The Sony A7s walks and talks like a simple camera, if all you want to do is shoot stills. If you’re going to use it for video though, you must be aware that the camera is more complex than it first seems – not complex to use, mind you, but complex in that it offers way too many features that you normally only find on professional-level video cameras.
It will take quite a bit of time to test different settings to arrive at a comfortable workflow.
This article will look at some of the important quirks and features of the Sony A7s. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve divided it into three broad sections: Stills, Video and Relevant for Both.
Note: I might (or might not) update this article as I find more info.
Relevant for Both
The ‘Instruction Manual’, what you get with your camera, is simple and only good enough to let you know the basic functions. To know more about each feature set, you will need to read the ‘Help Guide’, which is only available online at the following address: http://rd1.sony.net/help/ilc/1420/h_zz/ (Sony couldn’t have made the URL any more harder to remember, unfortunately). Don’t assume you can get away without visiting that URL at least once.
The histogram is the worst I’ve ever seen. It really is hard to know when it clips on either side. Not only that, it is tiny and on the bottom of your screen. There is no RGB histogram either in shooting mode (but there is once you have clicked the picture), so you cannot tell if one of the channels will clip until after you have shot the image. This is a serious error on Sony’s part, unforgivable for both stills and video shooters. Please add a full histogram setting in the next firmware update.
It is faster to charge your batteries via USB or the A/C adapter than it is to use the charger. It is pretty clear the extra battery was a last minute decision (the battery is the size of a small toffee – keep away from children!) According to Sony, you can charge 50% faster using the adapter or USB port. Sony even mentions it in the manual (I – for ‘Instruction’, I’ll use H for ‘Help’ later).
Warning – while charging via laptop don’t let it (the laptop) go to sleep mode. It will not charge in sleep mode.
Total white balance range is 2500K to 9900K (Increments of 100) with an additional WB Filter matrix that allows for fine tuning your colors. This gives you a lot of power over your colors.
If you shoot both videos and stills, you can actually use the View Mode so that playback only displays stills or video. In the latter case, you can further decide whether you want to see only XAVC S, AVCHD or MP4 footage. This is really a good option. Here are the options (image quality is not that good because they are shot with a cell phone):
The camera has a wireless option, which is brilliant. However, there are two applications to choose from, depending on which OS you are using:
- Windows – PayMemories www.sony.net/pm/
- Mac – Wireless Auto Import www.sony.co.jp/imsoft/Mac/
Did the left hand know what the right hand was doing? Obviously not.
The wireless network protocol is supported is ‘b/g/n’, so no ‘ac’ or whatever. It works on the 2.4 GHz band, so beware when using flash triggers and any other wireless devices using the same band.
Focus peaking works great, and most of the time the Mid level setting is enough. Note that focus peaking needs contrast. The more the light the better. Low contrast high frequency detail (like leaves, etc.) will barely trigger the peaking lines even in the High setting. Increasing the ISO temporarily works to some degree. Luckily, you can magnifiy to 2.7x and 5.4x, and choose which area you want to magnfiy. Therefore, manual focus is a real pleasure.
The major features of the menu system are buried under three broad ‘icons’ that Sony calls Camera Settings, Custom Settings and Setup. To be honest, I can’t find any logical basis for why ‘which feature is in which group’. Luckily, most of the features can be set to the custom buttons or back wheel or the Function button for easy recall. But not all of them.
Generally, the menu system is easy to learn and use. I just wish we had a custom menu setting like you get with Canon DSLRs.
Resolution drops in APS-C mode. In this mode, the maximum possible resolution is 5.1MP. All modes can choose between RAW, RAW+JPEG and various levels of compression in JPEG.
Unfortunately, the APS-C mode JPEGs are too noisy – with color noise. Lightroom does a good job of reducing it, but at the cost of resolution (how much more can a 5 MP image be reduced to?).
