In this article I will compare the Sony Alpha 7r / a7R versus Nikon D800 / D800E (model without the anti-aliasing filter) and Canon EOS 5D Mark III. All three cameras are full frame interchangeable lens cameras, with the exception of Sony A7R being a mirrorless camera, the other cameras are digital SLR cameras that employ a built in reflex mirror.
Sony New FE Lenses (Full Frame Lenses)
No doubt that the A7 and A7R came as a big surprise to some, and I was very excited to see Sony coming up with the first full frame ILC. I know many people who shoot with ILC cameras and wished that there was a FF version of their cameras to upgrade to. Sony introduced its first mirrorless cameras in May 11, 2010 with the introduction of both the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5, now called “Alpha NEX”.
Sony Alpha NEX cameras use an APS-C size sensor, which is much larger than the Micro Four Thirds that Panasonic and Olympus use in their ILC cameras. The Sony a7 and a7R use the same E-mount as the NEX cameras. This means that you can mount an E-mount APS-C lens on the A7/A7R, but the circle of confusion won’t cover the Full Frame sensor and you’ll get a circular or square black area around your image like a heavy vignetting effect.
Sony solved this issue by offering a crop mode that you can turn on or off. When the “crop” feature is turned off when using an APS-C lens, you’ll see very strong vignetting. When you turn on the crop mode, the α7R/α7 will capture only part of the sensor’s pixel and output the image at a reduced resolution and the focal length will therefore increase by 1.5x. For the a7R you’ll get an output of 15 megapixels and for the a7 you’ll get a 10 megapixel image. You also can put the crop feature in Auto mode, which let the camera make the decision based on the lens attached.
The Sony Alpha 7 and 7R are both compatible with Sony A-mount lenses as well, but you’ll need to purchase the LA-E4 A-mount adapter. This adapter ain’t cheap and costs around $350 the last time I checked.
With the introduction of the Sony Alpha 7 and 7R, Sony also announced five new full-frame E-mount lenses (dubbed ‘FE’) for its new full-frame ILC cameras.
- Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS Zoom Lens (SEL2470Z)
- Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm F2.8 (SEL35F28Z)
- Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 55mm F1.8 (SEL55F18Z)
- Sony 28-70mm F3.5 – 5.6 OSS Zoom (SEL2870)
- Sony G 70-200mm F4 OSS Telephoto Zoom (SEL70200G)
These are five high quality lenses, three of them are Carl Zeiss lenses. The 28-70mm is the most affordable one and costs around $800 the last time I checked. The other lenses are more expensive and Sony certainly puts a high pricing entry bar for those who want to buy its FF cameras. The FE lenses are compatible with all Sony E-mount cameras.
So the question that you need to ask yourself is whether, for now, you can afford buying the A7R which costs around $2300 as of the time of writing, including one of Sony’s finest FE lenses. If you already have A-mount or E-mount lenses, you can use them too, but as I mentioned, with the A-mount lenses you’ll have to purchase a special adapter.
This is a great option for Alpha NEX owners to enter the world of full frame photography and shooting with lenses without any focal length multiplier. This means that a 24-70 mm has a true focal length of 24-70 mm and not 36-105 mm when used on a 1.5x cropped sensor based camera like the NEX.
If you cannot afford buying a Sony FE lens now, you can start using your current E-mount lenses and shoot in lower resolution and in 1.5x focal length multiplier, and when you have the money, you can purchase one of those fine lenses. I assume that those who already spend money for a camera like the Alpha a7R will also purchase a FE lens. However, for the price of $300 less you can but the Sony Alpha a7 with the FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS lens kit — just something to keep in mind.
Now that you’ve got a good overview about how Sony’s E-mount and A-mount lenses fit together nicely into the new Sony a7R camera, let’s talk more about the a7R and its key features. Then we’ll continue with our comparison where you’ll get to fully understand the differences between the a7R and Nikon D800 / D800E and Canon 5D Mark III.
