Sony A7S III first impressions Review

Sony A7S III review
Review

Price when reviewed

£3800

€4200 / $3499
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Our Verdict

After the 8K-capabilities of the Canon EOS R5, the Sony A7S III might seem a bit of an anti-climax. I'm sure some videographers were hoping for a big jump in resolution from the 12mp A7S II. However, Sony already has the 61Mp A7R IV and sticking with 12Mp means that the A7S III has even better low-light capability than its predecessor but with much better autofocus, a vari-angle screen and the highest-resolution viewfinder around. The A7S III is about more than grabbing the headlines for its resolution, it promises to make capturing 4K video easier than before and for that video quality to be the best 4K footage you can get from a Sony camera.

For

  • Large pixels for great low-light performance
  • 4K full-pixel readout without binning and 10-bit depth 4:2:2 colour available in all recording formats
  • Vari-angle touchscreen and class-leading electronic viewfinder

Against

  • 12Mp seems low resolution for stills
  • Uses a new memory card format (CFexpress Type A) that's interchangeable with SD
What is the Sony A7S III?

Sony’s A7 series cameras come in three lines, the A7, A7R and the A7S. The A7 line, the most recent of which is the A7 III, is the all-rounder option whereas the A7R cameras like the Sony A7R IV are the high-resolution models. The A7S cameras are the most video-centric cameras and the Sony A7S III is the long-awaited update to the A7S II.

Like previous A7S models, the Sony A7S III has a full-frame sensor with 12.1 million effective pixels. Keeping the resolution down benefits its low-light capability by keeping noise levels down.

As well as a host of improvements to its video specification, the Sony A7S III introduces the highest-resolution electronic viewfinder we’ve seen to date and it’s the first Sony A7-series camera to feature a vari-angle screen. According to Sony, this is something that videographers and photographers have ‘demanded’.

Sony A7S III review

You can pre-order the Sony A7S III from Adorama in the US and Wex Photo Video in the UK

Specification

  • Camera type: Full-frame mirrorless
  • Announced: 28th July 2020
  • Sensor: Full-frame 12.1Mp BSI CMOS
  • Processing engine: Bionz XR
  • Sensitivity: Video: ISO 80-102,400 expandable ISO 40-409,600. ISO base in S-Log is ISO 640 but it can be expanded down to ISO 160. Stills: ISO 80-102,400 expandable 40-409,600
  • Autofocus system: Hybrid with 759 phase detection points and 425 contrast detection points, Real Time Eye AF (Human and Animal) for stills and video
  • Stabilisation: 5-axis IBIS and digital, up to 5.5EV shutter speed compensation
  • Video resolution: 4K at up 120fps and 1080p at 240fps, 10-bit and 4:2:2 colour, 16-bit raw video over HDMI
  • Video file formats: XAVC S,XAVC HS
  • Video compression: XAVC S: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, XAVC HS: MPEG-H HEVC/H.265
  • 4K Video details: XAVC HS 4K 3840 x 2160 (4:2:0, 10bit, NTSC) (Approx.): 120p (200Mbps), 60p (150Mbps / 75Mbps / 45Mbps), 24p (100Mbps / 50Mbps / 30Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:0, 10bit, PAL) (Approx.): 100p (200Mbps), 50p (150Mbps / 75Mbps / 45Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:2, 10bit, NTSC) (Approx.): 120p (280Mbps), 60p (200Mbps / 100Mbps), 24p (100Mbps / 50Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:2, 10bit, PAL) (Approx.): 100p (280Mbps), 50p (200Mbps / 100Mbps) XAVC S 4K 3840 x 2160 (4:2:0, 8bit, NTSC) (Approx.): 120p (200Mbps), 60p (150Mbps), 30p (100Mbps / 60Mbps), 24p (100Mbps / 60Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:0, 8bit, PAL) (Approx.): 100p (200Mbps), 50p (150Mbps), 25p (100Mbps / 60Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:2, 10bit, NTSC) (Approx.): 120p (280Mbps), 60p (200Mbps), 30p (140Mbps), 24p (100Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:2, 10bit, PAL) (Approx.): 100p (280Mbps), 50p (200Mbps), 25p (140Mbps) XAVC S-I 4K 3840 x 2160 (4:2:2, 10bit, NTSC) (Approx.): 60p (600Mbps), 30p (300Mbps), 24p (240Mbps); 3840 x 2160 (4:2:2, 10bit, PAL) (Approx.): 50p (500Mbps), 25p (250Mbps)
  • Gamut: S-Log2 and S-Log3, S-Gamut3.Cine and S-Gamut3
  • Slow and Quick (S&Q) mode options: NTSC: 1fps,2fps,4fps,8fps,15fps,30fps,60fps,120fps, 240fps4, PAL: 1fps,2fps,3fps,6fps,12fps,25fps,50fps,100fps, 200fps
  • Still File formats: Raw, JPG, HEIF
  • Screen: 3-inch 1,440,000-dot vari-angle touchscreen
  • Viewfinder: 0.64-inch type 9,437,184-dot OLED electronic viewfinder, with refresh rate up to 120fps, adjustable magnification up to 0.9x
  • Maximum continuous shooting rate: 10fps with mechanical or electronic shutter for up to 1000 uncompressed raw files when a CFexpress Type 1 card is used
  • Storage: Dual: SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II) and CFexpress Type A
  • Dimensions (W x H x D): 128.9 x 96.9 x 80.8mm / 5 1/8 x 3 7/8 x 3 1/4 inches
  • Weight: 699g / 1 lb 8.7 oz
Features

