Plucky underdog? Some personal views on the Sony A7RII

This is an intriguing camera from an intriguing series of cameras. Much has been made of the A7RII, by Sony and industry commentators from DPReview to Luminous Landscape. In essence, there’s a theme on the Internet and blogosphere that says the A7RII is the best camera since sliced bread and that it’s the first viable mirrorless replacement of DSLRs like the 5D III and D810. Hands up, I think, in general, that those who buy the A7RII as a DSLR replacement will be disappointed, assuming it made sense for them to use a DSLR in the first place. Those who buy it because they need a very small camera with 4k video, stabilisation and support for adapted lenses will be happy. Portrait photographers might be very happy with this camera because of the EYE-AF feature. But in my view those who get it and are happy with it will rate it in its own terms and not because it might have some equivalency in performance with certain DSLRs.

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I have a bit of perspective here, having owned and not been entirely impressed with all of the A7, A7R and A7 II. I actually liked both of the A7 and A7II, while recognising they weren’t tools for all occasions. I disliked the A7R from the get go, principally for being slow, loud, laggy and prone to vibration – I sold it within weeks of the purchase.

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One of the key developments is ergonomic and I raved about that in my A7II review, Sony listened to complaints about the grip and body size and gave the A7II a much better grip. Similarly, in body image stabilisation is a very useful feature inherited from the A7II allowing for stabilisation of native and non native lenses.

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So what’s new? Key developments include a new shutter that doesn’t seem quieter in full mechanical mode, but includes the ability to turn on an electronic first curtain and an electronic second curtain (the latter allowing fully silent shooting). The sensor is new, offering a 42 megapixel resolution which is also backside illuminated (surely a better name could have been thought of for this? It sounds like some kind of peep show), resulting in better low light performance. The sensor also includes 399 phase detect autofocus points for improved AF performance. The EVF has been upgraded to give a larger, higher resolution image which updates more quickly for reduced lag. The camera now includes (in addition to “Standard” face detection) the ability to tell the camera to lock onto the nearest eye in the nearest face and focus on it continuously. The camera is now capable of in body 4k video output, but it’s worth noting that it appears compromises may have been made in this area related to heat dissipation (essentially, the body can overheat when filming 4k video).

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What hasn’t changed since the last generation? Despite improvements in AF, it still can’t match a DSLR autofocus system in shooting action or in low light. The menus are still unintuitive, while not being as awful as Olympus’ creations. The controls are still small and customisation options are limited. The flip side of smaller and lighter is poorer handling with larger lenses. I believe eventually Sony will release a DSLR size body to address this. Battery life remains poor. Lossy RAW compression has been retained and can cause issues when sharpening RAW images. Interestingly, while I’ve been writing this, Sony has announced a firmware upgrade to allow for uncompressed 14bit RAW files. While lossless compressed files would be more desirable, at least Sony is listening to customers. DSC04812-Edit.jpg

What’s really great to good? Resolution and dynamic range by the bucketload. Only a few of the native lenses can take advantage of this, but with some of the great primes available, the output speaks for itself. I didn’t think I would notice the difference from my D810 with the naked eye, and I don’t at full resolution, but the resolution is visible at high magnifications and the extra croppability is something to applaud. DSC06629-Edit.jpgDSC07546-Edit.jpg

Dynamic range is worse and better than the D810. At base ISO, the D810 has more dynamic range than any other 35mm sensor camera. Head up into the higher ISOs though and you’ll see its DR fall off more quickly than the A7RII. In fact, for DR at higher ISOs the camera matches or is close to the kind of performance seen from the D4/S. High ISO performance is not to be sneezed at either and by about 1600 ISO its beyond the territory of the D750 for high ISO performance, also outperforming the D810. In fact, I actually think the results match those from the Df/D4 sensor once downsized, which is an incredible achievement.

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Ah, autofocus, definitely better than any other A7 series camera and most other mirrorless cameras (I do think in AFS some m43s cameras are faster and the Leica Q might be too). What is great is the new eye-AF feature, allowing pinpoint accuracy on a subjects eyes (but beware, a hat throws the algorithm off). What isn’t a match for a DSLR is the combination of tracking autofocus and continuous drive. In quite a few tests I found the first shot would be in focus but subsequent ones would not be. DPReview ran an article about how the A7RII outperforms DSLRs for low light focus. It doesn’t, not in my view, because while greater accuracy is possible in AFS and greater speed is possible in AFC, shots taken in afc aren’t always in focus and those in AFS take longer to focus. For the avoidance of doubt that’s my experience with the F4 zooms and the faster lenses (eg 35mm F1.4).

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For all I might moan about the lack of controls (and I will) there’s no doubt in my mind that this camera is a significant improvement to the A7R in terms of ergonomics. Sony listened and provided a decent grip, which is comfortable even with the mid size FE lenses mounted. However, if Sony have aspirations for this as an all purpose system, larger bodies and grips will eventually be necessary to allow for dual SD cards and comfortable use of longer focal lengths.

