Guide to Sony A7 series (Sony A7, Sony A7 II, Sony A7S, Sony A7S II, Sony A7R, Sony A7R II)

In the last couple of years Sony has released an enormous number of camera’s in their A7-series. The first one was introduced back in 2013 an since then they have released the Sony A7, Sony A7 II (or mark II), Sony A7S, Sony A7S II, Sony A7R and Sony A7R II. All using the Sony E mount and the full frame specific Sony FE lenses. If you consider they did that about three years it is understandable that consumers lost track. In this article I’ll tell you about the differences en which camera is best for you.

Sony FE 50mm f1.8 (SEL50F18F) review
Sony A7 with the cheapest FE lens, the 50mm f1.8

In general you can say the normal A7 and A7 II are the all-round cameras, suited for general use. The Sony A7S and Sony A7S II are designed for videography and low light situations. The Sony A7R and Sony A7R II are built for high resolution applications, where the newer Sony A7R II is upgraded on many levels making it an ideal high end all-round camera.

General tips for the Sony A7 series

The Sony A7 series are mirrorless cameras that have limited battery life. All Sony A7’s use the same, small Sony NP-FW50 batteries that are also used in the older Sony NEX-cameras. Typically they will last between 200-500 shots on one charge, depending on the situation and use. Luckily the batteries are cheap and small, so I’d advise you to buy several and always take some spares with you.

Any Sony A7-series camera is very well suited for using adapted, manual lenses. Because of the short flange distance (distance between the lensmount and sensor) these E-mount cameras can be adapted to use almost any type of DSLR lens as those are all designed with longer flange distances in mind. All Sony A7-series cameras offer perfect tools for manual focusing, like focus peaking. Focus peaking highlights all the parts of the image that are in focus in the live view on your screen or in the EVF, making it easier to see if your image is focused correct. Focus peaking is perfect for faster moving objects or taking a quick photo. Focus peaking isn’t precise enough to ensure every photo is perfectly focused, if that is critical you can switch to focus magnification. Focus magnification gives you an enlarged live view with up to 100% magnification making it easy to perfectly focus on your subject. It is a lot more precise, but also slower, so it doesn’t really work with (fast) moving subjects.

Velbon UT53D review
Mirrorless cameras work well with adapted lenses. Here is my Sony A7 with a vintage Pentax-M 50mm f1.7 lens

There are high speed adapter available that offer AF on Canon-mount lenses with the Sony A7. The older Sony A7’s (non mark II) will have slower AF as they can only use contrast detection AF with these adapters.

As the Sony A7-series cameras have excellent live view refreshrates and good EVF’s, focus peaking and magnification makes using manual focus lenses a lot of fun. That also means you don’t have to invest in original FE-lenses, if you don’t mind manual focus you can find real gems of vintage lenses for just a few euro’s. Those can provide very sharp but also cool looking photos. If you want to know more about the original FE lenses, please see the following reviews:

Nissin i60A review
The i60A is a perfect match for the Sony A7 or other E-mount cameras, both in size and functionality

The Sony A7-series don’t have built in flash units. So if you need extra light you will have to use an external speedlight. I’d choose the Nissin i60A as the size (see my review of the Nissin i60A here), features and power are a perfect match for the A7 cameras. The high guide number (60 meters) means you will have enough light, and the i60A also has a built in video light. With the optional Air commander you can even use it off camera for more freedom.

Sony A7

Let’s start with the basics. The Sony A7 was the first of the series that was released in 2013. It offers an 24 megapixel sensor that is comparable to the sensor in the Nikon D600/D610 en D750 (it probably isn’t completely the same, as Nikon’s is a little more capable). The camera has phase detection autofocus and uses 127 focus points directly on the sensor. When light get low it can also use contrast detection autofocus. Focus speed is acceptable, but not fast by any standard. It will work fine for normal all-round shooting, but isn’t suited for anything fast like sports or fast moving children.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website

Image quality is very good. The sensor Sony uses has got a high dynamic range, and relative low noise levels. Up to ISO 6400 is very usable, and ISO 12800 will work in emergencies.

