Sony a7R IV Review (a7RIV)
October 28th, 2019
The Sony a7RIII was the camera that really made me believe in Sony. It took a deeply flawed camera (though with some great strengths) in the a7RII and turned it into the most complete camera on the market at the time. It had a little bit of everything: great sensor, great autofocus, great video performance, and improved ergonomics. I liked it well enough that I immediately bought one (I had returned my a7RII loaner without a moment’s regret), and my a7RIII has served me faithfully for the several years. Sony has shown further signs of growth and maturity as an actual camera company, too, as they didn’t immediately abandon the a7RIII and continued to improve it via firmware updates, including the very significant Version 3 update that added several key features into the mix like real-time Eye AF, interval shooting, and Pet Eye AF. In some ways it is surprising that Sony has elected to replace the a7RIII so quickly (most Sony fans would have preferred the a7SIII first!), but after spending time with the new Sony a7RIV, I suspect that Sony is shaping a new market strategy with a couple of prongs.
Since the release of the a7RIII, both Canon and Nikon have released multiple cameras in their own full frame mirrorless universe (a space previously dominated by Sony), and, while the consensus remains that none of the Nikon Z cameras or the Canon R cameras are as complete as cameras like the Sony a7RIII or a7III, the a7RIV is clearly an attempt to Sony to further widen the gap with its competitors and maintain its market dominance. The second aspect of the market strategy that I see is to potentially create space for the a7IV to move a little more upmarket, which might create space for a new budget model to compete with the Canon EOS RP (and similar cameras) or for Sony to continue to reduce the price of the extremely competent Sony a7III to compete in that space. They have created that space by pitching the Sony a7RIV as a medium-format-competing, high resolution monster with a record (for a 35mm, full frame sensor) 61 megapixels of resolution. There is one significant misstep here, though, and that is that Sony has not allowed for any means of using a smaller amount of resolution when shooting RAW (outside of the crop mode). That means that if you are a RAW shooter, you are stuck always shooting with 61MP, which is, frankly, overkill in probably 95% of situations for 99% of all photographers.
The second image is a pixel level crop from the first. That’s a LOT of resolution to use 100% of the time!
In fact, anecdotal feedback from my YouTube audience suggests that few people were looking for a resolution upgrade here, and the sheer amount of resolution (32% higher) is actually more a deterrent to upgrading than an enticement to do so. And this is a shame, as in many other ways the a7RIV is the most complete, fully realized Sony camera yet. Let’s explore why together.
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If you get lost in lengthy reviews, here’s a little bullet-point breakdown of what’s stayed the same, what’s changed, and what didn’t change but should have since the a7RIII:
What stays the same:
- 5-axis sensor stabilization with 5.5 stops of compensation (CIPA)
- 10fps continuous shooting with AE/AF tracking
- Interval shooting
- 4K up to 30p and 100Mbps
- Full HD up to 120 fps
- 1.44M 3.0-in LCD screen with touch sensitivity
- NP-FZ100 battery
- mic input and headphone output (3.5mm)
- Same ISO range (native 100-32,000)
- Similar dynamic range (close to 15 stops)
- 61MP vs 42.4MP
- Autofocus improvements: 567 PD (74%W x 99%H = 86.5% coverage) vs 399 PD points (68% coverage)
- Newer image processor and autofocus algorithms allow for better real time tracking.
- Improved crop mode has higher resolution (26.2MP vs 18MP) and 325 PD points. Buffer grows from 68 to 204 in crop mode, making this an interesting sports or wildlife option.
- Buffer depth drops slightly (from 76 compressed RAW files to 68)
- More shots involved with Pixel Shift (16 vs 4) Requires Sony Imaging Software to combine.
- Eye AF rather than face tracking during video
- The hot-shoe has been updated to work with new accessories like microphones
- Vastly improved viewfinder with 5.7M dot vs 3.6M dot. More real and natural (also crisper when zoomed in for focus confirmation)
- Vastly improved grip is much deeper and now functional without accessory (though a grip extender is still welcome if you have big hands). About 4mm deeper but less than a mm taller
- More weather resistance with increased seals
- Both slots are now UHS-II compatible
- Wireless tethering
- Buttons and dials are improved in feel and positioning
What Should have Changed (but Didn’t!)
- No MRAW or SRAW
- Touchscreen execution still pathetic
- No built-in GPS
- No 4K60 option
What the bullet points can’t cover is how all of this plays out in real-world use, so let’s cover these areas in more detail.
