Back when I bought my first digital SLR, there were basically two choices. Canon, or Nikon. Both of these companies were the two most mainstream companies out there. Their cameras, accessories, and lenses were very accessible and prices were coming down compared to years prior. My first digital SLR was the same as many hobby photographers’ – the original Canon EOS Digital Rebel. It featured a bulky plastic body and came with an 18-55 mm kit lens. It was 6.3 mp of fun, and because it was an SLR, there were all sorts of tricks that I could do with it that I couldn’t do with all of the point and shoot cameras I’d had prior.
Back when I fist picked up the Rebel, I was going through college classes for graphic design, so it was nice to be able to shoot my own photography for graphic design projects that I was doing instead of having to rely on what images I could find on free stock photography sites or Google. Once I was done with school (I didn’t end up working in my field of study, big surprise), I found myself not having as much time for photography has a hobby as I had previously, so I dropped it for a while. Eventually I caught the bug again and picked up a slight upgrade – the Rebel XSi. The XSi was nearly double the resolution of the EOS Rebel, and I played with that for a number of years before upgrading again to a Rebel T1i, since the T1i could do HD video. From 2010 until 2017 I made over 100 YouTube videos and recorded exclusively with the T1i. I still have the camera today and it still works just like when it was new. But after 8 years of faithful service, earlier this year I got the photography bug again and decided to retire my old Canon T1i in favor of a new camera.
Choosing a New Camera
Camera technology has evolved immensely since 2010, with the latest craze being mirrorless digital cameras. As of the time of this writing, Canon and Nikon don’t have serious mirrorless offerings, and Sony is currently dominating the market with their newly released A7 III and A7R III. If you’re at all in to photography and you haven’t checked either of these cameras out, you owe yourself the favor of doing so. So now I had a couple options. I could wait for Canon to release their first attempt at a full-frame mirrorless camera, or I could switch to Sony. Canon does have some existing mirrorless cameras with the M line of cameras, and my existing lenses could be adapted to those with an M mount adapter, but the consensus around those cameras is that they’re not great, and the price reflects that. Plus, if I’m going to spend money to upgrade my T1i, which still works fine, I wanted to go full frame. After doing some research and finding out that none of my Canon lenses would work with a full-frame camera anyway, that made the decision to jump to Sony that much easier.
So it would be the A7 III then, right? The A7 III had just been released but was sold out everywhere. After calling several camera stores (of which there are very few close to me), I quickly found that Sony wasn’t producing A7 IIIs fast enough, and the backorder was months long. Several stores had people who pre-paid for an A7 III body in full, and wouldn’t be receiving them for up to 4+ months. Ouch.
While searching around for an A7 III, and obviously unable to find one, I did manage to find that most places had the A7R II body discounted to the same price as an A7 III. Being as the A7R III was just around the corner, everyone wanted to clear out the A7R II bodies before the hype train for the A7R III was going full steam. The store I ultimately ended up purchasing from had marked $1,000 off a bare A7R II body, a 33% discount, so while they still had stock I jumped on that deal.
I won’t go in to the full details of the A7R II vs the A7 III, but there are some key differences. Each camera has key differences that make it better than the other, remember, the fair comparison would be the A7R II vs the A7R III, as the A7 is the “little brother” to the A7R, but the newer generation brings enhancements so it’s a bit of apples to oranges comparison. These are the key differences that were important to me:
- The A7R II has a much higher viewfinder and rear screen resolution than the A7 III. This is extremely important, especially the viewfinder, since the viewfinder is digital on a mirrorless camera. It’s also very handy for previewing your photos via the viewfinder, and is so sharp that it’s easy to pick out soft photos without a lot of zooming. It’s truly a “retina” quality display.
- The A7R II has a 42.4 megapixel sensor, whereas the A7 III has a 24.2 megapixel sensor. I know megapixels aren’t everything but with both cameras being equally as sharp, I’ve already seen the benefits of being able to do large crops and maintain very good quality on the finished result. This makes me less nervous about including “a little too much” around the edges when I frame a photo, knowing that I can crop down to the shot I want and not lose quality on an image large enough to print or display full-screen on a 4K monitor. You can always crop things out, but you can never put things back in if you cut something off in an image, so this is very important.
- The A7R II has an “App Store” on it, and there are some very cool Sony apps available, like the app that allows me to configure very powerful time lapse sessions. The A7 III and A7R III have this feature removed completely for some reason.
The A7 III is better in many aspects, most notably is the battery capacity. One of the big complaints of the A7 II and A7R II was how fast you’d kill the battery, especially when shooting video. The gen III cameras now have a new battery type that allows for twice the amount of photos taken on one charge. Since I bough the battery grip with my A7R II, I can use two batteries at once, and I’m not an “all day shooter” so it’s not an issue for me. Rarely ever will I need to take more than 1000 pictures between charges. The gen III cameras also have improvements for shooting video with features like faster continuous focus, but I knew I wouldn’t be doing that so much with this, as I have a dedicated high definition camcorder anyway. All things considered I got the A7R II body for the same price as what an A7 II and now A7 III cost, so it all worked out for my use case.
Features I Like
Customization – A lot of people complain about the menus with Sony’s cameras. I don’t know how many times I read “the menu system is a mess, it’s almost unusable.” This almost turned me off to the A7 line completely. I’m glad I actually went in and played with one before writing it off though, because I think the hate is unwarranted. Sure they’re not as easy as the menu inside a point and shoot, or even a Rebel, but they allow you to customize basically everything. Virtually every button on the back of the camera can be programmed to do something other than what it was supposed to do out of the box. For example, I removed the half-press to focus setting on the shutter button that every digital camera I’ve ever had uses to auto focus every time a shot is taken. I have always found this annoying. Instead, I assigned the auto focus function to a button on the back of the camera. This way I can focus where I want, with AF, and take as many shots as I want without the camera re-focusing or beeping between every shot. I love it.
