GEAR | Sony a7R III, Can it replace the Canon 5DsR?

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Like many Canon shooters these days, I have been wondering whether the grass might not be greener on the other side of multiple fences. Canon has stagnated over the past few years, in terms of both sensor quality and autofocus, and is largely resting on its laurels in the pro camera arena. Nikon took the lead from Canon in image quality (dynamic range and high ISOs) and autofocus years ago and continues to have the advantage. Now Nikon has produced the best all-around DSLR camera ever in the D850. Sony too has been innovating in their mirrorless camera body design, and their overall sensor quality is the equal of Nikon.

Switching from Canon to Nikon is a big step because it means a wholesale change. Coordinating the buying and selling of lots of gear is a huge endeavor. And what if you decide you don't like it? Well, then you go through the whole process all over again. I have pro photographer friends who have switched from Canon to Nikon and love it. I have other pro photographer friends who have made the switch only to encounter problems with Nikon and then make the move back to Canon. Bottom line, a wholesale, one-off change of systems is a big move that carries risks, both financial and temporal. And time is money!

Exploring the possibility of a gradual switch to Sony, on the other hand, is less time consuming and less risky. Why? We can use our existing Canon mount lenses via an adapter. Buy your Sony body of choice, set it up (not quite that easy), and start photographing. If it doesn't work out, you can sell the Sony body and carry on as before while taking only a small hit in time and money invested. As an added benefit, you can dip a toe in the rapidly growing mirrorless pool to see what it's all about. Thanks to my friends at B and H Photo Video, I was able to explore the possibility of a switch from Canon to Sony. This is important as the only monetary benefit I reap from this is sales on commission through my affiliate link. Any negative comments can only affect my bottom line.

 
 

What I wanted from the Sony a7R III was what my camera of choice, the Canon 5DsR, lacks.

The Canon 5DsR was a real innovation. Packing tons of pixels in a 35 mm sensor blew people away; it hadn't been done before. And while I love the colors and the detail of my 5DsR files, it's not great at high ISOs, it's limited in dynamic range, and the burst rate of 5 frames per second is very slow for action shooting. Sony's a7R III is their full-frame high megapixel body (~43 MP) and as such is the direct competitor to Canon's 5DsR in the Canon lineup. Canon's 5D Mark IV has very good high ISO performance and dynamic range but at only 30 megapixels is not in the same class as the cameras already mentioned here. Since I sell large prints and shoot for coffee table books, I want high resolution. The high MP Sony a7R III boasts class-leading sensor quality (DXO scores are certainly not the last word but they give a good idea of a sensor's potential) and a 10 frames per second burst mode. If you are a Canon 5Ds owner and want more, your choices are the Nikon D850 (immediate and wholesale system change) and the Sony a7R III (possibility of a partial/gradual change).

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Finding a camera that addressed the shortcomings of my 5DsR (that sounds harsh as it was a huge leap forward but, times change) and allowed for the possibility of a gradual change were my principal concerns. As long as I found the mirrorless experience to be good for my nature photography, I was prepared to be converted. I went into the experiment really wanting to like the Sony mirrorless system. I'm no Canon fanboy and am open to using other brands. I like Nikon, and indeed, one of my best-known, award-winning photos was taken with a borrowed Nikon camera, Nikon macro lens, and two off-camera Nikon flashes. I'm not wedded to Canon's interface; I could pick up a Nikon camera and immediately begin shooting. So after a long time using the same gear, I thought the switch to a new system would be fun and exciting. Thus my plan was that the Sony a7R III would be the gateway to a gradual, but complete, switch over to Sony.

Will that happen? No, it will not.

I'll be sticking with Canon and have no more desire to move over to a full-frame mirrorless system for the foreseeable future. I'm a little disappointed because I had very high hopes for the Sony mirrorless system. Check out the video below to see my initial enthusiasm upon receiving the camera for a review period from B and H. Despite my low key demeanor, I was really psyched! As you'll read in the review, I had to temper my expectations.

Despite a number of important reservations, I did buy the Sony a7R III - but only for my landscape photography.

9 QUESTIONS

Below I take you through 9 key questions that guided my expectations and experience using the Sony a7R III camera body for nature photography in my home base, the rain forests and cloud forests of Costa Rica. There are plenty of detailed, in-depth reviews of this camera online. I find those reviews useful. My review is different as it focuses on my field experience trying to determine whether I liked using the Sony a7R III more than my Canon 5DsR for my own eclectic style of nature photography. My opinions many not translate to how other photographers will use or will not use the Sony a7R III.

That out of the way, let's go!

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Despite reporting OK very first impressions in my newsletter last month, more time with the camera photographing birds and frogs has changed my opinion. While the black-cheeked woodpecker above looks great (super sharp and with very little noise at ISO 800), it was very hard to get even this type of simple portrait shot.

After further review, the answer to the above question is a resounding no. I used the Metabones latest generation adapter and tried all manner of adapter and camera body settings related to focus. Autofocus for telephoto and macro is simply unusable in my experience, based on the Sigma 150 mm macro lens, the Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary zoom, and the Canon 300 mm f/2.8 prime. All of these lenses have been good performers for me with my Canon camera bodies.

