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Just when I thought I was going to have a relaxing weekend at home watching Netflix and catching up on some reading, one of the hottest new items in town was dropped onto my desk: the Sony a7RII. Ever since it was first announced, the a7RII is a camera that I couldn't wait to get my hands on, as it is the first in the a7 family to record 4K (UHD) video internally; a feature that many a7S owners—myself included—would love to have. The camera seemed almost too good to be true, offering internal 4K (3840 x 2160) recording in full-frame and Super 35 modes, S-Log2 gamma, 5-axis in-camera stabilization, and the promise of good low-light performance despite its 42MP sensor.
While on paper, the a7RII has most of the boxes checked off with the features I’m looking for in a compact cinema camera, I was eager to see how it performed out in the real world, to see if it truly lives up to the hype. In my opinion, it absolutely does. But alas, no camera is perfect, and neither is a7RII. It is not without it quirks and caveats, including the familiar foe that the a7S and DSLR/mirrorless shooters oft fight against: rolling shutter. The camera also runs very hot when shooting 4K internally, to the point where overheating could be an issue in certain environments or shooting styles.
In this review, I’ll take a closer look at the video capabilities of the camera and see how it performs compared to the a7S. For an article covering the camera’s photographic abilities, I encourage you to read this article from my fellow writer, Shawn Steiner. Let’s dive right in!
Music: "Acoustic Breezes" - Bensound.com
42MP Exmor R CMOS Sensor
At 42.4 megapixels, the sensor in the a7RII offers the highest resolution yet in an a7 camera—or any mirrorless camera to date, for that matter. The concern many video shooters had when they heard this was that the high pixel density would mean poor low-light performance. This is not the case. The a7R II features the world’s first full-frame Exmor R back side illuminated (BSI) sensor, which uses a gapless on-chip lens design and positions the copper wiring layer behind the photodiode substrate, rather than in front of it to improve light-capturing capabilities. This means that, despite the high pixel density, the A7RII’s sensor still performs remarkably well at high ISOs, even compared to the a7S, the undisputed low-light champion.
Physical / Handling
One of the most immediately noticeable differences between the a7RII and the previous-generation a7 models is the updated body. Gone is the glossy black surface in favor of a matte-black, speckled finish. I’m still rather partial to the glossy black finish myself, but they each have their aesthetic value. Ergonomically, the new design is much improved. An extended grip and relocated shutter button makes the camera a lot more comfortable to hold. The camera is also noticeably thicker and heavier, making it feel a bit more solid in the hand.
I’m also glad to say that camera has a larger 0.5", 2.36M-dot OLED EVF that is a joy a shoot with. More often than not, I’m shooting with an external monitor, but when going handheld or when using the camera to take photos (and gorgeous 42MP photos they are!), a good EVF is definitely appreciated. The eye cup is also re-designed and is a bit more comfortable than the one found on the a7s.
The layout of the side connection ports is different from the a7S and the previous-generation a7R, as well, as you can see in the photo, below. However, the biggest change related to connectivity is that the camera can now be powered from the USB port. This is great, because the batteries that come with the camera don’t last long—and even less when you’re recording 4K. It also means that you can use external batteries plugged into the USB port on the side of the camera, rather than the far more cumbersome dummy battery. You can even use common USB phone chargers to keep your camera powered on a shoot. Regardless of which you choose, an external power source is pretty much mandatory for serious video work.
Menu and Function Buttons
The movie record button is still, unfortunately, located in that awkward place on the side of the grip. While you still can’t re-map the record Start/Stop function to the shutter button, you can re-map it to any of the custom function buttons found on the camera. I assigned it to the C1 button and never looked back. It’s a simple thing, but makes a world of difference.
One feature that you still can’t assign to a function button is APS-C/Super 35 crop mode selection, so you’ll have to go digging through the menu to get to it. It’s usually what my menu is on, so the menu button effectively takes me right to it, but any time I need to adjust anything else, it is annoying to fumble through the menu back to it. Let me simply say that the menu system of the Sony Alpha leaves a lot to be desired, and I’ll leave it at that. Please, Sony, give us Alpha shooters an easy-to-navigate menu.
Internal Full Frame and Super 35 4K Recording
The a7R II records 8-bit 4:2:0 4K (UHD) video at 24/25 fps internally to SD cards using Sony’s XAVC S codec, which is available at bitrates of 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps. To record 4K video at 100 Mbps, a UHS-I U3-compatible card is required, so make sure you have a few handy. You can also output 4:2:2 4K video to an external recorder, but the HDMI output is still only 8-bit. While 10-bit would have been nice, Sony seems to be reserving that for their professional camcorders and cinema cameras, at least for now.
In addition to UHD-resolution video, you can record 1080p up to 60 fps and 720p up to 120 fps. I usually shoot at 24 fps, so I didn’t play around with any of the lower resolutions or slow-motion frame rates very much for this review. For this review, my focus was on 4K.