You will need Lightroom 5.5 and above to read ARW raw files from the Sony A7s. It works great, though I have yet to test it completely.
The maximum flash sync speed is 1/250s.
Video mode has guide markers for various aspect ratios (see under video section) though they don’t show up for stills shooting. Not even 4:3. All you have is 3:2 or 16:9 (lower resolution due to crop). How stupid. Please Sony, give us markers for various image formats. Even better, let us customize the shape of the box we want! Please!!
Stills have guide markers, like rule of thirds and so on. Meh.
The Movie record button is tucked away on the right of the camera, where Sony thought it might be safe from being accidentally pushed. It’s a bold move, but it doesn’t come in the way of your grip. To ensure the movie record button doesn’t accidentally trigger recording (which it will do, regardless of the mode), you can assign it via the menu to ‘Always’ or ‘In Movie Mode Only’.
You can protect images from being deleted.
The funniest setting (maybe not) is the ‘Auto OBJ framing’. In Sony’s words – “…automatically trims and saves another copy of the image with a more impressive composition.” Really?? Maybe the poor writer meant something else, and his/her message was lost in translation. It happens in Japan.
The crop factor of the APS-C or Super35mm mode is 1.53, or roughly 1.5x. E.g., a 50mm full frame equivalent becomes a 75mm lens.
Not all cameras can record both PAL and NTSC frame rates. Only those cameras with 50i can record both. To know which camera you have, look underneath the camera for 50i or 60i:
The camera I received (Indian edition, made in Thailand) has a PAL/NTSC Selector button. This has the following quirks:
- You must restart the camera.
- You must reformat the card or use a different card for each version (WTF?). This means if you want to shoot 25p and then 60p, you’ll need to carry two cards with you on the field, at least.
- There is no 24p in PAL mode.
- 120p/100p is always in APS-C mode.
Which brings me to cards. To record XAVC S, you will need a Class 10 64GB SDXC card. No 32 GB or 16 GB, even if it’s 94 MB/s. This is Sony being real mean or stupid. Take your pick.
You don’t need Sandisk Extreme Pro cards, I have used Sandisk Extreme and it works perfectly. It’s also cheap by 50%. Sony’s cards are even cheaper. AVCHD and MP4 require Class 4 cards. All cards are formatted to exFAT so it’ll work on both Macs and PCs. For some strange reason Macs take to Sandisk cards like butter, but are buggy with Sony cards.
You can record dual video on the same card. Though for some strange reason you can’t record XAVC and AVHCD (!!). It’s either XAVC and MP4 or AVCHD and MP4.
There is an official 29 minute recording limit for ALL video (even 4K). In practice, the actual limit is 29 minutes and 50 seconds. At that mark, the camera will simply stop recording. Sony says the reason this limit is in place is due to sensor overheating. At the cut off mark, I couldn’t find the camera that hot at all (maybe mildly warm). You will be warned before camera stops recording or before it turns off. In a whole day’s worth of shooting, I didn’t have the camera turn off, though the temperature was about 30 degrees Celsius. Sony recommends you keep the camera away from sunlight while shooting video.
Does the camera add noise when it heats? Sony says it will, and the following image shows it clearly (exposure reduced and WB changed because it was sunset (my bad); ISO 3200 1/50th shutter, APS-C mode):
I could only see this color noise in the shadows. The full frame image might contain less noise but I haven’t tested it. The rest of the image looked okay. Food for thought.
In addition to the shooting modes you can choose on the top dial, you also have separate shooting modes for video – aperture priority, auto, program and manual. By default this is set to automatic, so don’t be alarmed if you can’t change the aperture or shutter when you first use the camera in video mode.
The Zebra levels only go down to 70 (and all the way up to 100 and 100+; no Zebra during HDMI output), while the S-Log2 90% white point is at 59 IRE. This means you cannot set your Zebra to 100 and expect skin tones to scale down proportionately without crushing something – usually with ugly results. However, at the moment the results with 100 Zebra are great, but you must know how to expose correctly. Which brings us to the next issue.
