The Sony A7Siii Is a Dreamy Video Monster

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Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo

The original A7Siii was my first Sony camera. I got it when I set out to travel the country in a van because I wanted a full-frame camera that could handle photo and video in low light, because I knew I’d never carry a flash. Over the years, as I shifted more and more toward landscape photography and I began to think about printing my images, higher resolution became more important to me, and I eventually upgraded to the A7Riii. But now, at long last, Sony’s long overdue A7Siii is here, and I have a conundrum, because it’s simply the best video shooter I’ve ever used… but damnit! 12MP stills...

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It’s been roughly five years since Sony launched the A7Sii, and in that time a bunch of camera companies have shot ahead in terms of video. The A7Siii finally brings the Sony Alpha series up to date, and then some. While it doesn’t shoot 8K video like the Canon EOS R5, it focuses more on low-light sensitivity and high-quality slow motion to the tune of 4K video at 120 frames per second (fps). It’s also the first Alpha camera that can shoot 10-bit 4:2:2 video in body. All other Alphas are limited to 8-bit 4:2:0, and while the difference in those numbers may sound small, that actually means the A7Siii is recording about 1024 levels per channel of color info versus 256 levels and sampling it at twice the fidelity, which gives you far, far more leeway when color correcting and applying different looks. The result is that you can finally make your Sony Alpha footage look genuinely film-like.

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It’s hard to describe just how good it looks with mere words, so have a look at my test footage and then we can all freak out together:

Jump to 2:12 to see the impressive way the a7Siii handles a campfire and a starry sky.

I mean, that low-light quality! At ISO 102,400 the camera was able to track my friend’s eye for autofocus despite it only being illuminated by a campfire, and you could see the freakin’ stars behind him! The first time I saw that I found it surreal, but in a good way. And while there’s certainly noise in those shots, it’s really not that bad. It looks like film grain as opposed to digital noise.

This is the first time I’ve actually found Sony’s picture profiles to be worth using. S-Log3 is a very flat, almost washed-out color profile that is meant to give you maximum dynamic range, but it takes a fair amount of color correction in post. Modern video cameras have what’s known as Log profiles, which produces very gray looking footage that is more flexible for color grading (kinda like RAW photos, but it’s not necessarily technically RAW video). In my previous attempts at using Sony’s S-Log profiles with Sony’s 8-bit cameras, I found that the footage would start falling apart very quickly when I started messing with the colors, and it really wasn’t worth the bother. With 10-bit 4:2:2 I can finally work with it, and the results are fantastic. The footage still isn’t as flexible as what you get from the 12-bit video on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, but for many the Sony’s additional features (such a focus tracking) make up for the difference. (The A7Siii can actually shoot 16-bit RAW video when using an external recorder, but unfortunately, that wasn’t available when I was testing so I’m not able to weigh in on the goodness or badness of it.)

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Sony also revamped the color science for this camera, and it makes a big difference. Even though I’ve been shooting Sony for more than five years now, I’ve always yearned for my old Canon’s colors. This is the first time that’s changed. Sony finally got its skin-tones together, and they look natural and appealing as opposed to somewhat corpse-like.

High frame-rates are the other banner feature here. The camera can shoot 4K video at 120fps (yes, still at 10-bit) and it is divine. The colors are gorgeous and sound is preserved when you do that. You can then slow it down in your editing software. Alternatively, the camera has an S&Q mode, which does the slowing down for you. So, in my testing I shot at 120fps and had it convert the file in-camera to 24fps for 5x slo-mo, and it turned out buttery smooth while still retaining detail and rich colors. When shooting at 120fps the camera does crop the image very slightly, but it’s barely noticeable.

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One thing I don’t particularly care for is the image stabilization in this camera. It’s certainly better than having no image stabilization at all, but it’s not great. It features optical image stabilization, and while it helps a bit for photos, when shooting video the difference between on and off is pretty negligible. The A7Siii features a new mode called SteadyShot Active, which applies about a 10-percent crop to the video and gives the OIS a boost with some digital stabilization, but in my opinion it doesn’t make things that much better and it isn’t worth the crop.

