Sony a7s – review of a camera that bites from the dark


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Sony a7s – review of a camera that bites from the dark

I’ve tested many cameras until now. Everyone of them had something good by its side. Based on this, I’ve imagined the perfect, ideal camera.

I think SONY did test the same cameras and, like me, imagined the ideal camera. Why do I say this? Because they’ve made it.

Sony-A7s-front

While well established camera manufacturers sleeps on it, because you see, cameras sells by themselves, and they don’t innovate at all, Sony pulls every string to innovate, to please its customers and to win new market share.

Innovating with 12 Mpx?

How can you innovate as long as you take out a camera with “only” 12 megapixels? … someone may ask. Well, it looks like you can, and as I said it tens of times, if not hundreds: the “megapixel” is not everything.

Having the new 54 mpx sensor on its hand, creating the largest full-frame sensor as of megapixel count (the one in D800, a7 and a7r), Sony still thinks beyond the megapixel madness and creates a completely new sensor, with “just” 12 million pixels.

I shot with 12 mpx since 2009 and I’ve never felt I need more. As a proof, I still have my camera from 2009, a Nikon D700, a camera I couldn’t replace until now, because I didn’t find yet a good replacement. I didn’t want huge files or bigger in size camera (even if I bought a D3s and sold it after 3 months), I just wanted other innovations, but elsewhere than in megapixels.

This is what Sony a7s does, innovates elsewhere. If I want to resume in a single phrase the conclusion of  my tests with the camera, it may sound like this:

Sony a7s is a camera that bites from the dark in complete silence, recording in 4K the open mouths of those around it.

Well, I said it! And I dare to say this too: I just wait for the rumoured lenses of february-march and if they come fulfilling my needs, the Sony a7s will be my new workhorse.

Technical specs of Sony a7s

  • Full-Frame Exmor CMOS 12.2Mpx with optimised architecture
  • BIONZ X image processor
  • ISO 50-409600
  • OLED XGA electronic viewfinder with 2.360.000 pixels
  • LCD 3.0″with 921.600 pixels
  • Full HD video with XAVC S codec
  • 4K video with external recorder
  • Contrast detect AF with 25 points
  • Extended dynamic range up to 1300% (S-Log2)
  • 4:2:2 UHD 4K over HDMI
  • Wi-Fi and NFC

But still, the question remains. Why “just” 12 mpx?!

The answer splits in two:

  1. by making 12 milions sensels on a full-frame sensor, Sony got lot of space and made them huge in comparison to those on, let’s say a7R. Bigger sensel means more light being recorded with less noise.
  2. 12 is 4 by 3, right? So, to record 4K video, Sony choses to read the entire surface of the sensor, pixel per pixel, one on one, without compression, binning (combining more pixels from the sensor to get one pixel of the final image) or line-skipping. That equals better quality.

Let’s get our hands on the Sony A7s

I was spoiled when it came to the gear I had for tests. The guys over F64 don’t like to mess around when you ask for equipment, and they’ve sent me a small truck full of it. Even if I’ve asked “what ever you can give me out of these“, they understood only the last part “these“, and they’ve sent all the equipment from my list.

So I got more than I could take. Literally speaking.

But, I got into my senses, and I focused only in testing the camera and not the entire equipment.

Just to let you know, this is what I used most:

I won’t insist either on all camera’s functions here, because I’ve already tested the Sony a7 (read the article in english here). Many of the functions are similar. I will mention only the aspects in which the new camera brings novelty to the table. And where it really shines.

Silence, please!

I said at the beginning of the article that Sony wants to please its customers, and so, it looks like it listen to their complains. Lot of users complained that A7 and A7R where too noisy, even with EFCS on (electronic front curtain shutter).

They’ve made A7S more quiet. So quiet that it doesn’t make any sound. At all.

It’s futile to say how nice this feature is, especially for wedding or street photographers.

I, as a wedding photographer I’m extremely annoyed, when, during church ceremony, I hear the noise my shutter makes. Can’t wait to test the a7s at a wedding. People will maybe think I am just pretending to take photos 🙂

Speaking about sound, Sony a7s is capable of recording sound with the internal mic (a stereo one) or by using an external one, connected to the jack on its side. I’ve used the Sony ECM-CG50 external mic to record sound.

DSC06519

Below are some differences between internal and external sound recording. Please focus on the sound made by the matches and not on my voice 🙂

As a side note, the camera settings were: 1/25s, f/5, ISO 1000, Cine 2 profile.

