The Sony Alpha 7R III is Sony’s latest high-resolution, full-frame mirrorless camera. It offers impressive all-round specifications, with a 42.4MP sensor, 10fps continuous shooting, a hybrid AF system that employs 399 phase-detection points covering approximately 68% of the frame, and 4K video recording. It’ll cost £3,200 when it hits the shops in November.
It’s now four years since Sony unveiled the world’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, in the shape of the 24MP Alpha 7 and 36MP Alpha 7R. A year-and-a-half later, we saw the updated Alpha 7R II, with a groundbreaking 42MP sensor, built-in 5-axis image stabilisation, and a much-improved body design. Now it’s time for round three, in the form of the Alpha 7R III. Sony has clearly decided to stick to what it knows best and kept to a very familiar template, with a compact, SLR-styled body with central EVF. But it’s taken the A7R II design and added many of the best features it debuted on the Alpha 9 earlier this year, resulting in a very compelling camera that, on paper, could give the Nikon D850 a serious run for its money.
Sony Alpha 7R III – Features
The Alpha 7R III employs essentially the same 42.4MP full-frame sensor as in the A7R II, but places it in an improved body design, incorporating a range of features and controls we previously saw in the excellent Alpha 9. With the latest Bionx X processor and front-end LSI, the new model brings a slightly extended standard ISO range of 100-32,000, expandable to 50-102,400. Sony also claims it now offers fully 15 stops of dynamic range at ISO 100, which can be recorded into its 14-bit RAW files, even during continuous or silent shooting (where the A7R II recorded 12-bit files).
Speaking of which, the A7R III is substantially faster than the previous generation, capable of shooting at 10 rather than 5 frames per second. It also has a considerably larger buffer, which means it can now shoot 28 uncompressed RAW files in a single burst, or alternatively 77 compressed RAW or JPEG files. That counts as a rare combination of resolution and speed, surpassed only by Sony’s own Alpha 99 II electronic-viewfinder DSLR. A new shutter unit promises low vibration, and is rated for 500,000 cycles.
Autofocus uses a hybrid system, with 399 phase-detection and 425 contrast-detection points, a considerable increase on the 25 CDAF points in the A7R II. Sony is promising a ‘quantum leap’ in AF performance, with 2x faster focusing speed. If this holds up in practice, it’ll fix one of the older model’s biggest weaknesses. The firm also says that it’s incorporated the autofocus algorithms from the Alpha 9, which should bring a big improvement in focus tracking and Eye-AF performance.
Sony Alpha 7R III – Body and design
The A7R III is essentially the same size as its predecessor, but inherits much of the design goodness we saw in the Alpha 9. It has essentially the same top-plate control layout as the A7R II, but on the back it resembles the A9. So in a hugely welcome move it gains an AF-on button and AF-area selection joystick (although disappointingly the focus area is still ‘highlighted’ in a near-invisible invisible mid-grey). It also has a much better-positioned movie button and a larger, easier-to-use rear dial than the older model.
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Like the A9, the A7R III employs a large, high-resolution 3.69-million-dot EVF, which provides a bright, detailed view. The LCD has been upgraded to 1.44-million dots with Whitemagic technology, for improved brightness, and is also touch-sensitive for setting the focus point. Sadly though, Sony has insisted on sticking with its relatively inflexible tilt-only design. This has the advantage of being very compact and not interfering with connector ports, but it becomes useless the moment you switch the camera to portrait format. I’d have preferred to see a dual-axis tilt or fully-articulated design, like on other manufacturers’ top-end mirrorless cameras.
One of the best features of the A7R II was its 5-axis, in-body image stabilisation, and Sony has improved on that in the new model by offering 5.5 stops of shake correction, which it claims is most effective system yet seen in a full-frame camera. A welcome addition borrowed from the A9 is the uprated NP-FZ100 battery, which is specified for 650 shots using the LCD, or 530 with the EVF, according to CIPA standard testing. The A7R III is also compatible with the Alpha 9’s vertical grip.
Sony has added a few brand new tweaks and features to the Alpha 7R III, based on feedback from users and reviewers. For example, the camera like the Alpha 9 it has twin SC card slots (one of which is of the faster UHS-II type), but can now automatically switch between them when one fills up. It’s also now possible to protect images in-camera during playback, or assign them star ratings that should be recognised by Adobe Lightroom or Bridge. There are even dual USB ports – one Micro-USB and the other USB-C – so you can charge the camera through one while using a cable release with the other. Flicker detection is available when shooting under artificial light, but only with the mechanical shutter.
Sony A7R III – Video and 4K HDR
Like its predecessor, the A7R III is capable of recording 4K video, using either the full width of the sensor or a Super-35 crop. In the latter mode it oversamples rather than pixel-bins, which means it should give sharper, more detailed footage in Super-35 mode. Those hoping for high frame-rates in 4K will have to wait – the maximum is still 30fps – but what the A7R III does bring to the table is 4K HDR using Hybrid Log Gamma, allowing high dynamic-range playback on compatible TVs, with no need for any additional processing.
Full HD recording is also available, of course, at frame rates up to 120fps. Microphone and headphone sockets are built in for better-quality sound recording. The camera can also simultaneously output low-resolution proxy footage, which simplifies editing for videographers who use low-powered mobile devices on the move.
Sony A7R III – Pixel Shift Multi Shooting
On the A7R III, Sony has also introduced a new ‘Pixel Shift Multi Shooting’ mode that uses the IS system to take four frames of the same scene while shifting the sensor precisely one pixel between each. It writes four conventional ARW raw files to card, which can then be combined on a laptop or desktop computer to a new ARQ format using Sony’s new free Imaging Edge software to deliver a composite file, with full-colour sampling at each pixel location. This can then be developed to give a final image file with (in principle at least) higher levels of detail, more accurate colours and improved tonality.
One disadvantage though, is that the camera has to wait at least a second between frames, which is likely to cause problems in scenes where any part of the subject is moving. That issue aside, similar systems give great results on Pentax and Olympus cameras, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Sony has managed on the A7R III.
Sony A7R III – First thoughts
With the Alpha 7R III, Sony appears at first sight to have done a really good job of developing the A7R II design. It’s added a sensible set of features from the Alpha 9, with the larger battery and revised control layout being especially welcome. I’m also pleased to see that Sony has responded to feedback and fixed some of the A9’s problems on this latest model.
Having had a little time hands-on with the camera, my first impression is that Sony seems to have delivered on many of its promises. The autofocus is considerably quicker than the A7R II, and eye tracking works exceptionally well when shooting portraits (I even got it to work with adapted Canon EF lenses using the Sigma MC-11 mount converter). The camera generally feels snappier and more responsive, exemplified by the faster continuous shooting. Until now the Nikon D810 had looked like the most impressive all-round camera for serious enthusiasts and professionals, but the Sony Alpha 7R III is very much up alongside it, just with a somewhat different mix of characteristics. But while the A7R III’s mirrorless design makes it a considerably smaller camera than the bulky Nikon DSLR, it’s also true that a lot of Sony’s lenses are rather larger and heavy, negating this advantage – just look at the 85mm f/1.4 in the comparison image below.
Of course there’s a lot of Canon and Nikon users out there with considerable investments in lens systems and used to the feel and handling of DSLRs, who feel no need to switch systems just because Sony can make a remarkable camera in a smaller body. That’s fine of course, each to their own. But there is no doubt the future is mirrorless, and hot on the heels of the Alpha 9, the A7R III looks like it’ll be a very capable camera that will consolidate Sony’s dominance of the full-frame mirrorless market. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on one for a full review.