I’ve been shooting with the Sony a7II full frame, 24 megapixel mirrorless camera for almost a month now, which has given me a bit of time to really get a feel for it. I don’t like to review cameras that I’ve not had the ability to fire off a few thousand shots with, so I’ve been using this camera almost exclusively since I got it, and now feel a bit better about praising and lambasting Sony on a few points. C’mon in for my initial thoughts, and a few performance based tests…
Full disclosure: I have been shooting this camera almost entirely without native FE mount, Sony lenses until about a week ago. This camera was purchased as an addition to my Canon system, along with the Metabones EF>E Mount Mark 4 Smart Adapter (you can read my user review on that adapter HERE) and I’ve just recently purchased the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 FE lens. I’ve long been an admirer of Sony’s forward thinking when it came to camera bodies and sensor development, but I’ve never felt their lens offerings (for their mirrorless cameras anyway) moved the needle enough for me to think about truly jumping ship. That I can use my wonderful, and already purchased and paid for Canon EF mount lenses on a camera that incorporates so many of the features that I have grown accustomed to, and love in my other mirrorless system setup, was a huge draw for me. It also eases me into a new system. I can get quite a bit out of it without having to sell my lenses and reinvest entirely which makes for a slow descent into the shallow end of this pool.
The way that I tend to shoot now has largely grown into being used to some of the new technological bells and whistles like focus peaking, live exposure display, tilting high res LCD screens and EVF’s that enable a variety of information to be overlaid through the finder. They have all have spoiled me to an extent. I’ve been able to compartmentalize my “full frame” system and my micro 4/3 mirrorless setup by separating their skill sets into “work camera” and “everyday camera” which has been easy enough. With the a7II, those lines are starting to blur.
With that, here are my thoughts on the Sony a7II, broken down into “Build/Ergonomics,” “Features/Interface/Performance” and “Image Quality”. I’ll give my pros and cons along the way and wrap it up with a conclusion along with a few thoughts on how I see this camera specifically changing the full frame landscape moving forward.
1. Build Quality/Ergonomics
My experience with the original a7 and a7r were limited to in store tinkering, and while I liked the idea, they never felt at home in my hand. My large, gangly hand. The a7II however, seems to have tweaked the body style just enough to really sit right in the palm while not adding much bulk at all.
The grip is sufficiently deep, the shutter button is nicely placed and the thumb rest is just as large, and placed as well as it should be. Buttons are easy to access, with 4 direct access custom buttons and aside from White Balance, and Auto Focus point assignment, you have a direct access button for just about everything else necessary in capturing a fleeting moment. The ability to assign a number of features to various buttons is nice, although you then need to remember where those settings live. I, for one, prefer direct access buttons, which this camera has almost every necessary function assigned and labeled, so this isn’t quite as big an issue as I had with the OMD EM5 for instance. Some customization is cool, if it isn’t at the cost of functionality, and the Sony a7II seems to do a good job at balancing that.
The exposure compensation dial is nicely placed and a very welcomed addition in my opinion. The placement of the C1 and C2 assignable custom buttons on the top plate are nicely placed for easy access when shooting, and I even like the odd placement of the dedicated video button which is located on the outside of the thumb grip like some type of afterthought at first glance.
This camera is almost the same size as my GX7 or EM5 (with added grip) which makes it absolutely miniscule for a full frame camera. It’s a little taller and slightly deeper, but in the hand, with a smaller optic on, the differences are very minor. While I love the overall size reduction, and honestly it is one of the reasons I chose to buy it, I can’t help but feel that I’ll really only opt to use this camera with smaller prime lenses, or more specifically, only choose to buy lenses that don’t grossly imbalance this tiny camera. Full frame optics can be very big, and very heavy and if attached to an a7 series camera, one will need to anticipate using a hand on the lens as a primary support point. It’s a tradeoff. Both a pro and a con. You lose weight and bulk, and have the ability with the right lenses, to have a remarkably compact setup, buuuuut, it’s small and can feel imbalanced with larger lenses.
One ergonomic feature that I think needs to be addressed with future remodels will be the front click wheel. It doesn’t stick out far enough to be immediately tactile, and many times I’ve turned the camera off while trying to adjust my aperture setting via that front wheel. I keep telling myself that I’ll get used to it, but after almost a month, it’s still too damn small for me to say without pause that it is designed well. The idea? Yes, great, I like having two wheels that I can adjust without taking my eye from the viewfinder. The execution? It’s poor. These cameras are relatively tiny. With crucial adjustment buttons and wheels, you need to do a better job at making them identifiable and in turn, usable especially when the possibility of turning the camera off at a crucial moment is the alternative.