Because I’ve mentioned profiles, more precisely Picture Profiles, not to be confused with Picture Effects (like Miniature, Toy, High Contrast B&W, etc.) or the Creative Styles (like Landscape, Vivid, Standard, etc.) of the previous models, Sony a7s comes with a multitude of settings to configure the color profiles, so useful for cinematography and obtaining the maximum dynamic range after post-processing and colorisation.

Out of the 7 presets from PP1 to PP7, you are allowed to configure the following:

Black Level

Sets the black level. (–15 to +15)

Gamma – selects a gamma curve:

Movie: Standard gamma curve for movies
Still: Standard gamma curve for still images
Cine1: Softens the contrast in dark parts and emphasizes gradation in bright parts to produce a relaxed color movie. (equivalent to HG4609G33)
Cine2: Similar to [Cine1] but optimized for editing with up to 100% video signal. (equivalent to HG4600G30)
Cine3: Intensifies the contrast in light and shade more than [Cine1] and [Cine2] and strengthens gradation in black.
Cine4: Strengthens the contrast in dark parts more than [Cine3]. The contrast in dark parts is lower and the contrast in bright parts is higher than for [Movie].
ITU709: Gamma curve that corresponds to ITU-709.
ITU709(800%): Gamma curve for confirming scenes on the assumption of shooting using [S-Log2].
S-Log2: Gamma curve for [S-Log2]. This setting is based on the assumption that the picture will be processed after shooting.

Black Gamma – corrects gamma in low intensity areas.

Range: Selects the correcting range. (Wide / Middle / Narrow)
Level: Sets the correcting level. (-7 (maximum black compression) to +7 (maximum black stretch))

Knee – sets knee point and slope for video signal compression to prevent over-exposure by limiting signals in high intensity areas of the subject to the dynamic range of your camera.

Leaving the above aside, you still have control for settings like Mode, Auto Set, Color Mode, Saturation, Color Phase, Color Depth and Detail, enough to keep you busy for some time fiddling with the camera settings.

I didn’t loose to much time with them, even if I should, and I stuck with two Gamma settings, either Cine 2 or S-Log2. I have to mention that when you choose S-Log 2 as a color profile, the minimum ISO setting is 3200, so you have to be careful outside :).

These being said, I invite you to watch the movie below, edited from random footage I took while testing the Sony a7s. I’m by no mean a videographer, just an enthusiast photographer who like to play with video too. This is also a first for me, my first take at colorisation 🙂

I loved the visual markers I could set from the menus, so I was able to frame correctly the scene while filming. I had in mind and Anamorphic look for my final video (2.39:1) so I enabled those markers.

Unfortunately, as you may already know, the Sony a7s can’t do 4K internaly, and by that I mean recording to memory card. You need an external recorder, which I didn’t have, so the only 4K footage is the one I did as a Time Lapse, using the App I’ve installed on the a7s.

While shooting XAVC S and using Cine 2 or S-Log2 I got incredible details available to me in post-process. Even more, while editing and colorising (even with my little knowledge in this field), you can get superb, cinema-like footage, almost out of nothing.

I wish I had more time with the camera, to discover more of its secrets.

And a last thing about the video. Rolling-shutter. I’m sure you’ve waited for this part. A7s, as much as other digital cameras with no 180 degrees shutter, suffers from this curse. Is not that bad, you can post-process it a little to reduce its effects and, as a tip, if you shoot in APS-C mode, you get less of it.

Warning – if you suffer from motion sickness, please don’t watch the next clip!

No photos?

Up until now, every review of a camera I did, started, as it’s normal, with the performance of the gear related to photography. This time, I focused first on video features, and not because Sony a7s is not a great photo camera, but only because the expectations were great on the video recording features.

Please let me start with the following statement: Sony a7s is as much as a photo camera as is a video recording beast, if not more.

The photos taken with it have that “je ne sais quoi”, that pleasant look, similar to argentic film. And because, again, expectations are high regarding high ISO recording, take this one, straight from the camera ISO 25.600

DSC01766

ISO 25.600 | f/2.0 | 1/125s | 55mm

And here is a crop 100% from two regions of the image

DSC01766_crDSC01766_cr2

Look at the look 🙂 Noise, even if present, has the similar look of the grain of the film age.

I could have done the so boring ISO tests, with the same frame at different ISO values, but NO! With this camera I just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of shooting in the dark, just like a falcon does (not!)

