Australian ProPhoto

SONY A7S III

What happens when you design a hybrid mirrorless camera for the discerning video-maker? You get a hybrid mirrorless camera for the discerning photograph­er too.

- REPORT BY PAUL BURROWS

It’s the Alpha series mirrorless camera that Sony primarily targets at profession­al video-makers, but in making the A7S III so good in this applicatio­n, it’s also made it very attractive as a purist’s stills camera. Here’s why.

There are many good reasons why Sony is racing to the top of the interchang­eable lens camera market with its full-frame mirrorless system. A range of close to 40 FE-mount lenses is a good start, but it’s also nailed it with its current generation of Alpha series camera bodies. You want high res? The A7R IV is currently unbeatable here.

You want high speed? The A9 II is the camera for the job. You want both high res and high speed? The new Alpha 1 ticks both boxes. You want something more compact? OK, it’s the A7C then.

Video is your thing? The A7S III is optimised for pro-level shooting in either 4K or Full HD.

Sony has been realistica­lly sober with the A7S III’s video spec, deliberate­ly avoiding the hoopla of 8K that's still a long way off being usable anywhere other than in-camera. It will certainly give you ultra-high quality masters – albeit with massive file sizes – and some improvemen­ts in colour and detailing will remain after downscalin­g to 4K thanks to the oversampli­ng of each pixel. But in terms of post-production, display and delivery, the profession­al video world is still largely dealing with the upgrade to 4K. Convention­al overthe-air broadcasti­ng in 4K is still a long way off and, while there are streaming options you’ll need the right internet connection to handle the increased bandwidth. 8K? Forget it. So Sony has concentrat­ed on making the A7S III as accomplish­ed at recording 4K video as is possible via a big selection of frame rates, codecs, compressio­n and colour sampling… starting with UHD recording internally at 100/120p with 10-bit 4:2:2 colour and audio, while still retaining full autofocusi­ng capabiliti­es (see the Making Movies panel for the full story).

What’s interestin­g here, though, is that in the process of designing a hybrid mirrorless camera for the video purist, Sony has also ended up with a camera for the photograph­ic purist too. Yes, forget 61MP, 50MP or even 24MP. How about 12MP? We’re becoming so accustomed to the ultra-high pixel counts that we’ve largely forgotten that, again in real world terms, 12 megapixels resolution is quite sufficient for a wide variety of applicatio­ns. There are other, arguably more important, aspects of image quality to consider here, and less can indeed be more when it comes to pixel counts. The total pixel count is 12.9 million which, on a full-frame sensor, gives a pixel size of 8.36 microns… and this is essentiall­y medium format camera territory. Bigger pixels mean a higher signal-to-noise ratio which, in turn, means a wider dynamic range – 14 stops for stills in this instance – and increased sensitivit­y. The native range is equivalent to ISO 80 to 204,800, expandable to ISO 40 and 409,600.

So the A7S III is a pretty impressive performer in low-light situations.

Of course, there’s the question of why you’d spend all that money – around $1,000 more than the 61MP

A7R IV and twice the price of the 24MP A7 III – if you weren’t going to put this camera’s excellent video capabiliti­es to good use. But the sensor that makes the A7S III work so well as a video camera is equally beneficial for stills too.

And to this you can add 10-bit

HEIF capture (as an alternativ­e to 8-bit JPEGs), 10fps continuous shooting with full AF/AE adjustment, 759-point autofocusi­ng with low-light sensitivit­y

down to EV -6.0 (ISO 100 and f/2.0), a big EVF with a resolution of 9.44 million dots and a magnificat­ion of 0.9x, a fully-articulate­d rear screen (actually a first on a Sony A7 series body) and the option of using the super-fast CFexpress Type A memory cards while retaining compatibil­ity with the popular SD format. There’s plenty more, of course, but how’s that for the basis of a very appealing stills camera?

Pick A Card

The Sony A7S III is the first camera to use the more compact Type A CFexpress card, which is quite a bit smaller than Type B (the one commonly available) and even a bit smaller than SD, but is capable of a read speed of up to 800 MB/second and a write speed of up to 700 MB/second… so they’re over twice as fast as the speediest UHS-II SD card. Consequent­ly, Sony says burst lengths of over 1,000 frames are possible with RAW capture (thanks also to a bigger buffer memory), and this obviously also allows for 4K at 120fps for up to 20 minutes. The size difference with SD requires a dual-format arrangemen­t for the card slot – what Sony calls a “multi slot” – and there are two of these so you can mix and match cards as well as set up either backup or relay recording, or assign a file type to a specific card. While the multi slot will actually accept two cards at the same time, they can’t be used together. Needless to note, however, the SD card slots are compatible with UHS-II speed devices. Sony is currently offering either 80GB or 160GB capacity versions that are, at this point, all that’s available. You’re currently looking at around $300 for the 80GB card and $680 (ouch) for the 160GB device, but if you’re mostly shooting stills a UHS-II speed SD card will easily do the job.

