With the release of the much-anticipated Sony A7R II, a number of our readers have been asking about the use of the camera, such as what type of photography the A7R II would be best suitable for, what advantages and disadvantages it has compared to DSLRs and how it can compete with them. Many Nikon and Canon DSLR shooters are actively looking at mirrorless cameras, not just because they are generally lighter and more compact, but also because they offer intriguing technological features that cannot be made available on DSLR cameras. The Sony A7R II is quite an attractive and unique camera, because it features a high resolution 42.4 MP back-illuminated full-frame sensor – something no other camera manufacturer offers at the moment. While Canon’s new 5DS and 5DS R cameras currently hold the resolution crown, we already know that Canon did not drastically improve dynamic range and the cameras themselves are not much different than their 5D Mark III predecessor. So aside from the new 50.6 MP sensor (see more on resolution differences below), Canon did not deliver any other innovations with those cameras, which puts the Sony A7R II in a good position in comparison. Let’s take a look at what the Sony A7R II offers when compared to modern full-frame DSLRs and the type of photography it would or would not be suitable for.
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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:
|Canon 5DS / 5DS R
|8688 x 5792
|Sony A7R II
|7952 x 5304
|7360 x 4912
|7360 x 4912
|6016 x 4016
|Sony A7 / A7 II
|6000 x 4000
|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 is unmatched when compared to other cameras. If you are wondering about low vs high resolution cameras, please see my recent 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 (updated from the camera resolution article):
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 it 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. While at this point it is hard to say whether the A7R II will indeed look two stops cleaner than the A7R, even half of that would be a game changer in current sensor technology. I cannot wait to put the A7R II alongside the A7R and the Nikon D810 to see how the new sensor performs in comparison!
5-Axis In-Body Image Stabilization
Without a doubt, the biggest highlight of the A7R II is its 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS) – also world’s first (and currently only) on such a high-resolution full-frame sensor. This automatically makes every lens you attach to the camera that much more useful, even when using lenses with adapters. If you have never shot with a camera with IBIS, you have missed out a lot! Considering that none of the Nikon and Canon DSLRs feature IBIS (and looks like they have no plans to implement it), Sony is definitely ahead of the game there. Whether you mount a wide angle prime, or a telephoto zoom, the A7R II will stabilize every lens, which gives it a huge advantage when shooting in low-light conditions. Sony claims up to 4.5 stops of shutter speed compensation, which is a bit over-optimistic, but even 2-3 stops is already a lot when you don’t have much light to work with. And when you struggle with low-light, even a single stop of compensation can save the day. If you follow the reciprocal rule, which states that your shutter speed should not be slower than the reciprocal to your focal length (i.e. at least 1/50th of a second when using a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera), with image stabilization, you can go much lower and still retain superb sharpness. So if the IBIS on the A7R II can compensate 3 stops for you, then you could go as low as 1/6th of a second using the same 50mm lens example without worrying about camera shake. That’s a huge advantage!
And what’s great about Sony’s image stabilization system is that they have already figured out how to make lens stabilization and IBIS work together without having one negatively affect the other. This basically future proofs Sony’s telephoto lenses – in situations where lens stabilization is more advantageous than IBIS, Sony can simply integrate it into lenses. For everything else, IBIS will be the default option.
So the 5-axis IBIS is a huge advantage to the A7R II and it opens up a lot of opportunities for photographers, particularly when working in environments where tripod use is restricted (churches, museums, etc).
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 switch 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 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. 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.
Still, if you only need to rely on AF occasionally and your subjects are not super fast or very far, the Sony A7R II should be a pretty solid choice, given the improvements Sony has delivered in the camera.
Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter and Silent Shutter
The original Sony A7R had a very serious issue with its shutter mechanism that caused a “shutter shock”, which caused camera shake and resulted in blurry images when working at low shutter speeds. I documented this in my Sony A7R review in detail and as a result withdrew the A7R from the list of recommended cameras. Thankfully, Sony addressed this issue on the A7R II, so shutter shock is no longer a problem. Once you switch Electronic Front-Curtain Shutter on (which should be turned on by default), the camera will start the exposure without engaging the shutter mechanism, which will completely eliminate any kind of camera shake. In addition to this feature, Sony also provided a silent electronic shutter feature, which captures images without engaging the shutter at all. While the latter feature can be problematic for situations where the subject is moving quickly in the frame, it can be great in situations where the subject is still and the photographer does not want the subject to notice that he/she/it is being photographed.
On top of this, the new shutter mechanism on the A7R II has been completely reworked and is now durable enough to withstand 500,000 actuations, which is pretty impressive (the Nikon D810 shutter durability is limited to 200,000 actuations).