DSC01815

ISO 25.600 | f/2.2 | 1/200s | 55mm

And again, 100% crop to see the incredible details you get even in the dark zones (pun not intended :))

DSC01815_cr

And because I went to this “dark” side, let’s continue. The photos at ISO values that goes beyond “normal” limits are incredible. On top of this, I must mention the AF performance of this system, because in pitch black zones when I could barely see the subject, it managed to focus with no trouble, and even at wide open apertures to nail it.

DSC01866

ISO 12.800 | f/2.0 | 1/200s | 55mm

DSC01868

ISO 40.000 | f/2.0 | 1/200s | 55mm

To force its limits, I went all Shutter priority, set values of 1/125s or 1/200s and let Auto ISO do its magic, up to values of 80.000 ISO where I decided is the maximum I would like to go with the a7s. And this is how I wondered the streets near the sea, handheld and got these images

Sony juice everything out of this new sensor, and even now, when I’m writing this article, as of when I was testing the camera, I still can\t believe the quality of the photos it takes in any conditions.

Everything is at high level: the dynamics of the sensor, exposure matrix and auto-ballance system, the colors, the noise. Everything! Look at this dynamic range

DSC02215

ISO 100 | f/1.8 | 1/2500 | 55mm

At the beginning I didn’t trust too much the exposure system and I shot manual. I managed to screw some images, but, back home, in post-process, I got plenty of details to recover.

DSC00043-2

ISO 400 | f/6.3 | 1/30s | 27mm – straight from the camera

DSC00043

ISO 400 | f/6.3 | 1/30s | 27mm – post-processed to recover details

Below other images to prove the dynamics of this sensor

One of the disadvantages of mirrorless system compared to dSLRs, at least from my point of view, is the reduced capacity of shooting (at least focusing) in complete darkness, especially for astro-photography. This is the fault of the EVFs. Somehow, with an optical viewfinder, your eye get accustomed in the dark and you manage to focus.

Not anymore with the Sony a7s, where the mix of incredible high ISO performance and excellent EVF is the “cherry on the cake”.

I chose a bigger star, raised the ISO beyond good sense 🙂 and with some zoom in the image, I managed to shot one of the most beautiful astro-photography I have ever taken.

I have also used the Star Trails app to create a video of the moving stars

Or the Time Lapse app to shoot interval images and then combining them into a 4K clip

I have to mention here an inconvenience of both lenses I’ve used. Being “drive-by-wire” style they don’t have a physical limit or scale for the near or far focusing, and thus you can’t trust them when focusing. But I overcome this quickly with the trick mentioned above: high ISO and zoom into image.

This doesn’t mean that both Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS and the Sony Sonnar T* FE SEL 55mm F1.8 ZA are not great performers. Actually, they are incredible good, with details, sharpens and bokeh you rarely find, even at wide aperture.

If you look at the images you’ll say I had a favourite: the Sonnar 55mm FE is just epic. I go even to the point to say that is almost as good as the Zeiss Otus, and even more, it has auto-focus 🙂

It’s sharp all over from 1.8 and the bokeh is creamy beautiful

DSC01608

ISO 100 | f/1.8 | 1/2000s | 55mm

It is not suffering from lens flare even if you don’t use the hood (I even forgot I carry it with me)

DSC02218

ISO 100 | f/1.8 | 1/640s | 55mm – yep, that’s me, shot by my 5 y.o little girl

DSC02249-2fb

ISO 100 | f/2.8 | 1/100s | 55mm

And below some other images from our little “fashion shooting”

I will put an end here with a final galery of random images taken with the Sony a7s

Conclusions

The perfect camera? It seems so, at least for my needs.

What’s laking? A complete set of lenses, the only place where Sony seems to lack. I know I can use lots of adapters, but I prefer dedicated lenses.  Even so, based on the last rumours, it seems it won’t take long for Sony to fulfil my last wish 🙂


The Romanian version of this article is here, on F64’s blog.

Versiunea in limba romana, o gasiti pe blogul F64, dand click aici.


 

Author: Alin Popescu

Inginer ca formare, grafician ca meserie, fotograf ca mod de viata, Alin este pasionat de tot ce inseamna tehnologie si scrie articole detaliate pe intelesul tuturor.

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4 Comments

  1. I have a terrible doubts about whether I should buy the a7s or a7II
    I love night photography, but take pictures of all kinds.
    12 megapixels of A7s seems to me little to normal work

    How the a7II works at high isos, how about the dynamic range?

    Post a Reply
    • A7II looked great both in Dynamics and high ISO. If you crop a lot, go for the A7II, else, A7s all the way 🙂 (smaller file size, perfect resolution, great video capabilities)

      Post a Reply

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