October 16 of 2013 marks an important milestone in the history of photography, because it is the date when Sony announced world’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, the Sony A7 and A7R. The Sony A7, being the cheaper model aimed for general use, sports a 24 MP sensor and offers hybrid autofocus, while the A7R with its high resolution 36 MP sensor is targeted at more specific types of photography including landscape, architecture, studio and product photography. Since the official release of these cameras, I had a chance to test both in 2014 as soon as they were available. However, I did not write detailed reviews for a number of reasons including native lens shortage and availability, all kinds of initial firmware bugs and lags, shutter vibrations (A7R), slow start up time, compressed RAW, terrible menu system, poor battery life and a number of other annoying issues. On top of that, 2014 was also a year of personal transformation for me, so I was incredibly busy trying to shuffle a lot of things at the same time. To put it short, my lack of time and my negative experience with these cameras contributed to reviews being put off for a later date. When Sony released the A7S a bit later, I did not see drastic changes aside from the camera sensor, so I put off reviewing that camera for a while as well. However, when Sony announced the second iteration of the A7-series, the A7 II, I immediately requested a review unit for evaluation. By then, Sony already had a few more native lenses to choose from and I had high hopes that Sony perhaps addressed many of the concerns from the original A7 in this new camera. In addition, the Sony A7 II came with in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which interested me a lot – with so many different adapters available for other lens mounts, the A7 II looked rather promising as a versatile tool that could stabilize pretty much any lens on the market. And that in itself sounded really good, so off I went with my journey to assess the new Sony A7 II.
With its $1,699 MSRP price tag, the full-frame Sony A7 II offers quite a bit as a digital camera and packs a lot of improvements over the original A7: much better ergonomics (thanks to the bigger and more textured grip), built-in 5-axis image stabilization, faster hybrid AF system, faster start-up time and a few other small tweaks here and there. It has the amazing 24 MP Sony sensor, similar to what the Nikon D610 and D750 cameras feature, with superb dynamic range and excellent handling of noise at high ISOs. It might look like a small incremental upgrade over the A7 at first, but when you consider the above changes, especially the inclusion of IBIS, it certainly becomes a very different, more practical and capable camera in comparison.
When Sony initially launched the A7 series, I wrote a detailed article on how the Sony mirrorless would most likely impact Nikon and Canon full-frame DSLR prices and potentially sales. Although it is hard to say exactly how much the company has impacted DSLR sales, I believe that Sony was one of the main reasons why both Nikon and Canon dropped prices on their D610 and 6D cameras by 30% to around the $1500 mark to stay competitive. Sony definitely stirred up the full-frame camera market with the A7 series cameras.
I also believe that Sony did a good job with introducing the idea of using similar camera construction, but with different sensors for different photography needs. I personally would welcome Nikon D810-style bodies with 12 MP, 24 MP and 36 MP sensors instead of feature-stripped cameras at completely different price points. That would alleviate the pain of many photographers, as they would be able to choose a camera based on their megapixel and other shooting needs. Here is a short summary of the three Sony A7-series cameras and the type of photography they are intended for:
- Sony A7S (12.2 MP): Astro / Night photography, Event, Portraiture, Photojournalism and Video
- Sony A7 / A7 II (24.3 MP): Sports / Action, Event, Portraiture and Other general photography
- Sony A7R (36.4 MP): Architecture, Landscape, Studio, Fashion, Product and Macro photography
A detailed comparison of specifications can be found further down on this page.
1) Sony A7 II Specifications
- Sensor: 24.3 MP Sony Exmor™ Full-Frame CMOS image sensor
- Autofocus System: Fast Hybrid AF (phase-detection AF/contrast-detection AF)
- Autofocus Points (35mm full frame): 117 points (phase-detection AF)
- Autofocus Points (APS-C): 99 points (phase-detection AF) / 25 points (contrast-detection AF)
- Continuous Shooting: 5 fps
- Electronic Viewfinder: XGA OLED with 2,359K dots, 100% field coverage
- Viewfinder Magnification: 0.71x
- Movie: Full HD movie shooting 60p/60i/50p/50i/25p/24p
- Picture Effects: 13 modes
- Panorama Mode: Yes
- HDR Capability: Yes
- Battery Life: Up to 270 images (Viewfinder) and 350 images (LCD)
- LCD: Tiltable 3″ LCD with 1,228K dots
- Image Stabilization: SteadyShot INSIDE Image Stabilization with 5-axis compensation
- Shutter: Electronically controlled, vertical-traverse, focal-plane type
- Electronic Front Curtain Shutter: Yes, On/Off
- Wi-Fi Capability: Built-in
- Weight: 556g body-only
- Price (MSRP): $1,699
Detailed technical specifications for the Sony A7 II are available at Sony.net.
2) Sony A7 II vs A7
So what are the key differences between the Sony A7 II and the original A7 and what has changed? As I have already mentioned above, the A7 II now has 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which down-grades to 3-axis IBIS when non-native lenses are used. The A7 II has an improved hybrid AF system, which Sony claims to be up to 30% faster. Ergonomics have been greatly improved thanks to a much larger and more comfortable grip and the shutter release along with some buttons have been changed and moved as well (more on ergonomic changes in the next section of the review). The original Sony A7 had a combination of magnesium alloy and polycarbonate in terms of construction, while the new A7 II has a full magnesium alloy construction like the A7S and A7R cameras. Although there is no 4K recording, the A7 II has improved video features thanks to XAVC S codec and flat picture profile (S-Log2) to make it more appealing for those who like shooting high definition video. There are other slight menu changes and tweaks. Other than these changes, everything else, including the 24 MP sensor and the image processor are the same.
