Sony’s Industry Challenger
The Sony A7RII was announced in June and started shipping world-wide in early August, 2015. The product’s highlights are likely well known by now, even though shipments have just started. But, at the risk of repetition, here are the main points again…
– 35 mm full-frame back-illuminated 42.4-Megapixel CMOS sensor
– magnesium alloy weather sealed body
– no AA filter
– sensor-based 5 axis image stabilization, which works with any attached lens
– 5 FPS in raw with focus tracking
– 399 phase detection AF points on-sensor covering 45% of the total image area
– 4K (UHD) video with full frame and Super 35mm modes
– 4K recording to internal SD card at 100Mbps in XAVC S
– S-Log video recording
– silent electronic shutter available
– very large, fast refresh and high-resolution OLED EVF
– articulated rear LCD
It’s hard to know where to start when describing the overall appeal of the A7RII. The specs speak for themselves, and I will dive down into many of them in the course of this review. But it seems appropriate to first place both the camera and the company that created it in context.
Michael Reichmann and Kevin Raber Discuss the Sony a7r II
Sony Takes on The Big Dogs
Let’s be blunt. For the past 40 or so years Canon and Nikon have ruled the roost. Their combined hegemony over the DSLR camera market has been almost absolute. This carried through from the film days into digital.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to the future. In addition to companies like Panasonic, Fuji and Olympus carving out small by distinct niches in the camera ecosphere, Sony – always an aggressive player in any field in which they play, purchased the imaging division of Konica / Minolta and used this as a springboard to enter the amateur as well as pro camera market.
The climb has been long, and not an easy one. In the nearly ten years since that acquisition Sony has taken an existing lens and camera line and turned it upside down, shaking out the unneeded and adding its own aggressive and unique approach to products, technology and markets.
At a recent press event I had an opportunity to sit and chat with three of the company’s most senior executives, not to talk cameras, but to talk about the business and where Sony is going in both still and video imaging.
I mentioned at this meeting that at a similar event some three or four years ago I asked the President of Sony U.S. where the company was heading in the digital imaging sphere. His reply was that there was a corporate commitment, taken at the company’s highest levels, to try and make Sony #2 within five years, in other words, to knock either Canon or Nikon out of the box.
At the time I thought this an overly aggressive ambition but Sony has never been a company to approach any market with anything less than a balls-to-the-wall attitude.
Now, several years on, I asked this new group of senior Sony executives where they saw themselves on this march. The smiles around the table were revealing. No one wanted to say outright that they were on track toward achieving such a goal, but certainly the aggressive manner in which Sony has been attacking virtually every segment of the stills and video marketplace tells a story.
Part of that story is the Sony A7RII, the companies new stills / video hybrid. At this media event the pride that the whole Sony team had in this new camera was palpable. In typical Sony fashion, they had invited about 25 web and print journalists from around the world to spend three days working with the A7RII, doing shooting in some interesting venues.
There were senior executives for the U.S., engineers from Japan, and domestic product specialist all shooting, eating, drinking and then doing more shooting together. These are not backroom executives. Everyone is a photographer in their own right, and all share a passion for the art and the craft.
And, just as an aside, don’t think for one minute that these excursions in any way influence mature reviewers. We’ve all done this for many years, and none of us can be “bought” for a glass of wine and a boat ride. Having press excursions is de rigour in almost every industry and no one is under any illusions on how the game plays out. Good products eventually get the praise that they deserve and the dogs get sent to the kennel.
Where to Start?
Frankly, there are so many new and unique features on the A7RII that I feel a bit overwhelmed as I think about how to summarize them all. So, rather than present a list, as I did at the top of this page, I’ll try and summarize them as they relate to ones ability to use this camera as photographic tool.
The camera’s 42.3mm BSI sensor brings with it a number of unique and highly useful features. Of course sheer resolution is one of them, which, at just shy of 43 Megapixels is the second highest of any full-frame 35mm sensor. The Canon 5S/R has it trumped, at 50MP.