The maximum image size is 4240x2832 pixels, and JPEGs can be recorded at two smaller sizes with a choice of three compressio­n settings and four aspect ratios – 3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and 1:1. The same selection of capture settings is available for HEIF capture, while RAW files can be captured either uncompress­ed or lossy compressed. Sony joins Canon in offering the 10-bit HEIF alternativ­e to 8-bit JPEGs, and it’s essentiall­y the still derivative of the more efficient HEVC H.265 video codec. The initials stand for High Efficiency Image Format and it delivers both a wider dynamic range and a wider colour gamut without increasing the file size. In fact, twice as much informatio­n can be saved in an HEIF file as in a JPEG of the same size. It creates much more natural HDR stills than the artificial-looking simulation processing of JPEGs. The

A7S III offers the option of recording HEIFs with either 10-bit 4:2:2 colour sampling or 10-bit 4:2:0. In-camera HEIFto-JPEG conversion is available, and even these JPEGs will still have a wider dynamic range. RAW+HEIF capture is also available on board.

The sensor is mated with a new and faster Bionz XR processor which, Sony’s says, is eight times more powerful than the previous generation Bionz X, three times zippier than the previous X version and also reduces rolling shutter distortion by a factor of three over the A7S II. The maximum continuous shooting speed of 10fps is available when using either the mechanical or electronic shutter, and you get realtime live view with the latter at up to 8fps, again with full AF/AE adjustment. In reality, you’re highly unlikely to ever challenge the 1000+ frames burst length that applies to RAWs (either compressed or uncompress­ed), and maximum-quality JPEGs or HEIFs when using a CFexpress Type A memory card. With a UHS-II speed SDXC card, the burst lengths are reduced, but are still very generous.

Cinematic Looks

In-body image stabilisat­ion is provided via sensor shifting which, in along with lens-based optical image stabilisat­ion, operates over five axes and gives up to 5.5 stops of correction for camera shake. This obviously helps make the most of the camera’s inherent low-light shooting capabiliti­es. Interestin­gly here though, Sony hasn’t taken the opportunit­y to use sensor shifting to give a higher resolution image via multi-shot capture with in-camera merging. This would have been a bit of extra icing on the cake for stills shooters, but it perhaps shows where Sony’s main priorities lie with the A7S III.

You also see this with the camera’s set of Creative Look picture presets

Sony has concentrat­ed on making the A7S III as accomplish­ed at recording 4K video as is possible via a big selection of frame rates, codecs, compressio­n and colour sampling.

rather than the Creative Styles that photograph­ers will be more familiar with. The Creative Look presets have been borrowed from Sony’s much-lauded Venice 6K pro cinema camera and have double initials as designatio­ns rather than descriptor­s such as Standard, Portrait or Vivid. You can pretty well work out what stands for what with most of them – ‘ST’ is Standard, ‘PT’ is Portrait, ‘NT’ is natural, ‘VV’ is vivid, ‘VV2’ is also vivid with brighter tones, ‘BW’ is B&W and ‘SE’ is Sepia. However, ‘FL’, ‘IN’ and ‘SH’ – which, incidental­ly, are all new – may have you scratching your head. ‘FL’ stands for Film Like, and is described as creating a “moody finish”. ‘IN’ represents Instant (camera) and gives “matte textures” by reducing contrast and saturation. ‘SH’ stands for Soft & High Key and is designed to produce an image that has a “bright, transparen­t, soft, and vivid mood”. Got it?

The Creative Looks have adjustable parameters for contrast, highlights, shadows, fade, saturation, sharpness, sharpness range, and clarity. All are set via numerical value ranges. Alternativ­ely, you can create up to six custom ‘Looks’. Of course, everything can be previewed in the excellent high-res EVF. There are no built-in special effects.

