Earlier this year, I wrote a detailed review of the Sony A7R, where I expressed a number of serious concerns with the camera, some of which were serious enough to be categorized as “deal breakers”. Soon after, Sony announced the much-anticipated A7R II mirrorless camera, a second iteration of the high-resolution line of A7-series cameras. Although many of us knew what to expect from the A7R II based on what we have previously seen on the Sony A7 II, there was new technology incorporated into the A7R II to make it a very appealing camera among both enthusiasts and professionals. Just like the A7 II, the A7R II gained five-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and a different ergonomic design with a much more comfortable to hand-hold protruded grip. And those are relatively minor changes compared to the changes from the original A7R. Not only does the A7R II get a faster and much more reliable AF system with a whopping 399 focus points, but it also gains a brand new 42 MP back-illuminated (BSI) sensor. In addition, Sony addressed the serious shutter-shock issue by not only reducing the overall noise and vibration caused by the shutter mechanism, but also by introducing an electronic front-curtain shutter release option, which completely gets rid of shutter-related blur in images. And lastly, with the latest firmware upgrade, the Sony A7R II also gained the ability to shoot uncompressed RAW, giving the ability to take a full advantage of the sensor. I have been shooting with the Sony A7R II since it was announced, so let’s take a closer look at the Sony A7R II and see how it performed both in real world and lab environments.
With its $3,200 MSRP price tag, Sony is clearly aiming higher and targeting a slightly different crowd this time compared to the original A7R (which sold for $2,300 at the time it was announced). If Sony’s original plan was to attract as many photographers as possible by offering an affordable high-resolution full-frame camera, this time Sony knows that it seriously upped the game with all the new fixes and features tossed into the A7R II. While the original A7R felt like an experiment to me personally, this new A7R II cannot be considered as such, since it is no longer a “beta” product by any means – it is a very capable camera that not only rivals high-end DSLR cameras for some photography needs, but also surpasses them in a number of ways. First of all, there are no other full-frame cameras on the market that offer IBIS. Sony initially only provided lens stabilization, but IBIS was integrated into all second generation A7-series cameras, which can actually work together to deliver even better results (read more about lens stabilization vs in-body stabilization). This is a huge plus, because it effectively stabilizes every lens attached to these camera bodies, even short focal prime lenses that traditionally do not come with image stabilization. In comparison, neither Nikon, nor Canon offer IBIS on any of their DSLR cameras (even the newly announced Leica SL camera does not have IBIS).
Second, the high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the A7R II is truly impressive. Its 2.36 million dot OLED EVF has a 0.78x magnification, which is better than the 0.71x magnification both high-end Nikon and Canon DSLRs are limited to. We have written quite a bit about the advantages of EVF vs OVF, but the ability to instantly zoom in to 100% view before shooting, in addition to being able to review images within the viewfinder in broad daylight are huge advantages that cannot be ignored. Add all the extra bells and whistles like focus peaking, live histograms and exposure warnings and you will realize why OVF is quickly losing its desirability among many photographers.
Third, the sensor technology that we see on the Sony A7-series cameras is currently the best of the breed. In fact, that’s where Sony certainly has a competitive advantage over other manufacturers. Although Sony recently spun off its sensor division into a separate company (the largest in the world), it is still owned by Sony, which means that it can supply the latest sensor technology on its own cameras first, before making the same technology available to other manufacturers. In fact, that’s exactly what happened with the Sony A7R II – it is presently the only camera on the market that sports a 42 MP full-frame BSI sensor (the same thing can be said about the impressive 12 MP Sony A7S II sensor, which has no equivalents in terms of low-light performance). If Nikon was able to put a 36 MP sensor on its D800 long before Sony did on the A7R, this time the situation has been reversed. As we have seen so far, Sony sensors provide remarkable dynamic range and high ISO performance and the Sony A7-series cameras get this benefit with every iteration.
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 36/42 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 II (12.2 MP): Astro / Night photography, Event, Portraiture, Photojournalism and Video
- Sony A7 II (24.3 MP): Sports / Action, Event, Portraiture and Other general photography
- Sony A7R II (42.4 MP): Architecture, Landscape, Studio, Fashion, Product and Macro photography
It is true that DSLRs still reign in sports and wildlife, however, the differences are quickly shrinking. In fact, after testing the A7R II extensively, I must say that action photography is the only area where the camera could use some improvements, specifically when it comes to AF speed and overall lag. As you will see further down in the review, for everything else, the AF system on the A7R II is more than capable, delivering very impressive results.
1) Sony A7R II Specifications
- Sensor: 42.4 MP Sony Exmor R BSI CMOS image sensor
- Autofocus System: Fast Hybrid AF woth 399 Phase-Detect Points
- Continuous Shooting: 5 fps
- Electronic Viewfinder: XGA OLED with 2.36 million dots, 100% field coverage
- Viewfinder Magnification: 0.78x
- Movie: UHD 4K and Full HD movie shooting
- Panorama Mode: Yes
- HDR Capability: Yes
- Battery Life: Up to 290 images (Viewfinder) and 340 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
- Shutter Rating: 500,000 cycles
- Electronic Front Curtain Shutter: Yes
- Wi-Fi Capability: Built-in
- Weight: 625g
- Price (MSRP): $3,199
Detailed technical specifications for the Sony A7R II are available at Sony.com.
