Sony Alpha A7R III review

The Alpha A7R III is Sony's latest high-resolution mirrorless camera, and an update of the excellent Alpha A7R II, which was responsible for tempting many a photographer away from the comfort of their Canon and Nikon DSLRs. 

This latest model looks to draw on many of the technologies used in the speed-orientated Sony Alpha A9, which is just as well, because with the likes of Nikon's brilliant D850 offering a tempting combination of high resolution and high performance the Alpha A7R II was beginning to look a little pedestrian. 

With some impressive boosts to performance, as well as tweaks to handling and the peace of mind of a five-year guarantee, could the new Alpha A7R III see even more second-hand Canon and Nikon DSLRs appearing on the shelves of camera stores as more photographers make the switch to Sony? 

Features

  • Full-frame stacked CMOS sensor, 42.2MP
  • 3,686K-dot electronic viewfinder with 100fps refresh rate
  • 3.0-inch tilt-angle screen, 1,440,000 dots

While many might have expected Sony to boost the amount of pixels to match or exceed DSLR rivals like the D850 and Canon EOS 5DS, it's actually opted to stick with the same count as the Alpha A7R II.

At the core of the A7R III then is a 42.2MP back-illuminated full-frame Exmor R CMOS sensor, although Sony has borrowed some of the innovations from the 24.2MP Alpha A9 and integrated them with this more densely populated chip. 

There are gapless microlenses and a new anti-flare coating for starters, while the Alpha A7R III features a new front-end LSI that almost doubles the readout speed of the sensor. It also takes advantage of the latest BIONZ X image processing engine, and combined, these enhancements deliver a boost of up to 1.8x in processing speeds compared to the A7R II.

Sony says the A7R III has a staggering 15-stop dynamic range at low sensitivity settings

The A7R III's sensitivity range remains unchanged (ISO50-102,400 at the camera's expanded setting), so those hoping for something to match the Nikon D850's expanded ISO32 setting may be a little disappointed. However, the new processing engine should be able to handle image noise better than its predecessor, while Sony also claims the Alpha A7R III will have a staggering 15-stop dynamic range at low sensitivity settings. 

The Alpha A7R III has the same electronic viewfinder (EVF) as the Alpha A9, with the Quad-VGA OLED EVF sporting a resolution of approximately 3,686k dots, and utilizing a Zeiss T* Coating to reduce reflections. On top of this, the A7R III supports a customizable frame rate for the EVF, with options of either 60fps or 120fps, again matching the 120fps offered by the A9.

Along with the EVF, the rear tilt-angle display has also been upgraded over the outgoing model; it now has a resolution of 1.44 million dots, and, just as we've seen with recent models like the RX10 IV, offers touchscreen functionality. 

Also as with the A9, Sony has shunned the XQD card format (even though it's now the sole manufacturer of that format), instead opting for dual SD card slots on the Alpha A7R III, with only one of those supporting UHS-II type cards.

The Alpha A7R III offers 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels) video capture, with the option to use either the full width of the sensor or Super 35mm format mode, with the latter using the full pixel readout without pixel binning to collect 5K of information, and oversampling this to produce what promises to be even crisper footage. 

As well as this, the Alpha A7R III now features a new HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) profile that supports an Instant HDR workflow, allowing HDR (HLG) compatible TVs to play back 4K HDR footage, while both S-Log2 and S-Log3 are also available. 

If you want to shoot Full HD footage you can capture this at up to 120fps, while there are ports for both a microphone and audio monitoring.

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Build and handling

  • Magnesium alloy construction
  • Dust- and moisture-sealed
  • Weighs 657g

The look and feel of the Sony Alpha A7R III broadly follows the design of the A7R II, but there are a host of tweaks and refinements when you start looking a little closer. 

While the new camera doesn't get the dedicated drive mode dial/focus mode selector that sits to the left of the EVF on the Alpha A9, it does get a similar multi-selector joystick.

It may seem a small thing, but the arrival of the joystick greatly improves handling over the A7R II, as it makes for much quicker AF point selection. The A7R III also sees the addition of a dedicated AF-ON button for back-button focusing, again as on the A9.

In fact, the rear of the camera mimics the control layout of the A9 – that means the A7R III gets an additional 'C3' custom button, while the rear scrollwheel is more pronounced, and less likely to be accidentally knocked.

The changes may be modest, but they combine to make the A7R III that much more user-friendly and satisfying to shooting with

The rear touch display, meanwhile, does away with an annoying quirk of the A7R II. If you were shooting from the waist with the screen angled outward, the older camera would think you had the camera raised to your eye, resulting in the feed being cut on the screen. The display on the A7R III disables the eye sensor when the screen is flipped out, allowing you to shoot at waist level uninterrupted. 

The body is slightly thicker than the A7R II, but fractionally slimmer than the A9, and features a magnesium alloy top, front and rear covers, as well as an internal frame. Sony has also increased the number of lens mount screws to six for enhanced durability, while all major buttons and dials are sealed, and there's sealing throughout the body, to protect the A7R III from dust and moisture.

The menu system has also been overhauled. Now color-coded, it's that bit easier to navigate, but the menu system on the Alpha A7R III is still incredibly comprehensive. That said, once you've tailored the various custom buttons to your desired settings, these, along with the body-mounted controls, mean there should be little need to be regularly diving into the main menu. When you do though, give yourself a bit of time to find exactly what you're looking for.

