Seems like just a short few years ago, Sony DSLR's were the laughing stock, what with their proprietary this and convoluted that. Yet today, going into 2016, Sony has made a huge impact in the photography world with their hyper-techy mirrorless cameras almost out of nowhere. After much consideration (and provocation from Sony) I decided to try out some Sony gear in the most challenging way possible: on a client job. Nope, I had never worked with a Sony before. What could possibly go wrong?
To be fair, noted commercial photographer and Sony aficionado Joel Chan had been showing me some of the features and functions of his Sony mirrorless in recent weeks. Although Chan has also been evangelizing all things Sony to me for the better part of this year, I always kind of blew it off with a "Yeah that's pretty cool" type of comment, and moved on. The tide began to turn when I actually held an A7R in my hands and took a few casual snaps with it. At first, it was a catastrophe, but it didn't take long for the experience to become an epiphany. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I don't do gear reviews.
There are many skilled and technically savvy writers here at Fstoppers who do reliable and detailed reviews of photography equipment. I am not one of them. Something about gear reviews usually turns me off, so I never opt to do any, even if it's equipment I truly like (or loathe). However, being offered a Sony A7RII , Sony 70-200 4.0 OSS G and Zeiss Batis 85 1.8 to play around with recently, I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to diligently test it all in the most rigorous and organized manner possible. 30 seconds later, I decided against all of that and chose to show up to my next job with said Sony stash and just see what the hell happened.
The client was FireDisc, a manufacturer of portable gas grills based in Houston. The project, a 2016 calendar, had been scheduled for some time, well before I had never noodled with Sony anything. This was a reasonably risky endeavor on my part, but make no mistake: my trusty Canon arsenal would be at the ready just in case.
Upon telling Sony about my idea to use their gear on this project, their rep (and awesome shooter) Jimmy Ton immediately agreed to provide me with a stack of their toys, ultimately leading to me being on set with an A7R, A7RII, A7S, A7SII and some nifty glass options as well. I had the two lenses I was originally offered, the Sony 70-200 4.0 OSS G and Zeiss Batis 85 1.8, as well as a Sony Zeiss 16-35 4.0, Zeiss Batis 25 2.0 and a Sony Zeiss 55 1.8.
I shot the entire day on the 42MP A7RII because, well, of course I did (more on that in a second). That and the 12MP of the A7S and A7SII weren't really conducive to marketing images that could end up as posters later. Not to mention it was an intensely bright Texas winter day; there would be no need for low light sensor mojo on this project (something the S units were said to be damn good at).
Initial thoughts while on set: Teeny tiny is not jiving for me.
I'm not the first photographer to bemoan the physical size of the Sony mirrorless cameras, and I won't be the last, but I have to say I mostly agree with these assessments. The A7RII and it's little siblings are far, far too small for me to feel genuinely comfortable holding one. Some shooters also whine about their little Sony looking "too amateur" in front of clients because of their size, but I find that to be a little silly to be concerned with.
That said, the A7RII isn't painful or uncomfortable, necessarily, but just doesn't come off as ergonomically harmonious with my very-average-sized hands. (This initial and major concern became a fleeting memory very soon; but more on that in a bit.) My good friend Joseph Hemphill, photographer extraordinaire and product manager at my sponsor MicroSearch in Houston, allowed me to fondle his A7RII with the battery grip attached. I admit I felt several times more comfortable with it on. As such, if your shopping list includes a mirrorless Sony Alpha series, and you prefer a more robust hand feel, I would budget for the grip without fail.
The good news, however, is that with small size comes small amounts of gravity, nay, weight. The A7RII with any of the lenses I had on set that day weighs about half of any comparable set up I have on my Canon rig. And after 6 hours in rural Texas with no break, that lightweight aspect becomes hugely beneficial. I never grew tired of carrying one or two Sony units around the ranch, and barely noticed any fatigue on my back or shoulders all day. This is a good thing; a very good thing.
But what about image quality? Did I carry around super lightweight toys all afternoon just to sacrifice the quality of the end result? It turns out, I didn't sacrifice a thing. In fact, the images I pulled from the A7RII were the sharpest and most dynamic I'd ever shot, technically speaking. Kind of to a ridiculous point when coming from the world of the 6D, like I've lived in for about a year now. The 42 megapixel aspect of the Sony didn't go unnoticed, and I immediately ordered up some new hard drives the same week. This was going to be a high density ride in all ways: photo resolution, 4k video, dynamic range, etc.
Megapixels: overrated or super awesome?
It all comes down to the maths. When compared, 2MP is literally double the pixels of 1MP, of course, so that is an appealing jump in resolution (and in marketing jargon). 2MP to 4MP: same story.
However, just as an example, 16MP to 18MP is nowhere near as appealing when you break it down: 5,184px long side on 18MP versus 4,928px long side on 16MP.
Said another way, the 18MP image is a scant 256px wider than the 16MP image.
Said yet another way, the 18MP image is right around 5% wider than the 16MP image. That is not a statistic worth dropping your 16MP camera for at all costs, especially if it is working well for you.
But the A7RII? Ok, that's a different situation altogether, especially coming from the world of the Canon 6D, as I said. And I know, the 6D and A7RII are not on the same tier, as it were, in the world of digital cameras. But this isn't meant to be a side by side comparison of two brands' directly competing products. Instead this is just my own personal experience (did I mention I don't do gear reviews?)
Sony wins in the world of resolution, hands down, compared to my 6D. And to think it weighs about half of my Canon (with grip), well, that makes it all that much more impressive. I'll also add that double the pixels forced me to change my retouching approach a bit, but then that's not exactly news for retouchers who work with, for example, medium format files on the regular. So I'm definitely not complaining.
But is the Sony A7RII easy to use?