Connectivity – I can use wi-fi to connect my iPad Pro to the camera and pull all of the photos off of it and in to Sony’s “Play Memories” app. From within that app I can preview the photos, delete the ones I don’t like, and then import the photos that I want to edit directly in to Adobe Lightroom on the iPad Pro and edit them from there. I can create albums from within Lightroom and share single pictures or whole albums directly via URL with others, download them later from a PC, and allow others to download them as well – all at full resolution. This is a great workflow that doesn’t require me to have pull out a full blown laptop, either connect the camera to the laptop or pull the SD card, manually move files, etc. Everything is fast and just works. This is honestly something I didn’t see myself doing until I actually tried it, and Lightroom on the iPad is from what I can tell almost feature parity with the version on the desktop. Stack that on top of the fact that the iPad Pro’s screen is ultra high resolution, color calibrated, and has a Wide P3 color gamut. It’s excellent for Lightroom use.
Build Quality – The A7R II is built like a tank. It’s all metal, feels very sturdy, is surprisingly heavy with my lens of choice (which you may not like if you have to carry it around all day), and it just feels like it’s worth what I paid for it. It feels like a precisely engineered piece of equipment that I’ve only seen in the professional space before. No plastic, no hollow feeling, and every dial-twist click and button press feels crisp and precise.
Viewfinder – Because the camera is mirrorless, you can look at the screen on the back of the camera and shoot, like a traditional point and shoot. Almost all DSLRs have this capability now too, it’s nothing special. Using the rear screen is something I typically do when I’m framing a shot to take video, but personally, I like looking through the viewfinder when shooting photos. Because my local store had both the A7 II and the A7R II on display, I was able to do an A and B comparison of the higher resolution viewfinder found in the A7R line vs the A7 line. The A7 III having the lower resolution viewfinder and rear screen is about the only real complaint I found when researching that camera, and after having done the A and B comparison, I now know why. There is a drastic difference between sharpness. In low light, the difference becomes even more apparent. You feel like you have super powers when looking through the high resolution viewfinder at night. Things that you aren’t able to see with your naked eye because of low light are lit up like night vision. Trust me, this is something you’d have to experience in real life to appreciate.
Choosing a Lens
Previous to owning the T1i, I never really had more than one or two lenses for any of my Canons. Typically I’d keep the kit lens and use it 80% of the time, and then I owned a Canon 70-300 that I’d use for far away stuff. When I got the T1i, I was introduced to the “fast 50,” or “cheap 50,” a fixed 50mm 1.8. Those typically go for around $100 and are all plastic, but they work well and are fairly sharp. I also added a Tokina 12-24 to my bag for “wide angle” shots. It worked well for indoor photography since you can photograph an entire small bedroom with it if you stand in the corner. Wide angle shots are fun sometimes too when you aren’t doing something “purpose built” and just want to experiment. Little did I know that my “12-24” was really the equivalent of 19.2-38.4 on a full frame camera, but more on that later. I had a few other lenses too, mostly just ones that I picked up cheap from Craigslist or eBay, like an 18-135 that originally came in a 80D kit, and a couple others. I didn’t have any primes other than the fast 50, and typically I don’t carry a huge bag around, so I wanted one lens that could do everything that I needed it to.
After trying quite a few in store, I settled on the Sony FE 24-240 mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS. At 24 mm shots are as wide as the Tokina on a crop sensor, and it’s got a decent amount of zoom – probably more than I need. It’s not an extremely fast lens, but it’s faster at any given length than any of my previous lenses (except the 50mm prime), and it has built in image stabilization to add to the 5-axis built in stabilization that the A7R II body has. I have yet to take a shot that’s soft due to lack of speed/stabilization as opposed to my own inability to focus quickly, especially after setting up a back-button focus as I described above. This issue will be ironed out in time with muscle memory and practice though so I’m not too worried. So far the lens has been great, and I’m glad I was able to find everything that suits my needs in a single package.
After doing some side-by-side A / B comparisons between my old Canon T1i and the new Sony camera, the difference in sharpness is startling. It’s as if all I’ve ever seen is VHS video and someone just popped in a 4K Bluray. I figured the Sony would be sharper, but I didn’t realize just how much sharper it’d be until I compared the two side by side. I know the T1i isn’t a great camera by today’s standards, and it’s probably not as sharp as it was after having done hundreds of hours of HD video recording on its sensor, but still, it was great to see immediate and shocking contrast after such a large investment in a piece of equipment. The jump in sharpness and quality, along with the new workflow via the Sony software and Adobe Lightroom on the iPad Pro, has me excited to go out and take photos again – which was the goal of this whole exercise. I hope the Sony camera lasts me the next 8 years, as my faithful Canon has.
To anyone who is thinking about jumping in to the world of full frame mirrorless, I’d say go for it. Especially if you make any sort of money at all from your photos, and especially if you’re shooting with an older camera or a crop-sensor camera. The benefits of crop-sensor vs full frame are more than I would have understood or noticed before researching them and doing my own A B comparisons, and that topic itself may be its own entry in the near future. The investment may be large, but the quality and enjoyment of the product is more than worth it.