First Impressions: Sony A7III (and possibly the 100-400mmF4.5-5.6 GMaster by association)

The Backstory

So.  Have you read enough about the Sony Alpha cameras already?  Actually if you are not a camera geek like me you probably haven’t heard much of the Sony camera’s currently taking the world by storm.  Unless you are friends with me on any form of social media – then you probably heard too much in the last couple weeks and you are probably hoping that I would stop.  And I promise that this blog post is the culmination of what has been an exciting few weeks.  I therefore ask that you bear with me and maybe this is the last you’ll hear of it…for now!

Let me start with the backstory.  I have been following a couple Sony shooters on Instagram and Youtube for a while now (Manny Ortiz probably the one that first comes to mind).  Sony launched the full frame mirrorless Alpha 7 (A7) series with the A7 and A7R In October 2013 and quickly followed it up with the A7II and the A7RII the following November.  The base model in the series has always had a 24MP sensor, with the R models having higher resolution (36MP and then 42MP) and the S series greater low light performance with a smaller megapixel count that makes it better for video work.  I think the II series and in particular the A7RII were the cameras that captured a lot of the early movers and people who could afford to be on multiple systems.  And as the users grew so did the positive noise about how good the images out of the camera were.  But the early users from other systems such as Canon and Nikon also found a lot of issues with the A7II.  There were concerns on the clunky and often illogical menu systems, the lack of top quality F2.8 glass initially and I think most concerning of all was the lack of decent battery life (with reports of 2 hours or less).  Many users still on the Canon and Nikon systems, myself included, were discouraged by these initial reviews.

Then in April 2018 Sony announced the Alpha A9 with the headline being the 20 frames per second (fps from here on in) frame rate coupled to a 693 point, 93% coverage auto-focus system that promised to make the camera a sports and action beast.  And that made the photography world sit up and take notice if they weren’t already paying the system attention.  More importantly Sony claimed that the A9 fixed some of the concerns of the II series cameras including the ease of use and battery life.  I will admit it now, I wanted it so badly and immediately immersed myself into the reviews that began to pour out as people overseas started getting their hands on them.  But there was a problem, Sony had pulled out of South Africa about 6 or 8 years on all their consumer electronics except phones I think which meant getting the A9 was near impossible through South African camera stores.  I think I saw one brought in for some video work that was being sold second hand at R85 000 which is almost 2 times the dollar selling price!  And then in November Sony launched the A7RIII and I was ready to pull my hair out knowing I might never get a copy of the camera!

But the light of the end of the tunnel was suddenly switched back on when late in November Sony announced that they had decided to re-enter the South African market with the camera segment leading the way I think, distributed through Premium Brand Distributors who also distribute Nikon in South Africa.  Initial stock was slow to come into South Africa and I think Sony may have missed some Christmas sales as the camera trickled in.  But by January and February most stores had stock of at least the II series and a few had stock of the A7RIII as well.  I was almost ready to pull the trigger on the RIII – the price volatility at the beginning due to a stronger Rand and the fact that I was still to find a demo model to get my hands on let me hold on for a little while.  I had however made the decision solid by selling off a couple of my Canon lenses to help fund the purchase.  And then at the end of February Sony announced the A7III and my heart sank immediately because I inherited a decision I think still truly haven’t made my mind up on to this day.

The Sony A7III became available in South Africa on 1 May which I think was as bad day to launch a camera as you could find in South Africa, given that most people had taken the 27 April to 1 May as a long weekend which meant anyone who loves the bush was probably in the bush, with their cameras.  I planned my own trip away starting on the 2 May after speaking to a consultant at Cameraland Sandton a week before the launch and being told he had a copy coming in that may be available and that I should come into the store to get it.  Unfortunately that unit was sold before getting in and so I scrambled to try to get one in hand and eventually decided to place an order for one as soon as I was back from my trip. I walked into the Kameraz store on the Saturday I got back who finally had an A7RIII on display that I could get my hands on and put the 100-400mm lens on to feel the balance and it felt good!  I was told that I could maybe get a kit set that was in the store and hadn’t been picked up but only on Monday.  However it turned out that kit was also picked up in time and I was left searching again.  Eventually I got a camera body on the Tuesday 8 May, a whole after it was meant to go on sale from Outdoorphoto and was overjoyed.  But I decided to stall the unboxing to try (and in the end fail) doing a video for Youtube.  I filmed the unboxing and half way through realised that instead of just the camera body I was sent a kit set with the 28-105mm kit lens by mistake.  I decided to go ahead and set up the camera and return the lens separately or if needs be pay for the difference in price between the camera body only and the kit because there was no ways that I was sending the camera back!