3) Sony A7 vs A7 II vs A7R vs A7S
And here is a detailed comparison of specifications from the four cameras:
|Camera Feature||Sony A7S||Sony A7||Sony A7 II||Sony A7R|
|Sensor Size||35.8 x 23.9mm||35.8 x 23.9mm||35.8 x 23.9mm||35.9 x 24.0mm|
|Sensor Resolution||12.2 MP||24.3 MP||24.3 MP||36.3 MP|
|Sensor Pixel Size||8.44µm||5.97µm||5.97µm||4.88µm|
|Sensor Anti-Aliasing Filter||Yes||Yes||Yes||No|
|In-Body Image Stabilization||No||No||Yes, 5-axis||No|
|Image Size||4,240 x 2,832||6,000 x 4,000||6,000 x 4,000||7,360 x 4,912|
|Viewfinder Type, Dots, Coverage||EVF, 2.4 M dots, 100%||EVF, 2.4 M dots, 100%||EVF, 2.4 M dots, 100%||EVF, 2.4 M dots, 100%|
|Storage Media, Type||1x SD, UHS-1||1x SD, UHS-1||1x SD, UHS-1||1x SD, UHS-1|
|Continuous Shooting Speed||5.0 FPS||5.0 FPS||5.0 FPS||4.0 FPS|
|Native ISO Sensitivity||ISO 100-102,400||ISO 100-6,400||ISO 100-6,400||ISO 100-6,400|
|Boosted ISO Sensitivity||ISO 50, 204,800-409,600||ISO 50, 12,800-25,600||ISO 50, 12,800-25,600||ISO 50, 12,800-25,600|
|Autofocus System||Contrast-detection AF||Fast Hybrid AF||Fast Hybrid AF||Contrast-detection AF|
|Focus Points||25 points (CDAF)||117 points (PDAF), 25 points (CDAF)||35mm: 117 points, APS-C: 99 points (PDAF) / 25 points (CDAF)||25 points (CDAF)|
|Electronic Front Curtain Shutter||Yes||Yes||Yes||No|
|Video Maximum Resolution||1920×1080 (1080p) @ Up to 60p||1920×1080 (1080p) @ Up to 60p||1920×1080 (1080p) @ Up to 60p||1920×1080 (1080p) @ Up to 60p|
|LCD Size and Resolution||3.0″, 921,600 dots||3.0″, 921,600 dots||3.0″, 1,228,800 dots||3.0″, 921,600 dots|
|Construction||Full Magnesium Alloy||Partial Magnesium Alloy||Full Magnesium Alloy||Full Magnesium Alloy|
|Battery Life||360 shots (CIPA)||340 shots (CIPA)||350 shots (CIPA)||340 shots (CIPA)|
|Weight (Body Only)||446g||416g||556g||407g|
|Dimensions||126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2mm||126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2mm||126.9 x 95.7 x 59.7mm||126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2mm|
|Price As Announced (MSRP)||$2,499||$1,699||$1,699||$2,299|
Aside from the key differences in resolution and related ISO range, pixel and image size, the biggest differentiating factors between the cameras are image stabilization (A7 II), autofocus system + focus points, weight, size and price. Everything else is pretty similar or more or less the same. And that’s the idea – these cameras are meant to appeal different needs primarily based on resolution. Some features like autofocus system might appear a bit stripped on the A7S and A7R, but that’s because Sony considers the former to be aimed at shooting video (where focus is usually controlled manually), while the latter is aimed at shooting non-moving subjects (where focusing speed is either irrelevant or not as important).
4) Camera construction and handling
Being a lower-end version of the A7-series, the original A7 had a few areas where Sony cut some corners. First, the body construction was not the same as on the Sony A7R, with the A7 having an inferior build with only the top plate and part of the front having magnesium alloy construction – the rest of it was plastic. Second, the mount on both the A7 and the A7R was rather weak, having a mix of metal and plastic components that held it together. To prevent lenses from wiggling in the mount, many photographers had to resort to an all-metal third party mount from Fotodiox. Sony later fixed the mount issue in the Sony A7S, but the original A7 and A7R never got recalled or retrofitted with proper mounts. Thankfully, Sony addressed both of these concerns on the Sony A7 II – the camera is now of similar magnesium alloy construction as the other A7-series cameras and the mount has been replaced with a proper, all-metal mount.
The biggest and the most welcome change in the Sony A7 II is, without a doubt, the much improved grip. Finally, the A7 II feels like a real camera in hands! The difference in handling is similar to what I felt like going from the Olympus OM-D E-M5 to the E-M1 – the protruded grip feels much more comfortable. Just take a look at the difference in the grip between the A7 II and its predecessor:
Thanks to the change in the grip design, Sony was able to also move the shutter release from its previous location on the top of the camera down to the grip, which also increased shooting comfort, making the camera much more comfortable than all other A7 series cameras. The rotary dial on the front of the camera has been moved to the front of the grip as well, making the A7 II behave similarly to Nikon DSLRs, which also feature a dual dial system. When shooting in Manual mode, the front dial by default is used to change lens aperture, while the rear dial is used to change shutter speed.
Another welcome change is the addition of the second custom button C2 on top of the camera, which is great, as it allows one to program the button to pretty much any available function in the camera. Although you can program pretty much every button on the camera to behave it the way you want, there are some simple things that should have been done by default, such as the ability to move a focus point by just pressing the multi-function dial on the rear of the camera. By default, there is no quick way to change your focus point! I ended up modifying the three buttons (left, right and bottom) to trigger focus point change, but even after the change (Custom Key Settings->Left, Right, Down Button->Focus Settings), I still first have to press one of the buttons and only then I can start moving it. The Up button is permanently set to DISP (Display), so there is no way to assign that one to Focus Settings, making this even less than a working solution. Setting a focus point should be dead simple, so I am not sure why Sony makes it so painful. Other than this, the A7 II is much more convenient to shoot with compared to the other A7 series cameras, so I hope Sony brings these changes to the future iterations of its mirrorless cameras.