Yes and no. And by that, I mean it totally is once you get used to it, but it is definitely different. Nikon stalwarts won't like me saying this, but the complex Sony digital interface is still easier to navigate than any Nikon in recent memory. Yes, you can get accustomed to anything, but the A7RII menu system made sense after just a short while.
One key aspect about the A7RII is the fact that you can customize several different buttons (C1, C2, C3, etc) to do almost any function. This, of course, means that if you borrow another shooter's A7RII, you will almost certainly run into brick walls because your C function buttons may not do what you expect to do. But it's that customizable aspect of the camera that I actually loved immediately. Instead of utterly conforming to where, let's say, the focus type/point adjustment button lives, you can just program to whichever C button you prefer. You could argue that that is still a learning curve, but at least you can make the decision on it.
The menu systems are also customizable, to a degree, in that you can change the default view that they are presented in. The LCD read out of your settings has a couple of different view options, and literally everything you see on the LCD can be seen in the EVF, or Electronic View Finder - something worth its weight in gold when shooting outdoors. But allow me to expand on that.
Sony's Electronic View Finder: where has this been all my life?
If you're not familiar, the A7RII is equipped with Sony's nifty Electronic View Finder (EVF), and what it does is both extraordinary and also potentially bothersome when you don't know how to toggle it quickly.
What the EVF does is, it allows you to see anything the LCD displays, including reviewing your shots, inside the viewfinder. It also has the largest magnification for any viewfinder at .78x. Impressive.
The best part about the EVF? Shooting outdoors on bright days. While many shooters have opted to buy video viewfinders or loops to scope out their LCD clearly when outside on a super sunny day, the EVF allows you to get instant feedback by showing your capture immediately in the viewfinder the very second you shoot it (by turning on shot review). The display time can be set from a couple seconds to several, or you can turn it off and continue shooting by halfway pressing the shutter when the image pops up. Make no mistake, this takes some getting used to. But to see your outdoor shots without a glaring sun causing you problems, and instantly as you shoot, that's just genius. While I wouldn't trust this view for anything other than exposure, it's still damn cool to see things so clearly and quickly outdoors. If the exposure shifts a bit, you know immediately and can adjust without taking your eyeball out of the viewfinder. (Film purists, commence snickering.)
Indoors, I would imagine, it also adds a level of convenience particularly when your strobes set up is nothing like the ambient light shows. Again, immediate feedback in the viewfinder allows you to make instant decisions on things as you're shooting, which I love.
The only real challenge with this function is when you are shooting quickly, or with the idea of keeping a faster paced flow with your subject. The EVF popping up with a shot review every single time will slow you down to the point where action photography is useless and more kinetically focused portrait work will suffer greatly. In short, you will be seriously annoyed if shooting anything with significant speed (even a fast paced model) with the shot review toggled on in the EVF. The good news? You can simply turn that function off and the A7RII acts like a standard DSLR. Well played, Sony.
One word: Zeiss
This should be a two word review (and "Shit sandwich" isn't it) because anything Zeiss does tends to be perfection, or damn near, without fail. My two words of choice? Zeiss rules.
I particularly enjoyed my afternoon tryst with the Zeiss Batis 85 1.8, the first AF Zeiss I had ever experienced. Apart from the AF being the fastest and most accurate I'd ever seen in a prime lens, the end results were exactly what you would expect from the Big Z. Sharpness was insane, bokeh was smooth as silk, color was rich; the works. There is a reason there is currently a nationwide shortage on the Batis 85, and sending my copy back to Sony was somewhat painful to do, if I'm honest.
Quite simply, the best 85mm lens I'd ever experienced in my short career.
Sony glass is a thing.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Zeiss Batis 85, as I said, but also had a blast with several other lenses on site, including glass labeled "Sony Zeiss" and simply "Sony". I learned quickly that the naming conventions were a curious thing, and that Zeiss, Sony Zeiss, and Sony were in fact three different types of lenses, so to speak, and not to be confused with one another (something I had trouble not doing at first.)
The most immediately attractive in the pure Sony camp was the 70-200 4.0 OSS G, a set of designations my inner nerd thoroughly enjoyed memorizing. This little lens was initially an object of some derision in my view because, to be honest, it looked exactly like a Canon telephoto. It was not clear why this sort of design, with the black rings and white body alternating, was so flagrantly like a Canon 70-200, but I decided not to give that a second thought and just see if the damn thing was any good.
Naturally, if anyone hands me a 4.0 rated 70-200, I'm going to try it wide open immediately to see what it's worth at it's weakest. The good news is, this little sucker didn't disappoint in the world of clarity and bokeh, even being "just" a 4.0. Unlike the 2.8 purists, I wasn't totally surprised by this because one of my all-time favorite lenses is the Canon 70-200 4.0L, probably the most underrated lens in the Canon lineup. So I know the joy of a well made 70-200 4.0 lens. I can confidently say the Sony 70-200 4.0 OSS G was at least equal or maybe a tad better than the Canon equivalent. (I didn't have a Canon to compare it to on site, but I would venture the Sony was also a tad lighter).
As I stated above, I am no good at gear reviews, and I never really intended to try to be. To me, benchmark tests and side by side comparisons, or obsessing on the myriad of technical things a proper gear review should have, is just not my thing. As such, the best I can tell you about the Sony A7RII and it's siblings is: I'm switching. Yep, there, I said it. Even after an impetuous decision like using new gear on a client shoot without learning it beforehand, Sony worked perfectly for me.
I will be a Sony shooting fool going into 2016, a decision I couldn't be happier about and, if I'm honest, I strongly recommend you consider looking into as well. Immediately.
This little thing really is a game changer. I'm thrilled to be on board the Sony bandwagon, and will be hanging up my Canons for the first time ever.
I don't believe Sony is better; I'm convinced of it.