Sony A7S Review
Sony A7S Introduction
The Sony A7S is a 35mm full-frame compact system camera with a 12.2 megapixel sensor that provides an incredible ISO range of 50-409,600 and high dynamic range. Other standout highlights of the A7S include 4K movie recording (24p and 25p), XAVC S Full HD recording at 50Mbps, time code and optional XLR audio inputs, BIONZ X image processor, continuous shooting rate of 5fps and an improved auto focus system that remains operational down to light levels as low as -4E. The A7S also features a dust/moisture-resistant magnesium alloy body, XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, tiltable 3-inch LCD screen, and NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity. The Sony A7S is available now priced at around £2099 / $2499 body only.
Ease of Use
On paper at least the Sony A7S offers almost everything that the experienced photographer could want - a 35mm CMOS sensor with very sensible 12 megapixel resolution, interchangeable lenses, an OLED electronic viewfinder, a large and high-resolution LCD screen, full control over exposure via a variety of external controls, and 14-bit Raw file format support, all housed inside a compact and lightweight body that you can just about squeeze into a jacket pocket without a lens attached. Compared to a DSLR, the only notable thing that's really missing is a built-in pop-up flash.
Despite its large image sensor, the aluminium bodied Sony A7S is still quite small and slender, measuring just over 4.8cms in depth, 9.5cms in height and 12.7cms in width, and weighing 446g without a lens, battery and memory card fitted. There's a generously sized textured area for gripping the camera on the front with three fingers, and a large thumb-shaped lozenge on the rear, which makes the A7S easy to literally get to grips with, important as the rest of its aluminum body is very smooth.
Located on the minimalist front of the A7S is the lens mount and a small porthole on the left for the self-timer/AF illuminator, plus the front control dial which is set into the top of the handgrip. The A7S uses the E bayonet mount, but because the image sensor is so large, putting a regular E-mount lens on this camera will cause varying amounts of vignetting (which could be removed in post-processing) or an APS-C crop, which given the limited amount of megapixels on offer isn't a good idea. You can also use Sony's range of A-mount lenses by fitting the LA-E4 adapter, but that adds extra bulk and expense to the overall package.
So it's best to use Sony's new range of lenses with the "FE" name, denoting "full-frame E-mount". We were sent the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 55mm F1.8 for review with the A7S. The only other FE lenses that are currently available are the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm F2.8, Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS, Sony 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS and the Sony G Lens 70-200mm F4 OSS. In addition, the Sony A7S/A7 can be used with a wide variety of third-party lenses by buying and fitting suitable adapters.
On top the A7S has an external hotshoe, dubbed the Multi Interface Shoe, for attaching one of a range of accessories, including an external flash. Turn the On/Off switch on the top plate and the Sony A7S readies itself for action in a just over a second. The adequately sized shutter-release button has a definite halfway point, determining focus and exposure with a bleep of affirmation and focus points highlighted as green rectangles on the LCD. Note that when you do fire the shutter, it emits a rather loud mechanical sound that isn't particularly well-suited to more candid photography.
Which is exactly where the exciting new Silent Shooting function comes in. As its name suggests, enabling this function (buried on page 4 of the Settings menu) makes the A7S absolutely silent by using a fully electronic shutter to both start and stop the exposure. In conjunction with the incredible ISO range, this turns the A7S into a candid photographer's dream ticket, and is one of the main reasons for choosing the A7S as a stills camera in preference to the A7/A7R, which don't offer this function.
The A7S uses a 25-point contrast-based auto-focusing system, dubbed "Fast Intelligent AF", rather than the phase-detection systems that DSLRs typically use. Although a little quicker than the A7 camera, the the A7S's AF system does still suffer from a slight lag when shooting in good light or bad. It's certainly not terrible, but it's still enough to limit the A7S's use to slower moving subjects, and it's also not up there with quicker contrast-based auto-focusing systems from the likes of Olympus and Panasonic on their compact system cameras.
When you choose to manually focus, a distance scale is displayed along the bottom of the LCD screen, MF Assist can be turned on to magnify the image and help you get sharp results, and there's also the same convenient Peaking and Zebra functions from Sony's DSLRs that highlights sharply-focused areas of the image on the LCD screen. Go on to take the shot and JPEG or Raw images are quickly committed to memory in a single second, the screen momentarily blanking out and then displaying the captured image before the user can go on to take a second shot.
A round shooting mode dial with a knurled edge and positive action is also located on top of the A7S. This lets you quickly switch between the various shooting modes that are on offer. Sony has included Intelligent Auto scene recognition, which works in virtually identical fashion to the intelligent auto modes of Panasonic's and Canon's compact ranges. Simply point the A7S at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of a number of pre-optimised settings to best suit.
Adding to the A7S's snapshot simplicity, these features accompany face recognition and smile shutter functionality on board, the former mode biasing human faces in the frame and the latter mode firing the shutter when it detects a smiling subject. The Face Detection system automatically adjusts the focus, exposure and white balance for people in the frame, and can even be set to distinguish between children and adults. Smile Detection offers three self-explanatory options, Big, Normal and Slight. Used in conjunction, the Face and Smile Detection systems do result in more hits than misses, especially in contrasty lighting conditions, although all those smiling faces could ultimately freak you out a little! The self-portrait options in the self-timer menu work by automatically taking the shot with a two second delay after either one or two people have entered the frame.
