Sony’s A7lll Full Frame Mirrorless Basic Camera … Expect More
The camera body and feature set of the A7lll is nearly identical to the A7Rlll that was released last year. It’s major point of difference from the A7III is it’s 24.2 Megapixel backlit illuminated sensor that features 693 phase detect autofocus points (PDAF). The camera is capable of the same 10 frames per second in Continuous Hi+ drive mode but has the larger spread of PDAF points that the A9 enjoys. This model is significantly cheaper than an A9 or A7RIII cameras (less than half the price of an A9 and approximately 40% less than an A7RIII). Many of the early influencers who reviewed this camera decided to promote the strengths of this camera at the expense of Sony’s own full-frame premium mirrorless cameras (the A7RIII and the A9). It would, however, make much more sense to first compare this camera with DSLR cameras that retail at the same price point and the previous A7II model. Owners of the A7 and A7II cameras may notice there has been a steady improvement in image quality (IQ) with each subsequent model. Dynamic Range and High ISO Performance are both superior on the A7III model, it should also be noted, however, that IQ was already outstanding, so many users who upgrade to the A7III camera won’t be shocked or surprised at the difference in image quality.
NOTE > A 20-minute movie review of the A7III is available at the bottom of the page.
The sequence above was captured using the Compressed Raw file format in APS-C-mode. This was because the duration of some of these rides exceeded the cameras ‘buffer’ when shooting in full-frame mode. Another alternative would have been to shoot JPEGs rather than Raw files. Towards the end of the sequence the cowboy and horse are backlit so the ability to raise the shadows to +100 in Lightroom made the choice to shoot in Raw the correct decision in this instance. All 100 frames were captured in sharp focus. The frames have not been cropped.
Sony’s ‘draw cards’ for enticing photographers to upgrade or switch to the A7III camera is the major upgrade in Autofocus Performance, Drive Speed (10 frames per second), ‘Buffer’* capacity and the option for 4K video with fast hybrid AF. This camera, simply put, is built for ‘Speed’. The ‘user experience’ is also enhanced by the use of a larger Z series battery (one battery should now last all day for most photographers), the addition of dual card slots (an ‘insurance’ feature that most pro photographers insist on), better ergonomics (buttons and dials – including a joystick for fast positioning of the focus point). All of these features first saw the light of day on either the A9 or A7RIII cameras that were released in 2017. The fact that so many of these ‘premium’ or pro features found there way on to the basic model upset some owners of the premium models. This level of frustration was not helped when some influencers claimed that the A7III was somehow superior to the premium models. A lot of this information was offered up before the reviewers could even open up a Raw file from the camera as no software supported the Raw files from the A7III camera at the time of its release. It would have been more useful, as stated previously, to initially compare the specs of the A7III camera with the Nikon D750, Canon 6D MKII and A7II cameras. To compare how many hundreds of Phase Detect Auto Focus points between Sony Full Frame cameras is simply ‘splitting hairs’. To simply state that the Canon 6D MKII has 27 AF points clustered around the centre of the frame, the Nikon has 51 AF points also clustered around the centre of the frame and the Sony A7III has 693 AF points covering 93% of the area of the sensor would have been much more useful to potential buyers of this camera. Even the old A7RII can boast 399 AF points spread over 45% of the sensor area and is more than a match for any DSLR and, if it wasn’t for its limited buffer capacity, could be used at a greyhound track as a sports camera.
*The ‘buffer’ is a temporary memory or ‘cache’ (like the RAM on a computer) that holds recently captured images until they can be written to the SD memory card. When the buffer is full the camera slows down while the buffer clears to the card. As some of the buffer is freed up the photographer can resume shooting at high speed. The buffer is NOT often referred to in most reviews I have seen on this camera, but it is a major discussion point for photographers who want to shoot a lot of action. I discuss this later in this review and is a ‘must read’ before committing to the purchase of this camera instead of the A7RIII or A9 alternatives. Comparing AF points is not the only thing to consider, and is rather pointless conversation when all three of the latest Sony full-frame cameras have enough for the task in hand.
Who will it appeal to?
