A Sensor Does Not a Camera System Make

(commentary)

I've been hearing from both current and prospective D800E owners about the new Sony A7r. Same 36mp sensor, same lack of AA filter. Gotta be a slam dunk for Sony, right, as their camera is less expensive, smaller, and lighter than the Nikon DSLR.

Not so fast, Jack. 

The first question I faced when I learned of the A7r was this: what lens am I going to put on it for the work I do? I've learned several things about lenses and full frame sensors over the years:

  • The D800E demands the best. There's lots to love about the sensor, but pulling out everything that the sensor can produce means being very careful about lens selection and camera handling. I tend to use the D800 at the extremes. I need something about 18-20mm at the wide end, and I've learned to love it in Africa with the big exotics on it (or maybe just the 70-200mm f/4). I'm not seeing the lens I'd use on an A7r yet. 
  • Full Frame with short flange distances is demanding. Ever shot a Leica M? Because that's similar to what we have now with the Sony: full frame sensor with microlens adjustment plus a very short mount distance. What typically happens with the wide lenses is that you get side-to-side color issues. Leica even builds in correction for this (as does Fujifilm on the X series for use with their Leica mount adapter, and the Fujifilm is APS, not full frame). I haven't seen any indication that Sony has dealt with this, so all those expecting to just throw a Leica lens on with an adapter might be going to get a surprise. I'd guess that Sony and Zeiss are on the same page with the lens design to sensor adjustments, but we don't have the lenses that would reveal that yet. 


Then I started going through the other bits and pieces. 340 shots per battery. Slower frame rates. Worse focus performance. No built-in flash. No dual slot. The list starts to grow fairly fast, and almost always in the D800's favor. The exception: size and weight. Great, I lose a pound and a lot of volume with the Sony body, though probably not so much with lenses, especially at the telephoto end. 

Basically, I'm having a very hard time coming with up with any possible justification for dropping the D800E and going for a A7r. None. For my small and light package for backcountry hiking, I don't want bigger lenses, so the Olympus E-M1 may still be my choice. It's all about the "total kit" weight versus performance for that. 

Sure, someone who sticks to the mid-range, shoots casually, and is happy with what Sony's offering short term might find something to like about the A7r right off the bat, but I'd have to scratch my head as to why they would need 36mp without an AA filter. Bragging rights, I guess.  

The 24mp A7 seems more of a competitor to Nikon's offerings to me. D610 with a 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 for US$2500 or Sony A7 with 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 for US$2000? Hmm, the Sony sounds kind of interesting in that comparison. Still, you're trading some things (size, weight, EVF, WiFi) for others (focus speed, legacy lenses, better lens, OVF, etc.). One of those things may be a dealer maker or a dealer breaker for you.

The new Sony cameras are very interesting, and probably very good performers. They may be what someone wants or needs. But I don't think they're just going to knock DSLRs over because the sensors are the same. There's much more to the game than just the sensor. Indeed, I'd argue that we long ago passed the point where the majority of folk should get overly excited by sensor. All the FX sensors are good. All the recent APS sensors are also good, good enough that they're essentially at the theoretical one-stop difference between DX and FX. I was shooting with a 16mp APS (DX) camera yesterday afternoon, came home, and was very pleased with the results. I'm hard pressed to explain why most people would need more.

I'm excited about the new Sony systems for one reason: any and all competition will eventually benefit all of us, whether we move to that system or not. Sony's trying to push into the Canikon duopoly (and have been since they made their "we're going to get 20% market share and eventually #1 or #2 position" statements just after buying Konica/Minolta in 2006). That's going to hold Nikon's feet to the fire, as Nikon can ill afford to have someone take market share away from them in a declining market. 

I'll have more to say on the subject soon ;~). Real soon. As in tomorrow. 

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