Sony a7R + Canon Glass = A Dawdling Delight

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The cotton candy man slowly strolled through Justin Herman Plaza, a melancholy glare affixed to his tired face with a 12 foot tower of fluffy multicolored spun sugar soaring over his head. As I turned to notice him, his reflection echoed in the large puddle between us. And there the scene unfolded: this solitary and poignant character, contrasting under bright colors, perfectly framed under a tree with his mirror image centered in the glassy puddle below. The sort of image for which publishers clamor to get their hands on.

My reflexes went for a Canon dangling by my side, ready to flick the power switch and simultaneously raise the camera to my eye while spinning the settings knob to C3–the custom setting I use for urgent quick-shots. It’s a move I’ve done a thousand times before, taking a mere second from grab to shutter click.

But today my Canon wasn’t by my side. I was breaking in my new Sony a7R with my Canon 24-70 2.8/L screwed on via a Metabones Mark III adapter. I had no chance of getting the shot and I knew it. Nothing is fast about the a7R wearing Canon glass. Powering on the camera is slow, dialing in settings is laborious, and manually focusing takes careful precision.

But this camera isn’t made for speed. It’s much happier at home atop a tripod with thoughtfully fussed-over settings dialed in. And this is where the a7R demolishes all other full-frame digital cameras on the market. It makes beautiful images with incredible dynamic range at insanely-high resolution. It’s definitely not a camera-to-replace-all-cameras, but it’s very good at what it does. I would never even consider bringing the a7R to shoot a bike race or an air show, but it’s my new go-to machine for anything shot from a tripod.

March 19, 2014 Update: Sony just released the first firmware upgrade to the a7R which significantly boosts startup speed, autofocus ability, and image quality. After a few quick tests, autofocus with Canon lenses seems to be semi-practical now.

a7R + Canon Glass

I didn’t buy any Sony lenses. There are currently only five Sony full-frame E mount lenses from which to choose, but they are getting remarkably well-favored reviews so far. With a small fortune invested in Canon lenses, there’s no way I’m about to start down the Sony road. Well maybe just one at some point….

Instead, I’m using the Metabones Mark III Canon EF to Sony NEX adapter. This is where much of the slowness of the a7R comes from. The Metabones may look like a simple adapter, but it’s filled with electronics and firmware of its own. Technically it can autofocus with newer-generation Canon lenses, but I abandoned the AF switch entirely after day one. The autofocus is so painfully slow, that it’s not even worth thinking of. (Note that Novaflex is working on a similar adapter which they claim will be superior to the Metabones.)

But I’ve actually come to enjoy the manual focus experience. It’s like going back to the SLRs of yesteryear, only the a7R gives you several high-tech tools to manually focus:

Focus Tool #1: Focus Peaking

Sony’s focus peaking experience is addictive. It’s like playing a video game with a heads-up display of the world around you. Edges of objects glow in your choice of color when in focus-peaked range as you rotate your lens’ focus ring. You can even adjust the depth of the focus peaking assist. After a few days, I got pretty quick with it. It gives you the simple freedom of choosing a focus-peaked point in when framing a photo with a long DOF.

Focus Tool #2: Focus Magnification

I chose to program this function into a prominent button in the center of the circular dial–a button my thumb can gravitate onto without looking, because I use this all the time when looking through the viewfinder. You get a two-step extreme zoom to finely-tune the focus to perfect sharpness. With camera on tripod, you’ll have more confidence of perfect focus that AF can ever give.

Shadow Recovery Like a Champion

Same Image with +3.00 exposure adjustment in Lightroom

Same Image with +3.00 exposure adjustment in Lightroom

Underexposed, (straight out of the camera)

Underexposed, (straight out of the camera)

Here is where the a7R really shines. The deepest, darkest depths of shadow hold a surprising secret: light! And lots of it. Nice clean light. The a7R can recover shadows like flipping on a flashlight in the dark. No Canon on the market can come close to this quality of shadow recovery performance.

I took the first photo (Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, San Francisco) very underexposed. I’m accustomed to losing the dark areas to a noisy mess. But with nothing more than a slide to the right of +3.00 in Lightroom, the shadows recover very nicely with detail and little noise.

If I came home with nothing more than this underexposed image, I could play around with it in Lightroom and come out with a nicely-balanced photo with balanced exposure throughout.

The end result is a photo with a wide dynamic range. Bracketing photos to cover the dynamic range of HDR is almost a thing of the past now.