But this sensor offers more than just resolving power. It is the first full-frame sensor of BSI (Back Side Illuminated) design, which in layman’s terms simply means that much of the support electronics are moved to the rear of the chip, thus allowing the sensels themselves to be made larger, and thus more sensitive.
The A7RII’s sensor is also mounted on a five-axis image stabilization system, which works with any lens that can be mounted on the camera. For lenses that do not transmit focal length information, this can be set manually by the user.
The sensor is a true AA filter-less design. Unlike some designs which remove the anti-aliasing filter but then substitute a glass layer to maintain sensor distance, the Sony’s sensor is designed to operate without a blur filter from the start. And, as most know, the higher the resolution of a sensor the less likely it is for moire to be a problem, so few will be inconvenienced and most will applaud the increased sharpness that this offers.
And, not to be forgotten, the camera’s sensor has 399 Phase Detection autofocus sensors and 25 Contrast Detection points built into the sensor itself. These cover most of the surface of the sensor, and permit the camera to offer 5 FPS frame rates with continuous tracking autofocus, including eye-detection.
One benefit of not having the autofocus pickup on a separate sensor in the prism housing, the way DSLRs do, is that there is no need to do back-focus adjustments with each lens. Back focusing and front focusing just isn’t a possible issue. But, Sony covers all the bases with the ability to make such adjustments if a lens that uses an adaptor requires it.
The predecessor Sony A7R developed a bad rep for shutter vibration. Sony responded to this in the A7RII with a brand new shutter mechanism. Rated at 500,000 actuation, I know of no other focal plane shutter with this claimed longevity. That’s equal to 100 frames a day taken for almost 14 years.
The shutter is made from carbon fiber and has a shutter brake mechanism. The sound is soft, yet robust. There is a first curtain electronic shutter to reduce vibration further (user settable) and also an electronic second curtain, which when engaged makes the shutter totally silent. There is the potential for rolling shutter issues in this situation, but again, this is a first for a full frame focal plane shutter camera and not an insignificant achievement.
It’s taken Sony a long time to get their user interface right. Every new camera over the past few years has improved, and while not yet the peak of perfection it’s hard to do more than nit-pick on the current state of the A7RII’s controls. There are sufficient custom buttons and user configurable customs menus that most photographers will be able to program the camera to their personal preference.
Inexplicably, some desirable functions can not be set to some menus. When I asked a senior Sony marketing person about this, and why just about every function couldn’t be placed on any custom button or custom menu position, I was told with a nod and a wink that the camera designers liked to impose their own taste in these areas.
Sorry Sony, not a good answer. I’m the one using the camera, not its designer. Unless there’s a valid technical reason not to enable customization, then it should be allowed.
OK, let’s be honest. This is one area where partisans come to blows – optical viewfinders vs electronic viewfinders. I must say that big and bright optical finders are near and dear to my heart. I can’t shoot it properly if I can’t see it properly, is my motto.
But with the exception of all but a few cameras (top of the line Canon and Nikon models, and medium format cameras) most optical viewfinders suck. The EVF on the new A7RII anti-sucks. It is really good. It is bright, it is large and it refreshes quickly. Add to this the things that an EVF can do that an optical finder can’t, such as show zebras and focus peaking, and I think we’re nearing the end-game for optical finders. Yes, the one in the A7RII really is that good, and though I love the OVF on my Pentax 645z it isn’t enough to sway me. EVF’s have just about reached the point where most photographers will find them acceptable, and in many ways superior to OVFs.
The Future of Sony A Mount
There are many photographers who are committed to the Sony A mount, the company’s DSLR cameras with Translucent Mirror Technology. There has been a question hanging in the air for a while now – since the launch of the last A camera, the SLT-A77II in May of 2014. Will there be more A-mount camera to come?
