Sony A7II is the newest mirrorless camera from Sony’s groundbreaking line up of Alpha 7 cameras. Lately Sony has been really stepping up their game and gaining major momentum in enthusiast and pro photography circles. They have always done well in consumer camcorders and compact cameras, but they are now outpacing everyone in a full frame mirrorless market as well. Sony’s new Alpha lineup has shaken the entire foundation of DSLR photography and it seems they are not willing to slow down. Original Sony a7, a7s and a7r all have something unique to offer to photographers. Sony has listened to our critiques of the original body design and has done some major improvements with Sony a7 mark II. I’ve always been a big proponent of solid DSLRs and the superb glass of their lenses, but with Sony’s industry leading sensors and super compact body design of mirrorless cameras I just had to try Sony a7 II in the field. After spending a couple of weeks shooting almost exclusively with this camera I am finally bringing you my full review. This review will not be just about camera’s stats and improvements, but my overall look at using Sony Alpha 7 Mark II as supplement or even a replacement camera for an enthusiast or a professional photographer.
I primarily shoot lifestyle stock, beauty and fashion. I also often get projects to shoot restaurant interiors, food and product photography. Each of those styles requires different approaches and most importantly different lenses. That’s one of the reasons I own over 15 lenses. The other reason is because I am lens hoarder *aghm* collector. But all jokes aside, each one of the lenses I own serves a unique purpose in my work. Because of this, my Canon DSLRs and lenses will always be my workhorse equipment. But putting that aside, Sony a7 II is really changing the way I approach some projects. It has truly opened up new opportunities and eased my approach to some shoots.
I am still a bit reluctant to use Sony a7 Mark II on high-end fashion projects, even though it’s perfectly capable of producing excellent results there. There are three reasons why I would still use my tried and tested equipment. First of all, I am so accustomed to using my gear that I do everything subconsciously and I do it fast. On shoots where studio, model’s, makeup and hair artists are being paid by an hour, speed is money. Second, my Canon lenses are still the king here. While it’s possible to use these lenses with Sony a7 II, it’s still not optimal (I will describe why a bit later). And finally, there is still a stigma with using “small” cameras in a professional setting. Most people who are not familiar with photo equipment in general think that you are a pro photographer only when you have a huge camera with a fat lens on it.
Size and weight
Sony a7 II relative small size and weight is actually a huge liberator in my non studio work. And the fact that people would consider me a snapshot shooter actually works to my advantage. At 556g / 1.22lb A7II (body only) is heavier than its predecessor (which weighs just under one pound or 416g), but is still much, much lighter than my Canon 5D II (which weights 810g / 28.6 oz). Sony Zeiss lenses are also considerably lighter than Canon L lenses. This is a very big deal when you have to carry around equipment all day.
Because Sony a7 II is a mirrorless camera, it has a luxury of being much smaller. It’s not a pocket camera by any means, but it’s much smaller than any DSLR. Original Sony a7 was actually even smaller than mark II, but it had a super slim grip and its shutter button was not in an optimal position. It’s clear that with this camera Sony is aiming at people who are considering switching from DSLRs. They have made a7II a bit bulkier, heavier and completely weather sealed. It sits very nicely in my hand and feels like a pro camera. The shutter button has been repositioned and now sits right where it should be, in my opinion. Sony has also added another custom bottom to the body of a7II making it a total of 4. Once you start using this camera, you quickly realize how important custom buttons are for making it a personalized snapping machine.
While Sony a7II is larger and heavier than original a7, it’s still relatively compact when compared to DSLRs. This creates a lot of opportunities for me. Previously when I wanted to take pictures in stores, restaurants or other “private” places, as soon as I take my camera out, security or staff would come up and declare that no pictures are allowed. Even if I was just taking snapshots of my kid with background completely obscured. But I was amazed that there was no such reaction to Sony a7II with both FE 55mm and FE 24-70mm lenses. No one cared at all. Once we even went into a store and shot right in front of a saleswoman standing behind a counter and she just looked at us and smiled (with an “oh how cute” expression on her face). This never happens when I take out my 5D II with 50mm lens. So from now on I am only shooting with mirrorless cameras when I am traveling. They are completely non-threatening to people and are super portable. Of course, if you attach a battery grip (which was redesigned for a7II), an external flash and a huge lens, you might still attract unwanted attention, but in its basic configuration it’s a stealthy pro shooting camera.
5-axis stabilization and other improvements
Since Sony a7II is a mark 2 it’s clearly meant to be an improvement over the original version and should obviously be compared to it and not just DSRLs. The new mark II has the same resolution (24mp) and overall similar sensitivity and quality of images. However, the biggest improvement is Sony’s new 5-axis in-body stabilization. This is a big step in the right direction. This means that even if you are using a lens without any stabilization built-in, the camera can move the sensor inside to compensate for camera shake, pan and tilt. If the lens has stabilization, then the camera will communicate with it to work together with the sensor. If a third party lens is used that cannot communicate with the camera, you can set a focal length manually in the menu and the camera will do the rest. At the moment the stabilization is subtle and not as noticeable to a naked eye. However, I was clearly able to get sharp images on handheld shots at pretty slow shutter speeds, even as slow as 1 second. Sony recently released software update that promises to improve the stabilization even further.
