The 61-megapixel full-frame sensor is brilliant, the autofocus tracking is impeccable, the articulating screen is the best around, and yet Sony cameras are still plagued by terrible ergonomics.
There’s only so much that really needs to be said about Sony’s A7R V mirrorless camera. Sony made so many right decisions with this new model, that it’s easily one of the best cameras money can buy right now. The new AI autofocus system is an excellent jump forward. The improved built-in image stabilization is excellent for hand-holding slower shots. The new articulating display is so good it should just be copied by all other manufacturers as soon as possible. And the 61-megapixel sensor yields some of the best image quality you can get today without jumping to medium format — trusting your computer and storage are up to the task of processing these beefy files.
But while Sony has made some recent strides to offer quality-of-life improvements like a better menu system in recent cameras (which is only marginally better, if I’m being candid), why are its latest cameras still stuck with such bad ergonomics?
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh he’s just reaching to find something to complain about.” But camera ergonomics, physical handling, and grip quality are important. They really, really matter, especially for anyone in situations where they’re going to use a camera continuously for many hours. I know this first-hand from photographing weddings, where I use a camera (usually two) for anywhere from nine to 12 hours straight. And I know this exceptionally well with regards to the A7R V, because its body is nearly identical to one of my personal cameras, the Sony A7 IV.
Sony does this thing where it establishes something new with one of its cameras (a control layout, an autofocus system, etc.) and then slowly trickles out the same, or nearly the same feature, to a bunch of other models in its line. On one hand, this is great, because you may get an exceptionally advanced feature from a pricey model added to a much more affordable camera. But if there’s something about a design that doesn’t jive with you — like poorly contoured grips that aren’t tall enough — sadly, you’re going to be stuck with that for a while.
So how bad are these Sony ergonomics? Bad enough that I feel compelled to write about it. Bad enough that last year, while talking shop with other photographers, I began jokingly coining a phrase to describe what these grips do to your hand: The Sony Knuckle.
The Sony Knuckle is the pain and irritation you get about halfway up your middle-finger, on the side of the PIP joint, from the pressure point of the camera’s grip under the shutter button. Just about any Sony Alpha full-frame camera that’s been manufactured over the last five years has this oddly short, outward projection under the shutter that’s contoured for your middle finger. But it’s not contoured well, or enough. It either needs more height or a softer curve, or perhaps both. When you initially hold the camera it feels okay, but once you use it a lot you realize how uncomfortable it gets. Magnify that by a full day or back-to-back days of heavy usage, and — well, more than once I’ve felt a small blister forming. The handful of pros that I work with who also use Sony cameras have experienced the same thing, so while I can’t say it will happen to everyone, I can say with confidence that the Sony Knuckle is not an isolated condition.
But this isn’t the only reason Sony’s ergonomics need improvement. The grips themselves are also too short. Like many other camera bodies out there that focus on small, compact sizing, the A7R V — again, like every other camera in Sony’s current lineup — left my pinky finger hanging off the bottom. I think this is part of why the Sony Knuckle gets so bad — because my pinky finger is not able to help support the camera, leaving more pressure on that middle-finger knuckle.
I’ve actually tried to remedy this by buying a small add-on base plate for the bottom of my A7 IV (which I’ve also been using on the A7R V), and while I appreciate that the base plate gives my pinky much more room at the bottom, it creates its own issue by causing a spot of pain in the middle of my palm. I’m not surprised that this little add-on bottom plate can’t fix this ergonomic SNAFU all on its own, but what is the solution?
It’s time Sony completely rethinks the grips on all of its cameras. They need to be slightly taller, and they desperately need to be made of a higher quality, softer grip material. We can knock Canon and Nikon all we want for being so late to the mirrorless party and taking forever to get their acts together, but goddamn, these legacy camera brands know a thing or two about the grips that go on cameras. My old Nikon D700 and D3 cameras were easy to hold and use all day, even if they were much larger and heavier than what we’re using today. Even the Canon EOS R that I owned for a while, which is a much cheaper camera than the A7R V, has a grip that’s miles ahead of anything Sony is currently making. It’s roomy enough for your whole hand and soft enough that it has a tiny bit of give when you squeeze.
As full-size cameras become more and more technically capable, with automated or assisted features that were inconceivable years ago, the human interface cannot be forgotten or left on the wayside. Nearly every time I use the A7R V, I am blown away by how exceptional a picture-taking device it is. The way its improved autofocus identifies subjects and continues tracking even when they turn away or get temporarily obstructed is really a small triumph. It’s something that is greatly appreciated in my line of photography — whether I’m photographing a bride or capturing some silly snaps of my weirdo house cats — because it gives me confidence that I’m going to get the shot tack-sharp as soon as my subject turns around.
But we can’t forget that these devices must be designed for humans. Just like every camera has a diopter control to allow the viewfinder to be adjusted to our squishy, inefficient eyeballs, all cameras need a grip that’s going to be comfortable to hold and not feel like a torture device after extended use. Sony, if you can make a camera that can automatically distinguish between birds and bees, you should be more than capable of building one that doesn’t feel crappy to hold.
Photography by Antonio G. Di Benedetto / The Verge
Antonio G. Di Benedetto