Hands-On Review: Sony a7R III—Promise Delivered

Sony a7R III, professional cameras
The Sony a7R III operates as fast as top-end pro DSLRs of just a few years ago.

By the time the original full-frame Sony a7 arrived in 2013, the mirrorless revolution was well underway, and mirrorless cameras were already starting to really show the potential of the technology. While mirrorless cameras were rapidly improving, they weren’t used by a large number of pros because the systems fell short in comparison to DSLRs in some key areas. (See “Mirrorless Vs. DSLR” in the January/February 2018 print issue of Digital Photo Pro for more on the evolution of mirrorless cameras; we will be sharing the article online soon.)

The Sony a7 was the first body to put a full-frame sensor into a small mirrorless frame, an engineering feat that was key in the evolution of the category because it showed that professionals and their need for high-resolution images with good dynamic range and ISO sensitivity were being actively targeted in the design of mirrorless cameras.


Compare and Contrast: Our Review Of The 20fps Sony a9 And Our Review Of The Sony a7 III


As nice as the a7 was, it was very limited, performance-wise. I remember testing the camera and being both delighted and frustrated by it. Images looked superb, but the AF system was prone to jumping off the subject, and the lack of a practical focus selection tool made it difficult to focus on subjects. I have a lot of great shots of my young son from those days, made possible by having a lightweight camera to always have on hand. But for every great shot, there was at least one out-of-focus shot.

The arrival of the Sony a7R and the Sony a7S split the product line into a trio of cameras, with the main model a general-purpose camera, a mix of resolution, speed and sensitivity. Sony also produced an “R” model, with a high-resolution sensor, while the “S” model served the customers looking for higher sensitivity and video.

With the Sony a9, it looked like the company would break from this tradition (see our full review of the Sony a9 at dpmag.com/reviews/hands-on-full-sony-a9-review), with the a9 being the new a7. In addition to a new sensor, the Sony a9 has a number of improvements over the a7 line, including a better battery, dual SD slots, faster AF and faster processing.

Sony a7R III
Sony a7R III

I had expected to see a Sony a9R arrive this fall, because it felt unlikely that Sony would create a new a7 camera but leave out the better focus, processing, battery life and the other improvements of the a9. Instead (showing that you can never really predict what a company is going to do, even after decades in this business), Sony released the a7R III, which has the same sensor as the Sony a7R II but all of the improvements found in the a9.

Regardless of what I think about the naming (I think it’s confusing, but whatever), the Sony a7R III has a combination of image quality and performance that sets it apart not only from other Sony mirrorless cameras, but also from any high-resolution DSLR and within spitting distance of any pro DSLR on the market.

Overhaul

At the heart of the Sony a7R III is the same 42-megapixel sensor as the Sony a7R II, but improvements in processing allow the camera to pull an additional stop of dynamic range from the sensor, and those files now can be saved as 14-bit RAW files.

The camera can capture up to 10 fps with full exposure and autofocus (and 8 fps without blackout in the viewfinder). That full AF and AE capture is important, as most DSLRs with high frame rates pick the focus and exposure on the first frame. The newly announced Nikon D850 (at 46 megapixels), for instance, captures 7 fps with AF and 9 fps with AF when using the additional battery grip, while the Sony a7R III does 10 fps without needing an additional grip. A grip is available, but it’s not needed for the highest frame rates.

The Sony a7R III features both a mechanical and an electronic shutter, and both shutter modes are capable of the 10 fps rate. The mechanical shutter has been overhauled, and is both quieter and vibrates less. The shutter is so different between the a7R II and the a7R III that when I first used the a7R III, I thought there was something wrong with my shutter—it just didn’t sound right being so quiet.

Sony a7R III, cameras
Testing the Sony a7R III from a hot-air balloon over Sedona, Arizona.

At its press briefing, Sony explained that by taking the existing a7R II sensor and replacing the other internal components, it created a camera that has the same image quality as the a7R II but virtually every other system has been improved. Focus is faster (Sony says up to 30 percent faster for things like eye detection), thanks to an overhaul of the AF system. The Sony a7R II and Sony a7R III have the same number of phase detection points (399), but the a7R III has 425 CDAF (contrast detect) points, instead of the 25, and that coverage reaches nearly across the full sensor.

The camera has a better image-stabilization rating, with the a7R III having a claimed 5.5 stops of stabilization—even more impressive when compared to competing DSLRs, which don’t currently offer in-body stabilization, requiring use of a selected number of lenses for image stabilization.

