July 28, 2020

Did the Sony a7S III Fall Short of Expectations?

The Sony a7S III is here. 

It's been a long 5-year journey for those waiting for an a7S II follow-up, but Sony has finally announced the a7S III, a full-frame mirrorless camera that incorporates a modest refresh that's sure to appeal to Sony shooters both new and old. But did expectations fall short? Short answer: no. 

My viewpoint about the technical side of the industry as a whole is to embrace change, challenge it when it doesn't make sense, and educate others so those who come next are better off. That last part is important to me. Education. And the great thing is it doesn't have to be important to you. 

When it comes to the tools filmmakers use to tell stories, to me, they are just tools. They are nothing until you, the filmmaker, puts them in motion. It's humdrum to see creators aggressively root for one company over another, or complain about a missing spec, or a spec that may not be perfect. Now, that's not to say there shouldn't be critical analysis. There definitely should be.

But tools constantly change and evolve. It's not like the Sony a7S III, Panasonic S1H, or Canon EOS R5 is going to be the last hybrid digital camera that's ever made by that company. Generally, they won't be. Sorry, Olympus. The tools are going to improve. And there is no perfect camera for everybody in 2020. And there probably won't be a perfect camera in 2120. 

There are shooters who love Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, or Fujifilm for one reason or another. That's okay. It's also okay to choose different tools that are not in front of youto shoot on different hybrid camera bodies or on a dedicated cinema camera from ARRI, RED, or Blackmagic Design, etc. But that's just my opinion, which you can wholeheartedly disagree with. It's what makes this medium so interesting. We all have those we look to for inspiration or direction or knowledge. Creators continue to learn even as they grow older. It's not finite. 

With the a7S III, there was early speculation that it would offer higher resolutions similar to the Panasonic S1H. That isn't the case as it tops out at 4K 10-bit 4:2:2. For those who didn't want higher resolution capabilities, you are most likely happy. For those who wanted more, you'll have to sit this version out.

But as you probably know, just having a higher resolution isn't everything when it comes to image capture. There's pixel pitch, pixel density, bit-depth, bit rate, chroma sub-sampling, dynamic range, color science, gamma...all which can be improved. There are many shooters, including myself, that would take a higher bit-depth, better dynamic range, and higher chroma sub-sampling over higher resolution any day of the week. And there are those who prefer higher resolution to oversample an image, or reframe, or need more resolution for visual effects work. What filmmakers are eyeing today is the best of both worlds. 

With the release of the Canon EOS R5, more people are starting to recognize the drawbacks of trying to implement 6K or 8K into a camera body of this size. In order to do so, it needs a proper cooling system, internal fans, and most likely, a larger body. It's why many of the same manufacturers that develop hybrid cameras also make dedicated video cameras. The technology for hybrid cameras can only take it so far today. By trying to do two different things in one device, it ultimately limits itself. 

If Sony wanted a jump in resolution with the a7S III, they probably would have needed to increase the camera size. Instead, Sony improved its back-illuminated Exmor R sensor with larger photosites to offer better dynamic range, better low light capabilities, and improved autofocus. How much better? We've seen some early images hit the web, and independent testing is soon to follow. 

There's much to like about the a7S III on paper alone, one feature being its 16-bit RAW output. But as of now, there is nothing compatible with the a7S III that can record 16-bit RAW. Atomos will release software in September that will compress the 16-bit linear RAW output to 12-bit ProRes RAW up to 4K 60p. As for Sony, they have the AXS-R5 and AXS-R7 recorders, but it's not known if they will make them compatible with the Alpha line. So at the moment, creators are handcuffed. 

During the press briefing, Sony took a jab at Canon regarding the EOS R5 overheating and said the a7S III improved its cooling design allowing them to remove the recording limits on the majority of its video formats. According to Sony, the a7S III design has been updated "to ensure effective heat dissipation and [minimize] overheating—even during extended continuous recording sessions at 4K 60p 10-bit 4:2:2 video lasting an hour or more."

The test that Sony did to come to that conclusion was at XAVC S-I 10-bit 4:2:2 at 77° F (25 C°). While it's hard to compare a 12.1MP camera that only shoots 4K to a 45MP camera that shoots 8K, we'll have to see how the camera does outside in higher temperatures as previous Alpha cameras have overheated. 

On paper, there is no recording limit for 4K up to 30p, while 4K 60p has a limit of one hour and 4K 120p has a limit of 20 minutes. If you want to shoot HD 240p, there are no limitations. 

So, why didn't Sony rock the boat with a7S III? Maybe it has to do with Sony reaching a deal with the AP for still and video camerasdidn't want to ruffle any feathers. Maybe it's partly because they don't want to trump their cinema camera line. Maybe it's because it would have required the camera to depart from the Alpha line entirely.

