HANDS-ON REVIEW: SONY A7RV


Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f5, ISO 800, 1/1250s

Sony just announced the successor of the a7RIV, the a7RV. While it will still take some time until this camera will be available in the stores, Sony gave me the opportunity to test this camera out in the field for a week. During that week I used the camera to photograph a hazel grouse, a pygmy owl, musk-oxen and lots of wild reindeer. Here are my most important findings from using the camera purely for wildlife photography.


Disclaimer. Since it is not yet possible to open the a7RV RAW files in Lightroom, I used a third party program to convert the RAW files into TIFF files. This program has as highest output 8-bit TIFF, which means that there is a loss in color-depth and dynamic range. Meaning that my view on the image quality should improve once I will be able to open the RAW files.


Before I will get to my experiences with the camera, I first would like to talk about one thing: comparing the Sony a7RV with the Sony a1. After the a7RV got announced, the most common question I have seen so far is: “How does it compare to the a1?”. Or even “Is it better that the a1?”. This is mainly regarding to the autofocus performance and rolling shutter. But these two cameras are two completely different types of cameras with a different purpose. One cannot expect them to perform in the same way.


To put it in a different context, the Sony a1 can be seen as a Formula 1 race car and the Sony a7RV as a luxurious limousine. One is built for speed and agility, while the other one is built for a luxurious, comfortable, smooth ride. What Sony has done, they have given the a7RV the processors of the a1. Basically, they have put a Formula 1 race car engine into a limousine. This doesn’t make the limousine into a Formula 1 racing car. It still is a car build for luxury, it is just a lot faster. That doesn’t mean that you can take corners with this limousine at the same speed as with a Formula 1 racing car. You still will need to drive the car like it is a limousine. This is the same thing with the camera.


The a7RV has gotten a lot faster and more responsive than the a7RIV, but that doesn’t mean that it can do everything the a1 can do. The a1 has a stacked sensor, which allows it to photograph with 30 frames per second, while the number of autofocus measurements (120 per second) and autofocus performance stays unaffected (even when shooting at full speed). In a camera without a stacked sensor, the autofocus measurements are interrupted while the camera is taking an image. The read-out speed of the camera also influences how long this interruption takes place. With an increase in resolution, the file size gets bigger which influences the read-out speed. This is one of the reasons why it becomes more difficult to produce a high-resolution camera with good autofocus performance. The way to get around this, is to use a stacked sensor. This is why one cannot expect the a7RV to perform in the same way as the a1, or even to outperform the a1. Just like you have to drive a limousine slower through the corners than a Formula 1 car and you cannot expect your Formula 1 car to have a fridge filled with champagne, you will need to adjust your photography and expectations to the capabilities of the camera you have in your hands.



The main upgrades on the a7RV compared to the a7RIV


Processing power

The Sony a7RV has the same 61MP back-illuminated CMOS sensor as the a7RIV. The biggest upgrade is that the camera now has gotten BIONZ XR Image Processing engines, which gives eight times more processing power than the a7RIV. This allows the camera to be a lot faster and more responsive in all ways. Also, this pushes the image quality to an even higher level than its predecessor. This is mainly noticeable in the higher ISO range.


Foldable screen

The first thing which I noticed is the brand-new foldable screen. Additionally to tilting up and down, it now also flips out and can be twisted all around. Now it doesn’t matter anymore from which angle you look at the camera, you will always be able to flip the screen to a position so that you can see it. While photographing the hazel grouse, to not scare away the bird, I could only make small and slow movements but could not move my position. Since we were three photographers sitting next to each other and the bird moved around us, this meant that several times I had a person or tree blocking my view. By placing the camera on the ground a bit further away from me and using the foldable screen, I could get around the other persons or trees and still get some shots of the hazel grouse.


Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 1600, 1/500s

By using the foldable screen I could lay my camera next to me on the ground and take this image. By using the eye-focus I don't need to worry about where the focus will hit.


The screen itself also has been improved. The a7RV has a 3.2-inch, 2095K dot resolution screen, while the a7RIV has a 3.0-inch LCD screen with 1440K dot resolution.


Viewfinder

Sony has upgraded the viewfinder from a 5.76M-dot OLED electronic viewfinder, to a 9.44M-dot OLED Quad-XGA electronic viewfinder. This is the same viewfinder used in the a7SIII. It has a 0.90x magnification and a refresh rate of up to 120fps. The difference is definitely noticeable. The image displayed in the viewfinder is gorgeous, vivid and fast. You would almost forget that it is an electronic viewfinder.