This camera is solid without feeling too heavy. It has decent weather sealing and all tactile buttons and dials have a decent sturdiness to them. The tilting LCD (which I now greatly value and prefer over the tilt and swivel style LCD) feels less solid than either the Panasonic GX7 or Olympus EM5 from my experience, but still a valuable addition. Perhaps for video, a side swivel screen is of more use, but I prefer having the screen on axis with the lens for waist level/low angle, or high angle shooting, myself. Both click wheels do feel a bit light and plasticky, and as I mentioned, I feel the front click wheel is too small, insignificant and too close to immediately differentiate from the on/off switch, but otherwise I think this camera feels every inch a solid, prosumer design.
- Solidly built with environmental sealing, yet not too heavy and now is up to spec with the a7r and a7s in that it is more metal, less plastic
- Sony has remedied the mount issue, now using a more solid ring at the lens mount on the body
- Functional grip with natural feeling placement of the shutter button
- Access to all necessary functions, with a great level of customization
- Tilting LCD
- It’s really small for a full frame camera, nice and compact
- Front click wheel is too small, too close to the on/off switch
- Both click wheels feel somewhat cheap compared to similar click wheels on other cameras I’ve used
- Tilting LCD assembly seems a little light weight, again comparatively
- It’s really small for a full frame camera, can become easily imbalanced with larger lenses
2. Features, Interface and Performance
Features – Here is where this camera made sense to me and ultimately worked its way onto my radar. As many of you know, I have long been using the micro 4/3 system as my go to, day to day camera setup and I love it. Modern features like IBIS, focus peaking, EVF information overlay, WiFi and the like, have really grown on me. Grown to the point that I don’t even shoot with my 5D2 anymore outside of a few specific jobs. I have fun and see great value in many features that I may have originally seen as unnecessary or merely marketing tag lines.
IBIS – (In Body Image Stabilization) This is awesome. I certainly stirred the pot when I said that I felt the 2 axis Panasonic IBIS in the GX7 did a better job at still results than the 5 axis IBIS in the Olympus OMD EM5, which I still feel to be the truth, but the other main takeaway from that comparison is that the 5 axis system does far better at providing an overall, superior experience. Like the Olympus 5 axis IBIS, Sony has, and for the first time in any full frame camera, incorporated a 5 axis IBIS sensor based system that not only aids in still and video capture, but in the live view feed. This is very handy, and arguably more important than a half stop of handhold ability one way or the other.
I’ll pit the a7II against the GX7 soon to see if I can best my still results with the Sony, but just rest assured that the Sony’s IBIS system is great. How great? Well, here’s a quick set of sample of shots with the IBIS (Sony calls it “Steady Shot”) on, using the FE 55mm f/1.8 lens. For the test, I started at 1/50 of a second to get as close to 1/focal length as I could with this lens. First, a large shot of the scene as I shot myself in a mirror to see how I shot, and then 100% crops, 1 stop at a time, as labeled. Click any to see larger.
On the shot at 1/25th sec, I obviously focused on my finger tip, not the text on the front of the lens as in the others, but otherwise things should be pretty consistent. From this singular test, I see a solid 3 stop handheld advantage, and if we want to nitpick while going by that 1/focal length “rule of thumb” for stabilization standards, we could say by this that we’re a touch over 3 stops assuming you agree with my acceptance of that shot at 1/6 sec. At 1/3 second, it starts to get to a point that most anyone would consider it too blurry to be considered “sharp enough” although I have plenty of shots with this level of relative sharpness in my library that I’ve kept because a slightly blurry shot is better than no shot in cases. I will be doing much more on this, comparing the Sony 5 axis IBIS to the GX7, and then some optically stabilized shots on the 5D2 to see how my shooting technique with and without the aid of modern electronic stabilization fares so stay tuned for that.
