The Nikon D750 Versus the Sony A7m3

I’ve just posted my review of the Sony A7 Mark III (which I abbreviate as A7m3). Almost immediately the questions started coming in about whether someone should buy a D750 or an A7m3. Indeed, those questions have been coming into my In Box since the A7m3 was announced. 

Let’s start with something obvious that doesn’t seem to be obvious to most people: are you buying at the front edge of camera technology or the back edge? The D750 is almost four years old now. That’s a couple of generations of age, even for a full frame prosumer product. The D8xx series has been iterating faster, and the D7xxx series that the D750 was originally patterned after also has been iterating faster. 

You simply can’t claim that the D750 is state of the art. 

Yet surprisingly, it holds its own pretty darned well against the A7m3. The A7m3 sensor really only beats the D750 at two things: (1) the A7m3 has dual gain, so it gets a slight boost in dynamic range above ISO 640; and (2) the A7m3 has clearly better video capabilities, including a quite nice 4K. 

But the A7m3 is literally just out of the gate. It should be considered leading edge. Again, the D750 is trailing edge. 

Thing is, price becomes a factor very quickly when you compare leading versus trailing edge products. It’s a bit like shopping for a 2018 car come September 2018: the older model will be discounted, the newer 2019 one will be full price. So, as I write this, you get a Nikon D750 for US$1496 [advertiser link] with a vertical grip, extra battery, 64GB SD card, a small shoulder bag, and a US$29.92 coupon on a future purchase. You get the Sony A7m3 for US$1998 [advertiser link] and you’ll wait because it’s backordered. (I’m using this site’s exclusive advertiser for prices, thus the links).

I’m not sure about you, but US$500 and some goodies thrown in is tough to ignore. Thus, the real question is are you getting US$500 worth of something for buying at the leading edge?

Maybe.

First off, I’m with Richard Butler of dpreview on one thing: if you’re using telephoto lenses with any regularity, you should probably be using a DSLR. I’d double down on that if the things you’re shooting are moving with any speed whatsoever. (Caveat: you must take the time to learn and master the autofocus system.) 

There are multiple reasons for that. One is that Nikon’s (and Canon’s) phase detect simply works better when set correctly for the situation; the DSLRs have more focus discrimination in AF Continuous and are more consistent than any mirrorless camera I’ve used in nailing the focus plane. I get a lot of drift on the focus plane from the subject with the Sony cameras in AF C. Not that the resulting pictures are unusable, but the edge acuity just is night and day different when you nail focus versus when you almost nail focus. 

Second, there’s ergonomics. The DSLRs have all evolved to handle the situation where you’re using big, heavy lenses while still controlling the camera. Nikon, in particular, has probably the best right-hand position designs ever made, a result of their consultations with an Italian designer who knew what he was doing. I’m pretty sure you know my one real gripe with the Sony mirrorless cameras: the ergonomics are still too gimmicky, scattered, and sometimes downright problematic (using even light gloves, for instance). 

Finally, there’s lens choice. Canon and Nikon have decades of lenses built up in the telephoto range, and many of them are simply superb. Canon and Nikon both have experimented with optics that reduce size and weight (DO, PF), which produces some unique choices that rock. Sony will get there, I’m sure, but they still have lots of gaps and issues in their telephoto lineup.

So, if you’re doing a lot of telephoto work, I’d argue that the D750 is still the better full frame entry point, and you’re getting a discount for buying late instead of early.

Where the A7m3 starts to have edges in my estimation are in a few key areas:

  • Video — simply put, the A7m3 has more and better options here. 
  • Stabilization — despite my belief that IS/VR should only be used when needed, not full time, the sensor-based IS on the A7m3 means that you always have it available. There are a lot of Nikkors that don’t have VR, so you can be without stabilization on a D750 at times when you might want it.
  • Static focus — Yes, the A7m3 has focus points all over the frame (90%), but to me that really comes mostly into play with AF Single Servo shooting. It really comes in play with both the Face detect and Eye detect focus abilities when you’re shooting more static subjects. 
  • Size — Be careful with this one. You start putting equivalent lenses on the two cameras—e.g. a 24-70mm f/2.8—and you mostly lose this advantage. But, yes, the A7m3 body is smaller and lighter than a D750. But be very careful about comparing apples-to-apples. Yes, the A7m3 with the 24-70mm f/4 lens looks really small compared to a D750 with the 24-120mm f/4. But that D750 will outshoot the A7m3 with those lens choices. The 24-70mm f/4 is one of the weakest lenses you can put on an A7, in my opinion. It’s just a mess as you move out from the central region.