Noise reduction is provided for both long exposures and high ISO settings, plus Sony’s long-standing Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) processing is retained, but there is no multi-shot HDR mode because you probably don’t need it given the availabili­ty of 10-bit HEIF and HLG (Hybrid Log Gamma) Still Image capture. The DRO options comprise auto correction – based on the contrast range of the scene – or five levels of preset correction. An auto bracketing mode is available for dynamic range expansion processing, as well as for white balance and exposure. In-camera lens correction­s are provided for vignetting (i.e. brightness fall-off), chromatic aberration­s and distortion. The A7S III has flicker detection and correction for more stable exposure control when using continuous shooting under gas-ignition light sources (i.e. fluoro types) which, for example, are common in indoor sporting venues. These actually switch on and off continuous­ly, but at such a high frequency that it’s largely impercepti­ble to the human eye, but can make quite a difference to exposures and colour balance. So, the anti-flicker function adjusts the shutter’s timing very fractional­ly during a continuous sequence to avoid this.

There’s an intervalom­eter programmab­le for up to 9,999 shots and includes an adjustment for AF tracking sensitivit­y. No multiple exposure facility though.

Keep On Tracking

With the new sensor comes a new version of Sony’s Fast Hybrid autofocusi­ng system employing a total of 759 phase-difference detection and 425 contrast-detection points, with 92% frame coverage. Low-light sensitivit­y extends down to EV -6.0 at ISO

100 and f/2.0. AI-based subject recognitio­n drives the

camera’s Real Time Tracking based on colour, pattern, distance, and face and eye data. Additional­ly, the Real Time Eye AF can be switched between humans and animals, with the option of auto or manual right/left eye selection with the former. Sony says performanc­e has been improved by 30% and it’s able to keep tracking even if the subject looks away or there’s an interrupti­on caused by another object passing in front. Additional­ly, tracking sensitivit­y can be varied over five levels from Locked On to Responsive. There’s also the choice of focus or speed priority (or a balance of both), set independen­tly for the single-shot and continuous modes. Switching between the single-shot and continuous modes can be done manually or left to the camera when it’s set to AF-A. Similar to the A9 II, there’s an Aperture Drive in AF setting that has the option of selecting focus-priority or silent-priority, the former maintainin­g an open aperture during autofocusi­ng in order not to degrade the viewfinder image. Normally, you wouldn’t notice anything, but with the A7S III’s no-black-out EVF operated at 8fps, the lens continuall­y stopping down would create annoying flickering.

There’s a choice of five area settings, namely Wide, Zone, Centre Fix, Spot and Expand Spot. All five are also available with tracking. In the Spot modes, the focusing zone can be set to one of three sizes – small, medium or large – to fine-tune selectivit­y. In the Expand modes,

the surroundin­g points are automatica­lly selected if the subject subsequent­ly moves. Continuous AF is supplement­ed by a Lock-On function that works with any of the area modes to provide more reliable tracking. A focus point or area can be registered for instant recall, which is useful when shooting the same scene or subject on a regular basis. Additional­ly, it can be set to switch position automatica­lly when the camera is turned to the vertical position. The AF frame can be switched between white and red to enhance visibility. The A7S III also has the Circulatio­n Of Focus Point function introduced with the A9 II that enables the focus area to be rotated through the upper, lower, left, and right edges of the frame – primarily designed for situations where a subject often moves through the frame. A number of autofocusi­ng functions are available via the rear display’s touchscree­n, including the selection or moving of a focusing point/zone, and a ‘Touchpad’ option that allows this to be done when using the EVF (with the choice of absolute or relative positionin­g on-screen). Additional­ly, Touch Tracking allows you tap on a subject to start the process.

The manual focus assists comprise a magnified view and a focus peaking

The wide dynamic range translates into huge exposure latitude so, with RAW files, there’s up to four stops of get-outof-jail exposure correction.

display. The latter can be set to red, blue, yellow or white and high, mid or low intensity. The focus magnifier can be set to operate continuous­ly or for timed durations of two or five seconds. Handily, it’s also available with autofocusi­ng to help confirm focus.

The exposure control options are the standard Sony A series fare, and based on 1,200-point on-sensor metering with the choice of multizone, centre-weighted average, fully averaged, highlight-biased or spot measuremen­ts. The spot meter’s size can be switched between standard or large, and either locked to the frame’s centre or linked to the active focus point(s). Multi-zone metering can be set to face-priority. Auto exposure control mode overrides comprise an AE lock, exposure compensati­on of up to +/-5.0 EV (although the dial is only marked to +/-3.0 EV so going further requires a trip to the relevant menu) and auto bracketing over sequences of three, five or nine frames. The standard set of ‘PASM’ exposures modes is supplement­ed by a fully-automatic mode providing subject/scene analysis and adjust the capture settings accordingl­y.

The mechanical shutter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 second, with flash sync up to 1/250, and there’s the option of a sensor-based electronic shutter for silent and vibration-free shooting (with the same speed range). There’s also the hybrid electronic front curtain shutter that starts the exposure with the sensor shutter and finishes it with the convention­al one. This provides some reduction in vibrations and noise while still allowing the use of electronic flash.

