Sony A7III First Impressions: A full-frame camera for M-mount lenses
Early this year something good happened in the world of full-frame mirrorless cameras. Some say is a game changer. Sony introduced the third iteration of its "basic" A7 camera, the A7III. It is a device that, far from being as basic as suggested, incorporates many of the best features of the flagship A9 and improves in almost every respect on the previous A7II.
I owned the original A7 but sat out the update which, despite the addition of in-body stabilisation, didn't bring much more to the party. Besides which, the SL was the new kid on the block. The A7III is different. It is being hailed as the best mirrorless camera you can buy for $2,000/£2,000.
I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. The blogosphere has been in something of a frenzy over the new Sony, led by the effervescent Sir Steve Huff on his white charger. Even the sober Kevin Raber has had to explain to his readers just why there has recently been so much Sony coverage on Luminous Landscapes — and why the A7III has become his favourite personal camera.
Nearer to home, I have been hearing from friends in the Leica world who have done the unthinkable and bought a Sony as an adjunct to their M digitals, as a means of getting even more value from their (often) sizeable stock of M glass. They see the Sony as a mini SL with many advantages over the Leica SL not least of which is the low price and the in-body image stabilisation. As a second body to an M10, the Sony can make a lot of sense, even though it might not be as convenient to use with M lenses as the SL.
We have just been given the opportunity to try out a Sony A7III body for review. There are no autofocus lenses included in the kit, but this is by choice. It is strictly body only. We will be using a range of Leica M and, possibly, other M-mount lenses.
While in-body stabilisation arrived with the previous A7II, it has been improved for the new model and, together with the many other updates, the A7III appears to be the perfect test-bed for manual lenses.
The new Sony is the only full-frame mirrorless camera with class-leading stabilisation that can potentially give a five-stop advantage to users of manual lenses. Yet, in comparison with the SL, the Sony doesn't automatically recognise the lenses and set up profiles; there are no easy lists of suitable optics to choose from.
Conceivably, Leica's SL is attuned to almost all Leica lenses and swapping optics is in practice straightforward. The camera firmware recognises them through the six-bit coding system and, we are told, selects the right profile to iron out peccadilloes.
With the Sony, the only lens adjustment appears to be the Steady Shot settings sub-menu which allows selection of a focal length. This has to be done every time the lens is changed. But we come back again to that stabilisation feature which I think is particularly useful with manual lenses.
In the forefront
In the past much has been written about Leica M (and other third-party manual lenses) on the various Sony cameras, starting with the original A7 and A7r. Received wisdom is that Sony full-frame cameras play well with longer lenses, starting at 50mm, but exhibit some peculiarities when wider lenses (35mm and wider) are used. Whether these same reservations apply to the A7III and the A9 is not well documented, but it is something to look at closely. And we also have to consider that, apart from the boffins, who cares really, particularly if problems can so easily be rectified in Lightroom?
There is no denying that Sony is now in the forefront of camera technology and has established an enviable reputation, especially for its full-frame offerings. That frequency of hardware update can be annoying for users, but every iteration seems to push the boundaries of camera technology to new levels.
A negative aspect, of course, is that Sony is often in no hurry to offer exciting firmware updates in the same vein as Fuji and some other manufacturers. Fuji doesn't shrink from bringing older cameras almost up to the same state of perfection as its latest confections, something which is well recognised and appreciated by Fuji fans. Sony has a more brutal approach. If you want the most recent, sell up and move on to the new camera.
What of the full-frame mirrorless opposition, other than the Leica SL? Both Canon and Nikon have not so much dropped the ball as never picked it up in the first place. Both companies are now rumoured to be entering the FF mirrorless market year. They have a chance to meet Sony head on and take advantage of their huge following, giving an alternative mirrorless option to Sony. But they probably have only one chance to get it right. And the longer they leave it, the more entrenched Sony becomes.
Fuji has skipped full-frame and put its money into medium format. But Sony has the headwind in full-frame, and professional photographers are moving over from their DSLRs to what most consider to be the best mirrorless alternatives, the Sony A9 and the now-extensive A7 range.
Base model with knobs
As I said earlier the A7III is actually the base model, but it contrives to offer 90% of the attractions of the A9 at a bargain-basement price. It is not a lot more expensive than flagship m4/3 and APS-C competitors. Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming is the much smaller and less involving viewfinder of the A7III, well behind the A9's and the SL's best-in-class finder.
So what will we be up to with the review model of the A7III? Primarily, we want to find out how effective the stabilisation is. I've used M lenses on cameras with IBIS many times (most recently on the Panasonic GX8, G9 and Olympus OM-D E-M1) and there is no doubt that it is a huge help. Initial experiments, on the first day of use, are hugely impressive as you can see from the samples in this article. It's not so much the attraction of using very slow exposures in good lighting condition that impresses. It's the ability to use unfeasibly slow exposures in poor light, thus keeping ISO values low, that really proves the value of Sony's Steady Shot.
But the attraction of the full-frame A7III, as with the SL, is that M lenses are used at their native focal length. With APS-C and m4/3 bodies, the effective focal length is increased by a factor of 1.5 or 2 respectively. This means that the "standard" M lenses —35mm and 50mm — become rather long. A 35mm Summicron serves well as a nifty fifty on an APS-C, but many Leica owners possess nothing wider to give them a 28mm or 35mm focal length equivalent. Micro four-thirds users are even worse off because of the larger crop factor, with the humble 35mm Summicron becoming almost a 75mm Summicron.
The review, when it appears, will be unusual in having nothing to say about many of the camera's long list of features, not least being autofocus. It will be as a manual-lens camera that we will be judging the Sony.
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