Thing is, you have to consider what a refreshed Nikon (e.g. D760) might be like in the coming months, or even a Nikon mirrorless that would replace/supplement the D750. My guess is that the video benefit of the A7m3 would mostly go away. It’s unclear what Nikon might do about the other three things I note as A7 advantages, but I’d expect improvements in at least two of those, and who knows, maybe equivalence if Nikon really does go full frame mirrorless this fall. 

Given the Sony 12-24mm f/4 and 16-35mm f/4 lenses, I’d tend to also say that at the moment Sony might have a bit of an advantage for some in the wide angle zoom realm, as they’re producing very good lenses that are smaller and lighter than the equivalent or near equivalent Nikkors. 

You’re probably surprised that I haven’t mentioned a few things that get a lot of discussion, like dynamic range. What little the Sony gains over the Nikon the Sony gives back in other ways. Nikon’s compressed raw files are simply better than Sony’s (and smaller), and free from artifacts that the Sony produces at times.

But here’s how I think of things: it’s good that we have more competition. It will keep Canon and Nikon more on their toes. For a long time, Canon owned full frame (e.g. 1Ds and original 5D) and Nikon lost ground with pros and prosumers. Then Nikon came in with the D3/D700 and we started getting some real ping-pong action as the two companies tried to top each other. Frankly, I’d say that Canon was slow to make some adjustments (e.g. sensor performance) and that allowed Nikon to arguably make a claim of better full frame image quality, and pretty much across the board (e.g. D750 versus 6D, D850 versus 5DIV/sr, D5 versus 1DxII). 

That Sony is now in the full frame business and pushing the technology edge pretty quickly just means that Canon and Nikon now have to watch another competitor and make sure that they stay at least abreast, if not leap frog ahead again.

This is game we should all encourage. Indeed, I can state unequivocally that there are things on my Sony bodies that I wish were on my Nikon bodies and vice versa. I’ll bet the product designers are looking at that same thing and we’ll slowly see more equivalence rather than less.

But today the answer is simple: buying a D750 is buying a great trailing edge camera at a strong discount, while buying an A7m3 is buying a very good leading edge camera at full price. A year or 18 months from now, the A7m3 is likely to be looking more long in the tooth and perhaps I’ll have to write an article that’s a bit inverse of this one. 

Finally, one last thought. I encountered it again this morning at breakfast. The waitress saw the A7m3 I was carrying around as I finished up my review and said she wanted one (camera, not review ;~). A bit of discussion and it turned out she has a Canon 5Dm2 and has decided it’s time to upgrade. The features weren’t exactly the compelling thing that has her looking at Sony, it seems. It’s the story. “Everyone’s raving about the Sony.” She was shocked when I suggested she wait a bit and see what Canon does this fall. “You’re the first person who hasn’t just said buy the Sony,” she said. 

I’m telling you: the marketing story is more important than ever in the camera business as the volume declines. You want others to be giving that story lots of word of mouth pass thru. Sony is pushing a great story at the moment and people are buying it and spreading it. Kando wow, super technologies. Nikon doesn’t appear to have a story. Canon is still telling the same older story. 

The more I interact with camera purchasers, especially those that are younger, the more I’m finding that one of the reasons why the DSLR crowd is slowing purchases or moving to mirrorless is centered around story. Somehow, Canon and Nikon have allowed the DSLR story to become “only for those dedicated folk already committed, and who need to update.” 

I’m going to tell you a story: give me a D850 and I’ll shoot rings around someone shooting with an A7Rm3. Just better images, and achieved more easily, and with a broader choice of lenses. Give me a D7500 and I’ll shoot rings around someone shooting with an A6500. Better images, achieved more easily, and with a broader choice of useful lenses despite...cough...buzz, buzz. That Nikon can’t tell this story is disappointing. But then, what do you expect when you cut your advertising budget into non-existence? 

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