A contender? Sony A7 II

The Sony A7 II is much better than the first two A7 series cameras I used (A7 and A7R), but still not perfect. It’s about the best mirrorless camera available, but still not up to the level of leading DSLRs.

A7 II 01

I know it’s not a popular view amongst the people who chatter via the Internet, BUT the Nikon D750 is a “better” camera than the Sony A7 II in most respects (aside from stabilisation – see also my coverage of the D750 here). If you don’t need the 35mm/FX sensor size (and its advantages) a Sony A6000 or Olympus E-M1 might be a better option. But equally, let’s not climb all over this camera – it does some things very well, and the introduction of in body stabilisation is almost worth the price of admission alone. Further, I think the real problem here is in the marketing as an alternative to a DSLR, which it isn’t – what it is is an excellent mirrorless camera.

DSC00656-Edit-2.jpg DSC03738-Edit.jpg Ergonomics/Controls/Use. The body itself is bigger, meatier, more comfortable and easier to use. There are downsides to this approach of course, the camera is closer to a DSLR in size than a RX1 for example, but a really big problem I had with the old camera was that the controls were too cramped. The larger grip, relocation of buttons (particularly the shutter release) are much improved. In fact, almost all of my handling complaints have been recognised and addressed in this new camera. For all my criticism of Sony on other issues, they’ve listened to the ergonomic complaints levelled at the original A7 series and addressed them. Even further, the build quality of the A7 II is much improved, with an all metal mount and magnesium alloy front panel. This is a positive example of a manufacturer listening to customers and deserving of praise/high marks. DSC01070-Edit.jpg

A lot of people seem unhappy with the relatively small battery Sony specifies for the A7 series. Personally, as I had two from when I owned Sony NEX cameras, it was fine with me. 😉 More seriously, you do need to have a couple of extra batteries on hand for this camera if you are heading away from power supplies. That said, a feature the A7 series has, which other cameras should have, is the ability to top up the cameras power via standard USB cables of the type used to connect any number of phones and tablets to computers and power supplies.

Selfie City DSC03171-Edit.jpg

Part of the reason for the success of these bodies is their ability, once paired with an adapter, to use a variety of non-native lenses, with a focus peaking manual focus aid. To be honest, I’ve always thought peaking was a pretty poor way of achieving manual focus, but Sony does also have magnification for focus too and there’s no doubt that if focus speed isn’t important these cameras can be a digital back for just about any lens system. This is enhanced by the stabilisation of these lenses on 3 axis by the A7 II, though it’s worth noting that to achieve the desired effect you need to tell the camera the focal length of the attached non-native lens.

St Paul's wedding photography Street Portrait

Image quality. This is where the story goes against the A7 II somewhat. Part of this is just design philosophy, in that Sony have always gone for a sensor colour filter array that absorbs more light before it hits the sensor. What that translates to is materially worse noise/low light performance for Sony cameras using Sony sensors vs the likes of Pentax, Fuji or Nikon using the same sensor (again, see the DXOmark comparison linked above). This is historic and goes at least as far back to the sensors used in the D3X and A900 (35mm). It does boggle the mind a bit though that Sony haven’t made more progress on this in the last 5 years.

Tower Colour

Another part of this is the way Sony treats their RAW files, by compressing them to reduce file sizes in a lossy way, which means information from the capture is being discarded. Sometimes this is completely invisible. Sometimes it translates, in extreme examples to missing detail, posterisation and other artefacts. The big issue though is the contribution this makes to removing useful information from RAW files that could be used by a raw converter. In essence my experience tells me the files are a bit less susceptible to pushing in post than lossless RAWs from the D750, particularly at higher ISOs. But this is an issue common to all current Sony cameras, not just the A7 II.

Roller City Wheels of colour Another issue (more minor) is that the A7 II has worse dynamic range than the original A7. Some people have attributed this to new sensor coatings designed to avoid the sensor flare the original camera was prone too. Whatever the cause, it’s real and you should expect anywhere up to a stop worse DR than the D750 at equivalent settings. But let’s put that into perspective, over 13 stops of DR is still amazing and better than Canon’s 35mm offerings. A further point is the lower high performance of the A7 II (see the DXO comparison above) which translates to perceptibly noisier output at higher ISOs (particularly above 1600). However, I do think it’s unfair to say the performance of the A7 II at high ISO is comparable to APS-C cameras (as some commentators have) – while that might be true in terms of noise, the structure and colour fidelity of a high ISO RAW file from the A7 II will be superior to a RAW file from an APS-C camera. Gloriana To conclude this section, you would expect my conclusion to be hostile. It absolutely is not. While the A7 II does not hit the highest standards possible with variants of its sensor, together with the other A7 cameras it unquestionably has the best image quality of any Mirrorless camera on the market. When you put that together with a feature like in body stabilisation, it deserves to be taken seriously, no question. I put my criticisms down to wanting to make it clear that there is no such thing as a free lunch on photography. There’s always a fly in the ointment (or design/use compromise) somewhere. A lazy afternoon in the sun Je suis Shoreditch Charlie

Stabilisation. As many will know, image stabilisation allows use of lower shutter speeds without inducing motion blur. Many manufacturers do this in lens, some do this in body. The original A7 series cameras indicated an “in lens” approach to stabilisation, like Canon and Nikon, whereas the A7 II offers in body image stabilisation along 5 axis. Sony claims about 4.5 stops of compensation from its system and this translates to 2-3 stops of enhancement on unstabilsed lenses such as the 35 and 55mm primes. For optically stabilised lenses the system switches to optical stabilisation along certain axis, backed up by the in body system. This is a big plus for the A7 II, sometimes for stills, but definitely for video. To reference this to another manufacturers system, it isn’t as good as the similar system offered by olympus, but you have to give Sony credit for managing it at all given that the A7 II has a sensor 4 times the size of a M43s camera like the E-M1.

