Most asked question via email for July/August 2015: “What do you think of the Sony A7RII?”
Second most asked question via email for July/August 2015: “When will you be reviewing the Sony A7RII?”
Question #2 comes across as rather entitled but perhaps not surprising given the nature of the internet. However, given the fact that there are a billion reviews by every expert and his cat already circulating, I cannot add any findings to add that won’t unreasonably anger a certain segment of the readership. I have used all of the A7 series cameras except the A7S, and previously reviewed the A7R and A7II in detail. Each of these cameras suffered from significant shortcomings, and the A7RII is no different – though perhaps it has the fewest so far.
I probably should have titled this post as “why I won’t be ‘reviewing’ the A7RII”. This is not a review in the genre the internet has come to expect – a series of gushing observations after a company-sponsored junked, replete with mediocre SOOC snapshots. Instead, it’s both a series of observations from a working pro after two weeks of use, and a rational analysis of whether it merits a place in the bag or not – and more importantly, why. There is good and there is bad, and somehow the nature of the camera makes it much easier not to get emotional about. It does not have the ergonomics of a 5DSR or the endless highlights of a D810 or the firmware updates of a Fuji or Ricoh nor the charm of a Hasselblad V. It will be superseded by a new model in a year, and probably worth very little. This is a disposable consumer tool, nothing more, nothing less.
Update: Sony has announced on 16/9/15 that they intend to implement uncompressed 14 bit RAW via firmware update. It remains to be seen whether this is 14 bits of true information without any preprocessing, or the same file in a larger 14 bit container. I am hoping for the former, of course…
The body and ergonomics are identical to the A7II, which I’ve already covered extensively. I found it okay but not great in the hand, imbalanced with larger lenses without a grip and that has not changed. If you want to take advantage of the wide variety of other legacy optics available, then the camera is no longer small when configured in a way that’s actually convenient to shoot. On top of that, whilst battery life has improved slightly with the A7RII, by the time you factor in the extra batteries required compared to say a D810, the camera is no lighter. It is both telling that the notoriously stingy Sony not only includes two batteries, but also a wall charger (previously not included with other A7 series cameras) in the box. Note that we are still talking 150, perhaps 200 shots maximum per battery here – this is against anywhere up to 2,000 with the D810. If we compare it to LV mode only, it’s still 3:1. And we don’t have the option to switch back to optical if we’re running low on juice. At least if you could completely turn off the monitor when not in use some power could be saved, but no – it stays on, just showing a black screen that will still draw attention to you and ruin your night vision.
The menu system is typical Sony. It is passable to those familiar, and completely unintuitive to those who aren’t. Functions aren’t really grouped in a sensible manner, and it seems there are just too many ways of changing things and certain functions that get locked out if others are selected (no custom WB with memory positions on the dial?) – plus there is no help key to aid with figuring out what cryptic abbreviations are on the fly (‘TC/UB Disp Switch’ and ‘Standard’ being direct AF point selection for the center button on the wheel – that’s really, really not obvious).
Operationally, this does not feel like a fast camera. Every action seems slightly delayed, as though damped in oil. Power on is slow. Reviewing images and zooming in is laggy. Moving the focusing point requires at least one extra button press and the box moves in small increments instead of jumping a whole box-width. Even the bite point of the shutter release is a bit too deep, meaning it feels just a little less responsive than is ideal. I’m sure the PDAF sites on-sensor will make for snappy AF with legacy lenses – both Sony and Canon – but the ergonomics are so dire that this is hardly a good solution unless there are some non-IS (but AF) lenses you must have. And practically, if you can afford an A7RII, you can also afford a 5DSR. Even AF with normal E-mount lenses is not exactly speedy – just the right side of acceptable most of the time, but in even slightly backlit situations, be prepared to wait – and get a lot of false positives.