The larger grip and the changes in construction obviously resulted in changes in weight – the Sony A7 II is now the heaviest of the bunch, weighing around 556 grams without a battery – an increase of over 100 grams compared to its predecessor. While some might look at this negatively, I personally think that the above-mentioned ergonomic changes far outweigh the increased weight.
Shutter noise is still pretty loud, but sounds a bit more dampened than on the A7 – definitely quieter than the shutter on the A7R. I love the Electronic Front Curtain Shutter mode and have been using it since receiving the camera. You won’t hear the shutter until the end of the exposure, which means that the shutter will never cause additional vibrations – the biggest problem that the A7R suffers from. That’s a huge plus for a mirrorless camera and this mode should be enabled by default! Focus peaking, live histogram and other mirrorless perks, like the ability to review images in the viewfinder are very nice to have.
The Sony A7 II features the same high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) from the Sony A7 with a 2.4 million dots. It offers 0.71x magnification, which is around the same as what full-frame DSLR cameras typically have. The clarity and colors are great, but if you compare the EVF on the A7 II with the Fuji X-T1, you will see that the latter gives noticeably better overall experience. The EVF on the X-T1 has bigger 0.77x magnification and it feels clearer and smoother in comparison.
5) Camera Menu System
Another gripe is the menu system, which is still a huge mess. I don’t know who designed the menu system on the Sony A7 series cameras, but they should be replaced with someone who knows a thing or two about proper GUI navigation. Stuff is just everywhere, all over the place. By now, I have probably navigated through the full menu system at least 20 times to find a particular menu setting. Settings are just not easy to find there with main icons, sub-menus and often random locations for certain settings. Why can’t Sony group things together in a more logical way and allow scrolling down like Nikon? That would make so much more sense and make the menu more user-friendly and intuitive. When you look at the A7 menus and compare it to the A7 II menus, all you see is a shift of menu items under numbers. For example, the Sony A7R has a total of 7 sub-menus under the Camera menu, while the A7 II has a total of 9 sub-menus. The extra added menus have been inserted in between, so if you start comparing sub-menus between these cameras, you won’t find things in the same place. There is no logical grouping whatsoever, so everything seems random and out of place. I hope Sony addresses these menu and navigation issues in the future, because the cameras could get a lot more user friendly.
6) Features and Responsiveness
Like most other Sony mirrorless cameras, the A7 II has a rich set of in-camera features that can be useful for everyday photography. The “Lens Compensation” feature found in the “Setup” menu allows fixing len-specific issues like vignetting (menu name “Shading Compensation”), chromatic aberration and distortion. Obviously, the amount of lens correction depends on each lens, so Sony included current FE lens profiles in its camera firmware. New lenses that come out in the future will also be supported via firmware upgrades. Please note that lens corrections only to apply to JPEG images. Aside from a boatload of Creative Style Effects and various Scene Modes, the Sony A7 II also comes with a neat “Sweep Panorama” mode, which is used for shooting panoramas. While I personally prefer to manually stitch my panoramas as I can get a lot more resolution by doing that (see my panoramic photography howto), the built-in panorama feature is a great way to get a quick stitched panorama in JPEG mode.
Sadly, camera responsiveness and start up time are Sony’s weaknesses. While I have not experienced serious lags with menus, the A7 II occasionally does slow down when changing camera settings and performing in-camera operations, similar to what I have seen on other Sony NEX cameras. But those are minor issues compared to the slow start up time. All A7 series cameras suffer from this and the A7 II is unfortunately not much better. When you first insert the battery, it can take 3-4 seconds for the camera to initialize. Now if the camera was previously turned on and there is not a huge delay between the last start up time, the camera will initialize much faster and the waiting time will be halved, which is not too bad. But even then, by the time you turn the camera on and can take the first picture, you are looking at waiting for around 2-3 seconds. In comparison, the Fuji X-T1 starts up noticeably faster (whether you have the battery newly inserted or not) and feels much more responsive when shooting. Overall though, most mirrorless cameras suffer from slower start up time when compared to DSLRs, as there are more electronics to initialize, so I hope that Sony and others come up with a way to get these mirrorless cameras to be faster.
7) Charging and Battery Life
Another complaint is battery life. Although I turn off the camera frequently to preserve battery life and have all the extra things like image playback turned off, the battery just does not last for more than a few hours of shooting. In comparison, I could be shooting with my Nikon DSLR for a few days and still have plenty of juice left. Not sure if Sony can work on optimizing battery life, but plan on getting a few of those batteries, especially when working in the cold! Rated at 350 shots, the NO-FW50 battery with only 1020mAh of juice that is used on the Sony A7 series feels too underpowered for these cameras. I don’t think Sony can do much with reducing power consumption, so I really hope to see higher capacity batteries, even if that comes at the cost of heavier and bigger camera. As stated above, the A7 II is already the heaviest of the bunch anyway (which I personally do not mind), so another 30-40 grams of battery weight would not harm in my opinion, especially if that ends up doubling the battery capacity. For now, the only solution is to grab a few of those NO-FW50 batteries.
What about charging the battery? Just like on the Sony A7 and A7R, you will receive a small AC adapter with a USB cable attached to it and the charging is done by hooking up the cable to the camera. Yup, Sony cheaped out on a dedicated adapter again. When the A7S came out, many Sony shooters were pretty happy and excited to see a dedicated wall charger and an extra battery, thinking that perhaps Sony would continue that trend in the future. Well, it does not look that way, because the A7 II came with a single battery and no dedicated charger. This is hugely disappointing, because a plastic wall charger costs almost nothing to make. I am not expecting extra batteries, but come on – a stupid wall charger should be a no-brainer to include!
