It seems that, this time, Sony has made a camera that will make even the most steadfast DSLR shooters pause and consider mirrorless cameras, if only for a second. That, in itself, makes the a7RII a huge accomplishment and makes me extremely lucky for the opportunity to take it out for a test drive.
I was given just one weekend with the a7RII, which frankly is not enough time to truly delve into all of the camera’s nuances, so I focused on the still-photography side of things. Fortunately, fellow writer Justin Dise took care of the video features with his own review. So, be sure to check that out to get the whole picture.
Build and Handling
Let’s begin with the body redesign. It embraces the form factor first introduced with the a7II, which is great because Sony did many things right with the new body. This includes relocating the shutter release to a more natural position, making the grip larger, and ensuring better button placement with more customization. The magnesium-alloy body also sees a new textured matte finish that is much more resistant to dirt and fingerprints than the earliest models, and it feels great in the hand.
A significant update from earlier models is the revamped electronic viewfinder. While it keeps the same 2,360k-dot resolution, the optics have been enhanced and it has been made much larger, with a magnification of 0.78x, which makes using it a lot more comfortable. After using the a7RII, the EVF on my a7S seemed much more cramped. One thing I did notice was that during image magnification, the image appeared to be very low res, with pixilation and jagged edges that made manual focusing a bit more difficult. But, besides this, the viewfinder is a welcome improvement.
Inside the body we can see that Sony really has listened to critiques of the original a7R with the redesigned mechanical shutter. Giving the whole system a facelift, the shutter cuts down on vibrations by about 50% and has been made to withstand 500,000 actuations. This ameliorates a huge problem users had with the original a7R and allows photographers to get as much detail as possible out of the high-resolution camera. Additionally, Sony was able to implement an electronic first-curtain shutter setting, as well as a completely silent shooting mode like we saw on the a7S. The new shutter was also one of the first things I noticed when I started shooting with the a7RII. The shutter was very smooth and sounded clean; you didn’t hear any additional rattling of introduced shake. It also happened to be a little bit quieter than the shutter in my a7S.
Another internal update was the addition of 5-axis SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization. Even if you don’t normally feel like you need it, the stabilization of the viewfinder while composing your photo is invaluable. It appears to be a little bit better than just having optical stabilization in the lens, though this is one of the more difficult things to show off. The huge advantage really comes with using adapted lenses, which you set up by simply plugging the focal length into the menu, now allowing old legacy lenses or fully manual optics to benefit from modern stabilizers. Video shooters will also love this new capability, especially those who constantly find themselves out without a tripod.
A less noticeable change is that the mode dial now locks, which turned out to be more annoying than helpful. The dial was already stiff enough and in a position that made accidental turns difficult, so now it requires force and the simultaneous pressing of a button. On another note, the customization of all the buttons and dials is a highlight, though an absolute necessity since, otherwise, you will spend too much time navigating through the menu system. This has been a problem for many Sony cameras, but as they keep adding more and more features, the menu does feel like it is getting a little crowded. I was scrolling through tons of video-related items just to find the one photo-specific setting I required. Some cleanup, or maybe a custom page, would be a nice improvement in the future.
The top of the camera is still equipped with the Multi Interface Shoe found on its predecessors (though now it is a sleek black instead of silver), meaning you can attach a flash, microphone, or other accessory with ease. I have the large HVL-F60M flash, which completely throws my a7S off balance. But, with the a7RII, while it is still noticeably large, it manages to stay balanced, especially with larger lenses like the FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro OSS lens. This is a huge update, as previously, if you wanted an on-camera flash you either had to settle with an awkward setup or one with much less power.
Now, I found the larger size to be a huge asset, though I know many will lament the growing size of the a7 series. Mirrorless cameras were often advertised as a much smaller and lighter option than a DSLR, and yes, there is some merit to that. The a7RII seems to ignore this concept, but it really is just that you can’t get a camera with anywhere close to the capabilities of the a7RII without moving to a larger body. And, while some will find the size a little large, there will be just as many that say it still isn’t quite large enough. In the end it comes down to personal preference and, in my opinion, it is a well-balanced compromise between size and features.
The real test of any camera is, of course, the image quality, and with a brand-new full-frame back illuminated 42.2-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor, the a7RII really does deliver. The technology has, for the first time, made its way into full-frame territory and claims to offer less noise, faster processing, and generally improved image quality and dynamic range. In practice, I did notice all of these things, but there were a few caveats.