Sony a7R Key Features
The Sony a7R is Sony’s flagship Compact System Camera, featuring a staggering 36.4MP resolution with 14-bit RAW recording. This is a full frame sensor, which is noticeably larger than the APS-C ones found on Sony’s Alpha NEX cameras. Furthermore, the A7R sensor had its optical low-pass filter removed to help further squeeze every little bit of detail from the scene.
The sensor size plays a significant role in improving the light gathering capabilities and therefore the image quality. There are a number of things which have direct bearing on the quality of the image, among those are: pixel size (pixel pitch), sensor technology / architecture, A/D conversion. The a7R has very high resolution. It’s pixel size is approximately 4.87 microns. The Nikon Df for example has a full frame sensor as well but approx. 7.3 micron pixels, much larger than the a7R pixels and that’s what give the Df its superb high ISO performance.
Pixel size comparison:
Sony a7R: ~4.9 microns
Nikon D800E: ~4.9 microns
Canon 5D Mark III: 6.25 microns
Nikon Df: 7.3 microns
As you can see, both the Sony a7R and Nikon D800E have approximately the same pixel size, but the 5DMK3 larger pixels due to lower pixel density / lower resolution for a give roughly same sensor size.
The Sony A7R is quite an astonishing achievement. Sony has managed to create a full frame camera that is 37% thinner and 2% shorter than the Nikon D3200 (APS-C DSLR, entry-level). It’s 3% narrower, 24% thinner and only 0.8mm taller than the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (Micro Four Thirds).
If we compare it to the D800, the Alpha a7R is 19.1 mm narrower, 23.6 mm shorter, 33.3mm thinner and weights 535 grams less than the Nikon D800E / D800. Compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the Sony A7R is 25.1 mm narrower, 22 mm shorter, 28.2 mm thinner and weights 485 grams (51%) less than the 5DMK3.
The reason for this is because both the Canon 5D MK3 and Nikon D800/D800E have a reflex mirror, both are Single Lens Reflex cameras. This allowed Sony to create a smaller full camera camera and also to reduce the size of its FE lenses to be relatively smaller (length and diameter) than the DSLR counterpart. The A7R and A7 are in fact the World’s lightest and smallest interchangeable lens full-frame camera.
The A7R has a modern look, with straight sharp edges and doesn’t carry the traditional rounded look of a DSLR that we are all familiar with. It reminds me the Sony RX1 design, mainly when viewing it from the top. The A7R features a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body. It’s slick, stylish yet durable and you can feel that you are holding a high-quality camera in your hand.
Sony a7R Key features
- 2.4 million dots OLED electronic viewfinder with 100% coverage and 0.71x magnification – large and bright
- WiFi / NFC for simple connectivity to mobile devices, allowed remote controlling the camera and sharing data using a dedicated app for Android and iOS or using your PC
- New BIONZ X image processor
- 3.0″ 1229K dots Xtra Fine Tiltable LCD (84° up and 45° down)
The screen utilizes WhiteMagic technology, which increases the screen brightness and improved its visibility in daylight
- Full HD movies at 24p/60i/60p, including uncompressed HDMI output
- 25 AF points (contrast detection), Focus peaking
- Multi-interface shoe to connect an external flash or high-quality external stereo mic
- Fast Intelligent AF system
- New Eye AF control (can prioritize a single pupil)
- 4K still image output by HDMI
- PlayMemories installable apps
- Official battery grip available (VG-C1EM)
- Gapless on-chip lens design for collecting more light
- Manual controls that give you fast access to frequently used camera settings
- Sweep Panorama, Smile Shutter, Face detection, Anti motion blur, Intelligent Auto, tracking focus, auto HDR, Red-eye reduction, D-range optimizer
- 1.5 fps burst, 4 fps in Speed Priority Continuous shooting mode (locks focus and exposure on first frame)
- 1/8000 Sec shutter speed
- 13 picture effects
- ISO 100 – 25600
- 1200-zone evaluative metering sensor
- Headphone and Microphone input
Here’s an informative video made by Steve Huff which I recommend watching before we continue on to the comparison.