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A necessary addition is a DSLR style joystick for moving the focus point. The current system feels cumbersome. My biggest ergonomic gripe is that I constantly find myself pressing the video button when shooting in portrait mode. I know I could adjust this button to avoid this, but since I intend the camera to shoot video this seems self defeating. DSC07340-Edit.jpg

The shutter is supposed to be quieter, and while it’s still noisy in full mechanical mode, the addition of EFCS reduces the noise and vibration in ordinary shooting (it’s no noisier than the A7 II). In fact the camera can be set to a full electronic shutter for silent shooting, but this can produce “rolling shutter” type artefacts and comes with a dynamic range penalty. The shutter has improved durability, now rated to 500k actuations, an incredible number. The reduced vibration from the electronic shutter also plays into some ludicrously sharp results you can get with this camera, something not possible with the A7R. All in all, I think Sony deserves plaudits for the work done in this area. DSC04960-Edit.jpg

Again, the camera includes “N” Wifi (like all the A7 cameras) and again it’s very useful for both control and JPEG transfer. Why this camera doesn’t include in camera raw editing like Fuji cameras I don’t understand, but It’s definitely something that should be considered for a future firmware update. DSC06273-Edit.jpgPutting rubbish in perspective

I didn’t buy this camera for in body stabilisation of stills shooting, but the system it uses performs more or less identically to the A7II and if you are shooting in dark conditions at low shutter speeds you’ll notice a difference to a D810, even one with EFCS engaged. In video, though, the stabilisation is really helpful. Note that it doesn’t give you the kind of stabilisation performance that you can get from an Oly EM5 II, but it’s a decent addition regardless.

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Video quality itself is awesome. In fact, the combination of high resolution, 4k video and stabilisation was exactly why I traded my A7II for this camera. The results do not disappoint, even at higher ISOs, but note that heat is the enemy of this camera shooting video. If you shoot clips of longer than 25 minutes in hot conditions, you may find the camera shuts down for overheating (this can extend 60-90 minutes in cooler conditions). I don’t really blame Sony for this, given a lot of data needs a lot of processing. I did not experience this.

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There’s a very nice colour palette by default if the white balance is correct. Colours probably favour skin over foliage, but there’s a pleasing neutrality here and a great deal of colour depth. In fact, when I look at some results taken with lenses with higher microcontrast, it’s funny how much they remind me of the M9.

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All of that largely positive information in hand, what’s it like vs the competition (clearly some hypocrisy in this, since I’m saying its a different sort of camera)? Well as a user of Nikon DSLRs and Leica cameras I would have to say I’m impressed by the A7RII in a way I never was with any of its predecessors. That being said, you won’t really notice a material resolution difference from a D810 at base ISO and a D810 has much better continuous autofocus generally and better DR at base ISO. For handling, the A7RII is better with smaller lenses and the D810 is better with larger lenses. Taking into account wider ergonomics including controls and ease of use and the Nikon wins. Also, the 35mm F1.4 FE lens being of a proximate size and weight with lenses like the Sigma 35mm Art speaks to the fact that faster lenses for the A7 system only really leave you saving body size and weight. Equally though, you shouldn’t discount the high ISO performance of the A7RII, which matches that of the Nikon D4/Df and outperforms the D810.

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The Leica Q was released around the same time and is apparently going to foreshadow a new Leica Interchangeable lens system based around the same sensor. The sensor in the Leica Q is largely outperformed by the meaty 42.2mp unit in the A7RII on paper. However, in use, the Leica Q is quick and uncomplicated in use. Because it’s face detection technology is so good (likely inherited from Panasonic M43s cameras) it doesn’t need eye-AF. It’s also very good at higher ISOs, it seems to me at least as good as the Nikon D810 and possible a bit better. It’s handling of colour is excellent whereas the Sony is very good – I think this has more to do with a better colour profile than the Q having better colour depth, but there maybe some of the extra colour sensitivity of the M9 and M240 driving this too. Nonetheless part of me wonders if the Q only seems to be in the same ballpark because of the fixed lens. After all, the RX1 often managed to match the D800E for resolution too. Ultimately though, as it stands the Q is only a fixed lens camera (albeit my favourite fixed lens camera) whereas the A7RII is a true system. I cannot use the Q across all focal lengths up to 200mm as I can the A7RII.

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In summary: I find the A7RII to be a very compelling camera. Aside from its sensor, it doesn’t outperform a DSLR more generally (across common variables like speed of use, autofocus, ergonomics, lens range etc). But it also does things that other 35mm sensor cameras don’t (4K video, in body stabilisation, great resolution and high ISO performance). Thinking on all of that, I find it an impressive camera in its own right, not subject to false comparisons. So I can’t recommend it to replace a DSLR (even where it would make sense to “switch,” it would make more sense to a Canon user than a Nikon user), but I could recommend it to someone who wants to supplement a DSLR or simply doesn’t really need the ability/functionality a DSLR offers (e.g. other mirrorless users).

As an aside, I suspect that latter category of “people who don’t need DSLRs” is both not as big as existing mirrorless users think it is and bigger than hardcore DSLR users think it is. Please don’t think that’s damning the camera with faint praise, it really isn’t. I don’t really believe in a “mirrorless” revolution but I do believe this camera could be revolutionary to Sony’s fortunes in the wider camera market. There’s a difference. In any event, if I gave editors choice awards, this camera would likely get one. Nuff said!

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