The menu

The menu of the a7RV is upgraded the same new menu layout as the a7SIII, a1 and a7IV. The layout is very clear, easy to browse through and all functions are explained.


Autofocus system

The autofocus system of the a7RV has gotten a big upgrade compared to the a7RIV. It even has more options than the Sony a1! I hope that the a1 will get the same functions with the next firmware update! The camera's AF system has extended subject recognition options. It can now recognize Humans, Animals, Birds, Insects, Cars & Trains, and Aircraft. Interestingly, there are separate modes for Animals and Birds as well as a combined Animal/Bird option. Within each of these recognition subjects you can now finetune on which part of the subject the camera should focus on. You have got three options, Body, Head and Eye. They can be enabled just by themselves or combined. If you have all three options activated, it will prioritize the eyes. If the eyes are not visible, it will prioritize the head. If the head cannot be recognized, the focus will track the body of the animal, bird or person.


The a7RIV has 567 on-sensor phase-detection AF points covering 74% of the image frame. The a7RV has gotten upgraded to 693 on-sensor phase-detection AF points covering 79% of the image frame. This should boost the autofocus performance as well.


Autofocus performance.

While using the a7RV it felt like I had the a1 in my hands. The autofocus system is extremely fast. The AI system recognizes the subject in a heartbeat and the eye focus works as a charm on both birds and mammals. This is a huge improvement over the a7RIV. When I photographed the hazel grouse, I only used the Sony 400mm f2.8 lens and stuck on f2.8 for probably about 95% of the images. The bird came several times extremely close to us, almost withing the minimum focus distance. Focusing so close by with a 400mm f2.8, results in an extremely shallow depth of field. The focus must be exactly at the right spot, otherwise the image comes out soft and out of focus. I used the bird eye focus most of the time and tried as well with just a single autofocus point to see what worked better. And the results are quite clear. The eye focus nailed the eye perfectly every single time. Even when the bird tilted the head away from me and just the edge of the eye was visible, the camera recognized the posture of the bird, knew exactly where to find the eye, and nailed the focus.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 1600, 1/500s

Even when the hazel grouse turned its head away from me, the autofocus subject recognition managed to keep the focus locked on the eye. On the left the full image and on the right the 100% cropped image.



Also when the hazel grouse sat hidden behind a split tree and I just had a tiny gab to see the bird, the eye focus directly kicked in and kept the focus on the eyes of the bird.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 1600, 1/400s


When I photographed the musk-oxen while it was snowing, the autofocus sometimes jumped on to the snow in the air when I tried shooting longer bursts in the Hi+ mode. This is where you can see the difference between the a1 and the a7RV. …the Formula 1 race car compared to the limousine. A camera with a stacked sensor will hang on to the subject much better because the autofocus doesn’t get interrupted while shooting with the electronical shutter. But with a non-stacked sensor the autofocus gets interrupted every time you take an image. So by putting the camera on the highest frame rate (10 fps in Hi+ mode) you will have the maximum amount of interruptions of the autofocus system. Adding snowfall in front of a dark subject standing in the dark vegetation (see images below), it is very difficult for the camera to maintain focus on the subject when shooting in Hi+ mode. It is like trying to take a corner with a limousine at 200 kmph. Therefore, I had to adjust the way I photographed. I lowered the frame rate to M (which is 5fps I think) and shot shorter bursts. The autofocus performed much better and stuck with the subject.


Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 800, 1/800s

The musk-oxen bulls suddenly started to fight. I should have used a higher shutter speed, but luckily got some keepers.


Also, by shooting shorter bursts the camera gets the chance to readjust the autofocus between the bursts. Because the autofocus system is now so extremely fast, it would jump straight back to the musk-oxen if the autofocus started to miss during a burst of images. This really is a big difference compared to the previous a7R cameras.


After it had stopped snowing, I put the framerate back to Hi (Hi+ is not really needed with the musk-oxen when they are just sleeping and feeding). Now the autofocus didn’t get distracted and the animal eye autofocus nailed the focus perfectly. Even when I had to under expose the image a lot in order to not blow out the highlights in the bright background, the eye focus managed to stick to the eyes of the musk-oxen.



Sony a7RV, Sony 200-600mm @ 600mm, f6,3, ISO 640, 1/640s

The "before and after" next to each other. I exposed the image for the highlights and increased the exposure and shadows in LR to get the details back in the musk-oxen.