If you are comparing specifications from Canon or Nikon DSLR cameras sold for the same price, want to trade up from an A7, A7II Alpha camera or a cropped sensor Sony Alpha camera such as the A6000 or A6300, I would invite you to take a look at the following list of specs and decide whether they need to be on your shopping list. For some photographers they may just fulfil their addiction to GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), for other photographers the features will possibly open up new creative opportunities, improve the number of ‘hero’ shots you can capture when the shooting conditions are challenging or make a semi-pro body suddenly very affordable.
The main draw cards of the Sony A7III camera, and the major differences between the two DSLR cameras previously mentioned and also the A7II, are as follows:
- New generation Exmor R CMOS back-illuminated sensor
- Dual Card Slot (probably only important for pro photographers who don’t want to let a client down if one card fails)
- 4K Movie Capture (great if you are a fan of your 4K TV)
- Eye AF in Continuous Autofocus (makes portraiture with the aperture wide open ‘easy peasy’)
- Silent Shooting (good when making a noise is not an option)
- 10 frames per second (for fast moving action) and a fast SD XC II memory card slot to rapidly clear the ‘buffer’
- 693 Phase Detect AF Points (when keeping the subject in the centre of the frame as you pan your camera is not a talent you are known for)
- Sensor Stabilisation (this already appears in the A7II camera and is widely acknowledged as having superior performance than stabilised lenses. Sensor Stabilisation was introduced to the A6500 in Sony’s cropped sensor cameras).
- Z series battery – A7, A7II, A6K users now get the benefits of a battery that lasts all day.
Personal observations about the A7III’s ‘draw cards’
Prior to the release of the 2017 full-frame mirrorless cameras my personal ‘B Cam’ to the A7RII was the A6500. It had both fast AF performance, a fast drive speed (11 frames per second) and a buffer that allowed me to shoot 107 Raw files over an extended period of time. My A7RII could capture images at 5 frames per second and track fast action but its buffer allowed for only 23 Compressed Raw files to be captured before the camera went into ‘slow mo’ (probably in the region of 1 frame per second). The release of these new full frame cameras relieved the A6500 of its former duties. As fast action usually requires very fast shutter speeds, and therefore high ISO values, I find that value of shooting action with a full frame sensor much more appealing. I now how no concerns about shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200 to keep shutter speeds faster than 1/2000 second.
I do not find the difference between 399 and 693 PDAF points significant and the A7RIII has a better EVF that makes the tracking of rapidly moving subjects a little easier. The broader spread of points is useful but can be achieved by shooting with the A7RIII in APS-C mode. If you are coming from an DSLR the spread of AF points is a revelation. You no longer have to struggle to keep the subject in the centre of the frame when panning the camera. You can also be much more creative in your off-centre compositions. Some influencers described the A7III as a cheap alternative to the A9. This is an insane comparison as tracking an erratically moving subject with an A9 with zero blackout (courtesy of the electronic shutter) using an EVF with a frame rate twice as fast as the A7III does not put this camera in the same ball park as the A7III. The A9, with its unique sensor design is is in a class by itself. Everything is, of course relative, and if you look at the long sequences of images captured in this review you will see this camera more than stacks up against every other camera for shooting fast action sports (except the A9).
I use ‘Silent Shooting’ occasionally but use the mechanical shutter to shoot action/sports on the A7III and A7RIII cameras to avoid the effects of a rolling shutter that produces shutter distortion and when shooting with electric light sources to avoid the effects of banding – sometimes OK sometimes not. Only the A9 is immune from the effects of a rolling shutter when shooting silently (using the electronic shutter).
I do not use the second card slot as an insurance policy (writing the same file to both cards should one card fail). I have never had a card fail and taking the insurance option would slow the camera down (only card slot 1 is fast). I therefore set the camera to fill the first card and then start writing to the second card until I have time to replace the card in slot 1.
Sensor stabilisation is great but it is usually set to ‘off’ for erratic sports, so this isn’t a deal breaker for sports. It does however make low light photography without a tripod possible (down to 1/8 second, or even slower if you don’t drink coffee).
I never really understood why the battery life of the first and second generation of full-frame E-Mount cameras was a deal breaker for some photographers. I used to be considered a heavy analogue film shoot in the old days – regularly shooting 15 rolls a day or more. I would find that one small W series battery in my Alpha digital camera would capture the same number of images (without the hassle of changing anything). Changing the battery for the spare in my pocket would take just 5 seconds. The real advantage of the new Z series battery for me is that I only have to own one battery charger (complimentary with the A9 and A7RIII cameras but not with the A7III). There were days when I forgot to charge the second small W series battery when travelling (not a huge drama as I always travelled with four).