I can’t give a definitive answer, but when I met with the senior Sony executives in Portland, and asked this question, I found their responses evasive and vague. In my experience this usually means “No“, but with no one really wanting to actually say so. It may well be that the answer is yes. I just can’t be sure.
More informative was the unsolicited comment from one of the people at the table. The gentleman said…”The A7RMII would make an excellent camera for anyone invested in A mount lenses. Just add one of the inexpensive mount adapters, such as the LA-E3 and all A series lenses will work perfectly”. This adapter sells for about $199. The more expensive LA-E4 isn’t needed because the A7RII has Phase Detection AF built into the sensor itself and doesn’t need the Translucent Mirror Technology of the LA-E4.
Will this satisfy A series camera owners? I’m not so sure. But, while likely not making everyone happy, at least Sony has provided a viable migration path for those with large A-mount lens investments.
HINT: Brian Smith has a very good article describing which adaptor works best with which Sony A mount lenses and what features are available with each.
Use With Canon EF Lenses
There has been a lot of sturm und drang on the forums, and among Canon owners in particular, about using Canon lenses with the A7RII. Currently the Metabones Smart Adapter Mark IV for Canon EF or Canon EF-S Mount Lens to Sony E-Mount Camera, which sells for about $399, allows a great many Canon lenses to work fully automatically on the A7RII, and in some cases actually autofocus faster than with a 5 Series Canon camera. Do be aware though that when it comes to focus tracking and eye focus, native Sony lenses will likely be preferable.
Now, before you hop on your rantmobile and rage off into the sunset, read the rest of this paragraph. Using the Metabones adapter some / many Canon lenses work very well indeed. Some don’t work so well, and a few don’t work at all. I think it’s fair to say the most Canon lenses made in the past 4-6 years, excepting some of the super-telephotos, work just fine, but you should really test this for yourself.
And remember, it is Metabones that makes the adapter, not Sony. Sony simply provides a terrific camera with all kinds of goodies, such as on-sensor stabilization that works with all lenses, silent electronic shutter, 43MP back-illuminated sensor, 4K in-body video, not to mention 399 point on-sensor Phase Detection autofocus. That it accepts a pretty good adaptor for Canon lenses, that works with many Canon EF mount lenses is simply a bonus.
I do know though the Metabones is constantly tweaking their firmware and also have been told that there are other companies about to enter the market with similar products, including ones for Nikon lenses.
Frankly, when this all settles down I believe that we will have seen a true disruptive force enter the market, one in which owners of one system can switch bodies to another brand if they feel that theirs has fallen behind, or doesn’t offer desired capabilities. And, most of their lenses will remain just as usable as before.
As one media pundit at the Portland conference put it… “Since the start of the digital era, I marry my lenses, but I only date my cameras“. This may in fact become a major factor in the photographic marketplace in the months and years ahead. If one buys quality glass, this is a long-term commitment; one not easily changed out. But of one can now change camera brands at will, this is a sea change which the industry has yet to assimilate into its thinking.
I’ll close this section by adding a comment about use of Leica M lenses on the A7RII. I personally have not yet tried this, and therefore can not comment knowledgably. The new BSI sensor on this body may perform differently than previous ones, but at the time of this writing there are only a couple of online commentaries, though these appear to be mostly positive.
The A7RII is not Sony’s first A7 series camera to shoot 4K video. That honor goes to the A7s of 2014. But, the A7s could not record 4K internally – only to an external recorder such as the Atomos Shogun.
The new A7RII can record 4K video directly to a suitable internal SD card, using the XAVC-S codec at 100 Mbps, at either 24 or 30 FPS. There are two recording modes; either full frame with binning, or in Super-35mm mode with no binning or line skipping.
When recording internally 4:2:0 sampling at 8-bit is used, but with an external recorder clean HDMI output with 4:2:2 uncompressed video can be recorded.