Sony a7RIV Handling and Ergonomics
There are a number of key upgrades to the a7RIV from the a7RIII that have made it a far more useful (and usable) camera. You can see all of these changes by watching this video episode:
There are minimal differences in size and weight between the A9, a7R3, and aRIV, and, in fact, when I have all three in front of me I have to look carefully to determine which is which. The a7RIV is ever-so-slightly larger than the a7R3 with dimensions of 5.07 x 3.8 x 3.05″ / 128.9 x 96.4 x 77.5 mm and a weight of 1.46 lb (665g) vs 5 x 3.8 x 2.9” (126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm) and 1.445 lb (657g) for the a7RIII. The A9 has similar dimensions to the a7RIII but is slightly heavier at 1.481 lb (673g) due to a more robust build. Sony has used that extra millimeter of height and 4mm of depth well, as the a7RIV feels far, far better in my hands than the a7RIII. With the a7RIII I continually felt like my pinky had no place to go on the grip, and I resorted to continually using a grip extender to make the camera more friendly to my hands. With the a7RIV, I feel like the grip has room for my whole hand even though the camera is still considerably smaller than its DSLR counterparts.
That’s not to say that I don’t still prefer using a grip extender (I do), but I’m much more comfortable using the camera without one. The physical changes to the camera do mean that new accessories are required, like the VG-C4EM vertical battery grip. Fortunately the new body is shared with the new Sony a9II, so the accessories are also shared across that platform. No basic grip extender was announced alongside the new a7RIV, which definitely suggests that Sony has more confidence in the way the camera feels in the hand.
While the positioning of most of the buttons on the camera are very similar, the feel of the buttons are improved. The buttons have more travel to them (and are slightly more raised), which makes the tactile feedback more definite. My favorite improvement is to the AF-ON button, which I typically assign magnification to when shooting manual focus lenses, and it is many times over easier to find and operate by feel. It’s the little touches that make for a better experience.
Likewise the rear joystick has also been improved, with a better surface texture and more precise movement.
Both the front and rear control wheels have also been improved. The front wheel has received a slight cant upwards that makes it fall more readily to the finger, and the rear wheel has been moved up to a higher position on top of the camera body where it is easier to get one’s thumb on it. It is these little things that make for a better camera to the experienced photographer. All of the button and wheel positions have had tiny tweaks that have optimized their placement and performance.
Unfortunately there is still one glaring ergonomic issue that, frankly, boggles my mind. Sony continues to have the most half-baked touchscreen integration of any of the true competitors, and lags far behind the touchscreens in the most basic of Canon’s DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. The amount of things you can do is pretty limited, though, thankfully, you can use your finger on the touchscreen to move focus around while your eye is pressed up to the viewfinder. You can’t use the touchscreen to navigate menus, to navigate images during playback, to change settings, and, while you can now touch to focus, you cannot touch to release the shutter. What I find irritating is that there is no question that Sony is capable of doing better. I particularly find the lack of navigation ability via the touchscreen irritating. Both Canon and Fuji allow you to pull up the Q menu and make quick changes with the touchscreen. You cannot navigate Sony’s FN menu by touch. What I find frustrating is that there is no question that Sony is capable of better (they make smartphones!!!).
A close examination of all the doors and ports on the a7RIV reveal a much better implementation of gaskets and seals. The side doors and ports open in a more definite (and much less sloppy) fashion, and, when open, the doors covering the ports don’t hang in a way that interferes with operation any longer.
One of the single biggest criticisms of the a7R2 was the battery life, which Sony solved starting with the a9. The A9 turned this around by slightly expanding the grip to allow for a much larger capacity NP-FZ100 battery. This more than doubles the capacity, as the NP-FW50 has a 1020mAh capacity compared to the 2280mAh capacity of the FZ100 battery. The end result is that what was a weakness for the a7R series became a strength. The battery rating remains the same (530 shots), though I routinely exceed that by a fair margin. Using the battery grip will allow one to double that capacity.
Another long-overdue improvement is that now both card slots are UHS-II compatible, which allows both to benefit from the faster read/write times of UHS-II cards. I personally have moved over almost exclusively to the Sony Tough cards, which have more robust construction along with very high read and write speeds of around 300 MB/s. Many cards tout a high speed which is actually a read speed, but the write speed (the important one!) is much slower. The Tough cards are also Bend / Drop / Water / Dust / X-Ray Proof, so more ready for professional use. There is a solid argument to be made that Sony should have moved to a faster technology in this camera, one that is pushing more data due to higher resolution than any 35mm camera before. The buffer depth actually drops a little from the RIII to the RIV, and a faster card technology could have helped that. What is also obvious is that the delay problem while the buffer clears is still there even though the processing speed of the camera is undoubtedly faster to accomodate the considerably larger files. There’s room for both praise and criticism here. One final area to praise is that Sony has finally done the logical thing and made the top slot #1 rather than #2 (previous models had this reversed, which never made sense).
Sony’s 5 Axis in-body-image-stabilization (Steady Shot) works really, really well (particularly for stills). They claim more than 5 stops of stabilization, which might be a little ambitious, but the results are pretty fantastic. I’ve reviewed a lot of different IS/VC/OS/OSS lenses over the years and have a very good idea of what to expect at certain focal lengths, and, while the trope that IBIS isn’t as effective as lens stabilization is still pretty common, I frankly cannot tell a difference in everyday shooting. Sony does a great job with this sensor shift stabilization, and, to me, the benefit of sensor-based stabilization is the fact that it works for all lenses…including adapted lenses, vintage lenses, and wide aperture prime lenses. I was pleasantly surprised to put an adapted lens like my Zeiss Milvus 2/135mm on there via adapter and get solid results down to 1/8th and even 1/5th second shutter speeds. Having stability in a high-resolution body is even more important, as we will see in a moment.