Handling wise the camera has reasonable ergonomics, but DSLR shooters will need some time to adjust. The body is slim and it has a minimal grip. The shutter release is placed on top of the body instead of on top of the grip as most DSLR’s have. That makes it a little less easy to operate. The Sony A7 is weather sealed to some extent, but isn’t suited for extreme conditions. It is the smallest full frame interchangeable lens camera on the market, together with its brothers the Sony A7S and Sony A7R. It weighs just a little more than half of what a Nikon D800 weighs, so the difference is huge.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website. The A7 has got a small grip.

Highlight are the excellent EVF with 1024*768 pixel resolution and high refresh rate. Coming from an OVF on a DSLR you will have to decide if you like a EVF at all, but if you do the one in the Sony A7 is very good. Another highlight is the tillable screen. It flips both up and down for taking photos from high or low standpoints. Because the Sony A7 uses phase detection AF that is equally fast in live view using the screen as it is when using the EVF. That makes using the screen more pleasant than when you use a DSLR in live view with its slow AF (except for some Canon models that have dual pixel AF).

4V Design Sella review

Pricewise this is the entry level and probably the cheapest way to get in to full frame photography with a new camera. A body only-kit will cost you about 1250 euro’s and secondhand they are available from about 750 euro’s. Do consider lens prices, original FE-mount lenses by Sony aren’t cheap and there aren’t much (cheaper) alternatives by other lensmakers just yet. There are some lensmakers that have released their AF Sony FE-lenses (Samyang) and rumors about others that will come soon. Adapted manual lenses do work great on the A7, and true jewels can be found for just a few euro’s if you know what you are looking for.

The Sony A7 is good for:

  • All-round use
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Travel
  • Manual (vintage) lenses
  • Non-professional video

The Sony A7 isn’t as good for:

  • Sports
  • Playing children
  • Harsh conditions (very limited weather sealing)

Sony A7S

The Sony A7S is a specialized tool for videography or low light shooting. It has got a 12 megapixel sensor that can go all the way up to ISO 102.400 making night look like day. The Sony A7S has got the same body as the original Sony A7, but build quality is marginally better with a magnesium-alloy front plate where the normal Sony A7 has one made of plastic.

The Sony A7S doesn’t offer phase detection autofocus making it focus even slower than the Sony A7. It can only use contrast detection AF, but because of the insanely sensitive sensor it can focus in low light, but it is slower than mirrorless cameras that do use phase detection AF.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website

The usable ISO range goes to about ISO 25600, giving you usable, reasonably clean images that can still be printed on large format. Higher ISO’s can be used at the cost of more noise.

This camera is built for videography, but you can still take photos with it. I just wouldn’t advise it for photography, perhaps just if you only take low light photos. It may work for some photographers as a photo-only device, but for most users the Sony A7 and Sony A7II will work better as an all-round camera. 12 megapixels is enough, but more does work well if you like to crop your photos. AF is a little slow for all-round use, but manageable if you adjust your expectations.

The Sony A7S is good for:

  • Manual (vintage) lenses
  • Semi- and professional video

The Sony A7S isn’t as good for:

  • All-round use
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Travel
  • Sports
  • Playing children
  • Harsh conditions (limited weather sealing)

Sony A7R

The Sony A7R is another specialized tool, but this is geared towards high resolution and high dynamic range making it perfect for landscape photography with an 36 megapixel sensor. The sensor is comparable to the one Nikon uses in the D800 / D810, but results may differ as Nikon uses different image processing.

It has got the same body style as the Sony A7 an Sony A7S, and also has the magnesium-alloy front plate like the A7S making the body more sturdy. And just like the A7S it doesn’t have phase detection AF system, but because the sensor is less sensitive it is probably the slowest focusing Sony A7 camera. The difference with the Sony A7S isn’t that big, both are too slow for anything fast-moving.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website

The Sony A7R’s biggest highlight is its high resolution sensor offering 36 megapixels. Because of the high resolution and the high dynamic range the camera is very well suited for landscape photography, especially with converted lenses. Because you can convert about every type of DSLR lens you can choose the best of the best landscape lenses and pair them with the Sony A7R and its high resolution sensor.