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Autofocus on this camera is absurdly good. It has 759 phase-detection points and 425 contrast-detection points covering almost the entire sensor, and it has Sony’s best-in-class Eye-AF (which, as you might guess, focuses in on a specific eye). I tested this with my friend’s kid running straight at me while shooting bursts of photos (it can shoot 10fps), and it was locked on for nearly every frame. More critically, it has Eye-AF in video mode, which makes self-filming (even when wide open at f/1.4) incredibly easy. You can adjust the sensitivity and transition smoothness of the focus tracking, too, which makes it look like you have a skilled director of photography on the lens. That being said, I found the autofocus really struggled when I closed down the aperture. Even in bright daylight if I was shooting at f/22 the camera was constantly hunting for focus, which looked terrible.

And I kinda never thought I’d see the day, but Sony has finally fixed its menu system! Mostly! Before this camera, Sony’s menu was what I would charitably call, an abomination. It is now much less abominable. For starters, it finally works with the touchscreen. Yes, that should have happened the first time Sony implemented a touchscreen, but better late than never. It makes going through the menu so much easier. The menu itself is now colorful and a good deal more intuitive, but there is still some residual badness in the form of abbreviations that make no sense and help tabs that really offer no explanation of features at all. Still, it’s a big step in the right direction.

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Let’s talk about the camera body. The A7Siii borrows its body from the A7Riv, which is to say it’s a bit more of a grip. This has long been a complaint among photographers about Sony cameras, though personally, I liked the smaller form-factor and found the original grip comfortable. Buttons are a bit bigger (especially the joystick), the exposure comp dial is now lockable, and the video record button is finally in a place that makes sense (near the shutter button). The biggest hardware change, though, is that the touchscreen now flips out and can face forward, which is a real game-changer for anyone who self-films regularly. The electronic viewfinder has been upgraded to a bonkers 9.44 million dots, which, if I’m not mistaken, makes it the sharpest EVF on any camera ever made.

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There’s more new hardware goodness hidden under the port covers. For starters, it has two-dual function card slots, which both support UHS-II SD cards as well as the brand new CF Express Type-A cards. If your SD cards are rated V90 then they should be able to handle most of the camera’s modes, but if you’re shooting 4K120 at the maximum bitrate you may have a dropped frame or two. CF Express Type-A cards are more than twice as fast, but the problem is the Type-A size is brand new, and they’re expensive. We’re talking $200 for 80GB and $400 for 160GB, which just seems wrong. They’re also only half as fast as the more readily available CF Express Type-B cards, but Type-A is smaller, which allowed Sony to make the slots accommodate either this or SDs.

Over on the other side of the device there is a full-sized HDMI port, which is awesome. Not only can you easily hook your camera up to standard TVs and cinema monitors, but that is the port digital recorders will use for recording 16-bit RAW video. It also has headphone and mic jacks, USB-C (which supports charging and data transfer) and a micro-USB port. The A7Siii supports recording four channels of audio with Sony’s XLR-K3M adapter. It plugs into the camera’s hotshoe and will allow you to connect multiple mics directly to the camera, eliminating the need for an external audio recorder when you’re just doing something like a two-person interview. Also, unlike the older A7S cameras, the Mark III uses the newer, larger Sony NP-FZ100 batteries, which should be good for 500-600 stills.

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Oh, right, this is a hybrid camera, which means it also shoots still photos. Forgive me if that kind of seems like an afterthought, buuut that’s kinda how it feels. Like the first two incarnations, the A7Siii has a 12MP sensor, and it’s a double-edged sword. The A7Siii feature larger pixels than something like the A7Riv or the Canon EOS R5, which helps them gather more light, and the lower pixel count allows for a faster sensor readout, which is how it can shoot 4K120 with barely any cropping. It also suffers from the least amount of roll-shutter effect of any camera I’ve ever used. That’s great! But it also means that your still photos are going to be on the smaller side. That greatly reduces the amount that you can crop before you start losing quality, and if you’re hoping to print your photos you can only go so big before pixels start looking blocky.