From the project “The disorientation of night”
It is, for all intents and purposes, and A7II with a higher resolution sensor. That is good and bad – if you liked the A7II, you’ll feel right at home here. If you didn’t, then nothing has changed. Unfortunately, that sensor is still crippled by the same 11+7 raw compression and some odd preprocessing that gives rise to strange texture noise in the shadows. However, it’s worth noting that at least empirically, that compression seems to be visually less of an issue with more resolution – I suppose that makes sense given there are more ‘steps’ over which to spread the transition. I’ve encountered posterization in shadow areas, but nowhere near as bad as with the A7II. Even though Sony has promised 14 bit raw, it isn’t going to fix the hardware compression that’s occurring before recording – we’re just going to have a larger container (i.e. bigger files) for the same amount of information.
No matter how many times I profile the camera or what I do with the primary curves or HSL defaults in ACR, there’s some muddiness and color indistinction going on in the shadows if you want to extract the most dynamic range from it; on the other hand, if you want clean shadows, you’re going to be faced with fairly early clipping. More profiling work is clearly required here; perhaps combined with some individual channel curve adjustments. There is perhaps 13.5 or more stops of DR in there, but not all of them are clean. It sits between the D810 and 5DSR in that respect, and is closer to the D810 in highlight handling, DR and the overall ‘look’ (both Sony sensors after all) and definitely lacks the 5DSR’s color. It probably has the least pleasing color of the three, even after profiling. Under ideal conditions, the A7RII can come quite close but does not take the image quality crown from the D810. I really still think that last bit of transparent tonality is being held back by file compression; it will be very interesting to see what Nikon does with this sensor in the inevitable D850 or D900.
Update: For all of the skeptics out there, there is now concrete evidence the compression degrades image quality. It does not matter if you aren’t chasing the last 5%, but I am. I thank DPR for doing it so I don’t have to.
One of the most impressive advances with the A7RII is on the video front – 4K (or consumer 3840px) internal recording with both full frame and S35 capture; the binning is nicely integer so the results are very, very clean indeed – to the point that the A7S is almost rendered irrelevant since we now get the benefit of IBIS, too. There is some rolling shutter, but overall video image quality leaves pretty much every other primarily-stills camera in the dust.
IBIS works. But it’s clear – as with the A7II – that it’s struggling with the increased sensor mass compared to something like the M4/3 cameras; it’s a bit less effective and selecting the correct focal length for adapted lenses appears to be more critical. (This is obviously a problem with zooms.) It unfortunately also complicates the matter of sensor cleaning greatly – though there’s a function which basically shakes the thing using brute force, I’ve already got stubborn dust spots on mine that cannot be dislodged with blower or shaker. It will have to be wet cleaned, but the sensor suspension mechanism is delicate and this makes me very nervous. Note: in four years of multiple Olympus bodies and over 100,000 images plus lens changes with no heed for ambient dust, I’ve never had to wet clean a sensor. Or even use a blower, for that matter.
From the project “The disorientation of night”
Having said all of that, there are quite a few reasons one buys an A7RII (trumpeting its virtues on the internet for money or worshipping it as your messiah until the Mark III do not count).
- The most compelling one is because within limits, it extends the image quality envelope when handheld quite a bit: even with the shadow compression, IBIS realistically claws back 2-2.5 stops or so on the D810. You can also add another 0.5-1 stop since there’s an electronic front curtain shutter, too. (Don’t use the full e-shutter; it eats a stop of dynamic range because the readout time is accelerated.) It means ISO 400 or 280 instead of 1600 – the difference from that is much greater than the 11+7 compression. On top of that, you can also always obtain an ideal ETTR exposure because of the live zebra. Under marginal conditions, this is very significant.
