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So this could shake up the semi-pro and pro photo markets a little. Sony took the wraps off of their two newest mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and they’re sporting some incredible image sensors. Specifically these are the first mirrorless cams to sport full frame image sensors. The A7 has a 24.3 megapixel sensor, and the A7R has a shocking 36 megapixel sensor which is likely a close cousin to the sensor found in Nikon’s D80o Digital SLR.
This is all neat and techie sounding, but why is this impressive? Normally bigger numbers like this are taken with a bit of skepticism. Like when your phone has a ton of megapickles in its camera, we make a squinty face and then explain why that might not mean better photos. Moving into this new breed of interchangeable lens cameras, Sony’s making a couple of exciting plays.
It’s not the megapickles, it’s the sensor size.
This more than anything else is what gets us wannabe photogs lit up. The larger the sensor, the more surface area you have. This means the sensor has an easier time soaking up light, it’s just a bigger sponge. The A7 and A7R sensors are twice the size of most entry and mid-range SLR’s like my Canon 7D. It’s almost three times bigger than the sensor found in most mirrorless cameras like those made by Olympus and Panasonic.
This makes high resolution more attractive. Look at that chart to the right. That smallest box is what often comes on entry level point and shoot cameras, and it’s a little bigger than the sensor found on most nice phone cameras. Packing 16 MILLION dots on that square is a far more cramped experience than placing 36 million pixels on a full frame sensor. That same comparison holds true, though is less severe obviously, when comparing these new Sony’s to other interchangeable lens cameras which might use Micro 4/3rds or APS-C sensors. Each of those pixels can be larger, and each has an easier time soaking up more light, which results in better detail and less noise.
Larger sensor = Wider field of view
The other aspect of smaller sensor cameras to consider is crop. All lenses being equal, the smaller the sensor, the less of the lens is used. We call this crop. It’s not like digital crop where you remove pixels from the borders to “zoom” into the middle, with sensor crop the camera is only able to use the middle of the lens instead of all the glass. This starts to resemble zoom to a degree, and it really taxes the clarity found at the center of the lens.
Photography gear is all built around the original 35mm frames we shot on film, so if you have a crop camera, your frame will be different than it is on a full frame sensor. My Canon 7D sensor is half the size of a 35mm frame, so all of my adjustments are roughly 1.5X. This is good for reach as it gives my zoom a little bit of a bump, but it’s awful for wide angle photography. A 24mm lens on a full frame camera is decently wide, on a crop sensor it starts to resemble a 36mm lens which is a bit more “normal”. A 50mm lens very closely resembles the field of view we humans have on full frame cameras, on APS-C that 50mm starts to look a bit more like an 80mm zoom.
The A7 and A7R employing full frame sensors will mean you won’t have to do that mental mathematic trick of understanding how wide or how zoomed in you might be.
Slim and Sexy + Market Disrupting Price
Lastly, these cameras represent a “legitimizing” influence over the semi-pro and pro markets for smaller and compact interchangeable lens systems. SLR’s have their name because a mirror in the camera is responsible for feeding light from the lens into your eye piece. Hit the shutter button and that mirror flips up exposing the sensor, and light from the lens now generates an image on the digital guts of your camera. This has been the way photogs work since the film days, and it’s generally accepted as the “professional” way a camera should work.
Experimenting with slimmer camera bodies has meant doing away with the mirror box, and instead permanently operating the camera in a “live view” mode, where light from the lens hits the image sensor directly, and then an electronic screen shows you what the lens sees. With cameras which can swap lenses, this is often relegated as “entry-level” or “consumer” grade photography, especially as previous solution incorporated smaller crop sensors.
Now Sony is offering up their top of the line sensors in smaller and compact camera bodies. Not only that, but we’re seeing pricing aimed at shaking up the full frame market. The A7R will retail for $2300, a decent chunk of change for sure, but it uses a very similar sensor to the one found in the Nikon D800 which has a street price of $2800. Canon’s 5D mark III uses a 22MP sensor and has a street price of $3100 against Sony’s A7 which should perform similarly at the sensor level and only costs $1700 MSRP.
The rest is just gravy…
Hardware controls, highspeed 60fps video in full HD, WiFi, NFC. That’s all just great, and are often features you’d have to pay more for with SLR’s, or add via accessories. They’re creating a formidable package.
Of course there will be pros and cons still to using mirrorless cameras, and pros will probably still gravitate towards optical viewfinders over electronic screens for the near future, but Sony has fired a clear shot at this market. Just like Mac vs PC, the photography market is largely divided between Canon vs Nikon, so it’s really exciting when a third player does anything to shake that duopoly up.
Full details, press release, and camera specs after the jump.