Camera tech is a fascinating thing. What will companies provide us as customers, in hopes of luring us into their systems? I mentioned in my previous article that I’d been awaiting announcements on the update to Sony’s full frame mirrorless cameras before deciding on my own upgrade path, and chose to jump on the discounted a7RII deal as an update to my longstanding a7II.
My main interests were gaining an upgrade to image file quality in resolution, dynamic range and then overall performance upticks on the hardware side of things.
After a few months with the R, here is what I’ve found out…
Let’s get straight into it, shall we? Below, I’m going to be comparing these two in high ISO/noise performance first. From there I wanted to see if there was a truly noticeable difference in the a7RII’s compressed vs non-compressed RAW files. Then, I’ll look back at the dynamic range and resolution the files from both cameras are able to handle when image files are pushed by 3 stops to see what kind of processing latitude I may (or may not) be gaining moving to the R. I’ll give my take on the differences in response and physical performance and then give a little personal run down on my findings having worked through a couple thousand of the a7RII files. Enjoy, and feel free to fire off any comments or questions.
Above shows the area of the 100% crops below. The a7RII crops are on the left, the a7II crops are on the right. The ISO settings are listed above each crop. Click any to see larger.
Well, considering the increase in resolution on the part of the a7RII, this shows me how much difference the backside illuminated (BSI) sensor provides in high ISO, noise performance. I’ve seen the charts, and ratings, but this exercise showed me real images. The noise is far better controlled on the part of the R’s sensor and the amount of detail retention is kind of insane. Thumbs up emoji for the R.
COMPRESSED VS UNCOMPRESSED RAW a7RII
The comparison above used the uncompressed, 14 bit RAW files from both the a7RII and a7II. I hadn’t bothered to shoot the compressed 11/7 bit RAW files on the a7II from the moment they released the firmware update which included the 14 bit RAW file upgrade, and at the time showed me enough of an uptick in performance to justify the larger file sizes. That was with 24mp image files though, not 42mp image files! I want to see if there is any true justification to using the giant, uncompressed RAW files on the a7RII.
Below are the same crops from the a7RII where I ran identical exposures, one set in 14 bit uncompressed on the left, and the compressed 11/7 bit RAW files on the right. I’ve left the a7II out of this comparison as I’m now just looking at the R to see which RAW file option I will be using. (c’mon compressed RAW… daddy doesn’t want to invest in more hard drive space…) Click on any to see larger.
So, not a huge difference to my eye between the non-compressed 14 bit and compressed 11/7 bit files up through about ISO 12,800 as far as noise performance seems to go. Okay, maybe I can get away with shooting the smaller files afterall… That’s nice to see, however let’s see how the files hold up when you really start pushing some of these pixels to their limits…
RESOLUTION/DYNAMIC RANGE when pushing the files
The following crops compare the a7RII (both uncompressed and compressed) with the a7II uncompressed RAW files after the files have been pushed 3 stops to see the shadow recovery and general response to how much latitude we have in these RAW files under fairly extreme conditions.
ISO 100 (+3 stops):
ISO 200 (+3 stops):
ISO 400 (+3 stops):
ISO 800 (+3 stops):
ISO 1600 (+3 stops):
ISO 3200 (+3 stops):
ISO 6400 (+3 stops):
ISO 12800 (+3 stops):
ISO 25600 (+3 stops):
Alrighty. Well, crap. I guess there is something to the uncompressed RAW files after all. First things first, whether compressed or uncompressed, the a7RII files destroy the a7II files starting at somewhat subtly in lower ISO’s to absolutely as we move up the sensitivity scale. The uncompressed 14 bit files also have the edge on the a7RII’s compressed files here from the jump. While the noise is messy across the board, the gradation and tonal transitions are far smoother and better defined on the part of the uncompressed files of the ‘R’. Detail is better retained as it starts to get messy and overall the files just hold up superiorly as we would assume with a deeper, more info rich file from highlights through shadows. …off to buy external hard drives.
