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Bigger is definitely better: shooting with Sony's Alpha 7 and 7R full-frame mirrorless cameras

See those gorgeous twins up there? The ones with retro-styled magnesium bodies and massively megapixeled sensors? Known as the Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R, they're the latest objects of desire from Sony's imaging wizards, and I got to spend a few days shooting with both of them.

Sony's betting big on its mirrorless camera business. The company helped to grow the market for these compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILCs), releasing regular (and significant) NEX updates since their introduction a few years back. To date, those compact models have been limited to APS-C sensors -- image quality was quite good, but the camera maker recently began pushing the limits, sprinkling much bigger, full-frame sensors elsewhere into its lineup. Now, it's finally time to meet Sony's new full-frame ILCs. But are they worthy of our affection, particularly when you consider that the 24.3-megapixel A7 will cost $1,700 and the 36.4-megapixel 7R will go for $2,300 (both prices for the bodies only) when they hit stores next month? Read on to find out.

Sony Alpha 7 and Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens

Before talking about, you know, actually taking pictures with the new cameras, I've got to wax poetic a bit about the new Alpha's hardware. In a word, it's beautiful. Perhaps I'm just a sucker for retro styling, but the 7 and 7R really are handsome shooters that are a joy to hold. While the 7 has some plastic bits used in its construction (such as the mode dial), both cameras' chassis are built of magnesium alloy and are solid as a rock in hand. That magnesium construction doesn't add rigidity at the cost of portability, either -- the cameras are light and easy to handle, even with the 7's fairly sizable 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens attached.

Furthermore, I really appreciated the camera's front- and back-mounted settings dials, as they accommodate shooting adjustments via thumb or forefinger equally well. With manual controls for shooting mode and exposure compensation too, pros should feel right at home. And the built-in electronic viewfinder (borrowed from the A99) does its job admirably -- it accurately framed shots and the surrounding eyecup blocked out bright sunlight with aplomb. Meanwhile, the LCD on the back was crisp and clear, and on its highest brightness setting, I had no problem previewing shots in the sunshine.

Using the cameras' new unified menu is a far more enjoyable and efficient experience than the siloed system of old NEX cameras -- it's a setup that will feel familiar to any veteran DSLR user. Generally, while the 7 and 7R are packed with the shooting capabilities and adjustments that most any pro photographer demands, they're not so fussy as to make them difficult for a novice to use (particularly those who have owned another of Sony's ILCs). And, as each camera has WiFi built in, they work quite nicely with Sony's Play Memories app to facilitate social sharing of your shots.

Shot with Sony Alpha 7 and Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens: Aperture priority setting, ISO 800, 1/8000 shutter speed

Of course, even a good UX and beautiful chassis mean nothing if the pictures produced aren't up to snuff. Good news is the 7 and 7R both function fantastically shooting stills and video. While both cameras produced excellent results in pretty much every shooting environment I encountered, there are a couple of differences between them. The 7 is a bit quieter and quicker when shooting stills than the 7R, thanks to its electronic shutter and Sony's Fast Hybrid autofocus. Despite the fact that the 7R only packs contrast-detect autofocus (while the 7 uses contrast- and phase-detect autofocus), I didn't notice much difference between the two when it came time to shoot. Both cameras were able to find and lock in focus quickly, and held that focus without issue.

Shooting performance in sunny, cloudy and nighttime environments was excellent. I'd never profess to being a pro photographer, but both the 7 and 7R make it fairly easy to take really good photos. All that resolution also means that, should your framing be a bit off, you'll still have plenty of pixels left should you need to crop some out. And as for the difference in megapixel count between the two cameras? Well, you'll hardly notice unless you really blow up the resulting pictures. The level of detail produced by both cameras is outstanding, and despite the lack of a low-pass filter on the 7R, we saw none of the moiré effect such a filter is meant to eliminate.

Shot with Sony Alpha 7R and Sony 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens: Shutter priority, ISO 2500, 1/80 shutter speed

We did find, however, that the kit lens available with the 7 was far inferior to the new Zeiss glass sold separately (surprise, surprise). While having zoom capability is useful, the images produced with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens were soft and colors weren't nearly vibrant enough -- particularly when compared to pictures taken with the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 and 55mm f/1.8 lenses ($800 and $1,000, respectively) that'll be sold separately alongside the cameras in December. While this shouldn't come as any surprise, it bears mentioning simply because I think you'll be best served laying out the extra cash for that superior glass if you really want to see what Sony's full-frame Alpha ILCs can do. Of course, you can always shell out a few hundred bucks for an adapter if you already have A-mount or Canon glass in your collection.

In short, both cameras lived up to my lofty expectations, and should prove most tempting to DSLR and mirrorless devotees alike. These are Sony's two finest mirrorless cameras I've ever used, and while they are priced at a premium level, they deliver premium results. You get what you pay for. However, casual shooters may actually be better off buying an Alpha 7 instead of a 7R -- the $600 you save will go a long ways toward buying one of those Zeiss lenses, after all. While there may be those who value greater pixel count over all else, in our time with the cameras, I just didn't see that much difference between the pictures taken with the 7 versus those snapped with a 7R. Plus, the loud shutter on the 7R got to be a bit annoying after shooting with the whisper-quiet 7.

Disagree? Feel free to sound off in the comments.