The problem with Sony mirrorless cameras

April 9, 2016

Sony Mirrorless Camera
Some say the Sony A7R ii is the best camera in the world. But is it really?

A while ago I was almost buying a Sony mirrorless camera. The geek that I am, I was totally excited over the at that time new Sony A7Rii, a 42 megapixel full frame mirrorless camera, that offers features like internal 4k video, in-body AF, and 399 on-sensor Phase Detection points, but also comes with a staggering price tag 3200 USD (in Taiwan at that time 99,500 NTD, a tiny bit less). This was way above what I wanted to spend for a camera, and it did not even include a lens, but I was excited and would not let go of the idea. The hype online was huge, from international Youtube channels to Taiwanese tech reviews, this was the camera of the year for many people, who were at the same time proclaiming the death of DSLRs, as well as Nikon and Canon. If the A7Rii cost half of the price, I would probably buy it without putting much thought into it, but since Sony wanted me to pay over 100,000 NTD for a camera with lens, I just couldn't help but make a careful analysis on whether this substantial investment really makes sense for me. Here I want to share some of my reasoning, that made me decide against Sony mirrorless, and why I went back to a solid good old DSLR.

The strengths of Sony A7Rii

These are some of the key features of the A7Rii, some of which are also marketed by Sony in their promotional video:

- Weather-sealed magnesium alloy body in a size of a palm
- 42.4 mpxl full frame BSI CMOS sensor
- Fast hybrid AF for levels as low as EV -4
- 399 on-sensor Phase Detection points
- 5 fps continuous shooting
- 5-axis image stabilization
- Internal 4K with full pixel binning and full readout
- 120 fps in Full HD video
- New Gamma display assist function
- 2.36 mil dot OLED viewfinder with 0.7x magnification

Sony A7Rii promotional video.

These are no doubt some very interesting features, that look fantastic on paper and amazing in all the carefully made Sony promotional videos, but are they really what they claim to be? That's the next thing I will look into in much greater detail, but before that I will simplify some of these points and highlight what I deem as very important when buying a camera.

You buy a camera system

The most important thing I realized during my deep analysis on whether Sony A7Rii is worth for me to buy is that you actually don't just buy a camera body when you opt for cameras with interchangeable lenses, you actually buy into a camera system. Once I understood that, I also realized that Sony is not quite up to the mark yet. But let's get back to the basic: Why do I need a camera, and what do I want to do with it? I want a camera that is good for landscapes and street photography, good for portraits and good for traveling. Just like most Sony mirrorless customers, I am a prosumer/enthusiast, not a professional, but I do aspire to move higher through time, if my photography advances. I also want to shoot a camera brand, that has a rich lens selection, a reliable after service, and generally durable products, as I don't plan to update my bodies frequently. So all in all, I look for some good value for money, a balance between price and performance.

Sony Mirrorless Camera
I almost bought this camera, but the high price held me back.

Ten problems with Sony

Here is a list of ten core issues I have with Sony and their mirrorless cameras. I did test the A7Rii for a weekend, I borrowed it from a camera shop here in Taipei, but I can't claim that I have deep knowledge of the Sony system, nevertheless I have a basic understanding. So I won't be writing my own review here, because that would be easily dismissed by people as having a lack of experience or some bias, so instead I've checked out some impartial reviewers who actually bought Sony's cameras and offered honest feedback on the shortcomings, not only on the camera body, but on the whole ecosystem. Here's a list of key issues with Sony that bothered me to such degree, that I decided not to buy a Sony mirrorless camera:

1) Sony mirrorless system is not smaller and lighter than DSLRs

No doubt Sony bodies are generally smaller than your average DSLRs, but combined with lenses, accessories, and extra batteries, the weight (or bulk) advantage, that was heavily touted by Sony shooters 2 years ago, is non-existent today (unless you shoot with pancake lenses). See a comparison from Camerasize.com, left side a Sony A7Rii, right side a Canon 5DSR, both with 24-70mm lenses:

Sony Mirrorless Camera not much smaller
Sony's new G-Master lenses look like they have a lens adapter at the bottom.