Focus Peaking – Becoming more common in the mirrorless world, focus peaking’s usefulness cannot be overstated in my opinion. Considering that we are able to adapt so many different lenses to these cameras, manual focus is becoming a more common task. A task that when used with a feature such as focus peaking and focus magnification assist as is available on this camera, can be fun, easy and even preferable in certain cases. It’s great. Below is the video from my Metabones AF test, but toward the end (the clip below starts at 1:35 where I switch to MF to show the focus peaking) you can see how quick the focus peaking can enable a manual focus shot. In the case of the Metabones adapter, it can be much, much faster than employing the AF, and even in lower light and/or lower contrast situations where the native lenses may hunt a little bit. Have a look:
WiFi – There are still companies that charge a remarkable premium for wireless file transfer devices to be added on to their cameras. Want a remote control? Pay even more. WiFi is a great feature for remote shooting, wireless tethered shooting and simple file transfer, even if you don’t use it regularly, and it is a feature that every single camera manufacturer is going to have to start integrating into all of their cameras for those that don’t already. Soon. I wouldn’t consider this to be a feature to replace a card reader for instance when transferring full res files to your computer, but for sharing an image or two to a mobile device, or viewing lower res images on a tablet or the like while shooting for preview (commercially for an AD or client), it is a handy feature, and one that is included with the cost of admission.
Applications – This brings me to the ability to purchase and download applications directly to your camera. Again, if you never use this feature, no harm, no foul. For those that see the benefit to using an intervalometer that will instantly create a finished time-lapse, or one that will stack star trail images for night time, long exposure night photography, or the like this is a very, very cool feature. I’ve only yet purchased and have used the time-lapse app (see below) but it is very cool in my opinion, and hopefully this functionality will continue to provide newer and more feature rich applications for those of us interested.
Battery Performance – First things first. Sony, include a damn battery charger. Seriously. I can see the benefit to being able to charge a battery in camera, but when I have to stop shooting to charge a battery, that is a huge pile of crap. Charging $40 for a battery charger is BS. This is the absolute first camera that I have purchased (and readers know I’ve purchased a fair few) and I have used a lot more, that didn’t come with a way to charge a battery outside of the camera. Stupid. I’d also suggest buying the Watson Charger for $20 instead of the Sony charger. While I am normally an advocate for keeping manufacturer’s proprietary batteries in the camera, I don’t really care about the name on the charger as long as it works, and this one does, for half the price.
The performance of the Sony batteries themselves are pretty abysmal as well. I cannot get through a day of moderate shooting on a single battery. If traveling, (or shooting for work) I think I’d need at least three to get me through a day. This is not surprising when you consider the amount of juice that this camera requires to keep the IBIS, EVF and LCD humming along. Certainly not unique to Sony, or this camera, which is a shame that crappy battery performance has become the standard. Well, I guess size reduction coupled with high end performance features has to result in some compromise eh? This is one of those compromises, and we all just need to live with it unfortunately.
One might choose to turn off the IBIS, review time and even shut the camera off between windows of activity, but that goes against why I enjoy shooting with these newer digital cameras. I want the power eating features, and I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I have to buy a couple extra batteries, which in Sony’s defense look to be somewhat universal for many of the alpha cameras which is good at least. If you own other a7 series cameras, or even the NEX/alpha APS-C series cams, I believe they all use this NP FW50 Battery so that is cool and if you do own another Sony alpha camera, hopefully you got a battery charger with one of those so you don’t have to pony up for one.
User Interface– Sony has come a long way in my opinion since they started with the NEX platform. I had written about my experience when looking at, and comparing the NEX 5 against the Panasonic GF1, 5 or 6 years ago, both visionary cameras in their own rights. I enjoyed the image quality and certain features of the NEX 5, but I couldn’t jive with the menus and what I saw as a completely overlooked user interface. If I remember correctly, I think I made a statement that I’d felt Sony’s cellular phone designers must have built the UI for the original NEX cameras because they were obviously not anything close to being photographers. The old NEX cameras gave menu hunting a totally new meaning. Changing simple parameters like ISO might have taken 7 different button presses for instance. It was a mess.
The a7 platform, which to be honest is the only other Sony camera I’ve interacted with since, has streamlined the UI in most every way. I still feel there are things that can, and should be addressed in the future like deleting images off of your card (the only way to do it in camera all at once is to format your card, which is in the 6th menu header, sub menu 5) but this is easy enough as it isn’t anything that is going to keep me from getting a shot.
About a month in, and I’m feeling fairly well versed in where things live, and while I still have to do a fair bit of staring at the back of the camera when wanting to change certain things, those instances are becoming fewer and further between. On an intuitive and brilliantly executed, photographer centric scale of menu implementation and overall user interface of 1-10 where the old NEX system would be a 1, this camera would probably hover between a 6 and 7. It is better, and far more intuitive than the Olympus menu system in my opinion, but not quite up to snuff with Canon or Panasonic, which I feel do a really good job at enabling the photographer while not getting in the way. Still, that Sony has made this much progress since I last used a Sony camera is encouraging and shows that they recognize that it can, and should be improved upon. Kudos.