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If you take size out of the equation, though, the stills look excellent. They are sharp, colors are much improved, and when shooting RAW at ISO 80 you have a ton of flexibility in the shadows and highlights. In addition to RAW and JPG, the A7Siii can also shoot in the newer HEIF format, which you might think of as an HDR still photo. There isn’t much support for these yet (though Sony has released some converters) and I find RAW photos easy to work with, so I stuck with those and the ubiquitous JPGs as a backup.

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Speaking of formats, back on the video side, the A7Siii can shoot in h.264 and h.265 codecs. This is good for saving on SD card/drive space but all of that compression is something your computer will have to decompress later, and unless you have a supercharged graphics card (which I don’t on my late-2018 HP Spectre x360 laptop) you’re pretty much going to have to make low-resolution proxy files in order to do any editing, which is how I cut the video above. The exception to that rule is if you shoot in Sony’s new All-I mode, which still allows you to shoot 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 video (at speeds of up to 60fps, but not 120fps), but it’s less compressed. My computer could actually (mostly) work with those clips in Adobe Premiere without having to switch to proxies, but they are gigantic files. We’re talking roughly 700MB for 10 seconds of 4K60 video.

It’s also worth noting that I filled up a whole 128GB SD card while shooting 4K60 at 10-bit 4:2:2, then dumped the card and ran the test again, and the camera never overheated. Some cameras (like Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema line) have fans built-in to prevent overheating. Others, just overheat. I’m not sure how Sony managed enable this small, fanless camera to shoot such long clips, but it’s impressive.

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So, ultimately, what’s the verdict? It’s the best camera for video that I’ve ever used by a huge margin. The only thing that’s keeping me from running out and selling my organs to buy this $3,500 camera is that I have dreams of one day blowing up my nature photos and seeing them on a gallery wall, and I just don’t think that’s possible with a 12MP sensor. The next camera I’ll be trying is the Canon EOS R5, shoots 45MP stills and 8K video, but loses the low-light prowess and is rumored to overheat rather quickly. Sigh. Basically if I were primarily a video shooter, and/or my photos would only live online or on Instagram, then yes, this camera is a no brainer.

Illustration for article titled The Sony A7Siii Is a Dreamy Video Monster
Photo: Brent Rose/Gizmodo
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README

  • Shooting video around a campfire and seeing stars in the background was mindblowing.
  • Slo-mo and video eye-tracking both work incredibly well.
  • 10-bit video is finally flexible enough to make S-Log worth using.
  • Still wishing it could shoot larger photos, but for video shooters it’s amazing.
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Brent Rose is a freelance writer, actor, and filmmaker, currently traveling the U.S. living in a high-tech van. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and at ConnectedStates.com

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DISCUSSION

AbrahamDonne
AbrahamDonne

Thanks for the review.

First, as someone who had an original A7, then the A7rIII, it’s amazing that the lowlight footage from the A7rIII is now used as the demonstrably worse camera in comparisons. When I got the first A7, I was amazed at how well it shot in low light. But they don’t hold a candle to what the A7rIII
can do. And now, not that many years later, those shots would probably look awful in comparison. This kind of ability could open a new door of filmmaking and documentary footage that has truly NEVER been possible before because all forms of cameras have been so light-hungry before. This isn’t the washed-out greens of previous dark-light cameras. Yes, there’s a lot of grain/noise, but it’s no worse than what 16 mm films looked like in the early 90s when shot in full daylight.

That being said, I have one thought in regard to picture profiles in Sony cameras:

S-Log 3 is only usable in 10-bit cine cameras (at least, until now). It would be really interesting to see a comparison between the more 8-bit friendly S-Log 2 or Cine2 profiles, which provide a LOT of latitude for grading without the banding problems you get with S-Log 3, while also maximizing dynamic range. I shoot with an A7riii like you have, and am doing more and more video. Certainly, the A7siii is better in that regard, but I’d love a direct comparison of something like that to know how much of a difference an upgrade would make, and no other reviewers seem to be doing that. It’s not as fun or glamorous as the ones you did here, pushing the camera to its limits, but it would be majorly useful for folks wondering if it’s worth spending the money to upgrade or not. If you did something like that, I’d read that follow-up article, for sure. And I think there’d be a decent-sized photography crowd that would be keen to see it.