Not many gadgets have the unique, rare quotient for us. However, those that do strike us as rare usually have good reason to be so. Case in hand is the Sony a7S III, pronounced in its full title as the Sony Alpha 7S Mark III. The Mark II edition of the Sony a7S lineup was launched way back in September 2015, and the very first a7S came in April 2014. With a close-to seven-year gap spanning three generations of a camera, one has to wonder if the advancements have been striking and prolific enough to have made the wait all worth it. The Sony Alpha range of mirrorless cameras have a stronghold on the professional consumer market as it stands, which made it even more imperative that the Sony a7S III delivers on its promises.
And deliver, it clearly does.
All that’s new in the Sony a7S III
Beginning with what’s new in the fancy new Sony movie shooter, the a7S III features a new image sensor. Sony has retained the same 12-megapixel resolution of the sensor in order to offer native 4K video recording from the full width of the sensor. However, the sensor itself is new – Sony has used BSI (backside illumination) with the sensor this time, which clearly offers improvements to low light videography (and photography too, if you’d want to shoot stills with it). Also at hand is a lower native ISO of 80, which goes further down to ISO 40 on extended range. This makes quite a bit of difference, particularly in the upper ISO levels. The Sony a7S II featured native lower ISO limit of 100.
The big draw of the new Sony a7S III is its native 4K sensor readout of 4K 120p videos with a 1.1x crop – a spec that makes a big difference in professional video production over the jazzier 8K or oversampled 4K readouts. It is this that we made the most of during our tenure of almost two months with the camera. The full-sensor width readout of 4K 60p also improves the organic performance of super high resolution videos that now come with even more optical precision than before. In comparison to oversampled footage, this clearly makes a case, especially for pros.
Along with this, the Sony a7S III’s big headlining new ability is 10-bit 4:2:2 uncompressed native 4K readout with internal recording directly to memory cards, which makes a big difference in terms of ease of shooting. It also gets a neat little improvement with the newer H.265 codec-based XAVC-HS format recording, along with the older H.264-based XAVC S. This helps better manage post-processing workflow. If you do want the full monty, with all the dynamic range information and tonal details, the Sony a7S III records 16-bit RAW videos directly to external media. While there’s no 16-bit stills capture option, the a7S III is a pro video shooter, and to that extent, it offers you a feature that you would most likely need for your next commercial shoot.
Thanks to excellent colour performance, great rolling shutter for fine details and minimal artifacts, the Sony a7S III is a versatile movie shooter. Still from post-processed 4K, 120p 10-bit 4:2:2 footage recorded in-camera. (Image: Shouvik Das/News18.com)
On to image processing, the Sony a7S III gets the new Bionz XR dual-chip processor. The company claims that the new processor separates file management and buffer processing from image and video processing, which translates to better and faster overall performances – and it does achieve exactly that. Another major new point is the presence of phase detection autofocus on the a7S III for the first time. This brings better subject and face tracking in videos too, which makes a whole world of difference. More on this in the performance sections below.
Other handy additions that the Sony a7S III gets include the ability to segregate a number of key parameters and retain the settings between photos and videos, recording quad-channel high fidelity audio and support for HEIF stills, the new standard of higher quality compression. Unfortunately, though, neither the otherwise-electronic viewfinder with 9.44 million dots, and nor the LCD display on the Sony a7S III offer HDR playback. The 5-axis SteadyShot Active stabilisation is here too, and works as intended.
Videography, AF and colour performance
The Sony a7S III offers what is most likely the best possible videography performance that you can expect from a professional full-frame mirrorless camera right now, and it all begins with the highly impressive rolling shutter performance. Thanks to the no-crop 4K 60p video recording, coupled with the clearly improved buffer and processor, the Sony a7S III produces wonderful details in straight lines, moving objects and pans and tilts. This particularly reflects in fast paced footage and moving shots, or when you are shooting intricate frames with resplendent architecture as your subject.
Left: Uncompressed RAW footage shot at 4K, 60p with full-sensor readout; Right: Post-processed with HLG profile. (Image: Shouvik Das/News18.com)
The clear advantage here is the lack of banding or interference, coupled with the far superior dual gain sensor that enables excellent low ISO dynamic range. All of this sums up to full 10-bit RAW video recording directly to internal storage media, which gives you plenty of room for post processing, and impressively, exhaustive colour grading without experiencing unnecessary artifacts. In simpler consumer terms, the Sony a7S III retains all the precision of optical accuracy that compatible Zeiss and Sony’s own G Master lenses can bring out, without imposing its own limitations in terms of undue distortions that you would come across when recording 4K footage in general mirrorless cameras – no matter how professional they are.
The dual-gain sensor offers excellent ISO variability, which combines with impressive dynamic range to shoot excellent footage in tricky conditions. Still from post-processed 4K, 120p 10-bit 4:2:2 footage recorded in-camera. (Image: Shouvik Das/News18.com)
Adding to the rolling shutter advantage is the benefit of the dual gain sensor, which enables excellent, high quality video recording in situations such as very low light conditions, where the back-illuminated sensor, coupled with the lower sensor gain levels can produce great low ISO videos. This ensures the lack of shadow artifacts and generally coarse noise that low low footage ends up recording at high quality settings in general cameras. As a cinematographer, the Sony a7S III will also allow you to push the ISO levels higher in standard lighting conditions, should you wish for shallow focus in footages or crisper exposure times.