The a7RII offers both full-frame and APS-C crop (Super 35) internal 4K recording modes. Super 35 mode gives you the best image quality, as it takes an 18MP crop of the sensor and then down-scales it to 4K without any line skipping or pixel binning, resulting in sharp images that are relatively free from moiré and aliasing. The full-frame mode uses the whole resolution of the sensor and thus uses pixel binning to down-sample it to 4K. While full frame isn’t quite as sharp as Super 35 and can pick up a small amount of moiré and aliasing in some shots, you’d really have to pixel peep to notice much difference, especially when the footage is down-scaled to 1080p. That is, unless you’re shooting in low light.
Low Light / High ISO Performance
I mentioned previously that the camera performs surprisingly well in low light, despite its 42MP sensor. I decided to do a direct comparison between the a7RII’s low-light performance in both full frame and Super 35 modes, and the Sony a7S (See the video below).
For the test, both the a7R II and the a7S cameras were set to record the same scene using the same lens (the FE 55mm f/1.8), white balance, and S-Log2 gamma. To better make out some of the noise, I added a simple luma curve adjustment layer to all of the footage in Adobe Premiere Pro. The resulting video clearly shows that, while not as clean as the a7S at the same ISO, the a7RII in Super 35 mode is a valiant low-light performer. In real-world shooting, I would feel comfortable shooting with the a7RII up to ISO 6400 in Super 35 mode. For non-paid work or content that is going to be delivered on the Web, you could easily get away with going higher, but how high comes down to personal preference, how much noise is acceptable to you, and how good your noise reduction software is.
Perhaps the most obvious thing I noticed from the test is just how drastically different the high ISO performances of 4K Super 35 and 4K full-frame modes are. Whatever the camera is doing behind the scenes, it’s clearly working for the Super 35 mode, and not so much for full frame. For any sort of low-light shooting, I would always choose to shoot in Super 35. I would expect that you could even pair the camera with a Metabones speed booster to gain an additional couple of stops of performance, bring it even closer to the performance of the a7S while giving you that the full-frame look.
Like the a7S, the a7RII features Sony’s S-Log2 gamma setting, allowing you to record a flat, “log” image that preserves more highlight and shadow information and can be color-graded later during post production. One of the biggest downsides to shooting with the a7S is that the base/minimum ISO you need to set for shooting in S-Log2 is 3200, which often requires up to 10 stops of neutral density to shoot outdoors, during the day. With the a7RII, you can shoot in S-Log2 starting at ISO 800. It may only be two stops, but to me it made a world of difference. Aside from internal 4K recording, this may be my favorite thing about the camera.
It is worth mentioning that S-Log2 can get a bit noisy in the shadows, compared to other gamma profiles. Common practice among those who often shoot in S-Log2 is to overexpose the scene by one or two stops for cleaner images. I highly recommend doing just that if you’re going to shoot in S-Log2. I should also mention that color-grading S-Log2 footage can be tricky for non-colorists. A good place to start is to apply a pre-made S-Log2 specific LUT. You can use a default one from Sony or use one that creates a specific “look” and even emulate a film stock. I’m a personal fan of VisionColor’s ImpulZ LUT package, but there are a lot of solid options available.
For cleaner video, albeit without the expanded dynamic range that log recording offers, you can choose from any of the other gamma modes found of the a7S, including Cine2 and Cine4 modes. These modes still give you flatter images, but with the added benefit of shooting at ISO 100 and 200, respectively.
Rolling shutter plagues many DSLR and mirrorless shooters, and is one of the biggest complaints heard about the a7S. Its rolling shutter is pretty pronounced, and for the kind of shooting some people do, this could be a deal-breaker. It isn’t as big of an issue for what I shoot, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause me frustration. Rolling shutter on the a7RII is a mixed bag. In 4K full-frame mode, there is a noticeable improvement from what you get on the a7S. Switching to the 1080p full frame improves it even more. Unfortunately, the mode that gives you the best image quality and low-light performance—Super 35—has the worst rolling-shutter effect. In fact, it looks to be as bad as or worse than the a7S in full frame (see the video below).
So 4K full-frame mode offers better rolling-shutter performance, while Super 35 mode gives you the best image quality and low-light performance. This could create a conundrum, at times, as to which mode is right for you. If there is fast-moving action and good lighting, maybe you’d want to shoot in full frame, while shooting everything else in Super 35. I don’t like switching back and forth between modes during a project, but it is certainly something you could consider.
One of the exciting new features of the a7RII is its 5-axis in-body image stabilization system. While I didn’t get the chance to explore the feature as much as I would have liked, I foresee giving the feature a closer examination in the future. Basically, the sensor moves independently inside the body to counteract unwanted movement. It will automatically adjust to the focal length of the lens you’re using, so long as it transmits imaging data to the camera. For manual or adapter lenses you can set the focal length yourself, in the menu, to ensure proper stabilization.