8) SteadyShot Image Stabilization
I am sure many were puzzled when they heard the news that the A7 II was going to have in-body image stabilization (IBIS). The thing is, manufacturers usually either pick IBIS or lens stabilization, but not both. Since Sony already had stabilized lenses like the kit 28-70mm OSS, the 24-70mm f/4 OSS and the 70-200mm f/4 OSS, it was hard for me to understand why Sony suddenly decided to include IBIS. I was concerned about implementation – usually you want to have stabilization either in camera or in a lens, but if they work at the same time, you could end up with a lot of issues. After reading the documentation, my concerns were settled, as Sony came up with a way to make both work at the same time. It turns out that Sony figured out a way to run IBIS and OSS together to provide maximum stabilization – amazing technology that future-proofs lens designs. Being able to utilize IBIS for short focal length lenses and OSS for telephoto lenses is something that no other manufacturer had previously done. I applaud Sony for this, as it shows that the company is actively looking for ways to make their mirrorless cameras very functional compared to DSLRs. At this time, no full-frame camera except for the A7 II has IBIS, so it is world’s first.
The problem with stabilization in lenses, is that manufacturers often only include it in longer lenses and exclude short focal length prime and zoom lenses completely. With image stabilization being really effective at any focal length, this has been a big limitation of Nikon, Canon, Panasonic and other brands that decided to go with lens stabilization exclusively. It is true that lens stabilization is very effective in general (because it can be fine-tuned for each lens), but then IBIS is better than nothing at all! Imagine if Nikon implemented IBIS and you could shoot with your favorite 85mm f/1.4 with camera stabilization, then switch to your 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and add lens stabilization with even more effectiveness. Now that would be sweet! And that’s exactly what Sony has done on the A7 II.
Now the big question is, does the 5-axis stabilization actually work and how useful is it? After shooting with the A7 II for three months, I came to the conclusion that the 5-axis IBIS is extremely helpful – it certainly works very well. I cannot say that it is as good as the 5-axis stabilization on the Olympus OM-D E-M1, but it is fairly close. Having IBIS allows shooting at much slower shutter speeds without introducing camera shake. This translates to shooting at lower ISOs in low-light situations, resulting in higher quality images with less noise. Now to get full 5-axis stabilization, you will need to use either native mount lenses or electronic lenses with adapters that supply information to the camera (such as autofocus and focal length). IBIS will be downgraded to 3-axis stabilization when using dummy adapters and non-electronic lenses, and you will have to supply focal length information in the camera menu.
In my view, the 5-axis in-body stabilization in the Sony A7 II is a huge improvement and a much-needed feature. Although it does not seem to be as effective as the in-body stabilization of Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera, it is a full-frame sensor being compared to the much smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor to be fair – there is not a lot of room in that A7 II body to move the sensor around in comparison. Still, in the few months that I have been using the camera, I found stabilization to work really well for any kind of hand-held photography. And with the recent firmware update, stabilization has gotten even better and more reliable, particularly when shooting video.
9) Sony FE mount Lenses
Since introduction, one of the the biggest sources of complaints from many photographers on Sony A7-series cameras has been native mount lens selection. Unlike Fuji and other mirrorless camera manufacturers, Sony has not been as active in quickly developing a good number of native mount lenses. Hera are all the lenses that Sony has introduced since the launch of the full-frame mirrorless line:
- Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA
- Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA
- Sony FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS
- Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS
- Sony FE 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS
- Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS
If we exclude the specialty PZ 28-135mm lens, which is designed to be used for shooting video on the Sony A7S, that’s a total of 6 native mount lenses. Clearly, Sony has been focusing on its bulky and heavy zoom lens range, rather than bringing out some fast and great primes. Sony should have learned from Fuji, which first concentrated on high quality primes and only then started developing quality zoom lenses. To date, Sony lacks a good fast portrait lens (85mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 would be wonderful), has no macro (which is slated for release in 2015-2016 timeframe) or other specialty lens offerings.
The good news is, other manufacturers have been quite active in either adapting existing lenses, or creating lenses specifically for the Sony full-frame E mount. Here is the list of third party lenses available today:
- Mitakon Zhongi 50mm f/0.95
- Samyang 8mm f/2.8 UMC
- Samyang 12mm f/2.8 ED AS IF NCS UMC
- Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS IF UMC
- Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS IF UMC
- Samyang 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC
- Samyang 50mm f/1.4 AS IF UMC
- Samyang 135mm f/2 ED UMC
- Vogtlander VM 40mm f/2.8
- Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2
- Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2
Although the list of native mount lenses is growing fast, Sony should step up more in lens development and start bringing in more Sony / Zeiss lenses. I hope to see more f/2.8 and f/1.2-1.4 lenses soon.
10) Sony A and Third Party Lenses with Adapters
If you have a stable of Sony / Minolta A mount lenses, or perhaps other lenses from manufacturers like Canon, Sony and Leica, you can adapt those easily to the Sony FE mount with special adapters. That’s one of the strengths of the Sony A7 cameras – the short flange distance allows one to mount pretty much any lens on the market. Sony A and Canon EF lenses can be used with smart adapters, maintaining autofocus capabilities. If you use Nikon F lenses, you will be limited to “dummy” adapters and your only option will be to use those lenses in manual focus only mode.
