Sunday 20 May 2018

Tech review: Sony knocks Canon and Nikon off perches with A7 Mark iii

Sony A7 Mark iii, €2,299 (€2,499 with 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 lens)

Sony A7 Mark iii
Sony A7 Mark iii

If I was choosing a photography ecosystem based on a 'full frame' body, I'd be very tempted to choose Sony's A7 Mark iii.

Having had it for a few weeks, I can say that it beats the pants off similarly-priced rivals such as Canon's 6D Mark ii and Fuji's XH1 and is genuinely competitive against professional cameras that are much more expensive, such as Canon's 5D Mark IV or Sony's own A7Riii.

It is also a massive step up from its predecessor, the A7 Mark ii, to the extent that the two cameras are barely comparable anymore.

Sony has basically taken the vast majority of cutting edge features from its top-end professional cameras and crammed them into a device that is much more cost-friendly to enthusiasts and many professional users.

In fact, other than studio work and certain high-end sports or landscape photography, it's hard to see how anyone could justify the extra €1,500 to €2,500 for an A7riii or A9. This camera does it all, with superb performance throughout.

I should preface all of this by saying that I am not traditionally a Sony shooter and have been lukewarm on some previous Sony cameras. But the A7iii marks a new level for the company. If it continues on in this way, it will soon shove Canon and Nikon out of the way.

So what's so good about the camera?

For a start, Sony has put in a backside illuminated sensor, which gives it low-light performance that's considerably ahead of peer devices. (For comparison, top-end models such as Nikon's excellent, but much pricier, D850 have similar BSI sensors, but few cameras priced below those have them.)

It has also considerably improved the ergonomic performance and build quality of the device.

And it has given entry-level professionals and enthusiasts features they really want, such as dual-card slots and earphone ports for monitoring audio levels during video.

Meanwhile, there is now a genuinely decent selection of both reasonably-priced and premium lenses to compete with what has recently been a lens duopoly between Canon and Nikon.

It also has one feature that wasn't available on previous A7 models - fully silent shooting. I can't emphasise how important this is; it's one of the main reasons to go mirrorless in the first place. It means you can shoot away in a church wedding or at a hushed sports event and not disturb anyone. The A7iii shoots silently at up to 10 frames per second, which means you're totally covered. For some reason, the A7iii's predecessor, the (still available) A7ii, can't shoot silently in this way, nor can certain mirrorless rivals such as Canon's new M50 (let alone Canon's 6D Mark ii DSLR, a direct competitor to the A7iii).

Sony's camera design, sometimes criticised in previous models, is also noticeably better than before. The grip is just the right size for anyone with 'normal'-sized hands and there's nothing in the way of your thumb (some cameras unfortunately place buttons that you keep hitting when trying to grip the camera). The on-off button is nice and firm, meaning I never accidentally switched it on, a constant worry with electronic mirrorless cameras because of battery drainage.

Best of all, the A7iii is really robustly built. It feels incredibly solid and tough. And I have first hand experience of its strength as I accidentally dropped the camera (sorry, Sony!) onto solid concrete from about four feet up (out of a bag). It suffered a few scuffs, but was otherwise undamaged. This is always an impressive sign as most people will, at some point, drop their camera or bash it off something. (Similar things have happened to me at different times with a Panasonic GX7 and a Fuji X-Pro 2, both of which also survived and both of which I still use as a result.)

That's not to say that those moving from another camera system - especially Canon or Nikon - won't have some challenges with adjusting to Sony's layout. But it's nothing like the hassle it was a few years ago. In the A7iii, Sony's design aesthetic has matured into something very usable and robust.

What else is there to like? It has dual card slots, which not all of its rivals (especially Canon's 6D Mark ii) possess.

Another relatively untrumpeted feature that the A7iii has is its video prowess. I'm no videographer, but the video footage taken on this camera is a good deal more stabilised than on some rival models. That makes a big, big difference if you're caught without a tripod and need to capture some footage in a hurry. This is partly down to the camera and partly down to the lens I was using, Sony's premium 24-105mm F4 'G' lens, which has optical stabilisation. The other thing that the A7iii offers is a headphone jack as well as a microphone port. This is fairly essential for anyone who wants to use the camera for video as it lets you monitor the audio as you're recording.

The A7iii also performs better in low light than the more expensive A7Riii, largely because of its lower megapixel count (24, compared to 42 on the A7Riii).

And just in case you think that 24 megapixels is somehow less desireable than, say, 35 megapixels or 50 megapixels, I would beg to differ.

For me, 24 megapixels is an advantage over 42 megapixels (which is what the more expensive A7Riii has) for two reasons. First, lower megapixel cameras generally perform better in low light, which is often required in Ireland, especially indoors. Second, lower megapixels means more manageable files for your laptop or iPad. Taking full-resolution photos on a 45-megapixel camera can sometimes leave you with 30-megabyte files. Given that most of us take dozens, if not hundreds of photos when we have our cameras out with us, you're looking at transferring gigabytes of data, squeezing space on your computer and generally slowing everything up.

Of course, a higher megapixel count means more intricate detail, especially for landscape photos or very high-end portraits. But unless you're going to blow those shots up over A4 in size, my experience is that you won't generally see much of a difference. But you will often see the extra noise in a photo with the higher-megapixel camera when it takes a shot in low light.

Another highlight of the A7iii is its superb viewfinder. This absolutely takes the guesswork out of whether your exposure is right, with a fantastically bright and detailed view of whatever's in front of you.

Otherwise, you can use the flip-out screen. It's not a fully articulating screen, like Canon's 6D Mark ii or Panasonic's GH5s, but it's good enough to give you a lot more flexibility than models with fixed screens.

The A7iii's battery life also gets a boost, breaking new ground for mirrorless cameras. I'm used to getting between 300 and 400 shots on a mirrorless model, whereas this camera gives me closer to twice that tally. It means that you probably won't need to get a second battery when out and about or, if you're a heavy shooter, you'll likely only need one extra battery.

One reason that professionals and enthusiasts still cite for avoiding Sony cameras is the gap in lenses between it and Canon or Nikon ecosystems. There is still some validity to this, but it is narrowing a great deal. It's really only in the long wildlife and sports lenses that Sony is missing one or two lenses. At every other focal length - from reportage and photojournalism up to studio-quality portraits and fashion - it now has high-grade, fast glass that inarguably competes strongly with Canon and Nikon. Other decent lens brands, such as Tamron, are also making good pieces for Sony. On the other hand, it is true that there are still more Canon and Nikon lenses floating around in the second-hand market, which is a material consideration for someone choosing an ecosystem and who can't necessarily afford to always splash out €1,000-plus on a new lens.

The lens I had with the A7iii was Sony's recently-released 24-105mm F4 'G' model. As someone who is very familiar with Canon's 24-105mm 'L' F4 model, I can say that this is easily on par. (It would want to be, with a list price of €1,349.)

In conclusion, forget anything that angry photographers on YouTube tell you about Sony cameras. Even as someone who isn't a Sony shooter, I can tell you that the A7 Mark iii is now the best camera in its class.

Sony has taken a clear lead now in full-frame cameras at this price point. It's going to take something very special from Canon and Nikon to catch up.

A7 Mark iii: pros and cons

PROS

Superb low-light 24-megapixel

BSI sensor

Silent shooting – 10-frames-per-second

Flip-out screen

Improved ergonomics

Much better battery life

Dual card slots

CONS

Not as many available lenses as Canon/Nikon

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