2) Sony A7R II vs A7R
So what are the key differences between the Sony A7R II and the original A7R and what has changed? The sensor technology has been changed on the A7R II – while the previous generation A7R had a 36 MP CMOS sensor, the new A7R II sports a 42 MP BSI CMOS sensor, which is supposed to deliver better image quality in comparison. As I have already mentioned above, the A7R II now has 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which down-grades to 3-axis IBIS when non-native lenses are used. The A7R II has a totally revamped hybrid AF system with 399 on-sensor phase detect AF points, which Sony claims to be up to 40% faster compared to its predecessor. Similar to the A7 II, 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 A7R II comes with the ability to shoot UHD 4K video in XAVC S format, while the A7R is limited to recording HD content only. There is also an option to shoot in Super 35 format with full pixel readout and no pixel binning. There are other slight menu changes and tweaks.
3) Sony A7R II vs A7R vs A7 II vs A7S II
Here is a detailed comparison of specifications from the current A7-series cameras, along with the first generation A7R:
|Camera Feature||Sony A7R II||Sony A7R||Sony A7 II||Sony A7S II|
|Sensor Size||35.9 x 24.0mm||35.9 x 24.0mm||35.8 x 23.9mm||35.6 x 23.8mm|
|Sensor Resolution||42.4 MP||36.3 MP||24.3 MP||12.2 MP|
|Sensor Pixel Size||4.51µm||4.88µm||5.97µm||8.44µm|
|Sensor Anti-Aliasing Filter||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|In-Body Image Stabilization||Yes, 5-axis||No||Yes, 5-axis||Yes, 5-axis|
|Image Size||7,952 x 5,304||7,360 x 4,912||6,000 x 4,000||4,240 x 2,832|
|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||4.0 FPS||5.0 FPS||5.0 FPS|
|Native ISO Sensitivity||ISO 100-25,600||ISO 100-6,400||ISO 100-6,400||ISO 100-102,400|
|Boosted ISO Sensitivity||ISO 50, 51,200-102,400||ISO 50, 12,800-25,600||ISO 50, 12,800-25,600||ISO 50, 204,800-409,600|
|Autofocus System||Fast Hybrid AF||Contrast-detection AF||Fast Hybrid AF||Contrast-detection AF|
|Focus Points||35mm: 399 points, APS-C: 357 points (PDAF) / 25 points (CDAF)||25 points (CDAF)||35mm: 117 points, APS-C: 99 points (PDAF) / 25 points (CDAF)||169 points (CDAF)|
|Electronic Front Curtain Shutter||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Video Maximum Resolution||3840×2160 (4K) @ Up to 30p||1920×1080 (1080p) @ Up to 60p||1920×1080 (1080p) @ Up to 60p||3840×2160 (4K) @ Up to 30p|
|LCD Size and Resolution||3.0″, 1,228,800 dots||3.0″, 921,600 dots||3.0″, 1,228,800 dots||3.0″, 1,228,800 dots|
|Construction||Full Magnesium Alloy||Full Magnesium Alloy||Full Magnesium Alloy||Full Magnesium Alloy|
|Battery Life||340 shots (CIPA LCD)||340 shots (CIPA LCD)||350 shots (CIPA LCD)||370 shots (CIPA LCD)|
|Weight (Body Only)||582g||407g||556g||584g|
|Dimensions||126.9 x 95.7 x 60.3mm||126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2mm||126.9 x 95.7 x 59.7mm||126.9 x 95.7 x 60.3mm|
|Price As Announced (MSRP)||$3,199||$2,299||$1,699||$2,999|
As you can see, aside from the price, the first major differences we see are in sensor resolution, IBIS and ISO sensitivity. The A7R II has a much higher native ISO range of 100 to 25,600 when compared to the A7R and A7 II, which is two stops higher than the A7R. Although that’s not as impressive as Sony A7S II with its native ISO range of 100 to 102,400, it is still raising the bar quite a bit. Now does it mean that Sony was able to achieve two stops better ISO performance compared to its predecessor? How does its high ISO performance compare to other cameras like the Nikon D810 and Canon 5DS? You will find the answers to these questions further down in this review. Another big difference is the autofocus system, which is clearly the best on the A7R II when compared to the other cameras, including the A7S II. That’s surprising, because the A7R II is primarily aimed at landscape, studio and architecture photographers who want to have more resolution and those folks rarely ever need the best of the breed AF system. In my opinion, it would have made more sense for Sony to include the best AF system on the A7 II instead. Electronic front curtain shutter is obviously a big deal and the A7R in this chart stands out like a sore thumb. Another huge difference is the ability to record 4K video, although it proved to be not as practical in the field due to overheating issues – Sony should have completely skipped 4K on the A7R II. Recording short segments works out OK, but I would never trust the A7R II for doing production video work. Not a good idea to release something that is not quite ready for prime time. The big difference between the first generation A7R and A7R II is in the weight and cost – the latter is much heavier in comparison (thanks to the positive change in ergonomics) and the cost has gone up dramatically from $2,299 MSRP to $3,199. This puts the A7R II in a similar price range as such high-end DSLR cameras like the Nikon D810 and Canon 5DS.