11) Sony 24.3 MP Exmor Sensor
Let’s get to the meat of the camera, the imaging sensor. First, the good news – the 24.3 MP Exmor CMOS sensor is wonderful, arguably the best 24 MP sensor in the world today in terms of dynamic range and noise performance potential. Nikon uses a similar sensor on its D750 DSLR and the results speak for themselves, although as I will demonstrate in the camera comparisons section of the review, Nikon processes RAW data differently and its image processing pipeline is superior in comparison. DxOMark ranked the Sony A7 II very close to the original A7 in terms of color depth, dynamic range and low-light ISO performance, so it is safe to assume that the sensor on the two cameras is the same, with perhaps a few small tweaks here and there. The camera can capture almost 14 EVs of dynamic range, which means you can recover a boatload of information in post when shooting high contrast scenes without losing too much data or introducing a lot of noise. Noise levels are controlled very well and you can comfortably shoot even at ISO 6400 in low light situations, which is amazing.
However, all A7 series cameras, including the A7 II come with a pretty disappointing limitation – they are unable to provide uncompressed or lossless 14-bit RAW data. To keep RAW files smaller, Sony decided to employ lossy compression, which is basically 11-bit of base data, plus 7-bit of delta offset, as detailed in this article by our friends at RawDigger. What does this mean? Well, to put it short, Sony is basically handicapping the potential of the A7 cameras by using lossy compression on RAW files. It is like buying a sports car that could potentially reach 200 mph top speed, but cannot go beyond 150 mph due to having a limiter in place. Nikon at least gives you an option to choose between uncompressed, lossless and lossy compression via the camera menu system, but Sony has no such options, so you are pretty much locked with the 11+7 bit lossy RAW files. In the next section, I will talk about the effect of the 11+7 bit RAW files on images in detail.
12) 11+7 Bit RAW File Limitation
Let’s see how the 11+7 bit lossy RAW file can potentially limit the performance of the A7 series cameras in terms of image quality. To demonstrate the issue in images, I will be using a crop from a sample RAW image of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco that you see in the beginning of this review. Here is a magnified crop of the top right corner from an unprocessed file, which clearly shows the problem:
See those artifacts in the dark area next to the brighter rods? You can spot such artifacts everywhere in the image – those are the results of the lossy RAW compression that Sony employs in the A7 series cameras. In some examples the lossy compression leads to posterization, which can be quite painful and downright annoying to fix in post-processing. This 11+7 bit lossy compression is evident even in size of RAW files generated by the A7 II – instead of varying in size depending on what’s being captured, every RAW file usually stays at around 24 MB. I looked at RAW files shot during the day with lots of colors and also looked at RAW files with pretty flat gradients and little details – file sizes remained more or less the same. In comparison, RAW files from the Nikon D750 vary greatly in size, sometimes by 10 MB or more, which is very normal.
RawDigger is currently the only tool on the market that can show the potential impact of lossy RAW compression on Sony RAW files. By opening up RawDigger and going to Preferences, you can set “Processing mode” to “Delta step relative to value” as shown below:
The resulting image will reveal all the affected areas:
We can see from the above image that artifacts will most likely show up in all the bright areas of the scene. And that’s certainly the case, because if you look at all the bright spots in the shot of the Bay Bridge, you will find these artifacts pretty much everywhere. Take a look at some areas of another image that I cropped and magnified for you:
Sadly, this is what you will be seeing in similarly captured images and there is nothing you can do to fix it in camera. Unless Sony provides a firmware update that allows uncompressed or lossless compressed RAW file capture, you will have to get used to seeing such imperfections in your images, especially when capturing objects in moderate to high-contrast scenes.
Note: Iliah Borg from RawDigger commented on the firmware fix suggestion. According to him, a firmware update might not be an option – the bottleneck could be in the sensor design.
13) Is 11+7 Bit RAW Compression a Deal Breaker?
The big question is, does the 11+7 bit RAW file compression make the Sony A7 series cameras not worthy of consideration? Is it really a deal breaker? I guess it depends on how important pixel-level performance is for you. For 90% of photographers out there, the 11+7 bit RAW file compression won’t matter, as they won’t be analyzing images with a loupe at 100% or higher magnifications. However, if you are genuinely concerned about pixel-level image quality and want only the best results at full resolution, you might want to hold off on the Sony A7 series cameras. While you can certainly reduce the problem with artifacts and posterization in RAW files by applying some clever sharpening and noise reduction techniques, it does take quite a bit of extra effort to make those images look good. Such artifacts might also show up in print if they are untreated.
I am personally a bit annoyed by the fact that Sony has been sitting silently on this issue since the debut of the original A7 and A7R cameras in 2013. A lot of respected people in the industry openly talked about the problem and Sony still has done nothing about it. If it is something that can be fixed via firmware, Sony should do it. If not, then a better sensor design should be considered to accommodate proper 14-bit RAW output. Ideally, Sony should allow selecting between uncompressed, lossless compressed and lossy compressed RAW files via the camera menu.
14) Colors and Dynamic Range
When it comes to colors and dynamic range, the Sony A7 II definitely shines and you can expect to see very impressive results when processing images. If you are a Lightroom user, Adobe has already built Sony camera profiles in the latest version of the software and you can always fine-tune colors to your liking with new profiles using third party tools. The image samples in this review were processed in Lightroom with mostly Camera Standard profile and except for a few images that needed to be taken into Photoshop, I did not spend more than a couple of minutes per image.
As for dynamic range, you have a lot of legroom for tweaking those RAW files in terms of recovering shadows and highlights, even though they are compressed. This is not surprising, because Sony sensors are known to be excellent in this regard. That’s why most manufacturers prefer to use Sony sensors in their cameras – their performance is currently unrivaled for consumer products.
