Sony a7 III Hands-On Review

One of the quirky things about language is the way in which a turn of phrase conveys something in one culture yet has a slightly different nuance in another, leaving some things, as they say, lost in translation. When Sony announced its new a7 III at its global launch event in February and proudly proclaimed it to be its “basic model,” the camera drew literal and figurative applause while the term “basic” fell to the stage with a linguistic thud.

There are negative connotations to the word basic that, fortunately for Sony, don’t actually relate to the a7 III. It’s almost not worth mentioning this marketing malapropism, except for the fact that it frames the discussion about the features included and, importantly, left out of the a7 III, and raises a question about the current and future timing of Sony’s camera lineup. The a7 III changes the conversation about price versus performance in both the mirrorless and DSLR markets, and it makes any potential move into this market by Nikon and Canon more fraught.

The a7 III has a 24.2 MP sensor, 693-point phase-detect and 425-point contrast detection AF system, 10fps shooting (both electronic and mechanical shutter) with full AF and AE, and an ISO range from 100-51200 (expandable to ISO 204,800). This puts the specs of the a7 III not only on par with cameras in its price range (notably the Canon 6D Mark II, which Sony seems particularly to have targeted) but more expensive cameras as well.

It also features an electronic shutter “silent shooting,” 4K video recording and eye detection AF and can capture 177 JPEG or 89 compressed raw files before the buffer fills.

Sony a7 III Flips The Script

Up until now, Sony has seemed intent on making a range of mirrorless cameras along its own (accelerated) timeline, with pricing a secondary concern. The original a7 camera cost $1700 when it was released in 2013, but it was far from a perfect camera. As a first-entry in the full-frame mirrorless space, it could afford to be a bit underpowered because it was competing, essentially, only against mirrorless APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Absent the focusing and frame-rate power found in a pro-level DSLR of the day, Sony instead competed in its ratio of image quality to body size, and the price of the a7 reflected the engineering needed to get a full-frame body into a compact body.

The Sony a7R arrived at the same time with a price tag of $2,300, and while it had an impressive 42MP sensor, it, too, lagged behind DSLRs in performance. When Sony announced the a7S, it took the camera system in new directions, splitting the line into a triumvirate designed to attract the general-purpose photographer (with the a7), the high-resolution wedding, portrait and commercial photographer (with the a7R), and the high-end video shooter (with the a7S).

This is a strategy that’s not unfamiliar in photography—Nikon shooters will likely remember the “h” and “s” models of its flagship cameras, like the D1X and D1H, which spit the lineup into high-resolution and high-speed capture offerings.

The a7 II repeated the naming and the development cycle for the a7 series in 2014 with the a7 II and the same $1,700 price point. The a7 II came much closer to equaling the DSLRs of the day, and, with its 5-Axis stabilization and 4K video capabilities, exceeded the performance of some DSLRs.

When the Sony a9 arrived, it changed the equation for the company (you can read our review of the Sony a9 here) because it offered a 24MP sensor with a frame rate and focusing speed that exceeds that of the best DSLRs. The Sony a9 takes the concept of the a7—a mirrorless camera with excellent image quality, designed for all-around photography—and supercharges that camera to give pro sports, news and other shooters a high-performance boost. Important for the benchmarks it sets, the a9 has more power than many photographers need, in the same way that the Nikon D5 and Canon 1D X Mark II do in their respective platforms.

This has caused Sony to flip the script: Instead of the a7 being its best example of full-frame mirrorless, the a9 now has that mantle, and the a7 has been rejiggered, quietly, to serve as a camera that outpaces most competitors, with enough concessions to pricing and target audience to keep it affordable.

It’s also a model designed to provide Sony some insurance against whatever mirrorless full-frame bodies Nikon and Canon finally introduce. If the competitors launch a mirrorless system, they won’t just have to compete with premium-priced bodies, but will now have to compete at the entry-level enthusiast price point as well.

While the a7 II upgraded all of the features and functions of the a7, the a7 III upgrades most of the features of the a7 II but makes some budget-minded concessions to be price competitive. The a9, then, is the true upgrade to the a7 II, and the a7 III is the start of a new direction of “affordable” yet fully capable full-frame mirrorless cameras.

