The wetlands of Brazil’s Pantanal region aren’t as well known as the Amazon, but it’s still home to an incredibly diverse ecosystem. With dozens of species of mammals and rodents and hundreds of species of birds, it is a wildlife photographer’s dream. Jaguars roam the shoes of the river while capybara and caiman flee from the hunting cats. Birds are everywhere you look, and their calls are pervasive throughout the day.
While the Amazon jungle hosts more life, it’s not as good a location for spotting much wildlife because, as the name points out, it is a jungle; it’s nearly impossible to see the animals in the trees.
The Pantanal is, by comparison, an open space with stands of trees and forest but also open spaces of marsh, flowing rivers, and free-roaming cattle ranches as far as the eye can see.
I’ve come here with my family to photograph the animals, though we are most excited about the jaguar. And it’s here that I’ve brought the Sony a7CR in my quest to see if it’s the right camera for the travel enthusiast.
The Pantanal is hot. Though it’s not supposed to be in the high 90s, it is. We arrived in the middle of a South American heatwave roasting much of the sub-equatorial region of South America. It is unpleasantly hot, especially when sitting in an open-top aluminum boat looking for animals. Our tour company, Natural Habitat, is going so far as to provide ice-cold towels on the boat along with regular juices and soft drinks.
It turns out that it’s nearly impossible not to see a jaguar in the Pantanal. The conservation group Onçafari has spent decades helping grow the jaguar population in Brazil, and the Pantanal is central to those efforts. Hunted by the farmers and poachers alike, the Jaguar populations dwindled in the latter part of the 20th century. The farmers shoot the jaguar to prevent them from eating their cattle. The poachers sell their furs on the black market.
But Onçafari and other NGOs helped change that by habituating the jaguar to human presence. This is not the same as taming an animal by feeding it but is simply the act of getting the cats used to the sound and sights of human cars and boats. Understanding that humans aren’t a threat, the jaguars go about their day in front of these vehicles.
Onçafari taught the farmers that ecotourism was more profitable than the farming of crops. Those crops took over the natural space that the prey of the jaguars lived in, making the jaguars turn to cattle and abandoning the monoculture crops for ecotourism, increasing tourist lodges and ranchers’ bottom line.
Big Resolution Small Body
The a7CR is a compact travel package compared to the Sony a7R V, my daily workhorse. I also have used the Sony a7C and have used it for years as my go-to travel companion, although it’s getting long in the tooth. The a7C came to Africa with me last year as my backup camera on a safari there, and my son used it along with the Tamron 70-300. It made an excellent compact travel system and took great images.
The a7CR is a sixty-megapixel upgrade from the a7C, and while there’s the more “practical” a7C II, the high res sensor on the a7CR made it more appealing to me. Safaris often have weight limits due to the small planes or helicopters used to ferry between lodges, and the additional resolution gives me the ability to crop a7CR for an effectively longer focal length.
It also is a major autofocus upgrade from the a7C. Essentially an a7 III inside (with some slightly improved autofocus), the a7CR is instead an AF powerhouse. It packs the same AI-based autofocus system on the Sony a7R V and the Sony a6700.
Cramming an a7R V into an a7c body feels like there should be some performance or image quality compromises. Instead, the camera works nearly identically to the a7R V, and the compromises come in the body’s features. The a7CR uses a smaller, lower-resolution side-mounted EVF than that on the a7R V and a lower-end LCD screen.
What will make this camera a non-starter for many is that there’s only a single card slot, although that’s a tradeoff many globe-trotting photographers I know would make. I’ve had some go so far as to tell me that cards don’t fail these days, so they don’t need a second card slot. More on that below.
Like with the original a7C, the new a7C II and a7CR have a full-size grip that houses the full-size battery. I went through between a battery and one-and-a-quarter batteries each day as I shot between 500 and 1,000 images daily and captured some video.
If I could, I’d have brought the Sony 200-600mm with me, as its internal zoom makes for a well-balanced system. Alternately, I’d typically bring the 100-400mm and the 1.4x teleconverter.
Instead, the Sigma 60-600mm was along for a full review after I only had time to preview it at launch and I wanted to give it a fair test.