But why, you may ask, was I so excited about the base model of the A7 III series range if I had previously had my mind set on first the A9 and the A7RIII? I think it comes down to being the right camera for what I am doing.  The A9 shoots an astounding 20fps but only compressed RAW and with the electronic shutter.  That’s a serious camera body for sports and action but at a serious price as well.  The A7R is beautiful but that 42MP sensor is more than I currently require and would have meant new cards, new hard drives and maybe even a new computer which adds to the cost.  The A7III is the bottom of the range but definitely has it’s advantages – the autofocus system is the same as the A9 at half the price.  And the lower megapixel count means that in lower light conditions the A7III will out-perform the A7RIII although they are both pretty good at ISO settings up to about 3200ISO. So for a significantly reduced cost I was getting the “entry level” Sony mirrorless camera yes but it’s probably the best camera in it’s price range and then some if I look at the competition.

To test how well it performs I decided to take it out for my favourite place to be other than at home probably, the Pilanesberg National Park.  Getting in just after sunrise due to the long queue at the Manyane gate we had some beautiful light to work with for the first 3 hours or so and were lucky enough to even catch the central pride on the hunt.  The variety of shots gave me a good feel of how the camera handled.  I only bought the one lens to start with, the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GMaster so was not able to shoot any wider landscape shots.  I am trying to sell off some other Canon lenses to be able to get a metabones adapter to use my existing wide angle Canon glass on the A7III.

First Impressions as promised

Ease of use

First let me address the menu system and the general ease of use.  Yes the menus when you first get them do seem daunting – I think there’s something like 35 odd 6 line menus broken down into 5 categories which means that there are like 180 items you can customise.  But not all of them need to be changed – I watched a free tutorial from Tony and Chelsea Northrop on Youtube that was about 90 minutes and then a run through of all the menus by Jared Polin of FroKnows Photos that took another 2 hours and I was all set.  The number of customisable buttons and menus is actually a boon rather than a hindrance as you can program 4 custom keys, change the way the 3 wheels work if you want to, set up a two layered 8 function on screen menu of your most used items such as focus areas, focus modes, picture styles, silent mode etc. and there are preset hard-wired keys that you can learn quite quickly.

Now of course you would want to be able to pick the camera out of the box, charge the battery and be ready to shoot.  But I don’t think that initial time was wasted as I was pretty much confident that I could use the camera to shoot almost as well as my 7D by the end of the set up.  And it exceeded my 7D in a lot of ways – the focus system probably the most because the thumb wheel allows you to move the focus point to any point on the screen and I think is 8 directional.  The 7D has 65 points that you can cycle through only in 4 directions (up, down, left and right).  And once you have taken your picture you can quickly reset the focus to the center again ready for the next shot – on my Canon systems I found that often I would be shooting and then lose track of where I had left the focus point and often struggled to get it back to where I wanted it.  I shot mostly in the expanded flexible spot which is a large focus point and several smaller surrounding points and it worked quite well.

Shooting and manipulating the buttons while the camera was up to my eye however was not the most comfortable experience for two reasons.  Firstly the button configuration and placement meant that a few times I pressed the wrong button or switched the camera off completely when searching for the front dial.  I switched the dials around and put the shutter speed on the back dial and that seemed to help – I just have to retrain by brain to this new way of shooting.  My fingers are also quite short and fat so that may have also contributed but I struggle to see how someone with large manly hands can actually use the camera comfortably as the grip is much smaller than an semi-pro or pro DSLR.  The second reason and perhaps the harder one to get used to was the electronic view finder – being accustomed to looking through the lens, the lack of clarity on the viewfinder and the time delay between putting the camera to your eye and picking up focus is jarring coming from a DSLR.  I have since changed a few settings, made the viewfinder warmer and brighter and switched on the Pre-AF and hopefully this helps improve the EVF experience over time.  The A7RIII and the A9 have viewfinders with 30% more dots (about a million more dots) so they may be crisper and brighter but will have to get one in my hands to compare.

UHS-II cards

The A7III comes with dual card slots – Slot 1 which can accommodate both UHS-I and UHS-II SD cards and Slot-2 which can only accommodate UHS-I cards.  The camera requires a card in Slot-1 to operate and with no UHS-II cards I just used the one slot.  Using two slots should allow writing RAW files to one card and JPeg to the second which should theoretically save some write time.  Or I think it allows video to Slot-1 and pictures to Slot-2. My UHS-I cards write a little slow so there is noticeable lag between taking a burst and the buffer completely free again.  In that time the camera does not allow any other operation which can be annoying if you want to change any settings and be right back into shooting.  It’s not the longest time, perhaps less than 10 seconds  on a 8 or 9 shot burst, but it is significant enough to be noticeable.  I may need to invest in some UHS-II cards at some time in the future if it does get too annoying, doubling the write speed but at some cost (R1400 for a 32GB 300MB/s read speed).  Some of the 4K video modes will not work without the UHS-II cards so it is something to bear in mind when considering the camera.

