Sony a7R Mk III review: Welcome to the great digital mirrorless camera divide

Sony a7R Mk III
  • Sony a7R Mk III
  • Sony a7R Mk III
  • Sony a7R Mk III
  • Expert Rating

    4.75 / 5

Pros

  • Image quality, image quality, image quality – fabulous!
  • Flexibility – will suit wedding, events, street and landscape photographers in particular
  • Impressive autofocus performance
  • Much improved battery life
  • A market leader in full-frame, interchangeable lens, mirrorless cameras
  • Great viewfinder – have a look for yourself
  • 4K video
  • Much easier to take travelling than bulky, heavy, full-frame DSLR outfits

Cons

  • Too complicated – the menus, in particular, are very difficult to work out
  • Very expensive – and as such asks a big question
  • Very slow in clearing image buffer
  • The grip could be a little wider (particularly if hefting a large telephoto lens around)
  • UHS-II cards supported in only one of the two SD slots
  • No ISO dial
  • No RAW processing in playback

Bottom Line

A great camera with a few flaws that has really taken it up to the big boys in the top end full-frame DSLR market. Has every right to be considered a major contender by anybody looking to move into high end hardware. Will convert some pro photographers to mirrorless full-frame but I suspect not all.

Would you buy this?

Design

Some of it comes down to intangibles. The a7R Mk III is light – just 657gm, compared with my Canon 6D MKII which weighs in at 765gm. Add a DSLR lens and the difference becomes even greater. My current back up camera is the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX100, easily the best portable, pocket-sized digital camera in the world today. It weighs 405gm.

In terms of photo quality, the 24-75mm zoom lens and 12.8-megapixels on the Lumix is obviously no match for the 42.4-megapixel Sony, particularly when you pop on a Sony FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS lens. But, hey, we're talking about a price difference of well over $5000.

However, here’s my first problem with the Sony – it just doesn’t feel right in my hands. The Canon and the Lumix are both more solid. They make me feel confident when holding them. When I first held the a7R Mk III I thought I was holding a much cheaper camera. Now this is entirely a personal taste thing but it didn’t fill me with confidence. I know it sounds ridiculous, and for many people this won’t be factor in whether they shoot with an a7R MK III or not. So let’s get to something more tangible: the menu system.

One of the great things about shooting with Canon or Nikon DSLRs is the way menus work -  what is where and under which button, is somewhat similar. I tested the new Nikon D850 recently and it was an easy switch from the Canon cameras I normally shoot - a few hours and I was confidently working the Nikon and had a fair idea where most features lay. The Sony a7R Mk III is a totally different beast. Frankly, the menu system is difficult and confusing.

If you come to the Sony from a Nikon and/or Canon DSLR full-frame background then you will face a strong learning curve. It will take time to figure it all out and just what the camera is capable of. I don’t have the time to do that as a professional journalist and semi-pro photographer.  I wish I did because this is, as I said previously, this is one hell of a camera. But it is very complicated.

For instance, the a7R Mk III has a touch screen. Good! Damned, if I could work out how to get it to work. Bad! I eventually found a user group online which tipped that the problem was that default set tracking AF was turned on when I touched the screen, and with tracking on, the touch pad function was disabled. To fix the problem, I needed to set the touchscreen to Panel+Pad operation. I could then move the focus point by swiping on the touchscreen when in viewfinder mode. That should be so much simpler.  

Stuff like that makes me twitchy. Smart technology is great but not if you need to spend a month working out how to use it. The best cameras are designed to be as intuitive as possible. Not that I’m saying Canon and Nikon don’t have their faults but they are a lot easier to work with than the Sony.

Then there is buffer clearing – the time you have to wait after taking a barrage of frames.  The Sony which offers, on paper, 10fps (excellent speed), is very slow to clear it’s very large 42.4MP images and you can wait up to a minute. That is too slow and something Sony needs to seriously look at, particularly in a camera that was being touted by many reviewers as a contender for 2017 camera of the year.

