Sony a7iii – My Early Review

Sony a7iii – My Early Review

****This a camera review for photographers so if you have stubbled across this blog post when looking for pretty wedding photos please skip to the next post.****

Introduction

The key thing about technology is that it is there to make your life easier and it’s not about the technology itself but what it enables you to do that is important.

A good camera should simply make it easier to take great photos.  Therefore, this review is ultimately a real-world review on whether the new Sony A7iii makes my job as a Wedding Photographer any easier.   I was under no illusions that upgrading my camera would turn me into Ross Harvey but if more of my photos were in focus, were not blurry, were less grainy or I was able to capture moments that previously would have been unachievable then that would be good enough for me and would justify the upgrade.

To give this review some context, I have switched to Sony after being a Canon DSLR owner for the last 11 years and have been shooting weddings professionally since 2010.  First with 2x 5D mark 1’s and then 2x 6D mark 1’s for the last 5 years.   I pre-ordered the Sony a7iii with the Sigma MC-11 adapter, Sony 28mm F2 and Sony 85mm f1.8 lenses.  So far I’ve shot 4 weddings with the camera and over 10,000 images so these are my initial impressions and I’ll update this article as I use it more. I’ve used this camera exclusively for these weddings and whilst I did have the Canon gear with me, it stayed in the camera bag all day.

First I want to explain a little about my thought process in buying into the Sony system.  There are of course all the features that have been stealing the headlines of the photography press for the last year since the announcement of the A9.  However, I also believe in the strategy Sony has followed in the last few years where they have been investing and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a camera.

Sony seem to be innovating at every turn and packing their cameras full of technology that would really help the working photographer. They seem to understand what their customers want and didn’t hold features back with the Sony A7iii to force you to buy the A9.  More than anything they listened to the feedback from customers about the previous Alpha series cameras and did something about it (eg. battery life or auto focus speed). Now that is the type of company I want to invest my money in!

Finally if I’m going to spend a not inconsiderable amount of money on a new camera I want to be excited about the whole process. I don’t want to feel like practically every aspect of the camera is a compromise and that’s how I felt when I was going to upgrade with the Canon 5D Mark IV.   The Sony a7iii had me excited!

Features

I’ve listed these in the order I find most useful as a Wedding Photographer and the things that I’m really excited about with this camera that are making a real-world difference to my photography.

Focussing

Without doubt the biggest factor in my buying decision was the Sony focussing system and I’m really pleased with how this works in the real world.

Coming from the Canon 6d my major issue was missed photos due to the limited focussing system.   The reality was only the centre cross-type focussing point was reliable enough to use in most circumstances. This was especially true as I’m a prime lens shooter and spend 95% of the day at f2 when shooting a wedding so focussing accuracy was key with a shallow depth of field.   If the subject was towards the edge of the frame then I’d estimate 60-70% of shots were not sharp. The Sony a7iii has 693 focus points and they cover 93% of the viewfinder.    Suddenly a subject being off centre is no longer a problem.  No more focus and recompose!!


Eye-AF and Face Detection

Eye-AF – you had me at hello!  The number of focus points doesn’t mean anything if they don’t work quickly and accurately but I can tell you the focussing speed and accuracy of the Sony a7iii is outstanding. In fact, it’s very rare that a picture is out of focus.  The focus in general is lightening quick and when you can see every detail of the eye lashes when zooming in then it gives you great confidence in the camera’s abilities.

The speed at which this camera locks on to a face or the eye is astonishing. It’s almost instantaneous. At a wedding I often have to react very quickly to a moment and I’ve found the a7iii will grab focus before I really have time to think.   It almost feels like you are cheating sometimes.    Eye-AF / Face Detection isn’t a small evolution in camera focussing,  this is a revolution.   I’ve found the Eye-AF doesn’t always work if the subject is turned sideways on or you are in a dimly lit room or backlit but the majority of the time the Face Detection will kick-in instead.

When not using eye-af or facial recognition, you can quickly scroll the focus point around the viewfinder using the joystick or touch screen.   This gives you a great deal of flexibility but doesn’t always feel very accurate when used quickly.  I’ve often resorted back to centre point focusing by clicking the joystick inwards to reset the focus point to the centre of the view finder and then just putting the subject in the middle of the frame. The major use for this is when a bride is walking down the aisle and I’m at the front with the groom to the left of the shot.  If I hit Face Detection in this scenario the focus will jump to the groom as he is the most prominent subject in the image but I want the focus point to be on the bride further back down the aisle.

The other slight niggle with the Eye-AF / Face Detect is that the camera decides which face to focus on. Most of the time it gets it right or it picks the one nearest the focus point. However, if the face you want to focus on is not straight on to the camera or they are looking down then the camera will sometimes pick another face instead. There are ways around this and because everything happens so quickly then I could recompose and focus again in a split second (almost certainly still quicker than most DSLRs as I’m talking fractions of a second here) to get the right face so I didn’t miss the shot.  It’s a niggle I’m going to have to work out but I’m sure the more I shoot with this camera then I’ll come up with a solution to get it right first time, every time.   It would be much easier if the camera allowed you to flick the joystick to jump to the next face in the frame when multiple faces are detected.