Given that the A7s has a 12MP sensor, and a reputations as having some of the cleanest high ISO stills and video around, it is interesting to note that the new A7RII with its 43MP sensor appears to be only about 1.5 stops less competent in the high ISO department. This is a testament to the incredibly swift developments coming out of Sony’s sensor development division.
It was very interesting for me to learn, while meeting with Sony executives in Portland, that the still camera and video divisions have been merged, at least up to the Broadcast level. This now means that video features such as the XAVC-S codec and S-Log are now available to A7 series cameras, and even the RX models.
S-Log is a big deal because it makes it possible to shoot a very flat linear image which is intended to maximize dynamic range even if the image does not look as good as it should. While not as robust and malleable as a true raw file, it does help greatly in allowing adjustment of the file in ones editing software so as to obtain optimum dynamic range and colour, especially from a 4:2:0 file such as this camera records internally.
S-Log is found in the Picture Profile section, and there is a further broad range of controls available there that typically aren’t seen outside of high-end video cameras.
I have not had adequate time to do more than “play” with the A7RII’s video, but there are now enough dedicated video reviews available to confirm that this is a highly capable camera. Combined with Sony’s PZ 28-135mm Lens, designed with the needs of videographers in mind, this makes for a highly capable stills / video combo with great versatility. I have a major shoot coming up in Etheopia in December where I need to shoot both video and stills, and this currently seems like the ideal tools for that task.
The 12 / 14 Bit Discussion
It is now well known that some Sony cameras, including the new A7RII use a raw compression scheme that results in quasi 12 bit images being save, rather than 14 bit. Some chicken littles cry out that the sky is falling and that they would never buy a camera that does this.
Well, not so fast. If you look at examples that have shown up online, what you’ll see is that the net effect in real world images is de minimus. Can you see it in some images, some of the time at 100% on-screen? Yes. Have I ever seen this be an issue in any image that I have ever shot with a Sony camera? No, I can’t say that I have.
Is this issue real? Yes it is, and a senior Sony executive from Japan has stated that it is being looked into. But in the meantime, the sky isn’t falling, and I for one am not giving this a moment’s further thought as I shoot with my Sony A7II and new A7RII.
A7RII Vs Pentax 645Z
I know that many want to see comparisons with the leading contenders from Canon and Nikon, the new 50 MP Canon 5D S and SR, and the 36MP Nikon D810. I’m going to pass on these, as others here will be conducting such tests. My point of comparison reaches a step higher, to the Pentax 645Z.
This has been my go-to camera for landscape work for a year now, and I am comfortable in writing that the 645Z’s sensor is to this day (and maybe beyond) the finest all-around sensor on the market. I am though specifically referring to this Sony made sensor as implemented in the Pentax 645Z. Hasselblad uses this same sensor in the H5D 50C, and Phase One in the IQ250 back.
I have tested all three cameras, and there’s no doubt in my mind that though they use the same sensor, Pentax’s implementation is superior. This makes it, in my books, and as I’ve written, the best sensor on the market.
But now we have a new pretender to the throne, the new 43MP sensor in the Sony A7RII. Its a new BSI design and only slightly lower resolution that the 50MP of the 645Z, though it of course has a smaller pixel pitch at 4.5 µm Vs. the Pentax’s at 5.3µm.
Not having a lab at my disposal (but a not-bad pair of eyes) I decided that there were two areas to test; noise and dynamic range, and resolution. For the resolution test, the lens used would be a significant factor. For the Sony the choice was easy. The new Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS Lens has been rated by DxO as the lens with the greatest sharpness of any lens tested, and is among the top five on overall image quality, Zeiss’ Otus lenses have a slight edge. On the Pentax I decided to use the Pentax 120mm f/4 Macro, the sharpest lens that I own for that camera, and one with a sterling reputation.
The scene above is one which I frequently use to test ultimate lens resolution. There is a cell phone tower about 3km away and it takes a fine lens indeed to resolve the guy wires and antenna detail.
