Sony A7II Review

Back in 2013 Sony released the A7 - more specifically the Alpha 7, but everyone tends to call it A - as the first of their full-frame mirrorless cameras.  Along with the A7R and A7S they were Sony's first major foray into full-frame mirrorless and they made quite an impact.  It may be worth reminding you how Sony pitched these cameras to us.  The vanilla A7 was advertised as "perfection" and the high dynamic range was emphasised as a strong USP.  The A7R was the resolution king with its 36MP eclipsing the 24MP of its siblings.  Finally the A7S was touted as having the best sensitivity with a native ISO range running to 102400 and expanding out to an astonishing 409600.  As a first statement entry into full frame mirrorless they generated a lot of interest, praise and attention - and rightfully so.

Now, less than a year later, Sony have begun releasing the sequels starting with the A7II. The A7RII has also been announced so it's probably only a matter of time before the A7SII arrives.  This review focuses on the eldest sibling, the A7II.

Remember this is the perfection model, nothing but perfection is acceptable! :)

Image courtesy of Sony

Image courtesy of Sony

 

Out of the Box

I didn't receive a standard, boxed retail camera to review, rather a promo unit, so I can't really judge the contents based on what I received. Checking with Sony, the standard A7II package contains the camera, strap, body cap, USB cable and battery plus AC adapter cable. The last item continues to INFURIATE me with Sony cameras! Sony - PLEASE ship a proper battery charger with your cameras!  Having the ability to have multiple batteries charging outside the camera is of huge benefit and for a top-end camera there is simply no excuse for not including a dedicated charger. It makes the package feel cheap. 

It also came shipped with the 28-70 f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

The A7II I reviewed was shipped with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5/6 kit lens.  Given it was the only lens available to me at the time of this review, all images you see are shot with this lens so will give a good indication of the quality you can expect.

The A7II I reviewed was shipped with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5/6 kit lens.  Given it was the only lens available to me at the time of this review, all images you see are shot with this lens so will give a good indication of the quality you can expect.

Useage & Handling

For a mirrorless camera I was surprised by the size & weight of the A7II.  I have to admit, it was much bigger and heavier than I expected and certainly atypical for mirrorless.  To put it into context, this is heavier than a Canon 760D and only 100g shy of a 70D. Granted, neither of those are full frame but to me it highlights the days of mirrorless simply just being about smaller/ligher are coming to an end and shows that future cameras will be a convergence of DSLR and mirrorless. This is particularly true when you factor in the size and weight of pro-grade glass; to get image quality on a par with professional DSLR cameras and lenses requires getting the larger mirrorless glass, which in turn offsets much of the point of the current crop of mirrorless cameras.  Anyway, I digress...

The size & weight are to the camera's advantage and due in no small part to its construction.  It feels solid, reliable and professional. It's still a little too small for my own personal tastes and man-sized hands but considerably better in this regard than almost every other mirrorless camera I've used. While I'll cover details of the controls & layout later, Sony has made the right decision to go for a slightly larger body and update the layout from the A7.  These are both very good decisions.

I do still find it a little alarming that you remove your lens and BANG - there's your sensor exposed to the world.  I wonder how mirrorless designs cope in the field with heavy environmental damage/impact (dust, rain etc.) without risking the sensor.

Ergonomically, the A7II has a different shaped grip to the original A7 and it's a welcome change too.  Though it does increase the dimensions of the camera, many mirrorless designs make the mistake of going for a sleeker, smaller look at the expense of comfort, ease of use and - to be frank - the lower risk of dropping the camera because of a proper grip.

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Control-wise, the camera is very definitely a Sony.  It makes me smile - Sony are so intent on packing in features and controls there are buttons, dials and wheels everywhere.  I'm sure if I counted the number would be comparable to a DSLR but because of the smaller size, it feels like they are everywhere.  While not as bad as the RX100-3, given the size of the two that's not a surprise, it does feel that with a well implemented touchscreen Sony could lose a few of the controls and make the camera visually more attractive and functionally simpler to use. Many of the buttons I simply didn't bother with. The video record button is placed out-of-the-way to the right of the rear thumb grip.

Speaking of the rear LCD screen, Sony continue to impress and stand out from the crowd in terms of LCD screen quality. That said, for some unknown reason they opted to not make the A7II screen touch-sensitive. I think this is a mistake; though some of the Sony implementations of touchscreens have had their fair share of niggling issues, overall they are of great benefit. With the A7II it feels like a missed opportunity, something which would have raised the camera a couple of notches had it been present. The screen does at least have some articulation, albeit only in a single-axis unlike that seen on other cameras. 