As you can see, Sony A7r is an amazing fully featured camera that hosts all of Sony’s latest technology innovation. The a7R is aimed towards both enthusiasts and professional alike, those who trust Sony to deliver the best photographic experience in the future to come, those who want to enjoy its excellent range of Carl Zeiss lenses, those who upgrade from Sony’s NEX or Alpha cameras — and everyone who is searching for a superb full frame camera to shoot with.
It’s easy to get excited when you go over the A7r specs, but I am sure that you eager to know how the A7r is compared to the Nikon D800E and Canon EOS 5D Mark III, both are also highly capable full frame interchangeable lens cameras. So without further ado, let’s jump straight into our comparison. Oh one last thing — the a7R is not Sony’s first full frame camera. Sony also sells the Sony SLT-A99 which is a full frame camera with a translucent mirror technology and compatible with A-mount lenses.
Sony a7R vs Nikon D800E / D800 vs Canon 5D Mark III
OK, now we are going into the interesting part, comparing the exciting new Sony Alpha 7R versus two other popular full frame cameras, the Nikon D800E and Canon 5D Mark III. The last two are trusted by many professional photographers and have already been widely tested and evaluated. Buying the D800/D800E or 5D Mark III seems for some like a safe bet, for the reason I’ve stated above. Furthermore, the lens selection for the Nikon and Canon is much bigger and you have plenty of high quality affordable full frame lenses to choose from, something that currently is not available in the new FE lens lineup.
Sony does have a plan to release around 5 more lenses in 2014 from what I’ve seen in its FE lens roadmap image, including and 5 more lenses in 2013 (you can view it here).
OK, let’s jump straight into the spec comparison and see the differences between those four cameras.
|Sony alpha 7R||Nikon D800E / D800||Canon 5D Mark III|
|Announced||October 16, 2013||February 7, 2012||March 2, 2012|
|Body Material||Full Magnesium alloy body||Full Magnesium alloy body||Full Magnesium alloy body|
35.9 x 24.0mm
35.9 x 24.0mm
Full Frame (FX)
36 x 24.0mm
|Max Resolution||7360 x 4912 pixels||7360 x 4912 pixels||5760 x 3840 pixels|
|Pixel Size||~ 4.9 microns||~4.9 microns||~ 6.25 microns|
|Low-pass Filter /|
|All thee cameras use a full-frame sensor, and are virtually the same size. However, the a7R and D800E have much higher resolution (14.3MP more) than the 5D Mark III and we can see that in the pixel pitch. This should theoretically give the 5D Mark III and advantage in low-light shooting, but we'll examine the high ISO performance in the image quality section later on.
The Nikon D800E and Sony Alpha 7R both had their optical low-pass filter (OLPF) removed in order to increase the amount of details captured from the scene.
We already seen in many reviews that the different in details/resolution between a camera without the OLPF and one with the OLPF is very small and can only noticed when viewing the images at original scale (check this comparison on dpreview. There is also a quite noticeable different when shooting in RAW compare to JPEG, and this might convince people who don't shoot in RAW format to do so.
On the other hand the absence of anti-aliasing filter result in moire and false color, which is prevented or at least significantly reduced when AA filter is used. The degree of the moiré in the image depends on the subject and even with a slight change of the angle of the camera you can prevent this effect from occurring.
For more in-depth information about moire with the Nikon D800E, I recommend reading this article on nikonusa.com website.
The D800E / D800 and Sony a7R will yield a much more detailed image, and therefore will be favorite among landscape and studio photographers who want to capture every detail of the scene.
Buying a full frame camera also means that you get to enjoy a wide range of ultra-wide and wide angle lenses, without having the 1.5x focal length multiplier that enlarges the focal length and giving you less wide field of view.
|ISO||100 - 25600|
|100 - 6400|
|100 - 25600
Boost: 50 - 102400
|The 5DMK3 allowes you to climb much higher in the ISO scale in boost mode. The D800 and D800E offer the lowest native maximum ISO speed among the four cameras.