The camera also has a “pixel shift” function that allows Sony a7R III shooters to capture images with much higher color fidelity and resulting perceived resolution than a single-shot image. Because digital cameras evaluate color using a Bayer pattern (or other) filter on the sensor that breaks each pixel into red-, green- or blue-sensitive pixels, there’s a lot of guessing performed in-camera when it comes to creating a complete image, and that can lead to inaccurate colors and image artifacts, particularly at the edges between colors.

Imagine a red leaf against a blue sky. Each pixel on the sensor can only record red, green or blue, and uses the values of the surrounding pixels to guess its color. On the fine edge of a leaf, this guessing can lead to some blurring because it’s less likely the guessed value is precisely accurate. This is less of a problem where the colors being sampled are continuous—in the middle of the red leaf, for example—but more of an issue where the colors contrast. If the camera thinks a pixel should be red like the leaf, but it’s actually the blue of the sky, the area would look incorrect.

By shifting the sensor, the camera is able to capture multiple exposures, with a red, green and blue reading at each pixel value. Not only are colors more accurate, but also an image taken with pixel shift will appear higher resolution because there’s no guessing as to the color of each pixel.

The drawbacks for pixel-shift images are twofold. The first problem is that this technique is only good for still images—the camera requires at a minimum a fraction of a second between each shift to allow vibration to stop, and that makes it impossible to use with moving subjects. The second issue is that (as of this writing) only Sony’s software can handle pixel shift’s stitching, and that software isn’t very good. Still, for the landscape and architecture photographer, pixel shift on the a7R III is going to make the camera a no-brainer.

The a7R III picked up a number of physical improvements, as well. The camera now uses the same Z-class battery of the Sony a9, with hundreds of additional shots per battery more than the (oft-maligned) a7 battery. The camera now has dual SD slots, one for UHS-I and one for the faster UHS-II.

The improved Quad-VGA OLED LCD screen (the same as the a9 uses) now can be used for touch focus, and the aforementioned focus selector joystick makes focusing much, much easier than on the a7 series. There’s also a USB-C connector (in addition to MicroUSB), which improves connectivity with computers like the MacBook Pro, and images can be transferred to an FTP server via a WiFi add-on. (The built-in WiFi can be used to transfer images to a mobile device or desktop using Play Memories.)

These physical changes might seem small, but taken together they’re a huge improvement from the a7-series cameras. For photographers, especially those like wedding/event and news photographers, these small changes are worth the price of upgrading because they extend the life of the camera and simplify capturing images.

Sony a7R III, cameras
Pixel-shift gives the a7R III the ability to capture images with unprecedented color accuracy and resolution.

One of my favorite ways to shoot with any camera is to use the focus point registration (enabled in the custom menu) to select a medium or small flexible spot region that can be enabled when pressing a custom button and then switch to wide-area AF. To understand the power of this, think of a wedding, where a photographer needs to both focus on the faces of the bridal party but also be able to ensure sharp focus on the bride or groom, even in a crowd of people.

With the focus point technique, I select a point somewhere compositionally pleasing—the upper-right corner of the frame, for example, if the bride and groom will be entering from the right—and then set my camera on a wide area with face detection on. I’ll capture in-focus faces of the bridal party, but when I want to isolate just the face of the bride, even if she’s farther away than other faces, I’ll toggle the registered AF point, plant it on her and let the Eye AF nail the focus. When I want to jump back to wide-area AF, I simply let go of the button I’ve set for AF Toggle and keep shooting.

Video Workflow

The Sony a7R III doesn’t just offer improved still shooting but has ratcheted up the video capabilities, as well. This is great news, as the Sony a9 backed away from Sony’s model of putting best-in-class video into its bodies in favor of better still performance. The Sony a7R III can shoot full-sensor-width 4K video without any pixel binning (as could other Sony cameras) and now can capture in Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) for HDR video, created in-camera, and it can capture footage in S-Log3. HLG files are stored in BT.2020, and it’s possible to use S-Log2 to maintain consistent workflow with older devices.

The a7R III can create time code (hh:mm:ss:ff) for multi-cam editing, and since the a7R III has the same S-Log3 and HLG settings as Sony’s new camcorders, all the devices can be used in a consistent workflow. With the ability to capture both proxy and high-res movies, it’s easy to insert a7R III files into the editing workflow and then substitute the high-res 4K when rendering.