On the last day I got to spend several hours with several herds of wild reindeer. Most of the time the animals were quite far away. It was interesting to see that the animal eye-af kicked in on quite a long distance already. It did an amazing job following the eyes while the animals were moving around and often had their heads half hidden behind the vegetation. The first herd of reindeer which I managed to approach, had the sun directly behind them. So I was photographing against the shadow side of the animals. Even then the eye focus had no trouble picking up the eyes and nailing the focus.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, the aperture varied between f3.5 and f5.6, the ISO varied between 200 and 400 and the shutter speed between 1/1000s and 1/3200s.

Because of the harsh backlight I had to underexpose the images and open up the shadows in LR afterwards. The eye focus nailed every shot even though the eyes were in the shadow.



After this small herd of reindeer moved to a spot where I couldn't get to without being seen, I move on to the next herd. This was a big herd of around 300 animals. They were positioned in the middle of an open area. After a lot of walking, sneaking and crawling I managed to get myself to a small juniper bush about 200 meters from the herd. With no possibility to get closer without the animals spotting me, I just had to sit tight and hope for the animals to come to me. Even though I am not a big fan of cropping images, the 61MP sensor came in handy here. At one point there was a big fight between two huge bulls. Even though it was way to far away, I took some images of the fight. It is insane to see how much detail such a high-resolution camera is able to capture. Below the images from the fight. The first image is an uncropped image of the scene and the following images are cropped down to 4MP.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 200, 1/2000s

These images are heavily cropped (from 61MP down to 4MP) and show how much detail there is in the files of the a7RV.


Towards the evening I got extremely lucky and the reindeer moved closer towards me, while the light was just getting better and better. The contrast was very hard with large patches of shadow over the reindeer. The eye focus still had no trouble with finding and tracking the eyes of the animals.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f5.6, ISO 640, 1/1250s

Also in this extremely contrasty situation the eye focus had no trouble finding and tracking the eyes of the animals.



At some point the reindeer became quite active, and I had a couple of times reindeer running past me and even towards me. In the excitement of the moment, I just fired away. …I used the limousine as a Formula 1 race car. When the reindeer ran past me the focus did a good job of staying on the animal. There were some images where the focus was slightly in front, but then it jumped back to the animal in the next frame. When the reindeer ran towards me, I didn’t end up with as many perfectly sharp images. The focus missed on about half of the images. With missing, I mean that the focus wasn’t on the eye. Often the focus was slightly further to the back on the animal. Most of these images are still usable and would just require some extra sharpening on the head of the animal. There were only a few images which were too soft. But probably some of those still could be saved by using some specialized sharpening software. The good thing is that these images are isolated. Meaning that the previous and following image were both in focus. I never ended up with a streak of unsharp images. Even though the focus system picked up the eye and kept tracking it, the camera didn’t have enough time to correct the focus because I kept shooting without any pauses. The camera never lost the subject during these moments of action. If I would have shot in short bursts instead of keeping the shutter pressed the whole time, I would have ended up with a higher percentage of sharp images.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 1250, 1/1000s

A selection of images of the running reindeer.


ISO performance

Please keep in mind that everyone has his/her own thoughts about how much noise an image is allowed to have. Some people zoom to 400% on every image and try to find every single grain of noise and complain about it. Others use specialized software to remove the noise and sharpen quite aggressively to safe images shot an a very high ISO. This last group will be more comfortable shooting with higher ISO values than others. Personally, I don’t use any noise removal software but are certainly not a pixel peeker.


One mistake I often see is that people get a high-resolution camera and inspect every image at 100% or even up to 400% zoomed in. When will you ever look your images at that level? When you show your image, you will show the whole image and not a 100% zoomed in version where you have to scroll around for half an hour to have seen every piece of it. With such a high resolution, the pixels are so tiny that you won’t be able to see any noise anyway when looking at the whole picture, even if there would be some noise visible at 100% zoomed in. Some people come then with the argument that you would see it if you would print the picture 2 x 3 meter or some other ridiculous huge size. But what percentage of the images you take will ever be printed at that size? Maybe 0.001% of the images you ever take. Why would you let this determine how you photograph the remaining 99,999% of your images?!? I notice that some people set very strict maximum iso values for their photography because of this. These people are limiting their own photography and are passing on situations where they still could have gotten very usable images. Especially since most images will get sized down to 2048 pixels and end up on Facebook or even to 1080 pixels and end up on Instagram. After having resized an image down to that size, most noise won’t be visible anymore, meaning that you don’t need to do any noise reduction whatsoever on most of your images. Find below an images which I shot with the a7RV at ISO 10.000. I have not applied any noise reduction what so ever. I slightly cropped the image to get rid of the ridge of the mountain, increased the contrast, whites and blacks in LR and after that only resized the image down to 2048 pixels.


Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 10.000, 1/640s

Just to be clear, I have not used any type of noise reduction in any of the images in this review. I resized the images down to 2048 pixels and that is it. That shows with how much noise you can get away if shooting with a high-resolution camera and how ridiculous it is to judge every single image purely based on a 100% crop when shooting with such high-resolution cameras. The same amount of noise on a 24mp camera would have been more visible.


Personally, I am more concerned about loss of detail with an increase in ISO. With that being said, the ISO performance of the a7RV has increased quite a bit compared with the a7RIV. With the a7RIV my upper limit was ISO 1600. Here the amount of detail was still good and the amount of noise was manageable. During the week that I had the a7RV I shot up to an ISO of 10.000. Find below the 100% cropped versions of four images taken with the a7RV at ISO 1600, 3200, 6400 and 10.000. Note that the first two images were taken before sunset and the last two images after sunset. The amount of detail is impressive.


High ISO performance Sony a7RV. These are 100% cropped images at ISO 1600, 3200, 6400 and 10.000.


The majority of my images were taken on ISO 1600. ISO 1600 is absolutely no problem for the Sony a7RV. There is hardly any noise in the images and the amount of detail is phenomenal. I shot quite a bit in ISO 3200 and the images turned out cleaner and with more detail than on the a7RIV at iso 1600. From ISO 4000 and up the amount of noise starts to increase quite a bit and the amount of detail starts to get compromised, but less than I actually expected. I regret that I didn’t use very high ISO values when I had animals close to me. This would have given me a better view on how much detail the images still contain. When I shot at ISO 6400 and higher, the animals were far away. When zooming in to 100% I can clearly see that the amount of detail at that level is definitely less than when shooting with a low ISO, but still much better than the a7RIV.


Dynamic range

The a7RV has 15 stops of dynamic range, which is the same as the a7RIV. This gives an enormous amount of space for editing the images. There is a massive amount of detail maintained in the darks and highlights.



Sony a7RV, Sony 400mm f2.8 @ 400mm, f2.8, ISO 500, 1/1000s

I completely under exposed the image in order to not burn out the highlights in the background. In LR I increased the exposure and shadows on the Pygmy owl, recovering all the details.


IBIS

The in-body stabilization has been improved. Where the a7RIV has 5-axes IBIS which offers 5.5 stops compensation. The A7RV has been boosted to 8 stops compensation, which is the best IBIS so far in any Sony Alpha camera. I haven't experimented with how low shutter speed I still would get sharp images. I shot the whole week without a tripod and the lowest shutter speed I used was 1/200s. This was in combination with the 200-600mm lens and I got perfectly sharp images, as long as the subject didn't move.


Buffer

Normally I shoot quite conservative. But when I photographed the running reindeer, I kept the shutter pressed and shot between 30 and 70 images and the buffer never ran out. Which is quite insane since the camera is writing about 125MB (+/- 80MB for the lossless compressed RAW file plus +/- 45MB for the JPG) per image. For 70 images this adds up to 8.75GB. I heard about a test where they kept the shutter pressed until the buffer ran out and it ran out after 2 whole minutes. So basically, you will never be able to run out the buffer when photographing when using the CFexpress type A cards.


Rolling shutter

I mainly photographed with the mechanical shutter to prevent any distortion caused by the rolling shutter. When the subject is not moving or not moving fast, you can photograph with the electronic shutter. But if the subject suddenly would start moving faster, then you will end up with distortion in the images. This is due to the read out speed of the massive 61MP sensor. For photographing wildlife I recommend you to use the mechanical shutter on the a7R cameras. If you have to be absolutely quiet, i.e. the sound of the shutter could scare away the animal, then you can of course use the electronic shutter. As long as the subject is not moving fast and the camera is not moving fast, there won’t be any distortion in the images.


The Sony a7RV combined with the Sony 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G lens.

Before I get to my experience with this combination of camera and lens, I first want to share some background information about high-resolution cameras and high aperture lenses. One subject where I get most frequently questions about, is about the Sony 200-600mm G lens combined with the Sony a7RIV. People are struggling to get good results with this combination. This mainly being bird photographers. And this is no surprise, since these two pieces of equipment are working against each other. The a7RIV with its 61MP sensor is a very high-resolution camera. One thing many people don’t seem to realize is that you will need to shoot at higher shutter speeds to get perfectly sharp images when using a high-resolution camera. The higher the resolution the higher the density of pixels on the sensor, the more likely it becomes that movement of the camera or subject will result in an unsharp image.


