We now have no less than four full frame mirrorless options from Sony; the A7R (previously reviewed here); the A7, the A7S, and now the A7II. This appears to be typical Sony strategy: rather than making a product that’s a definite improvement on the previous model, we get many attempts hoping that each one will find its’ own niche. The A7II brings one thing that makes me curious enough to give it a try despite an uninspiring experience with its predecessor: the first full-frame mirrorless camera to have in body stabilization.
I reviewed a production A7II with the Zeiss 55/1.8 and 24-70/4 OSS lenses, running firmware 1.10. Unfortunately, the 24-70 was either a poor sample or just optically a dog – very soft off-axis and with significant CA, so all of these images were shot with the 55/1.8. I will upload more to this flickr set in due course.
Arguably, each A7 variant serves a niche – high resolution, high sensitivity/ video, general purpose (perhaps not really a niche). The problem is, each A7 variant arguably also has some serious deficiencies: the A7R suffers from very visible shutter vibration at typical shutter speeds, meaning critical pixels can only be obtained at very fast or very slow exposures; the A7S is very resolution limited, and similarly low-noise results – with more detail – can actually be obtained by downsampling the A7R to 12MP; the A7 has an AA filter which is probably a video compromise, but not so good for stills. All three use Sony’s 11+7 bit lossy raw compression that can result in posterization at either end of the tonal range if any serious processing is required. Color accuracy also suffers a bit. I think there’s no clearer demonstration of this than the fact that the A7II’s raw files are always the same size; at higher ISOs, the OOC JPEGs are actually larger.
We still have a 24MP FF sensor that has PDAF photosites and EFC capability; it’s now suspended in a magnetic IBIS system that’s strikingly similar to that used by Olympus (and supposedly it uses both in-lens and in-body systems when a suitably equipped lens is mounted). I suppose it should be no surprise that Sony got some technology in return for the bailout funds they injected a couple of years ago. The body is weather sealed, as is the optional grip. It’s gained a bit of heft – about 20% – a new less slippery body finish, and some rearrangement of the buttons. Subjectively, it has a goodly amount of heft and perceived density, just feeling ‘right’ in the hand. For video shooters, it now supports XAVC-S and S-Log2. So far, very much the same kind of incremental changes we’re used to seeing. Not new, but it’s also worth mentioning Sony’s implementation of the ISO hotshoe: we have the standard trigger pin, no other pins to foul third party flashes, but a set of hidden pins upfront for communication with a much greater variety of accessories including microphones and even video monitors. Commendable.
In practice, EFC + 5-axis stabilization is a Big Thing. Both literally and metaphorically – you can feel a little recoil as the system engages when you power on; it’s an impressive achievement given the amount of mass that’s being moved around. Philosophically, it means that your two main sources of camera shake are pretty much cut out: the high frequency front curtain vibration, and photographer instability. It means critical sharpness should be much easier to achieve more of the time; on top of that, you can lower your ISO by a stop or two. Note that all five axes of compensation require electronic lenses that transmit AF and focal length information to the camera; third party lenses without any contacts will get three axes, and you’ll have to tell the camera which focal length you’re using. But it still means that we now have a stabilized full frame solution for pretty much any lens.
Sony’s raw compression is still inexcusable, however, the stabilizer goes quite some distance to making up the gap in practice: if I need 1/100s and ISO 1600 on a D750, the A7II can still produce a critically sharp image at 1/25s and ISO 400, and with a bit of care, 1/12 and ISO 200. In practice, it’s good for about 2-2.5 stops; not quite as effective as the Olympus system, but this is not surprising given how much more mass there is to move around. It’s certainly better than nothing, not to mention the extended [shooting envelope] and attendant creative possibilities opened up by being able to shoot much slower and without a tripod. Curiously though, I noticed that the stabilizer seems to be most effective when the camera is held horizontal or vertical; if at a significant tilt up or down, or rotation (or both) it seemed qualitatively less effective, by perhaps about a stop.
In my previous use of the A7/A7R, I found their bodies to be on about the lower end of what I felt comfortable using and holding; anything smaller feels fiddly and cramped. The A7II is a little larger, but the growth has been mostly in the grip – this is a welcome addition, in my book. The shutter release and front command dial are also in a much more comfortable place. EVF and LCD are both acceptable, but contrast is a little high and you’re going to need to tweak the settings a bit to get something that’s actually representative of the exposure/dynamic range the camera has captured. I think of this display as being optimistic: it looks better than the files actually do, so check your histograms for critical applications.