The Battery

There seems to be a lot of complaining about the a7 and a7R’s battery life, but considering the compact size of the battery and the nature of a digital viewfinder, I think it does quite well. I do the following to get more miles out of each battery:

  • Turn off wifi (airplane mode)
  • Use the eye viewfinder rather than the rear screen
  • Turn off the auto image display

Just grab a couple cheap batteries and take them along.

Long Exposures

I haven’t been able to do any exposures longer than 30 seconds (like 10-stop neutral densities through my Lee Big Stopper). The first time I was going to try, I realized the timer I’ve been using with my Canon for years doesn’t fit into any of the holes on the a7R. Bummer. There has been one attempt at a mobile app so far to control the shutter via wifi, but it just doesn’t work yet.

And, since Sony seems to be on the cutting edge of photography equipment these days, why can’t they just go beyond the standard 30″ maximum shutter speed? It’s just firmware after all. Give us 1 minute, 2 minutes, 4 minutes directly in the camera. Of course, I’m sure they want to sell us expensive timers as an accessory. I’ll wait for a good mobile app to come along.

The Controls

There are plenty of reviews and YouTube videos that go into detail on all the a7R’s buttons, switches, and dials. All I can add is the layout is ingeniously intuitive and highly-customizable in my experience. You can program almost any control to do anything. After sitting down with the a7R for a few hours on day one, I customized everything, and then proceeded to change it all after my first real journey outdoors with the a7R. If you shoot only raw and don’t need all the jpg effects bells and whistles, there are almost too many buttons because you simply run out of things to program.

There are only two Custom settings positions on the main dial, but I stopped using these most of the time after I realized that any further adjustments I put in after selecting C1 or C2 gets reset each time the camera powers off and back on.

Mucho Pixels

The a7R packs in those beautiful pixels by the ton. I mean this thing’s 36.4 million pixel resolution is insane! Check out a slice of the detail on this wide-angle, long exposure:

Tripod Mount

The a7R likes to be still–very still. I use a massive Really Right Stuff TVC-45 tripod with an also massive BH-55 ballhead. This would normally be overkill for such a small camera, but it helps

a7R on Really Right Stuff BA7-L plate

a7R on Really Right Stuff BA7-L plate

once several pounds  is attached in the form of a Canon lens and adapter.

For the a7R, I bought a Really Right Stuff BA7-L plate which mounts the body directly to the tripod’s ballhead. The alternative would be to mount the Metabones adapter to the tripod. The former seems to work fine (even though quite a bit of weight is off-balance) but due to the a7R’s clunky shutter, I think the stability should be focused on the camera’s body rather than the lens. At some point I’ll do some more scientific tests of which method produces the better image.

Sample Photos

I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to test out the a7R, but I’ve got a few shots in. Here are a few shots:

Zero Hour 9 AM

Sherman Clay & Co., Steinway Pianos. San Francisco, CA.

The House On Hyde Street

Cable Car 14 heads into the evening.

Committee of Vigilance

Howard Street, San Francisco.

Here Comes The Night

Daniel Libeskind\\\'s modern addition to San Francisco\\\'s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Roadside USA

Doggie Diner Heads and 1956(?) Ford F150 pickup.

3:51 PM
Each Face

A caricaturist takes a break.


After a brief sleep, Gum Lung, the magnificent Chinese dragon, is awakened with thousands of firecrackers. Chinese New Year Parade 2014.

Dragon on Kearny Street

Gum Lung, Chinese New Year Parade 2014.

11:46 AM
Another Day in the San Francisco Bay
12:05 PM
4:20 PM
4:36 PM
Four Blocks Ahead

Motel Capri, San Francisco.

Four Star Daydream

The Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California.

On A Downtown Train

Western Pacific #918D, a 1950 diesel-electric 119 ton locomotive on the Niles Canyon Railway.

Little Red Caboose

Caboose on the Nilesi Canyon Railway.

Swipe left or right to view photos:


There are plenty of reviews around the interwebs that go into exhaustive detail of the a7R’s performance. And many conclude that the image the a7R produces is the best of any full-frame digital camera. And I have to agree. As long as you’ve got a steady hand or tripod, and the time to compose your shot, the a7R is a winner.

But for sports and portraits, I’ll be sticking with my Canon bodies. And for street photography, I’m plenty happy with my Fujifilm X100s.