Sony has also improved autofocus in the new a7II. When used with a native FE lens, the focus is lightning fast and is on par with most current DSLR cameras. The autofocus in mirrorless cameras is actually better than DSLRs because by its design mirrorless camera can choose a focus point anywhere on the frame, while DSLRs are mostly limited to centralized points and often loose subject tracking once it gets closer to edges of a frame. Sony a7II can shoot at 5fps now and the buffer is large enough for you to shoot around 75 shots in JPG before the camera chokes and asks you to give it a bit of a break. And that’s 65 more than I’ve have ever needed.
As I have mentioned before, a7II now has an additional custom button for a total of 4. You can virtually reprogram any button and wheel to create your own customized camera. I use all 4 custom buttons for different situation. I find the manual focus point selection to be the most useful customization to get shallow depth of field images to be focused exactly where I want them.
Sony a7 mark II is a very capable video capture device. While it doesn’t offer anything revolutionary, it can capture at various standard frame rates and resolutions (up to full HD 1920 x 1080 at 60fps). They have also added the ability to record in XAVC S 50Mbps high-bit-rate. You will need to have at least 64GB SDXC card to capture in that format.
You can now also capture video in S-Log2 color profile. It retains much broader dynamic range but looks flat when viewed as original. This color profile is most useful for pros who color grade their videos. Even if you don’t use it, it’s always nice to have it available just in case.
While Sony is very active in producing new bodies for their Alpha line of cameras (this A7II was announced merely a year after the original one), they are a bit slow on producing good lenses. As more and more enthusiasts and pros switch for these full frame mirrorless cameras, they will quickly realize the need for certain lenses. Due to high resolution sensors these cameras use, there are only 6 native Sony Zeiss lenses capable of capturing such resolutions at the moment. While I really like some of these lenses (FE 55mm f1.8 is very nice) it’s not enough for a working professional. Sony has promised to have up to 20 lenses announced by the end of 2015. At the CES 2015 Sony showed 4 more FE lenses and 2 wide angle adapters. They also promised to announce new large aperture primes too. So in the long term there is hope of a good lineup of native lenses for the Sony a7 line of cameras. However, at the moment, if I wanted to completely switch to these cameras I would really miss my large aperture primes.
Many people will point to third party converters available for Sony a7II cameras. These converters make it possible for you to use tons of lenses from vintage Leica to latest Canon L lenses. However, not only do these converters cost money, they also add weight/size and most importantly add another circuitry between a camera and a lens. In my experience I’ve found that the autofocus is excruciatingly slow or non-existent with Metabones E-mount to EF IV adapter and my Canon L primes/zoom lenses. The focus will always travel all the way backward, then forward before getting in good focus. And it will only get in focus in good light and if there is enough contrast on the subject. So my best bet is to go manual when using any of my Canon lenses with a7II. Sony a7II offers nice focus peaking to help you use the manual focus. It works for casual shooting of stationary subjects, but once I try to capture micro emotions of models in lifestyle shoots at shallow depth of field (which are my signature shots), it becomes virtually impossible. So if you want to take advantage of improved AF and motion tracking you’ll need to stick to native lenses which are pricey and a few to choose from.
Battery and price
Because of its small size Sony a7II can’t fit a battery large enough to satisfy its thirst for power. This was a problem with the original a7 but it’s even worse with the mark II, probably because it now has to move the large sensor during stabilization. It is a winter season now in NYC and it’s getting pretty cold. While we were shooting a video review, fully charged battery died within 40min of photographing (not even video capture). Although that’s a bit of an extreme condition, you can still sense that battery is one of the weakest points of this camera. It will not last a day in any condition. So if you are getting this camera make sure to have more than one battery.
And Sony is not making it any easier. There is no battery charger included with the camera. When you need to charge your battery, you have to connect the camera with the battery inside to a power source via a USB cable. So while your battery is charging, your camera becomes unavailable for shooting. That’s crazy. So if you are getting a spare battery or two make sure to also get a charger.
This brings me to my final negative point about Sony a7II. As I have mentioned before while the whole lineup of Sony alpha 7 cameras look like they might belong in a casual amateur category, they are high performers and thus priced accordingly. Not only is the price point of a7II is up there, but the native lenses are also not cheap. Even if a casual traveler only needs a 28-70mm kit lens, add another battery and charger to it and you easily will have to pay over $2000. Not everybody is able to go there, especially for casual shooting.
However, if you are willing to get a better lens (like FE 24-70mm f/4) which might bring the final price tag to about $3000, you’ve got yourself a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. Within this serious enthusiast/ pro price point you have a 24mp, full frame, 5-axis stabilization, compact, weather sealed beast of a camera that can capture exceptional images for years to come.
It all comes down to what you are looking for and if you can afford it. If you already own the original Sony a7, I don’t think the improved AF and new stabilization system are good enough factors to upgrade. But if you are currently shooting with a bulky DSLR, I encourage you to at least give it a try and see if it works for you. If it does, you will travel lighter and shoot less conspicuously. The all-digital viewfinder would definitely be something to get used to, since it’s not as good as an optical one. Disabling viewfinder 2 second preview is the first thing I’ve done. Replacing batteries often is another thing you might need to get used to. Limited lens lineup should also be considered. And finally the price point is hard to swallow for most of us. But if you are OK with all of these shortcomings, Sony a7II is an amazing piece of engineering which can easily compete with most pro DSLRs out there.
Here is our video review of the Sony a7II. You can see some video footage filmed with a7II at 5:12