Though the exposures are identical, and both cameras read almost identically, there is a marked difference between them though. Colour rendition differs (both were set to Daylight WB) but most obvious is that the Sony with its 90mm Macro has higher internal contrast.
When subjected to ultimate pixel peeping (200X and 300X) it is extremely hard to see any difference in resolution, which really is a testament to the Pentax 120mm Macro. Subjectively, overall, I give the win to the Sony, but only slightly, showing that the 50MP over 43Mp sensor size is a quibble.
This is a much more telling test. both cameras metered the scene showing slight highlight clipping in the overhead lamp. The shadows areas, especially the one in the closet to the left record as completely dark.
Next, the Highlight and Shadow sliders in Lighroom were moved to their maximum positions. This recovered as much highlight details and as much shadow detail as possible from these files.
The way I read these results is that both cameras are roughly equal when it comes to the shadow areas, while the Sony has a distinct advantage when it comes to recovering highlight area. I’d give the A7RII maybe a stop more dynamic range than the Pentax.
It’s a bit hard to see in these web reproductions, but the Pentax 645Z shows slightly less noise at ISO 12,800 and a bit more shadow detail.
Naturally these simple tests are not definitive. But after years of doing rigorous lab tests and then correlating them with my observations, I’m confident that what I am seeing and reporting here is an actual reflection of real-world results with my system and test methodology. Your mileage may, of course, vary. This is not gospel.
The quick summary then is that the Pentax 645z appears, not surprisingly, to have comparable resolution to the Sony A7RII when both are used with the very best lenses. Any lenses other than the best available in each mount will sway the result.
When it comes to noise at high ISO the Pentax 645Z wins. As for dynamic range, both cameras appear comparable in the shadow areas while the Sony has about a stop more recoverable in the highlight end.
In the end these cameras are really quite close in terms of sensor performance, and I wouldn’t choose one over the other on that basis. I love the 645Z’s interface and handling, huge optical viewfinder, fantastic battery life, great long exposure capability and overall robustness.
The Sony A7RII runs a neck and neck image quality race with the big Pentax, and so calling a winner is almost impossible. But I will say, that the A7RII is the first full-frame 35mm format camera that can challenge current medium format in terms of both image quality and resolution. Factors such as higher frame rates, focus tracking, on-sensor phase detection AF and sensor-based image stabilization with any lens simply lean the equation in the Sony’s favour. But, it’s a tough call, and I’m happy to own and use both, as the need and mood arises.
Frankly, if I had to choose one over the other I’d go with the A7RII. And, keep in mind that the Pentax costs $8,500 while the Sony is $3,200 (bodies only). Yet, I’m hanging on to my 645z because it’s a camera system that I love to shoot with.
Camera Programming Hints
Between the three labeled custom buttons, the 12 positions on the custom FN menu and the 2+ Custom positions on the Mode dial, there are literally thousands of ways to customize the camera so that the features that you need are available with just a button press or two.
But the camera comes from the factory with focusing on the shutter release button, and exposure lock as well at the same time. I like to have greater flexibility in how I set these, so this is how to do it on the A7RII.
Go to Gear Menu / 7 and then Custom Key Settings. Press the wheel to the right to go to the second list of settings and you’ll see AEL Button. Set this to AEL Toggle.
Now, when you move the lever on the body at the top right of the LCD screen any time you press the center button on that lever you lock the exposure. This stays in effect until you either press it again to unlock, or turn the camera off.
Next, turn the lever to the top position, AF/MF, to switch to that function. Note that your exposure will still stay locked until you return the lever to the lower position and press the button again (or turn the camera off).
Next go to Gear Menu / 7 and then Custom Key Settings again. Press the wheel to the right to go to the second list of settings again and you’ll see AF/MF Button. Set this to AF-On.
Now, when you press and hold the center button the camera will autofocus and stay locked on focus as long as you hold the button down, even when you press the shutter release.
