Sony RAW image quality (ARW)
I set my alarm for 4am and checked the sky. I thought a saw a few clouds forming, so I yanked on my hiking boots, grabbed my gear and headed out. Treading up the dunes in the dark you have a lot of time to think. Will I get there in time for that millisecond of sun light, did I pack enough water, and why the hell is everyone so caught up on Sony's jpeg file quality? All I want are decent RAWs to work with.
I’ve edited Canon 5D Mark II/III files for years now and I know how far I can push the shadows before they start to fall apart. When editing Sony A7R RAW files, I pushed the shadows and highlights without any noticeable penalty. In fact, I was extremely impressed by the RAW output image quality. I even tried a few RAW converters but decided to stick with the editing controls of Adobe Lightroom v5.3.
Sony’s compressed RAW (cRAW) can be described as a "visual" lossless compression but technically it's nearly lossless. Overall, you would be hard-pressed to find artifacts due to compression. Basically, in my real world landscape images, I was unable to detect any problems. Sony’s files size remains reasonably consistent at around 37mb regardless of the complexity of the scene so the benefit of the compression is getting 40-50% smaller files when compared to fully uncompressed RAWs.
In order to test shadow recovery, I decided to find the most messed up lighting conditions to see if the Sony A7R could handle it. My subject, a wooden stud, was shining bright and nearly over-exposed. On the right side, it's hugged by an almost pure black shadow. When I came back home and examined the files, I hunted for artifacts. I finally found them hiding in the blacks - near the transition between light and dark. But, it took terrible lighting and ridiculously harsh conditions to capture it. Don't get me wrong. It's there, but it's rare.
At first, I though it could be an issue with Adobe's demosaicing algorithm, but the artifacts show up on Capture One and Sony's Image Data Converter as well.
Sony A7R before shadow recovery
Sony A7R after shadow recovery.
Shadow recovery: A7R vs 5D Mark III
To be fair, my files were normalized in order to compare them on a monitor screen. I didn't want to downsize the Sony A7R 36MP file to 22MP in order to compare the advantage of higher resolution. Doing so, would throw away detail.
Instead, I interpolated the 22MP file to 36MP. I wanted an honest comparison since both files would be printed on the same paper size. For web purposes, here's 100% magnification crops displaying identical size dimensions for both cameras.
I went back to the same location where I'd previously tested the D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III a couple years back. The Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens was used for both cameras. In the case of the A7R body, the lens was attached to the Metabones Mark III adapter. For all tests, I used the same exposure for both cameras under identical light conditions. I wanted to make sure that I captured RAW images, in exactly the same settings. Afterwards, I used Lightroom 5.3 and essentially kept the default values.
Examine the red highlighted area below for shadow detail recovery and compare how much each camera is able to retrieve detail under high-contrast light.
Before shadow recovery (A7R file)
Sony A7R after shadow recovery
Canon 5D Mark III after shadow recovery
The Sony A7R is in a totally different league in regards to dynamic range at base ISO 100. This image reveals the exceptional signal to noise ratio and high IQ RAW performance.
It's no secret that the Canon 5D Mark III does not have the cleanest shadows at base ISO. Canon shooters have adapted to its shortcomings by bracketing and exposing images to the right (ETTR). It's usually unnoticeable in good light if you don't start playing with the shadows too much in post. But, even perfectly exposed shots in high contrast lighting will have color and luma noise in the shadows when pushed one or two stops. To make matters worse, you might even find some banding or visible horizontal and vertical line patterns.
This cross section explores the resolution advantage, moiré pattern and shadow recovery when comparing both cameras.
Before shadow recovery
Sony A7R after shadow recovery
Canon 5D Mark III after shadow recovery
The results are very similar to the D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III tests shots taken at the same location under similar lighting conditions.
With the Sony A7R crops, you can clearly read the "Smoking is prohibited" and "Notice" signs. Aside from the resolution advantage, the absence of luma noise in the shadow areas bring out detail even further.
This section demonstrates detail in the Dome. Checking the same area above, moiré is not visible on the A7R image. I find the result surprising since the Sony A7R does not have a low pass filter.
The Sony A7R has impressive signal to noise ratio (SNR) at low ISO and has higher dynamic range. There's tons of detail in the shadows. I pushed the shadows several stops without any hint of color noise.