In addition to the regular Program mode, which provides the full range of camera options and additionally allows you to change settings like the ISO speed and metering, is the welcome inclusion of Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and fully Manual modes which let you independently set the aperture and shutter speed, making the A7S instantly appeal to the more experienced photographer. The ability to choose from 30-1/8000th second shutter speeds opens up a lot of creative potential. There's also very welcome support for the RAW file format, which is really the icing on the cake for serious photographers. Two Custom modes on the shooting mode dial allow you quickly access different combinations of settings.
The proven Sweep Panorama mode lets you capture a panoramic image very easily without the use of a tripod. All you need to decide is whether you would like to start from left or right, top or bottom. Then press and hold down the shutter release while doing a "sweep" with the camera in hand. Exposure compensation is available before you start the sweep, but the exposure is fixed once you depress the shutter button. After you are done with the sweeping, the camera does all the processing required, and presents you with a finished panoramic image. There are two modes, Standard and Wide. Note that if you do the sweeping too slowly or quickly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will be truncated.
|Front||Tilting LCD Screen|
In the clever Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur scene modes, the A7S takes six shots in a rapid sequence, typically at a high sensitivity setting and a (relatively) fast shutter speed, and then combines them into a single image that has somewhat less noise than a single shot taken at the same ISO and exposure settings. In our experience, the difference between the two modes is that in Anti Motion Blur mode, the camera is more willing to pick a really high ISO setting to maintain a fast shutter speed, whereas in Hand-held Twilight mode, it will only go as high as absolutely necessary to avoid camera shake at the chosen focal length. If light levels are truly low, however, the A7S will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.
The small dedicated Movie button on the rear of the A7S allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button - a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most compacts. The Sony A7S can output uncompressed UHD 4K, 3840 x 2160 pixel video (30p/24p/25p) at a 4:2:2 color depth without downsampling, but only over HDMI to compatible third party recorders, rather than to a memory card. With no compatible recorders available at launch, we'll have to take Sony's word for it at the moment until products like the Atomos Shogun are launched (at a hefty $2000). The A7S also supports the XAVC S format, which is based on the professional XAVC codec and records full-pixel readout Full HD video footage at up to 50Mbps. In addition HD footage can be recorded at 100 fps in XAVC S mode for slow motion replays.
The A7S can also shoot 1920x1280 pixel video at 60p/50p/60i/50i or 25p/24p in the AVCHD format, and 1440x1280 or 640x480 pixels at 30fps in the MPEG4 format. There's the ability to change the EV level, white balance, metering, ISO speed, DRO/HDR, creative style and picture effect, plus various audio recording options. If you set the shooting mode dial to Movie, you can also choose from Program, Aperture or Shutter priority and Manual modes, giving you full control over exposure for both stills and movies.
The clean HDMI output from the camera also allows video to be viewed on an external monitor or recorded on another device. High-resolution still images can be displayed directly on a 4K television, offering four times the detail of Full HD. The A7S incorporates extensive customizable color and gamma controls, offering the ability to adjust the gamma, black level, knee, color level, and more, as well as use the same S-Log2 Gamma Curve that is found on high end Sony Cinema cameras, plus it offers multiple timecode recording options to meet different workflows.
The Sony A7S can shoot full-resolution 12 megapixel pictures at up to 5fps, quite a fast rate for a 35mm full-frame camera. To achieve the full 5fps you need to set the drive mode to the Speed Priority Continuous option, which locks the focus and the exposure at the first frame. The A7S's regular continuous burst shooting can change the focus and exposure between frames but provides a slower rate of 2.5fps.
The Clear Image Zoom function effectively digitally doubles the zoom range of the attached lens, using Sony's Pixel Super Resolution Technology to increase the magnification. The Auto Object Framing mode uses face detection and the rule of thirds to automatically crop and create more tightly framed shots. The same Pixel Super Resolution Technology ensures that the resulting image is still a full 12 megapixels in size, and the original uncropped image is also saved for easy comparison.
Sony's long-standing D-Range Optimizer and HDR functions are present to help even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow. You can see from the examples on the Image Quality page that these features produce a photo with noticeably more dynamic range than one taken using one of the standard shooting modes, but at the same time without replicating the often "false" look of many HDR programs, and both offer a wide degree of customisation that's previously only been seen on Sony's DSLR/SLT range.
Completing the top of the A7S is a second prominent dial for setting Exposure Compensation and a small button marked with C1, which as the name suggests can be customised to access one of the camera's key controls (it's handily set to Focus Point by default).
On the back, instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Sony A7S has an electronic viewfinder. The OLED electronic viewfinder on the A7S is borrowed from the A7/A7R cameras and is simply excellent. It has a large 0.71x magnification, 100% field of view, and a staggeringly high 2,359,000 dot equivalent resolution, resulting in a display that's virtually indistinguishable from a more traditional optical viewfinder.