I think the days of the optical finder are numbered as resolution increases. This is for a couple of reasons: firstly, critical focusing (plus alignment and the other related issues) gets harder and harder; secondly, it’s easier to design some optics with a shorter flange distance and thus there’s not much space for a mirror; thirdly, I’d much rather have good manual focus ability for critical applications, and that’s much easier with finder magnification than the LCD for stability; finally, the ability to see the effect of sensor-stabilization in the finder for composition and precision of focusing should not be underestimated. In practical deployment, I’ve got to attach a Zacuto magnifying hood to my D810 for use with the Otuses and APO-Lanthars; this significantly increases size and bulk. Whilst the A7II really needs the battery grip to balance off an Otus, it’s still quite a bit smaller and lighter thanks to the EVF. And we haven’t even talked about stability yet. Handheld, I’m potentially either giving away quite a bit of dynamic range by upping my ISO, or detail lost in camera shake. There is no free lunch.
We may have ever increasing and improving feature sets, but so far only Fuji and Olympus have really managed to make digital devices that feel like cameras; the others still feel very computer-centric and at times reinventing the UI for the sake of it, rather than any real improvement. Or, put another way, they’re still trying to figure out how to make all of the technology easily deployable.
It appears that Sony has (mostly) given up trying to force us into its UI paradigm and given us enough customizable buttons and dials that we can now make the A7II behave like whichever legacy system we’re used to; this is great because as I learned the hard way recently, it’s very difficult to reprogram twelve years of muscle memory into turning an exposure dial the other way. It just shouldn’t have taken this long to get to this point. Unfortunately, the menus remain as unintuitive as ever, but fortunately, you don’t need to spend much time there once you’ve set the camera up to taste.
AF performance remains much like the A7: fast enough under most situations, but slowing noticeably when the light level drops, or with a slower lens. Accuracy is fine when there’s enough light, but again – when it gets darker, you’d better get a second shot for insurance. The camera has a tendency to pick a different distance every time you refocus, especially if the background and foreground distances aren’t that different. It has PDAF pixels on the sensor, but the reality is it still won’t track as well as a traditional DSLR. There are pre-focusing options as well as eye-sensor triggered AF start, but they don’t really speed things up that much and have quite a noticeable effect on battery life. Viewfinder and LCD refresh rates are both fast enough for most uses, but you might be aware of some lag if you’re shooting rapidly moving objects. On the subject of the EVF – both monitor and LCD use OLEDs; there’s nothing wrong with the panels themselves, but the optics used for the EVF could be better; a bit more magnification would help, and there’s too much distortion unless your eye is dead center. It’s not as bad as the GH3’s EVF, but nowhere near as good as the E-M1 or X-T1, either.
No matter how much technology is packed into the rest of the camera, if the sensor does not deliver – then we might as well go home. I am still not happy with the crippling 11+7 bit raw compression: you can still run into posterization fairly easily in highlights and shadows, especially if adjusting color balance under mixed lighting. Watch carefully for clipping, too – it doesn’t roll off nicely in the highlights like the D810. ISO for ISO, lens for lens, the D750 delivers a better quality file – with about 1-1.5 additional stops of usable (i.e. clean, manipulable in postprocessing without artifacts) dynamic range – in addition to slightly more transparent color, and surprisingly, about a stop less noise. There seems to be a little more ‘bite’ in the A7II’s files, though – I don’t know if this is because Nikon is cooking their raw files to have less noise at the cost of fine detail, or whether Sony is presharpening with no NR, or whether the AA filter in the Sony is simply a bit weaker. Or perhaps it’s a combination of all three.
Update, 21 Jan: I have been challenged repeatedly on the file compression/ banding/ usable DR issue. Yes, everything looks good at web sizes, but then again you’re also oversampling by a factor of 20 or so, so deficiencies get averaged out. Here’s a 100% crop of an affected file (‘Skyline reflection’, from above) – this is an ideal exposure scenario; base ISO on a tripod and sufficient light. And there’s pretty clear purple/magenta banding/posterization in the sky, up to RGB luminance level 50+, which is visible in print and almost impossible to post process out. The D810 under similar conditions does not show this, and the D750’s response is identical. Neither file has noise reduction or exposure adjustment applied in ACR. It is NOT necessarily an issue for all types of photography, but as they say – you pay your money and take your chances.
Color-wise, you’re going to have to do some light profiling to achieve a neutral balance, but since you should really be doing that on every camera anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Bottom line: it is not the best 24MP file I’ve seen – that still goes to the D750 for now – but I think it’s ‘good enough’ so long as you don’t push the processing too much. Does a stabilizer for every lens plus slightly worse high ISO win over slightly cleaner high ISO and files with a bit more tonal information? Very hard to say; in practice the advantage swings in both directions. I’d take the D750’s files if there’s enough light to stay at base ISO (and if there’s enough light…why not the D810?) but my hands are shaky so I’d rather have the precision/stability and ease of focus with the A7II in low light. Frankly, it’s frustrating because the D750’s sensor shows us what could have been.
