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Sony a7R III…

The Sony a7R III ($3,199.99, body only) uses the same sensor as the a7R II that came before it, but just about everything else has changed. The image processor and circuitry that drives it are new, which improves dynamic range. The processor also drives a new autofocus system, which allows the camera to track moving action at 10fps—at 42MP resolution. 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. It delivers outstanding images, video, and autofocus, enough to earn our Editors’ Choice. But some missing features keep it from getting the five-star rating we gave to its closest rival in the SLR world, the Nikon D850.

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Design

The a7R III looks and feels a lot like the a7R II—they use the same chassis. It measures 3.8 by 5.0 by 2.9 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.5 pounds. The body is protected against dust and splashes, as are all Sony FE lenses.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

One change of note—if you’ve used downloadable apps from Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile Store in the past, be aware that they don’t work with the a7R III. Most of these apps won’t be missed. But there were a few that were genuinely useful, including an intervalometer for time-lapse capture. Sony has opted not to include an intervalometer in the a7R III’s firmware, which is odd to say the least. Time-lapse capture is popular, and while it’s not a given to be built in to every camera, we see it in most pro models, including the Nikon D850. Your solution is to buy an external device to control the camera—the Vello ShutterBoss II is a popular option and plugs in via USB. It will fire the camera at set intervals for time-lapse capture, and can also be used for long exposure photography. The a7R III can only shoot automatic exposures up to 30 seconds in length without it.

In addition, 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

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

The a7R III isn’t Sony’s fastest full-frame mirrorless camera. That’s the a9, released earlier this year. I’ve talked about the a9 here simply because that’s where a lot of the upgraded technology powering the a7R III was introduced.

The two models handle burst shooting differently. The a9 shoots at 20fps with focus tracking, but only with its electronic shutter. Its 24MP sensor is able to acquire and process data fast enough to allow for this, while eliminating the pitfalls you get with electronic shutters with slower readout—notably distortion caused by the rolling shutter effect and banding, which can be created by certain artificial light sources. It can’t sync with flash, however, you need to switch to the mechanical shutter for that—and when you do, the a9 becomes a 5fps camera.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

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.

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Burst shooting speed hovers around 10fps, regardless of what format you use. How long the camera can keep that pace varies based on what type of files you’re shooting and how fast your memory card is. When paired with a Sony 300MBps card I netted 30 uncompressed Raw+JPG or uncompressed Raw images at a time. Clearing a full burst to memory requires 22.6 seconds for Raw+JPG and 18.7 seconds for Raw.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

Switching to compressed Raw or to JPG-only capture extends the shooting duration. I got 81 Raw+JPG shots with compression on, 82 Raw+JPG, and 82 JPGs before the buffer filled up and capture stopped. Write times are longer—39.6 seconds for Raw+JPG, 38.3 seconds for JPG, and 23.8 seconds for Raw. In any event, you don’t have to wait for the buffer to fully clear to start shooting again—it’s possible to start filling it up again as it clears to the card. What you can’t do is start a video recording while images are being written to the card, which can be frustrating when going back and forth between still and video capture.

Sony a7R III : Benchmark TestsThe 10fps rate is maintained when shooting in AF-C mode. The a7R III is extremely effective in tracking moving subjects. Quick acquisition, excellent subject recognition, and the advantages of on-sensor focus all come into play here. It doesn’t match the a9’s uncanny ability to track at 20fps, so the a9 is still the better choice for situations where extra speed is needed. But for most photograpy, 10fps is ample.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

There are a number of autofocus modes available. I tend to swap between the Wide setting, which automatically chooses what to focus on, and the Flexible Spot, which restricts focus to a specific area. Flexible Spot is more useful on the a7R III than on previous iterations of the camera for shooting action thanks to the small focus joystick—it’s very easy to move the point around. The camera also supports EyeAF, which is extremely useful for shooting scenes with people, and works well in conjunction with the Wide setting. Holding down the rear center button identifies faces and eyes. It’s not just for portraits—while I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot sports with the a7R III as of yet, I’ve found the system to be effective when shooting a soccer game with the a9.

Like the a9, the a7R III has a fully electronic shutter option. It allows for silent shooting, which is a plus for covering weddings and events, as well as for wildlife photography. It also completely removes shutter vibration from an image, which can make a difference when working with such a high-resolution sensor. But because it doesn’t have the same incredibly fast sensor readout, banding and rolling shutter are a concern. If you’re shooting under certain types of artificial light, or capturing fast-moving action, it’s better to use the mechanical shutter.