You can now experiment with variations on these settings, and if you don’t want AF to work on the shutter button at all, go to Gear Menu / 5 and set AF w/shutter of OFF.
This is how I like the camera to work, but you may of course find other settings to your liking.
What’s Not to Like?
As a reviewer, my job is not to paint a picture of wine and roses, but to find flaws and to pick nits. Naturally the A7RII is not perfect, though some on the web would have you believe it to be akin to the second coming.
This camera is simply the culmination of a process of camera and sensor development begun in 2010 with the NEX 3 and NEX5. Whatever you may think of Sony, there is no question that they are a most aggressive competitor. With the new A7 series; A7, A7II, A7S, A7R, and now with the A7RII Sony continues to flex its technological muscle – some would say a bit too far, leading to new-tech overload. But that’s a personal issue for each person to resolve for themselves.
My first gripe is with the locking Mode dial. It is not possible to change the shooting mode unless the center button of the dial is depressed and held in while turning the knob. Who at Sony thought that this was a good idea?
In my opinion this is a hardly needed feature. But, if it had to be, then at least it should have been done they way the Fuji implements it, where the center button locks in both the Up and Down position, so that the user has the option of a free turning dial or a locking dial.
To my mind this is the camera’s only real design faux pas. Otherwise, it’s more what’s lacking than what’s wrong. I will comment on battery life, which isn’t that great. The reason is simple – the batteries are small because the camera is small, and with power consumers such as a large sensor and sensor-based stabilization it’s hard to fault Sony for this. To their credit, they do ship the camera with two batteries as well as an external wall charger.
HINT: To save on battery consumption, put the camera in Airplane Mode. This will save a lot of juice if you’re not using Wi-Fi or Near Field communication, as those chips therefore won’t be constantly searching for a signal.
HINT: The Sony Vertical Battery Grip is the same one as used on the A7II, and in addition to holding two batteries makes the smallish A7RII a bit easier to manage when larger lenses are used.
A touch screen would be most welcome, and so would a second SD card slot; even Micro-SD if there’s a critical space issue. Being able to record raws to one and JPGs to the other would be very handy for many photographers.
There is a standard mic jack, but if you want XLR audio connectors then their XLR-K1M Adapter and Microphone Kit at about USD $800 is needed.
NOTE: An early version of this review mentioned that there was no audio jack. This was an error.
It’s one thing to read a new camera’s specs and quite another to shoot with it in the real world. I spent three days working with the A7RII at a Sony media event, and then went off with it to join my business partners Kevin and Chris on a five-day private shoot in the Palouse region of Washington state. Since then I’ve been working with my own A7RII in Ontario; (purchased as soon as I got back home).
With so many cameras crossing my desk each year it’s hard not to cozy up with the prettiest new face on the street. But the A7RII is more than just a pretty face. It’s a highly competent tool for creating images that gives up almost nothing to any competitor, and while it doesn’t win every race, it places in the top three if not the very top in every category.
A Comment on Lenses
It used to be that Sony’s E-mount weak spot was their lens availability. That is not longer the case. Almost all of the important focal lengths are now covered in both primes and zooms, and when third-party offerings are added, along with the huge line-up of A-mount lenses via an inexpensive adaptor, not to mention Canon EF mount with very good autofocus in many cases, the Sony A7RII doesn’t have any apologies to make. And yes – more native E-Mount lenses from both Sony and Zeiss are coming this year.
HINT: Have you looked at the DxO Lens test chart recently? Of the top ten lenses ever tested, three are Sony FE lenses, and the highest rated for sharpness (even above the two Zeiss Otus lenses) is the Sony FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS.
It’s now only August, and there’s a long way to go until December 31st. But, unless another company pulls the proverbial rabbit out of a hat I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when year-end comes that the Sony A7RII doesn’t become most reviewer’s “2015 Camera of The Year“.
Michael – August, 2015