It doesn't necessarily means that the Sony and Canon will perform better in higher ISO speeds though.
|Image Processor||Bionz X||Expeed 3||Digic 5+|
|AF Points||25 AF points|
Face detection supported
|51 AF points|
with 3D tracking
Contrast detect AF available for Live view and Video recording and support full-time autofocus with Face Detection
|61 AF points
up 41 cross-type (depends on the aperture)
Contrast detect AF available for Live view and Video recording and support full-time autofocus with Face detection
|Both the Canon and Nikon offer the more advanced AF system for subject tracking with more AF points and phase-detection to lock on and track fast moving subjects.
Unlike the A7 that uses an Hybrid AF system (both phase-detection and contrast-detection AF) which will help the camera to focus more accurately when tracking subjects. Having said that, the A7R is aimed towards stills photographers that might not be concerned with it, and will prefer to have a higher resolution sensor without OLPF then buying the a7 with its hybrid AF (e.g. landscape photographers).
In general, I've read more positive feedbacks from photographers who preferred shooting sports and fast action scenes with the 5D Mark III than the D800E. Having said that, shooting with the D800 was super responsive and AF performance was great. Only professional photographers who shoot with both cameras quite some time might tell you whether or not there is a big difference. I didn't find any fault shooting with the D800, it was just has mind blowing fast AF in my opinion.
Have different opinion? -- leave a comment below.
|The Sony a7R is the only one to offer an tilting LCD and also with slightly higher resolution than the rest. This make it easier to shoot overhead and below-waistline shots, as well as providing a more convenient way to shoot movies than using a fixed display.|
1/2-inch (1.30 cm) XGA OLED
|Many Professionals and enthusiasts prefer shooting with an optical viewfinder because they they like and/or need the real-time view of the scene then the projects image with all the advantage that it brings with it.
Among the OVF advantages are: no time lag which is crucial for sports photographers, doesn't consume battery power.
Some of the EVF advantages: magnifying the image, automatically brighten the projected scene image for easier composition in low-light, view more information on the screen, live histogram, etc.
The Sony Alpha 7R EVf is of a very high quality with ultra high resolution and superb color reproduction and also light on the battery due to its OLED technology.
|Shutter Speed||30 - 1/8000 sec||30 - 1/8000 sec||30 - 1/8000 sec|
|Build-in Flash||No||Pop-up Flash (12m)||No|
|Flash X Sync Speed||1/160 sec||1/250 sec||1/200 sec|
|External Flash||Via the multi interface shoe||via hotshoe||via hotshie|
|Continuous Shooting||4 fps||4 fps (FX mode)|
6 fps (DX mode)
|up to 6 fps|
|Exposure Compensation||±5 (3, 5 frames at 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV, 2/3 EV, 1 EV, 2 EV steps)||(2, 3, 5, 7 frames at 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV, 2/3 EV, 1 EV steps)||±3 (2, 3, 5, 7 frames at 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV steps)|
(max. resolution/frame rate)
in 24p (17Mbps or 24 Mbps)
Defaults to H.264/MPEG-4
B frame data compression
IPB or All i-frame
uncompressed YCbCr 4:2:2 8-bit (
|Dimensions||127 x 94 x 48 mm (5 x 3.7 x 1.89″)||146 x 123 x 82 mm (5.75 x 4.84 x 3.23″)||152 x 116 x 76 mm (5.98 x 4.57 x 2.99″)|
|Weight||465 g (1.03 lb / 16.40 oz)||900 g (1.98 lb / 31.75 oz)||950 g (2.09 lb / 33.51 oz)|
|Time-lapse Recording||No||Yes (built-in)||Yes (using PC)|
The Sony A7R certainly has its unique appeal compare to the Canon and Nikon offering. Among those features are:
- Very high sensor resolution (shared with the Nikon D800E and D800)
- Native ISO 245600 (shared with the Canon 5D Mark III)
- Tilting rear Monitor
- Electronic Viewfinder
- 1080p60 full HD video recording with built-in stereo mic
- Sweep Panorama function
- Smallest in the group and lightest too
- Both built-in Wi-Fi + NFC
However the A7R lacks the option to choose from IPB or All-I as offered by the 5D MKIII, has the slowest flash X sync speed in the group, doesn’t employ an optical viewfinder (some see this as a negative thing), has the smallest amount of autofocus points and no phase-detection to support more accurate subject tracking, it doesn’t have a built-in flash, it’s has the slowest burst (shared with the Nikon D800 and D800E in FX mode / full resolution), it doesn’t support time-lapse recording not the option to connect a GPS receiver directly to the camera (you can use the mobile phone binding to geotag photos). Furthermore, the A7 doesn’t enjoy the widest selection of lenses as Nikon and Canon.