I tried shooting hummingbirds in flight at the feeders at my house on a gloriously sunny afternoon with my Canon 300 mm f/2.8 and did not get one sharp frame. In fact, I couldn't even come remotely close to having the focus lock on a bird hovering just off the feeder. Not only that, I couldn't even focus on the feeder itself unless placing the focus point right on the edge of the feeder bottle. The first photo below was the typical result when trying to get focus on a hummingbird backing off the feeder. The second is my best attempt at a hummingbird perched on the feeder; not what I wanted of course but that should be a lock. The third is the same photo cropped in to show that sharpness is not quite right since I wasn't able to place a focus point on the hummingbird's head.

 The photo above was the typical result when trying to get focus on a hummingbird backing off the feeder. I couldn't come close to grabbing focus; the lens simply hunted forever.

The photo above was the typical result when trying to get focus on a hummingbird backing off the feeder. I couldn't come close to grabbing focus; the lens simply hunted forever.

 Here I focused on the edge of the feeder then carefully moved the point to the edge of the hummingbird. At first glance sharpness looks OK but...

Here I focused on the edge of the feeder then carefully moved the point to the edge of the hummingbird. At first glance sharpness looks OK but...

 Without being able to place a focus on the head, sharpness suffered where it counted. My shutter speed was 1/8000th so this is not head movement. AF is just not anywhere near reliable enough to try to put an AF point on the eye, even with my excellent Canon 300 mm f/2.8 lens.

Without being able to place a focus on the head, sharpness suffered where it counted. My shutter speed was 1/8000th so this is not head movement. AF is just not anywhere near reliable enough to try to put an AF point on the eye, even with my excellent Canon 300 mm f/2.8 lens.

On another occasion, I tried shooting scarlet macaws in flight in nice high overcast light. With the Sigma 150-600 mm contemporary zoom, even coming close to having the body grab focus was impossible. I had the Sony a7R III set to AF-C and was using the center point in Flexible Spot Expand. The Sigma is not the fastest focusing lens in the world but I've done quite well with it in the past with my Canon 5DsR and Canon 7DII. On this day with the Sony a7RIII and Metabones adapter, I gave up and tried manual focus to shoot some blurs; that was a much more successful strategy.

Even shooting a perched scarlet macaw with nice light and a dark background proved difficult. Focusing on the contrasty face of this scarlet macaw should have been a piece of cake but the Sony a7R III would not grab focus. Yes, I used AF-S and had my Sigma 150-600 mm zoom lens set to the close focusing range on the limiter switch. I was using flexible spot AF, medium size. In addition, while trying to use the center AF point, the point kept jumping randomly to the corners.

 That face should be an autofocus dream.

That face should be an autofocus dream.

 But this is the type of result I achieved consistently, even when using the center autofocus point.

But this is the type of result I achieved consistently, even when using the center autofocus point.

Another day I was shooting a crazy camouflaged walking stick in the rainforest. This particular insect species has evolved to look exactly like a mossy twig and indeed I was trying to shoot it as hung upside down on just such a twig. I used the Sony a7R III and my Sigma 150 mm macro lens and could not grab focus even though I was working in decent light and with a distant background. Even on those shots where I thought I had acquired focus, the images weren't perfectly sharp when I viewed them on the computer. And I was working with flash as the main light so shutter speed was not an issue. I was working handheld but I've done this kind of shot a million times so I know what to expect. I would have no problems getting this type of shot with the Sigma 150 mm macro lens and a Canon DSLR body.

I also had the opportunity to shoot a few perched birds in the rainforest while leading my latest Art of Flight workshop here in Costa Rica (I have a couple of spots open for 2019). I used the Sony a7R III, the Metabones V adapter, and the Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary zoom lens. I've used this telephoto zoom lens on numerous occasions over the past 3 years with my Canon bodies and have always found it to be exceedingly sharp and to boast reasonably good AF performance given that it is a slow lens in terms of its widest aperture. With the Sony, that wasn't the case. Even with perched birds in open shade, I found it exceedingly hard to place a focus point over the bird's eye and lock on. As with the hummingbird feeder above, I had to try place a point on the edge of the bird to acquire focus. I also found that the center point was the only point that had any chance of locking focus. Given the hundreds of phase and contrast AF points on the Sony, this was very frustrating to say the least. It was like getting an e-mail to send on dial up Internet in 1998.

I tried one other scenario, photographing my wife and a rescue puppy (my wife is one of the founders of ABRAZA, a non-profit organization dedicated to animal welfare in our home county in Costa Rica) in our bright laundry room. With my Canon 16-35 mm f/4 lens and eye AF mode engaged the Sony a7R III worked quite well. I also tried it with eye AF off but Face Detection enabled, and the results were very nice.

What do I make of this? Well, it certainly meshes with good reviews from portrait photographers using the Sony a7R III, the Metabones adapter, and shorter Canon lenses (24-70 mm, 50 mm, 85 mm, etc.). Perhaps the Sony body/Metabones adapter combo doesn't play well with longer non-native lenses. Or perhaps the Sony AF system is somehow tweaked to perform at its best with people. Those conjectures are beyond the scope of this review, but this people photography scenario with a shorter lens was the only one in which the Sony a7R III and Metabones adapter gave me good autofocus performance. In all other scenarios, I may as well have been shooting with entirely manual focus lenses.

