Sony A7R II Review:

From underdog to Alpha

Sony’s high-tech gamble on full-frame mirrorless finally looks ready to pay off in a big way, but does the most expensive A7-series camera ever made offer enough to lure pros away from other brands?

 

By Daven Mathies  |  August 15, 2015

This has been quite a year for camera geeks. Olympus released the OM-D E-M5 II with an incredible 40MP high-res-shot mode, the Canon 5DS R gave us the highest-resolution 35mm-format camera ever, and Nikon recently announced a new version of their storied 24-70mm f/2.8, now with vibration reduction. But the product we can’t stop talking about is the Sony Alpha 7R II, the 42MP mirrorless powerhouse that will undoubtedly end up on every camera-of-the-year list come December.

Everybody loves the story of an underdog. Sony jumped head first into the camera market some time ago, but they’ve never been normal. Pressured by their peers who commanded much more market share, Sony was forced to innovate. They constantly turned new ideas into new products, and if they failed, it didn’t matter—they regrouped and tried again. The A7 series was an experiment that seemed crazy to many at first. Why bother putting a full-frame sensor in a small camera if the lenses to fit that sensor are still going to be huge? But people loved it. Sony never looked back. And now, Sony cameras are finding their way into the hands of professional photographers who just three years ago ignored the brand completely (outside of TVs and PlayStations.)

The closest we could get to the fires of Mordor.

As excited as I was about getting to review the A7R II, I also went into with some trepidation. I can’t think of a camera that’s received more hype than this one (and I was one of the ones hyping it.) Whenever a product gets that much positive attention before it’s been released to the public, there is always the very real chance that it will fail to live up to expectations. To find out if the hype was justified, we took our demo A7R II to Bullseye Glass Company to see if this mighty mirrorless camera could handle the heat. (I’m guessing you already know the answer.)

Bullseye Glass turned out to be a fantastic place to test a camera. The Portland company is the premier manufacturer of fusing-capable kiln glass in the world, and the process of producing this glass is mesmerizing to watch. Natural light, fluorescents, and white-hot furnaces mix to produce lighting you just don’t get anywhere else. Workers’ faces are painted in an orange glow as they dump shovelfuls of what looks like molten lava onto machines that roll it flat and spit it out as rectangular panels of red light that soon cool into one of many colors of art glass. It is the closest we could get to the fires of Mordor and, fortunately, we were able to simply walk into it.

As for the camera, let me put the hype to rest, first. If you want to skip over the nitpicking, negative-Nancy bit, then just click here to go straight to the “OMG it’s so awesome” part. To be clear, this is a fantastic machine, but it’s not without its imperfections. The redesigned body, virtually identical to the A7 II, is a welcome one. It’s a step forward in durability and ergonomics over the first-gen A7-series, but I personally feel that an SLR body is still more comfortable to hold over the long haul, although Sony definitely has the weight advantage. The large electronic viewfinder features 2.4m dots of resolution, yet somehow still looks pixelated. It is very sharp and works fine for checking focus, but it’s weird how visible the pixels are. I found myself missing an optical viewfinder. There are also some quirks in the control layout. The video record button is positioned on the right side of the thumb grip, so you have to stretch to reach it. The mode dial is locking, but the lock can’t be toggled on and off (like it can on Panasonic’s GH4) so you have to use two fingers to change the dial, which takes your hand away from shooting position and makes holding the camera kind of an awkward affair. These may be minor complaints, but overall I just feel less confident with the A7R II compared to a competing Canon or Nikon DSLR. Maybe I’m just old school in that regard.

The design quirks continue into the menu system, which is done in typical Sony fashion. I still don’t understand why they have to be so different from everyone else. It takes less than five seconds to format a memory card on any other camera system, but with the A7R II, I once again found myself searching through a complex array of lists, eventually finding “Format” as the second option on the 5th of 6 submenus of the “toolbox” menu (at least, I think that icon is a toolbox—who knows?) And don’t even get me started on the laborious process of setting S-Log gamma for cinematic video, which literally took me so long to figure out that the battery indicator dropped 6%. (Luckily, I ended up not even needing S-Log as I couldn’t shoot video, anyway. You’ll hear why in a second.)

Now, to be fair, if Sony is all you shoot, the menu system will eventually become a non-issue, but as someone who is constantly picking up cameras from different manufacturers, Sony remains the only one I can’t turn on and immediately know how to use. Part of the issue here is that Sony gives you so many options, so many levels of advanced control, that it can be a little daunting when you’re just trying to access basic settings.