Whatever the case, the a7S III has 4K 4:2:2 10-bit up to 60p without a crop (10% crop when using IBIS) and 4K at 120p. That's what the majority of shooters are looking for in a camera right now. Better images at 4K resolution. If it's not what you're seeking, there are other options available in the hybrid and dedicated cinema camera space.      

Your Comment

12 Comments

Good insight, and I agree 99%.

That 1% comes with comparing a 4k 12mp camera to an 8k 45mp camera.

I think it's totally fair to compare the two in terms of overheating and record length.

July 28, 2020 at 1:38PM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
241

Its not a bad camera, it just pisses me off that we had to wait 5 years for such an minor incremental update.

There is nothing here that would take a massive company like Sony, that would take 5 years to develop...

July 28, 2020 at 2:04PM

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tell that to canon

July 28, 2020 at 6:34PM

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Joseph Estrade
Film Editor/Producer
100

I think you're underestimating just how complicated that autofocus system is. A lot of people don't care about autofocus but that's definitely where Sony is better their money on this

July 29, 2020 at 6:56AM

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Dan F
DP
116

I would agree if we got the same flavor of HD and 4k that the A7SII had, but with some gimmicky features like a rotating screen and bigger buttons.

But what they did was update the parts that users gripped about for those 5 years. The color now matches the cinema cams instead of the broadcast ones, the menu, recording format, the way it handles going from stills to video, button layout, etc.

As others have said the AF update is immensely improved.

For some it's all about resolution and that's fine, but for a vast majority of shooters there's a lot more to consider.

Oh, and Sony's new contract with the AP might have had something to do with not throwing everything and the kitchen sink into it.

July 29, 2020 at 10:25AM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
241

As soon as I saw the specs, I thought the same as A.I. Wintermute. These improvements shouldn't have taken 5 years. Here are a couple things I'd have liked to see in the mark 3:
- ability to record to SSD
- 4.6K or 5K (for the ability to re-frame and create videos in lossless 4K)
- real lossless RAW, not debilitating Apple ProRes Raw

Right now, it looks to me that between the R5, S1H, and A7Siii, the clear winner is the S1H (although it has the weakest auto-focus). It has the most number of usable options and downsamples. Hopefully now that all the big guns have shown their cards, Panasonic will release a firmware update soon that allows 4K 120fps and fixes the damn focusing.

July 29, 2020 at 12:04AM

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Zarf
161

I want to like the S1H more but it seems to have a real jello sensor from the footage I've seen

July 29, 2020 at 6:57AM

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Dan F
DP
116

But the camera addresses all three of those points.
1.) you can record to an Atomos or other external recorder
2.) 4.6k and 5k RAW would allow, this, but most versions from competitors take the 4.6k/5k/6k and downsample to make better 4k.
3.) The 16bit out of the HDMI will handle this. It's up to Atomos or others to record it, or Apple to make a 16bit version of Apple Pro Res.

The S1H had limitations as well, just different limitations. As you said it has the weakest autofocus, but it also has pretty bad rolling shutter, ISO values don't come close to the A7SIII, and doesn't do 4k120.

The S1H sounds like a winner for you, but for others need different features.

July 29, 2020 at 10:30AM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
241

"As for Sony, they have the AXS-R5 and AXS-R7 recorders, but it's not known if they will make them compatible with the Alpha line."

I can almost guarantee this will never happen. Those recorders directly connect to the F5, F55, and Venice bodies. It isn't as simple as an HDMI or USB connection. On top of that, the power needed for the recorders as well as the incredibly expensive cards, and nightmare of a form factor that would create would make that an almost useless obstacle.

July 29, 2020 at 11:58PM

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Tom Frenette
Cinematographer / Producer / Editor
12

Its commonly understood that a 4k camera does great 1080p when you supersample. 1080p TV is increasingly hard to find these days, its all 4k so I think Sony decison is wrong. Also by being just a 12mp camera its not somethig you would want for stills.

July 30, 2020 at 2:19AM

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Simon Chan
Director of Photography
187

Well, that's the point. It wasn't built for stills, it was built for video. A still photographer doesn't need CFExpress.

Also, while I don't understand the reference to subsampling a 1080p signal from 4K, I would agree that 4k is more becoming the norm, even if streaming services haven't gone 4k only. But that also proves why not going 6-12k was a good move, and why making the 4k from the A7 top notch was necessary.

July 31, 2020 at 9:43AM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
241

I'm not in any hurry to upgrade from my Mk2. I've learned to live with it. The Mk3 has many nice improvements but they come with a pretty steep price tag.

August 1, 2020 at 6:49PM

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Dave Palmer
Retired Electrical Engineer
74