Is it fast? Definitely. The camera easily hits its 5 fps continuous shooting rate and can maintain it for a little more than four seconds, allowing for about 22 RAW files to be captured in a single burst, complete with AF. The write speeds, on the other hand, were very limiting. Every time I tried to review a photo I had just taken, I would get an error message that the camera was still writing to the card. This would last for a couple seconds before I could finally pull the image up. Also, a full string of RAW images would take about 2 minutes to fully clear, so sports and action shooters should be wary of this.
FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS; ISO 100; f/4; 1/100 second
Does it cut down on noise? Yes, impressively so. The a7RII manages to both increase resolution and still offer an excellent noise profile. It’s not quite as good as my a7S, which I am able to use easily at ISO 25600 and even 51200, but it holds its own despite having over 3x the resolution. I would comfortably use images up to ISO 6400, and possibly even 12800, if I applied noise reduction. Part of this is just how the noise reads in the image. It feels more reminiscent of an organic film grain than the ugly digital noise we have come to expect. The level of detail retained is also quite incredible, but be sure to turn off the internal noise reduction, as I found that it was extremely overzealous and smeared fine details.
Below, you can find a whole series of converted RAW images with no noise reduction, from ISO 100 up to the maximum of 102400.
Now, how about overall improvements? Most importantly, the dynamic range of this sensor is incredible. I know there is a lot of worry about the lossy compression with RAW files, but in my short time with the camera, I didn’t find any issues. I’m sure that in certain instances where users are really pushing the camera to the limits, some problems may crop up, but for most general shooting conditions I can’t see this being much of a problem—besides the constant thought that maybe I could be getting a lot more from my images. The color also seemed a little more accurate than what I get from my a7S, but it still maintains Sony’s usual bluish tones with auto white balance.
The resolution is obviously one of the major selling points of this camera, for stills shooters. This is a lot of information, and something that can only truly be appreciated when you zoom in to 100%. The camera is near the top when it comes to resolution in this class of camera, and studio and landscape photographers will find the detail incredible. When shooting with strobes, and at ISO 100, I was just blown away. The large files did choke up the camera a little when you were scrolling through them for review on the rear LCD. The a7RII would hesitate for a second or two when you hit the magnification button to check focus.
FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS; ISO 100; f/5.6; 1/100 second
Looking through the viewfinder, I felt extremely confident in the images being captured. The camera was able to display astounding dynamic range, and the metering did a very good job of keeping highlights in check. I was never worried about the camera accidentally blowing out a huge portion of the image and, if I needed to bring the sky down, the accessibility of the exposure compensation dial made it incredibly easy to correct. Also, the new dials for aperture and shutter speed offer greater grip and allow you to turn them confidently, as much or as little as needed. Then, when I brought the files into Capture One and Photoshop, I was able to pull down the highlights further and bring the details out of the shadows.
With a Fast Hybrid AF system that utilizes 399 phase-detect AF points covering 45% of the sensor area, the a7RII was expected to bring mirrorless focusing to another level. I initially had reservations as to how well this would perform in real life; when I owned an a6000, while it was impressive, tracking had a tendency to miss. The a7RII, on the other hand, greatly surpassed my expectations, holding its own against many professional DSLRs I have had the opportunity to use in the past.
FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS; 16mm; ISO 250; f/5.6; 1/1600 second
Heading over to the Astoria Skate Park, I found a skateboarder willing to help put the camera to the test. I set up the camera in continuous AF (AF-C) mode with Lock-On to see how well it could track a moving subject, and this is where I was really surprised. The camera locked on quickly, painting a green box around the subject, and moves with them to assure you that the subject is still being tracked. When I was shooting, it locked onto the skater and followed him through a series of different moves.
While focusing did seem to be just a hair off in a couple of shots, it was so close that it didn’t really matter, in most cases. Also, you can dial-in speed settings to tune the system specifically to your subject, and whether you require precision or need to just keep up with a fast-moving body in motion. There is also a huge variety of focus modes and settings available, though I did notice that when set to Wide, it had a tendency to get confused on what exactly to focus on. Other modes, including contrast-based ones, all show a drastic improvement compared to the a7S and a7R, which have a solely contrast-based system.