One nice feature of Sony’s IBIS is that if you are using a lens with electronics (even an adapted lens), it will automatically adjust for the focal length. If you are using a lens without electronics (like the Laowa 15mm f/2 lens or similar lenses), you can manually set the focal length in the Steady Shot settings. I found that experimenting with that setting definitely made a big difference in the results and steadiness of the viewfinder image. It also made a difference in the smoothness of handheld video footage.
The a7RIV sports an intervalometer that is well-implemented for shooting time lapses, though I do wish there was an option for creating the timelapse movie in-camera, as downloading potentially hundreds of images and then creating the time lapse in software feels like unnecessary extra work. I would prefer to have a both/and option rather than either/or for this. Ditto for the Pixel Shift feature, which has expanded from 4 shots to a potential total of 16.
What is Pixel Shift? Pixel Shift functions by taking up to 16 photos (options are 4 or 16) while shifting the sensor one-half pixel in between, which results in getting massive amounts of information at a pixel level. Those (up to) 16 images are blended together (in software) to produce a single file with as much as 241MB, plus it eliminates things like moire and even increases color accuracy. This is particularly noticeable at a pixel level, where the file has much more resolution. Pixel Shift works best with a subject in which there will be no movement in between frames (architecture, for example), as there will be some delay between shots (though this is reduced from the 1 second intervals which were the shortest in the a7RIII). Landscape images might be marred if there is any breeze present.
After shooting you will have either four or sixteen uncompressed RAW files in camera (there is no automatic combining of files in camera, unfortunately). You have to combine these files in post afterwards, and, at least for now, this is unsupported by Adobe or other third party software makers even after several years of the technology being on the market. You are required to use Sony’s own Imaging Edge Software to combine the images. The end results are impressive, but, as things exist in the present, the technology has limited scope/applications. I actually prefer the 4 file option, which now creates a 61MP file (same resolution as normal) but with additional detail, contrast, and color fidelity due combining information from the four files. The downside is that the file size is roughly 4x higher than an uncompressed RAW, or about 480MB. Huge, in other words. But the 16 image file is a staggering 1.9GB in size. I have an incredibly powerful workstation (with 32GB of RAM), and Lightroom would not display the 241MP image at a pixel level for some reason or another.
A conversion to DNG in Lightroom resulted in 178MB and 664MB files respectively for the 4 image and 16 image options. In a couple of attempts, I didn’t actually find the 16 image file for me made an appreciable difference over the 4 image file (even when downsampled to equal size), and so it is highly unlikely to be a part of my regular workflow.
Here’s a look at a few pixel level crops from an image taken in normal compressed RAW (smallest file size at about 61MB) and the 4 shot Pixel Shift image (480MB):
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that the difference is not night and day. Yes, there is better contrast and slightly better resolution, but the different is not significant enough to use other than in incredibly critical situations. I suspect that Pixel Shift will be more of a novelty for most photographers.
Another feature I really wish was internal is GPS logging and geotagging. This is handled via a bluetooth connection to your smartphone and having the Sony Image Edge Mobile app active (and the Location Linkage set up). The problem? It doesn’t really work consistently, in my experience, leaving some images tagged and others untagged. You essentially need to be sure that the Bluetooth link is active before you start shooting (at the very least at the beginning of your shoot). I really wish this was handled internally, as the Canon cameras I’ve used with this internal GPS work much more reliably, though with at least some battery drain.
Sony continues to improve their electronic viewfinders, with another leap forward in the a7RIV. Mirrorless cameras utilize an electronic viewfinder, which is both a strength and a weakness. To date no EVF can compare to the clarity of an optical viewfinder (like that on DSLRs). The a9/a7R3 increased resolution from 2.359 to 3.686MP million dot, and the a7RIV/a9II furthers that improvement with a new 5.76 million dot EVF. It’s a major improvement, and I notice it particularly when magnifying the image. That being said, it is still a display rather than an optical instrument, and still has such limitations. Clarity isn’t as high as an OVF, though the gap is closing.
But there are also huge advantages to an EVF. You have much more flexibility in what can be displayed there, from information, overlays, and even image review. In bright situations being able to review images or even video in the viewfinder can be huge. When you switch into crop mode, the angle of view automatically changes, making composition easy. You can see real-time Eye AF tracking and be confident that focus is where it needs to be.