2) Sony's native lens selection is small and expensive

As far as I know, Sony doesn't make their own lenses, they don't have the capacity and knowledge to do so, therefore a lot of native E-Mount lenses are actually made by Zeiss. No doubt Sony has some fine glass, but it usually comes with a hefty price, here some examples compared to similar lenses in the DSLR ecosystem of Canon and Nikon (price reference taken from B&H Photo on April 9th 2016):

Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 - $248 (98% more expensive)
Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM - $125

Sony FE 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G OSS - $1198 (141% more expensive)
NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED - $497

Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM - $2198 (26% more expensive)
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM - $1749

Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 - $1789 (12% more expensive)
NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G - $1597

Sony Vario-Tessar FE 16-35mm f/4 - $1248 (14% more expensive)
NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR - $1097

Why do I need to pay a premium for some of these Sony lenses, that are even worse than their Canon and Nikon alternative? Makes little sense to me. As of right now, Sony only has 17 of its own native lenses (source: Brian Smith), and 27 third-party lenses, mostly of less popular manufacturers like Mitakon, Rokinon and Samyang. There are no native lenses for Sony E-mount manufactured by extremely popular lens makers like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina. Both Nikon and Canon shooters can choose from a several hundred native mount lenses, some of which are older and cheaper, but still compatible and excellent in performance. Equally, third party lens makers are increasingly offering excellent lenses at a much lower price than Canon's and Nikon's own offerings, but often of same and even better quality. Photographers who choose Canon or Nikon have a vastly larger lens selection, some of which comes at a very competitive price. Sony is in my eyes way behind Canon and Nikon, but also behind companies like Pentax and Fuji.

3) Sony's E-mount has a design flaw

In a recent article on PetaPixel, an Australian photographer named Sator highlighted in great detail the design flaws and shortcomings of the Sony E-mount, or to rephrase it, he wrote why a full frame mirrorless camera makes no sense. For example, one of the difficulties that third party lens makers face, when they want to design lenses for the Sony E-mount, was highlighted by Kazuto Yamaki, the CEO of Sigma:

The diameter is very small and makes it difficult to design high quality FF lenses… it almost looks like E-mount was designed for APS-C more than FF.

That's not very promising for those planning to invest in Sony's already heavily limited ecosystem.

4) Sony's camera have an overheating issue

The A7r ii, as well as some Sony APS-C cameras, like the A6300, suffer from overheating, especially in 4K video, but also in stills. That's plaguing Sony for over 2 years now, and has made a lot of people turn away from them. Here's a thread on DP Review, where people share their experience.

5) Sony's mirrorless cameras have terrible battery life

Michael Hession, writer at Gizmodo, said it very well, when he reviewed the Sony A7r ii:

"This camera’s battery life fucking sucks. Like garbage. How has Sony not updated this battery in over five years? The camera does come with two of them in the box, which is nice, but still doesn’t excuse things. It’s what keeps cameras like this from truly being suitable for pros. Try telling wedding photographers that they have to swap out a battery every couple of hours, and probably carry 10 spares with them. It’s a no-go."

There are hundreds and hundreds of similar accounts across Youtube and photography forums, where people share similar disappointments. A Sony mirrorless camera usually gets a maximum of 300-400 shots per battery, while a DSLR typically gets 800-1000. That makes a big difference, even for an enthusiast photographer.

6) Sony's firmware updates are unpredictable

One thing I read a lot about on forums are Sony's firmware updates, that sometimes completely botch the camera's capabilities. Photographer Amar Talwar shared his experience with Sony updates, that caused him to sell his A7ii and switch to Fuji:

"Sony did an update on the firmware version 3.0, it was a complete disaster in many ways. If I have time, I will probably do a video and show you on what they have done just to the RAW files (forget about all the stuff that they’ve added or took away from it). I actually found more detail in the JPEG file than I did in the RAW, and the RAW actually literally started to fall apart, which is really sad. And they keep preaching “We put 14-bit in there”, well, what were you doing before? I actually shot an event with the A7ii high speed burst with native lenses, it supposed to be some of the best things in the world, so I put the Zeiss 55mm 1.8, that everybody in the world claims “it’s the sharpest lens, it’s the sharpest this, it’s the sharpest that”… great! It’s not. I’m sorry, but it’s not. When I shot this, I had to discard 250 images, because they were off. The biggest problem with that is, the lens actually focuses in front where the focal point is, and then comes back to the actual focal point, and by the time it does that, the action’s already happened, and the shot is missed, and it’s not correctly focused. It’s a major problem, especially in continuous focus, if you gonna shoot a portrait where no one’s gonna move, it’s perfectly fine, it’s a beautiful lens."