This is small one I suspect – but the a7R doesn’t have an ISO dial. It would be better with one. Physically, I think the grip on the Sony will become a little uncomfortable if you were to attach a 70-300mm lens and have to heft it around with what is a much tighter grip than on a normal full frame DSLR.  

The price: An a7R Mk III with say four lenses and all the back-up gear will swallow at least $10,000. That puts it out of the range of the average shooter – unless money isn’t a problem – and firmly in the pocket of pros. That argument, of course, applies to any of the Canon and Nikon top-line cameras and lenses but Sony really is targeting a very specific user group -  and it isn’t your everyday serious amateur or family photographer.

 All that said, if I was a wedding or an events photographer I would want this camera. It’s light, fast, smart – the autofocus is particularly impressive - and the images it throws at 42.4-megapixels give you massive flexibility in post-production. I can just imagine shooting a wedding or event with two of these and three or four lenses. You could string a couple around the neck and shoulder without the normal weight associated with doing the same with a couple of heavy DSLR set-ups – ever tried carrying a Canon or Nikon DSLR with a big telephoto on one camera and a wide angle on another? Your shoulders get sore very fast.

 Performance

And the images? Pretty damn good, although I will echo a previous review I read that the automatic white balance is sometimes a long way off – and the end result isn’t always retrievable in Lightroom or Photoshop. Apart from that I love the colour the a7R Mk III throws - the photos, as you can see, are constantly dynamic and strong with full tones and an overall richness that can be hard to resist.    

Again, this makes it ideal for the wedding/events crew. It is also a very good camera for street photography – its autofocus, particularly the way it almost instantly finds and tracks people,  is excellent, and the  silent electronic shutter mode is silent! The lightness allows for easy hip shooting and its size doesn’t draw the attention of potential subjects when shooting traditionally. These, of course, are the edges most street photographers seek. When it comes to landscapes, the Sony performed excellently. Crisp, deep, colourful images that were easy manipulated in post-production. If anything, the a7R takes among the sharpest images – albeit with a little more noise from time to time - I’ve seen,

The water dragon … 1/2000, f/10, ISO 1600
The water dragon … 1/2000, f/10, ISO 1600

A small gripe is that Sony uses its own version of RAW - .ARW rather than standard .RAW files, not that different RAW files are unusual – however, if you want to use the camera’s Pixel Shift Multi Shooting mode you have to use the new Sony Imaging Edge software as the combined RAW .ARW files use a new proprietary format, .ARQ.

This is annoying – not because the technology isn’t good, it is, but because there is only so much imaging editing software you can really own and stack on your computer.  I use Photoshop and Lightroom with the excellent Luminar 2018 and Aurora HDR 2018 plugged in, and some Contrastly presets also available in Photoshop. I really don’t need anymore!   

The other salient point I would throw out there, as I have with the Nikon D850 (which is a great camera) and the top-end Canons (also very good) is that 98 per cent of all photographers do not need 42.4 MP images that take up 43MB when shot at 300dpi and open at 102MB in Photoshop. With a width of nearly 9300 pixels at 350dpi they are fabulous for cropping but, again, most photographers do not need this flexibility. The Canon 6D Mk II I use offers me 26.2MP,  6240 x 3540 pixel images, when shooting 16:9 ratio. You can crop 2000 pixels on an image this size and still end up with a file 4240 pixels wide that is more than large enough for printing up to A3 size. If you are shooting for a wall size framed image or a poster for the side of a bus then you need all the megapixels you can get, otherwise it’s a luxury which is nice but takes up a phenomenal amount of storage space very quickly. 

Panorama – Colour, detail, depth of field – all excellent   … 1/1600, f14, ISO 1600
Panorama – Colour, detail, depth of field – all excellent … 1/1600, f14, ISO 1600

Next Page: The Bottom Line & Image Gallery

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