The Sigma is a strong performer nonetheless, and while it was hard to carry the five-pound lens, the 200-600mm weighs only about a half pound less. Those looking to travel truly lightweight with Sony can opt for the 100-400mm and the 1.4x teleconverter for the same 600mm focal length at just a hair over three pounds.
Combine the a7CR and the Sony 100-400mm and you have a combined weight of under 4.5 pounds. With the Sigma 60-600mm, I had a 6.5-pound combo, but that’s still manageable. At least it would be if I hadn’t had knee replacement surgery three months earlier. I was staggering along, trying to work out the kinks in my new knee (literally and figuratively), and the a7CR and Sigma combo was noticeably heavy. Still, I managed the sixty-minute walk without dying.
Into The City
Our flight to Brazil landed in Såo Paolo, and since I don’t like to speak ill of a place, I’ll mention here that every guidebook and travel website says the crime in the city and warns tourists not to go to most places and not to go for a walk.
The hotel was in a business section of town, though still next to a park where I found some sketchy activity. But the city closes the wide and long Paulista Avenue to pedestrian traffic on Sundays, and suddenly, a block party erupts.
My digital-era travel cameras were all selected not to look expensive. The Fuji X100, Sony RX1R, and then RX1R II were small fixed-lens cameras that fit anywhere I went without calling attention. I’d often pair the Sony a7C with a fixed 24mm or 28mm lens and casually take photos.
I connected the a7C to the Sony 28-60mm F/4-5.6 this time. You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of this lens; it’s not one of the recent shiny pieces of glass. But it’s a great, unobtrusive lens. Extended, it’s just a few inches, which doesn’t look fancy.
The image quality is very good too — much better than it has a right to be. These photos of people partying on the avenue show sharp detail and good color rendition. Even without lens image stabilization, the 7-stops of shake reduction in the a7CR provided stable footage.
Planes, Boats, and Automobiles
There were dozens of opportunities to put the a7CR to the test in the few weeks of photographing in the Pantanal. On our first day on the water, we watched a hunting jaguar slide into the river to take a shortcut and look for dinner. We saw mother jaguars and their cubs, sleeping male jaguars, capybara, caiman, monkeys, and more birds than I can count.
Luckily, there was a birdwatching photographer on the trip, and she and the guide could identify every bird sighting or call between them. There were many rare birds, many, many rare birds. The eye detects AF for birds worked incredibly well.
What didn’t work as well was the clicking shutter noise from her 1DX, which seemed to freak out many of the birds, although birds tend to fly away as soon as you decide to photograph them. But it was a reminder of the importance of a silent shutter in wildlife photography.
The new AI-based autofocus on the Sony a7cR and a7cII is the system’s highlight and sets them apart from all of Sony’s cameras aside from the a7R V and the a6700. It’s still curious for Sony to have AI autofocus on consumer-level cameras while the top-end flagships have yet to upgrade. The a1 is no slouch, though, with the autofocus able to track most subjects even without features like bird-eye detection.
But like the a7CR, the bird detection works phenomenally, even when I was panning rapidly to catch up with flying birds.
And it’s not just birds that the system nailed. From jaguar to caiman, planes to butterflies, the a7CR nailed AF repeatedly.
The AF downsides of the a7R V are still present in the a7CR, which I discussed in a previous story. As Sony added more AF capabilities, it added more menus as well. Even after the recent revamp of Sony’s menu system, finding the correct AF settings is a byzantine process.
My son was shooting with the a7R V and wanted to change the subjects presented when switching modes so that the camera didn’t offer plane or insect AF to him. I was off the safari vehicle while he sat next to the a7cR on the truck.
When I returned, he said, “I figured out how to change the autofocus, but only because you had that screen open on your camera. If a 12-year-old can’t figure out how to use your menu system, you need a new menu system.
The AI-based autofocus is even more impressive for video shooters than the still-image focus. While Sony’s eye-detect AF has been a mainstay on the camera lineup, the video AF has been a step behind. It’s been great at tracking bodies, but not eyes, and not eyes on birds or animals.
The a7R V changed that with AI-tracking for all recognized subjects. In my hands-on review (embedded above), I include video footage shot handheld on the boat, where the a7CR ably captured subjects and tracked them despite the motion of the boat and my movement.