4) Camera Construction and Handling
Despite its relatively small size (compared to DSLRs), the Sony A7R II has an impressive magnesium alloy construction that is designed to withstand quite a bit of abuse in the field. While I have not inflicted any serious damage on my sample of the A7R II, I did use it together with my Nikon DSLRs normally, without giving extra care to any of the cameras. As a result, I bumped the camera more than a few times against hard surfaces and I am happy to report that the A7R II did well. Having shot with the original A7-series cameras, I knew that the A7R II would not be as protected as other weather-sealed cameras, so my fall workshop was a good test to find out if the A7R II would be able to handle extreme dust and moisture well. Driving on dirty roads for two weeks definitely loaded up my truck with a lot of dust and despite the harsh conditions, the A7R II performed admirably. I did get some dust on the sensor, but I was able to blow it right off with a simple rocket blower. The camera also passed the humidity test. I subjected it to both rain and high levels of moisture and I did not see any serious issues. When shooting in cold conditions, however, my biggest complaint was poor battery life (more on that later).
Although Sony cut some corners on the original A7R and provided a rather weak wiggly mount that needed to be replaced with a third party metal mount (particularly when used with heavier lenses via adapters), the company addressed the issue a while ago and all the newer generation A7 cameras, including the A7R II now come with a much sturdier metal mount. This means that you can safely mount heavier lenses without worrying about mount tilting issues. As always, I would strongly recommend against letting heavy lenses just hang off the mount, so if you use a lens that comes with its own tripod collar, it is a good reminder that you should mount the lens instead of the camera body on your tripod, applying the least amount of stress on the mount.
Sony’s original ergonomic design of the A7R was quite poor for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the camera grip, which just did not feel right on hands. Starting from the A7 II, Sony completely changed the ergonomic design of the grip and the company has used the same grip on both the A7R II and A7S II – certainly a welcome move. Finally, the A7-series cameras feel like real cameras in hands! The difference in handling from the A7R to A7R II 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 A7R 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 the first generation 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 A7R 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 on top of the camera, which 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 and I am not sure why Sony makes it so painful. Other than this, the A7R II is much more convenient to shoot with compared to the A7R, 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 A7R II is now noticeably heavier, weighing 175 grams more than the original A7R. While some might look at this negatively, I personally think that the above-mentioned ergonomic changes far outweigh the increased weight. In addition, many photographers actually complained about the weight of the original A7R being too light for many lenses, making the setup too front-heavy. So the added weight of the A7R II now should bring a bit more balance, particularly when using heavier lenses.
One of the biggest changes to the A7R II is the shutter mechanism. The original A7R was quite bad there – not only was its shutter very loud, but it also introduced a “shutter shock” problem, which I discussed in detail in my original Sony A7R review. It was a pretty bad design that made the A7R unusable when shooting at particular shutter speeds that were the most susceptible to shutter shock – images would look blurry and there was no cure to the problem. With the A7R II, Sony not only replaced the shutter mechanism with a much quieter and sturdier version (rated up to 500,000 cycles), but it also provided the must-have electronic front curtain shutter feature, which completely eliminates camera shake caused by the shutter. If you still shoot with the A7R, this change alone is worth the upgrade to the A7R II!
The Sony A7R II features the same high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) as other A7 cameras, but the A7R II in particular gets the biggest viewfinder magnification of 0.78x, which as I have previously pointed out, is bigger than what the best DSLRs on the market have. The only other camera that features such a large EVF is the Sony A7S II, which is also 0.78x. The second biggest EVF on the market is on the Fuji X-T1. In addition, the overall experience and responsiveness of the electronic viewfinder on the A7R II has been improved when compared to the A7R, making it more pleasant to shoot with. It certainly feels less jumpy and laggy in comparison.
