Sony A7R with 35mm f/2.8 lens - 1/100, f/6.3, ISO 200
Hello, I'm John and I'm a fair-weather photographer.
You look at my Lightroom folders, organized by month and - boom! - as soon as the weather turns cold and gray, my shooting volume drops. Put me in sunny weather and I happily wander around. Turn off the sun, add some drizzle, dampen the colors and the cameras stay in the closet.
Except that taking pictures is now a bit of a job. I have cameras to review. I need images to adorn this site. I got stuff to compare. So, out I went the one nice day last week that I still had a rental lens to do some comparison shooting between the new Sony A7R and its dedicated 35mm f/2.8 lens and the Nikon D800e and a rented Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens.
I live in the northern suburbs of New York. I gave myself the challenge of finding photogenic colors in this wintry suburban area. The leaves are gone. Everything was coated in that grimy layer that's left after some snowfall. With the exception of road signs, some cars and school buses, it's all some shade of grey, white or black. This time of the year, color is not exactly abundant in this part of suburbia.
It's freaking cold too. At some point, the most colorful sight were my knuckles, red from the cold as I decided to hold two metal objects without any gloves. But I'm not complaining. Once I go North of my little town, the area gets a bit rural, the roads get winding and, you know, I drive one of those German cars that love curves.
Sony vs Nikon
To get back on topic, I wanted to compare the Sony A7R with its 35mm lens - the only prime available so far - with the Nikon D800e and what's probably the best 35mm lens for that camera, the Sigma 35mm ART lens. Both cameras have 36 megapixels, full frame and lack an anti-aliasing filter. The sensor in both cameras is either the same or close to the same.
I shot these cameras side-by-side, literally, with each one dangling from the BlackRapid Yeti dual camera sling strap, an effective strap but one that causes my 13-year-old daughter to start laughing about how dorky I look. Most pictures were taken within seconds from one another. I didn't use a tripod, but used relatively high shutter speeds to prevent camera shake. I shot in sunny conditions, at dusk and at night.
First things first: the Sony 35mm doesn't look like it's really 35mm. Its field of view is narrower than the Sigma 35mm lens. I had already read Tim Ashley's review of this lens and noticed his sense that the lens is actually more like a 37-40mm lens. I found the same thing. In order to get the frame filled the same way with both lenses, I had to step back with the Sony or step forward with the Nikon depending on which I used first.
Yellow Truck - Sony A7R with 35mm f/2.8 lens - 1/160, f/8, ISO 200
Okay. Image quality. Regular readers know that I don't like to dwell on image quality, at least not when we're talking about cameras at these levels. That's for pixel peepers. Both cameras produce astounding results. To be quite honest, I prefer the handling of several other cameras over these two, but once the memory card is putting these files on my computer, I'm still in awe every time. I just received a large print from my current favorite camera, the Olympus OM-D EM-1, and it's clear that that print size, roughly 20x32 inches, is a stretch for that camera. These 36mp cameras wouldn't bat an eye.
I've compared many images between the Nikon and Sony, but really the differences are minuscule at 100% magnification. The colors might be a bit muted on one, but since I shoot RAW that's just a tweak here and there. In one instance the auto white balance of the Sony was way off, but again easily corrected and not a deal breaker. Both have a dynamic range that's the envy of other camera makers. The Sony 35mm looked better in the corners than the Sigma 35mm. As a matter of fact, that Sony Zeiss lens is pretty amazing, especially considering its small size and low weight.
Still, I'd say the differences in image quality, such as they are, would not make anyone prefer one over the other. It's really all in the weight, the handling and the overall system.
Country Church - Sony A7R with 35mm f/2.8 lens - 1/80, f/8, ISO 400
Let's start with the weight. The Sony is of course much smaller and much lighter than the Nikon. This has the advantage that it's easier to carry and much less tiresome to lug with you all day. It's also much easier to travel with if you're dealing with the limitations of airplane travel these days.
It has the disadvantage of giving you the idea that you can be as sloppy with this camera as you can be with a point-and-shoot. That would be a mistake. You have to treat this puppy seriously, as those 36mp will show camera shake just as much as the Nikon D800e does. You cannot let the lack of heft lure you into shooting with one hand. That's why some writers suggest you always use a tripod with this camera, which to me completely defies the purpose of carrying a light-weight camera.