Although Sony has stuck with the same resolution as the A7S II, the 12.1Mp full-frame CMOS sensor inside the Sony A7S III is new and has backside-illuminated (BSI) structure. Using this design enables the photosites to receive more light than a standard CMOS sensor, which means its low-light performances is boosted.

According to Sony, using a BSI design also doubles the readout speed which brings a range of performance enhancements.

Sony has also combined the new sensor with a new processing engine dubbed Bionz XR, which is said to enable up to 8x faster processing.

As well as boosting the low-light performance and enabling a sensitivity range of ISO 40-409,600 for video, using this sensor and processing engine combination enables the A7S III to capture video with up to 15 stops or more dynamic range at low ISO settings and in S-Log.

The dynamic range of the A7S III’s stills is claimed to be 14EV.

Also, thanks to the faster readout and processing, the A7S III is said to suffer from minimal rolling shutter (jello) effect.

4K Full-sensor readout

The headline video feature of the Sony a 7S III is that it can shoot 4K video at up to 120p and full HD footage at up to 240p, with full-sensor readout no pixel-binning and with the hybrid autofocus system in action.

There’s also 10-bit colour depth and 4:2:2 colour sampling available in all recording formats.

Sony has introduced new XAVC S-I 4K (All-Intra) and XAVC HS 4K (Long GOP) video formats and improved the XAVC S 4K (Long GOP) format for the A7S III.

Intra-frame recording is a compression procedure that captures more data but requires higher bit rates and therefore more uses storage capacity than Long GOP. It’s useful when you need the best quality 4K video recorded internally.

XAVC S-I 4K (All-I) can be used in normal recording at 50/25fps and 10bit 4:2:2 500Mbps and in S&Q (Slow and Quick) mode at 110/50/25/12/6/3/2/1fps at 25p (4x slow-mo)/50p and 10bit 4:2:2 250Mbps. It’s the S&Q options that make using a CFexpress card essential.

The bit rate in S&Q mode is 250Mbps which means the recorded bitrate/framerate is 10, much higher than in previous cameras. As a result, the in-camera slow and quick motion results should be much better than in the past.

It’s worth noting here that although (as usual) audio isn’t recorded in S&Q mode, the AF system can operate, which means there should be no problems tracking a fast-moving subject and creating a slow-motion video.