Auto white balance controls offer the choice of three modes – Standard, White-Priority or Ambience-Priority. Alternativ­ely, there are a total of 10 presets – including four for different types of fluoro lighting and one for shooting underwater – with fine-tuning over the blue-to-amber and green-tomagenta colour ranges. Manual colour temperatur­e setting is available over a range of 2,500 to 9,900 Kelvin. Up to three custom white balance settings can be created and, as noted earlier, white balance bracketing is available over a sequence of three frames.

In The Hand

The A7 series cameras have put on a bit of weight since the first generation models, but they’re still among the most compact full-framers on the market. The A7S III’s size and styling are very similar to that of the A7R IV and A7 III, with a generously sized handgrip and a matteblack finish.

The body covers are magnesium alloy with upgraded weather sealing and, as you’d expect for a profession­allevel camera, the A7S III feels very solidly built. The control layout centres on a main mode dial with front and rear input wheels, a rear panel navigator wheel (incorporat­ing a four-way keypad) and a joystick control that Sony calls a “multi-selector”. There’s a dedicated dial for setting exposure compensati­on (which is lockable), and the video start/ stop button has been moved to the top panel, located just behind the shutter release which is much more convenient. The customisat­ion options include four multi-functional ‘C’ buttons, the rear control wheel and its keypad quadrants, and the on-screen Function Menu comprising 12 tiles for direct access to the assigned items. There are dedicated Function Menus for photograph­y and video, while the customisab­le controls have three setups for photograph­y, video and playback. Additional­ly, there’s My Dials customisat­ion for the input and control wheels. There's, of course, a customisab­le My Menu, and up to four banks of camera setups – designated M1 to M4 – can be created, with three of them assigned to the 1, 2 and 3 positions on the main mode dial.

The A7S III introduces a completely new menu design that employs progressiv­e click-right navigation to take you from chapter to page to sub-menu and settings. The chapters use colour-coded tabs, and the same colour is used for the page numbers, making it much easier to see where you’re going… or want to go. It’s much more logically organised and, consequent­ly, a huge improvemen­t over the previous design. Going hand-in-hand with this is the full implementa­tion of the touchscree­n controls to also include the main menus, the Function Menus and the monitor’s control panel display (including 14 function tiles, exposure settings, a real-time histogram, and a dual-axis level indicator).

Another first for the A7 line is a fully-articulati­ng rear screen – obviously a big plus for videograph­ers who often have more need for a wider range of adjustment­s. The panel itself is a 3-inch TFT LCD display with a resolution of 1.44

If the A7S III didn’t have any video capabiliti­es – and perhaps wore a Leica badge – we’d be hailing it as the thinking photograph­er’s mirrorless camera.

million dots and adjustable for brightness. The EVF steps up to a 0.6-inch OLED panel with an impressive 9.44 million dots resolution and 0.9x magnificat­ion, making it easily the bestlookin­g electronic viewfinder we’ve seen to date… and the most comfortabl­e to use. It’s adjustable for both brightness and colour balance.

The live view screen can be configured with a guide grid (selected from a choice of three), and a zebra pattern to indicate areas of overexposu­re (with adjustable levels set between 70 and 100+), plus you can cycle between a real-time histogram and a dual-axis level indicator.

The battery is Sony’s high-capacity, 2,280mAh NP-FZ100 lithium-ion pack which gives a claimed shot count of

600 when using only live view and 510 with the EVF. The A7S III is compatible with the VG-C4EM battery grip (as also used by the A9 II and A7R IV) that can hold two NP-FZ100 packs and essentiall­y doubles the range. Plus, the batteries can be recharged in-situ via the camera’s Type-C USB connection. The USB-C port also supports tethered shooting. The other interfaces are HDMI Type A (full size), microUSB 2.0, and 3.5mm audio in and audio out minijacks. The wireless connection­s are Wi-Fi with NFC (supporting both the 2.4 and 5GHz bandwidths) and Bluetooth LE.

Speed And Performanc­e

Using a Sony 80GB CFexpress Type A memory card and the mechanical shutter, the A7S III captured a burst of 105 JPEG/large/ extra-fine files in 10.525 seconds, representi­ng a shooting speed of 9.97fps – obviously as close to 10fps as makes no difference. Out of interest, we also ran a time trial using a Panasonic 64GB SDXC UHS-II V90 speed card, and a sequence of 64 best-quality JPEGs was recorded in 6.455 seconds, giving a shooting speed of 9.91fps. So you don’t lose any speed with the fastest SD cards, but burst lengths are reduced. Test files averaged 8.75MB in size.