If you’re skimming this review hoping for some sample videos from the A7R II, well, you’re unfortunately out of luck. Sony has some, I’ll say interesting, memory card requirements when it comes to recording in their highest-quality, XAVC S codec. Because of this, I found myself completely locked out of 4K recording (and even XAVC S HD), which was a huge bummer. I was really looking forward to shooting in Super35 crop with full pixel readout to create oversampled 4K in-camera. This is the first A-series model to offer internal 4K recording, and it has the potential to be one of the best video cameras on the market.

However, for whatever reason, it’s not enough to just have a fast SD card. That card must also be SDXC, which means 64GB or larger. The cards we use here in Pro Photo Supply’s marketing department are Delkin Black Class 10, UHS-1, U3 cards. By any rational expectation, they should be compatible with the A7R II’s 4K modes at both 60 and 100mbps—except that these cards are only 32GB, meaning they are SDHC. As such, they were promptly rejected with the demand that I “use a UHS-1 U3 compatible memory card.” Ugh. These exact cards work fine in the Panasonic GH4 for 4K video at 100mbps, so why Sony doesn’t want to let you shoot at the same (or even lower) bitrate without a 64GB or larger card is beyond me.

So, no video from the A7R II until I get permission from my boss to open up some new SDXC cards, I guess. Hopefully, we can update this review at that time with some sample videos, but regardless, this is just a pointless limitation that Sony should really fix in a firmware update. #frustrated

Sony’s silly memory card requirements completely locked me out of 4K video.

The A7R II is nothing short of a turning point for the industry.

Finally, there’s the issue of battery life. Mirrorless cameras have never been great here, but even Sony recognizes their battery performance is less than mediocre: they actually include a second battery in the box. (So I guess I’ll give them some kudos for that.) Prior to this review, I shot the A7R II at the Portland Squared gallery opening. One hour and about 50 exposures later, the battery indicator dropped from 100% to 67%. It faired better at Bullseye, where I was shooting more actively: I took exactly 200 photos and ended up with just over 50% charge remaining, leading me to believe the A7R II will at least beat the dismal CIPA rating of 290 shots. Including a second battery with the camera doesn’t absolve Sony of the responsibility of improving battery life, though; battery life is the only remaining roadblock to gaining more traction with many professional shooters. It’s a potential deal-breaker for photojournalists and wedding photographers who simply can’t be expected to swap batteries every 300 exposures, but may otherwise be drawn to the A7R II for its size, versatility, and image quality. In the studio, it’s not as big of an issue, as batteries can be switched out easily and the camera itself can be powered via USB if preferred.

Okay, so if I have officially exonerated myself of the Sony fanboy label and done my due diligence to dispel any unnecessary hype, let’s continue. Despite how negative I may sound in the above paragraphs, I want to be clear: this camera is nothing short of a turning point for the industry. Other than the silly SDXC card requirement, most of my complaints are merely the inherent trade-offs of choosing a mirrorless camera over a DSLR. Obviously, if you have large hands, a larger camera may be more comfortable. Likewise, a larger camera can hold a larger battery. Mirrorless cameras are also constantly running the sensor and live view displays, and Sony’s larger, higher-resolution sensor probably draws a good deal more energy than even smaller-sensor mirrorless cameras, hence the poor battery life. You have to balance your own requirements for image quality, size, weight, energy efficiency, and functionality to determine what type of camera will be best suited for you. You don’t buy a Miata and then complain about the lack of luggage space.

But the thing is, size and weight are not even the main selling points of the A7R II. This is where we finally get to talk about that 42MP, backside-illuminated sensor. This is the first full-frame sensor to employ BSI technology, which allows the A7R II to shoot at a staggering 102,400 ISO. Noise performance is not as good as the stellar A7S (which features significantly larger pixels thanks to it’s lower-resolution, 12MP sensor), but for a 42MP output, there is nothing to complain about here.

Beyond resolution, I found the A7R II produced images with a richness and depth that are pleasing at any viewing size. In the Standard picture profile, JPEGs came out with natural colors and contrast, but if you’re shooting this camera, you’re going to want to shoot in raw. Under challenging lighting, with large areas of dark shadows, I did notice a fair amount of shadow noise. However, considering the situation and the pixel count, I really can’t complain. The noise is really only visible close to full magnification, but the impressive part is that the files still had immense latitude. Lifting blacks and recovering highlights was a breeze. It’s not like I can provide a DXO-level of insight into image quality, but the raw files from this camera appear to be very forgiving.

