Review: Sony A7III by Ryan Brenizer

See tech information and check price! 

Over the course of my career using digital cameras, there have been two kinds of innovations that have marked a real step forward in daily work. The first were cameras like the Nikon D3, which simply did things relevant to my work as a wedding and event photographer that no camera had done before. The second were cameras like the D700, which brought many of these advances to a much lower price point, and thus wider audience.

Sadly, the cameras which have truly pulled off this trick are relatively rare — while cameras like the D850 certainly seem to fit the bill, often it seems that camera companies are understandably afraid to cannibalize the sales of their higher-profit-margin pro camera lines by not including features that could be there relatively easily and cheaply. Sony has often been described as cameras made by and for engineers — lacking the design panache of, say, much of the Fuji line — but this is often not a bad thing. They have often seemed almost eager to cannibalize earlier cameras, releasing follow-ups either soon after previous models or throwing whatever they can into a camera at a given price point.

We can often ignore the effects of price in camera reviews other than in a snippet at the very end, but price is a huge factor for nearly every consumer. In fact, the very first lesson my father taught me about buying a camera for personal use was “always buy second-best.” The TLR we had kicking around the house was a Yashica, not a Rollei. Our all-manual 35mm SLR was a Minolta SRT, not a Nikon F. The curve of diminishing returns is a powerful and near-universal law, so for the vast majority second-best will often be a far better way to get bang for your buck.

We have been using the A7III in our workflow for the past month by adding it to our three Sony A9’s — that class of camera that was designed to do things never done before, with a price to match. At this moment, the A7III costs 44 percent of what an A9 does. Is the A7III more than 44 percent as good as the A9 overall?

Spoiler alert: Hell yes. Most of the time. There are situations where the A9 shows why it’s worth its cost. But there are also situations where the A7III is actually the better camera, cannibalization be damned. 

Body and Handling

Sony is in the apparent belief that they have found the Platonic Ideal of camera design, as each of their recent models differ in forms by the smallest of degrees.

As many have noted, this form seems entirely driven by engineering without, say, Fuji's care for aesthetics. That's not necessarily a bad thing as the point is to take pictures with, not of, the camera, but then of course the physical operation needs to be as close to ideal as possible.

The first thing you notice when you're used to the A9 is that the buttons are less "clicky" and more "squishy." This is purely aesthetic and I'm not even sure which I prefer yet, but is noticeable in every aspect of its physical operation.

The lack of a drive dial on the upper-right of the A9 is something I anticipated missing a lot more than I actually did. While the high-speed of 20fps makes it highly specialized and something to be switched in and out of as needed, on the A7III I have been able to turn it to high-speed drive from my function menu and pretty much forget it, and it never takes a series of photos when I meant to take one, unlike high speed on the A9. 

Menus

In keeping with Sony tradition, the menus are a bit of a train wreck, with categories sorted almost seemingly at random. Luckily there are enough customizeable buttons and a completely customizeable function display, meaning you don’t have to delve into the menus often, and there is a “My Menu” function. I highly recommend taking the time to go through and customize all of these things so that your time delving through each of the menus wondering where they put a specific function is minimized.  

EVF

One of the differences from the A9 that is a straight-up downgrade is the EVF, which is a couple generations behind in resolution, the same 2.36MP as the A7II. This is noticeable in general use, but usually only if you’re really looking for it. The only time I ever really noticed it had more to do with the increased sharpening Sony has seemed to use to compensate, which put some noticeable halos on contrasts areas. (This, of course, has no effect on image quality.)

But it is still more than good enough to function in the ways that I need. A lens like the Mitakon 50mm f/0.95 might have a hit rate of 5 percent on even bright, large DSLR viewfinders, since they don’t fully show the shallow depth of field except with Live VIew.

I am in general a strong believer in EVFs especially as they get better and better, not least because the limiting factor of sensitive sensors in dark situations is the not-as-sensitive human eye. It’s a bit disappointing that the EVF is not class-leading but has been far from a deal breaker and something I forgot a vast majority of the time. 