Sony’s continued developmen­t of its Fast Hybrid autofocusi­ng puts it on par with the best that’s available in mirrorless cameras. Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF II has set the standard, but Sony is mounting a serious challenge and you’d have to say the A7S III’s tracking performanc­e – which is unerringly accurate in any situation when using face/eye detection – is on par with what we’ve experience­d in the EOS R5 and R6. Even fast or erraticall­y-moving subjects are kept in sharp focus no matter how much the speed or direction change, so sports and action photograph­y would definitely be a potential applicatio­n… especially since it’s all still working brilliantl­y at 10fps. And the low-light performanc­e is superlativ­e too, so this camera still autofocuse­s reliably in situations where the human eye is starting to struggle to discern details.

The imaging performanc­e is equally impressive and there’s a certain tonality – related to the big pixel size – that’s very appealing visually. The best-quality JPEGs look superb in terms of colour reproducti­on, contrast and gradation, and it’s hard to fault either the detailing or definition. There will be a limit to how large these files can be reproduced, but it’s unlikely to be an issue unless you’re thinking of making exhibition prints and, even then, we suspect everything would hold together pretty well. The wide dynamic range translates into huge exposure latitude so, with RAW files, there’s up to four stops of get-out-of-jail exposure correction… the shadows easily being brightened without any discernibl­e noise. In practical terms, this means you can happily underexpos­e in the camera to keep tonality in even the brightest highlights. While the Creative Looks and Picture Profiles presets are mainly cinematic in emphasis, there’s some great options to explore with still photograph­y and experiment with tonality, saturation and contrast.

The really big deal with the A7S III, however, is its high ISO performanc­e and here it’s without peer in either mirrorless cameras or DSLRs. There’s been some conjecture than the sensor might have dual-gain circuitry because the noise levels actually appear to drop at around ISO 16,000 and beyond, but it’s hard to see Sony having any sound reasons not to admit to it if this was indeed the case. We tend to think it’s something to do with how the noise reduction algorithms are being tweaked when there’s already such a high signalto-noise ratio. Regardless, the A7S III looks just as good at ISO 12,800 as it does at ISO 400, and there’s a minimal loss of either definition or saturation all the way to ISO 51,200. Grain starts to manifest itself at ISO 102,400 and there’s a noticeable softening of finer details, but these are still useable images provided you don’t want to make really big prints. Along with the IBIS and an ultra-fast prime – of which there are now plenty in the FE mount from Sony and others such as Sigma – you won’t ever need to be afraid of the dark again.

The Verdict

If the A7S III didn’t have any video capabiliti­es – and perhaps wore a Leica badge – we’d be hailing it as the thinking photograph­er’s mirrorless camera. However, because its primary market is video-makers and Sony touts its higher-res models to photograph­ers, it’s flying under the radar here.

Of course, there is the little matter of paying more for less in terms of resolution, which seems counter-intuitive until you consider the benefits of the bigger pixels in terms of the dynamic range, the signal-to-noise ratio and the high ISO performanc­e. Put simply, the

A7S III is unmatched in terms of its lowlight flexibilit­y and performanc­e, making it a brilliant camera for street photograph­y, but also for sports, action and wildlife. What’s more, many of the cinematic profiles and looks can work really effectivel­y with stills, particular­ly if you like a softer tonality and more muted colours.

On paper alone it’s hard to make a case for the A7S III as purely a photograph­er’s camera. But, in practice, this case is far too compelling to ignore.

 ??  ?? The A7S III is similar in size and styling to both the A7R IV and A9 II.
The A7S III is similar in size and styling to both the A7R IV and A9 II.
 ??  ?? Rear panel control layout includes a control wheel/ keypad and joystick-type controller.
Rear panel control layout includes a control wheel/ keypad and joystick-type controller.
 ??  ?? For the first time on an A series camera, the rear monitor is fully articulate­d.
For the first time on an A series camera, the rear monitor is fully articulate­d.
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 ??  ?? The A7S III is the first camera in the world to use the smaller Type A CFexpress memory card. The dual card slots are also dual format as they’ll accept SD types.
The A7S III is the first camera in the world to use the smaller Type A CFexpress memory card. The dual card slots are also dual format as they’ll accept SD types.
 ??  ?? Sensor is an all-new backsideil­luminated (BSI) Exmor R CMOS with an effective pixel count of 12.1 million.
Sensor is an all-new backsideil­luminated (BSI) Exmor R CMOS with an effective pixel count of 12.1 million.

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