Review Sony α7R II
Sony α7R II: dream camera for the quality-conscious pro(-sumer)
In the summer of 2015, the Sony α7R II was introduced: the flagship of the mirrorless system cameras, with a full-frame sensor and a €3,500 list price. Specifications and the Sony α7R II list price make it clear that this is a high-end professional camera is, which rivals the best SLR camera of the moment. The Sony α7R II is equipped with the first full-frame back-illuminated sensor without an anti-aliasing filter. There are just two system cameras with such a sensor. Samsung NX1 is the first system camera with an APS-C BSI sensor. A BSI CMOS sensor has a higher dynamic range and less trouble with noise than an “old-fashioned” CMOS sensor, because the wiring of the sensor is behind the pixels, instead of in front of it (which blocks light).
|A look at the full-frame sensor of the Sony α7R II and the reinforced mount.|
|Sony ‘s flagship offers a mythically high resolution of 42.4 MP megapixels, ISO up to 102,400 and an AF system with 399 phase-detection and 25 contrast-AF points. In addition, the camera has a built-in 5-axis image stabilization (In-Body Image Stabilization: "IBIS"), so that every lens that you use on this camera benefits from it. That is also a premier for cameras with a full-frame sensor. Until now, that was only available from Olympus, on cameras with a micro-43 sensor. 4K video (video in theater quality) can be stored directly in the camera in many formats (including Super 35mm without pixel binning!). As though that were not enough, this camera has the largest viewfinder (0.78x) of all system cameras available right now. Unique. Is this also the best camera of the moment?|
Uncompressed RAW files Sony α7R II
We installed the firmware update just before this review, and conducted our tests with uncompressed, 14-bit, RAW files.Sony until very recently made use of compression of RAW files. The RAW files were not stored in 14 bits, and you had no control over that as the user. Most photographers will practically never see a visible loss of quality/are very satisfied with the compressed Sony RAW files .
|But in situations with high contrast differences, you can sometimes discover a visible difference in quality after editing. That led to a clear demand of Sony from a group of fanatical photographers: Give photographers themselves the choice of whether they save their RAW files uncompressed or compressed! With a recent firmware update, Sony has responded. We did this Sony α7R II review with uncompressed, 14-bit, RAW files. Everything has a flip side, even an uncompressed RAW file. Take into account that a single shot is more than 80 MB in size. If you want to immediately review a shot that you just took, then you have to wait more than two seconds until the RAW file has been saved .|
Shutter: a different story with various improvements
|Sony indicates that the shutter has a lifespan of a half million shots. That is more than most amateur cameras (~100k) and even most professional cameras (200k). Nice for the professional glutton, but I suspect that there are more photographers will benefit from improvements that Sony has implemented in the shutter, in order to ensure that as few vibrations as possible are caused by the camera when you take a picture. Technically seen, for a sharp picture, the best thing would be to also eliminate the photographer—a not-to-be-underestimated source of blur. We wrote previously about taking sharp pictures with high-resolution cameras (10 tips for sharp shots). And we will certainly return to that topic, when, for example, we compare the flagships of Canon, Nikon and Sony with each other. |
The shutter of the Sony α7R II gives—in comparison with its predecessor—according to Sony, 50% less vibration as a result of the shutter motion. The shutter noise is in any case remarkably quieter. The camera can also be used with an electronic front curtain shutter, which avoids blur even more. This camera has, like Panasonic and Olympus, a silent mode as well, with which, during solemn occasions or when photographing skittish animals, you can take a picture without anything to be heard. For wedding photographers and street photographers, that might be a killer feature and a good reason to switch to a mirrorless system camera.
5-axis In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS)
The built-in image stabilization of Sony (IBIS) can be combined with all lenses and works perfectly.