In the time that I did spend using the feature, I was pretty impressed and it did a good job at minimizing the jitters and wobble of handheld footage. Documentary or run-and-gun-type shooters, I think, will benefit from this feature the most. One thing to note is that it can sometimes cause some weird side effects if the feature is left on while the camera is mounted on a tripod. Make sure to turn it off when you’re not shooting handheld.
The autofocusing capabilities of the camera, in both photo and video modes, have been revamped in the a7RII. In my tests, I found that the continuous autofocus feature was, in many cases, able to track a subject moving toward and away from the camera. When a subject quickly enters the frame, the camera was able to “rack” from the background to the subject pretty quickly, but the focus does tend to pulsate a bit before locking on the new subject, and the same goes for when the subject is removed and the camera focuses on the background again. I found that the “slow” speed setting gave me the best results in such situations.
Would I shoot a whole piece using autofocus? No, but it definitely has it place. For example, you can use it for multi-camera event work and cut between cameras when the focusing gets a bit wonky, or for documentary use. I only scratched the surface with the autofocus capabilities of the camera, so I’d like to play around with the feature more in the future.
Given the right circumstances, any camera can overheat, but some cameras are more prone to this potential than others. Digital cinema cameras that shoot 4K avoid this problem by using passive heat sinks or, in most cases, fan-assisted cooling. The small form factor of the a7RII precludes a large heat sink or active fan cooling and, with all the processing required to record 4K internally—from a full-sized sensor, no less—overheating in certain conditions is to be expected. Having heard reports of other users dealing with overheating issues, I was definitely curious to see under what conditions the camera would overheat. The amount of time it took for the camera to overheat varied widely. Let me explain the situation, to give you a better idea.
It was a blistering day in New York City, around 91 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time I started setting up the camera, I had already been walking around in the sun for close to an hour, with the camera toasting away inside my camera bag. What followed was another 20 minutes or so of the camera sitting in the heat before I started shooting. The camera lasted about 10 minutes before a message popped up on the screen telling me that the camera was too hot and had to shut down. My footage saved before it did, but I can’t guarantee that will always be the case. Not to mention the shots you’re missing by your camera going down. The camera did cool down quickly, and within a few minutes I was up an shooting again.
In a more controlled indoor test, free of direct sunlight or high temperatures, the camera did overheat after 40 minutes of continuous 4K recording (30-minute clip followed by a 10-minute clip). It’s important to note that I had the LCD screen closed against the body in this test. In a subsequent test outdoors in direct sunlight and with the LCD screen pulled away from the camera, I was able to record for 45 minutes straight without the camera giving me any warning, despite the fact that the body was significantly hotter to the touch than it was during the indoor test. I would have recorded longer, had my battery not died.
While more testing would be needed, I do believe that having the LCD extended away from the body does help keep the camera from overheating. It helps with air flow, and prevents monitor-generated heat from contributing to the problem. I suspect that Sony is aware of this, as in 4K recording modes the monitor and viewfinder brightness default to a lower setting, and the camera won’t let you adjust it.
An alternative solution would be to use an external recorder for 4K video, as this should reduce the work the camera’s processor has to do, resulting in cooler running. I should also note that during a four-hour shoot of on-and-off recording in Battery Park, in Manhattan, I didn’t have a single overheating issue. My monitor was almost always extended away from the camera body during the shoot. Take that for what you will.
We spoke with a Sony rep and, at the moment, there is no official statement from Sony regarding the camera's potential to overheat during 4K recording.
The Sony a7RII is a powerhouse of a camera that can deliver some of the best Super 35mm 4K video outside of professional cinema cameras—and even then, it can hold its own. Sony didn’t hold back when designing this camera, packing a full-frame BSI sensor, internal 4K recording, 5-axis in-body stabilization, and 42MP still images, to boot. For hybrid photographers/videographers, the camera is a no-brainer. Would I recommend the camera for a video shooter? Absolutely, but you’ll have to weigh the rolling shutter and heat issues into your consideration.
Should an a7S owner sell their camera to buy this one? That’s a tougher question, but if money isn’t an issue—the a7RII currently costs more than the a7S—then I would be inclined to say yes. The camera simply offers more than the a7S, can shoot S-Log2 at ISO 800, and the tests show it still holds its own in terms of low-light performance. And most importantly, it doesn’t need an external recorder to harness its 4K imaging power. You may want to start checking the re-sale market, because the a7RII is here—and it means business.
To read more about the a7RII’s still photo capabilities, read Shawn Steiner’s review to get the whole picture.
To learn more about the Sony a7RII, watch the B&H live panel discussion, by clicking here.