And, for me, the biggest advantage to an EVF is when using manual focus lenses. It shows true depth of field, for one, making visual confirmation of focus easier. You can easily magnify the image in the viewfinder, allowing you to nail focus every time. You can choose to add colored focus overlays (focus peaking) in different shades that will highlight areas in focus. This final method isn’t my favorite, personally, as it makes the shooting process less organic. One of the keys to being an effective photographer is the ability to visualize – to see color, light, and shadow – and I find overlays interfere with that. Still, it is my love for my manual focus glass that has been a primary catalyst in moving mostly to mirrorless bodies. Nailing focus consistently adds so much enjoyment to using these lenses…and the EVF is the single biggest reason for that. There’s still room for the technology to further mature, but the a7RIV’s EVF has definitely moved the ball closer to getting a more lifelike experience.
One final change is that the Exposure Compensation dial now has a lock to prevent it being inadvertently moved. If you don’t like using the lock, you have the option to leave it unlocked. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it’s the little ergonomic improvements that make the camera more a joy to use.
All in all there are a number of areas of significant maturation in the a7RIV. The camera feels better in the hands and handles better than ever. There’s a massive scope for customizing the operation of the camera, from the dials to the buttons to even creating custom menus. If you are accustomed to either the a9/a7RIII/a7III, you will find that all the little details feel improved. Kudos to Sony for creating such a highly functional camera.
a7RIV Autofocus Performance
The a7RIII’s autofocus system inherited a lot of the technology pioneered in the a9 and was a HUGE improvement over the a7RII. While the difference isn’t as significant on the a7RIV, there is a clear and obvious improvement in real world use that goes beyond the specs. Speaking of the specs: the a7RIII had 399 phase detect AF points covering about 68% of the sensor. The a7RIV advances to 567 PDAF points spread out over 87% of the sensor. That leaves only the a9/a9II (and, oddly, the a73) in better shape with 693 PDAF points covering 93% of the sensor. These PDAF points are supported by 425 Contrast AF points in all noted models. The autofocus in the a7RIII was/is excellent, but the a7RIV is enough improved that it feels closer to the performance of the a9 than it does to the a7RIII. Find out more in this video episode here:
Sony managed to dramatically improve some areas of autofocus on the a9/a73/a7RIII via firmware (namely the Version 3 firmware in a7 bodies and the version 6 firmware in the a9). This allowed for Real-Time/Full-Time Eye AF, so Eye AF can be continually engaged without having to depress a button. It make a huge ergonomic improvement to this functionality. They also added the ability to switch between human and animal (Pet) Eye AF, which allows for much-improved tracking of animals eyes (which vary in kind from the human variety). This made a notable improvement when tracking animals. Real-Time face tracking during video was added as well.
The a7RIV inherits all of these technologies but has them built into the basic architecture of the camera. It shows, as autofocus just feels better executed in the small ways. One area, for example, is when using adapted lenses in Canon EF mounts. Many of them now function with near-native performance (at least for stills) and are noticeably more confident than on the a7RIII that I’m now so familiar with. Here’s a few with both a telephoto (Canon 100-400L II) along with my Canon EF 35mm F1.4L II:
The only place where the a9 still stands out as being better is when shooting high-speed action with longer telephotos. It still seems to be able to drive lenses a little faster and squeeze just a little bit more of tracking out them, though I mostly only noticed this when using adapted telephoto lenses. The a9 was the only camera to track a sprinter running right towards the camera at high speed when using an adapted Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS II. Other than that, however, I felt like my autofocus performance was very similar to that of the a9.
Sony’s Eye AF works fantastic, delivering consistently focused results even with an F1.2 lens like the Sigma 35mm F1.2 DN ART lens that I tested during my review period with the a7RIV. I shot many F1.2 shots with the lens in a portrait session and for general use, with all the Eye AF results perfectly focused regardless of where I composed in the frame.
Likewise face tracking during video recording is better than ever. I feel like Sony has definitely caught up to Canon’s Dual Pixel AF tracking that for several years was the industry standard. I’m able to shoot my video episodes now without worrying about autofocus, as the camera naturally detects my face/eye and tracks it rather than the background.
One other interesting feature is the a7R3’s Silent Shutter mode, which, combined with the whisper quiet focus many of the better lenses results in such a silent operation that the only indication of a photo having been taken is the writing of the file to the card. This is pretty huge for events or quiet venues, allowing you to take photos in a completely unobtrusive fashion. There are a few quirks with this, however, including the fact that it doesn’t work with the anti-flicker mode. It appears to be an either/or thing, which is unfortunate considering that these should be complimentary rather competing technologies. It only seems to work with mechanical shutter, however.
Speaking of that anti-flicker mode. Anti-Flicker is designed to help off-set the cycling of some types of lights that result in uneven illumination or discoloration. This has been an area where Canon cameras are definitely better than Sony ones, though there is fortunately some improvement here. It seems to work a bit better than past iterations, evidence that Sony continues to slowly but surely grasp the little things that make for a more complete camera system, and this is incredibly important in winning over (and retaining) adapters of their cameras who are accustomed to slightly more mature cameras from Canon and Nikon.
The Sony a7RIV has a very robust focus system that compares favorably to any and all competitors. Sony has done yeoman’s work on this front over the past four years and is to be commended. The a7RII was way behind competitors; now Sony is the competitor to beat.
