Although I am planning to fully review the Sony A7 II, I decided to share some quick thoughts on this new mirrorless camera which I have been shooting with for the past few weeks and share a photo of the Bay Bridge that I captured at night. I am currently in San Francisco, testing the Sony A7 II with a few Sony / Zeiss lenses, along with the Canon 7D Mark II, which I am also planning to review when I get back (I know, I have been a bit late on that one).
When I initially tested the Sony A7 and A7R cameras last year, I was not particularly impressed with either one. Not because I was not satisfied with the image quality from those cameras, but because of inherent issues with their design, ergonomics, build, shutter vibration issues, limited lens selection, poor battery life and a few other issues. I did not get to spend a lot of time with them either, so I never covered any of the Sony A7 series in detail. Since then, a lot has changed – Sony introduced a couple of more lenses like the Sony/Zeiss 16-35mm f/4 and Zeiss also released their Loxia series lenses designed for A7 series cameras, making the system more attractive for potential buyers. In addition, there is now a big selection of different adapters for the Sony A7 series cameras, allowing pretty much any lens on the market to be used on these mirrorless cameras (with some adapters providing AF capabilities). Sony also announced the Sony A7s with a really impressive 12.2 MP sensor for low-light photography / videography that has an impressive ISO range of 100-102,400 (native ISO) and ability to capture 4K videos.
I have been observing all these events with great interest, but did not have any plans to take another serious look at the Sony system until the A7 II was announced. That’s when I immediately reacted to the announcement and requested a review unit along with a few Sony/Zeiss native lenses. The primary reason for this was in-body image stabilization. At first, I was a bit confused about this news, as I already knew that some of the lenses already had image stabilization built-in, like the kit 28-70mm OSS, 24-70mm f/4 OSS and 70-200mm f/4 OSS. Usually, manufacturers will either use in-body stabilization or lens stabilization, but not both. In the case of Sony, even though in-body stabilization at first seemed like an afterthought, the idea of using stabilization both in the camera and in lenses is something that I have been thinking about for a while now. Why not? If the system is designed to be smart by auto-sensing stabilization and disabling one of the two, or perhaps using them together for even better results, then it could be a superb solution overall. 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 for any focal length, that 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 in-body stabilization is better than nothing at all! Imagine if Nikon implemented in-body stabilization 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…
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 weeks that I have been using the camera, I found stabilization to work really well. And with the recent firmware update, the stabilization has gotten even better and more reliable.
Ergonomics of the Sony A7 II have also gotten much better, although some things are still quite annoying and backwards. The new grip makes the A7 feel like a real camera in your hands, which is great. But the button placement and their layout is something I am still having a hard time getting used to. Although you can program pretty much every button to behave the way you want it, there are some simple things that should be done by default, such as the ability to move a focus point by just pressing the rotary 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, 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!
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 continuous 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!
Menu system 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. Stuff is 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…
Other than the above, the camera seems to be solid. Image quality is stunning, with the 24 MP sensor giving a great balance of noise vs resolution. Great colors and superb dynamic range, just like on other cameras with Sony sensors.
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 has). 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.
Overall, the Sony A7 II seems like a big step in the right direction. A few bugs to iron out to make it a really solid choice, but even in its current state, this little camera is clearly showing what the camera future is going to look like…The big question is, will Nikon and Canon respond anytime soon?
Here is a photo I wanted to share from the Sony A7 II of the Bay Bridge that I captured last night:
P.S. Anyone local interested in a photo walk in San Francisco area? Planning to be here for another week, so if you want to meet up, post a comment below.