Not so basic
Sony tagged this as ‘The Basic’ model but also added the words ‘expect more’. What does this mean. The camera body features most of the upgrades to the body design that were welcomed in with the A7Rlll and these include.
- Larger Z series battery
- Dual card slots with the lower slot accepting fast SDXC II cards
- USB3 port
- Touch screen for moving autofocus point.
- Joystick for moving Autofocus Point
- AF-On button
- C3 button on left side of body for protecting or rating images in review.
The camera also features the updated menu system for easier navigation, including the ‘My Menu’ tab where favourite menu items can be stored. The camera can also records 4K movies (no pixel binning) and high frame rate movies via its S & Q (slow and quick) shoot mode.
The specifications of this camera are quite remarkable for the price point this camera has gone on sale for – undercutting not only the A7Rllll, but also the A7Rll. Most surprising features that exceed expectations are the number of PDAF points and the speed of the continuous shooting drive mode.
- 693 Phase Detect AF points covering 93% of the sensor area (this is the same spec as the A9 and more than the A7RIII)
- 10 frames per second in Continuous Hi+ and 8 frames per second in Continuous Hi (live view mode) – this matches the A7RIII and its mechanical shutter can shoot faster than the A9’s mechanical shutter.
- 177 image buffer (89 compressed raw). This is slightly better than the A7RIII (79 Raw) but not in the ball park of the A9 (241 compressed Raw).
NOTE > As you can see from this comprehensive list of features offered on the basic model, it is easy to understand why some owners of the A7RIII and A9 cameras wondered why they hadn’t waited for this camera and saved themselves some money. I will however go on to point out why the premium cameras are still the appropriate choice for most, if not all professional photographers. Comparing the numbers alone can be misleading and this is certainly not a ‘Baby A9’ as one influencer described it.
So what’s missing
With so much to love or like what will the ‘nay sayers’ be able to find to criticise? The camera does not offer the Pixel Shift Multi Shooting feature of the A7Rlll or the x-sync port for firing studio flash – this could, however, be added by using an adapter attached to the Multi Interface Shoe (hotshoe) or via Sony’s wireless commander unit. The EVF and Monitor are of a slightly lower resolution compared to the A7Rlll and the body, being closer in design to the A7Rlll than the A9, does not feature the drive mode and focus mode dials on the top left-hand side of the camera body. The camera does not currently support the Sonyplaymemories camera apps but does support the Picture Profiles for movie shooters. If you dig a little deeper you will also find out that Sony are making saving on the Magnesium Alloy Chassis by omitting the rear cover. The Shooting Mode dial doesn’t have a lock button and only features two, not three, memory recall options. If you need to see the above paragraph as a list here it is below:
- EVF: 2.36 Million Dots compared to 3.69 Million Dots
- No High Frame Rate for the EVF (120 frames per second in NTSC mode / 100 frames per second in PAL mode – this is double the frame rate the A7III is capable of)
- Monitor: 921,600 dots vs 1.44 Million dots
- No x-Sync (A7RIII) or Ethernet Port (A9)
- Magnesium Alloy Body – Reduced (no magnesium rear cover)
- No Drive Mode/Focus Mode dial (A9)
- No lock on Shooting Mode dial
- No Pixel Shift Multi Shooting Feature (A7RIII)
- No separate battery charger in the box (battery can be charged in the camera)
NOTE > One thing that is added, rather than taken away, is the use of an AA filter on the A7III sensor that reduces the risk of Moiré but also removes a little of the overall image sharpness. This is common for most sensors but not on the high resolution cameras such as the Nikon D850, Canon 5Ds and Sony A7R cameras.
So who is it for?
