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  • Riley

Why The Sony a7R III Is Your Next Camera




The Sony a7R III uses the same sensor as the Sony a7R II that came before it, but just about everything else has changed. The image processor and circuitry that drives it are new, which improve the dynamic range. It can shoot at 10fps, with an autofocus system that covers almost the entirety of the image sensor. And it has serious video chops too, recording smooth, sharp footage at 4K, and slow-motion at 1080p. It run circles around competing models in this price range. Add a high-capacity battery, improved handling, and a larger viewfinder, and you have a full-frame mirrorless camera that is as formidable as competing SLRs. This is one bad ass camera that should be on any photographers radar.


THE DESIGN

The a7R III measures 3.9 by 5.0 by 2.5 inches (HWD) without a lens, and weighs about 1.4 pounds. It is quite comfortable to hold, even with a larger zoom like the FE 100-400mm. The body is protected against dust and splashes, as are all Sony FE lenses.


There are a few physical changes, notably touch sensitivity on the LCD, a larger EVF, a dedicated focus selector (like you get with the a9), dual memory card slots, and a higher capacity battery. But if you've picked up and used any of the Mark II models—including the a7 II and a7S II—you'll feel right at home with the a7R III.


Most of the control you want is right at your fingertips. The body eschews front buttons, save for a dial integrated into the handgrip, instead putting its buttons and dials on the top and rear. You don't get the drive and focus mode selector dial like you do on the a9—which is a shame, as it's quite useful.


The top plate houses, to the right of the hot shoe, a locking Mode dial, C1 and C2 buttons (both customizable), and a dedicated EV dial with third-stop adjustments from -3 to +3 EV. The power switch surrounds the shutter button and sits atop the handgrip, just ahead of C1 and C2. The top is unchanged from the a7R II—as with others in the series, there's no built-in flash.


On the rear we see some control changes. The C3 button has moved to the far left top corner, with the Menu button in its familiar place to its right. The top row of controls aren't at as steep of an angle as they are on the a7R II, so they're a bit easier to access. This is a design cue inherited from the a9.


There are more changes as you look to the right of the EVF and rear display. The Record button is in the familiar place, just to the right of the EVF, and is surrounded by a raised ridge so you're not likely to press it accidentally. Next to it are dedicated AF-ON and AEL buttons. AEL was included on the a7R II, but it was in a different position. AF-ON, which can be used to drive the focus system independently of the shutter release, is a feature that many pros love, and I'm happy to see it here. The rear command dial is slightly higher than the AF-ON and AEL buttons, and is positioned between them.


The a7R III finally has a dedicated control to adjust the autofocus area. This is a godsend if you prefer to use a flexible spot for focus. It's in the same spot that you find it on the a9, taking the place of the a7R II's combined AF/MF/AEL control. Below it, you find the Fn button, a control dial with a center button and four directional presses; Display, Drive Mode/Self Timer, and ISO are marked on the body, but as with most of the buttons, they're customizable. Finally, you get Play and Delete/C4.


The rear LCD supports touch input. This is a first for the a7 series, and a feature we're finally seeing on almost every new professional camera. You can tap to select a focus point (assuming you're not in a wide focus mode), although this won't immediately change the focus. Touching a part of the frame does automatically rack focus when recording video.


The display itself is 3 inches in size and packs a 1,440k-dot resolution, a modest bump from the 1,228k screen used by the a7R II. The EVF is also upgraded, and it's a more substantial jump. The new finder maintains the high 0.78x magnification, but is sharper at 3.6 million dots, up from 2.4 million. It's one of the best you'll find in any mirrorless camera.


POWER AND CONNECTIVITY



The a7R III ditches the FW50 battery used by previous models. It opts for the newer FZ100 battery introduced in the a9. The larger battery has more than double the capacity. According to CIPA standard testing, the battery is good for about 650 images using the rear LCD and 530 with the more power-hungry EVF. CIPA rates are generally pretty accurate for single-drive shooting, but if you utilize burst you'll likely get more shots. In one shooting session I captured close to 1,000 Raw+JPG images along with about 10 minutes of 4K video and only burned through about half of the battery. Those figures include heavy use of the 8fps and 10fps capture options, however.


We shouldn't understate the importance of a big, reliable battery. The FW50 battery used by older a7 models just doesn't provide enough juice for a professional to use it to cover an event without having to plan for a battery change (or two) during the course of the gig. If you're documenting a wedding you have too many things to worry about already; finding a break in the action to change a battery is an unwanted distraction. For more operating time, the a7R III supports a vertical shooting grip that holds two batteries, effectively doubling the number of shots you'll get before making a change.



The camera ships with an external battery charger, but can also charge internally, and has two ports to support this. One is the long standard micro USB, the other is the more modern USB-C, with support for faster transfer speeds. The USB ports are also used for tethered shooting. Sony has a new software package to support tethered capture and Raw conversion, available for Mac and Windows systems.


Other ports include PC Sync for external flash, 3.5mm microphone and headphone, and micro HDMI. There are dual memory card slots, both with support for SD, SDHC, and SDXC media. You'll need to use a U3 card to take full advantage of video features, and I recommend investing in high-speed UHS-II memory if you plan on utilizing burst image capture. Only one slot is UHS-II compliant, the same as with the a9. I still think that's a poor choice on Sony's part. The UHS-I SD slot is also compatible with Memory Stick media.