A downside is that the Sony A7R doesn’t have an electronic first curtain shutter, meaning it closes the shutter before exposure, opens it for exposure and closes it again to end the exposure. The other Sony A7 series cameras can electronically start exposure and only use the shutter to end the exposure. Because of that shutting and opening it can cause some unwanted vibrations, making the images look less sharp. The ‘problem’ is found on a lot of forums on the internet, but it the severity of the problem seems to differ between users. It must be clear though that the Sony A7R isn’t an easy, all-round camera but a specialized tool. To get the most out of it you need skill and good lenses, otherwise that high resolution is lost and you end up with disappointing results.

I can only advise the Sony A7R as a specialized tool for high resolution photography. It will work as an all-round camera, but there are other Sony A7 models that are better suited for that application (Sony A7 and Sony A7II).

The Sony A7R is good for:

  • Manual (vintage) lenses
  • Semi- and professional landscape photography
  • Other situations that need high resolutions

The Sony A7R isn’t as good for:

  • All-round use
  • Portraits
  • Travel
  • Sports
  • Playing children
  • Harsh conditions (limited weather sealing)

Sony A7 II (or Sony A7 mark II / Mark 2)

The Sony A7 II was announced in 2014 as an improved Sony A7 camera. It offers the same sensor, same AF system and same basic features. It does add some rather nice upgrades:

  • In body stabilization
  • New body with better ergonomics
  • Fine-tuned AF system for better performance (same hardware)

The biggest upgrade is the in-body stabilization. It was the first full frame mirrorless camera to offer stabilization built in to the body. This is especially great with adapted lenses, because the stabilization also works with old manual lenses. You do have to tell the camera what focal length your lens is so it can calculate the needed stabilization. That Sony chose to build stabilization in to the body also meant that most new FE-lenses don’t offer stabilization built in the lenses anymore. So if you need or want stabilization it is a good idea to pay the extra 500 euro’s for the Sony A7 II over the normal Sony A7.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website

That Sony built stabilization in to the body also mean the camera grew a little in size, making it bigger and heavier than the normal Sony A7. So if size and weight is a real issue you should check out both. The difference isn’t enormous, but you will notice it (the original Sony A7 weighs less than 500 g, the new one is 599 g). The bigger size does come with an extra advantage, the Sony A7 II offers better ergonomics than the original model. It has a bigger grip and better placement of the buttons, with the shutter release placed on top of the handgrip just like a DSLR. The difference is quite noticeable especially for people with bigger hands.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website. The Sony A7 II models have deeper grips than the old ones.

The fine-tuned AF system is a little incremental update. Yes, it is a little faster and sometimes a little more accurate, but it is by no means ‘night and day’. It didn’t feel all that different in my testing, but every upgrade in this area is appreciated. The Sony A7 II is still isn’t suited for sports or fast paced shooting.

All the small updates do add up, making the Sony A7 II the best all-round Sony A7 with the best price-performance balance.

The Sony A7 II is good for:

  • All-round use
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Travel
  • Manual (vintage) lenses, even better than the old one thanks to the in body stabilization
  • Non-professional video

The Sony A7 II isn’t as good for:

  • Sports
  • Playing children
  • Harsh conditions (very limited weather sealing)

Sony A7S II

As you guessed the Sony A7S II is the upgraded version of the original Sony A7S. Just like the new Sony A7 II it has got the bigger new body that was needed to add the image stabilization in the body. And just like the older models the Sony A7S II has got a sturdier body, with a magnesium-alloy front panel making it more durable. The sensor still offers 12 megapixels and ISO range can be boosted all the way up to ISO 409.000 (the normal range still goes to ISO 102.400).

New is that the A7S II offers built in 4K recording. On the old model you could record 4K using an external recorder only.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website

AF is still contrast detection only, with 169 AF points (up from 25 on the older Sony A7S). It is optimized and a lot faster than the old Sony A7S, but it is usable for day to day shooting as long as you don’t shoot sports.

Despite its extreme high ISO range the Sony A7S II isn’t the best camera for lowlight photography anymore. It is for video, but when taking photos the new Sony A7R II is a better option because of its high resolution. It does have more noise at high ISO’s, but when you down sample the high resolution image to the same resolution as the Sony A7S II it is cleaner.

In short, the Sony A7S II is the best camera for videography, but not your best option if photography is your first concern. Then the almost equally priced Sony A7R II is a way better option.

