Sony Alpha Series Comparison: Mirrorless Excellence

Sony Alpha Series Image

The mirrorless camera format is nothing new, with the first commercially viable versions appearing in the early 2000s with the likes of the Epson R-D1 and Leica M8. These were marketed more as rangefinder type cameras, harking back to the old days, but these early offerings always had problems. Instep the Sony Alpha Series.

Sony Alpha Series: A Bit of History

Fast forward to the last couple of years and Sony seems to have romped ahead with their mirrorless camera range. Many of the problems with earlier models had been ironed out, such as a viable electronic viewfinder, fast autofocus, and high resolution. Almost to the point where DSLR traditionalists are scratching their chins and wondering if they should jump ship to the mirrorless camp.

These new camera bodies in the Sony Alpha Series were an excuse for the makers to produce a new line of camera lenses. Although traditional lenses can be fitted with an adapter, for fully guaranteed functionality and connection between lens and camera on the Sony E-mount, these new swanky lenses are fast, efficient and some of the best in class.

As in the DSLR world, camera bodies are split into two broad camps: the full-frame and the APS-C/crop sensors. As there is such a wealth of options in the Sony camera range, we will focus here on some of the intermediate camera bodies, which are still fantastic quality, with professional use, but still at a reasonable price point.

These include the full-frame a7, a7 II, and a7 III and the older APS-C/crop sensor types a5100, a6500, and a6300. These latter models are a good way to get into mirrorless technology at a reasonable price. They also have the Sony E-mount and accept the latest and greatest lenses.

Just as a side note, Sony, like many camera makers, love their acronyms when it comes to naming their cameras. The ‘a’ stands for Alpha and the highest versions of these have ‘R’ and ‘S’ in the name such as the a7R and a7S.

Sony a5100

  • 24.3MP APS-C Exmor HD CMOS Sensor
  • BIONZ X Image Processor
  • 3.0 inch 921.6k-Dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
  • Full HD 1080p Video in XAVC S at 50Mbps

Like any camera maker, the Sony Alpha Series didn’t just pop out of the woodwork with an all singing and dancing full-frame format camera body. The technology is usually a progression, which can initially suit the beginner or early adopters. In this regard, the Sony a5100 is still a good performer with a good range of features which are ideal for the beginner.

Sony Alpha Series Image 2

The camera was announced back in 2014 and although it doesn’t have a viewfinder, there are still plenty of features in the box, as some of the features trickle down from the A7R. 179 autofocus points with phase detection and 25 contrast-detection points. Single AF, continuous AF and an Auto AF mode, which detects which mode to use depending on the subject. There’s also a reasonable 6fps burst mode depending on the conditions.

Video people saw the benefit in the mirrorless format having a lightweight device, with plenty of features packed in. AVCHD, XAVC S, or MP4 formats are available, along with video-friendly features such as Focus Peaking and a Zebra display. This camera may have limited touchscreen facilities for just the AF points or for shutter triggering, but the tilting rear screen makes the video guys feel right at home.

ISO range is 100-25,600 from the 24.3MP APS-C sensor with plenty of dynamic range. Plus, all E-mount lenses can be employed. There are obviously some downsides, such as no hot shoe and lack of external controls, but the Sony a5100 is still very capable and can produce high-quality images.

Sony a6300

  • 24.2MP APS-C Exmor CMOS Sensor
  • BIONZ X Image Processor
  • 3.0 inch 921.6k-Dot Tilting LCD Monitor
  • Up to 11fps Shooting and ISO 51200

Jump ahead a few years and the Sony Alpha Series built on the success of earlier crop sensor models like the a6000, with more rounded specifications. In many ways, the very square looking Sony a6300 was at the top end of the crop sensor market and priced between the Alpha a7 II and the a7.

Sony Alpha Series Image 3

ISO levels have been upped to 100-51,200 and it includes a 4D Focus system, 425 phase-detect AF points, and 169 additional contrast-detect points to make for rapid subject tracking. Video was increased to 4K in Super 35mm format.

There’s also a viewfinder with this camera, with battery life slightly increased from earlier models to 350 frames with the viewfinder and 400 frames just using the rear LCD screen. Other improvements include better weather sealing, a chunkier grip, more external dials and buttons for the more tactile amongst us, and an included hot shoe.

As for shooting ability, the a6300 is very capable of capturing subjects in a wide range of situations and the electronic viewfinder is more than capable. There are some downsides, such as some controls aren’t immediately accessible and the lack of touchscreen abilities is a shame at this point.

However, there’s enough in the box to please those who want high-quality video and the ability to track fast-moving objects. At this point in time, the camera can be picked up for a reasonable price and provides top-quality video and stills for most applications.

Other camera makers have had the same ideas about specifications and features in the mirrorless format. Video people wanting 4K shooting may look at the Panasonic Lumix GX8 or the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, which doesn’t have 4K but does have built-in image stabilization, which the Sony alpha Series will soon get on top of.

Sony a6500

  • 24.2MP APS-C Exmor CMOS Sensor
  • BIONZ X Image Processor
  • Touch to focus
  • 5-Axis SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization

Sony likes their 24.2MP Exmor CMOS sensor featured in the a6500, with every drop of power being squeezed out of the sensor along with updates across the board. The Sony a6500 is the top end of Sony’s APS-C mirrorless cameras, with one of the biggest update being in-body image stabilization.

Sony Alpha Series Image 4

The focus system stays the same as the a6300 with the 4D focus system and 425 phase-detect AF points, but it’s the first Sony crop sensor camera to have the 5-axis in-body image stabilization. This means that whether you have stabilized lenses or not, you’re still treated to a few stops worth to get those shutter speeds down.