Another change from the A7 is in the inclusion of two click-wheel dials to control the shutter & aperture. The first of these is built into the grip, fairly close to where the forefinger rests, and is easily reached & manipulated.  I tended to use this for controlling aperture as it favoured my style of shooting. The other dial, as seen on the images above, is on the rear of the camera conveniently placed near where your thumb rests. This I mapped to controlling the shutter speed. I really, really liked these. On SLRs the button to secondary control is usually way down under where your thumb rests and takes a lot of bending to get used to. This approach was a LOT better. Although the dials are quite small and on the model I reviewed reasonably stiff to turn, I preferred it that way and it stopped accidental setting changes - something that DOES happen accidentally when a control wheel on the back of a DSLR is nudged by mistake. I'd prefer them just slightly larger but in terms of location they are spot on. Combined with the immediate exposure simulation feedback in the EVF it was nice to shoot in manual and have a pretty reliable idea how the image would look and what small tweaks would do to the image. I'd very much like this in my DSLR, normally it's only live view which gives a similar experience which isn't as useful as the Sony implementation.

The front control dial built into the grip. I mapped this to aperture as it's the easier & quicker of the two dials to manipulate.

As well as the obligatory PASM modes, there's the usual array of auto, movie & scene modes on the main mode-dial. Next to this is something else I love - a dedicated exposure compensation dial. Yes, yes I know that shooting manual negates the need for one of these but for coping with rapidly changing light or to quickly boost/lower exposure to achieve a specific effect I think they are hugely convenient & easy to use. Well done Sony, keep doing this please!

You can also see a bewildering number of Cx buttons - these can be mapped from within the menu to pretty much any setting you want. Great for flexibility and for long-term shooters who know their kit inside out but it does rely on you remembering what C1 does, what C2 does, and so on!

I like that the on-off button is integrated into the shutter button for one-handed shooting.

I continue to dislike how Sony layout their menus. In their defence, they ram so much functionality into the camera they need to be able to customise & control it somehow but to be totally honest, the menus are confusing and badly laid out. Maybe this is a personal prefernce issue rather than a camera issue but the way the menus are laid out and how the settings are grouped are not quite as slick as the rest of the camera & controls so the experience was definitely jarring. Still, this is potentially something Sony can continue to fix and revise in firmware updates if they so wished and is likely to be something that long-term use would mitigate.

Sony gets a gold star for including that dedicated exposure compensation dial!

The other major new addition to the camera is the addition of 5-axis image stabilisation on the sensor itself. Without going into the details of how it works - see the image below for an easy-to-understand representation - I found that although the stabilisation is effective and extremely useful in day-to-day shooting, it didn't impress me more than the lens-based stabilisation you see from other manufacturers. In other words, I couldn't find any scene or scenario where I felt the 5-axis stabilisation on sensor was better - or tangibly worse - than what you get from a stabilised lens. Both are very good. I know that in-lens stabilisation is nominally better in some circumstances but in general shooting, the stabilisation simply worked.

I do quite like Digital Rev's explanation of how the two work & their pros/cons - here

Sony's obligatory graphic explaining what 5-axis stabilisation means.

With a burst mode of 5fps and a buffer of around 25 frames (dependent on the card speed) it's on a par with equivalent DSLRs. Whereas the Canon 7Dmk2 with its 10fps sounds like a machine gun, the quieter electronic shutter in the A7II sounds more like a sniper rifle, useful in situations where discretion is important!

The autofocus implementation in the A7II is pretty good but not perfect. Setting it to full AF using the full 117 AF points (a mix of phase- and contrast-detect), in general street & travel useage it performed to an acceptable level. There was still the odd occasion where it picked the wrong target or didn't quite hit the accuracy required, forcing manual intervention, but it did cope well. Face recognition and subject tracking are also well implemented albeit for the latter only when the subject was crossing the scene perpendicular to the camera. For cases where the subject was moving towards me, the AF frequently failed to keep up (as you will see in a later photo) which is a common problem with mirrorless cameras, especially when using smaller apertures. 

In terms of battery life it's better than every other mirrorless I've used in the past while not coming close to the performance of the larger DSLR batteries. That said, it's good enough to last a full day shooting (approx 400 frames on avearge) and this would be enough if you could have a backup battery charged... but without supplying a charger, this becomes an irritating headache to do. This is partly because the power management of the LCD and EVF seems to better than other cameras in this class.

Overall, the shooting experience is easy and fun with the A7II.

Image Quality

As with all my reviews I like to include a mix of shooting scenes, images I've processed and images straight out of camera where it helps prove a point. I try to include all pertinent details in the comments below each image.