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Autofocus:

First, you have all of the general advantages of autofocus on mirrorless cameras, which is autofocus points *everywhere*. It’s incredibly helpful to only have to focus and recompose in the rarest and most quickly-changing of situations, and even in tricky situations like through a concave shaving mirror you can hit autofocus at the very edge of your frame:

  55mm f/1.8  @ f/2.2, 1/125th, ISO 320

55mm f/1.8 @ f/2.2, 1/125th, ISO 320

Conversely the major disadvantage of at least Sony mirrorless cameras is that they don’t allow infrared AF assist beams. This is not a giant problem in terms of autofocus other than in the darkest situations, but after 10 years I have learned to use the beam like a laser-guided targeting system, being able to precisely compose dance floor shots without ever looking through the viewfinder. Newer Sony flashes come with visible-light LED panels which can be used, but they call a lot more attention to yourself. We put red gels over them but the beam isn’t nearly as precise, so other than the darkest situations (too dark to see with the naked eye) we use AF-C.

But the big question is: Is it as good as the autofocus on the A9? And after a lot of testing, the answer is absolutely.  In fact, I would say that if you see any marked difference between the two, it’s a lot likelier that the difference is in your own psychology. Both of them have incredible AF systems that change the game compared to previous generations of mirrorless cameras.

I had to test it a lot before I was sure about this, and finally became so sure that I changed my entire setup. No matter what, I do not allow gear testing to negatively impact my professional work in any way, particularly with weddings. I always shoot weddings with two camera, one for wider lenses and one for telephoto. So with the first few weddings with this camera I used the A7III for my less AF-critical long lens work, giving most of the interesting photojournalism to the A9.

Then we shot a South Asian mehndi filled with incredible dance performances, and I realized that at some times I wanted to use flash as quickly as possible. The new Sony flashes are great — amazing TTL great refresh rates, and even the smaller HVL-F45RM has very good power while being well-balanced with the smaller bodies. The A7III, unlike the A9, can use this up to 10 frames per second. It is rare for me to shoot flash that fast, but at times on this job it was incredibly helpful in getting the right moment, so I’ve swapped it completely: The A7III is now my main camera for wide lenses.

  16-35  @ f/2.8, 1/250th, ISO 1600

16-35 @ f/2.8, 1/250th, ISO 1600

Reception dancing can be incredibly taxing on autofocus — the motion is erratic and it happens in the dark. After a while, I have learned setting that seem optimal on the A7III or A9. Counterintuitively, you should usually turn face-detect off: look above. See all those faces in the background? So does the camera, and it really likes to change focus to them. Then I usually use zone focus in AF-C, since nearly always with dancing I am focusing toward the top of the frame, and it lets me move the AF point far more quickly, just one or two presses to the left or right. 

  16-35  @ f/2.8, 1/250th, ISO 1600

16-35 @ f/2.8, 1/250th, ISO 1600

Also completely comparable to the A9 is the Eye AF -- which is great because in an often-wide aperture job like blur-out-the-EXIT-sign wedding photography, reliable Eye AF is way better than sliced bread.

  55mm  @ f/1.8, 1/125th, ISO 200

55mm @ f/1.8, 1/125th, ISO 200

Image quality

High ISO

Plenty of cameras have great high ISO these days. The D5 perhaps still my favorite of the cameras I’ve used, but in practical usage the A7III is just about as sensitive as you would ever need in most situations. I sometimes use bounce flash in conjunction with high ISO to give just a tiny kiss of light to the ambient, and while I rarely need higher than 3200 for that use, above I was able to use ISO 6400 and not only keep noise low but retain great color and dynamic range between white shirts and dark hair and dresses.

  85mm FE  @ f/1.4, ISO 6400

85mm FE @ f/1.4, ISO 6400

Dynamic Range

One of the touted image differences over the A9 is increased dynamic range in the shadows at base ISO. This has been basically the next “HIGH ISO quality” in desired image advances over the past few years and for good reason: It’s not just about fixing things if you get your exposures wrong. Mostly it is about being able to take photos in a single shot that look more like what you see with your eyes, which can easily see both deep shadow and bright light at the same time. 