There's another part of the weight equation that I actually don't know how to judge. I wonder why Sony rolled out this camera with just two primes available right away, both with limited apertures. The 35mm is only a f/2.8, whereas the upcoming 55mm is only f/1.8. I have already established that the 35mm is actually not that wide. I happen to have a Canon 40mm/f/2.8 pancake lens lying around that's about the same weight as the Sony 35mm. So, if I just compare these two examples, the Sony lens weight advantage is not that much, although the quality of the Sony is much higher than of that Canon. Price is too, though.
We all know that an extra stop is going to make a lens much bulkier and heavier. We also know that the Sony lenses will have to cover a full-frame sensor, just like the Canon and Nikon FF lenses. So, once Sony start adding autofocus lenses with apertures of f/1.4, will the weight advantage still be there? Or what about a f/2.8 70-200mm zoom with image stabilization for the Sony? I cannot imagine that wouldn't be a heavy clunker, just like the Canon and Nikon versions are.
The Sony does have the advantage of being able to take lots of third-party lenses with adapters, so your mileage might vary if you only intend to put relatively small rangefinder lenses on this camera. They're still heavy, generally speaking, but at least they're not bulky.
Veteran - Nikon D800e with Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens - 1/500, f/8, ISO 400
Handling is very personal. For example, the Sony's wide grip functions well, but I prefer a deeper grip that's not as wide. For some, it might be the other way around.
Some might like the heft of the Nikon. Some may not. Personally, I'm fine with it for a little while, but get tired of it as time drags on.
But the key difference is overall speed. To put it bluntly: the Nikon will do what you want it to do, no questions asked (generally speaking); the Sony will attempt to do what you want it to do, but might want to think about it first. Before I headed out, I took pictures of the outlines of the light and shadows as the sunlight shone into our house. The Sony had trouble focusing. The Nikon nailed it right away. Similarly, as I said before, the Sony wasn't always as faultless at picking the right white balance as the Nikon was.
Many have commented on the loud shutter. It's actually amazing how loud it is. It's like a thunder clap compared to most compact cameras. You could never shoot unobtrusively in quiet situations with this camera, as you can with the Fuji or the Sony RX-1(r).
Another thing that really hit me was the difference in viewfinders. The Nikon's optical viewfinder blew away the Sony electronic viewfinder in daylight, but once it got darker the Sony was much clearer than the Nikon.
The Sony viewfinder showed jagged edges at points where there was a clear contrast in the image, such as tree branches against a clear sky. This bugged me and I wondered if it was a fault of the camera. It was not. The same jagged edges showed up on the Nikon if I used that camera's live view. It seems to be merely a function of the sensors.
Sony A7R with 35mm f/2.8 - 1/160, f/8, ISO 800
There's little to say here, except that the Nikon is part of one of the largest systems around, while the Sony system is minuscule and growing slowly. Sony has only given a limited forecast of which lenses it plans to produce for this new format, so we're left guessing at this point how committed the company is to this line.
You can add to your Sony by using many third party lenses via adapters, but you most likely loose some of that image quality by doing so.
I'm hoping that Metabones will be able to produce Nikon and Canon AF adapters for these Sony's (the current NEX adapters were made for the APS-C sensors of the Sony NEX system). I could see myself keeping the Sony A7R around and a few great Canon and Nikon lenses for those times you need 36mp.
Nikon D800e with Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens - 1/25, f/2.8, ISO 1600
I'd have to shoot a lot more with the Sony to get a real feel for it, and I will. This was just a quickie comparison, but I haven't judged the Sony yet on its own merits.
I'm shooting with the 35mm and a Leica 50mm Summilux lens, but taking it easy as many people have already offered their take on this camera. I'm also renting an A7 for the holiday break to see how much faster that camera is than the A7R in terms of autofocus.
I have to admit that I'm not taken in by the A7R, yet. It's sitting on my desk next to my Olympus OM-D EM-1 and I have the urge to shoot with the Olympus rather than to pick up the Sony. I like my cameras to be competent machines first, and the Olympus is more competent than the Sony in every aspect other than resolution and pure image quality.
I have the same issue with the D800e versus the Canon 5D III. When push comes to shove, I always pick up the Canon, unless I really need the extra resolution, which is rare.
So I scratch my head when I read all the reviews heaping praise on the A7R or the A7. One A7 review had no cons listed for that camera. Really? Is that even possible? The perfect camera? I know I have a contrarian streak and I'm fighting it while I try to like this Sony for more than just its awesome image quality in a small package.
By John van Rosendaal
Happy Holidays - Sony 35mm with 35mm f/2.8 lens - 1/50, f/2.8, ISO 1600