Remember these are all taken with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. As a general rule, image quality at and below ISO 800 is very good, certainly on a par with any DSLR I've used. Above 800 is a different question which I'll discuss later.  For now, enjoy the images!

SOOC = Straight Out Of Camera

The A7II was a pleasure to use for street photography. I also really like how it renders reds in these images.  Sharpened & tweaked in Lightroom.

Jam Session on the beach.  Converted in Silver Efex Pro 2, cropped & sharpened.

This is an in-camera monochrome conversion, untouched in Lightroom except for standard RAW sharpening.  Pretty good for in-camera rendering. It still needs some work before the image is "complete" but as a starting point it's not bad.

Dynamic range in the RAW files is excellent.  I hadn't expected to notice much difference over 6D and 5D3 files but it is definitely a visible improvement in some cases. Skies were the most noticeable area - I would meter for the landscape, shoot the scene then tease out way more detail in the sky than other RAW files tend to allow. That's not to say care shouldn't be taken to avoid blown highlights but there is enough added latitude in the RAW image to make for a more appealing exposure.

Also, Sony are (in)famous for using lossy compression in their RAW file processing. Rather than output the whole, uncompressed data dump from the sensor they use an algorithm which loses data. If you tend to not process your images at all, or only very lightly you may not notice; attempt to push the highlights or shadows to any extent and you can easily run into posterisation and visible banding. My understanding is this is a hardware issue and not one Sony will be fixing in a firmware update. In my experience, I found that 75% of images I used were OK despite this flaw but for the 25% I did see it, the images were essentially unusable.

This is another straight from camera image, with only RAW sharpening applied.  Through the EVF the brick wall was in much darker shadow so I was pleased to see the dynamic range - even the bright spot on the man's head isn't technically burnt out.  Sunburnt maybe...

I included this to show when the AF let me down - this guy was looking at the fans while I was shooting and abruptly turned and walked towards me - almost INTO me I might add - and the AF failed to keep track.  Close, but not close enough for perfection.  I still like the final image despite the missed AF.

I included this to show when the AF let me down - this guy was looking at the fans while I was shooting and abruptly turned and walked towards me - almost INTO me I might add - and the AF failed to keep track.  Close, but not close enough for perfection.  I still like the final image despite the missed AF.

I was very keen to test the effect of diffraction on a full frame mirrorless camera.  To understand diffraction check out this explanation 

See the images below for my findings.

I shot this scene at f8 to test how the A7II handled diffraction.  This is a 100% crop of a larger image (available at the bottom of this review after my conclusion). Generally speaking it's very good with lots of fine detail visible.

The same scene as above shot at f22 under identical lighting conditions.  It's utterly awful, view large to see more.  Fine detail is a miserable smudge and even the lettering on the yellow cylinder is hideous.  This is under bright, well-lit conditions too.

The f/22 image above with some attempt to rescue the diffraction blur using sharpening.  Viewed large you'll see it has made things WORSE. My advice is to keep your aperture below f/16 with best results around f/10 or thereabouts.

The A7II also comes with a number of preset picture profile settings to tweak the balance, colour & sharpening applied to JPGs produced by the camera.  This is the "standard" or untweaked JPG. SOOC

By contrast to the above this is one of the Vivid modes, on the least aggressive setting.  Not only does it lose the dynamic range of the normal JPG it's straying into "vomit of colour" territory.  Normally I don't bother looking at scene modes but the A7II's selection were so varied I thought they warranted testing.  I cannot think of any situation where I'd want to rely on these in-camera modes to improve a JPG. SOOC

Sun worshippers or zombies?  I'm not sure.  I was surprisingly close to these guys when I took this shot and the quiet shutter certainly helped not disturb them. Converted to monochrome in SEP2, sharpened, manual dodging/burning.

Sadly the A7II has a major problem when it comes to high ISO images, specifically anything shot above ISO 800.  I've included a gallery of images at the end of the review, after my conclusion, that show this in greater detail but I've included a small example here to demostrate the point.

In simple terms, everything up to ISO 800 is good, even in relatively low light.  Above ISO 800 image quality slides down a slippery slope and even at relatively modest settings like 3200 it can be a challenge to get decent images.  The problem is a combination of higher-than-expected luminance & colour noise but also the way the noise manifests in areas of detail.  For example, even though the image below is noisy, the area in the sky can be fixed.  The areas around the buildings however is already ruined and even fixing the noise you are left with an image devoid of detail.  It's a real shame and quite unexpected; one of the major benefits of full frame over smaller sensor sizes is the better sensitivity and handling-of image noise. I've read reports online of weird bright noises speckling in shadows too, though didn't encounter it personally.