The a7R III features Sony's latest cocktail of wireless communication, which includes Bluetooth, NFC, and Wi-Fi. It works just as it does with the a9. Bluetooth is used to set the camera's clock, keep a connection to your phone alive for quicker pairing, and add GPS data to images, based on your phone's GPS. NFC will launch the Sony PlayMemories Mobile app on compatible devices, and Wi-Fi is used for image transfer and remote control. PlayMemories Mobile is available for Android and iOS.


The a7R III didn't have an in-camera intervalometer for time-lapse capture at launch, but one was added via the Firmware 3.0 update. It can be set to take images at set intervals for time-lapse capture. It's limited to saving individual images—in Raw or JPG format—and the a7R III's sensor has enough pixels to output time-lapse footage at close to 8K resolution.

Sony's menu system is quite dense, with pages and pages of options, not all of which are easy to understand. The addition of a customizable My Menu page is a welcome one, but you'll still want to spend a couple hours configuring the camera to your liking when you first get it.

Performance and Autofocus


The a7R III has a brand new mechanical shutter, designed to minimize vibration, while at the same time supporting 10fps capture with 1/250-second flash sync speed. With strobes that are capable of firing that quickly you'll be able to shoot fast-moving action in the studio. Sony put together a shooting event at Shop Studios in New York to showcase the capability. The images above, two sequential shots from a 10fps burst sequence, are an example of how you can use the a7R III to freeze motion and capture intense action in a studio situation.


It's able to track subjects at such a high rate thanks to its on-sensor autofocus system. A mix of 399 phase detect and 425 contrast points cover about 68 percent of the sensor area, with the central 47 percent covered by phase. It's not as insane as the a9, which covers 93 percent of its sensor, but it's a larger focus area than you'll find on any full-frame SLR.


In use, the a7R III is extremely responsive. It requires a couple of seconds, 1.9 in tests, to start, focus, and take a shot, just a little bit longer than the a9 (1.6 seconds). The autofocus time is nearly instant, 0.05-second in bright light, although it slows to about 0.15-second in dim conditions. Both figures are quicker than the a7R II, which requires about 0.2-second to focus in bright light and 0.7-second in very dim conditions. Those numbers translate to real-world use—the a7R III is very noticeably faster to lock focus and fire compared with the a7R II.


PERFORMANCE


The a7R III’s performance is in line to be somewhere at the top when it comes to other cameras in its price range. There is a little lag, or tearing in the viewfinder at 10fps, but there’s also 8fps ‘live view’ mode with a more responsive display if you feel you need it.


The autofocus system is similarly impressive, both for its frame coverage (far better than that of a DSLR) and its speed. It can sometimes lose contact with fast, erratic subjects in the AF tracking mode, and take a few frames to lock on again, but it takes some pretty wild subject movement for this to happen. As long as you can anticipate your subject’s movement and keep it in your selected focus zone, the A7 III will do the rest.

Following moving subjects requires skill on the photographer's part too, and the A7 III’s range of focus areas and modes means there’s a setting for practically every situation.


The SteadyShot system proved a little less convincing. Sony claims a 5-stop advantage, but to quote the small print, that’s “CIPA standards. Pitch/yaw shake only. Planar T* FE 50mm F1.4 ZA lens. Long exposure NR off.”


While the dynamic range is relatively strong, the ultimate resolution is of course limited by the 24MP sensor, so if that’s not enough then you should be looking at the 42.4MP Sony A7R III instead. That said, fine detail is rendered very well, with low levels of noise too. Sony claims the new sensor and processing system offer a 1.5EV advantage over the old model, and the signal-to-noise figures we achieved in the lab are very good.


JPEGs straight from the camera show remarkably good detail, saturation and contrast right up to ISO 12,800. Fine, textural detail is clearly starting to disappear at ISO 25,600 and by the standard maximum setting of ISO 51,200, there’s a good deal of softening and some blotchiness creeping into even-toned areas, but this is still a pretty exceptional performance.


The standard multi-pattern exposure system did a great job in a variety of conditions and the auto white balance was mostly reliable too – except once or twice in overcast conditions, where it occasionally chose two clearly different values, when all that had changed was the subject framing. The solution, of course, is to use a manual white balance preset to suit the conditions, or shoot Raw files and use Sony’s new Imaging Edge software suite to process your images later.

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This software suite originally supplied is pretty basic, consisting of separate Remote, Viewer and Edit applications, but this has now been replaced by Sony's more up to date Imaging Edge desktop and mobile applications, and the A7 III and Sony lenses are widely supported by third-party Raw processors like Lightroom, Luminar and others.


THE CONCLUSION


The A7 III is the more complete mirrorless camera package, with the latest Sony AF system in tow. The A7R is better suited for highly detailed work, can take more pixel-rich photos, and can better assist you due to the better EVF and resolution.


If you’re a landscape, fine art, or still life photographer or you’re in the realm where pixel quality and image resolution is a major key, the A7R is the more appropriate camera. Things like 4K recording and the Pixel Shift feature would just be welcomed additions to your tripod-assisted, landscape shooting.


However, if this is your first mirrorless, or you need to upgrade from prior Alpha cameras, buy the A7 III. Especially if you shoot a bit of everything and everywhere (sports, subjects, landscapes, urban). The larger image buffer gives you more flexibility in the moment, with as many AF points as the sports-oriented A9. It’s also slightly lighter and of course $1,200 less expensive.


Ultimately, you can have fantastic all-around performance with the A7 III or megapixel overkill with the A7R III. Both are great cameras, but one is far more suitable for the niche of professionals who specialize in detail-oriented photography, while the other is going to be on many new photographer’s wishlists.


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