Now, it's not fair to say that the autofocus issues amount to a shortcoming of the Sony a7R III. Sony does not make their cameras to be used with non-native lens designs. If Canon mount lenses don't work well, that is not an indictment of Sony cameras. Is it a shortcoming of the Metabones adapter? Possibly. Is it simply asking too much to get great autofocus results for nature photography with a mismatched body and lens? Quite possibly.

Takeaway

The Sony a7R III with Canon mount lenses and the Metabones adapter is not a good solution for wildlife and macro photography because of autofocus issues, based on my experience and the lenses I use.

Alternative Hypotheses

One, I don't know how to properly set up the Sony to get the best autofocus with the Metabones adapter and my lenses. Though I watched lots of tutorials and played around with multiple combinations of settings, perhaps I'm doing it wrong. If anyone has a magic recipe that has worked for them, I'm open to try it. That said, if it takes deep forum searching or some secret magic recipe to make autofocus work, es muy no bueno! On Canon or Nikon, autofocus is going to work well right out of the box. Advanced settings are to tweak things for a bit of an advantage in certain situations; they are not a make or break deal.

Two, the Sony body or the Metabones adapter is defective. Again, this could be the case. If either of these companies wants to reach out to me, I'd love to chat.

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Yes, it does. While autofocus is not that important for landscape photography, I found the touch magnify and autofocus to be quite useful for establishing my focus point in a landscape scene. This can be a real time-saver when conditions are difficult. People may think that landscapes are static subjects but with changing light or challenging conditions, time can be of the essence.

Focus peaking, while not useful for macro in my experience unless shooting a static subject, is a nice feature for landscape photography where focus usually does not have to be that precise. A good guess at the hyperfocal distance (e.g,, double the distance from your closest foreground subject) will often be good enough, and focus peaking can quickly help to dial that in. Along with the live histogram and live highlight/shadow clipping alerts in the Sony system, one can quickly focus and expose any landscape scene. Such efficiency is useful when working in drizzly conditions or around waterfalls where spray is an issue. The zebra-striped live highlight/shadow clipping, however, can be visually distracting.

Silent shooting/electronic first curtain shutters are also a boon for landscapes as there is no first curtain shutter to compromise image sharpness. And of course, the simple fact of using a mirrorless body means that worrying about engaging mirror lockup is a thing of the past. This aids efficiency in the field.

Another feature of the Sony a7R III that I've liked for landscapes is the articulating screen. While not exclusive to mirrorless bodies, it's something that my Canon 5DsR doesn't have, and it's very useful for landscapes where a low angle is what you want for your composition. My only complaint with the Sony a7R III in this regard is that the back LCD screen only moves on one axis (up/down). A fully articulating screen would be very nice for landscapes (and for video of course).

Takeaway

The Sony a7R III with Canon mount lenses and the Metabones adapter works very well for landscapes. Some of the mirrorless features on the Sony a7R III also offer some nice advantages over the Canon 5DsR. I bought the Sony a7R III for my landscape photography.

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The answer to this question is yes, and that is precisely why I bought the camera.

Recall that macaw photo from Question 1 above. I finally did manage to get a few shots in focus (by carefully placing the center point on the edge of the beak and then recomposing) and when I did, the high ISO performance was fantastic. The shot above was at ISO 2500. I did some noise reduction on the background (probably not even needed) but none at all in the bird. High ISO noise really shows up in feathers but this is amazingly clean. The ability to use a higher ISO allowed me to stop down a bit for added depth of field for this tight portrait.

In terms of dynamic range at low ISOs, the typical concern for landscape photography, I found the Sony a7R III to have an advantage over the Canon 5DsR in its ability to be able to record a broader histogram, encompassing more shadow and highlight information at the moment of capture. And just as important, the files are more malleable in post-processing. Where I would have had to bracket or use a graduated filter with Canon, the Sony will often allow me to capture everything in one scene. Highlights are more recoverable, and shadows can be lifted to extreme values with little to no image degradation. DXO Mark reports that the Sony a7R III has 2 stops more dynamic range than the Canon 5DsR, and that seems about right to me.

The Sony a7R III will be my main camera for landscapes until Canon comes out with a Canon 5Ds II with the dynamic range range and high ISO performance offered by the Sony a7R III or the Nikon D850. A Canon 5D Mark V with the same great high DR and ISO performance of the current 5D IV but with 40+ MP would likewise be welcome. For now, I'm going to enjoy shooting landscapes with the Sony a7R III.

Take a look at the pictures below. They are not great shots but they opened my eyes to the power of dynamic range. You can't ask for much more contrast in a landscape scene than this. With a Canon 5Ds, I would be reaching for a grad filter or taking multiple exposures to bracket. Opening up the shadows in this shot with the Canon 5Ds would produce a noisy mess with banding and severe color cast. 

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As you can see in the pictures below, the Sony a7RIII allowed me to crank the shadows slider to 100 and the exposure slider to plus 2 with little penalty. Highlight detail held well, and the significantly raised shadow areas are amazingly clean. While I have no problems using graduated filters in the field, I would much rather be able to capture the tones in a scene in a single shot and unencumbered by filters. This allows me to focus on light and composition and motion at the moment of capture and spares the added complexity of using grad filters. Yes, you can always bracket but I'm very lazy when it comes to blending exposures in the computer. A workable histogram in one shot makes life so much easier! There is no noise reduction in this processed image or the crops below, just the exposure and shadows sliders as described above.