Electronic Viewfinder with 0.78x Magnification
Sony redesigned the electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the A7R II and made it bigger. At 0.78x magnification, this EVF is now bigger than any other full-frame viewfinder on the market. In comparison, the Nikon D4S and the D810 only have 0.70x magnification in their optical viewfinders (OVF). In addition to being bigger, EVF has a lot of other advantages over OVF, such as the ability to zoom in to focus while shooting, focus peaking, information overlays, exposure preview, live histograms, etc. These are all very important features of mirrorless cameras.
The Sony A7R II can record 4K videos up to 30 fps internally, which means that you do not have to hook up expensive video recording gadgets to be able to record the 4K output. In addition, the camera can record 4K video in Super 35mm format without pixel binning, provides clean HDMI output and S-Log2 gamma setting, which makes the Sony A7R II one of the hottest cameras on the market for video recording. In fact, the 4K specifications on the A7R II are putting a lot of pressure on other dedicated video camera manufacturers.
Although I am planning to write a separate article on lenses for the Sony A7R II, it is important to note the overall situation with lens availability for the Sony FE mount has improved dramatically since the A7 cameras have been introduced to the market. There are now a total of 11 lenses made by Sony and with Zeiss adding its line of Loxia and Batis lenses, there are now some very high-quality lenses in the line worth looking into, without having to rely on third party adapters and lenses from other mounts. The list of primes has gotten pretty impressive, with excellent 25mm, 28mm, 35mm, 55mm, 85mm and 90mm choices with AF capabilities from both Sony and Zeiss. If you do not mind manual focus, there are more choices from Samyang and Mitakon, and very soon there will be even more from Sigma and other manufacturers. If you like the convenience of zoom lenses, the new 16-35mm f/4 ZA and 70-200mm f/2.8 are excellent. Unfortunately, Sony’s 24-70mm f/4 is in desperate need of replacement, since it is quite poor when compared to other lenses in the line-up.
Again, I will be writing a separate post on Sony FE lenses soon, along with my recommendations. For now, you can read up my article on best and worst Sony FE lenses that I wrote based on my last evaluations.
If I were to invest in the Sony A7R II today, below is the list of lenses I would seriously consider for my photography needs (primarily for landscape photography + some portraiture / travel):
- Sony Vario-Sonnar T* 16-35mm f/4 ZA SSM
- Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2
- Sony Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZA
- Sony Sonnar T* 55mm f/1.8
- Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS
Taking the above factors into account, what are the best uses for the Sony A7R II? What type of photography would benefit from such a camera the most? Here is my summary, based on the above points:
- Landscape and Architecture Photography: if you primarily shoot landscapes, the Sony A7R II is pretty much an ideal choice. In-body image stabilization will liberate you from your tripod in good to moderate light environments and will make it easier on your back when taking the camera with you. And with EFCS, you will never have to worry shutter shock.
- Macro Photography: with focus peaking, excellent instant zoom manual focus capabilities and such high resolution for potential cropping, the A7R II is also a superb choice for macro photography.
- Studio Photography: the Sony A7R II would also be a great candidate for any kind of studio photography, whether photographing products or models. The 42.4 MP sensor will provide plenty of details needed for large, billboard-size prints.
- Portrait and Travel Photography: although typical portraiture and travel photography rarely requires high resolution cameras, the A7R II might be a great choice for those needs as well, thanks to the 5-axis IBIS, lightweight and compact design, focus peaking / precise manual focus operation, silent shutter, face recognition and cropping opportunities – as long as you have the processing power to handle those massive RAW files and a good chunk of storage. The only potential issue is third party triggers and flash systems. Unfortunately, unlike Nikon and Canon, Sony has not been in the priority list for providing solid flash support by companies like Profoto. It may take a while for this to happen.
Also, let’s not forget that the Sony A7R II can record 4K video internally as pointed out above, so it is definitely one of the hottest cameras on the market for videographers.
And here are some areas where the A7R II would struggle:
- Sports and Wildlife Photography: basically any type of fast action photography is currently not the forte of mirrorless cameras. Not just because of lack of high-quality lenses, but also because of shutter delays, EVF lags and blackouts. For those needs, you will be better off with a DSLR.
- Wedding Photography: with 5-axis IBIS, excellent primes like the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8, you would think the A7R II would be a great candidate for wedding photography. But based on my experience, the pain would be in post-processing hundreds, if not thousands of images from each wedding. Anything that potentially slows down the workflow of a working professional is not a good option. Plus, the clients would not be able to tell the difference in camera resolution anyway, so why bother with massive files in the first place? A better choice for such needs would be the A7 II. Battery life would be another concern – you do not want the camera to die when photographing a very important moment. Lastly, the Sony mirrorless system does not have the same level of support by third party flash accessory manufacturers, as pointed out above.
As I have stated before, considering the full features of the Sony A7R II, it sure looks like a game-changer. I cannot wait to get a hold of a few samples of the A7R II later this year to test and play with…