While the always improving in-body stabilization will compensate for the camera shake, it is not able to compensate for the movement of the subject. You will need to compensate by increasing the shutter speed, which also means that you will need to increase the ISO in order to maintain the correct exposure. But high-resolution cameras don’t have the ISO performance of the lower resolution cameras. While you might bump up the ISO to 6400 on your 24MP a9ii, most people don’t want to go over ISO 1600 on the a7RIV. This really limits how much you can compensate with your ISO and thus also your shutter speed. The only way to maintain a low ISO and high shutter speed is to use a lens with a low aperture. The 200-600mm lens has as minimum aperture f6.3 (when zoomed in). This means that you will quite quickly end up at ISO 1600 in order to maintain a high shutter speed. But even then, with a bit of clouds in the sky you might not get more than a shutter speed of 1/800s. Which might be enough with a 24MP camera, but which is too low in many cases for a 61MP camera. So even though both pieces of equipment are very good, they are not an ideal combination. The a7RIV performs much better with a f2.8 lens and the 200-600mm lens performs much better on a lower MP camera body.


With that being said, things look slightly different with the brand new Sony a7RV. The in-body stabilization has gone up from 5.5 stops to an 8 stops of compensation. This means that the camera is able to compensate better for camera shake and will be able to produce sharp images on lower shutter speeds. But, as I pointed out before, this only compensates for the camera movement and not the subject movement. Here comes the new BIONZ XR Image Processing engine into play. The new processors have increased the ISO performance quite a bit. Meaning that you will have more space available to compensate with the ISO in order to maintain a higher shutter speed, making this camera better compatible with the 200-600mm lens. When photographing the musk-oxen I used the 200-600mm lens. It was a very cloudy day and I needed to shoot at ISO 3200 in order to get a shutter speed between 1/200 and 1/500s. I photographed everything without a tripod or any kind of other support. The in-body stabilization really does an amazing job! Camera shake was never the issue. I just needed to be aware of the movement of the animals. Even though the musk-oxen were not moving that fast, I really needed to keep my shutter speed as high as possible. I have several series of images where the musk-oxen are feeding. The body of the animals are completely sharp, while the small movement of the head resulted in some local unsharpness. This is the tricky part of wildlife photography with a high resolution camera. Yet, this camera allows you to shoot with an higher ISO which enables you to maintain higher shutter speeds also with a higher aperture. Using the 200-600mm on the a7RV definitely gives better results than combined with the a7RIV.



1st image: Sony a7RV, Sony 200-600mm @ 600mm, f6,3, ISO 1600, 1/320s

2nd image: Sony a7RV, Sony 200-600mm @ 600mm, f6,3, ISO 3200, 1/500s

I added a heavily cropped version of each image to show you the amount of detail and sharpness in the images.


To conclude

The Sony a7RV is an huge upgrade from the a7RIV. The camera is much faster, more responsive, the menu is easier to use, the new foldable and tiltable screen gives you a lot of freedom to shoot in any position, the electronical viewfinder is absolutely gorgeous, the autofocus system is a different world, the autofocus performance has been improved, the camera maintains a very good image quality in the higher ISO range, the in-body stabilization has been improved and it is impossible to run out the buffer.


Would I recommend you to get an a7RV?

If you are currently shooting with the a7RIV or a7RIII and you are thinking about an upgrade, then I can highly recommend you to take a look at the a7RV. When looking at how much each camera body improved from its predecessor, then the a7RV has definitely made the biggest improvements so far. I am sure you will be very pleased with this camera!


If you are an enthusiastic wildlife photographer who mainly likes to shoot birds and other animals in action or other fast-moving subject, and you would ask me if this is the perfect camera for you, then I would say no, this is not the perfect camera for that purpose. I would highly recommend you to get the a1, a9ii or a9. These cameras are built for speed and accuracy. The Sony a7RV will do very well in most situations. But when it comes to the fast action where you want to shoot longer bursts at high frame-rates, then this is not the camera to do it with.


If you are an enthusiastic wildlife photographer who mainly likes to shoot mammals, or are a landscape photographer who also from time to time likes to shoot wildlife and you want to have the highest image quality as possible, then this definitely is a camera to consider!


Will I get the a7RV?

After having used the a7RV, I am extremely tempted to order one. I most likely will sell my a9 and a7RIII and buy an a7RV instead. My plan was to get a second a1, but now I am very tempted to get an a7RV instead.

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