Not everyone always carries along a heavy tripod in order to prevent motion blur. A camera with a full-frame sensor that contains 36 megapixels or more offers the chance to take razor-sharp pictures. At the same time, the resolution is so high that the smallest decrease in sharpness becomes visible if you review the pictures at 100% (and some photographers go even higher). If you do that, you will have noticed that the mnemonic “For a sharp picture, choose a shutter time of at least 1/ (focal length*crop factor)” does not apply for cameras with high resolution. If you use a 50-mm lens on a camera with high resolution, then the sharpness decreases starting from a shutter time of 1/200 of a second, as a result of the photographer’s motion. In practice, most photographers do not get all the sharpness out of a camera that it can deliver. Always choosing a shutter time of 1/000 of a second is impossible. Image stabilization is not a magic wand, but it is more important for sharp shots than many people think.
Sony claims a profit of 4.5 stops: that thanks to the image stabilization you can use a shutter time that is 4.5 times longer for an equally sharp picture. In the picture above, you see the sharpness of pictures made with the Sony 55 mm f/1.8, displayed by shutter time. At 100%, a shot from a tripod is equally as sharp as a shot made without a tripod. If you make use of image stabilization (blue line), then that applies for shots made with a shutter time of a maximum of 1/13 sec, although many photographers are still satisfied with the sharpness that we achieved with a shutter time of 1/3 of a second. Without image stabilization, you get less sharp pictures with a shutter time of 1/200 of a second than with a shutter time of 1/13 of a second with image stabilization.
Stay Tuned: We have done our best to cover as much as possible. But in a couple thousand words, we cannot cover all the capabilities of the Sony α7R II. Some aspects will be covered (more comprehensively) later.
Sony α7R II versus A7R in a nutshell:
The Sony α7R II is more than 1000 euros more expensive and 2 ounces heavier than its predecessor and offers many advantages:
Sony α7R II vs Canon 5Ds(R) vs Nikon D810
As far as resolution is concerned, the lens that is used for testing makes a big difference with these three cameras. There are very few lenses that can achieve a high image quality on the whole surface of 24 x 36 mm. This test was also done with the Sony FE 55mm Carl Zeiss f/1.8. Fantastic lens.
Canon lenses on Sony α7R II
|Image excerpt from a shot taken (1000 ISO, wretched light) with the Sigma 150-600 mm Sports on a Sony α7R II with a Metabones Speedbooster.|
|Photographers with a large collection of Sony or Minolta lenses with an A-mount can use those on a Sony α7R II with retention of AF. The phase detection AF-system of the Sony α7R II can be combined with Sony A-mount lenses if you use a Sony LA-EA3 or LA-EA1 adapter. There are also adapters from other brands, like Metabones, available with which you can use Canon lenses with the retention of AF. We might explore that further soon. |
Modern lenses from brands like Sigma or Tamron can also sometimes be combined with such an adapter. We have tried out a number of lenses with a Metabones adapter and a Metabones Speedbooster. With the latter, you use the camera in APS-C mode: ideal for video and for telephoto lens shots (with a Metabones Speedbooster, you profit by 1 stop). The image excerpt above is from a shot made with the Sigma 150-600 mm Sports on a Sony α7R II with a Metabones Speedbooster. The AF does work with this combination, but too slowly for action photography. The shot was made with the help of focus peaking. In a later article, we will look at this a bit closer .
Sony α7R II : Build quality & Features
The Sony α7R II is solidly built, but it is not completely dust- and splashwater-tight. This camera is fatter than its predecessor and has an ample grip, so that the camera sits a good deal better in the hand. The body is reinforced on the front, and the mount is more heavily built, so that you have no more worries if you mount a heavy telephoto lens on this camera. I have a love/hate relationship with the thumb support on the back: the thumb support is in a good spot, and you hold the camera firmly with it. But the buttons on the back of the camera are placed in such a way that if you want to operate them with your thumb, and you do, you have to take your thumb off of the thumb support.
The Sony α7R II has 4 Custom buttons, to which you can assign the functions yourself, which benefits the ease of use of the camera, since this camera has a lot of options. The PSAM button (with which you can also set the camera to panorama or video) on top of the camera has a button that ensures that the button is not turned accidentally. What is a bit akward is that you have to keep the button pressed in order to be able to turn the ring. The solution that Olympus and Panasonic have chosen (the first time that you press the button, the PSAM ring is unlocked, and the next time you press the button, it is locked again) can be operated with one finger and is much more user-friendly. The front wheel is deeply recessed, which was also hard for me to get used to.