All said and done, I’d say there is no reason to shoot the compressed 11/7 bit files if you plan on doing anything to them in post, unless file size is your mitigating factor. If that’s the case, what are you doing buying a 42mp camera (mostly talking to myself here)? Storage space is cheap. Terabytes go for well under a hundred dollars nowadays and you can even get a 4TB hard drive like THIS for about $100, so that argument is quickly starting to go the way of the dinosaurs. If your computer has a hard time processing them, compressed versus uncompressed isn’t going to make a world of difference. You may need to upgrade your RAM and graphics. I have a fairly modest imac with 32GB of RAM and a 2GB NVIDIA graphics card from a few years ago which handle these files just fine for what it’s worth. The files certainly take longer to upload and while processing I do see a noticeable, albeit slight downtick in response time. I’m also using Capture One Pro 11 as of this writing, and I will say that C1 does an amazing job with the Sony RAW files (and my other RAW files as well) even if these files strain the resources a little bit. Tradeoffs.
These two cameras are from the same generation, and one thing Sony has done well with is keeping a continuity with their physical layout between models. There is the mode dial lock on the 7RII, which doesn’t appear on the 7II, but really, otherwise there is little to distinguish these two cameras at a glance.
For all their quirks, Sony does produce one hell of a sensor. Shooting the a7 series cams for personal use has been lovely. Little things like the menus or clunky AF point selection implementation buried in a menu as opposed to the newly appointed joystick in the a7RIII, or touch screen interface as is pretty common now in most systems, is a little frustrating, but not enough so for me to justify spending an extra grand to get access to little things like that on the RIII.
Shooting them for work is a bit more limiting in ways, or at least certainly could be, depending on what I (or you) shoot. I still feel there is just too much of a need to physically interact with the camera’s menus to provide a tool that is responsive enough for fast paced action or events with these alpha cams. The a9 has hopefully remedied much of that, but I doubt I’ll ever have any first hand experience with that guy. I will say though, that Sony does seem to be making an effort to alter their menus little by little over the years, to fine tune some of the larger complaints by shooters.
The wake and lag times on the R are no better than the slow as molasses a7II. Turn on to shoot, or wake time to the time the camera is ready to shoot, ranges from about 2.5 to 5 seconds, inexplicably and inconsistently ranging based seemingly on the camera’s mood. That is not going to cut it for a wedding or sporting event in my opinion. The batteries suck. There’s no nice way to put that, but something I’ve just become used to. If you shoot more than a couple hours in an outing, you’ll need at least 2 batteries, minimum. Not something you’d be doing a ton of in the field perhaps, but for instance, when wanting to zoom into an image on screen to check for critical focus, on the R, takes literally 5 seconds from the time I press the ‘enlarge’ button, to the time it engages. 5 fricken’ seconds. Again, these just need to be known qualities of this camera as you’ll get used to working around them, but I’ll be damned if these little things don’t often frustrate me. My hopes that the premium price of the R would have provided a performance uptick in these small, but situationally key areas, were unfortunately let down.
Of course, a photographer can shoot a wedding or a basketball game or fast moving wildlife with an a7RII, it just wouldn’t be the BEST camera to do so from a physical performance standpoint by most all accounts. I’ve yet to find a universally perfect camera to be fair, so as long as we understand a machine’s limitations and are realistic with our expectations (and are willing to adjust a bit) we can make things work. The beauty of relative intelligence and free will. Sony has, in their defense, released the a9 which should handle these shooting situations far better, but that is a lot of coin to drop if you’re not making good money taking pictures. For me, if needing to shoot an event like this for money, I’ll either deal with it, or rent the proper tool.
For most day to day shooting scenarios, landscape, portraiture or work that doesn’t need to be reacted or adjusted to in fractions of a second, these cameras do wonderfully. Once you’ve become familiar with their features, layout and UI, you can get most everything done fairly quickly, and for the work that I shoot, I can absolutely handle the slight lags without any consequence, regardless of my desire to cuss at the camera and appear like a lunatic on occasion. For me, the a7RII is a wonderful camera to shoot, capable of the best image files I’ve seen, even if it acts like the digital image capturing equivalent of a selectively listening, stoned teenager, from time to time.
a7RII IMAGE SAMPLE GALLERY
Here are a few shots from the last few months, with pertinent settings listed below each. Feel free to click any to see a larger version.