Here is a before and after example of an image that I processed in Lightroom and Photoshop:
Although it is not the best example of dynamic range recovery, you can get the idea of the RAW file leverage one gets with Sony sensors…
15) Autofocus / Manual Focus Performance and Metering
The Sony A7 II comes with an improved version of the hybrid autofocus system found on its predecessor, offering up to 30% faster autofocus performance. This hybrid AF system is a combination of phase and contrast detect AF, which allows for much quicker AF acquisition than only contrast detection, which is found on both Sony A7R and A7S. The difference in AF performance between the A7 series cameras is quite noticeable, particularly when shooting in good light – the A7 II acquires focus much faster in comparison with phase detection engaged. When light levels drop, the camera switches to phase detection, slowing down autofocus operations.
With a total of 117 phase detection AF points and 25 contrast detection points, the A7 II features a fairly complex AF system. But how much faster is the A7 II compared to the A7? In Single Focus mode (AF-S), it certainly feels a bit snappier than the A7. But it is still a somewhat mixed bag: in some situations, AF acquires very quickly and takes no time, while in other situations, the camera probes for focus first, as if it switches to contrast detect (with plenty of ambient light). Continuous AF certainly got a boost and the A7 II feels more like the A6000 (which is pretty decent for continuous AF), but not as good as OM-D E-M1 and certainly not anywhere close to what a full-frame DSLR can do. If you are into photographing fast-moving subjects, the A7 II will disappoint you, so you will be much better off with a DSLR instead. Plus, aside from the 70-200mm f/4 OSS, there are no native telephoto lenses for the A7 II anyway and you certainly do not want to use third party prime lenses with adapters, as AF will be completely unusable for fast action. Still, things are moving in the right direction and I hope Sony continuous to develop continuous AF to make it even more usable and practical to be able to compete with DSLRs in the future.
Manual focus is the mirrorless stronghold, since EVF can offer such handy capabilities as instant zooming in and focus peaking. Sony did a great job integrating these capabilities into all of its cameras, which is why so many people love shooting with third party lenses. Being able to zoom in inside the viewfinder and seeing highlights in the focused areas allows for ultra-fine focus precision, which results in tack sharp photos. With a DSLR, you are forced to switch to live view mode and you have to look at the rear LCD screen to be able to identify whether your subject is in focus or not, and most brands do not even offer focus peaking in live view. With the Sony A7 II and other mirrorless cameras, you look inside the EVF and focus, which makes it really easy to use manual focus. If you use a native Sony lens, the moment you start moving the focus ring on the lens, the camera will switch to magnified view to assist with focusing. If you use third party lenses with dumb adapters, you will have to zoom in manually, as the camera won’t know what you are trying to do. But what’s great about the A7 II, is that it now has IBIS, so focusing gets even easier – the viewfinder does not look as jumpy anymore as it did before.
As for exposure metering, the Sony A7 II behaves similarly as other A7 series cameras and its predecessor – exposure accuracy is usually very good, even in tricky lighting conditions. In most cases it provided good exposure, minimizing the use of the exposure compensation dial (I primarily shot in Aperture Priority mode).
16) Movie Recording
Just like its predecessor, the Sony A7 II is equipped with a fast processor that is capable of capturing high definition 1080p video at up to 60 fps. The Sony A7 II is not crippled like many other cameras are and you can easily change all exposure variables. The camera can take advantage of the IBIS And the hybrid AF system for video as well, although to get the best out of the camera, I would recommend to upgrade to the latest firmware (which addressed a number of issues when using IBIS for shooting video). You can connect external microphones and you can also hook up a headphone for audio monitoring. Sony added a couple of new features to video recording on the A7 II: you can now shoot in flat picture profile (S-Log2) and you can now pick XAVC S for encoding (you will need an SDXC card though). Similar to other Sony A7 cameras, the video recording button is still located on the side of the camera.
Back in 2009, Sony was the first to release a WiFi-capable camera. Since then, Sony has been pushing Wi-Fi hard into its devices, including every A7 camera. The Sony A7 II retains the same Wi-Fi capabilities as the A7 and allows transferring pictures directly to a smart phone or a computer. You can set the camera up as a wireless access point and once you install Sony’s PlayMemories app and connect, transferring and sharing photos is very simple. I connected my iPhone with the A7 II and I was able to transfer images effortlessly. I am glad that Sony has been pushing Wi-Fi into its cameras, because it challenged Nikon and Canon to do the same. Being able to take pictures and share them immediately should be a built-in feature in every digital camera.
Let’s see how the camera does in ISO performance and how it compares to others.
18) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
Some Technical Info:
- White Balance: Custom
- Tested with: Sony 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS lens
- Aperture: f/8
- Manual Focus
- DRO: Off
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO HR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
Let’s take a look at how the Sony A7 II performs at low ISOs. Here are some 100% crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
As expected, images look very clean and low ISOs – there is very little difference between ISO 100 and 800.
19) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-25600)
Let’s see what happens when ISO is boosted to much higher levels:
As expected, ISO 1600 adds some noise, particularly in the shadow areas. ISO 3200 doubles that noise. Detail is still quite good though and colors are not lost.
As ISO is pushed further up to 6400, there is now plenty of noise in the image. There is some loss of details and colors throughout the image. At ISO 12800 lots of detail is lost and the colors are not looking good either. This is already beyond my comfort level, even if I have to down-sample.
Lastly, ISO 25600 is just unusable mess. Small details are completely gone, lots of colors are lost and everything looks too mushy and noisy.
It is hard to say how good the performance is without direct comparisons. Let’s see how it fares against other cameras.
20) Sony A7 II vs Canon 7D Mark II
Let’s take a look at how the full-frame Sony A7 II compares to the recently reviewed Canon 7D Mark II. For this test, I had to down-sample Sony A7 II images to 20.2 MP in order to match Canon’s resolution:
Although both cameras look pretty clean, the difference in performance is already evident at ISO 100. The Canon 7D Mark II produces a bit more noise at pixel level in the shadows.