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Let's take a look at another example from the very end of the day at the same location but now down at the bottom of the 110 meter high waterfall. It was dark and drizzly, and a severe electrical storm was forming as I shot this. Working quickly was of the essence, and the Sony a7R III allowed me to do just that.

The sky was about 4 stops brighter than the foreground. With my Canon 5DsR I would have been forced to try bracketing exposures, tricky use of a graduated neutral density filter, or multiple attempts with a cloth to block exposure to the sky. With the steady drizzle and spray from the waterfall, which would pour down in buckets as flash flooding was happening upstream, this would have been an agonizing exercise in wiping the lens clean and trying to avoid water drops. With the Sony, I could work quickly, utilizing the articulating screen and focus peaking while the amazing sensor allowed me to hold back the sky just enough that I could recover detail in the foreground in post-processing.

The ability to capture a workable histogram in one shot was a revelation. In tough conditions and under a time crunch, I don't think I would have been able to pull off a workable image of this landscape were it not for the great sensor and mirrroless features of the Sony a7R III. Again, for landscapes the Sony sensor and mirrorless features are a boon.

In the next two months, I will be using the Sony a7R III for night scenes at Ecuador's Cotopaxi Volcano and in Chile's Atacama Desert and Patagonia regions. I'm excited to see how the high ISO performance fares for the great starry skies I hope to encounter. I will report back with another blog post on how the Sony a7R III performs for night shooting. I promise not to post any pictures of people pointing a flashlight at the Milky Way!  

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Takeaway

The Sony a7R III offers me significantly better dynamic range and high ISO performance than my Canon 5DsR. The Sony files are more malleable in post-processing for high dynamic range landscape scenes and for high ISO shots of wildlife or birds (assuming you can get focus).

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Sony, while leading the charge for sensor development over the last few years, has not demonstrated the same facility for designing cameras that work well for what photographers do in their daily lives in the Sony a7R III. The approach seems to be more along the lines of “all these things are technologically possible, and we're maybe not even sure exactly what they're for but let's dump them in there and let photographers decide what to do with them.” That, coupled with the lack of explanation of what menu items mean (Canon does this very well), leads to an incredibly cluttered experience. Yes, you can customize many buttons with absolutely any setting (which is cool, take note, Canon!) but that's really the only positive. I read a review somewhere (my apologies for not being able to recall the link) that stated the menu was designed by someone who understands quantum physics but can't make toast. That's a pretty good description.

Here's a telling example of what this came to mean in my shooting experience. I never used the Custom settings on the main dial of my Canon cameras (e.g., C1, C2, or C3) because it was so easy to quickly change settings whether I was doing landscapes, full-flash photography, action, or shooting a video. For any scene, I first start by thinking about how I want my final image to look (fast action, blurred motion, flash/no flash, shallow or deep depth of field, etc.). That leads to a quick mental checklist of camera settings I'll need and after a few quick flips of dials, I'm ready to go. This also helps as a photographer as you need to think about what you're doing rather than just applying a preset recipe.

With Sony, the menu system is so bloated and non-descriptive that I actually tried to use the custom memory settings for different scenarios (i.e., action/flash/video/landscapes). For an experienced professional photographer used to shooting complex scenes/subjects, even having to think about doing this is absurd. Worse still, I consider myself a pretty tech savvy guy but even after watching some tutorials, I couldn't get the custom memory settings to work reliably.

In the end, I spent countless hours reading and watching tutorials and could never find a way to configure the camera to quickly and easily do all the myriad things that I do in my photography. I've set it up for landscape photography and will enjoy the great sensor performance for that purpose.

Takeaway

The Sony a7R III menu system is not good. Though the ability to fully customize multiple buttons is nice, overall the menu and general interface system make for an unenjoyable and inefficient shooting experience for varied subjects and scenes.

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One thing I was quite excited about was IBIS, Sony's In Body Image Stabilization. It has the potential to be a great feature. In the Canon and Nikon DSLR ecosystems, image stabilization is dependent on the lens. If your lens doesn't have IS/VR/VC/OS (Canon/Nikon/Tamron/Sigma), you won't have image stabilization.

With native Sony lenses that have stabilization, one can reportedly reap a double benefit by using both modes of stabilization with Sony bodies. When using Canon IS lenses with the latest generation Metabones adapter on Sony bodies, my experience was that you can only use lens IS. Despite claims on the Metabones website that Canon IS lenses can engage IBIS, I could not see any evidence of IBIS working. So, for Canon mount lenses with image stabilization, IBIS is not a big deal. You have the same in lens IS as always. Fine.

The most important potential benefit of IBIS for Canon shooters is that you should be able to have image stabilization even with non-stabilized lenses. Sony claims a 5 stop advantage. This means that if you could handhold a non-stabilized lens at 1/250th with sharp results, IBIS would allow you to get sharp frames at 1/8th. That's very cool, and with the growing number of vintage and modern manual focus lenses (from Yongnuo, Rokinon, Laowa, Myer-Gorlitz, Irix) available today, IBIS could be a very useful feature.

I tested it quickly with my new Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 lens. For $48, the lens is actually pretty good. That's where the good news ends, however. As soon as I engaged IBIS on the Sony a7R III by flipping the dedicated switch on the Metabones adapter, I could see the image jump around through the electronic viewfinder. My first thought was "Great, this IBIS seems to be really doing something." Upon reviewing the images on the back of the camera, however, I could see that the shots with IBIS were far worse than the shots with no IBIS. That is, IBIS, rather than improving image sharpness at slow shutter speeds, made it impossible to get a sharp image. Thinking I was doing something wrong, I repeated the little test a few times but the results are indisputable. See the images below (these are crops from the center of the frame so you can really see the difference).

 Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/8, 1/10th, ISO 400, no IBIS

Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/8, 1/10th, ISO 400, no IBIS

 Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/8, 1/10th, ISO 400, w/IBIS

Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/8, 1/10th, ISO 400, w/IBIS

 Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/4, 1/10th, ISO 400, no IBIS

Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/4, 1/10th, ISO 400, no IBIS

 Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/8, 1/10th, ISO 400, w/IBIS

Sony a7R III, Yongnuo 50 mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, handheld, f/8, 1/10th, ISO 400, w/IBIS

Takeaway

The only conclusion I can draw from a quick test based on one lens is that Sony's IBIS with the Metabones adapter makes images worse and should not be used. As with the autofocus issues, it's unfair to blame Sony. Now, am I doing something wrong? Possibly, but again, I'm no tech dummy, and I read through a few online docs about how IBIS and Metabones are supposed to work. If it takes multiple hours of research to make things work properly, then something is wrong.

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The short answer here is no (except for landscapes, see Question 2 above). I really tried to put aside my Canon 5DsR and use the Sony a7R III as much as possible so that I could get used to it. All too often, however, I had to abandon the Sony because I couldn't get the shots I was after.

Some of the inherent features of mirrorless and the peculiarities of Sony's camera and menu design make daily shooting too awkward and inefficient for what I do. On any given day, I will likely shoot some or even all of these things – frogs with a macro lens and flash as main light, hummingbirds with multiple flashes, a waterfall or coastal beach scene, bats visiting a flower at night, a quick camera trap or remotely triggered setup for wide angle wildlife, and toucans or quetzals up in the trees with natural light and fill-flash. Those are very different and sometimes complex shooting challenges but they shouldn't require camera setting changes that are overly complicated.

Though variety is the spice of life, the simple act of having to constantly choose between silent shooting (great for landscapes but no good for action because of a rolling shutter effect on some shots, which distorts the subject), electronic front curtain (great for all around shooting but not for flash), and mechanical shutter (the choice for shooting with flash, which I do a lot of) is annoying. As a nature photographer who relies on flash for many photos, mechanical shutter might be my best choice. I confess that I don't fully understand this but apparently, the row by row digital readout is slower than a mechanical shutter, meaning your sync speed may be 1/50th instead of 1/200th, the standard on DSLR and even film cameras.

If the mechanical shutter is my best choice that of course begs the question, "How does a mirrorless camera really help me?" One of the advantages of mirrorless is that the sensor can be exposed via a row by row digital readout, not a physical moving function. If I need moving parts for a substantial portion of my photography, why not choose a camera with moving parts?

I think it's a case where having too many options actually leads to a less seamless shooting experience. On a DSLR you might choose timer or mirror lockup or silent shooting, but you would never mess up a shot simply because the sensor can be exposed three different ways.

If you use the Sony a7R III for only one type of photography (e.g., landscapes, portraits, sports, birds), you could easily set it up for that purpose and get to shooting. If like me, you shoot a wide gamut of nature subjects in often challenging scenarios, dealing with the Sony mirrorless system is a time waster and can lead to lots of incorrect settings because there are so many options to change from subject to subject. The menu system (see Question 4 above) of course also plays into this.

Here's another example of how Sony mirrorless made my shooting more difficult. The electronic viewfinder of the Sony a7R III, though boasting good specs, falls apart when shooting macro. Last week I was tasked (through one of my stock agencies) by an important US client to provide some shots of the nicitating membrane that covers the eye of the red-eyed tree frog. I made a trip to a spot where I knew there would be frogs of this species and attempted to photograph at my macro lens' closest focusing distance for a tight shot of the eye.

I typically do this type of photography handheld and with flash as main light. Since autofocus rarely works well for this type of shooting in dim light (I was under the cover of the rainforest), I use manual focus. I set my lens for the closest focus (I was using the Sigma 150 mm macro with three extension tubes), and then I move myself in and out (kind of like a human focusing rail) until I see the eye pop into focus. When it does, I shoot.

Though there are hits and misses, this method works quite well with DSLR cameras with optical viewfinders. With the Sony a7R III, the electronic viewfinder dissolved into a blurry, pixelized mess, and I couldn't even come close to seeing when I was floating into focus. Focus peaking in the viewfinder, a nice feature on the Sony, is not precise enough for this kind of macro shooting. And with the blurry viewfinder image, I don't think it would have made a difference anyway.

My solution? This sounds harsh, but I switched my macro lens over to my Canon 5DsR and got the shot, the one you see above as the lead in photo for this section. Below is the best I could do with the Sony because I just couldn't see a crisp enough image in the viewfinder. I asked my good friend and business partner Paulo Valerio, a Canon 80D shooter, to give it a try with the Sony. His reaction was, "Amigo, there's something wrong with this camera!"

An aside, yes, that's sensor dust already in the left side of the frame, and this was only 5th or 6th time using the camera (see below).