7) Sony using "Artisans" to shill their products

While Nikon and Canon have their "Ambassadors", these are usually world reknown senior photographers with a several decades long careers (people like Joe McNally, Moose Peterson, or Danny Green), who are mainly focused on photography, and the gear is just there in the background. It's a subtle form of advertising. Sony on the other hand is mostly working with unknown and inexperienced photographers, who mainly promote themselves on Youtube. Photographer Amar Talwar has a critical opinion on that:

"A lot of people are sort of fudging reality to benefit certain manufacturers to sell their products and luring people into going out there and buying these products, and people are finding out that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do based on what they saw in a Youtube video or they’ve read in an article. […] What I’m about to share with you is real life, it’s not fudged. […]

I was actually accused of on Facebook by a “Sony Artisan” as being a “Sony hater”. Well, this is being filmed on an HDR SR11, well now I have about 3 more Sony cameras left. So, if I did, why would I have all the Sony stuff? So that’s a misconception. And that’s because I wouldn’t agree to a bunch of lies they make up about their products, and I will not stand for that, that’s not who I am, if I like something I’ll let you know, and if I don’t, you’ll know.

I’m not sure what their criteria is to become an artisan, but doesn’t look very high. Pretty much eventually you can become one as long as you have enough followers on Youtube, and you can push their products."

For me this approach by Sony is a big turn-off.

8) Sony's notorious for bad after-service

Australian photographer Matt Granger has recently shared his bad experience with Sony service in his home country, and hundreds of commentators from all across the world have shared a similar experience, some of which you can find listed on this blog. Check out the video here:


Here's another example of a bad service experience, originally from PetaPixel:

This experience echo’s mine exactly with Sony customer support, even down to the bad lines and having to call back multiple times and work my way through call center people, none of which seem to be able to pick up where the other one left off. I had to have an E-Mount lens replaced last year and it was a horrible experience. He’s spot on when he says the customer support people know nothing about the gear you’re sending in, nor do they seem to care. My lens was missing for almost 2 weeks after I sent it in, with neither Sony nor the out sourced repair center being able to verify where it was. I honestly thought I had lost a brand new $900 lens, until eventually (after I called back daily) someone said “oh yea it’s being looked at now” The problem at it’s core is that you receive the same level of customer service for your $3,200 A7Rii camera that you do for a $30 pair of Sony ear buds, which is just crazy. All up, it took me 5 weeks to get a replacement lens. It took them about an hour to deem that my lens was not repairable and to just send a new one out. So why does it take 5 weeks? People know the service is bad, but they don’t realize just HOW bad it is until you’re waking up feeling nervous about if you’re going to see your equipment again. I made the switch to Sony last year and i’ve never been so careful with equipment in my life because my worst fear is having to send my A7Rii to a Sony repair center and dealing with that mess again.

9) Sony mirrorless cameras have bad built quality

Unlike DSLRs, which are built to last, and are able to survive in tough weather conditions (check this video of DSLRs surviving complete ice over), Sony mirrorless cameras are plasticky and fragile. Several people have reported issued beyond overheating, when they traveled to some remote mountains or shot in pouring rain. One advantage of the mirror in a DSLR is also that he protects the sensor, while in a mirrorless camera the sensor is constantly exposed to weather conditions, which in the long run shortens the lifespan of an average Sony ILC camera.

10) Sony camera resell value is bad

Sony's launching a new camera almost every 6 months. Every new camera is very soon yesterday's technology, which leads to a massive price drop on the used camera market. The speed Sony is launching and obsoleting cameras is extremely fast, and for someone like me, who plans to keep a camera for a few years and then upgrade, this is a big issue.

Conclusion

I always loved Sony's products, I used to buy their Walkmen and video recorders in the past, and was very happy with them. But Sony has never been a photography company, and I would not invest my hard earn money in their photography ecosystem, because the drawbacks for me are just too many. Perhaps for you these issues are not as bad as they seem to me, but hey, at the end what matters is what works for you. I would never buy a Sony camera, but you may as well give it a try.