The changes may be modest, but they combine to make the A7R III that much more user-friendly and satisfying to shoot with. 

Autofocus

  • 399 phase-detection points
  • 425 contrast-detection points
  • Eye AF with enhanced tracking performace

Sony has improved the focusing system as well. The 399 focal-plane phase-detection AF points from the A7R II remain (with 68% coverage of the frame), but Sony has bolstered the number of contrast-detection AF points from 25 to 400. 

Sony reckons this overhaul should improve autofocus speed, delivering up to roughly two times faster speeds in low-light conditions, along with improved AF tracking performance. 

The Alpha A7R III can also focus in brightness levels as low as -3EV. When you consider that's pretty much complete darkness, it's very impressive, although the D850's central AF point just edges it at -4EV.

As we've seen on other Sony mirrorless cameras, there's a wide range of autofocus settings. Wide or Zone modes are good for general photography and will take care of much of the decision-making for you, while Center mode uses the central AF point. 

There’s also a Flexible Spot mode (with the choice of three AF area sizes) that enables you to use the joystick to position the focus area pretty much anywhere in the frame, while the Expanded Flexible Spot mode takes advantage of additional AF points to assist with focusing. 

Focusing is fast in single servo mode, but it's when you flick the focusing over to continuous that the system really impressives. You get the same focusing modes as before, but with the addition of a Lock-on setting – use this mode and you'll find the Alpha A7R III can do a stunning job of tracking your designated subject as it moves round the frame. 

The Alpha A7R III's Eye AF has also been enhanced, and now uses the same autofocus algorithms as the Alpha 9. This means that when the A7R III is in AF-C mode and with Eye-AF activated, the system should be able to continuously track and focus on your subject's eye, even if they look down or away from the camera.

In our time with the camera this really impressed us. The A7R III managed to happily maintain focus on a subject in two challenging scenarios – while they were moving round the frame quickly as well as moving towards us, or looking down or away from the camera. 

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Performance

  • 10fps burst shooting
  • 5-axis image stabilization
  • 530-shot battery life

While the A7R II could only manage 5fps burst shooting, the enhanced processing power inside the Alpha A7R III sees that rate double to 10fps, and that's with continuous AF/AE tracking. It can sustain this for up to 76 JPEG/raw images, or 28 uncompressed 14-bit raws. 

You have the option of using the A7R III's mechanical shutter to achieve this, or if you prefer you can opt for the camera's electronic shutter for silent shooting. And, rather than having to wait while the camera writes large quantities of images to the card, it's still possible to use many of the A7R III's key functions.

The Alpha A7R III is kitted out with Sony's 5-axis optical image stabilization system, and this has been tweaked for the new camera to deliver a 5.5-stop shutter speed advantage, improving on the A7R II's 4.5-stop system. To reduce the risk of vibration and image blur, especially when shooting at 10fps, there's a new low-vibration shutter mechanism. 

You can expect the A7R III to carry on shooting for 530 frames

The electronic viewfinder is excellent, with a clear and large view thanks to the fast refresh rate and 3,686k-dot resolution, while the rear display doesn't disappoint either. 

One of the biggest complaints levelled at the A7R II was its poor battery life, with just 270 shots possible if you were lucky. Sony has swapped out the W-series battery used in that camera and replaced it with its latest Z-series unit, and you can expect the A7R III to carry on shooting for 530 shots if you use the viewfinder, or 650 shots using the rear display. It's a welcome improvement, but still some way behind the likes of the Nikon D850's 1,840-shot rating.

Image quality

  • ISO100-32,000, expandable to 50-102,400
  • 15-stop dynamic range
  • 14-bit raw shooting

The Alpha A7R III is able to resolve an impressive level of detail; you'd be hard-pushed to distinguish between its images and those from the more densely populated sensors on the 45.2MP Nikon D850 and 50MP Canon EOS 5DS. At the end of the day, if you're planning to produce large A2 sized prints, you won't be disappointed with the files from the Alpha A7R III.

Noise control is another area in which the Alpha A7R III is very strong. Noise levels are kept well within acceptable limits, delivering pleasing results with natural-looking granular noise and minimal Chroma (color) noise even when you're shooting at the higher end of the native sensitivity range (up to ISO32,000). As with most cameras, we'd avoid resorting to the high expansion settings (the maximum here is ISO102,400) unless getting a shot is more important than its ultimate quality.

The Alpha A7R III's dynamic range performance is also very impressive. If you're shooting at low sensitivities and purposefully underexposing the shot to retain highlights, you'll have to really push the file in post-processing before you see any signs of quality beginning to deteriorate in the shadows. For general editing of raw files where you want to recover detail, you've got plenty of flexibility with the A7R III's files. 

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Verdict

If Nikon thought it was going to have things all its own way with the D850, it should think again. Sony has taken one of our favorite mirrorless cameras and bolstered the performance to make the new Alpha A7R III a much more capable and well-rounded offering.

As we've seen with the D850, you no longer have to sacrifice performance for resolution or vice versa. The heady mix of 42.2MP and high performance that includes 10fps burst shooting and a very sophisticated AF system is bound to help this camera appeal to an even broader range of photographers than the older model. This is a camera that would be equally at home perched on a mountain as in a studio or on the sidelines of a football match.

For now, the Alpha A7R III is not only the most well-rounded mirrorless camera you can buy, but one of the best cameras out there.  

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