The same pattern can be observed at ISO 800, with the Sony A7 II showing the full-frame advantage.
As ISO is pushed higher, you would expect the 1.6x crop factor Canon 7D Mark II to show visibly more noise in comparison. However, the smaller sensor camera actually looks pretty impressive, producing similar amount of noise up to ISO 6400.
The Canon 7D Mark II loses more colors at ISO 12800, but its noise performance is pretty impressive.
For the final comparison, I put ISO 16000 on the Canon 7D Mark II (highest ISO) against ISO 25600 on the A7 II. As you can see, the Canon looks better in comparison.
21) Sony A7 II vs Fuji X-T1
Now let’s take a look at how the Fujifilm X-T1 compares to the Sony A7 II. The X-T1 also features an APS-C sensor, although it is a bit larger with a 1.5x crop factor. For this comparison, I had to down-sample Sony A7 II images to 16 MP to match Fuji X-T1’s resolution. As previously noted before, the Fuji X-T1 exposes differently, which resulted in darker images, so I had to expose it a bit longer:
Both cameras look very close at up to ISO 800.
The same behavior can be observed at ISO 1600, with the X-T1 looking pretty darn good in comparison.
At ISO 3200, the X-T1 produces larger grain, but it looks very clean compared to the A7 II.
Surprisingly, ISO 6400 looks better on the Fuji X-T1. Take a look at the bottom of the ship, where it is pretty clear that the Sony A7 II loses out in retaining colors. Fuji does not allow shooting RAW at higher ISOs than 6400, so there are no other comparisons to show. Overall, the Fuji X-T1 held up nicely against the Sony A7 II.
In regards to exposure time (shutter speed) for the above ISO comparisons, please note that if I use Nikon as a reference, the Sony A7 II results in 1/3 brighter exposure, while the Fuji X-T1 results in 1/3 darker exposure. This translates to roughly 2/3 of a stop difference between the Sony A7 II and the Fuji X-T1. If we compare the cameras at the same shutter speed and adjust ISO, this would mean roughly comparing ISO 800 on the Sony A7 II to ISO 1250 on the Fuji X-T1. Now if you compare the cameras at different ISOs, the Fuji no longer looks better at very high ISOs – it looks slightly worse. But the difference is not drastic as one would expect to see. To be honest, considering that the A7 II has a full-frame sensor, it should have done better…
22) Sony A7 II vs Nikon D7100
Another interesting comparison would be to see how the 24 MP A7 II fares against the 24 MP Nikon D7100, which has a smaller APS-C sensor. I did not down-sample anything for this test, so you are looking at 100% pixel-level performance:
Both cameras perform very similarly at low ISOs, with very slight differences at ISO 800.
As ISO is increased to higher levels, we see smaller grain on the D7100, but the overall image looks pretty comparable again – similar to what we have seen on the Canon 7D Mark II and the Fuji X-T1.
Even at very high ISO 12800 we see the same grim picture for the A7 II – the Nikon D7100 looks very similar, if not better!
It is pretty clear that Sony is not doing as good of a job at suppressing noise, since the Nikon D7100 looks pretty darn good overall.
22) Sony A7 II vs Nikon D750
The last, more meaningful test, is to see how the Sony A7 II compares to its full-frame counterpart, the Nikon D750. Since both cameras have the same resolution, no down-sampling was performed:
Ouch, the Nikon D750 clearly looks better at ISO 800.
The same pattern is observed at ISO 3200, with the D750 showing visibly cleaner images, particularly in the shadows.
And at very high ISOs above 6400, it is again pretty clear that the Nikon D750 leads the game not only in terms of noise, but also in terms of retaining colors.
23) Sony A7 II Comparison Summary
I will be honest, I expected to see better performance from the Sony A7 II in my lab tests. As you can see from the above comparisons, Sony is clearly falling behind in dealing with noise at high ISOs when compared to the Nikon D750. In fact, its noise levels are visibly worse, similar to what one would see with APS-C cameras. How can that be? When I first saw these results, I thought that I did something wrong with my tests. I went back and re-shot the studio scene several times with custom white balance set on every camera, making sure that the lighting conditions were consistent from camera to camera. Every test was showing the same result – the A7 II did not do very well, period. Next, I looked at the results from DxOMark, which showed a very different picture: in their tests, the Sony A7 II did quite well, showing a consistent advantage in SNR than the Nikon D7100. I could not understand where the differences were coming from, but my last check was to see what folks at DPReview measured. When I saw their studio scene tool comparing A7, A7 II, D7100 and D750 (change to RAW and select these cameras from the drop-down), I realized that DPReview was showing very similar results as mine! So despite what DxOMark is showing, both DPReview and my tests reveal that the Sony A7 II is visibly worse in ISO performance than the Nikon D750, looking similar to the output of the Nikon D7100. I am not entirely sure why the A7 II performed this way in the lab. Perhaps the A7 II sensor does not react very well to poor lighting conditions? And why is DxOMark showing a very different picture? Your guess is as good as mine…
Having had the opportunity to shoot with the Sony A7 II for the past three months in different conditions, I must say that I am genuinely impressed by where Sony is heading in terms of innovation. The Sony A7 series cameras were world’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras when they were introduced in 2013 and Sony managed to grab headlines again just a year after, by introducing world’s first full-frame camera with in-body image stabilization (IBIS). The A7 II is Sony’s latest attempt at leading the photography industry with a truly innovative and highly capable product. Armed with a solid magnesium alloy construction, lightweight and compact design, a 24 MP full-frame sensor, high-resolution electronic viewfinder, tilting LCD screen, 5-axis in-body image stabilization, Wi-Fi and a boatload of in-camera features and functions, the Sony A7 II is an impressive and highly customizable little camera. With the ability to mount and now stabilize pretty much any lens on the market via adapters, one can see why so many photographers are favoring Sony’s mirrorless cameras over others – they truly are becoming versatile choices.