5) Camera Menu System
One of the biggest complaints that I have previously expressed a number of times with Sony A7 series cameras has to do with 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 and design. Stuff is just everywhere, all over the place. Don’t be surprised if you go through the menu system over and over again to find things. Why can’t Sony group things together in a more logical way and allow scrolling down like Nikon? Or find a better way to organize the menus like Canon? That would make so much more sense and make the menu more intuitive to use. When you look at the A7R menus and compare it to the A7R 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 A7R 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 know that such comments can seem a bit harsh for Sony fans, but let me give you an example of how bad the menus system really is. In my fall workshop, I had a participant who shot with a Sony A7R II. Everything was good until he did something to his settings and messed them up. After he reverted his settings to factory defaults, he sat there for around 30 minutes just to make the camera behave like it used to. During the process, I heard him complain a number of times about the terrible menu system. To those who say that the menu system is not bad once you set it up, I agree, that is certainly true. However, if someone else shoots with your A7-series camera or if you find yourself resetting the camera to factory defaults like my student, you will be in the same boat, trying to find relevant settings and re-configuring all those buttons and functions to perform to your needs. That’s just bad design! I could reset any of my Nikon and Fuji cameras to factory defaults and it would take me no more than a couple of minutes to start shooting again. All those extra function buttons are great, but giving them blanket names like C1, C2 and C3 is far from being user friendly. It clutters both the menus and the cameras. Buttons should have proper default functions attached to them and if Sony wants to give the option to change the behavior, that’s perfectly fine too! I hope Sony addresses these ergonomic, menu and navigation issues in the future, because these cameras desperately need a complete overhaul…
6) Features and Responsiveness
Like most other Sony mirrorless cameras, the A7R 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 apply to JPEG images. Aside from a boatload of Creative Style Effects and various Scene Modes, the Sony A7R 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.
The responsiveness seems to be also improved on the A7R II, which is great. Although there are still some lags here and there, the camera feels quite a bit more responsive compared to the A7R. Initial start-up time is a bit slow, but once the camera is active, it does not take too long for the camera to start back up. As long as you don’t have long delays between shooting, you can expect the camera to be operational in less than a second. Still, if you are a DSLR user and you are used to picking up the camera and shooting as soon as turning the camera on, you might find it disappointing that you cannot do the same thing on most mirrorless cameras. That’s expected, as it takes a while to initialize all the electronic components of the system.
7) Charging and Battery Life
Another complaint which still stands 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. Yes, I do understand that Sony keeps the same compact and lightweight battery between NEX and A7 iterations to keep the existing user base happy, but at 1020 mAh, the battery is just under-powered for serious use. It is time for Sony to increase the capacity of its batteries, even if that translates to a bigger and a heavier battery! Every Sony shooter welcomed the improved grip on the second iteration of Sony A7 cameras, even though the weight has increased by up to 25%. So increasing the battery capacity to something like 2000 mAh shouldn’t make a huge difference on the overall weight either. Nikon’s EN-EL15 battery has a capacity of 1900mAh and its weight is only 88 grams, so the weight difference is much smaller than one would think. But if I could squeeze over 700-800 images from a single charge, it would make the A7-series cameras far more appealing to many photographers, including myself. I just don’t see the benefit of going lighter when one has to carry and constantly charge and change so many batteries. Sadly, for now, the only solution is to grab a few of those NP-FW50 batteries. And Sony seems to understand this battery issue, as the A7R II is shipped with two batteries.
What about charging the battery? Finally, after so many complaints, Sony has included a separate wall charger for charging! With the two provided batteries, you can now charge one of them on your wall and the other through a micro USB cable attached to the camera (with the battery inside, obviously). And that’s one feature that I really love about the A7-series cameras – being able to charge the battery through the camera body! When traveling, I now use this USB power pack to charge the battery, so I don’t even need to worry about having access to a wall outlet – a single charge on the battery pack can last for a couple of days. That’s such a great feature and convenience! I wish all cameras had the ability to charge directly through the camera body like this, as it can be advantageous when having limited access to city power.
8) SteadyShot Image Stabilization
As I have previously reported, Sony’s 5-axis IBIS system is excellent, giving the A7-line a huge appeal when compared to other full-frame cameras on the market. Although it is not as good as the IBIS found on Olympus OM-D E-M1, you have to keep in mind that stabilizing a full-frame sensor is far more difficult than stabilizing a Micro Four Thirds sensor. What Sony has done on the second generation A7-series cameras is very impressive and the results speak for themselves when shooting in low-light conditions. Shoot a DSLR and a Sony mirrorless with IBIS in low light with a prime lens and you will quickly see that stabilization is extremely useful on every camera and every focal length. Initially, I was a bit puzzled and concerned to see IBIS implemented in the A7 II, because at the time Sony already had a few lenses with built-in stabilization. Manufacturers typically choose either lens stabilization or camera stabilization, but not both like Sony had done. After reading the documentation, my concerns were settled, as Sony apparently 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…
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. 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 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 second generation A7-series cameras…
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 a limited choice of native mount lenses. Although Sony did not initially introduce many high-end FE lenses, in the two year timeframe, the company has been pushing more and more lenses directly and through its partners like Zeiss. Below is the list of current lens offerings, which has increased dramatically since the launch of the full-frame mirrorless line:
- Sony FE 28mm f/2
- Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA
- Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 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 24-120mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS
- Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS
- Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS
And Zeiss FE lenses:
- Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8
- Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2
- Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2
- Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2
- Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8
That’s a total of 16 currently available lenses. With Zeiss and other manufacturers offering more and more FE mount lenses, the state of the Sony mirrorless system is now looking much more promising. I hope Sony continues developing high-quality lenses for the mount, as that’s the current weakness of the system when compared to Nikon and Canon. The biggest gap that I see today is in the mid-range – both 24-70mm and 28-70mm are pretty weak optically and Sony should release an updated version of the 24-70mm as soon as possible. And once things catch up on the AF side, Sony should start developing longer telephoto lenses to make the A7 line more appealing for sports and wildlife photographers.
