Sony A7R-II

Real World Review

 

Sony are, without doubt, absolutely on-fire at the moment. I'm guessing that this is one review you won't need to read to the very end - in fact I'll save you the trouble. The A7R-II is absolutely fantastic. One of the best cameras I have ever used. Others have said it already and I will echo it. The A7R-II is amazing.

It has an astonishing sensor, epitomises the best that mirrorless technology can deliver and produces images that are absolutely gorgeous.

Even with all that praise I will never buy one. Read on more to find out why.

Out of the Box

Sony continue to underwhelm by not providing a battery charger for a £2500/$3500/S$4100 camera. Sick of complaining about how annoying this is. It's an absolute joke - what makes it worse is that out of the dozen or so random, compatible cables less than half worked. It sucks. This isn't why I won't buy one though (just for the record!)

Usage & Handling

To all intents and purposes the A7R-II handles the same as the A7II. Good but not great. The control layout is much the same and the Sony menus are style apocalyptically shit. Ergonomics are unchanged from the A7II and are a mix of very nice indeed with smaller lenses and very unbalanced with larger ones. None of this is new or surprising, the mirrorless form factor favours some shooting situations & loses out in others. 

I do love the dedicated exposure compensation dial, it suits my style of shooting and also synergises well with the very good EVF. Sony EVFs continue to improve but still don't match the Fuji ones yet - they still have a tiny amount of lag, aren't too hot in low light and tend to render scenes in a hyper-vivid Ken Rockwell vomit of colour.

We still have half of dozen customisable "C" buttons sprinkled around the camera which I still think is a mistake - by all means Sony should let us remap them to whatever we want but without knowing what they are mapped to by default I simply cannot be bothered to wade through the menus and find out what they are supposed to do. Give them a function and give us the flexibility to remap and it'd be perfect.

The 5 axis in-body image stabilisation is still impressive, even if it's not quite as effective as the lens stabilisation seen on DSLRs. Any time I can get a pin-sharp image shot at 1/13th second, ISO 400 and have it tack sharp makes me sit up and take notice (see the "Light Pipes" image in the Image Quality section). I'm sure one day we'll see fully intelligent independent body and lens stabilisation but for now each generation is a solid improvement on the last.

Battery life continues to be a problem, magnified by Sony's lack of a proper out-of-the-box charger. The A7R-II does let you disable the rear screen but it's quite a ham-fisted implementation; you either use both the EVF & the rear screen, or just one or the other. There's no intelligent ECO mode and I couldn't see a way to map screen on/off to one of the plethora of custom buttons either. A minimum of two but ideally four batteries would be a worthwhile investment. With the rear screen, EVF, power-hungry sensor and 4K video this camera chews through batteries at a disappointing rate.

The mirrorless vs. SLR debate has long stopped being anything more than a statement of personal preference for which body you like and the battle now is firmly based on what's inside the camera.

With nothing truly surprising or unusual about how the camera handles, let's move onto what we're really interested in...

Image Quality

This is, of course, where the A7R-II shines. It produces beautiful images with clean results up to unexpectedly high ISO settings. RAW files that were once handicapped by Sony's inexplicable firmware choices are now fixed.

Although there is a niggling issue with shooting with certain settings under certain artificial lighting conditions, on the whole the A7R-II delivers absolutely fantastic results.

Just take a look at the images below and see for yourself.

This is a 5-image stitched panorama of Marina Bay with only a slight boost to contrast & vibrancy (+10 to each in Lightroom). Shot at ISO6400 handheld it shows just how clean & detailed the A7RII images are.

This is a 5-image stitched panorama of Marina Bay with only a slight boost to contrast & vibrancy (+10 to each in Lightroom). Shot at ISO6400 handheld it shows just how clean & detailed the A7RII images are.

Colours & vibrant with solid blacks even from the RAW files - this has only very minor tweaks to the blacks, otherwise it's untouched.

I always like testing cameras to see how they render reds, it's one of the colours that varies extensively between brands. As you can see, Sony do it very well indeed.

The level of detail the sensor captures is astonishing. This image doesn't do it justice unles viewed large but it's frankly brilliant.

While I wouldn't say the core strength of the A7R-II is street photography it's no slouch.