Zeiss 55mm – f/2 – 1/60th – ISO 3200
Zeiss 55mm – f/1.8 – 1/125th – ISO 3200
Sigma 150-600 @ 600mm – f/8 – 1/200th – ISO 1600
EF 35L – f/1.6 – 1/125th – ISO 1600
Batis 85 – f/1.8 – 1/60th – ISO 1250
Zeiss 55 – f/5.6 – 1/3200th – ISO 800
Zeiss 55 – f/2.8 – 1/400th – ISO 400
Voigtländer Ultron 40 – f/2 – 1/60th – ISO 200
Zeiss 55 – f/2.8 – 1/200th – ISO 100
EF 17-40L @ 40mm – f/22 – 10sec – ISO 100
Zeiss 55 – f/5.6 – 2sec – ISO 100
Moving up from the a7II to the a7RII has shown me that there is absolutely a noticeable difference in these sensors. I know that this is well known seeing that the a7RII is still in the top few current sensors across formats, I’m just a little late to this party as Sony’s system has taught me to be a bit of a slow adopter. The R is probably not necessary for 90% of what I do, but having the extra resolution and sensor performance only costs me space on the hard drive and a few seconds here and there while processing. That said, it has also caused me to be a bit more deliberate with my frames because, for better or worse, I know how large these files are and I don’t need 17 pictures of a random cat when one or two, well thought out frames will do.
So, who benefits from shooting with this camera? Well, that’s a good question. Most of us, myself included, do not NEED 42mp for much of anything. These files however, do provide remarkable resolution which benefits a couple situations in compositing and cropping in post. Having the ability to throw away half your pixels, and still have 21mp is pretty amazing, or selecting a component of an image to composite for graphic or digital art applications that will retain far more resolution is pretty great. Large prints are also nice, or even smaller prints with finer detail which don’t hurt either. Do you or I need this kind of resolution? Probably not, at least for most applications. Can we benefit from it, even situationally? Absolutely. The downside, as mentioned, is really only having the space to store the files, and the processing capacity to work on them. That said, I feel that in a couple years, 42mp is going to seem pretty pedestrian, or at least not nearly as superfluous.
We are in a fairly weird stage in the development of digital photography. Phones have dissolved the compact market, and as consumers, we’re expecting a lot of performance in any segment we invest in. The initial R&D to get the digital space up and running has been absorbed, the megapixel wars are mostly over as we’re now seeing justifiable applications for both low and high MP sensors, and now I feel we’re seeing the next stage in digital imagery in that this next push in innovation is being coupled with cutting costs where possible to A) stay competitive and relevant, and B) provide a compelling argument to invest in these expensive systems when there are fewer and fewer applications that can’t be satisfied with a good phone camera considering that most of the imagery we consume is on relatively small screens which can’t utilize increasing dynamic range or astronomical resolution numbers anyway. That’s not going to stop me from lugging around multiple cameras most everywhere I go though. Photography plays a huge role in our daily lives, regardless of how into photography we are as individuals. Try to count the amount of images you come across on a daily basis. It’s truly staggering. Regardless of the photographer or gear, there are more images being created now, in this era, than have ever been in any other period in human history. I don’t see that slowing down. Now, as someone who enjoys the act of photography, I get enjoyment from the tools I use, interacting with these tools and even if you only seem the images I create on a small screen, that file lives on my hard drive, and I have the ability to do a lot with it, if I so choose. Some will say it’s not the gear that makes the photographer, and that is absolutely correct. The gear however, does enable the photographer, and while gear is secondary to a good eye, that same eye will greatly benefit from better tools as far as I’m concerned, no matter whose eye that is.
I don’t want to admit to too much, as I’ve certainly wasted some ink of late, but my office is filled with prints. This new (to me) a7RII has provided me with a handful of large prints that I really like, and there is value in that, to me. The X factor in this whole market based, profit driven, consumption dependent equation, is fun. For many of us, the act of physically interacting with a camera, the scene and the light to achieve a frame is where the joy comes into play. Sure we can automate much of that in many cases, and we can quickly share snaps via our devices with the world at large, but as long as I enjoy the act of photography, a small compact nor phone camera will ever fully suffice for me, and this a7RII has proven to be an enjoyable companion on this continuing journey.
If by any chance you’re looking to buy one of your own, you can find the a7RII via my affiliate links below. It’s on sale and I’d imagine won’t be sticking around too much longer. Know that I’m very grateful for any consideration on this type of referenced link purchase. Helps us little guys keep it going (and mostly buying new crap to ramble on about).
Thanks for the read. I know the articles have been few and far between of late as my current situation has found me taking a hefty 16 hr/week course while still working and adulting full time. I’ve not been able to shoot nor sleep nearly as much as I’d like of late, but I have become very, very good friends with coffee. We spend a lot of time together, and I now know how to minimize effects of hypoperfusion and administer different drugs which is kinda fun. Find me via the socials and hit me up on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram.
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