The Sony α7R II has no built-in flash. There is a hotshoe on top of the camera. Connections for headphones, microphone and mini HDMI hide behind rubber covers. The small battery is good for 300 shots. That is very few for a professional camera, and Sony thus includes a second battery. The camera has 1 card slot: for an SD card. That is also a bit stingy for a flagship.
Rare: Complete freedom where lens corrections is concerned
|Ever-more manufacturers are choosing to correct lens errors with software. Not only are the jpg files automatically corrected in the camera, but the RAW files are also provided with extra information, so that Lightroom of Photoshop correct RAW files for lens errors. You have no control over that as a photographer. Not everyone likes that. |
The solution from Sony is cleaner. The photographer makes the choice on the camera for whether—and which—lens errors will be automatically corrected. In the next Sony lens review, we will look at how well those corrections work .
Screen and viewfinder
|The Sony α7R II has a very nice XGA OLED viewfinder, with a unique image magnification of 0.78x. This is the largest viewfinder of all the cameras we have reviewed. That works very nicely, and despite the high enlargement you see no individual pixels. You only note from the contrast—and to a lesser degree the colors—that it is not an optical viewfinder. |
The screen is only tiltable and unfortunately not freely rotatable. The camera also would have benefitted in ease of use if the screen had been a touchscreen. During the test, I tapped several times on the focus and stared at the unchanging screen for a while before I realized why nothing was happening .
Manual focus and AF speed
|One of the big advantages of an electronic viewfinder is that you can focus more quickly and more accurately than with an optical viewfinder. First of all, with the Sony α7R II, you can use focus peaking. It took a moment before I realized that you can set that with “Relief level” (the higher it is, the more sensitive it is). I think it would have made sense to call it “focus peaking.” As the marking color, you can choose red, yellow and white. If you focus manually at f/16, then the focus peaking has a hard time, and you see a kind of red noise in frame, which you do not see if you focus manually at f/1.8. That seems like good news to me, since I suspect that you focus manually at the aperture with which the shot will be made, instead of at full aperture. Some bright lenses are bothered by a focus-shift as a result of spherical aberration: the focal point moves forward or back when you stop down. By focusing at the correct aperture, you eliminate focus shift. That is also what is so great about focusing with Liveview on a Nikon D810: WYSIWYG, and you are certain that you will never have trouble with focus shift .|
|We measured the AF speed with the Sony 55 mm f/1.8 lens under different lighting conditions. In the picture above, the AF speed is on the vertical (the lower, the better), set against the amount of light (left, dark; right, light). In the picture you see our results for two modern SLR cameras (Nikon D810 and Canon 760D) and three mirrorless system camera (Nikon J5, Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7 R MKII). |
As far as focus speed is concerned, the Sony A7R MK2 lags a bit behind the lightning-fast—and much less expensive—Nikon 1 and Panasonic cameras, like the GH4, GX8 and G7. In the dark, the Sony still focused, where even the Panasonic GH4 and the Nikon D810 had given up. That is surprisingly good.
Color reproduction in daylight
|The accuracies of the color reproduction of modern cameras are very similar to each other. That the Sony α7R II scores a bit lower in our test than its predecessor is not something you will notice in practice shots. In gray weather, which was plentiful during the test, the color balance was too cool. In daylight, yellow, cyan, green and orange in particular were less saturated. The different image styles of the Sony α7R II might differ more in color than those of the Sony α7R II do from the A7R .|
White balance/Color reproduction in artificial light
|In artificial light, you get better results—certainly if you photograph in jpg—if you manually set the white balance to artificial light. If you do not do that, then the colors become too saturated and they also tend towards orange. Sony is not alone in that. It applies for practically all modern digital cameras. Those who photograph in RAW have the luxury of worrying about the white balance afterwards. You can adjust the 14-bit RAW files without loss of quality and without posterization occurring .|
Little noise: even at high ISO
The new sensor has the wiring behind the pixels, so that more light is captured. That benefits the signal-to-noise ratio, since that is even better than that of its predecessor. The image excerpt below of 700 pixels wide (from a jpg shot 7952 pixels wide) shows the amount of noise and the retention of detail from a 5,000 ISO practice shot made on a gray day. Under more favorable lighting conditions—on a sunny day or in the studio with flash or LED lighting—you only see this amount of noise at 6,400 ISO. Simply very good, even in our Imatest measurements.