The a7S III records native 4K footage at 120p at 1.1x sensor crop, which also helps the camera make the most of not having to process the additional bitrate in oversampled videos. This, paired with the new Bionz XR processor, helps the a7S III make for one of the most responsive video cameras around. The crisp and limited encoding times further help in spontaneous professional 4K footages – even in conditions when you may not have the leisure of coordinating your shoots. These include shooting outdoors in wildlife, where along with the quality, you also require intuitive processing times – and the a7S III delivers exactly that. On overall terms, the a7S III somewhat strikes the perfect balance, capable of recording 120p 4K footage, and therefore being ideal for post-processing oversampled slow motion movie clips.
Thanks to a much improved phase detection AF module, footages recorded in very low light also nail tracked subjects shot in windy situations. Still from post-processed 4K, 120p 10-bit 4:2:2 footage recorded in-camera. (Image: Shouvik Das/News18.com)
All of this is great for 4K video recording, but if you want full HD recording, the a7S III can shoot excellent oversampled full HD footage. This includes 8-bit 120p full HD footage, while 10-bit 4:2:2 full HD footage is recorded at 60p only. This makes use of the full sensor’s data readout, and thanks to the limited resolution, processing still remains super sharp and responsive. It is pretty much the best full HD video recording professional mirrorless camera that money can buy for you, and the added dynamic range, colour and rolling shutter advantages make it great for recording on the fly.
The 15-stop claimed dynamic range shines through in the Sony a7S III, especially in post-processed footages shot with stark contrast frame areas. Still from post-processed 4K, 120p 10-bit 4:2:2 footage recorded in-camera. (Image: Shouvik Das/News18.com)
Sony claims a 15-stop dynamic range with the a7S III, and exporting with HLG or S-Log clearly represents the dynamic stop advantages when details are processed. There are some artifacts in low shadow areas, but minimal bleaching and ample tonal data in overexposed areas ensure the overall precision of the footage, in both full HD (60p or 120p) and 4K (60p or 120p) is excellent. In terms of colour accuracy, the a7S III’s new sensor and processor combination still does very, very well to offer a neutral colour balance. However, at neutral picture control, the a7S III clearly shows a bias towards red and magenta tones, which can skewer automatic white balance at times. Thankfully, the a7S III has a dedicated white balance sensor that mitigates this issue.
This is further combined with a much, much improved autofocus module, which for the first time brings phase detection AF on top of the a7S II’s limited contrast AF performance. There is clear room for improvement here, as the a7S III cannot proactively track moving subjects or human targets from a pre-selected AF point. However, making the most of the touchscreen LCD screen for the first time, the a7S III can let you tap to track a subject, following which the phase detection sensor offers excellent face and eye tracking of human subjects. One key limitation here is the lack of animal eye tracking that limits wildlife videography’s scope, which is a shame as all the other strengths make it ideal for pro videography on the move.
Even though you wouldn’t quite use the Sony a7S III if you are a photographer, the overall imaging performance is not a pushover here. Photographs have lesser additional details to process, and as a result, Sony’s noise reduction algorithms do very well to retain crisp details – even with in-camera JPEG conversion. Thanks to the highly precise colour processing, the Sony a7S III offers great warmth and saturation, along with impressive contrast and processing of details even with JPEGs. With 8-bit RAW stills, though, the lack of precise details really show against other professional cameras with higher resolution sensors. The lack of details can lead to softer details and mitigated fine details when processing RAW files, which is an issue that users would face.
The Sony a7S III offers impressive enough stills for a 12MP sensor, but there is a clear lack of fine details – particularly when you post-process RAWs with wide colour gamut. (Image: Shouvik Das/News18.com)
On overall terms, the Sony a7S III still remains more than usable in terms of still photography, particularly if you are a hobbyist still photographer who works primarily as a cinematographer. Sony markets the also-excellent a7R IV for photographers, so if ultra high-resolution RAW photography with uncompressed readouts are your requirement, that’s where you should be looking at.
Handling and ergonomics
All of this is combined with a wonderful, fully articulating LCD display that is intuitive to focus through and easy to operate the camera from. But what impresses the most is the ultra-sharp new generation electronic viewfinder, which also gets a whole bunch of focusing assists even for video, including gamma assist for outdoor videography. There are four configurable buttons on the camera placed ergonomically, and the familiar camera body coupled with a gigantic hand grip makes sure that the image stabilisation performance is further added to. The multiple input points include the touchscreen, the central button and dial control pad and the multi-directional joystick, all of which make it very easy to sift through the menus and the gallery.
While reviews across the world will tell you that Sony has majorly improved the overall menu ergonomics, there is clearly some way to go to make the menus friendlier and more ergonomic. The Sony a7S III is undeniably easier to use and control than before, but a clearer labelling of the interface’s features would make it more approachable for professional consumers without prior Sony/RED/Arri/Blackmagic shooting experience. The a7S III also offers a full-size HDMI port for exporting the uncompressed 16-bit footage, and the three dials offer plenty of customisations as well – all as part of what Sony labels is the fourth generation of its ergonomics design.
There is absolutely no question about the Sony a7S III being the best videography camera in the market right now. It is a highly focused camera that clearly makes the most sensor for professional cinematographers, and features such as 16-bit uncompressed 4K 60p readout, 14-bit uncompressed 4K 120p readout, in-camera 10-bit 4K 120p videos, a much-improved tracking autofocus module, in-body stabilisation, a full-size HDMI readout and excellent ergonomics clearly rank it at the very top. If what you want is the best videography camera in the market, this is your call.