Buffer and Burst Rate
The a7RIII took a massive leap forward in burst rate and buffer depth over the a7RII, but unfortunately we have a mild regression in the a7RIV for the simple reason that it is pushing about 32% more information through the pipeline. In many ways Sony is to be praised for such a mild reduction in buffer depth and for retaining the same burst rate despite the massive resolution of the a7RIV, but there’s also no question that the market is accustomed to Sony delivering ever-higher specs. Here’s a chart that compares the shutter speed and buffer depth of some of Sony’s most popular models:
There is a mild regression from 76 (a7RIII) compressed RAW files to 68 in the a7RIV. It takes just as long as ever to empty that buffer, too. Impressively Sony has managed to retain the 10 FPS burst rate (with either mechanical or electronic shutter) of the a7RIII, which is impressive considering how much information is being moved.
For many people 68 RAW images will be enough for any situations. Cut that figure in half if you shoot uncompressed RAWs. I’ve tried just shooting medium JPEGs (26MP), and I managed to get 73 before slowdown, so obviously the camera is limited in those situations as that isn’t nearly the amount of information that 68 compressed RAW.
The a7RIV has an additional trick up its sleeve, however. It has an extremely useful, high resolution 26.1MP APS-C mode. When you are in APS-C mode, the camera shifts into a much deeper buffer depth. I was able to get over 250 compressed RAW or JPEG files before slowdown, and the buffer emptied in what was a very reasonable 25 seconds for so many files (about 27MB each) to clear. What’s interesting to me is that this is actually considerably more total data than what 70 full size RAW files represent, so perhaps Sony is actually limiting the full size buffer (heat protection?). What this means, though, is that the a7RIV is an excellent option for wildlife shooters who want to use the camera in APS-C mode…and that extra reach can be very, very useful!
Now that both slots are UHS-II you don’t have to worry about one of the slots potentially slowing you down. My preferred set-up is a “Sort” option where RAW files are written to Card 1 while JPEGs are written to Card 2. This gives me flexibility for what format I want to grab and also a kind of back-up on a separate card, though your mileage may vary.
The shutter speed and buffer depth are definitely competitive…particularly when one considers the huge resolution. Sony made a choice to advance resolution rather than improving on burst rate or buffer depth, but those migrating from the a7RIII to the RIV are not really losing out on anything, either.
Sony a7RIV Sensor Performance
In many ways the a7RIII’s sensor was little changed from the a7R2, which is understandable since the 42.4 Megapixel Exmor sensor with a base ISO range from 100-32,000 was that camera’s greatest strength. It was a back-illuminated sensor utilizing Sony’s BIONZ X image processor with a rated 15 stops of dynamic range at low ISO values. Sony decided that it would make a major jump in resolution from the 42.4 MP sensor in the a7RIII to a 61MP sensor in the a7RIV. That’s a jump from the 7952×5304 file dimensions of the a7RIII to 9504 x 6336 pixels in the RIV. That’s about 32% more resolution, and, though that is a great marketing statistic, in many ways it is also the way that the a7RIV is most compromised. The massive amount of resolution has created one huge advantage, however, and that is in the excellent 26.1MP APS-C crop mode. The strengths and liabilities of the sensor are explored in this video.
This video dives deep in the realities of high resolution, and can demonstrate many of the points I make below.
First of all, let’s be clear about what I consider to be the single biggest liability to the 61MP sensor on the a7RIV; Sony still has not provided any MRAW or SRAW (Small or Medium RAW) options, meaning that it is 61MP all the time, which is often overkill in many situations. Many, many more people would consider this camera if they had the option to shoot at lower resolutions (and smaller file sizes) when the full 61MP was not needed. Options at, say, 45MP and 30MP would have been fantastic. One has three JPEG options (60MP, 26MP, and 15MP), so it’s a bit confusing why Sony doesn’t offer any RAW options. The only way to get a smaller RAW file is to activate the APS-C mode (26MP), but then one also activates a 1.5x crop, which changes the angle of view on all your lenses. This omission is puzzling, particularly since we had similar complaints about the a7RII and a7RIII.
So, as it stands, you are left with large and larger file sizes and all of the potential storage and processing slowdown issues inherit in adding 32% more resolution to an already high resolution camera. Here’s a look at how current models compare (the a9II and a7III will share the file sizes from a9 specs):
If you are shooting RAW, the minimum size (as it stands) is going to be 61MB for compressed, and 122MB for uncompressed. If you are shooting a portrait session, wedding, or event and shoot hundreds of images, there is going to be some serious storage requirements and you will need a recent, powerful computer workstation to be able to process those images.