Internally, the a7R III can capture up to 30 fps, and at Full HD up to 120 fps, and the 100 Mbps XAVC S format allows for internal MP4 files to be created at 4:2:0 sampling. An external recorder connected to the a7R III HDMI port can record at 4:2:2. The camera can also grab 8-megapixel stills from a 4K movie file during shooting.

The Zebra function has been improved, for better exposure monitoring, with configurable video signal targets.

A Powerful Package

The Sony a7R III, like the recently introduced Nikon D850, represents a watershed moment in camera design, one in which it’s possible to have both high-resolution image capture and high-speed performance. Previously, photographers needed to pick high resolution or high speed, but no more. With frame rates in the double digits, the a7R III can keep up with all but the most demanding sports shooting. Shooting compressed RAW, the camera can capture 87 shots before the buffer fills, 28 shots using uncompressed RAW. (The dynamic range drops from 15 to 12 stops when shooting compressed RAW, so leave that set to uncompressed, unless you’ve got a need for the biggest possible buffer.)

For most photographers, the a7R III will be a better choice than the a9. The Sony a9 certainly has speed on its side, but most people don’t need a 20 fps camera. For them, the Sony a7R III is potentially the better deal.

Sony a7R III, cameras
In-body stabilization allowed for handholding shots with the a7R III, even in a fast-moving helicopter.

I’ve shot with the Sony a7R III for hundreds of hours, and it’s barely missed a beat. I liked the images from the a7R II, and I liked the focus speed and user experience elements (most notably, the joystick) of the a9. The a7R III combines them both into one camera.

There’s a phenomenon that happens when reviewing products, which is that only the downsides stick out. An un-memorable shoot is one in which the gear performed as expected. There are few cameras that pass what I call the “I didn’t really notice it” test, where the gear becomes transparent and the images take the foreground. The Sony a7R III is one of those cameras, mostly. With years of Sony cameras as a guide, I’m now as comfortable with Sony as I am with Nikon and Canon, so shooting just happens. I know how I like the camera set up, I know how I like to customize the interface, and once I do, the camera is as trustworthy as any other pro system.

That means that I’m no longer banging up against the barrier of a quickly filling buffer, no longer missing shots because of slow AF speeds, and no longer running out of batteries in the middle of a shoot. Removing these negatives from the workflow is as powerful as making a whole new system.

It also means that the a7R III is nailing focus over and over again. Most of the images I reviewed that weren’t my selects were discarded because of my careless composition, not because of AF accuracy. Shooting the camera with human subjects and landscapes, I found almost no instances where the AF didn’t lock quickly and accurately. Eye AF is so powerful now (as it is with the a9) that I wonder why this isn’t the default for face-detect focus—the camera should try to lock on an eye and fall back to face detection if it fails to lock.

The Sony a7R III can be intimidating to shooters of other platforms, however, especially DSLR users. Shifting from a world of “back button focus” to Sony’s “let the camera decide” is hard to overcome, and it was harder without a joystick enabling more “traditional” focusing. As nice as the a7R II was, it often would confound new users, especially those looking to manually control a small focus point. The joystick and the improved AF will remove those issues.

There are still some pain points in the a7R III, most notably in the byzantine menu system. While Sony has cleaned up the menu, there are still dozens of pages of options, with very little indication of what they do, even if they have big implications. On one test shoot of mountain bikers in the Sedona desert, I had planned to use a Profoto strobe with a remote trigger to provide fill light and balance sunlight, but couldn’t get it to fire. Sony’s rep on the shoot couldn’t get it to fire, either, so I gave up on my planned technique.

It turns out that the a7R III has moved the Wireless Flash setting from the Flash menu to its own menu, and that’s disabled by default. I’m not even sure why there’s a wireless flash on/off setting in the first place, since I can disable flash in the regular flash menu. Why I would want to mount a remote wireless trigger and have it not work is beyond me, why it’s set to off by default is confusing, and why it moved to a new menu setting is a mystery.

If you used the Sony a7R II, or any of the a-series cameras, for that matter, the Sony a7R III will be familiar but all-around faster and better. If you’re coming from a DSLR, there will be a bit of a learning curve, but a much smaller one now that the platform has matured.

There’s really very little wrong with the Sony a7R III. It performs well, focuses instantly and creates beautiful images. It’s an a7R II that’s been made faster in all aspects, and is now a good fit for nearly every photographic style.

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