As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information, with a choice of five display modes. For example, you can view and operate the A7S's Function Menu, giving a true preview of the scene in front of you and quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible. The icing on the viewing cake is the clever built-in eye sensor, which automatically switches on the viewfinder when you look into it, then switches it off and turns on the LCD monitor when you look away.
The A7S's EVF system also performs very well indoors in low light, typically the scourge of most EVFs which have to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. The A7S doesn't suffer from this unwanted effect at all, making its electronic viewfinder the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder. The truest testament to the A7S is that we almost exclusively used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that we wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.
There's also a large 3-inch, 921K-dot resolution LCD screen which can be tilted up to 45° downwards to shoot over crowds or up to 84° upwards and comfortably used outdoors even in harsh sunlight, although it can't be rotated to the side. Located above the screen and to either side of the EVF are the Menu and C2 buttons.
Press the Menu button and a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with white text on a black background aiding visibility. The seven shooting folders allow users to select image size, ratio and quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too, plus features like long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact activated as a default, and also contains the video quality and audio options, while the six Customise folders allow you to tweak the A7S to your way of working. Wi-fi, Apps, Playback, and Setup folders complete the long list of configurable options. By default the C2 button allows you to position the magnification point when manual focusing and zoom in by up to 14.4x, but as the name suggests it can be customised to another function.
To the right is the chunky rear control dial and a useful one-touch movie record button embedded within the edge of the rubberised thumb-rest. Underneath is the combined AF/MF and Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) switch/button, and underneath that the Function button which accesses up to 12 customisable options that appear on in two horizontal columns along the bottom of the LCD screen. The Function menu proves to be a very handy way to quickly change the A7S's key settings and one of the main ways of setting the camera to suit your shooting style.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The traditional round navigation pad can be used to navigate through menus and options, in conjunction with the small button in the middle which activates whatever it is you've chosen. Three of the four directions on the navigation pad can also be customised to provide a quick way of setting various options. The navigation pad doubles up as a control ring that's used to navigate through and set menu options, and usefully also sets the ISO speed by default. The ring is a little small, but it's not too over-sensitive and the ability to take full control of the A7S is very welcome. In total the Sony A7r offers nine customisable buttons and 46 assignable functions, making it very easy to configure to suit your particular requirements.
Underneath the navigation pad is the Playback button, which gives users the ability to dip in and out of created folders of images or the calendar view, view thumbnails, select slideshows and choose transitional effects and accompanying music, or delete shots. Press the shutter button halfway and you're helpfully catapulted back into capture mode. And that's basically it. With a press of the Menu button in playback, users have access to a few in-camera retouching effects, including the ability to crop and sharpen an image and apply red-eye correction. Completing the rear of the A7S is the self-explanatory Delete button, which doubles up as the customisable C3 button (accessing the wi-fi options by default).
As denoted by symbols on the side of the camera, the Sony A7S is wi-fi and NFC capable and the functions can be adjusted in the Wi-fi main menu. You can choose to transmit the images to either a smartphone computer, or a compatible TV set. One cool feature of the wi-fi is being able to link the camera to your smart phone using the PlayMemories Mobile app. You can then use the phone as a remote so those outstretched arm 'selfies' will be a thing of the past. The A7S also features NFC (Near Field Communication) technology (the same technology that's used for mobile payments), which allows you to connect it to a compatible internet enabled device or another NFC-enabled camera by simply tapping them together. You can also use the WPS Push option to locate a hot spot, access settings, edit the device name, display the MAC address or format all settings if you wish.
In addition to the built-in wi-fi/NFC connectivity, the A7S supports PlayMemories Camera Apps. As the name suggests, this is a downloadable service that lets you add new functionality to the camera, either via wi-fi or USB connection. Smart Remote Control, which allows you to control the exposure and shutter release via your smartphone, is preinstalled on the A7S. Other optional apps available include Picture Effect+, Bracket Pro, Multi Frame NR, Photo Retouchand Direct Upload, and Sony plans to provide more new apps in the near future. Note that only some of the apps are free.
The bottom of the Sony A7S features a standard metal screw thread for attaching it to a tripod that's inline with the centre of the lens mount. A lockable plastic cover protects the lithium-ion battery, officially good for 320 shots. In practice we only got around 250 shots when using the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen, which obviously draw on the battery for power. Sony have listened to their customers and now supply an external battery charger and not one, but two batteries with the A7S (the A7/A7R don't ship with an external charger), and you can still charge the battery via the USB port if you wish.
The removable memory card is housed within a compartment located on the right of the A7S (when viewed from the rear), with the A7S supporting the SD / SDHC / SDXC format in addition to Sony's own proprietary Pro Duo Memory Stick format. Positioned on both sides of the A7S are prominent metal eyelets for attaching the supplied shoulder strap. On the left are two unmarked, sturdy plastic covers, underneath which can be found the Multi port, HDMI port, and the external headphone and microphone connections.