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BREAKDOWN - THINGS I DIDN'T LIKE

Following here is a laundry list of items that I think are flaws on the Sony a7R III. Many of these are minor complaints but they add up and seem to be missed opportunities that could have easily been avoided with more foresight into what other cameras currently offer and what photographers (and videographers) use on a daily basis. (And no, my Canon cameras aren't perfect either!).

The articulating back LCD screen is nice but it should be fully articulating given that the Sony a7R III is aimed toward photography and video. See the Canon 80D.

Sensor dust is problematic. One would expect that a mirrorless camera would be more susceptible to dust, but I was surprised that after only a few days of light use, I started to notice sensor spots on the Sony a7R III. Most DSLRs have a sensor shake function that activates on power up or power down. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe that the Sony a7R III has such a feature, an omission which seems unfortante given that a mirrorless sensor is going to be more prone to dust than a DSLR.

For someone used to the rich, natural colors of Canon RAW files, Sony RAW files take some getting used to. I find the Sony color science to be a bit off. This is a common thread mentioned by a number of reviewers, and it's something I noticed upon my first card download. Sony images, even with the correct white balance set at time of capture, seem to have a slight greenish tint to them. It's not a huge deal, but I find myself using the eyedropper tool in Lightroom to select a neutral in the scene for white balance. This is something I have only done a few times in my life with Canon, and that was only to correct for the color tint from a certain neutral density filter.

The electronic viewfinder is apparently one of the best out there. Aside from how it breaks down when focusing close for macro (see above), I don't have any major complaints with it. Nonetheless, the image in the viewfinder doesn't look organic. It looks digital (doh!, I guess). And even the RAW files seem somehow to have a more digital, less organic look and feel to them compared to Canon or Nikon RAW files.

The Sony touch screen is really limited in functionality. In fact, the only functions it has are for selecting an AF point when shooting through live view and for zooming in on an image in playback. For a camera system supposedly pushing the envelope, that's decidedly lame. It seems silly that the touchscreen on a modern camera would not have full functionality and allow you to change settings, negotiate menus, swipe and pinch on playback, etc. If mirrorless is the new wave future, why would the touchscreen functionality lag seriously behind what is found on many DSLR cameras?

The lack of lossless compression in Sony RAW is a bummer. Uncompressed RAW means truly giant file sizes, around 80 MB or so from ~43 MP original capture, and the impact in post-processing in Adobe Lightroom is noticeable. By comparison, the 50 MP files from my Canon 5DsR in lossless RAW (a digital shorthand that does not throw away file info) average around 60 MB in size; they process much more quickly.

Sony also offers compressed RAW but it is lossy. Thus shooting compressed RAW keeps the file size down but means you lose information. It's probably not going to be noticeable in most uses, but it's kind of a letdown to be paying for a great sensor and then not having the optimum choice to record your files. Lossless compression has been a standard of DSLR RAW files for quite a while. Not having it is definitely a step back for Sony.

The lack of durability in terms of both weather sealing and battery life was known to me before I tried the Sony a7R III. I haven't experienced any problems with weather-related issues, and I took it out in a light rainforest drizzle on a couple of occasions. Likewise, the battery life (though reported to be inferior to most DSLR cameras) hasn't been a noticeable problem for casual/normal nature shooting. But, knowing the shortcomings, I don't trust the Sony to deliver if I have to put it out in the elements for a wide angle remote wildlife setup. In this situation, I may be on site and triggering the camera via a remote release or I may not even be there and have the camera triggered via a camera trap beam. The key issue is that I would not want to leave it out all day (or night) and can't be going out to the setup to change settings, fix glitches, or change batteries without spooking my subject. I know my DSLRs are up to the challenge, and I just can't see mirrorless being a good option for this type of shooting. I'm doing more and more of this type of work so giving up completely on DSLRs in favor of mirrorless just doesn't make sense.

 A remotely triggered, multiple flash setup for a tapir in the middle of a rainy banana plantation swamp near Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua? I just can't see putting a mirrorless camera out there and hoping flashes will fire reliably, camera battery won't run out, and humidity wouldn't cause problems. Is this too much to ask of mirrorless? Perhaps but this kind of setup is one of the things I like to do.

A remotely triggered, multiple flash setup for a tapir in the middle of a rainy banana plantation swamp near Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua? I just can't see putting a mirrorless camera out there and hoping flashes will fire reliably, camera battery won't run out, and humidity wouldn't cause problems. Is this too much to ask of mirrorless? Perhaps but this kind of setup is one of the things I like to do.

I was surprised to find that the Sony a7R III does not have a built-in intervelometer/time lapse function or a built-in timer for bulb shooting (exposures longer than 30 seconds). There is also no multiple exposure function (not something I use but certainly a staple of modern digital cameras). Apparently these functions used to be available with something called the Play Memories App, which sounds like a pain to use, but at least these functions were available. I think this an absolutely huge miss for a camera system that is supposed to be pushing the envelope and is very well-suited for landscapes and nighttime/blue hour cityscapes. I have all of these functions on my Canon 5DsR! I have no idea if this sort of functionality can be addressed via firmware but, if it can, this should be at the top of Sony's to do list for the a7R III.

As a manual shooter, I find the dedicated dial for exposure compensation to be unnecessary. I understand that many photographers shoot in aperture priority and that even some manual shooters will use auto ISO for given situations. Nonetheless, it seems to me that dedicating that much prime real estate to an old-school style exposure compensation dial is a strange choice. Of course, with the electronic viewfinder able to display tons of information, a top LCD screen is not necessary so Sony certainly had some room to play with there. Of course some people may applaud the addition of the dial; agree to disagree on this one I guess!