That said, there is a workaround which I discuss later in the review.

This is a high-ISO shot of the city from a rooftop bar.  Rest assured I wasn't drunk and the camera was stabilised ;)

Shot at ISO 10,000 it looks superficially OK when seen at full resolution.

A 100% crop of the image above.  Absolutely awful.

When you lower the ISO to a working maximum of 800 you can get some fantastic results.  I like that you can see the light pollution already reflecting from the underside of the clouds even though it's just after sunset.  Contrast tweaked, sharpened and some noise reduction.

The colours & tones you can get out of the A7II are lovely.  Very, very nice indeed. This was tweaked in Colour Efex Pro to tweak contrast with a tiny (<10) amount of saturation added.

In the head-to-head portrait shoot against the Canon 6D & 7Dmk2 the A7II held its own. Impressive results.  Processed quite a lot!

Another from the same photoshoot, I really like how the A7II renders colours.  They're bright & punchy yet are still distinct.  I tweaked the contrast on this image which helps make the scene pop.

In contrast to the high ISO scene shot above, this view of the city was deliberately underexposed (using the wonderful exposure compensation dial) with colour and detail recovered in post-processing. I found that this was the best approach - keep your ISO low, under-expose then rescue in Photoshop.  The dynamic range capabilities of the camera allow some near-miraculous recoveries! 

I didn't know why the ISO problem occurred until I read an article on DPReview (link below).  In terms of procesing, pretty much everything has been tweaked. Contrast, sharpening, selective saturation & dodging/burning.  I shot this in RAW & JPG - the JPG is rubbish and unusable but the RAW file did allow this image to be rescued.

Key Specifications

For a full list, check out Sony's website.

  • 24mp full-frame sensor, maximum resolution 6000x4000
  • 5-axis, 4.5 stop sensor-based image stabilisation
  • ISO range of 100-25600
  • 5fps burst mode, 25 RAW frame buffer
  • 117 AF point system, phase/contrast detect
  • 2.3mp EVF, 1.2m tilting LCD screen

Pros

  • Well built, easy to use & intuitive control layout makes shooting enjoyable
  • Superb image quality at or below ISO 800, especially colour rendition
  • Excellent dynamic range

Cons

  • High ISO images are ugly, very difficult to recover in post-processing
  • Servo/continuous AF is unreliable
  • Shrinking-violet mirrorless fanboys will complain about the size & weight :)

Conclusion

So... Is the A7II the embodiment of photographic "perfection"?  It is, without doubt, the best mirrorless camera I've used to date. Sony are hugely exciting to watch and their rate of innovation is extremely impressive. The A7 was good and they've raised the standard with the A7II.  It is a very good piece of kit, so much so it's the first mirrorless where I've considered taking the plunge and getting one myself.  While I don't think it's surpassing the better full-frame DSLRs yet - the high ISO performance is still far behind the leaders - it's very promising and good enough for the vast majority of photographers. 

That said, I think Sony are a victim of their own success. They are producing new models are cameras so quickly and often with measurable improvements it makes it difficult to justify buying into their model. Sure, the argument of "buy a camera that lets you shoot now, worry about upgrades later" is correct... but I have that camera already. If you are looking to get into photography as a serious hobby and haven't committed to specific manufacturer yet AND have the money to spend, the A7II is well worth considering.

If you already have a reliable DSLR then I'm not sure I can recommend the A7II outright - for the simple reason Sony will soon release a new camera that's better. To some extent they are a victim of their own success. Case in point, the A7RII has already been announced and early previews suggest it has improved already on the A7II!  Although you absolutely can buy the A7II now and be very, very pleased with your purchase, if you hold on just a few months there will be something else... and a few months after that, something else again.  Personally I feel like we are in the early stages of the transition from "DSLR vs mirrorless" to something else.  It's very exciting and very good for photography.

In conclusion, it's not "perfection" but it is a very good camera. Whether it's the best camera for you I can't say, but hopefully this review helps you make that decision :)

 

Sample diffraction-limit test images

f8 scene from the diffraction limit test

f22 scene from the diffraction limit test

Sample high ISO images

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 4000

ISO 6400

ISO 8000

ISO 10000

ISO 12800

ISO 16000

ISO 25600

It's quite technical but the folks over at DPReview have written a great explanation about how the ISO implementation on the A7II works and how adjusting your shooting style can offset some of the limitations. It's reassuring to see that the techie guys arrived at the same conclusion I did - ISO 800 and below is great, above ISO 800 things get very bad very quickly.