Opinion: The Sony a7R II is kind of a big deal
Yesterday, Sony took the wraps off their latest and greatest mirrorless camera, the a7R II. It’s been obvious for some time that Sony has made serious inroads into the camera market, and not just with consumers; enthusiasts and even pros have been drawn to Sony cameras after being wowed by class-leading image quality. But the a7R II is the first model the firm has produced that is truly, well, scary (especially if you happen to be another Japanese camera company whose name starts with a C or N).
As mirrorless camera sales continue to increase and DSLR sales continue to decline, Sony is in an enviable position. They are finally beginning to flex their muscles, and one need only look at the price of the new a7R II to see this: $3200. That is almost $1000 above the price of the original a7R, and it puts the a7R II right in line with its competition—just $100 below the Nikon D810 and $500 above the recently-reduced Canon 5D Mark III. Now, the a7R II brings with it a host of technological innovations that likely increased production cost, but pricing the camera this high is a bold statement. It shows that Sony firmly believes it can continue to compete with the industry juggernauts (of which it is quickly becoming one itself) without trying to lure people in with a lower price.
It gets scarier. One of those cost-increasing technological innovations is no doubt the new 42.5MP sensor. This is the first backside-illuminated (BSI) full-frame sensor, and as far as I know, the largest BSI sensor ever put into production. (You may recall me making somewhat of a big deal about Samsung’s NX1 utilizing the first APS-C BSI sensor.) This is not just techno mumbo-jumbo; this is a key differentiator between the a7R II and Canon’s 5DS/R, which basically just throws more pixels onto a traditional CMOS sensor, and likely incurs the same costs that such a strategy is known to yield, like increased noise. BSI sensors increase light sensitivity by putting the “works” of the sensor on the back of it. Traditional CMOS (and CCD) sensors run all the circuity gizmos and whatnots over the front, which reflect a portion of the light away from the actual part of the sensor that does the seeing. Depending on pixel size, this can have a negligible effect or a huge effect. This is why it has taken so long for BSI sensors to be employed beyond point-and-shoot cameras: with larger sensors come larger pixels, and that means that not as much light is lost due to circuitry, relative to the size of the pixel. Apparently, 42.5 million pixels on a 35mm sensor is a sufficiently high number to push individual pixels down to a size small enough to make it worth it to Sony to add BSI technology. (I probably could have written that sentence a little more clearly, but instead of rewriting it, I’m just going to let you reread it. Sorry. I promise this gets more colloquial in a bit.)
So what does this mean? It means the a7R II will not only deliver incredibly high resolution, but it will do it without sacrificing low light sensitivity (hypothetically, at least). If I had to guess, I would say it’s safe to assume that it will both out-resolve the previous 36.3MP sensor of the a7R and Nikon D810 and offer better high ISO noise levels (Sony lists max ISO as 102,400, two stops above the original a7R—time will tell whether this is indicative of a true sensor performance increase or just a marketing maneuver).
While 42.5 is a smaller number than 50 (I can math), I would also not be surprised if the a7R II pulls out more detail in real-world tests than the Canon 5DS, given its inevitably better signal-to-noise ratio. Even if the 5DS/R proves sharper at base ISO, the difference between 42.5 and 50 megapixels is already, like, not worth talking about. Either one will let you magnify the image enough to tell if your dust mite blinked or not.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the a7R II also incorporates a brand-new autofocus system, with a ship load of on-chip phase-detection points covering a greater area than any full-frame DSLR, and Sony actually demoed the speed and accuracy of this system using Canon glass via an adapter. Yeah, they did that. This is basically Sony saying to photographers, “Worried about the cost of switching systems after investing a gazillion dollars in lenses? Well don’t! Look how great your existing lenses work on our camera!” Talk about a slap in the face to Canon.
I can’t help but imagine that somebody deep within the walls of Canon’s ivory tower is doing an epic face-palm right now while uttering a resounding, “D’oh!” I mean, if only they’d shipped the 5DS and 5DSR last month, right? It doesn’t help that Sony’s amped-up, over-scanning, 4K video mode is pretty much the best video mode ever put into a still camera, while Canon’s truncated video mode on the 5DS/R appears to be little more than an afterthought. Look, I don’t mean to dig Canon and Nikon too hard, here. DSLRs do have their benefits, and will likely continue to be the primary camera for many photographers for years to come. After all, as far as I know, Sony still hasn’t solved the intrinsic problem of mirrorless cameras having lousy battery life, and Sony’s menu system is likely still a mess.
That said, it’s hard not to look at the incumbent industry leaders a bit like climate-change deniers: the DSLR icecap has been melting away for years, and the time to do something about it was yesterday.* And yet, here are Nikon and Canon in 2015, still without a viable mirrorless strategy (at least Nikon finally made a 1-series camera that looks cool). I suppose you could throw Pentax/Ricoh into the same boat, except that Canon and Nikon also don’t have a 645Z.
The Sony a7R II looks to be an amazing tool, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a symbol of change. It signifies that Sony is done “experimenting” with the market; they’re committed, and they’re playing for keeps. And the really scary thing? They’re winning.
Or, maybe that’s not so scary. Like beachfront property in the Sierra Foothills and balmy 75° winters in Chicago, it’s all just a matter of perspective.
*Yes, I feel bad about making an analogy to a real problem to illustrate a much less life-threatening change, but, well, you know, metaphors are hard. Similes. Whatever.
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The opinions in this article are the author’s expression of his inner silliness and frustration with certain players in the camera industry, and should not be misconstrued as being representative of the opinions of Pro Photo Supply or its employees.