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, aside from a single AF-capable adapter from a Chinese company (which has not proven to be reliable), you are pretty much limited to only “dummy” adapters used in manual focus mode.
11) Sony 42.4 MP BSI Exmor Sensor
The 42.4 MP sensor on the A7R II is only marginally higher in resolution compared to its predecessor or its Nikon competitor, the D810 – by only 6.1 MP, which means that the physical size of pixels has not changed that much. And as you will see in the illustration below, the 8.2 MP difference with the Canon 5DS / 5DS R cameras is also not as big as it seems either:
|Camera||Resolution||Pixel Size||Image Size|
|Canon 5DS / 5DS R||50.6 MP||4.14 µ||8688 x 5792|
|Sony A7R II||42.4 MP||4.51 µ||7952 x 5304|
|Nikon D810||36.3 MP||4.88 µ||7360 x 4912|
|Sony A7R||36.3 MP||4.88 µ||7360 x 4912|
|Nikon D750||24.3 MP||5.97 µ||6016 x 4016|
|Sony A7 II||24.3 MP||5.97 µ||6000 x 4000|
|Sony A7S II||12.2 MP||8.40 µ||4240 x 2832|
From the above chart, we can see that the pixel size difference between the first four cameras above 24 MP is actually pretty small – it ranges from 4.14 microns to 4.88 microns, which is less than a micron. The big differences in pixel size are when we go drastically lower in resolution to 24.3 MP or especially 12.2 MP on the Sony A7S, which has a pixel size of 8.40 microns – almost twice bigger in comparison. What does that mean? Well, at pixel-level, i.e. when you are looking at images at 100% view, the camera with the largest pixel size will output the cleanest image, particularly at higher ISOs. That’s where the Sony A7S II is unmatched when compared to other cameras. If you are wondering about low vs high resolution cameras, please see my article explaining the advantages and disadvantages of low vs high resolution cameras. And I have also written a detailed article about camera resolution, where you can get a detailed perspective on the effects of camera resolution.
So with the Sony A7R II featuring a high-resolution 42.4 MP sensor, how does that compare to other cameras? Take a look at the below illustration to see where the A7R II stands compared to other modern full-frame sensors:
As you can see, 42.4 MP is not a huge jump from the 36.3 MP sensor and the difference is also quite small when we look at Canon’s 50.6 MP sensor, so the resolution differences between these cameras is not as big as it may seem at first. In fact, we are only dealing with less than 9% difference in image width (8688 vs 7952 pixels).
Now, what does this all mean for such needs as landscape or architecture photography? Well, if you are jumping up from a 24.3 MP sensor, it does represent a big change in overall resolution, but if you are moving up from a 36.3 MP camera, then it is a pretty marginal increase. The more important difference between the A7R II’s sensor and its predecessor is not resolution – it is the difference in sensor technology. The Sony A7R II has a backside-illuminated sensor (BSI), which is supposed to deliver better performance at higher ISOs. Take a look at the differences in sensor technology between a conventional and a BSI sensor:
The BSI sensor technology has already been available on smaller cameras, like the Apple iPhone 6 for sometime now and it is the first time the technology is making its way into a full-frame sensor. Because of this change, Sony promises better performance in handling noise and thus has increased its native ISO sensitivity range to ISO 25,600 (the Sony A7R’s native ISO was capped at 6,400) – a two stop difference. The big question is, does the A7R II actually deliver a two stop improvement? The answer is provided in the camera comparisons section of this review.
12) 11+7 Bit RAW vs Uncompressed RAW Analysis
Another area that I criticized on the original Sony A7-series cameras was 11+7 Bit Lossy RAW compression, which resulted in banding / posterization issues and weird artifacts, as seen below:
While Sony finally addressed our complaints by providing the ability to shoot true RAW without any weird compression algorithm using the “Uncompressed RAW” option, the solution created another problem – massive files that seriously bog down the camera. I am not exactly sure why Sony decided to go from one end of the extreme to another, but it felt like it was more of a “in your face” type of a response, with Sony highlighting that lossy RAW was the best option in the first place. While having the ability to shoot uncompressed RAW is far better than not having anything, I really hope that Sony will add another option into its camera menu, allowing to shoot in Losslessly Compressed RAW format. Losslessly compressed RAW files are much smaller than uncompressed RAW and if Sony can figure out a way to compress files effectively, that option should not slow down the camera as much.
If you find it unbearable to use uncompressed RAW, you are probably shooting with an older generation SD card that has a very slow write speed. Until Sony comes up with the right solution, my recommendation is to get fast 90 MB/sec+ memory cards in the meantime.