Here is an image from a corporate shoot where they wanted a very specific composition … but at the time of day available to shoot the subjects were in shadow and the cityscape was in bright sun. The A7III handled it beautifully: 

  16-35  @ 22mm f/3.5, 1/640th ISO 100

16-35 @ 22mm f/3.5, 1/640th ISO 100

One thing I’ve been noticing in the picture below and others is that the highlight transitions as it nears pure white seem to have a smoother roll-off than the A9. The above is probably the perfect scenario for comparison, as I would have expected some clipping to adjust for with the A9 but the transition looks more like negative film to me. (Not *exactly* like, lest I get nasty comments from film buffs. More like.)

The photo below gives you a bit of a sense of the dynamic range after mild processing. I only underexposed the skin about 2/3ds stop instead of a dramatic underexposure for the highlights on an extremely bright, cloudless summer day. The direct sun on the marble is clipped, but I am impressed that the sun on the pavement and grass was not totally blown out. 

  16-35  @16mm f/2.8, 1/100th, ISO 100

16-35 @16mm f/2.8, 1/100th, ISO 100

Shutter speed

The A7III's shutter "only" goes up to 1/8000th versus the A9's 1/32000th, but even with superfast lenses I have almost never needed more than that. Here I am shooting with very bright sun directly on my subject's white shirt at f/1.4, and it is still well within the dynamic range of the sensor.

 A7III,  Mitakon 50mm @ f/0.95 , 1/2500th, ISO 100

A7III, Mitakon 50mm @ f/0.95, 1/2500th, ISO 100

Data Readout: Why the A9 Costs So Much

Almost all of this, so far, is great news … except for people like us who have bought multiple A9s. Why bother when this camera does so much for far less money?

The biggest reason is that the A9 is absolutely specialized at silent shooting in ways that the A7III is not. Firstly, the A9 has automatic shutter — flash work needs a manual shutter, so turn it on and it automatically switches. On the A7III though, the flash simply won’t fire — and worse, for new users, it won’t tell you why. Even when you know the camera inside and out, it’s annoying to have to press the extra buttons. 

One thing that is a distinct difference is the way that the silent shutter is treated in the menu: simply the lack of an "auto shutter". On the A9, you can be shooting silently and the shutter will automatically turn mechanical when a flash is turned on; on the A7III the flash simply will not work until silent shutter is turned off. Once you know you can adjust for this, but it is at least an annoyance as it means a button press, and can lead to frustration for shooters newer to the system. 

Worse, the data readout on the A7III is much slower than on the A9, which can have several effects on images. First, very occasionally you will see slight distortion in your images — usually with quicker motion but not always. The distortion here is subtle but absolutely nothing changed between these two photos, except the couple becomes noticeably wider on the right. They say the camera adds some pounds, but that’s not the effect you want. 

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Banding: Worst case scenario

More dramatically, the slower readout on the A7III can lead to banding — sometimes extreme — under some lighting when shooting silently. Generally even the worse banding I see on the A9 (other than extreme cases that even show up on DSLRS) is more of a variance from one image to the other than an uncorrectable series of stripes across an image. Now, I general the A7III is pretty good, noticeably better than the A7rII I used for more than a year, but in cases the banding is quite noticeable. Of course you can turn on the mechanical shutter, which actually works faster than the A9’s, but we love the silent shooting for a lot of reasons — especially since one of the places you often see terrible, banding light is in churches. This test shot, right near a highly banding makeup light, is by far the worst shot I’ve seen in thousands of images.

IMG_0079.JPG

Of course, it should be pointed out, in situations where banding is noticeable a) you see it in the viewfinder so it’s not a nasty surprise later and b) when you turn it off what you are left with is a 10fps full frame camera for $2,000.

  85mm FE  @ f/1.4, 1/125th, ISO 1250

85mm FE @ f/1.4, 1/125th, ISO 1250

Conclusion:

If I had one camera to buy for my work, it would be the A9. But if I had a second one? It would probably be the A7III, particularly if I were in a place where the money would make a meaningful difference in other equipment — using native Sony and Zeiss lenses versus adapting lenses, for instance. There are advantages and disadvantages, but the A9 is more expensive for a reason, and having the A7III as a 2nd body would also allow me to make it a primary in places where it wins out, such as outdoor portrait sessions.