As well as recording to a UHS-II SD card or a CFexpress Type A card in the memory port, the A7S III can output 16-bit raw 4K 60p footage via its HDMI 2.1 connection to an Atomos Ninja V. It’s worth remembering here that 60p is the maximum framerate supported by HDMI 2.1.

Colour

As you’d expect, the A7S III has 10bit S-Log 2 and 3 available. According to Sony, in S-Log3 the results it produces match those from the Sony PXW-FX9.

Sony has been working on the colour science behind the A7S III’s S-Gamut3 and S-Gamut3.Cine gamuts and the camera is claimed to have much better colour saturation at high sensitivity (ISO) settings than the A7S II once the s709 LUT has been applied.

That’s great news for anyone wanting to grade their video, but Sony hasn’t ignored the requirements of less experienced videographers and those who need an ‘out of camera’ solution. Consequently, the A7S III has a total of 10 colour profiles, 4 of which are new (FL Film-like tone, IN Instant camera tone, VV2 Vivid tone with bright tone and SH Soft & Highkey).

There are also 8 image control parameters available for adjustment – saturation, contrast, shadow, highlight, fade, sharpness, sharpness range and clarity.

Autofocus

The Sony a 7S II has rather lacklustre autofocus performance, but Sony’s autofocus systems are now the best available in a mirrorless camera, if not any camera. So it’s not really a surprise to see that Sony has given the A7S III a hybrid AF system with 759 phase-detection points and 425 contrast-detection points. Helpfully, the phase-detection points cover 92% of the sensor.

Further good news is that the real-time Eye AF system is also available and is said to be 30% better than previous systems. It also operates in both stills and video mode, and can be set to detect either human or animal eyes.

In addition, the AF system is claimed to be sensitive down to -6EV, which means it should be able to operate in the gloomy conditions that the A7S III is said to excel in.

Usually, with stills-shooting you want the autofocus system to be as fast as possible, but when you’re shooting video you often want smoother, slower transitions in focus. The A7S III has seven adjustment steps for AF for transition speed rather than five like the A7S II and the AF subject shift sensitivity can be adjusted across five steps.

I suspect that the A7S II is largely used in manual focus mode during video shooting, but the A7S III could well be the opposite as the AF system is likely to be very good.

Read our A7R IV review

Stabilisation

Like the A7S II, the Sony A7S III has 5-axis image stabilisation built-in. This is claimed to offer up to 5.5EV shutter speed compensation when shooting stills. It’s also possible to activate digital stabilisation if it’s required, although naturally, this results in a slight crop being applied to the framing.

Still File Formats

While it is primarily aimed at videographers, the Sony AS III is still able to shoot stills and could appeal to photographers looking for a low-light camera.

As you’d expect, the A7S III can shoot raw and Jpeg images but Sony has also included the option to shoot 10-bit HEIF (High-efficiency file format) images. These files are the same size as Jpegs but they have more colour data which means they can have smoother gradations and are better able to withstand editing.

Dual Card Slots

Although the Sony A7S III has two SD-type card slots which are compatible with UHS-II media, the slots can also accept CFexpress Type A cards. These are smaller than the Type B cards we’ve seen in use to date, and they’re not quite as fast, but they’re fine for the A7S III’s 4K video-shooting capabilities.

It’s great to see that the memory card types can be mixed so if you only have one CFexpress card, you can pop an SD card in the other slot.

Read our Sony A7 III review

Sony A7S III review
Build and Handling

While it looks very similar to the A7R IV and A7 III, the A7S III is a little different because it has a variable screen (whoop!). It means it’s a millimetre or two larger here and there.

Sony has also upgraded the dust and weatherproofing to the same level as the A7R IV and A9 II.

In addition, mindful of the problems that heat can cause when shooting high-resolution video, the A7S III is said to be 5x more efficient than previous cameras and the heat-dissipating design enables 4K 60 p video to be shot for up to an hour without problems.