This camera makes perfect sense for Sony users looking to upgrade from an A7, A7ll or A6000/A6300 (its a major leap forward) for anyone interested in action photography. It is also suitable for DSLR photographers looking to get into full-frame mirrorless but who don’t need the extra resolution of the A7Rlll or the blazing speed of the A9 (although the A7llI is certainly no slouch and is faster than other camera in its category). For any DSLR owners who have been waiting for Mirrorless cameras to outperform DSLR cameras this is the camera you have been waiting for. If you are a Canon DSLR owner looking for better tech but on a budget I would recommend that you adapt all of your canon lenses via the Sigma MC-11 adapter. If you are a Nikon DSLR owner attracted to the fast AF speed of this camera then I recommend you sell your Nikon lenses that you want to use for action (at this point in time) and buy some Sony glass, as the Nikon lens adapters are currently slow to focus. For photographers where budget is less of a concern the A7III may even be a better solution compared to the premium A7Rlll, for wedding photographers who are shooting thousands of images a day and will welcome the benefits of smaller file sizes as they trawl through their images looking for their hero shots in post production editing software. It is however possible to shoot in APS-C mode with the A7RIII and get the same benefit of smaller file sizes – it is also possible for those wanting to travel light to use lighter APS-C lenses on the A7RIII body when they don’t need the resolution.
Do I need to be upset because I recently purchased an A9 or A7RIII?
One of the surprising reactions from a smaller minority of Alpha owners, who have recently purchased either the A9 or A7RIII cameras, is the feeling that their recent purchase is no longer ‘as special’. Some owners of these cameras feel Sony should have not been so generous with the feature list afforded to the A7III, e.g. 693 PDAF points or dual memory card slots. I think for any camera company willing to disable features or functionality of their basic model, in order to protect their premium models, would be dishonourable in the way they were conducting business. I am so glad Sony does not engage in this practice.
How does it stack up against the A9? The A7III has really fast AF (twice as Fast as the A7II) but it does not come close to the capability of the A9 when shooting fast-action sports. Although the A7III can, on paper, shoot at 10 frames per second in Continuous Hi+ drive mode using the silent electronic shutter, the photographer has to use the mechanical shutter at 8 frames per second (Continuous Hi) in order to pan the camera (to see real-time feedback) and avoid shutter distortion while experiencing blackout between frames (and all this at a slower frame rate in the lower resolution EVF). Compare this to 20 fps using a distortion-free electronic shutter (courtesy of the stacked full-frame BIS that is unique to the A9) with zero blackout with a buffer that is three times larger than the A7III. Sure, not everyone needs this level of performance, but a working professional sports photographer would use all this performance and more (if it were commercially available). If someone invested in an A9 is feeling there camera is not quite as special anymore then they have to appreciate the A7III is good, but an A9 it is not – apart from sharing a similar body, it is a totally different beast.
How does it stack up against the A7RIII? This is little simpler to answer. If you need an ultra-high resolution full-frame camera then there are only four in the Alpha range to choose from – the A99II, A7R, A7RII or A7RIII. There is no AA filter on the A7RIII sensor which adds to the sharpness of images compared to sensors with AA filters (this includes the A7III sensor). The 24 megapixel sensor featured in the A7III will be enough for a lot of photographers, but if you shoot for advertising, print very large or crop massively then the standard 24 megapixel resolution of the A7III will not be on your list of possible choices. I personally use the A9 for fast action sports but the A7RIII for shooting birds, for the simple reason that I can throw away 3/4 of the pixels captured and still end up with an Ultra HD 4K image. This means that my FE 100-400 GM + 1.4 teleconverter is more than enough reach (840mm equivalent in APS-C mode) for what I need, and I don’t have to carry around a heavy 600mm telephoto lens to achieve this. If you are a studio shooter the Pixel Shift Multi Shooting feature of the A7RIII provides you with medium format IQ that simply cannot be achieved with the A7III. If you shoot in APS-C mode on a 24 megapixel sensor the megapixel count drops to 10 rather than 18 so the A7III in APS-C mode gives you very little opportunity to crop much in post production if you need a 4K ultra HD file for output (you would probably have just enough to crop the file straight in some instances).
Some limitations when shooting action with the A7III
My first shoot with the A7III was to document a Rodeo in Victoria, Australia. The action sequences included cowboys/girls chasing cows, cowboys/girls riding bulls and broncos. Each event was short, but usually longer than 10 seconds. This presents a bit of a problem/headache for the photographer using an A7III who wants to shoot the entire sequence when the buffer of the A7III lasts 11 seconds when shooting Compressed Raw images. The option to try and shoot shorter bursts at the decisive moments, basically trying to second-guess when the rider and animal part company, is next to impossible when tracking the action with a viewfinder that is blacked out between every frame and does not have the option for a high frame rate.
