Excellent for Documentarians and Photojournalists: Sony a7s III Review

Photojournalists and documentarians who need to shoot stills and video are going to love the Sony a7s III.

Fans of the Sony a7s series of cameras have been waiting a long time for the a7s III. Thanks to these cameras’ ability to virtually see in the dark, they are favorites of videographers and photographers who shoot in extremely low light. However, detractors out there will tell you that, due to the 12MP sensor, the Sony a7s III is not good enough for stills photography. Upon its release, I suggested that the Sony a7s III could be great for modern photojournalists and documentarians. Those who specialize in these fields need to shoot both video and stills in any lighting conditions. I’ve been testing the camera for the past week in various situations. Find out what the Sony a7s III is like for stills photography in our full review.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Nice feel in the hand
  • Good build quality
  • Weather sealing
  • Fantastic autofocus
  • The 9.44 million dot EVF is simply gorgeous
  • A new touch menu system! Hallelujah!
  • Despite only having a 12MP sensor, the image quality is great
  • Sony finally added a tilty, flippy screen
  • Decent battery life when being used for stills
  • Not a bad price ($3,498)

Cons

  • The LCD is on the small side, and it hinders the new menu system
  • The EVF can lag in low light situations, even when on its highest refresh rate settings
  • Colors take on rather strange tones at very high ISOs

Gear Used

We used the Sony a7s III with the 24-70mm f2.8 GM.

Technical Specifications

The full list of tech specs were taken from the official Sony website:

  • SENSOR TYPE: 35 mm full-frame (35.6 × 23.8 mm), Exmor R® CMOS sensor
  • NUMBER OF PIXELS (EFFECTIVE): Approx. 12.1 megapixels
  • ISO SENSITIVITY (RECOMMENDED EXPOSURE INDEX)Still images: ISO 80–102400 (ISO numbers up from ISO 40 to ISO 409600 can be set as expanded ISO range.), Movies: ISO 80–102400 equivalent (ISO numbers up to ISO 409600 can be set as expanded ISO range.)
  • BATTERY LIFE (STILL IMAGES)Approx. 510 shots (Viewfinder) / Approx. 600 shots (LCD monitor) (CIPA standard)
  • VIEWFINDER TYPE 1.6 cm (0.64 type) electronic viewfinder (color) 9.44 million dot
  • MONITOR TYPE: 2.95 inch (3.0-type) wide type TFT
  • IMAGE PROCESSOR: BIONZ XRTM image-processing engine
  • DYNAMIC RANGE: 15 STOPS
  • IBIS: Body-integrated 5-axis optical image stabilization, Active Mode for movies
  • AUTOFOCUS: Fast Hybrid AF with 759 phase-detection AF points and enhanced Real-time Eye AF

Ergonomics

Sony a7s III

Pick up the Sony a7s III, and you might think you’ve grabbed an a9 II or the a7r IV by mistake. The Sony a7s III feels almost identical to these two cameras. Still, there are a few small differences that set it apart. From the front, you can see the new a7s moniker, the focus assist lamp, and of course, the E mount. Look closely at the front of the grip, and you’ll see an aperture control dial at the top of the grip.

Sony a7s III

The back of the camera is what will give the a7s III away. Sony has finally added a fully articulating touchscreen. Apart from the new screen, the only other difference between the a7r IV and the a7s III is the placement of the record button. On the a7r IV, it was located next to the viewfinder. On the a7s III, the record button has been replaced with a customizable button. Everything else remains the same. This is a good thing as this means the a7s III is nice to use. All the major controls and dials fall nicely into place.

Sony a7s III

Again, the top control panel is identical to the cameras before it. The most significant change is that there’s now just one custom button on the top of the camera. In place of the old C1 button is a new record button. The main controls fall to the right of the EVF. Here you’ll find the mode dial, an exposure compensation dial, the on/off switch, and the shutter speed dial. There’s also another customizable button.

Sony a7s III

The left-hand side of the Sony a7s III houses all of the connection ports. Here you’ll find a headphone jack, a microphone input, USB C, and a full-size HDMI jack.

Sony a7s III

The right-hand side of the Sony a7s III houses the memory card slots. The Sony a7s III can use both CFexpress A and UHS-II cards in the same slots, which is a pretty cool feature.

Ergonomically, the Sony a7s III is excellent. The camera feels nice in hand thanks to the deep grip. The well-placed dials add to the pleasant experience too. Apart from the main menu button and one custom button, all controls are on the right. This means the camera can be used with one hand most of the time. Nicely done, Sony.

“After a week of use, I do not see any specs of dust on the sensor, either. With previous Sony cameras, the sensor would already be caked with particles, but the a7s III has held up well.”

Brett Day – Gear Editor

Build Quality

Sony a7s III

Sony has come along way when it comes to the overall build quality of its cameras. Again, the Sony a7s III feels like a decently robust camera, just like the a9 II and the a7r IV. There is no doubt in my mind that the camera will stand up to the rigors of being used professionally. The port covers on the a7s III feel a lot nicer than previous models, and the new articulating screen feels sturdy. After a week of use, I do not see any specs of dust on the sensor, either. With previous Sony cameras, the sensor would already be caked with particles, but the a7s III has held up well. Sony did say that they have improved the weather sealing. During my testing, this seems to ring true.