Sony A7S III review

Control Arrangement

The Sony A7 III and A7R IV have been around so long now that it’s easy to forget the handling updates that the Mark III cameras made over the Mark II versions. The A7S II still has the awkwardly placed via record button but thankfully that’s been resolved in the Mark III upgrade.

And let’s not forget that there is no mini-joystick on the back of the A7S II, that’s also been corrected with the Mark III camera.

Of course, the biggest handling change made by the A7S III is the introduction of a vari-angle screen. This is a first for a Sony A7 camera and one that I welcome wholeheartedly.

Further good news is that Sony has extended the use of touch control which is of course particularly useful with a video camera when you want to make silent settings adjustments. It’s even possible to navigate the main menu and make setting selections by touch on the screen.

Vari-angle screen

According to Sony, the 3-inch vari-angle screen wasn’t a request for the A7S III, it was a demand. It’s certainly something I’ve mentioned on many occasions.

In the past, the argument against one has been that a vari-angle hinge is less robust than a fixed screen and that ‘most dedicated videographers use an external monitor’. Those two points may still be true, but one of the key benefits of using a camera like the A7S III is its small size. If you start having to add an external monitor it makes it bigger and heavier.

Sony is also at pains to point out that the A7S III is for new videographers as well as experienced shooters and many of those people are unlikely to want to also lash out on a monitor.

It’s good to see that there’s an option to show a red outline around the on-screen image when the camera is recording. There are times when this is more useful than the usual flashing red dot.

Sony A7S III Menu

Sony has often received criticism for the complexity of its mirrorless cameras’ menus. Obviously, with such a feature-rich camera as the A7S III, there’s still going to be a long menu, however, Sony has given the matter some serious thought and the menu looks to be better laid out than on previous cameras with better grouping of key features.

Sony has arranged the menu tabs in a column on the left of the screen rather than across the top. The menu is also colour-coded and the icons upgraded to make the whole thing look a little bit more 2020.

Further good news is that there’s a dedicated menu for still and video shooting, which means you only see the options you need. It’s even possible to specify aspects such as the shutter speed, sensitivity (ISO), white balance and exposure compensation that are selected when you switch to video mode. That saves having to readjust everything when you change mode.

At the press briefing, I asked if there are two Function (Fn) menus, one for stills and one for video, and I was given a tentative yes, I’m awaiting confirmation.

Viewfinder

The Sony A7R IV has a 0.5 type 5.76million-dot OLED and it provides a very detailed, natural view of the scene with the camera settings applied. It’s hard to imagine how much difference it makes stepping up to a 0.64-inch 9,437,184-dot OLED, but it can only be better with more detail and smoother gradations.

Battery Life

Battery consumption is often an issue with mirrorless cameras, the A7S III uses the Sony NP-FZ100 rechargeable battery which lasts for about 60% longer than the A7S II’s battery. It enables up to 95 minutes of video to be recorded instead of 60minutes with the A7S II and around 600 images to be captured (when the LCD is used) instead of 370.

It’s also possible to charge the battery or power the camera via a USB-C connection. In fact, charging via a USB connection speeds the charging by 3-4x.

Sony A7S III review

You can pre-order the Sony A7S III from Adorama in the US and Wex Photo Video in the UK

Early Verdict

Sony hasn’t gone for the head-turning 8K video resolution of the Canon EOS R5, but it makes some very attractive upgrades to the A7S II. The high-resolution viewfinder, vari-angle screen, re-thought menus and upgraded autofocus systems are of particular note along with the claimed improvements to the noise control, colour and dynamic range.

Videographers who have been using the A7S II have been happy with the output from their cameras and have graded footage to get what they’re looking for. Aspects such as the enhanced autofocusing, vari-angle screen and touch-control should make getting what they want a bit easier. New videographers should appreciate that too, but should be wowed by the 4K results.

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