Imaging

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

The a7R III uses the same full-frame 42MP BSI CMOS sensor as its predecessor. Sony states that improved circuitry and image processing deliver improvements in image quality. Notably, the Raw dynamic range is rated at 15 stops, up from 14. The a7R II already delivered Raw output that made it possible to pull details out of shadows, without increasing noise, in an almost frightening manner. And no one has ever complained about a bit of extra leeway in exposure adjustment. To get an idea of how much detail you can pull from shadows, take a look at the images above; the one on the left doesn’t include any shadow adjustment, while the one on the right has shadows and black raised to show detail.

The in-body image stabilization is also slightly improved. The 5-axis sensor-based stabilization system is now rated to compensate for 5.5 stops of shake, up from 5 stops. The added precision isn’t just used to ensure images are as sharp as possible, however. Sony is using it to implement its own high-resolution pixel shift capture system. We’ve seen this type of system in Olympus mirrorless models and the Pentax K-1 SLR previously. Sony’s take, Pixel Shift Multi Shooting, is similar to Pentax’s.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

When using that mode the a7R III captures four images in succession. You can set the interval between capture, with the shortest duration at 0.5-second. The sensor shifts by one pixel between each shot, so you get color information at each pixel site, eliminating the interpolation associated with the Bayer sensor design. These photos must be combined on a computer using Sony software; that’s in contrast to the Pentax K-1, which does it in-camera.

Sony a7R III : Mulit-Shot

The a7R III offers high-resolution capture to begin with, so you may be dubious as to just how much better the multi-shot composites look. I’ve used it both in the field and in the lab, and found the differences to be subtle, but palpable. There‘s just a bit more texture and distinct detail in the multi-shot files. It’s not readily apparent when viewing images at typical screen resolution. Magnifying images shows it, though. The comparison above (click it for a larger version) is a 200-percent magnification, and you can see that the details in the printed label are just a little more crisp in the multi-shot version.

Multi-shot is limited in use. You’ll want to restrict it to perfectly still subjects, and a rock-solid tripod is a necessity to get the most out of it. Dedicated landscape photographers who want to get the absolute best image quality out of a 35mm system will appreciate it, especially if images are destined to be printed.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

The a7R III has a native ISO range of 100-32000, with extended settings ranging as low as ISO 50 and as high as ISO 102400. When shooting in JPG format the a7R III curbs noise to under 1.5 percent through ISO 6400 and shows about 1.7 percent at ISO 12800. A close look at images from our ISO test scene shows that images are superb, with no noticeable loss in quality, through ISO 1600. There’s a very, very slight drop in clarity at ISO 3200 and 6400, but you’ll only notice it by zooming in on the smallest details in an image.

We do see a more noticeable drop in fidelity at ISO 12800. Very tiny lines are slightly smudged and lose their crisp edges. There’s a little bit more roughness at ISO 25600, but I’d still feel comfortable shooting JPGs at that setting. Output shows more roughness at ISO 32000, and image quality takes a more noticeable step back at ISO 51200. As you’d expect from the extreme setting, JPG output at ISO 102400 is blurred and noisy. I’ve included pixel-level crops from our ISO test scene in the slideshow that accompanies this review for reference.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

I expect more photographers who buy the a7R III will opt for Raw capture. I converted Raw images from our test scene using Adobe Lightroom Classic CC and have also included crops from each tested setting. Raw images show more noise, but also more detail, at higher ISOs. I’d call the output through ISO 25600 strong, but noise does start to overtake fine detail at ISO 32000, and is more of an issue at ISO 51200. Images at ISO 102400 are very rough.

Sony cameras do apply some level of noise reduction to Raw images. This has been a bone of contention with serious astrophotographers, who have pointed out that the older a7R II’s noise reduction system “eats” small stars. Sony states that this isn’t an issue with the a7R III, but independent tests have shown that, while it’s less of an issue, it’s not completely gone. Very serious astrophotographers may want to look at a different high-resolution tool for night sky shooting. The Nikon D810A is a solid alternative.

Sony a7R III : Sample Image

I don’t have the ability to do a lot of star shooting in the New York City area—there’s just too much light pollution—but I did have the opportunity to shoot under dark skies in Sedona, Arizona with the a7R III. My shots showed plenty of stars in the sky, more so than I remember seeing with my own eyes. If you are like me, a more casual star shooter, I don’t think you’ll find fault with the a7R III. But serious astronomers and hobbyists may want to give consideration to other options.

Video

The a7R III shoots video at up to 4K quality, includes a standard 3.5mm microphone jack on the body, and works with an add-on adapter for projects that require XLR audio. It’s a formidable video camera, and its autofocus system works just as well when rolling footage as it does for shooting stills.