Sony puts a very capable full frame camera to compete in two markets, both the mirrorless and DSLR. At times that many photographers ditch their advanced cameras in favor of mobile phone cameras, camera manufacturers fight hard for every customer. The A7R represents an important milestone for Sony in the interchangeable lens camera business. It is certainly a good alternative to Nikon and Canon full frame cameras.
The Alpha 7R also costs around $2300 as of the time of writing (body only), which is a pretty attractive price if you compare it to the Canon 5D Mark III that costs $3300 (body only, via Amazon.com as of 12.26.2013) and Nikon D800E (~$3000 as of 12.26.2013) and D800 (~$2800 as of 12.26.2013).
We can’t ignore the fact that its Full Frame FE mount has only 5 lenses, and most of them are pretty expensive, including 3 Carl Zeiss lenses. Many photographers, especially enthusiasts might not be able to afford it. On the other hand, you can find plenty of Nikon and Canon lenses, even second hand ones for a very affordable price. I know that many of you don’t want to mess around with adapters and just want a lens that was designed to natively work with the camera. It will take quite some time until Sony builds its lens lineup and when we’ll see 3rd party manufacturers putting their FE compatible lenses for sale on the market.
High ISO Performance: Sony a7R (Alpha 7R) vs Nikon D800 / D800E vs Canon 5D Mark III
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of the cons and pros of each camera and learn about the key differences between those four cameras, let’s see which one has the best high ISO performance. We expect the Canon 5D Mark III to be the best of the four due to its larger pixels. Let’s find out whether the theoretical assumption stands in real-life tests.
I am using dpreview’s studio comparison (low light) tool to compare low-light sample images taken with the Sony Alpha 7R, Nikon D800 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Here are my observation conclusions.
- ISO 100 → Both the 7R and D800 has a significant resolution advantage over the 5D Mark III. The Alpha 7R is also the sharpest, D800 looking a bit soft and has a more preservative approach to in-camera sharpening. Both the 7R and D800 have visible moire and false color artifacts in certain parts of the image, but it affects only a tiny part (in the pencil sketch art). All three result in very clean image as expected from a full frame camera. I wasn’t expecting that from the D800, because it has AA filter.
Advantage: Sony a7R (sharper, resolved more details, very visible in 100% scale).
- ISO 200 → Results are pretty much the same as ISO 100, nothing new to report.
- ISO 400 → The Nikon D800 starts producing slight noise in the dark areas. 7R and 5DMK3 still very clean
Advantage: Sony a7R and Canon 5D Mark III
- ISO 800 → D800 noisiest, second is the 7R and a 5D MKIII with the cleaner image. The 5D Mark III start showing its low-light performance strength? — Seems so.
Advantage: Canon 5D Mark III (low noise)
- ISO 1600 → Same results buy a bit noisier compare with ISO 800. The 7R hold on very well and the 5D Mark III just amazes me with its relatively very clean image, WOW!
It looks that Nikon is pretty weak compared to the other two cameras when it comes to high ISO performance. The Sony sensor does have an edge in terms of image noise.
I first assumed that the A7R might applied stronger NR, but it isn’t the case as the smaller text is still very readable.
Advantage: Canon 5D Mark III (low noise)
- ISO 3200 → Nikon D800 is pretty noisy and you can spot lots of chroma noise patterns as well. Both the A7R and 5D Mark III “refuse” to get noisy, absolutely amazing performance! With the Nikon we also start losing fine details and its visible in the fine text area of the scene
Advantage: Canon 5D Mark III and Sony Alpha 7R (low noise)
- ISO 6400 → Noise finally starts tickling the Canon and Sony. The Sony is much more affected and it’s a quite a big difference compare to ISO 3200. The 5D Mark III is still performing admirably here, Bravo.