The advantage, however, is that there is a massive amount of resolution to work with. This gives one incredible versatility in how you can frame an image. Take this photo, for example:
I only had the new Sigma 35mm F1.2 DN lens with me, and because of the physical location, I couldn’t get closer to the old mill. I didn’t love the foreground, and felt the image didn’t draw the viewer into the main event – that gorgeous old mill in the autumn scene. The sky is also quite bland here. So I did a 16:9 crop from the center of the frame and got this image:
What’s amazing, however, is that this deep crop still has the same resolution as the a9/a7III sensor, with plenty of resolution for even large prints. Imagine the possibilities this opens up for macro shooters, wildlife shooters, and even landscape photographers that can create entirely different framing of scenes from one location.
As previously mentioned, the APS-C crop mode is equally useful for the same reason. I like to assign APS-C/Super 35 to a button (C1, for me), so that I can easily switch back and forth between framing options. I find this incredibly useful at events where I don’t need as much resolution (and am more likely to deliver photos right to the client), as I can change up framing options on the fly.
Marketing hype for certain lenses (ahem, G Master), has created a somewhat false perception that only certain lenses will “work” on a high resolution body. My experience on both the Canon 5DsR and on the a7RIV is that this is very misleading. The sensor of a camera does not change the optical properties of a lens. What does change, however, is the amount of pixels that aberrations and optical flaws cover. Instead of a few pixels, purple fringing will cover 2-3x more…making it much more obvious at a pixel level. Ditto for the “haze” to textures that comes from surface aberrations.
Here’s a good example. I tested the new Sigma 35mm F1.2 DN ART for coma on both the a9 and the a7RIV. Obviously the lens has equal amounts of coma in both applications, but at a pixel level the comatic aberrations (wings growing on stars in the corners) is much more obvious on the a7RIV:
Is the lens performing worse? No. The flaws are just more visible due to high magnification at a pixel. When viewed globally, they won’t look any different.
My vintage glass that I tested (SMC Takumar 50mm F1.4 and Helios 44-2) looked a little rough at wide apertures because it exposes the low contrast, hazy textures, and chromatic aberrations that older, less corrected lenses often have. But if I throw an inexpensive modern lens on there like the Samyang AF 45mm F1.8 (my review here), it looks great even at F1.8 (second image is a crop):
A serious advantage the a7RIV has over, say, the Canon 5DsR is the IBIS (in body image stabilization), that helps with motion blur. Like other aberrations, motion blur will occupy more pixels and make images look softer, so having good stability is extra important when shooting at higher resolutions. I actually saw very few images impacted by motion blur, though I did find trying to handhold images at low shutter speeds a bit more challenging for this reason.
If you want to see how a number of other lenses hold up, take a look at this video highlighted above.
There’s no question that there are many applications for this high resolution. I think that most photographers wouldn’t mind having the option of having 61MP available; they just don’t want to shoot every shot that high!
Dynamic range has become one those topics debated ad nauseum on photography forums and harped on by certain reviewers to the place where some perspective has been lost on the topic. It has become one of the key “stats” where brand fanboys either push their brand or bash another, causing many people to become disgusted with the term in general. That being said, there is no question that there are a number of situations where improved dynamic range gives the photographer (and particularly the post-processor) more latitude to fulfill their vision. This could be in the ability to recover a blown-out sky or shadowed area as a landscape photographer or the ability to balance a foreground subject with a background or sky for portrait photographers. I’ve also been able to save images where I captured something special but a flash didn’t fire, like in this key moment shooting a wedding and using a smoke bomb:
Dynamic range is one of the topics covered in this video.
As DR has improved dramatically in recent years, I have found that I do exposure blending/HDR less often, as it is often possible to get the result I want out of a single exposure. This helps simplify my workflow and yet create images that fulfill my artistic vision. Dynamic range is the range of visible light that a sensor can record, and the Sony a7RIV boasts a rated 15 stops of dynamic range (essentially the same as the a7RIII), though this figure is at a standardized 8 MP downsampling (this is the DXO approach). While this is useful for standardizing test results, note that in most practical situations (at a native pixel level) that dynamic range is a little below 14 stops.
I did head to head comparisons with the a7RIII, which I’ve previously compared against a number of other cameras from Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fuji. What I found is that while there are minor variances, the end result is practically the same. You can recover shadows and highlights to essentially the same degree.
When recovering shadows, you start to introduce some minor noise and color cast issues somewhere between 3 and 4 stops of underexposure. The first crop is from a 3 stop image, the second is 4 stops, and the final is the original to show you how much shadow is being recovered.
You have a lot of latitude when recovering shadows on the a7RIV. You might see a little more noise than the a7RIII for the reason we discussed before; at a pixel level the noise introduced will be magnified a bit.
As is typical, it’s a little harder to recover highlights in the extreme. Two stops is no problem, but starting at three stops little “hot spots” start to appear where highlight information cannot be recovered. By four stops a lot of data is lost (as you can see in the second image below). The third image shows just how much overexposure we are trying to recover in that final image.
My typical recommendation if you are shooting a scene where you need a lot of dynamic range is to slightly underexposure, as shadows can often be more cleanly recovered than highlights.