Dynamic range record
Bleached-out highlights and closed-up shadows can be made visible again in RAW files without getting disruptive noise. Especially in the dark areas, that is impressive. The dynamic range of Sony sensors was already very good, but now it has become even better. Good news for HDR photographers. The Sony α7R II has the highest dynamic range that we have encountered so far in our Imatest measurements. We even had to build a new test set-up for it, because this Sony camera had a dynamic range that was as big as the Dmax (Dmax~4/13.5 stops) of our old test card. We switched to a test card with which we can sample about 20 stops
The BSI sensor has a gapless on-chip lens design and an anti-reflection surface coating to make the light capture as efficient as possible. This camera not only has a high dynamic range, but also a high signal-to-noise ratio. We place more value on a high useable dynamic range (with a good signal-to-noise ratio) than the absolute value of the dynamic range. With that you have a usable ISO range available of 100 to 25,600 (expandable to ISO 50 to 102400, but at the higher ISO values, you have to apply a great deal of noise suppression in order to end up with a shot still worth looking at).
|In the shot below, you see a partial enlargement from the red box, but then the shot is made 5 stops lighter in post-editing. If you move your mouse over the picture below, then you see for comparison a shot made with the Canon 760D, with the same exposure conditions (ISO, shutter time and aperture), which has undergone the same treatment .|
Filming with the Sony α7R II: 4K @ 30 fps and full-HD up to 120 fps without external recorder
|The video image quality of this camera is very, very good. For video, the Sony beats out both Canons with its hands tied behind its back. Just as for the Samsung NX1 video quality we will write a separate review about that. If you want to make video recordings, then a 64 GB card for video is needed. With less, the camera refuses to record. In Full HD (living-room quality) you can make great slow-motion recordings by shooting at 120 frames per second, and for 4K recordings you no longer need an external recorder. That is unique, since that is otherwise only possible with Samsung and Panasonic cameras. In particular if you record in 4K (theater quality) in the APS-C crop mode, then you get a beautifully sharp image, with which you bring the subject even closer to you. You can even cut down the image to Full-HD, so that you bring the subject even closer, as shown in the video below .|
Image profiles for video: Searching for PP7 (S-log2)
|At first, I could not find an S-Log on the Sony α7R II. Even so, it is not the case that Sony limited the video functionality of the Sony α7R II, to oblige videographers to choose a Sony A7s MK2. The standard image profile settings for video (PP1 through PP7) can be found under: MENU → (Camera settings) → [Image profile] → desired setting. From the on-line user manual for the Sony α7R II, I discovered that PP7 is S-log2. The camera—as far as I could see—gives no indication other than PP7. The other image profiles also have a name that tells you little about what you can do with them. As soon as we have the opportunity to use this camera longer, we can explore the video quality more extensively .|
Conclusion Sony α7R II review
For a long time, the Nikon D810 (and before that the Nikon D800E) has been at the top of our list of reviewed cameras. That is changing now. As far as image quality is concerned, the Sony α7R II is the best camera available today. If you put a good lens on this camera, then the difference in resolution of photographs relative to the Canon 5Ds and 5DsR (which both have more megapixels) is negligible. The dynamic range and the signal-to-noise ratio of the Sony are a bit better than those of the Nikon D810 and much better than both Canons.
Use the list of reviewed cameras if you want to compare the Sony α7R II withe other cameras