Sony a7 III And The Competition

Perhaps more important than the image capture speed the a9 brought to Sony’s mirrorless offerings, the camera resolved a large number of pain-points experienced—and vocally expressed—by Sony shooters. The a9 improved AF, addressed the dreadful performance of the a7-series battery, added dual card slots, added a thumb control for focus selection, improved the electronic viewfinder and tidied up the menu system.

These upgrades would have made the a9 an attractive choice for most photographers, but the camera was designed for sports, news and other fast-moving subjects, and the price reflects that performance level. At around $5,000, it’s not a good fit for general-purpose photographers, and at 24MP it didn’t stack up well resolution-wise against the a7R II, either. Fortunately, Sony didn’t wait long after releasing the a9 before launching the a7R III.

The “mark 3” version of the a7R, the a7R III (see our review here) features the same sensor as the a7R II but a new processor that helps it resolve an additional stop of dynamic range, and brings most of the other a9 improvements to the a7 body. Improved battery, better AF, dual slots and the rest of the physical and user-experience upgrades came along for the ride. This put even more pressure on the photographer looking to buy an affordable system with the ease of use of the a9—either purchase a $5,000 camera with 24MP or a $3,200 camera with 42MP.

I’ve heard some people comment that Sony has enough power now that it can use the a7 III to cannibalize its own market share, but I think that misses the point of the a7 III. Most of the people who are going to buy the camera simply didn’t have the funds or the justification to spend between $3,200 and $5,000 on a new body and then to throw lenses in on top of that.

A photographer friend of mine who specializes in family photography is a perfect example of this bind. She has been shooting DSLRs for decades and was looking to switch to mirrorless when the a7R III arrived. Because she still needs to use her DSLR as her backup body, the cost of buying an a7R III plus new glass was too high. She purchased the a7R III but returned it when she tried out shooting her lenses with an adapter and found it slower than her DSLR because she couldn’t afford the a7R III and to also have to purchase all new glass. With the a7 III, she can buy a camera and one or two prime lenses for the same price as the a7R III alone.

Sony a7 III Strengths And Tradeoffs

If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of the image quality of the a7 III, this section might feel a bit short for your tastes. Like the “mark two” versions of the a7 series and the a9, the image quality on the a7 III is superb. We have said this in previous reviews, but there are no top-end full-frame cameras today that suffer from image quality issues. All the camera manufacturers make cameras that take amazing photos; the only questions these days are about performance. Just about the only knock against Sony’s earlier cameras was that they were noisier at high ISO, and that’s been addressed with the a7 III/a7R III/a9.

The noise issue I alluded to earlier has been addressed, meaning the Sony a7 III has much, much cleaner files at high ISO, on par with the a9, a7R III, and every other pro full-frame camera system. Dynamic range is just around 15 stops, and thanks to the high ISO ratings, that range is more usable in low light as well.

Sony a7 III Video

The a7 III adds 4K video, giving it similar 6K capture, 4K downsample capabilities, 100Mbps internal recording, with no pixel binning. The camera can capture in HLG (Sony’s no-fuss High Dynamic Range profile), S-Log 2 and S-Log 3.

Combined with the phase-detect system, plus the eye-detection AF, the Sony a7 III is great for shoots of moving subjects.

I’d love to see an overhaul of the touch AF system in general and better indication of subject lock, along with a more usable touchscreen for focus selection, but that’s a comment that relates to the whole line of cameras, not just the a7 III.

Sony a7 III Limitations

So what did Sony have to ditch to make a $2,000 camera with so many impressive specs to make it the “basic” model?

The most visible (pardon the pun) shortcoming is in the viewfinder, which is the same one found on the a7 II. It’s not a bad viewfinder per-se, but it’s not on par with the new viewfinder in the a7R III and a9. It’s still bright enough and clear enough to compose images with but isn’t quite as versatile as the viewfinder on the other new Sony cameras. This is especially true for video users. During the Sony media trip that introduced the new camera, our friends at CameraStoreTV lamented the lack of a better screen, as it made focusing during video shooting more cumbersome.