Personally I am keeping the A7III for professional use, and would have been happy to have a 2nd one as a backup for Tatiana’s, saving some money over out three A9 setup. But I’m still happy to have the more expensive cameras in our workflow — being able to shoot silently in every type of lighting is just too big an advantage for wedding photography, and so the A9 will mostly become my long-lens camera, including the lion’s share of photos at indoor ceremonies. But I am surprised and impressed that there is no meaningful drop in autofocus quality. In short, Sony has delivered a camera with a price to performance ratio that is shocking, and says great things about their philosophy for packing as much in each camera as they can.

More sample photos 

Want a RAW file? I wouldn't do that to my clients, but I volunteer as tribute: Here's a test headshot. Revel in the fact that I only had about 15 seconds to shave.

Important Product Review: Earplugs (and my favorite ones) by Ryan Brenizer

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Buy my favorite ones here!

This could be the most important review wedding and event photographers ever read. Here's why:

Excessive noise is incredibly damaging to your hearing, and the damage is irreversible. And weddings are LOUD. Really, really loud. If wedding vendors were regulated by OSHA they couldn't show up without massive ear-protecting headphones. And while that might look strange on the wedding day, there are some things that work wonders at different price points:

1: Expensive: You can get all kinds of earplugs specially made for your own ear canal. If you're a musician, maybe you already have them. Great! But the chaos of weddings is tailor-made to lose earplugs, so we have never even considered these (also because the next option is so good)

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2: Cheap: Etymotic ETY-plugsThese are sooooooo goood. I, being a geek, have often wondered how Superman's sense of touch works. He can feel incredibly fine detail through super-sensory powers, but he certainly doesn't feel getting hit by a missile in the face more than a normal person. So there must be a threshold where the curve of sensory overload just sort of slopes down to almost a stop. That's what it feels like to wear these earbuds.

You can still easily have a conversation at normal volume. The general sounds of a quiet summer day in the forest are only dampened the tiniest bit. But you can also walk directly in front of a too-loud DJ speaker blasting to a giant concert hall and be OK. In fact, you can hear people speaking at normal volume far *better* in wedding receptions, and the only problem is you have to remember that they can't also hear you unless you yell.

This will not only save you from permanent hearing damage, but it opens up shooting opportunities. On many packed dance floors, the only place to stand is right in front of the speakers, which are so loud even drunk people know they're bad for them. This allows you to get in, out, and around, and all sorts of close angles of dancing that might be otherwise difficult.

Highly recommended, we have bought well over 20 pairs (see the part about not buying expensive ones). But you should also buy:

3: Super cheap ones: The foam earplugs that cost $3 for 20? Keep a bunch of those in your bag. Because it's easy to lose plugs and too important to even go one job without. But if you do…

4: Free: Because your hearing is crucial, take care of it even if you have no other option. Go to the bar, get a paper napkin. Tear off half, and then tear that in half. Take those strips, fold them over, dampen them very slightly … and put them in your ears. They should be large enough to fill the canal and also to be able to easily pull out again.

Rolling review: HVL-F60RM by Ryan Brenizer

Initially rolling-review posts will be updated as I go, right from the moment I receive the item. Then when all of the information is in it will be cleaned up into a finished review format.

See tech info and buy it here!

 This flash is definitely for people who didn't get into mirrorless just for smaller cameras.

This flash is definitely for people who didn't get into mirrorless just for smaller cameras.

June 16: Testing as a backup flash at today's wedding. Thr flash pairs effortlessly as a transmitter or receiver if you are already used to the interface from the 45RM flash. 

June 18: I’ll have a lot more to say about the bounce mechanism of this flash, but what was surprising to me is simple but niggling: compared to the way traditional flashes bend when bounced at an angle and backward (my preference a vast majority of the time for documentation) it hits a slightly different spot. The difference is very, very slight and would likely even barely show up in direct comparisons but when you’ve taken literally more than a million shots the other way it requires a bit of psychic adjustment.