Finally I wish Sony made the focus points glow red rather than grey and I’m sure this could be fixed in a firmware update.  This isn’t too much of a problem in most lighting conditions but in a dimly lit scene it can be difficult to see the focus point against a dark background.  Please Sony sort this out.

These are small niggles in an otherwise superb system and the focussing is the game changer for me.  So much so if the Sony A7iii offered no other improvements over my old cameras other than the focussing system that alone would have been enough for me to upgrade.  The reality is however it also wins in practically every other department too….

Dynamic Range and Shadow Recovery

Under normal exposures I don’t think I’ve really noticed the upgrade in dynamic range with the A7iii but where the a7iii sensor really comes into its own is when you need to recover shadow detail. This can be either where I’ve missed the exposure or the dynamic range of the scene is too much to capture in a single file. No problem! Pushing the files by 3 stops doesn’t show any massive decrease in the quality of the image. I haven’t done any scientific testing on this but exposing for a brides white dress in full sun can give you a massively under exposed image and this sensor has no issue in pulling back all the detail you require.   This was probably the biggest revelation for me so far with this camera and left me blown away!  As a wedding photographer this is huge. You don’t always have control of the light and have to shoot in full midday sun with harsh light and shadows. I’d rate this as the second best reason to make the switch after the focus system.


Tilt Screen

I never thought I needed a tilt screen on my cameras previously so this wasn’t a feature I thought I would ever use.  Now I have one I found this to be really useful.  It is great to be able to hold the camera over your head to take a shot from a different angle and actually have a high percentage chance that it will come out as expected.  I used to do this on my DSLRs and just hope it would catch focus on someone and be the right angle.  On the Sony a7iii, when you combine the tilt screen with face-detection then new possibilities are opened up to you.  I used this to shoot photos of the guests once they were seated at their tables for dinner and to take some different angles of the bride getting ready rather than just the standard shots. I never knew I wanted a tilting screen but now I’m really glad this camera has one.

Live View

Being able to see your exposure before you take your shot changes the way in which you shoot and certainly speeds things up.  There is no more chimping after you take the image and hoping you got the exposure right, you already know before you took the shot.  You can quickly see if you need to change settings in manual mode or add exposure compensation in Aperture or Shutter priority.

At a wedding, being discrete with your camera can help you get the photo you want when shooting people. Live-view can help with this.  Holding a big DSLR makes you standout like a sore thumb. Having a small mirrorless camera and shooting in live view so it isn’t obvious you are even taking a photo makes it much easier to blend in without being the centre of attention and capture more natural moments at a wedding especially when combined with silent shooting.

As with any camera in Live view though it is difficult to see the screen in bright sun so you have to switch to the EVF.

EVF

The jury is still out for me on the EVF, I’m not sure if I love it or I hate it?  Only time will tell once I’ve used it more.  Being able to review the image you just took in the EVF on a bright sunny day is superb.  I hate having to squint at the LCD screen whilst shading it with my hands to make sure I got the shot.  Seeing the exposure change as you change settings like in live-view is also great.

So far though something just doesn’t feel natural when using the EVF as I’m still used to shooting with an optical view finder.  The image in the EVF seems very contrasty and over saturated. It is not a deal breaker and in many situations then the pro’s of the EVF easily outweigh the cons so I’m hoping I’ll get used to it with more use.

Silent Shooting

This was another one of those features that I’d never thought of as important with the canon DSLR.  The silent mode is not discernibly quieter than the normal shooting mode so it didn’t really make much difference if I used it or not.

As a wedding photographer and more than that; a reportage or documentary style photographer being discrete can be the difference between getting the shot and not.  You don’t always want to alert the subject you are taking a photo as this can changing how they act.   With the electronic shutter the A7iii is completely silent.  Not a peep!   In fact the problem is knowing that you have even taken a photo at all.  It’s only when the buffer ‘bar’ on the side of the screen starts to decline that you know anything is happening.

The silent mode is isn’t flawless however as there is some banding in some artificial light situations with certain shutter speeds. In some artificial lighting situations it can make the silent mode unusable but in most it is just faint bands across the images so can be fixed in post.    In natural light the silent shooting works perfectly.  If your main reason for buying a new camera is for silent shooting for all situations then I would look at the A9 instead.

10 frames per second

I can’t imagine a situation where I will ever require 10 frames per second at a wedding. Most of the time I have the camera set to 3 frames a second (continuous low) mode to stop me taking 10 shots every time my finger hits the shutter button.  When I require a burst mode I will move up to Continuous Mid mode at 6 frames per second.  This is sufficient for me for confetti photos and shooting through nearly every moment such as the guests laughing.

The downside is I have found that I’m now shooting more than 2500 images per wedding where previously I never took more than 1800 images.    It is just so easy to take 6-8 images where previously I would have taken 1.  The big advantage is every shot is now in focus and you can shoot through a reaction to get the perfect moment.  In the confetti run at this weekends wedding I took 65 images in the space of about 15 seconds.  Its amazing to look at these images and see everyone in focus then I can just select the best 8-10 shots to deliver.

