Attempted to focus on my son’s eye…
In the first part of this ongoing review I called the new Sony A7 a “game changing camera”. Well I’ve been putting off writing this post because after further use of the camera I feel like I have to flip flop a bit on that original comment.
The problem is the autofocus. We purchased the A7 with the 28-70 kit lens and it seemed like that lense was particularly slow at focusing. It was especially bad in low light conditions. And by low light conditions I’m not talking about shooting in moonlight, I’m talking about shooting inside your house with the lights on at night. The camera would constantly hunt for focus and half the time it will either lock focus at the wrong distance, be slightly off focus, or just be unable to focus at all. It was frustrating but I figured the kit lens only ended up costing $300, and we what we really wanted to do was pair the camera with the new Zeiss lenses that were released at the same time.
When we saw the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 at a camera shop we were pretty excited to see what it was like. We actually got the chance to test it out on an A7 in the camera store. I immediately noticed how much faster the focusing seemed. The camera was snappy to lock focus on everything we pointed it at in the store. We purchased that lens and it’s been on the camera ever since.
The image quality (colour, sharpness, lack of distortion) from the Zeiss 35mm lens is fantastic. However, after using that lens for a few weeks now, the autofocus still doesn’t seem as fast as it should be.
Let me clarify here: it you’re taking photos of still life or you’re in a well lit environment then you probably won’t notice any issues with autofocus. If you’re shooting indoors, or your subject is moving at all then you probably have a 50/50 chance of making a sharp image. Our son is always on the move and this camera just doesn’t keep up. This has been disappointing, as the main reason we got this camera was to document our day-to-day life.
My Autofocus Settings
As it stands right now I’ve been using the centre point focus on the small focus area setting. This is the focus technique we used exclusively with our DSLR cameras, and it involves focusing on the subject with the centre point, and then recomposing. Over the years we’ve become quite fast at doing this (far faster than manually selecting or moving focus points), and we expected to have no troubles applying the technique to the A7. Unfortunately it just isn’t performing up to our expectations.
I’ve also tested out the camera’s eye autofocus mode (which automatically focuses on a subject’s eye). Unfortunately the Eye-AF mode only works occasionally in real life situations (it doesn’t work if you’re wearing glasses!) and it’s still slower than just focusing and recomposing.
One important factor to note: I have the focus assist light turned off (that’s the little orange light that turns on that’s supposed to help with focusing). You might be thinking “Well there’s your problem right there!”
Three things about the focus assist light: first, it really didn’t help that much with focusing. The camera would still hunt for, and miss, focus when the light was on. Second, the focus light is blindingly bright. What’s the point of using a small camera like this when it’s not only obvious that you’re taking a photo but you’re actually annoying the subject? Third, and maybe the most unfair point, the Canon 6D doesn’t have a focus assist light and it focuses fine under the same conditions. We’ve continued to use our Canon 6D alongside the Sony A7 under the same subject and lighting conditions (and same focus settings) and the Sony A7 just doesn’t focus as quickly as the 6D.
(I’m still trying out different focus settings, so if anyone has any suggestions, feel free to let me know!)
So what now?
I really wanted this camera to be good enough to completely replace our DSLRs, but maybe my super high expectations were a bit unreasonable. As disappointed as I am with the speed of the autofocus I still feel it’s a good camera for what it is. More than than, it’s the best option for what it is. It’s the best mirrorless camera on the market. There’s no other combination of full frame sensor, small lightweight body, and electronic viewfinder currently available.
Yes this camera still doesn’t stack up against a DSLR for auto focus speed, but maybe there’s still a place for it in the camera bag (or purse). We take the A7 with us everywhere and it’s not a burden to carry around at all. And it obviously takes way better photos than a camera phone.
My feeling is also that these cameras will continue to improve. Sony already has a huge lead over Canon and Nikon in the mirrorless market. Eventually these cameras will be good enough to fully replace DSLRs, and for the moment the A7 is still filling a very useful niche.
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A couple notes
First, if anyone has any tips on improving the A7’s focusing performance let me know!
Second, keep in mind this is all my own opinion. I haven’t done any formal tests here, these conclusions are only based on an informal comparison between the Sony A7 and the Canon 6D.
I hope that if you’re interested in the Sony A7 that you still give it a shot (pun intended). Go to a camera store and test out the autofocus and see what you think yourself!
Stay tuned for a couple more followup posts as I continue this informal review of the Sony A7!