If I can pick up a camera I’ve never shot before and within minutes figure out how to alter things like metering, ISO settings, drive mode, AF mode, white balance, formatting, MF assist features, et al without ever needing to open or track down a camera manual, then it would start at a 7 on my personal scale here if that makes sense. This camera is almost there, it just has a couple weird things buried in menus, or named something that if you don’t shoot Sony cameras might not know what to look for, and of course is not well documented in the included literature.
Again, Sony, EVERYONE, when did it start becoming okay to not provide an actual, printed camera manual? I don’t want to download one. I want to open the box, spend an hour with it, and know exactly how to get what I want out of it, not to mention being able to keep it with me in the field if and when I need to reference how to setup my applications, or wifi connection.
Performance – This camera can be looked at from a couple different angles performance wise. The first angle could be from what it’s lacking. It doesn’t have class leading AF tracking, blistering frame rate nor does the system have the lenses to completely fill out a professional’s bag for serious work in certain applications. Coming from the other side, it does everything decently. It offers some awesome tools that many other cameras do not like focus peaking, IBIS, weather sealing and the ability to mount just about any 135mm format lens to it via adapters. At it’s price point, I looked at this camera versus the D610’s or 6D’s of the world and for me, being a Canon shooter (or at least someone with a bunch of Canon full frame lenses) there was no real comparison on paper.
I sacrifice (when using my EF lenses) quick AF operation, which is no small tradeoff for many, but I understand that is going to be the case if I want to use these particular lenses. AF is very handy, don’t get me wrong, I utilize auto focus quite often, but for me, when adapting optics to this a7II, I really have been looking at how important it is to me and what I shoot. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can easily get by with a majority of my shooting by manually focusing, and for the times that AF is paramount, I will have the Sony/Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens, and perhaps another one or two Sony FE mount lenses in the future. For all the other stuff that I shoot like landscape, macro, interior and even portraiture, manual focus is not only easy enough, but preferred.
I’d like to explore the intricacies of the hybrid AF, but have only had the Zeiss 55mm for about a week and have been looking at other areas for this review. As far as I can tell, the hybrid AF does not work with adapted AF lenses outside of the alpha family, as there is no way to engage it via the menus, and the area that the on sensor phase detection spots employ, are outlined when engaged and when using an FE lens. AF overall has been good, struggling in lower light, lower contrast situations which is to be somewhat expected, but one area that I’d hope to see a little boost with a phase detection spot.
The LCD is adequate, but I can’t help but wonder why Sony doesn’t implement touch capacitive screens. I know that it bothers certain shooters, but the upside is so handy, especially with mirrorless cameras that enable us to focus anywhere in the frame. Changing an AF spot on this camera is slow and requires quite a few button presses. On my other cameras that have touch capacitive screens, I can do it with a quick touch, and on the GX7, I can use the LCD as a track pad to place that AF spot ANYWHERE at the touch with my eye still in the EVF, and that is absolutely awesome. What I suggest to these camera companies, and seemingly has not been done yet, is to provide a button or switch that will enable/disable the touch screen function. Panasonic has a way to partially do this, so this can and should be standard. Touch screen on, touch screen off, then everyone is happy.
The EVF is great, although I do find that it blurs just a little bit on the edges when viewing from a slight angle. I’d imagine those with glasses might see this become a more serious issue, but it has been entirely workable for me. Compared to the EVF on the EM5 or GX7 for instance (which are the only other two EVF’s I’ve had built into a camera) it is larger and better to my eye. The ability to cycle through overlays like an electronic level, histogram and the ability to include or exclude enough camera and exposure information to become crosseyed, is pretty cool and adds to the customizability of the shooter’s experience.
3. Image Quality
I’ve been very happy with the quality of the images so far. I’m certainly seeing some of the traits that I noticed with the Sony sensors in the Olympus cameras, namely the (in my opinion) slightly over sharpened result out of the camera. This can be seen as a nice thing and one of the reasons they do so well in resolution tests. It can be a bit tricky to work with post processing sharpening in my experience as it is more subject to artifacting, but I’ve gotten used to it after the EM5 and know how far to push it. Color is great, as is dynamic range and these are all factors that pushed me in this direction in the first place as I was looking to get a decent performance bump from my aging 5D2.
Here are a few examples from day to day shooting. I shoot RAW, and have converted via Aperture 3.6 which recently added the a7II to the supported RAW conversion list (who says Aperture is dead!?). Click any to see larger:
Sony has been making waves ever since the introduction of the original a7 and a7r. Since then they’ve added the low light, 4K monster a7s and now the a7II with the first 5 axis stabilized full frame sensor. I’m sure the a7rII is just around the corner as well which will have seen them release quite a few bodies in a very short time period showing how aggressively dedicated Sony is to this Full Frame platform.
