A Switch to Sony: First Impressions of the Sony Mirrorless

Sailor's Delight

Taken with the Sony A7R IV and Sony FE 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS

Why the Switch?

Over the course of my career, I've used many cameras. I began my career using Nikon cameras and lenses (most notably the N90s) before switching to Canon and remaining there for 18 years. In 2014 I switched back to Nikon. I'm a firm believer that the photographer matters more than the camera, and the camera is just a tool. However, I also believe in using the best tools you can, and the right tools for the job. So each switch had a reason behind it.

In this case, my reasoning was twofold. First, having recently signed with a licensing agent who requires larger file sizes, I wanted the biggest file I can get. And while 33% more pixels (from 45 megapixels on the Nikon D850, to 60 on the Sony) isn't a huge deal, it's not insignificant either. The second reason was future proofing. What does that mean, exactly? Well, for the photographers out there, it's no secret that mirrorless cameras are the future. Both Nikon and Canon have scaled back development of DSLRs (which use a mirror as part of the viewfinder assembly) and focused more on mirrorless cameras which forego the mirror and use an electronic viewfinder instead. So that means at some point, I would have needed to make a switch anyway. While I could have waited a few years and been fine, the timing seemed right now.

So why not Nikon? Yes, I could have jumped into the Z system. I like the Z7. But the problem is their lens lineup for the Z's. I don't love it. And they still have a lot of holes. Yes, I could have used F-mount lenses and an adapter, but that brings me to another issue: resolution. Many of Nikon's older lenses aren't designed to resolve the detail required on such high megapixel sensors. I don't want to make this a techie write-up, but let's just say if the lens can't keep up with the sensor, you'll find you're losing some detail. Sony's lenses being newer, and designed for mirrorless, do better in this regard.

The Wharf at Low Tide

Shot with the Sony A7R IV and 16-35mm G Master lens

The Sony A7R IV

So, I made my decision to go Sony. What are my thoughts? Well first off, I got an A7R IV camera and two Sony lenses, the 16-35mm f/2.8 G Master, and the 100-400mm G Master. I also added a Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 Art lens for Sony. Why not the Sony? Reviews rated the Sigma very highly, and at $1000 cheaper, it seemed wise to save the money. Having used the Sigma for a week, I'm not at all disappointed in it, though depending on who you are, there are certain advantages to the Sony 24-70 G Master. While shooting Nikon, I collected an array of lenses I thought I'd use more, but mostly just sat in my bag. So I didn't replace many of them, cutting my kit to the three lenses I listed. Eventually, I'll add a portrait lens, but that's not an immediate need.

As much as I used to think I'd hate it, I do love the customizability of the camera. The ability to program oft-used functions to the custom buttons makes certain things so easy. I just have to remember what it is I programmed those buttons to do! But I did find I used them quite a bit and it made quick work of changing settings. The camera becomes VERY usable once you master this. If you have to dig into the menus, I still find things a bit clunky, but the custom buttons do reduce the need for this.

The Bold Coast

Taken with the Sony A7R IV and Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 Art

I enjoy shooting with the Sony, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy my Nikon D850. I won't tell you it's a night-and-day difference. I did a lot of my best work with Nikon. I expect I will continue to with Sony. But I am finding some differences in handling. Most notable, for me, is exposure. The Nikon D850 was amazing for its ability to recover shadow detail in the RAW processing. I could ensure my highlights were properly exposed and bring back the shadows in post. The Sony, after a week of heavy use, seems to be the exact opposite. Expose for the shadows and bring back the highlights. This makes me nervous because I simply am not used to this, but on the files where I've needed to do so it seems to work well.

The second thing I notice is that the Sony A7R IV seems to be noisier than the D850. For the uninitiated, "noise" in a digital file is best described as a digital graininess. That is somewhat to be expected in a high megapixel camera like the Sony. It does seem to clean up very nicely, and as long as I expose properly it doesn't seem to be much of an issue. But it is a difference.

The next thing I notice is how much dust I seem to manage to get on the sensor. With no mirror blocking it, the sensor is exposed and any random dust seems to find it. It can be frustrating when changing lenses in the field. Not much to be done except to exercise a lot of care when doing so, but it wasn't as much of a concern with the D850.

I'm not in love with using the electronic viewfinder. Not yet anyway, but I was able to take advantage of its features on this trip and expect I will do more as I get more comfortable with it. I shoot on a tripod about 90% of the time, so having Live View on the rear LCD active all the time makes things easy. 

I do wish Sony had a "Flat" picture control so I can really see what information I've captured. I loved that with the Nikon, and while I can adjust the Neutral picture setting, it's still more contrasty than the Flat was on Nikon. I find when I bring the images into Adobe Camera RAW, I still have more room to decrease contrast and recover highlight and shadow. I'd like to see that at the time of capture.

Cloudy Morning at West Quoddy Head

Taken with the Sony A7R IV and Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 Art lens

The Lenses

As far as the lenses go, I'm pretty amazed. The 16-35 G Master is probably the best wide angle I've ever used. I loved the Nikon 16-35 f/4, and it served me well. But I was concerned that as pixel counts went up (as on the rumored D880 camera), the lens wouldn't fare as well. The Sony 16-35 does a nice job handling the higher pixel count. It does seem a bit softer at the edges, but I'm very happy with what I was able to do with it this past week.  The Sigma 24-70 was a good call for me. While the Sony 24-70 focuses faster, the Sigma is just about as sharp, and let's face it, I shoot landscapes. Focusing speed is rarely an issue. Finally, I am really loving the Sony 100-400 G Master. Long lenses are a must for me, but also my least used focal length. I had ample opportunity to use it on this trip and anticipate more chances in the near future. Unfortunately, while there are now plenty of options for lenses for the Sony system now (thank you, Tamron and Sigma!), there still are not many options for long lenses beyond Sony's options.

The Bottom Line

I don't expect the Sony A7R IV to make me a better photographer. And it likely won't. But based on my first week's use in down east Maine, I do expect it will help me make some great images well into the future. I'm happy with the switch and don't see any reason to look back. That said, I loved the Nikon and will miss it in some ways.