In my opinion, however, the new sensor is really just the icing on the cake: the A7R II offers plenty of other improvements that make it worth the upgrade. The weather-sealed body means the camera can safely be used in more environments, a potential selling point for travel and landscape photographers. The 5 axis sensor-shift stabilization is pure bliss, offering rock-steady framing through the viewfinder or LCD. (I haven’t tested it for video yet, but I look forward to it.) Finally, the on-chip, phase-detection autofocus is quick and accurate, and virtually eliminates the “hunting” that plagues many mirrorless systems. At least with Sony lenses, it is also very quiet. This makes the A7R II a great camera for shooting discreetly, especially with a small prime lens attached.

In fact, the autofocus might be the key selling point of this camera. It combines the speed of phase-detection with the accuracy of contrast-detection, and does it all with more focus points over a larger area than any other full-frame camera. Af performance is especially important with high resolution sensors: an image that looks in focus at 12MP may not be sharp at all at 42MP. At these resolutions, we find that mirrorless cameras have an inherent advantage over DSLRs in terms of focus accuracy and Sony is capitalizing on this fact in a big way. DSLRs use standalone focusing sensors which tend to be inaccurate when combining a high pixel count with a shallow depth-of-field, meaning your fastest lenses should be focused manually (using live view, on a tripod) if you want to guarantee sharp results when shooting wide-open. Copy variation from camera to camera can make AF sensor misalignment worse, and many DSLRs even offer “AF micro adjustment” so users can fine-tune performance. With a mirrorless camera, however, the focus is happening right on the sensor itself—it’s always accurate regardless of aperture, pixel count, or copy variation. Sony’s AF system in the A7R II is so good, they even showed off using the camera with Canon lenses attached via a Metabones AF adapter. We tested it with Sigma’s new 24-35mm f/2 (Canon mount) and, indeed, it worked flawlessly. This is where it has an advantage even over Panasonic’s crazy-fast Depth from Defocus AF system, which requires lens profiles to work properly—profiles that are only available for first-party lenses.

So again, size and weight are not the only—nor even the major—reasons for purchasing a Sony A7R II. This has allowed Sony to charge the highest price yet for an A7-series camera, $3200, and confidently market it to higher-end photographers. While that’s certainly a good thing for Sony, and is indicative of a wider trend toward mirrorless cameras, it also means that this camera is drawing people in who don’t necessarily want or need a small, lightweight camera, but will still end up with the inherent drawbacks of such a system (battery life, ergonomics, no optical viewfinder). If you fall into that camp, then I highly recommend you get your hands on an A7R II before you buy one. Play with it in the store, maybe even rent one for a weekend, and make sure you’re okay living with its limitations in order to realize its benefits. If you’re not worried about the limitations, then don’t let me stop you from putting your name on the waitlist right now, because if I had the money, that’s exactly what I’d be doing.

A Jack of all trades, master of all.

 

 

After spending some time with the camera, I think the trade-offs are absolutely worth it. While it may not be as comfortable in my hands as a larger DSLR, it makes up for it with flexibility. With compact lenses, like the Sony-Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 and the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 that I tested, it’s light enough to easily carry around in one hand. The tilt screen makes high and low-angle shooting a breeze, and the autofocus and stabilization are so good that I always felt confident I would get a useable shot. I’ll have to wait until I get an SDXC memory card to test the video mode before I make my final verdict, but there is very little not to love about this camera.

In a market segment generally reserved for more specialized cameras, Sony appears to have done the impossible: the A7R II is a Jack of all trades, master of all. It combines their highest resolution sensor ever with their most advanced video mode ever, and brings with it a host of technological improvements that, quite simply, stand to put other leading manufacturers to shame. In short, this is the new camera to beat. Just don’t forget a spare battery. Or five.

Overall assessment

  • Studio 84%
  • Photojournalism 72%
  • Casual 67%
  • Filmmaking 83%
Score explanation

This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.

Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.

Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.

Travel – Above all else, a good travel camera is one you can take with you anywhere. Size and weight matter most to this category, while build quality and ISO sensitivity are also important.

Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.

Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.

 

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