Sony has always been quite a video-centric company. Though I lack the expertise to comment meaningfully on the camera’s video capability, I do see that the ability to produce smooth, usable video handheld with some movements like we’ve been doing with the E-M1 in the past is now pretty much possible with the rendering of full frame. My camera came with 1.10 already installed, so I can’t say how much of an improvement that update made; but in practice, it’s really not so different to the Olympus. There is still some rolling shutter, however, so movements must be undertaken with care. What I do like is that my Otii now render with the focal length they’re supposed to have, and look fantastic. There is one catch, though: you need to be able to deal with the XAVC format in order to get the most out of the camera; unfortunately in in Mac-land, there seems to be very little support for this. You don’t even get a basic converter utility with the camera, we’ve got to resort to an (additional cost) third party solution. Sigh.
Battery life and power management have me scratching my head. The first two charges were alarming – less than 100 shots with visible battery depletion of 1% every minute; after cycling the battery again, I’m looking at about 300 shots/charge, but with a distinct lack of linearity as the gauge falls. That’s to say your first 1% may get you 20 shots, but with the same style of shooting, the last 1% perhaps only one or two. I would certainly pick up at least a second and probably also a third battery if you intend to do an extended day with it. It’s clear that running that big sensor both suspended magnetically and with live view on all the time is a challenge; the 1020mAH battery probably doesn’t help, either. More concerning though is the slow charge time and the fact that you have to charge the battery in-camera; whilst it’s great to have this option to top off batteries in a pinch off a car or airplane jack, come on, Sony, you’re marketing this as a professional product. It’s also priced as such. Shame on you for not including an external charger. At least the charging cable isn’t a proprietary one, and I suppose you could charge it off a mobile phone power bank.
In practical use, I’m used to charging my Nikons once a day, carrying a spare and rarely touching – and not having to wake up in the middle of the night to swap batteries on a charger. The next concern is weight balance: if you put a heavy adapted lens on the A7II, it’s physically uncomfortable without the vertical grip; and on a tripod, the thing is really not very stable at all, because the base contact area is fairly small and there’s a lot of torque off the mount. I suppose it’s somewhat academic since the A7II only comes into its own when being shot handheld anyway. But for future generations of A7R, this might be an issue.
I admit my earlier concerns around system completeness and maturity are somewhat dampened by the continued emergence of new lenses; I’m frankly more worried that what we want feature-wise is only going to be dribbled out bit by bit, necessitating constant upgrades and making the older bodies depreciate unnecessarily quickly. Yes, the digital age is one of disposability, but this is a bit much. Right now, it’s the little things – like chargers, finder optics and tripod mounts – that Sony need to get right. A touch screen would be nice too, especially given how useful the flip screen is (and how well the thing is engineered – easy to use, sturdy, but also no size penalty).
One interesting piece of hardware I’d like to try is the Cambo Actus; it’s basically a miniature view camera built around the A7 as a digital back. It makes rise and shift possible, not to mention independent movements, plus easy shift-stitching, and a wide range of adaptable lenses; theoretically it should be possible to tilt an Otus, too.
The disruptive players in the market are taking mirrorless seriously; the incumbents, a wait-and-see approach. So far, Canon and Nikon have been far off the ball with mirrorless offerings that are either incomplete and uncompetitive (EOS-M) or containing some impressive technology, but poorly priced and marketed (Nikon 1). Fuji, Olympus, Sony and even Samsung have jumped on this lethargy and used it to innovate, carving out bits of new market for themselves. However…it is clear that we’re still not really at the point of maturity, though things are getting ever closer.
I honestly enjoyed shooting with the A7II, far more than I thought I would. Probably because there was an amount of chance removed from the output especially handheld and in lower light or at marginal shutter speeds; where I’d have to take a second or third shot with the Nikons, I didn’t always need to with the A7II. Granted, the overall file quality is lower than the D750, and nowhere even close to the D810, but at least a larger amount of that potential is accessible more of the time. If I was to buy one of these, I’d probably pair it with the Zeiss 55/1.8 (and perhaps the forthcoming 28/2) and be done with it. The 24-70 can be safely skipped unless you really need the convenience; its optical stabilizer is no longer a good reason since it’s present in body.
The frustrating thing is that most of the technology already exists in the Sony stable – not theoretical, but already deployed in cameras. The D810’s fantastic sensor – still the best of the non-medium format sensors – is a Sony part. It has an electronic first curtain in live view. Full-frame IBIS exists in the A7II. Zeiss is making more and more lenses that are both E mount native and have AF. I’m sure you can write a raw file without compressing or processing it. Why can’t these things be put together? It would open up so much more of the performance envelope to a wider audience, and once you’ve seen that, it’s really difficult to go back. One can only hope that there is some legitimate technical reason and not simply corporate greed; there’s only so much you can do of that kind of marketing before you start to really annoy your users. Having said all of that, I really do think mirrorless is finally coming of age. MT
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