While there isn’t really any progress here from the a7RIII, the a7RIV is one of the best cameras on the market for recovering highlights and shadows. You never know what is waiting in the shadows…
I ran controlled tests with the a7RIV, the a7RIII, and the a9, and found pretty much what I expected. A high resolution sensor is at a serious disadvantage at higher ISOs because of the high concentration of pixels on the sensor area. The Canon 5DsR had a maximum native ISO of only 6400, and noise levels were already very high by that point. The a7RIV is orders of magnitude better, with much lower levels of visible noise and no strange color banding when the shadows are raised at ISO 6400.
That being said, the a7RIV does take a step back from the a7RIII. They both share a native ISO range of 100-32,000, but the a7RIII has clear advantages in both the appearance of the noise (less coarse) and lower levels of color shift/color casts at higher ISO values. What surprised me is that this was true even after I downsampled the a7RIV image to a7RIII dimensions (to learn what I mean by downsampling, I recommend that you watch this video.) You can see what I mean here:
The cleanest results at higher ISO values comes from the a9 (and I found the same to be true when I reviewed the a7III). A downsampled comparison from the a7RIV (which theoretically favors the a7RIV) shows that the a9 has smoother results (less apparent noise), but, perhaps more importantly, you can see that while there has a been a green color shift to the a7RIV image, the a9’s image has retained near perfect color fidelity. If your priority is shooting events in poorly lit venues, the a9 or a7III is your best bet, followed by the a7RIII, and then the a7RIV. You have to choose the right tool for the job.
The anecdotal feedback I’m getting from those who have upgraded to the a7RIV is that photographers feel that they are seeing a little more noise at lower ISOs than what they are accustomed to. That’s an unavoidable tradeoff for the increased resolution. There is a step back from what we saw on the a7RIII.
That being said, the a7RIV does a remarkable job of managing noise at higher ISO values, and if you were to compare it to the Canon 5DsR, for example, you would see just how well Sony has done in mitigating this liability of higher resolution.
There has been a fair bit of debate over Sony color. When I did extensive comparisons with the a7RIII (against the Canon 5D Mark IV and Nikon D850), I found the Canon colors to be the most neutral, with the Sony color most likely to have a bit of green/yellow tint in the skin tones. I’ve found that to be less true with the passage of time, which suggests to me that at least part of the improvement has been that Adobe has gotten better with its color profiles and processing of Sony colors. I won’t rehash that argument here, and will instead reserve my comparison to the a7RIII.
When I did a side by side comparison with a portrait subject, I found essentially what I did when I reviewed the a7III; Sony seems to have responded to some of the criticisms of the a7RIII by slightly reducing saturation in certain color channels. Reds seem slightly more saturated (a bit like Canon) in the a7RIII compared to the RIV, and I prefer the look of the RIII skin tones in this particular example. The RIV skin tones look fairly neutral to me, but they are also slightly “washed-out” to my eye when compared with the a7RIII, which allows the yellows to be slightly more apparent. This could be (at least in part) because Adobe has gotten better with the a7RIII’s color over time; it could also simply be the behavior of the new sensor. The third image comparison below shows both images with minor tweaks to improve saturation and vibrancy.
I have no actual concerns on this front, however, as I have a catalog full of images from my review period that have fantastic color shot on a wide variety of lenses:image galleries here.
One of the strengths of the Sony mirrorless brand for the past five years has been on the video side of things, where Sony has been far more aggressive than Canon or Nikon in introducing video features. The trend of pushing the envelope ends here, however, as Sony introduced more evolutionary than revolutionary touches here. Codecs, framerates, and basic specs stay the same. The codec choices are mostly MP4 variants (XAVC-S) in a compressed IPB format that is limited to 100Mbs. 4K framerates are still limited to 24/25/30P, and Full HD (1080) footage up to 120P. The only difference is that in super 35 mode the image is downsampled from 6K and comes without pixel binning. This (in theory) will produce slightly better results than the a7RIII, which downsampled from 5K, though in a side by side comparison the difference wasn’t significant enough for me to spot. There might be other situations/environments where most difference is apparent. In another clip (not Super 35), I actually felt the a7RIV’s footage looked a bit crisper, so make of that what you will.
After comparing a lot of footage, in fact, I would say that now the full angle of view and Super 35 footage looks more similar in sharpness to my eye. I don’t feel there is any significant loss when electing for the full view now, though as always Super 35 also means you get the option of using lenses designed for that crop (APS-C lenses) without having vignette issues.
SLOG 3 is still available (with a stated 14 stop dynamic range!) along with a Hybrid-LOG Gamma (HLG) profile for high dynamic range video. You can see a lot of video in this final review episode:
While there are no big headline improvements on the video front (and thus a lot of people will write off any upgrades), there are actually two significant upgrades that I see. The first is autofocus-oriented, as real-time Eye AF is now available for video recording. When the a7RIII was released, I still felt like Canon had the advantage with its DPAF video focus technology, but I now feel that Sony has caught up on this front. The a7RIV has proven very stable for my video episodes, with great face tracking not marred by video pulsing. This is really important for someone like me and a host of other people that get in front of the camera or VLOG.