- Zeiss AF lenses – in 25, 35, 55 and 85mm flavours; even if the 35 and 55 are not ‘full blown’ Zeiss, they still have similar rendering properties. As much as I love the Otuses, they are difficult to deploy under all conditions – hand held in low light, for instance. Practically, a Batis 85 at f2 will outperform an Otus 85 at f2 because you will a) have precise CDAF and IBIS and be at say 1/50s ISO 800, instead of 1/250s ISO3200 and manual focus. And there’s no Otus 25. Note that both cameras EVFs/LVs get laggy in low light though. And strengthening the case even further, older Contax/Yashica Zeiss lenses like the 2.8/35 PC Distagon and 100-300 Vario-Sonnar that I loved on the 5DSR (but won’t mount on the D810 due to flange distance issues) have now acquired stabilisation and don’t have to work quite as hard as on the 50MP sensor.
- What I think of as ‘run and gun missions’: your shoots are short enough that ergonomics and battery life are not issues. If you’re holding this thing all day with a grip and an Otus, it’s really not that different in weight to a D810 or 5DSR – except the latter two will be far more comfortable.
- You want to use specific old lenses with a consistent camera body, though those old lenses had better have the optics to hold up to a 42MP sensor and possibly also short flange distances/ high angles of incidence.
- You want a technical camera solution like the Cambo Actus without the cost or bulk of medium format (and wides are not so important).
- You are a videographer.
Sadly, the A7RII is not a camera that gives me any pleasure to shoot at the moment, and it bothers me that I cannot put my finger on exactly why. Logically, it ticks all the boxes. Yet it does not inspire goad you on, like the Leica Q, nor does it feel solidly dependable and razor sharp like the D810. It may well be unfamiliarity or a bad choice of custom key configuration on my part, but I suspect that isn’t entirely it. It just feels like a consumer electronic device in operation, something designed for anoraks by anoraks, not a camera. Maybe it is paradoxically too logical. It is honestly a purchase that I felt somewhat sick over – between our plummeting Malaysian currency and Sony’s history of eschewing firmware updates in favor of slightly improved models one year after release together with a slashing of price of the ‘old’ model.
I put up with it because I realize that 1, 2, 3 and possibly 5 apply to me, and I routinely encounter the limitations of working handheld with high resolution systems in a way that almost defeats the point entirely. I shoot under conditions that are far enough outside the ‘ideal’ envelope to render the 5DSR too niche a tool to justify itself for my business (and the camera itself has a narrow envelope too), so it had to make way – as much as I love the color and ergonomics, there’s no way I can afford to switch entirely to Canon. But A7RII’s stabilizer opens up possibilities that I didn’t have previously.
On top of that, frequent fliers will also be familiar with the eternal problem of airlines and weight – the A7RII and six batteries might not be lighter than a D810 and one, but the Batis 85 is a third of the weight of the Otus 85, and weather sealed (even if the A7RII’s seals appear somewhat questionable). I could carry the 55 FE, 85 Batis and perhaps Voigtlander 180/4 APO together with a Q and have an extremely versatile and high quality travel kit without printing compromises. A D810-based system would require a Zacuto, two Otuses and perhaps a tripod – which raises weight by 2.5-7kg and is the difference between checking in and carrying on only.
I suspect that given sufficient time, I may come to respect this thing in a rational way – like the original D800E, which is still going strong after nearly 90,000 exposures and only ever used on assignment – again because it gives me no joy. Curiously, very small differences can change the feel of the thing – D810 vs D800E, for instance – maybe Sony will finally get it right with Mark III, along with some sort of serious professional support. In the meantime, it’s time to think more logically.
If after all of this you still want to buy one (and haven’t already) and use one of my links, they are below. Be sure to order extra batteries too; I’ve currently got ten and three chargers because I can shoot through six or more of them in a day; the rest are needed as a buffer in case I can’t charge all of them overnight. It does charge over micro USB, so you can actually hook it up to a mobile phone powerbank in your bag to top off the battery between sessions, too. Unfortunately you cannot shoot and charge over USB at the same time.
Sony A7RII B&H Amazon
Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 (beware sample variation) B&H Amazon
Zeiss 2/25 Batis B&H
Zeiss 1.8/85 Batis B&H
Sony NP-FW50 battery and compatible alternatives B&H Amazon
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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