While I wouldn't say the core strength of the A7R-II is street photography it's no slouch.

This was my moiré test with a very fine grid overlying each window. Even without a low-pass filter the A7R-II produces very clean images.

Photography cliche #131 - I couldn't resist :)

To be honest I included this shot because I don't think I had enough green images in the review.

This is the "Light Pipes" image I mentioned, shot handheld at 1/13th second. Impressive stabilisation.

I did find one problem with the A7R-II under certain conditions. Take a look at Santa Claus below and you'll see very obvious horizontal banding in his beard. This was shot under fluorescent lighting which is the root cause, however when I shot the same image with a Canon G3X under the same conditions, the resulting photo didn't have this artefact.

I tracked it down to the shutter speed, specifically that faster shutter speeds produced much more pronounced & ugly banding. Reducing the shutter speed to about 1/50th sec and the effect disappeared. A very curious phenomenon and although some have reported this only happens with silent shutter enabled, this was not the case in my field-test below.

Generally speaking, resolution correlates to image noise - the higher the resolution, the smaller the photosites on the sensor and the worse the noise rendering. The A7R-II is far from the best I've seen but for a 42MP sensor the results are unbelievable. The image below shows the difference in noise for a 1 second exposure at increase ISO levels. From 100-1600 I can only tell there is a difference when I *hugely* increase the gamma of my monitor - to all intents and purposes the noise is identical, and near zero. 1600 & 3200 are visibly different but still absolutely fine and best of all 6400 is very, very clean indeed. What's more, the image noise at 6400 can be tidied up in Lightroom with very little loss of detail.  Still going higher, 12800 and 25600 could be useable in a pinch with only 51200 and above looking ugly. But you know what? I bet converting to black and white would offset a lot of that.

I don't think I can stress enough just how impressed I am with this and it blows the competition, Canon's 5DS, out of the water.

All in all, I don't have enough superlatives to describe what's achievable with the A7R-II. Without exception it has the best sensor I've ever seen.

VIDEO QUALITY

Coming soon. My internet died as I was in the process of uploading some 4K video samples.

Specifications

  • 42.4MP full frame sensor
  • Interchangeable lens, E-mount mirrorless body
  • 4K video recording
  • ISO from 100 - 102,400
  • Single SD-card slot (SDHC/SDXC)
  • 2.3m dot EVF, 1.2m dot LCD screen (not touch-sensitive, -41 to 107 degree tilt)
  • 5fps burst mode

Full specifications can be found on Sony's site here.

Pros

  • Best in class image quality & resolution
  • Amazing high ISO performance for a high MP sensor
  • Very effective in-body image stabilisation

Cons

  • Crappy battery life & no charger
  • Weird image artefacts under artificial lighting conditions
  • Menus & controls still need refinement
  • Ergonomic issues with small body & grip

Conclusion

I began my review with a conclusion so I won't waste too much time repeating what I've already said. The A7R-II is probably the best all-round camera I've ever used. It has arguably the best image quality in its class and this almost completely makes up for the few handling quirks & problems it has. So if the camera is almost devoid of problems, why won't I buy one?

Sony themselves!

Before the fanboys grab their pitchforks, I have no silly anti-Sony mentality. It's simply that Sony are spending so much time & money developing and releasing cameras it's having two detrimental effects. The first is simply that as a consumer, it makes no sense to buy this now - I will wait 6 months and see if the next one is much better. If it is, I will consider it then. If it isn't, the A7R-II will be cheaper anyway. Sony are releasing cameras at such a pace that it's a better decision to wait and see than it is to jump onboard. While they ARE better than the competition they aren't yet so much better they offer something my existing kit doesn't, at least not for $4000. I'll wait and see and join the bandwagon when it makes sense to do so.

The second is that I'm still not sold on their lens lineup or wider platform support. Canon & Nikon have that and it gives a level of reassurance Sony have not yet earned - especially when you read about them ditching other camera lines. As an enthusiast, it's important to know that the platform I'm buying into will be there in 5 years time or, more importantly, already has a ton of options open to me.

When Sony has that they will be unstoppable. Until they do I'll continue to appreciate & be amazed about what they are doing but continue to watch & wait.

 

November 2015