BREAKDOWN - THINGS I DID LIKE

Despite all of the complaints above, I have to give Sony credit for pushing the envelope in full-frame mirrorless cameras, even if they missed the mark on a number of features. While I don't think Sony mirrorless is the best option for diverse nature photography, they are definitely leading the way, and the high sensor performance and feature set at a great price point are very impressive. I think the Sony a7R III is one heck of a landscape photography camera. With Sony glass it would probably be very good for safari-style shooting as well where the autofocus and frame rate would work together to produce good images, particularly with the newly announced Sony 400 mm f/2.8 lens.

Takeaway

Sony, while leading the charge for sensor development over the last few years, did not demonstrate the same facility in designing the Sony a7R III for what photographers do in their daily lives, or at least for what I do in my daily nature photography life. While I love the dynamic range and high ISO performance, the Sony a7R III mirrorless experience has not enhanced my nature photography. In fact, except in the case of landscapes, the Sony mirrorless experience hurt me in terms of being able to get the photos I wanted.

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I don't think so. While on the surface you may feel as if you're improving because it's so easy to get a good exposure, I actually think mirrorless cameras will tend to make people worse photographers. With live exposure preview, live histogram, and live highlight/shadow clipping alerts on the back LCD screen and in the viewfinder, setting your exposure is not all that different from shooting with your smartphone.

Getting a good exposure is easy! What is also easy, however, is to slip into the trap of simply rotating dials rather than metering certain parts of the scene, understanding tonal relationships, and then making informed choices about how to set exposure. After a few days with the Sony a7R III, I realized that I was no longer thinking about metering but instead just flipping dials until I got the histogram I wanted. Understanding light and tonal relationships in a scene is what allows a photographer to get truly great natural light and flash images, and I was suddenly disconnected from that process.

This may sound like the simple curmudgeonly rant we've seen before when we moved from film to digital - "in my day, we had to get it right the first time with no immediate image playback!" And I'm sure there were similar complaints with the advent of autofocus and TTL flash metering - "back in my day we focused manually and used gunpowder!"

I'm not a millenial but I'm also no Luddite. I shot one year of film when I started photography and then immediately jumped to digital as soon as Canon released the D30. While many photographers wrote swan songs to the joys of viewing slides on a light table, I dove right into a digital workflow. That translated to increased stock sales as magazine and book editors actually embraced digital pretty quickly.

My point is not that mirrorless makes it so easy that it's cheating. Every advance in technology will allow us to do things that we couldn't do previously. Those who aren't early embracers may cry foul but, sorry about your luck. My argument is more about the mental process and the enjoyment of nature photography.

When shooting Sony mirrorless, I tend to feel that I am not as connected to my scene as before, that I am not really in the photographic zone where I am studying the light (whether it's a landscape or a bird or a frog or a remote multi-flash setup) and making educated decisions about camera settings. There's no doubt that it sounds old-fashioned, but I had a creeping sense of losing a bit of my craft with Sony mirrorless. With no optical viewfinder, I feel like I'm playing a video game. The camera is reducing a natural scene or subject to a math and computer science problem, severing the organic connection with nature that is what really moves us as nature photographers.

This may sound a bit esoteric , but in my time with the Sony a7R III mirrorless camera, I have not enjoyed the pure experience of nature photography quite as much. Technological features that (potentially) offer an advantage in simply getting the shot may not necessarily translate into a more enjoyable photographic experience.

That written, mirrorless appears to be the future. As with photography advances over the past century, mirrorless will no doubt allow us to portray the natural world as never seen before. For my own photography, however, save for landscapes, mirrorless will have to wait.

Takeaway

While mirrorless features may offer an advantage in certain situations, it's not going to make us better photographers. In fact, in terms of core photographic skills such as metering and understanding tonal relations, it may slowly chip away at our skill level. For the time being, mirrorless will not help me to produce my best work in terms of wildlife and macro photography in the rainforest.

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Part of the big buzz about mirrorless is the smaller size. While that's true for full-frame mirrorless bodies (no mirror, no separate AF sensor), the lenses are on average about the same size as full-frame DSLR lenses. Some Sony lenses are smaller/lighter than their Canon/Nikon counterparts, others are bigger and heavier. To my understanding, there is nothing inherent to mirrorless lens design that makes it easier to produce smaller, lighter lenses. Sensor size is the most important determinant in the size and weight of lenses. That's why APS-C and micro 4/3 lenses are smaller than full-frame counterparts.

For those contrarians that complain about the smaller size of the Sony full-frame mirrorless bodies making them harder to grip/carry, Sony recommends getting a battery grip. That puts you back where you started with a DSLR. They also sell this crazy grip extension. $108 to make my mirrorless camera bigger? Sign me up!

To get the full benefits of mirrorless portability, you'll need to look to APS-C sizes such as the Fuji mirrorless system or, even smaller, the Olympus micro 4/3 sensor system (which is really cool!). But, to keep dynamic range and high ISO performance at good levels (both Fuji and Olympus are quite good), you give up the massive resolution in terms of megapixels that full-frame sensors offer. Olympus' top of the line body, for instance, offers great image quality in a 20 MP sensor.