There are a lot of things to like about the Sony A7 II, so let’s start with the positives. I really like the way Sony modified the camera ergonomically with the more protruded grip – the A7 II sits well in hands and finally feels like a real camera when hand-holding and shooting compared to other A7 series cameras. It now has a superior construction with full magnesium alloy plates, just like the A7R and A7S. This made the camera a bit heavier as a result, but it is not bad by any means – it is still about 30% lighter (and noticeably smaller) than the smallest full-frame DSLRs from both Nikon and Canon. The 5-axis IBIS is really effective with native lenses, making the camera a lot more useful when shooting in low-light conditions. IBIS also helps a great deal for using third party lenses via adapters. Composing images is also easier thanks to IBIS, because things appear a bit less jumpy, whether you are looking at the rear LCD and into the viewfinder. Autofocus speed and accuracy are pretty good and subject tracking feels more reliable when compared to the A7. As with other current Sony mirrorless cameras, manually focusing lenses is a pure joy – with the combination of focus peaking and instant zoom features, you can achieve perfect focus without guessing. For this reason, Sony remains possibly the best system out there for adapting third party lenses. For its $1,699 MSRP price, the Sony A7 II represents good value, but you have to look at all the negatives as well…
As much as I like the A7 II, there are a number of things I strongly dislike about it. First of all, the camera menu system is still a disaster, with things scattered all over the place. For someone who is just getting used to the camera, getting the initial configuration can be a painful experience. For example, by default, there is no easy way to move a focus point unless you dig through the menu, or know that the C1 button on the top of the camera is configured to do that. Changing a focus point is a very basic function that should be available and easy to find. The good news is, you can customize the buttons on the camera pretty much any way you want, but it takes a bit of that initial effort to get the camera to fit your ergonomic preferences. Another disappointment is battery life – the battery will drain quicker than you think, so unless you are armed with a few of those lithium ion batteries, I would not leave the house for an important shoot. Couple that with the lack of a basic wall charger and it gets pretty frustrating. In my opinion, Sony should have changed the battery to a higher capacity one, even if that added to the weight and bulk of the camera. Until manufacturers find a way to utilize less power, the only right solution is to push bigger, higher capacity batteries for now.
Next, we have bigger issues that might be more difficult to address for Sony. If you look at the Sony A7 timeline, you will see that Sony released a total of 4 mirrorless cameras since October of 2013. That’s four full-frame cameras in less than two years. How many lenses? Seven. One of which is designed to be used for shooting videos. Compare that to Fuji, which made twice as many lenses in the first two years, pushing 3-4 lenses a year since then. And Fuji decided to go with high-quality primes first, since their appeal was to lure enthusiasts and pros to buy into the Fuji system. Instead of cranking out so many camera bodies, why not focus on making good quality glass?
Last, but not least, I want to talk about image quality. As you can see from the previous section of this review, the Sony A7 II falls behind in performance when compared to the Nikon D750 (which sports a similar, Sony-made 24 MP sensor) – its performance is noticeably worse. In fact, cameras like Canon 7D Mark II, Nikon D7100 and Fuji X-T1 seem to perform similarly in comparison, which is rather disappointing. On top of that, Sony crippled the A7 II with the 11+7 bit lossy RAW compression, which only adds to the frustration…
Overall, while the Sony A7 II definitely seems to be a step in the right direction, it still feels like a mixed bag. If Sony addressed the above issues, worked harder on releasing higher quality lenses rather than rolling out new cameras each year, I would certainly take a closer and more serious look at the system. But for now, my Fuji X-T1 with Fujinon lenses seems like an all-around better package, despite having its own list of quirks and annoyances.
P.S. A number of our readers took this review as very negative, as if I am bashing Sony A7 II too much and showing a lot of bias against it. Although from some of my negative remarks it might appear that I strongly dislike the system, that’s certainly not the case – the A7 series are impressive in many ways. I am a huge fan of the technology embedded in these tools (EVF, focus peaking, small and compact design, live histogram, IBIS, to name a few) and I cannot wait to see the day when I fully transition from DSLR to mirrorless. Being the only full-frame mirrorless system around at this time, Sony is laying down a foundation to the future and I am excited about it. When assessing the Sony A7 II, I really wanted to see if it is something I should invest in. The technology is surely exciting and the size and weight advantages are dramatic. But there are too many issues at this time for me to make that transition. Most of the negative remarks I have on the Sony system are provided as feedback to the manufacturer – hopefully Sony will listen and make positive changes in the future. With more available native mount lenses, full 14+ bit RAW support, larger capacity batteries and a few minor changes, Sony could make the A7 series absolutely killer. And the sooner that happens, the better, because it might force the big two to start moving in a similar direction. Sadly, at this time, both are laughing at the mirrorless camera sales, which have not shown the solid growth that the industry experts predicted we would see and they are still pushing the same DSLR technology forward. If Sony truly offered something that appeals all DSLR users, many would consider either switching or using a Sony system along with their trusty DSLRs. Like I said, my feelings towards the Sony system at this time are mixed (not just all negative) and I am hoping to see more positive changes in the future to make it a truly appealing choice.
25) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Sony A7 II (body only) for $1,698 and the Sony A7 II kit with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS zoom lens for $1,998 (as of 02/24/2015).
26) More Image Samples
Sony A7 II
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Movie Recording Features
- Dynamic Range
- Speed and Performance
Photography Life Overall Rating