13) Colors and Dynamic Range
When it comes to colors and dynamic range, the Sony A7R 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 quickly processed in Lightroom:
It was a 30 second exposure after sunset and it turned out to be pretty dark. Recovering the image was easy – I just dialed +2.0 exposure, +50 shadows and dropped highlights down to -50. As you can see there is more than enough information to be able to work with the image. Although at 100% view it is a bit noisy (which is expected after heavy recovery), all the details are still there and I could run a single pass of noise reduction to make the image look good. 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…
14) Autofocus / Manual Focus Performance and Metering
The Sony A7R II features a pretty sophisticated hybrid autofocus system with a whopping 399 focus points for phase-detection autofocus and if the camera switches to contrast-detection AF, there are 25 available focus points. With phase detection pixels integrated right on the sensor and a pretty fast BIONZ X image processor, the Sony A7R II promises up to 40% faster autofocus performance compared to its predecessor – definitely Sony’s best attempt so far to make AF usable for moving subjects.
That’s a big change, but does it make the A7R II suitable for sports and wildlife photography? And should one even consider this camera for such needs? Sadly, that’s where the mirrorless technology struggles quite a bit at the moment and DSLRs still reign. So if you primarily shoot fast action, the A7R II would not be suitable for this reason alone. Another reason is shutter delay and blackouts, which make it incredibly difficult to fire the shutter at the time you really need it. The startup time has certainly improved, but it is still about a 1 second lag after the camera is turned off, which can be too late. And if the camera goes to sleep after not being used for a while, the wake up time is another second-long delay. This is not necessarily specific to the A7-series cameras, since all mirrorless cameras have a similar blackout, but still, if one looks at mirrorless as a potential replacement of a DSLR for action photography, such delays and blackouts need to be thoroughly evaluated. In addition, Sony does not even have any professional lens longer than 200mm in Sony FE mount at the moment. So it may take a while for AF to be usable for fast action photography.
Now if you don’t need to shoot fast action and you don’t care about the immediate response time, is the AF system on the A7R II suitable for other types of photography? How does it compare to DSLRs? When it comes to AF speed, the best lenses on DSLRs feel a bit faster in comparison, but for the most part, I would say that the AF speed is comparable. However, when it comes to focus accuracy, the A7R II is absolutely amazing. In fact, looking at the images I have captured with the A7R II and my Nikon DSLRs, I am yet to see an image that was poorly focused on the A7R II and I sadly cannot say the same thing about my Nikon DSLRs. One of the main reasons for such superb performance is phase detection built directly on the sensor, instead of a secondary sensor sitting on the bottom of the camera chamber in DSLRs. Phase detection with a secondary mirror is prone to all kinds of issues and if any of your lenses are not in sync with the camera, even a detailed calibration process can result in inconsistent AF behavior. There are a number of problems with lens calibration – you cannot save adjustments at different distances (adjustments often vary quite a bit with distance) and you cannot save adjustments at different focal lengths. Mirrorless cameras are immune to such focus issues, because the image is projected directly on the image sensor and there in no separate focus system. If there is a phase detection system present on the camera (as in the case of the A7R II), since the phase detection pixels sit directly on the sensor, what you see is basically what you get. Another reason for such superb accuracy is the new AF system on the A7R II – it just does a great job at nailing focus, especially when you photograph people. The camera is smart enough to track faces and when you track the subject with the Eye AF feature, it does a phenomenal job at continuous AF adjustments, keeping the eye constantly in focus at varying distances. To date, I have not seen a single DSLR that can track subjects as well as the A7R II does, which shows just how good the hybrid AF system on the Sony cameras has gotten lately…
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 A7R 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 A7R II, is that it now has IBIS, so focusing gets even easier – the viewfinder does not look as jumpy anymore.
As for exposure metering, the Sony A7R 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).
15) 4K Movie Recording
I shot a little bit of video footage on the A7R II when I first received it and although the video quality looked stunning at 4K, after about 20 minutes of video recording indoors (while shooting video hand-held with IBIS turned on), the camera complained with the following error “Internal temp. high. Allow it to cool.”. The indoor temperature was around 70 degrees, so I was a bit surprised to see the camera overheat so quickly. My guess is that the primary cause of overheating is IBIS, along with the processor-hungry XAVC compression that causes the camera to overheat. Until Sony figures out a way to keep the temperature down, I would not recommend the A7R II for shooting video footage.
Back in 2009, Sony was the first to release a WiFi-capable camera. Since then, Sony has been pushing Wi-Fi hard into many of its devices, including every A7 camera. The Sony A7R II retains the same Wi-Fi capabilities as the A7R 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 A7R II during my workshop in the mountains and I was able to share images with my family 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 modern digital camera.
Let’s see how the camera does in ISO performance and how it compares to others.
17) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
Some Technical Info:
- White Balance: Custom
- Tested with: Sony 70-200mm f/4 OSS
- Aperture: f/5.6
- Manual Focus
- DRO: Off
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO HR: Off
- Image Format: Uncompressed RAW
- Processing Engine: RawDigger 1.2.1, RAW to TIFF
- Export: TIFF Cropped and Exported in Lightroom CC, sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
Let’s take a look at how the Sony A7R 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. At ISO 800 we can see a bit of noise in the shadows, but it is not distracting by any means.
18) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-25600)
Let’s see what happens when ISO is boosted to much higher levels:
ISO 1600 adds quite a bit more noise and this time we are starting to see noise impacting other areas of the image. At ISO 3200 we start to see chroma noise, but the colors and the details look good and perfectly usable once downsampled, or cleaned up with noise reduction software.
As ISO is pushed higher than 3200, we see far more noise all over the image. Both chroma and luminance noise are very noticeable at ISO 6400. At ISO 12800, we see loss of detail and the noise levels are already too high to make the image usable.
Although ISO 25600 falls within the range of the native ISO on the A7R II, you can clearly see that it looks quite bad and completely unusable. Even downsampling such an image and running noise reduction would do little to help. And ISO 51200 is far worse in comparison, with most details getting mushy.
Lastly, I really don’t see the point of providing ISO 102400, since it looks like garbage.
So what can we say about the noise performance of the A7R II? It is certainly hard to say how good or bad the performance is without direct comparisons to other cameras, so let’s see how it fares against other high-resolution cameras.
19) Sony A7R II vs Nikon D810
Let’s take a look at how the full-frame Sony A7R II compares to the Nikon D810. For this test, I had to down-sample Sony A7R II images to 36 MP in order to match D810’s resolution:
There is practically no difference between the two cameras at low ISOs. Both cameras look great and the performance is very comparable.
The same goes for ISO 1600 – both cameras look very comparable.
At ISO 3200, the Sony A7R II shows a very slight advantage in chroma noise. If you look at the shadows, the D810 shows a bit of chroma noise here and there, while the A7R II looks cleaner in comparison.
When I initially saw the ISO 6400 results from both cameras, I was honestly a bit shocked to see the D810 perform worse. This is the first time when I see a Sony camera beat Nikon in noise performance!
The difference is much more noticeable at ISO 12800. We can now see that the D810 is visibly worse throughout the image.
And although both cameras show rather poor performance at ISO 25600, the A7R II clearly stands out in comparison here.
ISO 51200 also looks terrible on both cameras, but you can again see just how much better the A7R II looks.
As you can see, Sony’s new 42 MP BSI CMOS sensor is truly superb. It shows superior performance at every ISO above 1600!
20) Sony A7R II vs Canon 5DS R
Now that we know that the A7R II performs better than the Nikon D810, let’s take a look at the current resolution champion, the Canon 5DS R and see how it compares. For this test, I downsampled the 5DS R images to 42 MP for the comparison:
Once again, there is practically no difference at lower ISOs. Both cameras look great from ISO 100 to 800, showing very similar performance.
Similar to what we have seen between the A7R II and the D810, the Canon 5DS R starts to fall short at higher ISOs. At ISO 1600, we see a bit more chroma noise in some spots on the Canon 5DS R, while the A7R II looks fairly clean.
We see a similar situation at ISO 3200, where the Sony A7R II looks a tad cleaner.
The situation takes a drastic change at ISO 6400, where the A7R II demonstrates significantly better overall performance.
And you can see that ISO 12800 again shows the A7R II being noticeably superior. The Canon 5DS R lost a lot of colors and turned into a red mess, while the A7R II retained far more data.
21) Sony A7R II Comparison Summary
Sony’s move to the BSI CMOS sensor certainly proved to be a good choice – the A7R II performed admirably against arguably the best high-resolution full-frame DSLRs on the market, the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5DS R. Although all cameras performed similarly at low ISOs, the A7R II proved to be noticeably cleaner at ISO 1600 and above, which is something I see for the first time in such direct comparisons. Mirrorless beating full-frame DSLRs, how about that! When it comes to dynamic range, I felt that the Sony A7R II performed amazingly well for recovering highlights and shadows when compared to my Nikon D810. Sadly, I cannot say the same thing about the Canon 5DS R, which looked disappointingly bad when doing direct comparisons, particularly when it came to recovering shadow details – the noise in images looked far worse.
Looking back at the launch of the first A7-series cameras very much reminds me of the first time I picked up a Fuji X-Pro1 when it was just introduced. The cameras felt too experimental, with all kinds of bugs, quirks and annoying problems, some of which many of us considered “deal breakers”. Although Fuji addressed many of its initial problems with firmware updates, it was not as easy to do the same for Sony, because some of the core issues like shutter shock and a flimsy mount were design problems that could not have been easily resolved. With the second iteration of A7-series cameras, Sony demonstrated its willingness to listen to customer feedback and work hard on not only addressing existing problems, but also pushing out even more features and functionality in order to make its camera line appealing to a larger audience. And in many ways, Sony succeeded – the second iteration indeed turned out to be surprisingly solid, offering compelling reasons for many photographers to take a serious look at the Sony mirrorless system.