There is significant color noise in the shadows if you underexpose. The gamma cure in S-Log2 is designed to preserve highlight detail, so one must ETTR for minimal noise, or find the correct exposure range. Warning: This isn’t like shooting RAW or S-Log2 on higher end Sony cameras. Sony has limited this sensor to 8-bit 4:2:2, and it plays a huge part in the signal to noise ratio.
The noise in the non-shadow regions are organic and mostly free of color, though it does pop up when underexposing. It’s correctible in post, and you really can shoot up to 50,000 ISO if you want.
The gamut is S-gamut, though Sony states categorically in the manual (H):
S-Gamut setting of this camera does not support the whole color space of S-Gamut; it is a setting to realize a color reproduction equivalent to S-Gamut.
Bottom line, the image looks great, but you don’t have a huge window. But thankfully, there is a window, and that’s why the camera is worthwhile.
The HDMI 4K option will only be activated upon two conditions:
- You attach it to a 4K capable TV.
- You attach it to a compatible external recorder like the Shogun.
The HDMI cable protector is an afterthought, though it does the job. The HDMI cable provided (it’s 5 feet long) in the package is just about the right size, though the first couple of times you’ll have to use some force. The trouble is, the ‘hooks’ for the protector don’t allow the LCD screen to close completely:
One can’t complain right? At least somebody felt it was a good idea. Thank you, silent stranger in the middle of madness.
Tripod hole specifications: 5.5mm (7/32 inches) long, 1/4″ thread. Works fine on quick release plates though if you’re using an adapter it might interfere.
Beware of cheap lens adapters. Sony changed the mount a bit (made it stronger) when compared to the A7 and A7r. I have two Nikon F to E mount adapters – Metabones G and a generic Chinese one. The latter works fine all all E mount cameras, even the A7 and A7r, but does not fit the A7s. This does not mean other adapters won’t work, just that you have two expensive pieces of equipment linking together, and you want to be careful what you put between it.
The Metabones adapter adds serious weight and makes the camera front heavy. But the positive is that you can use it to mount the camera on a tripod plate. It also protects the sensor by putting some space between it and the elements.
If you reach over the EVF the LCD screen goes blank. The problem is, the ‘Menu’ button is on the left (what a crappy place to put it) and you always have to reach for it while in the menu. The human method is to move straight from the buttons on the right to the left, but this blacks the screen. The Sony way includes taking your hand around the camera to press the menu button, or use your left hand. The sensor is active to about 3 inches from the EVF.
There are three custom buttons that can be assigned most functions, and many of the other buttons can be ‘reassigned’ as well. This is truly a customizable camera. By default zoom to focus in live view is on C1 which is at the top. I changed that to C2, which is at the back. In video shooting, you don’t need any of the dials on top anyway! Here’s how I have configured by Functions menu (you can do whatever you want, this is just one way):
I have put stills functions on the first row and video functions on the second row. A few more days of shooting and all this becomes second nature.
The Aspect markers have many options from 4:3 to 2.35:1, but no 2:1 or 3:1. Please Sony, give us customizable markers!!
You could use Image Stabilization on Canon DSLRs while it’s on a tripod. Sony, however, recommends you don’t use Steadyshot when the camera is on a tripod (page 58 of the manual (I)).
While recording audio via HDMI, you have two modes to select (Audio Out Timing). In Sony’s words:
- Live (default setting): Outputs audio without delay when recording movies. Select this setting when audio deviation is a problem during audio monitoring.
- Lip Sync: Outputs video and audio in sync when recording movies. Select this setting to prevent undesirable deviations between video and audio.
This latter function is very interesting. Can we achieve frame level sync with it? Let’s wait and see.
The camera draws about 3 Watts of power, in a voltage range of about 5 V.
That’s it for now. If you need to know anything specific about the Sony A7s, ask me below.