The buffer of the A7III is large enough for 89 images in the compressed raw file format (full frame) and this, I decided, was possibly a little short to capture entire action sequences at this particular event. As some of the successful/winning cowboys would be looking to dismount after 10 seconds I had to decide to shoot either shorter bursts or shoot in JPEG or APS-C mode to avoid missing the end of the sequence, and possibly the most dramatic aspect of the action. I elected to shoot in APS-C mode that so that I could shoot up to 286 Raw images. With just 10 megapixels in APS-Mode, however, the camera is capturing only enough pixels for a 4K crop. That is barely enough extra pixels to straighten a crooked image. The A7RIII, on the other hand, has a 250 image Raw buffer in APS-C mode and the 18 megapixels means that I could have shot slightly wider than I needed to – which would also have made the accuracy of the panning easier. The easiest camera to track fast moving action is, of course, the A9. 20 fps, a massive buffer that can support 241 full-frame compressed Raw images, zero blackout between frames and PDAF points that cover 93% of the surface area of the sensor makes this a ‘walk in the park’.
The 24 megapixel Advantage.
There is one advantage to shooting full-frame 24 megapixels rather than 42.4 megapixels, and that is for photographers who can mostly frame/compose their images in-camera rather than in post and have to sort through thousands of images from each shoot as part of the rating process to find their hero files. Things just move a lot faster when using a 4K monitor if the files are little more than half the size of the files coming from the A7RIII cameras.
If you need to read the above written by some else, here is a link to another article that says the same thing: https://www.slrlounge.com/why-the-sony-a7iii-is-important-where-it-sits-with-the-a7riii-a9/
If you are upgrading from an older model Alpha camera or are coming over from a DSLR you will probably want to spend some time setting up the camera so that it is optimised for your own personal workflows. The menu systems are very ‘extensive’ and nearly every button on the camera can be customised to perform the actions you want to access or use most frequently. Although this is a great feature of the camera it can also be overwhelming especially for users coming from Nikon or Canon where options and features are often described with different names.
I have, however, prepared an extensive range of movies to help A7III owners set up their cameras so they are optimised for sport/action, landscape, portraiture etc. If you click on the icon next to 1/12 in the upper left-hand corner of the movie above you will be able to see the individual movies in the series. Alternatively, if you click on the Play button in the centre of the movie and then click on the YouTube icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the movie you will be taken to the collection of movies on YouTube. Here you can ask questions below each movie and subscribe to the channel to watch movies that I make in the future that will help you master your new camera.
The bottom line
It is great see Sony didn’t feel the need to artificially lower the AF or drive mode capabilities of the A7lll so that it was slower than the A7Rlll. The great success of the A7lll will be it’s great value for money. It does not, in my opinion, perform better than either the A9 for action or the A7RIII when higher resolution (crop capability) is of value.
Download a 14-Page illustrated A7III-Brochure with full specifications and overview of features
108 images captured at 8 frames per second. There are 95 images that are pin sharp while Face Detect (left on in error after a previous portrait shoot in the crowd) has caused the camera to focus on the cowboys behind when the riders face is partly obscured. This has led me to re-evalutate whether I ever need to have face detect on for these type of events. I can still use Eye-AF with Face Detect switched off. One advantage of using Face Priority AF switched to ‘On’ and Face Detect Frame Display also switch to ‘On’ is that you can see if the depth of field is sufficient to capture multiple faces at any given aperture. One of my minor grievances with the Sony menu systems is that although they have improved the menus by grouping associated menu items together on named tabs, the work is not yet complete. An example of this is some of the Focus Assist page (page 13) is not placed next to AF1, 2 and 3 pages (pages 5-7), Face registration (page 14) is not placed with Face Priority (page 6) and touch screen focussing is assigned to a completely different menu tab (pages 2 and 3 on the Tools tab). Fortunately after assigning my recommended settings to the cameras memory recall, ‘Fn’ menu and ‘My Menu’ you never have to search for frequently used settings ever again.
The camera settings for the action sequences captured in this test review are outlined in the following movie: https://youtu.be/ZNloKXpUOWA
Ultra HD Image Gallery on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmdo4m1Q
Full Size Images on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmfpYe7v (these should be downloaded and zoomed to assess image quality as ultra HD images look sharper when displayed to fit the screen)
…or Click on any one of the images below to enlarge.