ISO

At 6400 ISO images are really clean and I’m happy using this as the maximum on the Auto ISO setting.  If needed I would let it go up to 12,800 ISO but only if I knew the image was exposed correctly.  At 12,800 the images does show lots of grain if you have to push the exposure in post-production.

Colour Science

This was one of my worries switching to Sony as much has been written about Sony’s colour science being far behind that of Canon and Nikon. With these new generation of Sony cameras the problems are meant to have been sorted and I’m pleased to report the colours straight out of camera are great.  In fact I’d go so far to say I prefer the Sony colours to Canon files.

Ergonomics

When I first picked up the camera I was surprised the grip felt good even though I have large hands. I’m a 6’2” ex- rugby player so I’m not a small guy and I’d prepared myself mentally for an “oh crap, what have I done” moment when first picking it up.   I was planning ahead to get the battery grip or grip extender after reading reports as I thought I’d hate how it felt in the hand. The reality is whilst it’s small, it feels solid, well made and easy to hold.   I’m glad to say on this point my expectations were incorrect.

When I started to play with the buttons and dials their placement didn’t feel intuitive. However it didn’t take me long to get used to the layout and now it feels 2nd nature and I can use most buttons without looking.    All that is except for the front and back dial or the ‘AV’ and ‘TV’ dials.  Maybe it’s the size of my hands but these still don’t feel in a comfortable position even after a month to get used to them.  I’ve switched the AV controls to the rear dial instead (more similar to the placement on the Canon) to get round this.  I mainly shoot in AV with auto ISO so the AV dial is more important to me than the TV dial and this works well for me now.

Sony a7iii top

 

The real test of ergonomics was picking up my DSLR which now just feels weird, huge and outdated already so it hasn’t taken long for the a7iii to completely change my perspective.

The menu system

A lot has been written about the Sony menu system and how complex and difficult it is to navigate. The main issue is there so many options and this camera is infinitely customisable. The second issue is many of the menu names don’t seem to make sense with the function they perform.  I didn’t however find this to be a massive issue, you just have to make time to set the camera up how are you want in the first place.  Watch the YouTube videos and then work your way through every menu page and most items you will never need to change again.

As I mentioned above this camera is infinitely customisable which is a blessing and a curse and can take some time to set the camera up to your own unique way of working.   I found myself changing this at several points throughout the wedding day as I suddenly thought a change of features would be beneficial.  It is great to be able to set the camera up however you want but the down side is I’m forever refining and changing this a I strive to find the ultimate combination for the way I shoot.    I’m not sure if this search for the perfect configuration will ever end but I’m getting closer all the time.

As well as the four C- buttons, every dial and joystick can be adapted to your needs.

For me this means I set:

C1 – Face Detection – to quickly turn this off if needed when I just want to use the focus points.

C2 – focus area (l only use flexible spot and lock-on flexible spot L).

C3 – silent shooting

C4 – metering mode

AF-on – Registered focus point

AEL – Eye-af

Focus hold on the lens – Eye-AF

 

Disappointments

The Touch screen

The touch screen is nice to have and for quickly moving a focus point it is very useful but its functionality in the real world is not great.   It feels a little like using the first-generation touch screen on an old mobile phone.  It doesn’t feel as precise and instantaneous as it should like using an iPhone for example.  The lack of touch screen functionality in the menu is still confusing and numerous times I have gone to hit a button on the screen only to find it has no effect and I have to use the physical button.    I’m sure this is something Sony could sort with a firmware update or will definitely do in the next generation of this camera.  I’m nit picking here as I like having a touch screen it just doesn’t feel as good as the touch screens we use daily on other devices.

Conclusion

I’ve tried to provide a balanced view of this camera mentioning the things I love and the few issues or niggles I’ve found.  It would have been easy to be a Sony ‘Fan Boy’ as the technology is that good but there are some things that have confused me or have not quite worked as I expected but these are all minor gripes and most could just be down to user error.

The reality is this is an outstanding camera and is better in every way than the DSLRs I have used previously.    The focussing system alone is worth the upgrade.  The number of keepers has gone through the roof and I can now judge whether to keep an image based on the moment or the right expression. I’m no longer limited to having to choose the best from the 50% of photos that were in focus.

Will this camera make me a better photographer?  Yes and no.  This camera hasn’t changed my style massively or made me see things differently. However it is already helping me to realise my creative vision by getting the image I want to capture without getting in my way or hindering the process. I’ve captured photos I would previously have missed because the focus system is so quick or the liveview / EVF means the exposure is correct without chimping.

Should you buy this camera?  If you need to upgrade your Camera then yes.  I would have no hesitations recommending this camera to anyone who is familiar with and experienced with a DSLR – professionals or enthusiasts.  This is probably not a camera for the novice photographer however as the huge menus and amount of customisation will probably only confuse the new user.

The cost of switching from Canon or Nikon was not as much as I expected.  I only use the 28mm F2 and 85mm F1.8 and Godox V860ii flash and combined these cost around £750.

I’m very pleased I made the switch to the Sony a7iii and have no regrets….Do it..Do it.  You won’t regret it.