The imaging sensor in the Sony a9 merges a few technologies to speed up the time it takes to read image data off the sensor, which is part of the reason the a9 can capture at 20fps. It’s also what allows the electronic shutter in the a9 to operate with very little “rolling shutter,” an effect where very fast-moving objects can blur or appear out of alignment when shooting in electronic shutter mode. (Mechanical shutter is not affected by this.) The Sony a7 III does not read the data as quickly and so can experience rolling shutter.

The other limitations are in comparison to the company’s other products. It’s not as high of a frame rate as the a9, it’s not as high resolution as the a7R III.

Sony a7 III and the a9 Pedigree

The merging of features from the a9 camera into the a7 line has made the differentiation between the cameras a bit confusing. Nikon and Canon use different iterations of numbers to indicate where a product sits—the single-digit D5 is a higher performance level than the three-digit D500 or the four-digit D5000, for example.

Sony, however, has taken the route of using the product number alone to designate its position but then included many of the features from its top-end camera into the next-tier bodies.

To try to bring some clarity, here is a quick guide to the feature differentiation between lines.

Sony a7, a7R, a7S — Original body, no focus point control, low-res EVF  (compared with current technology) EVF, low-capacity battery, single SD slot, mediocre focus performance.

Sony a7 II, a7R II, a7S II — Added phase detect AF, 5-axis stabilization, improved ISO sensitivity, 4K video (a7R II and a7S II), and WiFi. Minimal body improvements but added a better viewfinder, better rear LCD panel. Same battery, SD slot.

Sony a9 — Brand-new cutting-edge sensor for fast readout. Changed size of the body and added new top-deck controls and rear controls. Added rear focus selector, dual card slots, larger battery, better viewfinder.

Here’s where things start to split as Sony fleshes out its lineup. It’s also where it starts to get confusing.

Sony a7R III — Added the back-of-camera controls of the a9, plus the better EVF, battery and dual SD slots. Improved the dynamic range and sensitivity while keeping the sensor of the a7R II.

Sony a7 III — This camera, the a7 without the “R” or “S” modifier, moves from being the mode to introduce new features across the a7 lineup to becoming the entry-level camera, scaled back from the a9. Gets the battery upgrade, dual card slots, rear-camera controls of the a9. Does not get the EVF upgrade, or high-performance sensor of the a9.

In short, it looks like Sony is now using the digit in the camera name to indicate the power of the sensor. The a9 has the fastest sensor Sony makes, integrating some technologies that aren’t on the a7 sensor. It will be interesting to see where the model lineup goes in the next iteration — will Sony always make the “9” model the one with the best sensor technology and the “7” line the next tier?

Sony a7 III Buying Recommendations

My photographic career started as an adventure sports and travel photographer, and the a7 III outperforms the first half-dozen professional cameras I shot with, in terms of frame rate, image quality, dynamic range, resolution and autofocus, and it costs less than half the sticker price of any of those pro bodies.

That means that a professional photographer can grab an a7 III and capture images faster, with more resolution, a wider range of ISO sensitivity and more dynamic range than any camera available up until the last few years.

The a7 III also bumps shoulders with the top-end DSLRs, falling below their image frame rate but matching them in dynamic range and ISO range, and exceeding them in AF, most especially face and eye detection.

Video-centric users would be wise to hold off for a bit. Surely an a7s II is right around the corner, and as the a7s was the camera that launched Sony’s video efforts, the a7s III is likely to have better video capabilities and higher ISO limits.

Photographers looking for the utmost in speed should purchase the a9. For the next tier of speed for general-purpose photography, the a7 III is the camera of choice. The a7R III is the camera for the photographer looking for a high-resolution sensor first and speed second.

The a7 III is attractive to travel photographers (with a nice mix of price and performance), photojournalists (thanks to the silent shutter), many sports photographers (you don’t need 20fps to capture golf), wedding photographers (either a primary body or a backup body to an a7R II), plus all manor of enthusiasts.

Luckily for photographers, Sony’s “basic” camera is anything but, and at $2,000 it’s both a great deal for the majority of photographers and an indication of the maturity of Sony’s full-frame mirrorless market. DPP


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