The Sony A7R II, in particular, proved to be a very solid and capable performer when compared to the best high-resolution DSLRs on the market. During my time in the mountains this fall, I had the Sony A7R II, Canon 5DS R and my trusty Nikon D810 with me. Although lugging all three cameras and some of the best lenses was not something my back was very happy with, after the first week, I kept reaching more and more for the Sony A7R II, leaving the other two in the bag. With its in-body image stabilization, electronic front-curtain shutter, dampened and quieter shutter operation, bright and beautiful electronic viewfinder, improved responsiveness, fast and reliable AF system, and a lightweight and compact footprint, the A7R II was not only a fun camera to shoot with, but also quite a versatile setup capable of producing stunning images. Having primarily shot with the 16-35mm f/4 OSS and the 70-200mm f/4 OSS (both excellent lens choices for the A7R II), I was blown away by the detail and the rich colors I was seeing in my images. For the first time, the A7R II felt like the tool that could really rival my Nikon DSLRs for serious landscape photography work. Native lenses are no longer a major concern either. With Zeiss stepping in with excellent Loxia and Batis lenses, the number of native mount choices is growing fast. You can now cover everything from 16mm all the way to 240mm and you have a choice of both prime and zoom lenses to fit the bill.
After having a pleasant shooting experience with the camera, I wondered how good Sony’s new BSI sensor would look when compared to both the D810 and the 5DS R. To my surprise (and as you can see from the previous sections of this review), the Sony A7R II demonstrated superb performance at handling noise at high ISOs, easily surpassing both cameras. In my past evaluations, Sony full-frame cameras always fell short when put head-to-head against Nikon DSLRs, so I did not expect the A7R II to do better either. But looks like the BSI CMOS sensor that Sony decided to utilize on the A7R II was the right choice, as the performance speaks for itself. Not only does it deliver exceptionally good ISO performance, but it also does it with more megapixels than the D810 and a far better dynamic range performance than the Canon 5DS R.
Does all of the above make the Sony A7R II a perfect camera? No, of course not – there is no perfect camera or camera system out there and every tool has its long list of pros and cons, including the A7R II. As I have previously expressed, despite Sony’s efforts in addressing the most serious problems, there are still some issues that Sony should address as soon as possible in my opinion. First, that horrid menu system just needs to go – it needs a complete overhaul and redesign. While the A7R II is ergonomically superior to the A7R, the menu system did not change a bit. It is still a huge mess that is hard to navigate through, even for an experienced photographer. Another serious issue is battery life. Although the battery used on the A7-series cameras is light and compact, it just does not have enough juice for the A7R II. Yes, I could carry a few fully charged batteries in my pockets, but that also translates to the need for extra chargers, which can be problematic in many environments. When I am out shooting on assignments or photo tours, I often have a limited number of power outlets to use and I just cannot constantly worry about plugging in and charging batteries. Add cold weather to the mix and the situation gets even worse, since batteries drain faster. Thankfully, the Sony A7R II gives the ability to charge via a USB cable, allowing me to use power banks for quick charging. However, that’s another heavy item that I need to carry with me, which sort of defeats the purpose of trying to go lighter with mirrorless. And with the newly provided uncompressed RAW option, the battery gets drained even faster, making it tough to shoot with the A7R II without having to constantly worry about additional battery power. Speaking of uncompressed RAW, while I am happy that Sony finally addressed the lossy RAW issue by providing this option, it puzzles me why Sony did not provide an option to shoot losslessly compressed RAW like Nikon and other manufacturers do. Shooting uncompressed RAW is a pure waste of space and time, so I really hope that we will soon see a firmware update with another RAW option. If Sony abandoned its under-powered battery and swapped it out for a larger capacity battery (2,000 mAh+ please), it would make the A7-series cameras much more appealing for serious amateurs and professionals. Speaking of professionals, I am not sure how Sony is planning to address the pro market with a single memory card slot. To make the A7-series cameras appealing for serious jobs, Sony should add another memory slot and allow for a card backup option. Once again though, without a larger capacity battery, we can kiss dual memory card slots goodbye. Lastly, the A7R II does not deliver as a video camera. While 4K sounds appealing, the overheating issue is a deal breaker to consider the A7R II seriously for production video needs.
Overall, despite its shortcomings, the A7R II is a very solid tool that I can highly recommend to our readers who are interested in shooting stills. With the right choice of native mount lenses, the Sony A7R II is capable of producing stunning results that can seriously rival some of the best DSLRs on the market today. I am anxious to see what Sony has got up its sleeve going forward. While the big two seem to be taking too long of a break, Sony is heavily pushing through continuous innovation. It will be interesting to see what will happen to the camera market within the next few years…
23) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Sony A7R II (body only) for $3,198 (as of 12/01/2015).
24) More Image Samples
Sony A7R 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