During one shoot, the camera and I were hit with a pretty solid downpour. This was followed by light misty rain. During both events, the camera just kept doing its thing. Just make sure all of the ports are covered if you find yourself in these situations. All the buttons and dials feel robust, and they offer nice positive feedback when pushed or turned. I really do not like the ‘push down to turn’ switch on the mode wheel, though. Overall the Sony a7s III feels every bit like a premium camera, which is good seeing as you’ll be paying $3,498 for it.

“The Sony a7s III sports a 9.44 million dot EVF, which looks gorgeous. You could be fooled into thinking it was an optical viewfinder.”

Brett Day – Gear Editor

Ease of Use

Sony a7s III

The Sony a7s III is the first camera to feature a completely redesigned menu system. This redesign has been needed for a long time, and honestly, it makes the camera much easier to use. As you can see in the image above, the menu now splits into different windows as you go into the options. The menu is laid out in a logical order, and it looks so much better than the UI it’s replacing. The menu system is now touch-friendly. That’s right, you can tap and swipe your way around! Perhaps the only negative is that the small screen can make this a little tricky when you start deeply menu diving. However, you can also navigate the menus with the control pad.

Sony a7s III
Good IBIS makes handholding for long exposures possible. Handheld for 1.6 seconds

Aside from the new menu system, the Sony a7s III is similar to the Sony a9 II and the a7r IV when it comes to using it. One significant upgrade is the EVF. The Sony a7s III sports a 9.44 million dot EVF, which looks gorgeous. You could be fooled into thinking it was an optical viewfinder. However, the giveaway is in low light where the EVF lags a little. The lag occurs even when the EVF is on its highest refresh rate setting. The fully articulating screen is another new addition. The a7s III is mainly for videographers, so it makes sense to have a screen like this. Still, the screen comes in handy for photographers too. The IBIS in the Sony a7s III seems to work better as well. As you can see, I was able to handhold to 1.6 seconds with the 24-70mm f2.8 GM.

Battery life is impressive too. I have shot over 1,600 images with the Sony a7s III during my week with it. This has been a mixture of bursts (10fps) and single shots. I have yet to recharge the battery. In fact, there’s still 23% left on the initial charge. The layout of the controls makes the Sony a7s III easy to use too. Everything falls nicely into place. The new features, the excellent battery life, and superb ergonomics make the a7s III a joy to use. I have never said that about a Sony camera before. I have always been quite critical, so for me to say this is pretty big.

“During the day and in good lighting situations, half-press the shutter, and the a7s III feels like it has found focus before you’re even done half pressing.”

Brett Day – Gear Editor

Autofocus

The autofocus performance of the Sony a7s III is what you’d expect from a modern Sony camera. It’s pretty darned excellent. The Sony a7s III feels just like the a7r IV when in use. Autofocus is snappy and accurate thanks to the 759 phase-detection points and the various modes make capturing any subject easy.

Eye AF works well even in low light situations.

Eye AF and animal eye AF work great. In extreme low light situations, there is a little bit of hunting, but again, this only happens in extremely low light. Eye AF had no problems when taking the above image, and it was pretty dark. Still, the AF locked on and didn’t let go. During the day, and in good lighting situations, half-press the shutter, and the a7s III feels like it has found focus before you’re even done half pressing.

Tracking

As mentioned above, the autofocus system is excellent. If you need to capture fast-moving subjects, you will have no issues with the Sony a7s III. My usual test for tracking involves my dogs. They are crazy, erratic, and lots of fun when playing fetch. As you can see below, the Sony a7s III has no issues tracking my dog Austin as he was coming towards me.

The autofocus performance of the Sony a7s III is exceptional. You’ll have no issues capturing the shots you need. Apart from hunting in extremely low light, the camera performed flawlessly.

“We’ve become brainwashed by Megapixel hype, and that’s a real shame.”

Brett Day – Gear Editor

Image Quality

Many will tell you that a 12MP sensor is not enough to create great images. We’ve become brainwashed by Megapixel hype, and that’s a real shame. The pictures from the Sony a7s III are fantastic. Are they filled with detail? You bet! Are the colors produced pleasant? Yep! Can you crop and still retain detail? Absolutely. I have cropped several images to 100%, and they are fine. Dynamic range? Yes, that’s great too. Unless you need to print big, the 12MP sensor will give you no issues. But if you need to print big, you’re not looking at this camera anyway. The photographers/hybrid shooters who want to use the Sony a7s III as a stills camera will have no issues whatsoever. Sheesh, we haven’t even talked about the high ISO performance yet. Just wait. Perhaps you’ll see that 12MP can be enough.

RAW File Versatility

The Sony a7s III has been blessed with some fantastic dynamic range. As a result of this, RAW file versatility is excellent. Take a look at the image above. I purposefully underexposed so that I could try and recover shadow details.