The Sony A7S is good for:

  • Manual (vintage) lenses
  • Professional video

The Sony A7S isn’t as good for:

  • All-round use
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Travel
  • Sports
  • Playing children
  • Harsh conditions (limited weather sealing)

Sony Sony A7R II

The Sony A7R II is accumulation of all improvements Sony has made in the last couple of years, making it a true powerhouse of a camera. It was introduced at the end of 2015 and still is the most feature packed full frame camera on the market. It can rival all current high-end cameras and can best most of them on one or more points. It is almost a showcase for the engineering powerhouse Sony is.

The thing that stands out most is the incredible 42 megapixel BSI full frame sensor. With 42 megapixel it is one of the highest resolution full frame sensors available. Only the Canon 5Dr offers more megapixels, but does so at the cost of dynamic range. That is why the Sony sensor is so extremely impressive. It uses BSI, or back side illumination that offers better low light performance. Before the Sony A7R II was only used on very small sensors as the technique was expensive. Despite its high resolution it still offers impressive dynamic range and noise performance. The 42 megapixel sensor is still a benchmark.

Guide to Sony A7 series
Image copied from Sony website

The sensor has got a second trick up its sleeve. It offers an extreme number of phase detection focus points on the sensor, 399 in total. It still has 25 extra contrast detection AF points for precision and lowlight focus. That makes AF blazing fast for a mirrorless camera and in some cases even faster than DSLR’s with their dedicated AF modules. All Sony A7-series cameras have features like Eye-AF where the camera can pick-out the closest eye of your subject and focus on it. On the older models this could only be done in AF-S, so if the subject moved after it had focused on the eye you would have to initiate focus again to compensate for the movement. The AF-system in the Sony A7R II is even more advanced and it can focus and track your subjects Eye in AF-C, and keep it in focus all the time. Eye-AF was one of my favorite features on the Sony A7 for portraits, and giving it the ability to track your subjects eye makes it all the more impressive.

The Sony A7R II’s AF system has got another trick up its sleeve when it comes to focusing third party lenses. The other Sony A7-series cameras can only use contrast detection when you attach an AF-capable adapter to use third part lenses (Canon for instance). That makes focusing slow, but available. The A7R II has got an improved AF system that can even use phase detection and all the advanced features like Eye-AF when you attach a adapted Canon or other third-party lens. So if you are a Canon shooter with a big collection of Canon glass you can use the Sony A7R II with just an adapter with all your lenses and still get the high speed AF. That makes changing systems a lot easier!

Despite having 42 megapixels the camera can still take 5 photo’s per second. The sensor offers the same 5 axis in-body stabilization as the other Sony A7 II-series cameras have.

The body is the same as the Sony A7S II with the bigger grip like the Sony A7 II and the magnesium alloy front panel for extra durability. It weighs just 625 grams.

Since the Sony A7R II is improved in just about every way it is the best Sony A7 camera of the moment, and the one than can be used for almost every kind of photography or videography. The only downside is the high price (+ 3000 euro), but you get what you pay for with this camera.

The Sony A7R II is good for:

  • All-round use
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Travel
  • Manual (vintage) lenses, even better than the old one thanks to the in body stabilization
  • Non-professional video

The Sony A7R II isn’t as good for:

  • Sports
  • Harsh conditions, does offer improved weather sealing but isn’t up to the Nikon D5 standards

Conclusion

The Sony A7-series is an impressive bunch of cameras. All feature high end sensors that allow you to capture high quality images. But the cameras are quite different, and while they look the same you may want to consider your needs before choosing the right camera for your needs.

The original A7 with the tiny Zeiss FE 35mm f2.8 AF lens. This is a perfect walk around combo, light and very high quality images

If you are looking for one camera to do it all the Sony A7R II is definitely the way to go. It excels in every way so you can do everything with it. But on the other hand, for most users the Sony A7R II is total overkill. For all-round photography, family, travel, some videos etc. I’d choose the A7 II as it is good in most aspects and does offer a nice balance between price and performance. The normal Sony A7 is perfect for the cheapest way to get in to full frame photography. But be warned, most people that start with their first full frame can never go back as almost all smaller systems will disappoint once you’ve experienced what full frame can do!

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