A few pedalos...

DSC03371-Edit.jpg

Autofocus. This is stated to be improved by up to 30% in this model vs the previous A7. I think it’s difficult to see this in good light, but focus times are definitely better in lower light. I feel somewhat sorry for Sony here, people like me will tell them to keep the lenses small, but that means smaller focus motors which take a longer time to move heavy glass around. Reportedly the new 35mm F1.4 has lightening fast focus, at the price of being much larger, likely (in part) due to a more powerful focus motor. However, while the A7 is good, Sony’s own APS-C camera, the A6000, has very good to excellent autofocus based around a more advanced implementation of the on sensor PDAF used in the A7 II. For shooting action with a mirrorless camera, the A6000 would be hard to beat and indeed, the A7 doesn’t reach that level of autofocus performance.

King's Cross: Rush Hour

Wifi. I think all there is to say here is “good, solid, works well.” I’ve seen some unwarranted criticism of the Sony wifi app on the internet. I don’t find it problematic at all, it’s fast, simple and useful once you’ve worked out how to use it (Nikon could learn a thing or two from the very good Sony iOS app). Better instructions would help demonstrate to a wider audience how good the camera/app combination can be.

DSC03854-Edit.jpg The flip side of this is that Sony need to include in camera raw creation in camera, particularly to allow for shadow and exposure adjustment. Nikon and Fuji both have this and it seems like an oversight on Sony’s part. Many of the pictures here are actually in camera Jpegs processed in snapseed and it seems that for a camera with very good to excellent Jpegs (I certainly think they come out of the can better than Nikon Jpegs) all it would take is for Sony to add this feature for a perfect small journalistic camera. Kiss, with an audience, before departure Porthkerry Sunset

Again, I assume you are going to question whether I am wondering what the point of this camera is. What it isn’t, in my view, is a DSLR replacement. Sony and the chattering mirrorless users of the Internet would like it to be, but it can’t really compete (outside of stabilisation for video) with the functionality and image quality of, say, a D750. Equally, whatever you read elsewhere, it doesn’t really compete with an M240 for image quality (except at higher ISOs), the results it produces are closer to a DSLR than a rangefinder. But what it does do, it does well, particularly vs other Mirrorless cameras. There’s also a general point that many DSLR users actually don’t “need” the flexibility and features a DSLR will given them. The only question you might ask yourself is whether you need a 35mm sensor, or whether some of the advantages of smaller sensor rivals (e.g. size, focus speed) might be more important to your needs. However, to sum up the A7 II, it’s fun to use and gives great quality results by any standard.

Old Street Roundabout DSC00531-Edit.jpg

The A7 II is still a small camera, with small native lenses. It offers stabilisation for primes in low light. It focuses reasonably quickly (though not as fast as the latest M43s cameras such as the E-M1 or Sony’s own A6000). To make a success of this system, all Sony needs to do is focus on its strengths. For those who don’t know, the strengths include small bodies, a decent sensor, stabilisation, and very sharp native lenses. I think that means fewer marketing projects like the 35mm F1.4 and more lenses like the 35mm F2.8 and 28mm F2 (how about a small native 20/24/25 F2.8 Sony?). No one bought the FM3a to shoot sports…

Taken with my Sony A7 Mk II, 16-35mm, 35mm F2.8 and 55mm F1.8

Postscript. I actually drafted this text prior to Zeiss’s announcement yesterday of 25mm F2 and 85mm F1.8 lenses for the FE mount. The big deal here is that these lenses are AF, unlike the MF loxia lenses already released. It’s fair to say that if Sony can come to grips with autofocus and some of their image quality issues, they will have a much more compelling proposition if their lens range continues to expand. Certainly, it becomes more difficult for me to justify keeping other mirrorless cameras as the Sony system develops.

The Sony A7 II is available here

3 thoughts

  1. What an excellent review / commentary on the A7II. I too purchased one after hiring for a day to see if it suited. There are just a couple of comments I think I could add which relate ‘a’ to the flexibility of the buttons and the ‘b’ it’s tolerance of older lenses ( presumably because of the low pixel density as compared with the 20 – 24 megapixel APSC sensors). As an Archtitect the stabilised sensor means for most things I can leave the tripod at home and use my fav Pentax 28mm shift lens handheld. Great stuff your work is much appreciated

    Bill Spencer

    • Bill, thanks for the comments and the appreciation. Having used the A7R and NEX-7, I agree that the A7 and A7 II can be better along the edges with non-native lenses where the issues in question are a by product of resolution/pixel density/ray angle. To be fair, many have reported the A7S is even better, but of course it’s 12mp and doesn’t have stabilisation, so again, no free lunch!

      All the best

      Simon

  2. Just got mine a few days ago, with the 28mm. Waiting for my adapaters to arrive, will be using it with Leica and nikon lenses. If it works as expected, might end selling much of the equipment and keeping only the Leica M and this Sony. As usual great picts!

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