Size and weight

One of the main advantages of dropping the mirror is that the A7III is significantly smaller than any equivalent DSLR.  The camera body with batteries in is about 260g lighter than my 7DmkII.  Add the 100-400mm lens on and the set up on the Sony is 500g less than the equivalent Canon set up which may not seem like a lot but becomes substantial over a whole day with the camera in your hands.  The weight of the 100-400mm lens is more than 2 times the camera body but at no time did it feel unbalanced on the body even when fully extended too 400mm.  Like I said earlier however the smaller body does mean larger hands struggle with the dials so it becomes a question of comfort versus ease of use – I will need a few more field trips to make up my mind on this one but the compact size and lighter weight is winning at the moment.

Battery Life

The battery life claimed by Sony on the A7III is 700 shots.  Nothing of the time spent shooting which had me worried.  I was not able to get a spare battery with the camera Sony or generic and I am still waiting for a call from a couple stores I have pre-ordered with (similar to the batteries on the DJI Mavic Air which shipped almost 3 full months after the drone units) which was surprising given that the battery is the same in all three of the most recent Sony cameras and the A7RIII and the A9 have both been in the country since January.  So I made sure that the battery that came with the camera was fully charged and only switched the camera on as we entered the park at 7:30am.  By the time we had stopped for breakfast at 10am the battery was down to 60odd percent.  From breakfast to lunch time we did not do much shooting so that camera was mostly in standby.  I then got a few shots of the yellow-billed hornbill and a giraffe and noticed that the battery was down to 35%.  By the time we left the park at 3:30pm the battery was down to 28% which means that if we had stayed all day it would have probably been dead and I would have been forced to revert to shooting with the 7Dmkii which I have comfortably got more than 1000 shots on with a single battery across multiple days of shooting.  So as much as Sony have claimed that the battery life is improved, it will not last a whole day out in the bush I don’t think and until I get a spare battery or two I will be carrying the 7D around just in case.

The battery is however USB chargeable (something that the Mavic Air is not and I found out much to my disappointment) so should be able to be recharged with a powerbank.  Whether I would actually do that is questionable.  My other gripe with the battery is that Sony sends you the battery without a charger – the battery needs to be charged through the USB while in the camera every time!  I had a look at battery chargers and the Sony branded one is close to R3000!  A generic charger is R1500 without any batteries, so more unexpected (sort of because I would have bought spare batteries anyway) costs.  The good thing is that if you have an A7RIII or an A9 and the A7III the battery is the same across all three cameras.  Which means the battery grips should also be the same – quite a departure from older brands who sell you specific grips for each camera.  In fact even things like remote shutter releases are different across camera makes within the same brand.

The 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GMaster lens

I said I would also give the first impression of the lens and it is almost perfect.  As I mentioned it is smaller and lighter than the Canon equivalent.  It also has the smooth-tight ring to keep the zoom position fixed if needs be.  It has 3 buttons on the lens itself that can be programmed to perform different functions such as focus hold or eye autofocus.  But it is actually all wrong because the zoom is clockwise to the Canon’s counter-clockwise.  You would think that it may just be preference but somehow it just feels awkward because your left hand has to come over the top of the lens to zoom in whereas in the Canon your hand is coming down the side of the lens and just feels right.  To add to the awkwardness, the tripod collar gets my fat left thumb stuck between it’s base and the zoom ring meaning I have to readjust my hand position after a half zoom to get to the fully zoomed position of 400mm.  I could take the collar off as it clips off in a single movement but the collar does make it easier to carry the lens and camera around so I am not ready to do that just yet.  I keep telling myself that I must learn to zoom clockwise but may actually end up walking around with lens fully zoomed in and zoom out if necessary using the lens as a 400mm-100mm instead of the other way around. Another feature I will have to report back on.  Sharpness and image quality, even in crop mode cannot be faulted however!

So my conclusion

If you haven’t figured it out already, I have to admit that I am totally in love with the A7III.  Yes I would have loved to have seen how the 42MP A7RIII images looked like and maybe I might still get my hand on one to try out (putting it out to the Universe maybe Sony is listening :P).  I will keep on practicing and hopefully get out to the Pilanesberg again quite soon and will also hope that the park delivers.  I will hopefully also get the spare batteries sooner rather than later and if I can sell the Canon lenses (it seems a bit cannibalistic every time I mention it) I will get the metabones adapter and hopefully capture some wide shots as well.  But for now I am wearing the biggest smile since probably my first few shots out of the Canon 6D and before that since the first time I put a 70-200mm with an extender on the 7D body and took it out to the Kruger.  Giant leap of faith stepping away from the Canon brand for now, hoping that Sony will begin to deliver out some of the longer lenses with news of a possible 400mmF4 already in manufacturing and a 500mmF4 or a 600mmF4 to follow soon.  If you want to give it a try come shoot with me in the Pilanesberg – I’ll drive! But definitely one to consider if you want to step up and step out!

 

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