Other updates include an 11fps burst rate and an increased buffer size of 307 full-size JPEG files or 107 raw files. There are also fewer noise levels in the ISO range and an added touchscreen on the back.

Video capabilities are the same, but there’s still loads in the box to satisfy the most discerning. That’s 4K at 25p and 30p recording in Super 35mm format, with a 6K source file. There is also sampled 4.2.0 internally and 4.2.2 externally over HDMI as well as plenty of picture profiles for grading. There may be no headphone jack, but at least you can monitor sound levels on the rear screen.

In many ways, the a6500 is a crop sensor version of the full-frame a7 II and although there are only a few updates over the Sony a6300, they are significant. There’s clearly a lot of functionality packed into this camera, which starts to tread on the toes of higher-end DSLRs, especially if you want to capture action footage or produce high-end video.

Sony a7

  • 24.3MP Full-Frame Exmor CMOS Sensor
  • 3.0 inch Tiltable TFT LCD with 921.6K-Dots
  • Full 1080/60p with Uncompressed Output
  • Fast Hybrid Autofocus, 5fps Burst Rate

Now we move on to the full-frame mirrorless options from the Sony Alpha Series. The a7 was Sony’s first foray into the full-frame world and the first out of the blocks which gave glimpses of the path ahead, while still being a very capable camera. The a7 came in 2 flavors, the 24.3MP a7 and the higher end 36.4MP a7R.

Sony Alpha Series Image 5

A new sensor has been employed with faster processing now, with 117 phase-detection points and 25 contrast-detection points. There’s also the benefit of the full lens range, along with adapters for the older A-mount and Canon and Nikon lenses available. The weatherproofing has also been improved on the magnesium alloy body with dust and moisture resistance.

On release, the full-frame mirrorless format was still quite new an offering. This means it was up against the likes of the Nikon D610 and the Canon EOS 6D. But, considering all the features packed into the Sony and the price, it matched up well to what the DSLR world had to offer.

The real benefits coming from the price for a full-frame camera and the compact size. The battery life wasn’t great, but for early adopters of the technology a definite step in the right direction with some exciting features.

Sony a7 II

  • 24.3MP Full-Frame Exmor CMOS Sensor
  • 5-Axis SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization
  • Full HD XAVC S Video and S-Log2 Gamma
  • XGA 2.36M-Dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder

Not to sit on their laurels, the Sony Alpha Series was soon out of the gate with an update to the a7, in the form of the Sony a7 II. Packing a full-frame sensor into such a compact unit with loads of features, was the calling card of the a7. Sony tweaked the format slightly, building on what was originally there, such as a 5-Axis Stabilization system.

Sony Alpha Series Image 6

Some of the video features of the a7S have also been included, such as Picture Profiles with Gamma to Sony’s S-Log2 and Time Codes. For stills, uncompressed 14-Bit raw files are supported, ISO 50–25,600, built-in Wi-Fi and Near Field Communication (NFC) technology.

The body styling has also been tweaked, with a more ample grip and old school, textured feel to the body. A deeper grip has allowed for a larger shutter button and slightly moved forward, with a small dial used for adjusting exposure. An extra custom button has been added to the top plate and the magnesium alloy body has also been made stronger, with better weatherproofing.

In essence, the a7 II is a worthy upgrade from the original and works fantastically as a general all-rounder for both stills and video. In-camera stabilization works extremely well and the overall updates make the camera feel like a more rounded product.

Sony a7 III

  • 24MP Full-Frame Exmor R BSI CMOS Sensor
  • BIONZ X Image Processor & Front-End LSI
  • 693-Point Hybrid AF System
  • ISO 204800 and 10 fps Shooting

The Sony a7 III was announced in February 2018 and featured many of the assets of the higher end Sony a7R III and a9 models. This has turned the a7 from what was originally the basic model of the full-frame line up into a more tempting offering for the professional. Although the pixel count is the same, the sensor has been revamped with a back-illuminated design and the latest BIONZ X image processor. This has increased the ISO range up to 204,800 and 15 stops with 14-bit raw files.

Sony Alpha Series Image 7

The image stabilization system has been increased to five stops and the 4K video features have been increased. Using the full width of the sensor at 24p without pixel binning, with the option of shooting at 30p with a 1.2x crop. There’s also a new HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) profile for HDR support for compatible TVs. HD footage can also go to 120fps.

The 693-point AF system also makes headway into the more expensive versions and the 10fps burst shooting should please the action and the event types.

The a7 III builds on the success of the previous Sony Alpha Series models for those who don’t want to fork out the money for the top of the range Sonys. Thus, the a7 III is a worthwhile offering and fantastic value for money. Although it’s not a finished story, like more touchscreen control, it’s an excellent performer and definitely questions if you should jump ship from a regular DSLR.

How Does the Sony Alpha Series Compare?

PricePixels
a5100$44824.3MP
A6300$99824.2MP
A6500$139824.2MP
a7$79824.3MP
a7 II$139824.3MP
a7 III$199824MP

Conclusion

Although the mirrorless format still seems relatively new, the Sony Alpha Series has been building on each model, refining the features and making the cameras a viable alternative to a DSLR. One skepticism of the earlier models was the lack of a full range of lenses, but that has now also been addressed with not just offerings from Sony but also from Zeiss to round out the range.

The mirrorless format hasn’t completely beaten DSLRs in every area, as there’s still room for improvement, but the gap is getting ever more narrow every year. If anything, Sony is leading the charge and if you want a good all-round, mirrorless camera which can produce the goods for both video and stills, then any of the Sony Alpha Series models above will be worth looking at depending on your budget.

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