 6400 at f/6.3.
     
     

    6-second exposure at ISO 12800 at f/8.
     
     

    4-second exposure at ISO 25600 at f/11.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 100, 1/200  second at f/11.
     
     

    3:2 aspect ratio; ISO 100, 1/100  second at f/11.
     
     

    ISO 100, 1/100  second at f/9.
     
     

    ISO 125, 1/60  second at f/5.6.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 400, 1/60  second at f/9.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 6400, 1/60  second at f/9.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 6400, 1/40  second at f/11.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 6400, 1/5  second at f/5.6.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 3200, 1/25  second at f/5.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 6400, 1/10  second at f/5.
     
     

    16:9 aspect ratio; ISO 250, 1/400  second at f/11. Auto DRO selected.
     
     

    3:2 aspect ratio; ISO 250, 1/320  second at f/11. Auto DRO selected.
     
     

    ISO 80, 1/100  second at f/7.1.
     
     

    Stabilisation test; ISO 80, 0.8  second at f/9.
     
     

    ISO 800, 1/15  second at f/9.
     
     

    ISO 3200, 1/50  second at f/9.
     
     

    ISO 25600, 1/500 second at f/9.
     
     

    ISO 100, 1/15  second at f/10.
     
     

    Standard Picture Effect; ISO 80, 1/250  second at f/9.
     
     

    Monochome Picture Effect; ISO 80, 1/200  second at f/9.
     
     

    Sepia Picture Effect; ISO 80, 1/200  second at f/9.
     
     

    HDR Painting effect; ISO 80, 1/320  second at f/9.
     
     

    Still frames from Full HD movie clips at various resolution settings, captured in AVCHD format.
     

     Still frame from MP4 movie at 1440 x 1080 resolution.
     

     Still frame from VGA video clip.
    Additional image samples can be found with our review of the and Zeiss Sonnar T FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA lens. (INSERT LINK)

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