Electronic viewfinder and tilting LCD
Another amazing feature on the Sony A7R is its Electronic Viewfinder. Kinda makes you wish all cameras had this. The focus magnification is so efficient gliding from 7X to 14X like a little electronic buddy helping you nail the focus each time.
When shooting with TS-E lenses, tilting movements can be previewed on the viewfinder. This is extremely helpful in the field. Sony’s EVF is a huge improvement over their NEX-7 but still does not quite match the quality of optical viewfinders. However, it’s reasonably sharp, responsive and gives you a preview of what’s being captured. In low light it brightens your subject aiding manual focus even further. I enjoyed shooting with Canon FD manual lenses like the FD 85mm f/1.2L, FD 35mm f/2.8L Tilt and Shift and had tack sharp results using the electronic viewfinder coupled with focus magnification and peaking.
Sony A7R with Canon FD 35mm f/2.8 Tilt and Shift
The 3.0" Tiltable TFT LCD with 1,229K-Dots is awesome. The option "Sunny Weather" makes it seem clear even in direct sunlight. The ability to tilt the LCD when having the camera close to the ground is a great aid for landscape photography. I liked the LCD Live View performance in low light and could manually fine-tune focus with clarity. I usually shoot with two (2) L-brackets: One for the Metabones Mark III adapter an another for the A7R body (Markins PS-A7) in case I want to use native lenses like the Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA.
Sony A7R with Hejnar Photo and Markins L-brackets
Sony A7R with Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA and Markin PS-A7 bracket
The A7R does not have an electronic first curtain and therefore it's fully mechanical. Here is how it works: The shutter first closes to end live view or EVF. Then it opens to start the exposure and finally closes to end the exposure. At the end of this process it reopens to reinitiate live view.
Shutter vibration is real and it seems to happen at the exact moment when the shutter closes before reopening to start the exposure. When carefully inspecting my files at 100% magnification, the vibration blur was noticeable above 100mm from 1/30s until the 1/125s shutter speed range. The blur is very subtle but it is still there. I didn't detect noticeable vibration when shooting with my TS-E 90mm f/2.8 but did see vibration blur when shooting with my 70-200mm f/4L IS and 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS lenses. It's not much of an issue with focal lengths smaller than 100mm. When present, this blur unfortunately reduces the benefits of shooting with a high megapixel camera. The vibration is more noticeable when the camera base is not mounted on the tripod - like if you're using an adapter tripod mount or lens tripod mount.
Sometimes, I fantasize about a firmware update that could delay the time between the closing of the shutter and the reopening of the shutter to start exposure. This could wipe away the shutter vibration problem. The delay could be manually set between presets like 2 or 3 seconds or by leaving the time delay active until a remote trigger is used manually to open the shutter and initiate exposure. This setting would only be used for certain conditions like when shooting with longer focal length lenses on a tripod. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and someone from Sony will read this and make it happen.
Regardless, it's good to know the camera's limitations in order to make work-arounds. As a landscape photographer, it's not really a major issue for me. I mainly shoot with wide angle lenses and when shooting with lenses longer than 100mm, I use ND filters to keep shutter speeds below the affected range.
Even if Canon comes up with a high-megapixel body, and even if resolution and dynamic range are equaled, it's tough to deny the benefits of Sony's lightweight A7R. Especially, if you're hoofin' it to a remote location.
After a few days below sea-level in Death Valley, it's always nice to come back home to capture a sunset by the pier in San Clemente. Watching the sky turn my favorite shade through the golden light, I still can't believe the images churning out of this Sony A7R. Don't let its size fool you, this baby packs a punch. For Canon photographers interested in landscape or studio photography, it's a non-brainer. Combining this body with your arsenal of high quality Canon glass, makes for an unstoppable team.
Sony A7R with Canon nFD 85mm f/1.2L
- 36MP Exmor sensor
- Superb EVF
- E-mount compatibility with an array of Sony and other adapted lenses
- Compact size and Lightweight
- Manual mode with auto-ISO and exposure compensation
- Weather sealed
- High quality RAW files with amazing dynamic range
- Noticeable Shutter Vibration above 100mm focal length in the 1/30s - 1/125s shutter speed range
- RAW lossy compression
- Slow wake-up time
- Low battery life capacity
- Unable to toggle the LCD On/Off with a custom button. You can assign a custom function to turn off the LCD but it only blacks out the screen without actually turning it off.
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