Does this, akin to Olympus offering the hybrid AF solution for the 4/3 system by way of the EM1, and subsequent retirement of the Olympus DSLR’s, spell a similar fate for the translucent mirrored DSLT alpha cameras? Time will tell I guess. Sony obviously sees a future in mirrorless technology and have planted a huge flag at the top of Full Frame Mirrorless Mountain.
They’ve also recently added the 4 new FE lenses which have gone a long way to allay fears that Sony was again focused solely on releasing a disproportionate amount of camera bodies while holding out on inspiring optics for these intriguing cameras. That we can also adapt lenses to these full frame beauties is another major selling point, and for me, a huge factor in being able to supplement my Canon full frame setup with a new, higher performing sensor with all the fun bells and whistles that I have come to really appreciate in my other mirrorless cameras.
Canon and Nikon will certainly have a measured response to this, and can largely rest on their laurels because of the investment that many of us may have in their systems, but I will tell you, and speaking for myself, I have seen very little that I feel has been worth the asking price comparatively from either Canikon when looking at what these Sony cameras are bringing to the party. Sony is offering more in this camera in most respects, then Canon or Nikon have in a Full Frame machine aside from perhaps the 36 or soon to be 50mp monsters, or full fledged professional machines, but then Sony has the A7r and soon to be A7rII to make an argument there, resolution wise anyway. This is pretty incredible. If you would have told me 5 years ago that I could buy a Full Frame camera with in body image stabilization, WiFi for remote control and WFT, weather sealing, a top notch 24mp sensor that could quite literally fit in my pocket for $1700, I’d probably have said you were crazy, then maybe slapped you because you were nuts. In retrospect, I apologize for my reactionary assumptions as to my own behavior, and it goes to show that maybe, just maybe these companies have their finger on the pulse better than us internet folk do. Maybe.
In that same time frame, Canon and Nikon have done little to really, truly revolutionize the industry from a still shooting perspective. Things have certainly grown incrementally, no doubt about it, and current cameras are better than their predecessors, but they’re also quite a bit more expensive AND offer very little true innovation comparatively. This right here is what tipped the scales for me. Would I like a 5D3 or D810, or even a 5Ds? Yes, sure I would, but when I can get this camera for half of what these cameras are asking at launch, while offering more features that I find useful in day to day shooting, then I can more easily justify this choice to myself. It’s not going to be the same for everyone, but I do think that there are quite a few folks out there that don’t feel like paying $3500 to get a slightly better camera than one they paid $2700 for 3 or 4 years ago. If you need 50mp, then sure, you’ll have to pay the premium, and I’d never tell someone that they don’t need it if they’re okay with the asking price, but for me, and most shooters I know, we’re seeing much of this as us being held over the coals because these companies know that we more than likely won’t want to entirely reinvest in a new system, even if we could at a fraction of the cost.
Yes, the Sony menus and interface could use a little more work, but it is MILES better than my last experience with the NEX 5, and sure, they could stand to round out their lens catalog, but honestly, we’re already seeing that they’re serious about that as well, and I think the aggressive release schedule for the a7 series bodies should be a huge indicator that Sony plans to make a good amount of noise in the Full Frame landscape. I applaud them for that, and I look forward to seeing how it shakes the industry up moving forward.
In the mean time, I will be shooting this a7II, and loving doing so. Canon, Nikon, I’m happy to see what you’ve got, but if you offer nothing more than a 4 year old camera with a slightly new processor and a one stop ISO bump for $3500 again, I’ll keep my money, thanks.
My suggestion to Sony, focus on quality, yet relatively affordable lenses. Not super zooms, not f/0.95 optics that will weigh 5x what the body weighs, but the 28mm f/2 at under $500 is a great example of what this system can, and should focus on (although I wish it were a 24mm f/2 dammit). An 85mm f/1.8, a 100mm f/2 and a 135mm f/2.8 could all be done in a way that the size and price should be very manageable for a majority of folks looking to this system.
You can find the Sony a7II through my B&H Affiliate links below. Buying through these links costs nothing more, but helps support me by way of a sales commission, and in turn helps me justify keeping these blog articles coming, so thanks for the consideration.
Thank you for the read. Stay tuned for comparison pieces looking at the Sony versus the Canon 5DII and the Panasonic GX7. Does IBIS really make that much difference? Does sensor size? Well, we shall see.
Thanks again and happy shooting,