The camera also has all the latest video features like breathing compensation, power over USB, and more. Several YouTubers have posted videos saying the a7CII and the a7Cr make better video cameras than Sony’s FX lineup due to the autofocus.
The main reason I like the a7CR for travel is the ability to crop. Typically, on a safari, I bring either the 200-600mm G lens or the 100-400mm GM with the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters. On this trip, as mentioned, I brought only Sigma’s 60-600mm lens.
The Sigma is accurate and gives excellent reach, but as birding photographers know, there’s no such thing as being too close to a bird. With 60 megapixels to work with, there was plenty of opportunity to crop images to get the shots of birds and wildlife I saw in my mind’s eye.
Rolling the shutter is always a problem with a high-megapixel camera. There’s too much data to read for most processors to keep up. Strangely, the a7CR exhibits less rolling shutter than the a7R V, although they possess the same sensor.
When a company updates a camera, it mentions a faster processor can reduce the rolling shutter, which is the case.
There is still a rolling shutter, with the occasional image stretched unrealistically and noticeably, but it was much less prevalent than the a7R V. The Rolling shutter also seems improved in the video. For video-first shooters, the a7C II would produce less rolling shutter and less overall noise, but for general video use, the a7CR was more than enough.
In The Field, In The Hand
As a small travel camera, the Sony a7CR is about compromises, and most of those found in this camera aren’t terrible. The LCD screen is lower quality than higher-end cameras, and the camera lacks some customizable buttons.
The two most significant issues with the a7CR are inherited from Sony’s other cameras that use this form factor. The lack of a joystick is my particular sore point. Sony has often said that the LCD screen can be used instead of a joystick, and that’s true. It just can’t be used well. The fidelity of the LCD screen and the propensity of it to get bumped by my nose or cheek makes it much less helpful than a joystick.
Simply put, any camera a pro uses should have a joystick for focus point selection.
It took me more than an hour to configure the a7CR exactly how I wanted to be able to pick out one subject from a group of similar subjects. The AF was great at picking out a raptor from a flock of them (or whatever a group of snail-eating raptors is called) but could have done better at picking out the one raptor I wanted to photograph. Shooting a wide area or zone certainly captures the correct type of subject, but a small focus point is necessary to pick out the right one.
Cue me desperately trying to use the top corner of the LCD screen to move the focus point over to the right bird while it flew away.
The other main issue also comes from the previous bodies; the EVF is small, low-res, and located on the left side of the body.
The poor quality of the EVF left me squinting sometimes to see the animals, and I often just relied on the AF to grab a subject even if I couldn’t see it.
There is a divide among photographers about single card slot cameras. Many photographers are fine with a single card slot. A commenter on my A6700 video went so far as to say that they think card failures are a myth.
They are not, and I had one on this shoot. The days were nearly 100º, and we had spent hours in a boat on the river in the direct noon sun. I tried to cover my camera gear with a towel between subjects, but we followed a jaguar down the river.
Suddenly, the Sigma lens, which was almost too hot to hold, made a slight whining noise as it tried to focus. I disconnected it to let it cool and switched to the Sony 70-200mm, but I noticed that the buffer counter showed it was writing to the card, but the remaining shots counter wouldn’t move from 20 shots.
I tried playing images on the ProGrade card but could not. I switched to another card and kept shooting, and when I got back to my room, I found that the images (aside from the last two or three) were on the card and could be copied to my Mac.
This is the first card issue I’ve had in about five years, but it’s an object lesson in the potential problems from a single card. Many photographers won’t trust a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a single card slot, and I can’t blame them.
Welcome To The Jungle
Usually, when I test a camera, I’ll bring my standard rig as a backup to jump back to it when I’ve concluded my tests. Maybe it’s because the a7CR is so similar to the a7R V that I didn’t return to my main body.
With travel cameras, compromises usually make it unpleasant to shoot or incapable of doing what the larger and more expensive cameras do. But that never happened with the a7CR. The compromises in viewfinder and ergonomics are manageable and an acceptable (to me) tradeoff to have a smaller body.
I’m unsure when I’ll head back to somewhere like the Pantanal, but I’d be happy to take the a7CR with me.