I should note that pixel shift on the Olympus system produces a file with very high resolution (10,368 x 7776 at 180 ppi) and great dynamic range. It may not be suitable, however, for every scene as non-static elements could potentially cause issues at longer exposures. According to reports, Olympus offers a very nice in-camera cleanup for any artifacts produced. 

There are a couple of limitations. It appears that the maximum aperture one can use on the Olympus in pixel shift hi-res mode is f/8. That may be a problem for certain landscapes. Also, the max ISO is 1600. The ISO limit plus the nature of pixel shift technology (multiply your shutter speed x 8) means that this mode would not be useful for starry sky photography where you want the stars as sharp points. If you have want the stars as points, a 20 second exposure would be great. 20 x 8 = 160 seconds. Your stars will no longer be sharp once the pixel shift images are combined. So, for star trails, Olympus' high-res mode could work. If you want sharp stars you would shoot normally and obtain some very nice 20 MP files.

The Sony a7R III also has pixel shift technology but reports state that is definitely limited to use on static subjects (though it could work if you want star trails). Sony's pixel shift mode also requires special Sony software to process the final image, which is a pain of eggs (as we say in Spanish). As someone who wants great image quality and lots of pixels in one shot, I prefer a full-frame sensor. The Sony a7R III offers me excellent dynamic range and high performance in a single RAW file.

Takeaway

In terms of the full-frame Sony experience, the answer is no. You will not reap a weight/size benefit. Except for the camera body itself (not significant), full-frame mirrorless does not offer any size/weight advantage. For some, even the small size of the Sony a7R III body is a negative. Smaller sensor size mirrorless options (Fuji, Olympus) come with image quality/resolution tradeoffs.

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As I stated at the outset, I really wanted things to work out with Sony. I wanted the system to function well with my Canon lenses, and I wanted to be impressed enough with the Sony sensor and mirrorless experience to make a full system switch. And despite all of the issues detailed above, when things work, they really work.

Take at a look below at a cropped section of the above lead photo. That big crop is straight out of the camera at ISO 3200. I did absolutely nothing to this cropped file below in post-processing. (The full version above has just a bit of noise reduction on the background.)

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For a high megapixel camera (or any camera) that looks fantastic. The noise is low and fine-grained, and the detail in the dark toucan feathers is quite nice. It's always a challenge to expose a bright toucan bill without blocking up the shadows, but this shot shows that the Sony a7R III gives great dynamic range at the moment of capture, even at higher ISO values. If I could get results like this consistently and in an efficient and enjoyable fashion across the board, I would be all over the Sony full-frame mirrorless system for my nature photography. As the above review points out in detail, however, that simply wasn't the case. In fact, the more I look at this picture, the more frustrated I become with the fact that the Sony mirrorless system (non-native mount AF issues aside) simply isn't what I wanted for my nature photography. . 

Would my conclusions be different if using Sony lenses? That's a valid question. I'm sure AF would be much better. Despite my very negative experience with adapted Canon mount lenses for telephoto and macro, all reviews point to Sony being the equal of Nikon in autofocus (i.e., ahead of Canon). Most of these reports have been done with people shoots but a number of reviews of the Sony a9 (their action camera, e.g., 1Dx II, D5) with Sony telephoto lenses report good results in typical nature action shooting scenarios (open light such as bears in Alaska). That doesn't necessarily translate to good autofocus in the busy rainforest but still, I would expect excellent AF performance with the Sony a7R III if I were using native mount lenses.

But for most of my nature photography, which involves flash and complicated scenarios where efficiency and flexibility are key, the Sony a7R III mirrorless system is simply not yet up to the task. While I know that autofocus would likely be great with Sony mount lenses, the significant issues with the Sony interface, menu, and durability would remain, and I would not be able to do the type of varied and complex nature photography that I like.

If you shoot landscapes and travel, I'm sure the Sony a7R III with native mount lenses would be awesome. If you shoot safari/open habitat type images of nature action (e.g. lions in the Serengeti or bears catching fish) I'm sure the Sony a9 and Sony's telephoto lenses would be great. The new Sony 400 mm f/2.8 looks amazing, and it's substantially lighter than the current offerings from both Canon and Nikon (though new announcements are on the way). Bird flight photographers would likely be equally well-served by the a9 but, until Sony comes out with native 500 mm and 600 mm lenses, I don't see many bird photographers changing over.

If mirrorless appeals to you because you enjoy the mirrorless experience and because size and weight are of paramount importance, I would be looking to the amazingly compact mirrorless micro 4/3 system from Olympus. Even though it's not full-frame and is thus megapixel limited in order to keep dynamic range and high ISO performance at good levels (and they are very good), the results will likely be just fine for the vast majority of shooters, pros and amateurs alike. If I didn't need full-frame high megapixel bodies and wanted to cut weight, Olympus would be the mirrorless system at which I would be looking.

If you are a Canon shooter looking for a great performer in terms of dynamic range and features for your landscape photography with Canon mount lenses, I think that the Sony a7R III will deliver what you need. That is why I chose to buy the Sony a7R III.

Takeaway

If you are a nature photographer who shoots a wide variety of wildlife, birds, macro, landscapes, and uses flash in challenging conditions, my simple answer is no. I don't think you should switch from Canon to Sony. If your outdoor photography focuses on landscape and travel scenes, I think the answer may well be yes.

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Buy now

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