The second improvement is the introduction to truly digital audio capabilities through an upgraded hot-shoe (now referred to as a “Multi-Interface Shoe”). The ECM-B1M microphone is the first to take advantage of this, and this new microphone can do analogue to digital conversation internally to output a direct digital signal.
Better focus and better sound makes for better video, even if we didn’t get the 4K60 that many people wanted.
Earlier Sony cameras had two main areas people complained about for video work: battery life and overheating issues, but Sony had already largely solved those issues with the NP-FZ100 battery and it’s higher capacity along with better heat dissipation in more recent bodies. I hear essentially no complaints on these fronts from my viewers/readers, and have no real complaints of my own. My only real complaints on those fronts have been from my a6500, a camera that predates both improvements.
Sony’s EVF has an extra degree of usefulness when recording video, as you can playback video clips not only on the screen but on the viewfinder. I find this very useful if I’m recording in bright, sunny conditions where it’s difficult to see anything on the LCD screen. I can get better feedback on the levels of my footage that way, and the new higher resolution viewfinder is a treat.
Sony’s built in 5 axis Steady Shot OSS is undoubtedly useful, as it applies equally to whatever lens you may have mounted for video. It doesn’t really rival the smoothness of footage you can grab with, say, a motorized gimbal like the Moza Air Cross but it is certainly better than having no stabilization. I think Sony’s IBIS works a little better for stills than video, though.
So, even though there are no major headline improvements to video, video performance remains excellent (unless you need 4K60!!)
The Sony a7RIV is a surprisingly controversial camera. It is a camera loaded with upgrades, from improved ergonomics to improved autofocus to record-setting resolution. But it is this last point that actually creates the controversy. While there are certainly those who have responded to my numerous videos on the a7RIV stating that they value and are loving the extra resolution, many more have written to say that they would have preferred all of the other upgrades but a megapixel count staying near 42 (perhaps with a few improvements to the existing sensor). Ironically people are disappointed with Sony for not bumping up the resolution on the a9II (there were hot rumors over a 36MP sensor going in the a9II) while being simultaneously disappointed with Sony for increasing the resolution on the a7R series.
While this may seem unreasonable, I do understand the sentiment. I think Sony could have solved that problem with one minor change to the a7RIV; include the same RAW resolution options as they did with JPEGs (60, 26, and 15MPs). Even better would be to give us RAW options like 60, 30, and 15MPs. This would allow people to offset the liabilities of always shooting with such high resolution by reserving it for the times it was truly needed. Maybe it’s not too late, and perhaps they can add some option via firmware. As someone who has shot with the a7RIII since its release, I can certainly say that even 42MP is not always necessary or welcome. It’s also disappointing that Sony hasn’t managed to improve some of the little details like a lackluster touchscreen and the inability to access some menu options while the buffer clears.
That aside, however, the Sony a7RIV is a camera that shows a lot of signs of maturity. It feels better in the hands. It has better ergonomics, better button and wheel positioning, and better feeling doors and ports on the camera body. It’s very apparent at close inspection that more effort has put into sealing the camera from moisture and dust (though sensor dust continues to be an issue here!) The autofocus system feels very similar to the a9 in most situations, and there is a real and apparent improvement over the already excellent AF in the a7RIII. You will find that many adapted lenses perform more confidently, though they are becoming less necessary as Sony has enjoyed the strongest support from third party lens makers over the past two years of any system. The Sony FE lens catalog is truly mature now, with a variety of options at varying price points now available at most focal lengths (with perhaps the exception of telephoto lenses). Sony has even done a good job of mitigating many of the potential downsides of such a high resolution camera, with only minor hits to ISO performance and buffer depth. The fact that you can still get 10FPS with so much resolution is impressive.
While the Sony a7RIV is far more accessible than what was the Canon 5DsR, I can’t help but think that Sony has created a more niche camera here due to the extreme nature of the resolution. Perhaps this is intentional, and they are creating space for a mid-grade model (might the a7IV move a bit up-market?). Perhaps they overestimated the market’s demand for higher resolution. Time will tell. In the meantime, however, my conclusion is this: not everyone needs a camera with this high of resolution, but that doesn’t stop the a7RIV from being a truly fantastic camera with a host of genuine strengths.
- Record-setting resolution at 61MP
- Improved ergonomics; the camera feels better in hand
- Strong autofocus improvements (567 PDAF points) makes it very near the a9 in performance
- No real compromises to frame rate or buffer depth despite the 32% higher resolution
- Better weather sealing and more logic design to ports and doors
- Video improvements – minor picture improvements, better AF tracking, better audio
- 26MP crop mode is genuinely useful, as is the increased buffer depth in APS-C mode
- Improved, high resolution viewfinder is a treat
- Record-setting resolution at 61MP (No options for lower RAW resolutions)
- Touchscreen implementation lackluster
- Camera still takes longer than competitors to empty buffer
- More visible noise at lower ISO levels compared to a7RIII
- Sensor dust still a problem
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