Not too long ago, I found myself in the midst of a conversation with a woman who had just quit her high-paying job at Tesla to pursue her dream of becoming a cinematographer. She mentioned she’d bought a Sony a1 as her first camera. "Wow," I thought, “Her very first camera is superior to what now must be my tenth camera, a Sony a7sIII.”
Later that day however, I was questioning whether her a1 really was better than my a7sIII. Yes, it's $3000 more expensive and can record video at twice the resolution, but there's more to this than meets the sensor.
I should mention at this point that I’m intimately familiar with the a1 because I use it nearly every day—the studio I work at uses them to shoot background plates because they’re compact, capable of shooting 8K, and with their ethernet port, they can be controlled from a computer.
So while I was at work today, I thought I'd do a little test: I put my a7sIII next to an a1, turned them both on, and waited. The a1 depleted its battery in 2 hours 1 minute. My a7sIII stayed on for a whole additional hour, despite the fact that both cameras use the same battery.
Now you might say, "well of course the a1 consumes more power, it has a much better 8K sensor,” but are you you aware that it has to compromise the video bitrate to record in full 8K?
The a1 can only record 8K when set to the highest compression setting: XAVC HS
To Sony's credit though, they do a really good job with the compression—it's tough to discern any difference between my a7sIII shooting at XAVC S-I 4K and an a1 shooting at XAVC HS 8K.
No discernible difference in quality, even after grading
Also, even if you're worried about recording at XAVC HS levels of compression, the a1 can still record at XAVC S-I 4K, just like the a7sIII. But you shouldn't be worried, because when you crank the hue/saturation in post, the a1 actually looks better than the a7sIII, despite the higher compression! I believe this is because when you're editing both files in a 4K timeline, the 8K 4:2:2 actually becomes 4K 4:4:4. You can see what I'm talking about in the comparison below.
With saturation bumped to 100%, the blocky color chunks on the bricks look much worse on the a7sIII
So I guess you could argue that having 66% of the a7sIII's battery life is worth it for the improved video quality. There are some other downsides of the a1 though—like its ISO limits. It'll reach its max at 32,000, while the a7sIII will continue all the way to 409,600! The monitor is another place where the a7sIII exceeds.
The flexible a7sIII monitor
The a7sIII's monitor can spin every which way, allowing you to view it from directly above, below, or in front of the camera. This comes in handy all the time when shooting from up high, from the ground, or generally in cramped spaces. You can also turn it around and fold the screen in, to protect it during transit.
The a1's monitor mechanism
The a1 monitor, on the other hand, only allows you to tilt up and down, with no means of folding it in to protect the screen. I'm not sure which design is more durable—I've put both through the ringer without any issues. Regardless of which is better though, they're both too small to be used for any kind of professional video work anyways—you really need an external monitor, not just to see the image better, but also to get a waveform readout.
So far I've been comparing these two cameras solely in terms of their use in the video world. If photography is your objective though, the a1 is better, hands down. I've already mentioned the 8K resolution, which translates to a 50 megapixel image, but I've yet to mention its maximum photo shutter speed of 1/32,000 (versus the a7sIII's 1/8000), its faster continuous shutter, and its faster flash sync.
So at the end of the day then, it looks like this isn't much of a contest for the a7sIII. The only thing it has going for it is its high ISO range, but honestly, for most use cases, 409,600 ISO would be too noisy anyways. So I guess if you're a bright, young cinematographer with $6,500 burning a hole in your pocket, don't waste your time with the a7sIII, be like the former Tesla engineer and go for the a1.
Thanks for the comparison between the two cameras. I’ve owned my a1 for about a year, but never really knew how it stacked up against the a7sIII. So I am now better informed.
However, I must say that I strongly disagree with your statement: “So I guess if you're a bright, young cinematographer with $6,500 burning a hole in your pocket, don't waste your time with the a7sIII, be like the former Tesla engineer and go for the a1.”
I know you’re speaking tongue in cheek, but just to be clear, for the benefit of other people reading this thread, that's a bad decision. In my opinion, as a budding “cinematographer”, she bought the completely wrong camera. If she had asked me for advice, I would have strongly pushed her towards the FX6 . The alpha mirrorless cameras are excellent, but they can’t compete with a true cinema camera . . . if cinematography will be the primary use of the camera. All the mirrorless cameras are primarily designed for still photography first and video is tacked on as a secondary mission.
There are a ton of important reasons why respected film schools, such as Full Sail, give all their students their own FX6 rather than a mirrorless camera. Full Sail has literally purchased thousands of FX6 cameras (hard to believe!), so think of the money they could have saved by going with some Alpha cameras instead. But they didn’t.
As an owner of both an FX6 and a1, I feel I’m in a good position to appreciate the differences between them, and I can honestly say the FX6 wins on almost every count. There are only two things about the a1 I prefer: First, the a1 comes equipped with an excellent OLED viewfinder, while the FX6 doesn’t have one at all. And second, when all other things are equal, the a1 has a little better picture quality due to the higher resolution sensor.
If having slightly better picture quality trumps everything else, then yeah, the a1 is the winner. But for me, picture quality is just one of many criteria that must be considered when choosing a camera to shoot with. And the FX6 beats the a1 on every other point of comparison that matters to me, and to schools like Full Sail.
Those are the things that came to my mind off the top of my head, and I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting. My advice to anyone looking to enter the world of cinematography or television production, with hopes of being more than a one-man-band, is to invest in a true cinema camera. It’s worth it.
Sorry to hijack the thread and turn it into a cinema vs. mirrorless debate! 🙂
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