AF-C (Continuous AF) in Lock-On: Expanded Flexible Spot Mode at 5 fps with FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS
Eye AF makes an appearance, as well, with the ability to utilize the phase-detect points and continuous focus system. The camera’s ability to locate and track an eye in the frame was astounding, as it kept up with people turning their heads. This is useful for many photographers, but it would be even more functional if some of the most awesome features weren't buried in menu systems.
One other important thing to note is the availability of phase-detect AF when using Canon EF and Sony A-mount lenses. I found that it was almost as impressively fast as native FE glass but that it was a little more inconsistent and, occasionally, was prone to hunt more. This is a huge advantage for Canon and A-mount shooters who are considering making the switch but don’t want to completely invest in a new lens system. It is important to note that not all adapters and lenses will work perfectly, so if it is important that this feature works, you are going to have to try it out yourself.
Tethering and Battery Life
Sony has developed a partnership to release a free version of Capture One for reading RAW files and, while RAW conversion is a very personal thing, Capture One is one of the top dogs in this arena and well worth checking out. You will have to move up to the Pro version for full tethering and editing capabilities, but this justifies the cost if you like the software. Of course, tethering support is superb and, for those who usually have their system connected to a computer, they will find that the a7RII can easily find its way into your workflow. Also, a huge benefit is that the camera can receive power over USB while you are shooting, meaning you can charge the battery as you shoot, effectively providing users with an AC power source.
FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS; ISO 100; f/4; 0.6 second
Strobe support is also lacking, once again. The camera does not have any dedicated ports for flash beside the hot shoe, which is fine for most people using remote triggers, like me. But sometimes a sync cable is a great option or backup, and currently it is not possible. I was using a simple Profoto Air Remote with a couple of B1 Air Battery-Powered Flash heads that worked wonderfully. I did find that at lower power settings the LED modeling light caused flicker in the viewfinder, an issue I had never encountered with a DSLR, thanks to the optical viewfinder. I would greatly appreciate a flash system, or a more standardized port on both the camera and flashes for better lighting solutions, something crucial for many photographers.
One of the biggest sticking points of the camera is the battery life. The a7RII does use the same batteries as its predecessors, which is great if you already have a pile sitting around, because this camera will eat through batteries. It does come with two batteries and a wall charger to alleviate some of the problem. However, after shooting for a little bit, and admittedly looking through images and scrolling through the menu more than an average user, I found it was draining way more quickly than any other camera I have used. Also, I believe there is some kind of drain occurring when the camera is switched off, as I noticed a notably lower battery percentage reading when I picked it up the next morning.
Built-in Wi-Fi is available for remote operation with a smartphone, and while I didn’t spend much time messing with it, the operation seems about the same as all previous models. It is a nice addition, and if you are out and about and want a convenient photo for Instagram or Facebook, it works quite well. I did have some odd connection problems on iOS devices though, so the app may be in need of an update for newer versions of iOS. We also see the return of the apps. Some capabilities, like Time Lapse, require an additional purchase for use. These can be installed on multiple cameras, so if you already bought them you won’t need to buy it again but, I feel that after you buy a camera like this, some of these features should be built in.
FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS; 28mm; ISO 100; f/4; 1/250 second
Simply stated, I loved the a7RII, even though at times the minor issues were more than just small annoyances. Once you look at the files and set your buttons, dials, and function menu up exactly as you want—which is, perhaps, one of the absolute best features of the camera—it will be hard to put down. The camera also feels good in the hand and feels like it can take more of a beating than its predecessors. This is crucial if I want something I can just throw in my bag and get on the road. And, on top of all of this, it offers incredible detail, a wide dynamic range, and though I didn’t delve into it, internal UHD 4K recording.
It is important to note that even though I did encounter a variety of small issues, the image quality makes many of these just not worth worrying about, and I would have no problem recommending this camera to most people. The only reservation I would have is with photographers who solely shoot in a studio, as a full-sized DSLR with proper ports, a more balanced build, and an optical viewfinder may benefit them, as the weight-savings of the mirrorless design doesn’t really matter too much.
In the end, Sony has released a truly impressive camera, and one that I expect to find at or near the top of many “Best Cameras of 2015” lists at the end of this year.
To read more about the a7RII's 4K capabilites, read Justin Dise's review to get the whole picture.
FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS; 16mm; ISO 100; f/4; 1/800 sec.
FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS; ISO 250; f/5.6; 1/125 sec.
FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS; ISO 2000; f/5.6; 1/125 sec.
To learn more about the Sony a7RII, watch the B&H live panel discussion, by clicking here.