Here’s the same image as above after editing. As you can see, I was able to bring a lot of details out of the shadows. I could have even pushed it further with no issues.

In this image, I purposefully overexposed the scene so that I could try and recover highlights during post.

Again, you can see that I had zero issues pulling details out of the overexposed areas of the image. We do these tests to satisfy the masses. Honestly, modern sensors pose no problems with highlight and shadow recovery unless you absolutely obliterate an image in-camera. The Sony a7s III passes the dynamic range tests with ease.

JPEG Quality

The JPEGS from the Sony a7s III are rather pleasant. The image processor does a nice job of bringing out colors. Shadows and highlights are well controlled, and noise reduction is handled nicely. Are they my favorite JPEGS? No, but they’re still really lovely. Overall the Sony a7s III does a good job with JPEGS. Should you wish to use these instead of processing RAWs, you’ll have no problems.

Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III

High ISO Performance

Sony a7s III
ISO 102,400

Now, this is what you’ve all been waiting for, I’m sure. It’s no secret that the Sony a7s III is a low light powerhouse, and I have to say, it hasn’t disappointed. You can shoot at ISO 6400, 12,800, and 25,600, and have no problems. If you want to go to nuclear numbers, you can do that too. In some situations, you’ll see a few slightly odd things happening with colors from 25,600 and up. But, come on, these are outrageous numbers. The colors aren’t that bad: nothing that can’t be fixed with a few tweaks during post. Here are some high ISO sample images. These are all untouched. There’s no noise reduction, no color changes, etc.

Sony a7s III
ISO 6400
Sony a7s III
ISO 6400
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ISO 6400
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ISO 12,800
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ISO 12,800
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ISO 51,200
Sony a7s III
ISO 80,000

So you can appreciate ISO 80,000 in the above image, here’s some background. The band section of the stand at my local school sits practically in the dark. Just look at the picture. Is it noisy? Yes, of course: it’s ISO 80,000. Can you still make out small details that would be lost in other cameras at ISO 25,600 or lower? Absolutely. In the full-size image, you can see detail in hair, facial features, and instrument details. It’s really quite remarkable that an image shot at 80,000 ISO can retain so much detail. High ISO performance is what will make this camera perfect for photojournalists and documentarians. When you absolutely must get the shot no matter what, the Sony a7s III will deliver. Sure, you won’t be making huge prints of images like this, but for a newspaper or use online, it would be just fine.

Sony a7s III
ISO 409,600

Just because we can, here’s a shot at ISO 409,600. Yes, it’s super noisy. However, what’s impressive to me is the detail level. Even beyond nuclear ISOs, I can see detail in my wife’s hair. I can see stitching detail in the headrest, and believe it or not, in the full-size image, you can almost make out words in the sticker on the visor. That’s incredible.

We tested a Sony a7s III RAW file with the Canon Prograf 1000 printer and Canon Pro Luster paper. At ISO 6400, a 17×22 print is very clean. There’s still a lot of detail, but the high ISO noise still shows in the darker areas. I think it’s because of the pixel density on the print. If there were more megapixels, then the print would honestly appear cleaner.

Extra Image Samples

Below you will find a mixture of unedited and edited RAW files converted to JPEG. There are also straight out of camera JPEG files. This is to show what to expect from this camera.

Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
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Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
A big shout out to Wolf Gardner. The owner of Spell Of Iron Forge. Thanks for allowing me to come and watch you in action. Check out Wolf and his Forge here.
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III
Sony a7s III

“This will be an excellent camera for hybrid shooters out there who need the very best 4K video and nicely detailed stills.”

Brett Day – Gear Editor

Conclusions

Likes

  • Extreme low light capabilities
  • Great autofocus system
  • The new menu system is a winner
  • The fully articulating screen is handier than you might think

Dislikes

  • The LCD is a little on the small side
  • The EVF can lag in low light situations, even when on its highest refresh rate settings
  • Colors can look a little strange over ISO 25,600

So, who is the Sony a7s III for? As you all know, the Sony a7s III is not designed as a photography forward camera. However, it’s still a competent stills shooter. The Sony a7s III is perhaps the closest thing to a great all-rounder for documentarians who shoot video and stills. The same can be said for photojournalists too. The small size of the images (JPEGS are roughly 7MB) are the perfect size to be sent quickly and efficiently to editors. The photos have more than enough detail to be printed in newspapers and magazines, as long as they are not huge. They are also more than good enough to be used online. Modern photojournalists and documentarians need to shoot video too. The Sony a7s III is one of the most versatile cameras around for video production.

This camera is definitely not for those who just care about stills. If you primarily take stills and want a Sony camera, look at the Sony a9/a9 II, the Sony a7r IV, or even the a7 III. If you print large images, this is not the camera for you. For those who need a camera capable of doing both stills and video well, this might be the camera for you.

We award the Sony a7s III five out of five stars. Despite being designed for video, the a7s III is a competent stills shooter. This will be an excellent camera for hybrid shooters who need the very best 4K video and nicely detailed stills. Want one? You can get one for $3,498 from Amazon.