Advantage: Canon 5D Mark III
- ISO 12800 → Image processing and NR kicks hard at this ISO but believe it or not, the Canon 5D Mark 3 looking just amazing for this high ISO speed – SUPERB High ISO Performance from Canon!
Advantage: Canon 5D Mark III
There is not doubt, the Canon 5D Mark III is the undisputable winner in the low-light test. This is just unbelievable how clean the images are. I also compared it against the Nikon D4 and the 5DMK3 looked noticeably cleaner at 100% scale. If you care about high ISO performance, the 5D Mark III is the camera to go for, for both stills and video. The A7R comes second, pretty close to the 5D Mark III, and Nikon D800 just can’t match that high ISO performance. Considering both Nikon and Sony have the same sensor pixel size, this actually tells us how good the Alpha 7R sensor is. However we’ve seen that the Nikon D800 maximum native ISO is 6400, so this can explain why at ISO 6400 and above the Nikon performed poorly compared to the Sony and Canon.
We’ll finish our comparison with three sample videos taken with each camera.
Nikon D800E sample video
Nikon D800 sample video
Canon EOS 5D Mark III sample video
Sony Alpha 7R sample video
The Sony a7R certainly has its place among the big guns, as it’s a big gun by itself. The Sony main selling point is its small size and weight, 4K output, superb image quality and high ISO performance, 1080p60 video recording, weatherproof body, and Wi-Fi + NFC. The D800E also has its OLPF removed and it might be the preferred choice for landscape and studio photographers. The great thing that I love about the a7R is that although it has such a high resolution sensor, it doesn’t come at the expense of its low light performance, which is very high compared to the D800. It’s also cheaper than both the Nikon and Canon offering, and overall I find this camera to be one of the most attractive full frame cameras in terms of price and performance.
The Canon 5D Mark III is a top low-light performer. Just equip it with a fast prime lens (e.g. 50mm f/1.4) and this camera can shoot almost anywhere you want. With such a superb low-light capability, you wouldn’t need to bring your flash or use the pop-up flash. The 5D Mark III is much larger and heavier than the A7R, but some photographers prefer a bigger and heavier camera that helps to stabilize the camera when shooting handheld and with long and heavy telephoto lenses or/and accessories (e.g. External flash). The Mark III also enjoys a more effective continuous AF with advanced tracking options. The A7R only has contrast-detect AF — however, you can buy the cheaper A7 which does have on-sensor phase-detection AF points. The 5D also enjoys a wider range of lenses to choose from, and that’s a big advantage of the Canon for many enthusiasts and professional alike.
The Nikon D800 and D800E are excellent DSLR cameras. Although the Nikon wasn’t up to the challenge against the 5DMKIII and a7R in the high ISO test, it does offer a noticeably higher dynamic range, built-in flash, higher resolution sensor, the unique DX crop mode, better AF detection range for low light shooting, more flexible AE and WB bracketing mode, USB 3.0 *5 Gbit/sec compared to USB 2.0′s 480 Mbit/sec), more durable shutter (200K vs 150K of the 5D Mark III) and built in AF assist lamp.
Some will sear for the Canon, others for the Nikon. Of course it’s up to you to understand your specific needs and buy the camera that fits your shooting style best. I personally find the Sony Alpha 7R to be a very attractive package for my specific needs (image quality, high ISO performance, small size, 60p video recording). I’m sure that the A7R will find its way into many enthusiasts and even professional photographer’s hands, but I’m not sure about the adoption among professionals. Professionals I assume will probably continue to shoot with Canon and Nikon, and there are many reasons to do so — lens selection and complimentary accessories, proven performance and optical viewfinder are probably the important ones.
What’s your opinion? — Which one you prefer?.. Share your opinion by posting in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!
Buy Sony Alpha 7R from B&H Photo Video by clicking here
Buy the Canon EOS 5D Mark III from B&H Photo by clicking here
Buy the Nikon D800 from B&H Photo by clicking here
Buy the Nikon D800E from B&H Photo by clicking here
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