Fstoppers Reviews the Sony Alpha a7R II 42MP Full-Frame Camera

Fstoppers Reviews the Sony Alpha a7R II 42MP Full-Frame Camera

Prior to the a7R II’s release, the Sony Alpha mirrorless lineup played as a group of ambassadors to the possibilities in the technology. Each had their own role in showcasing how mirrorless could do amazing things that matched or exceeded DSLRs. With the a7R II, Sony has released the camera that its competition was warned of, and ultimately did nothing about. It has taken away the asterisk next to the Alpha name and is ready to play ball with the other top brand’s professional cameras on all levels.

Numerous additions and improvements that were highly requested by DSLR shooters and owners of previous a7-series cameras are featured in the new Sony a7R II. Building on the full-frame Alpha predecessors, the a7R II packs an impressively large list of flagship features: 42-megapixel backside illuminated sensor, five-axis sensor-shift stabilization with any mounted lens, 399 phase detection autofocus points, 4K (UHD) internal recording, no anti-aliasing filter, silent electronic shutter capable, and on and on it goes. Sony has created something that not only gave people an initial shock with the announced specs, but continued their role in being the most aggressive camera manufacturer in the industry.

Build Quality

I enjoyed using the Sony a7 II released earlier this year, so it excited me to see the more ergonomic body design being incorporated into the a7R division. It’s a shape that is filled with purpose. The grip area is comfortable to hold and all of the dials and buttons are within reach of your right hand to control (except the menu button). Most of these buttons are customizable with a wide variety settings to replace them with. I’ll say I’m not a fan of the labeling on these highly customizable buttons with the timer icon or “ISO” or “DISP” since you’re either going to customize these things differently like what I did or you’re going to memorize what they do in a short amount of time.

The shutter mechanism has been updated to eliminate the shutter shock issue of the original a7R. It can be set to utilize an electronic front curtain shutter for reduced vibration as well as a silent shooting mode which sets an electronic rear curtain to be completely stealth in noise-sensitive situations. The silent shutter is excellent when it comes to wedding photography during the ceremony, or in my use when photographing wildlife without wishing to cause a startling disturbance.

That awful two-piece wobbly lens mount that came on the first a7R is now a nicely robust piece of metal on the a7R II. The camera felt sturdy and capable with longer lenses such as the FE 70–200 and FE 90mm Macro attached.

The new XGA OLED Tru-Finder EVF is now better than ever in the Sony a7R II. The 2.36-million dot EVF display has a stunning 0.78x magnification allowing a wider field of view, whereas previous a7-series cameras and many DSLRs with optical viewfinders are 0.70x. The bright display refreshes very quickly and I never felt like I needed to guess the timing on something in order to pull the shot off at the right moment.

Sensor

The 42-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor of the Sony a7R II is the new resolution champion of the Alpha series. Not only is there a boost in megapixels, the camera now incorporates a backside illuminated sensor design utilizing copper wiring (instead of the traditional aluminum) for improved low-light sensitivity, less noise, and faster data transmission.

On moonlit nights I was able to use live view to accurately set focus on objects, and in the day with a LEE Big Stopper I didn’t have to even remove the filter to determine sharpness. While it doesn’t match the Sony a7S in terms of low-light sensitivity, it beats out the a7 II and a7R I’ve previously used.

The native ISO range of the a7R II starts at 100 and goes to 25,600. This is expandable to drop down to ISO 50 and shoot up to ISO 102,400 (but you probably shouldn’t). By looking at the noise detail below, it’s actually pretty impressive how far you can push this new Alpha and retain a passable image.

Click here to view an uncompressed PNG version (3.2 MB).

The dynamic range capabilities of the camera keeps up with what Sony already started. It is very freeing to know I can shoot with the sun in the frame and have the data to recover into a perfectly useable image without harsh gradations. Around sunrise and sunset when the lighting is softer, tonal gradations at base ISO in the sky and surfaces are very gentle and beautiful. 

Sony a7RII with FE 70-200mm f/4, .8s at f/11, ISO 100

Autofocus

One of the most welcomed improvements in the Mark II is the upgraded autofocus system. The a7R II has 399 phase-detection autofocus points and 25 contrast-detection autofocus points covering 45 percent of the total image area. That’s crazy! Better yet, for those that want to transition into the Sony ecosystem or just want a wider selection of lens options, using third-party lenses via existing adapters will also benefit from all 399 phase detection points, even with continuous tracking on.

With that, the Sony a7R II unsurprisingly has the best autofocus performance of any full-frame Alpha-series camera. In AF-S mode, autofocusing was snappy and very accurate with every Sony FE lens I mounted. It performed just as well as any top-of-the-line DSLR I’ve ever used.

Continuous focusing in AF-C also works well, which I wasn’t sure at first if that would be the case. A part of me was still stuck in the train of thought that Sony mirrorless means a lacking autofocus system, but working with the a7R II has shattered that perception. Watching the little autofocus points in the viewfinder dance around as a subject moved within my frame felt very reassuring the first time I used it. Looking at my images afterwards, a great majority of them hit focus. Fast moving subjects coming towards the camera is the weak point of many autofocus tracking systems, and the a7R II faces the same setback here. There are a few standard options to tinker with in the menu system to get the tracking to behave how you’d like, such as a drive speed versus accuracy preference.

Shooting with the Sony A-mount 50mm f/1.4 via the LA-EA3 adapter also had perfectly acceptable autofocus performance. Compared to the native FE lenses, there was a slight downgrade as far as speed, but the accuracy remained. The speed difference was insignificant as far as real-world shooting goes. If you need cutthroat autofocus speeds proven to be the best in the lab, the Canon 1DX or Nikon D4S are still kings.

Sony a7RII with FE 35mm f/1.4, 1/3,200s at f/1.4, ISO 2,000

Sony a7RII with FE 70-200mm f/4, 1/250s at f/5.6, ISO 4,000

Sony a7RII with A-Mount 50mm f/1.4 ZA via adapter, 1/60s at f/1.4, ISO 125 - Handheld 5 image panoramic stitch

Five-Axis Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization

Much like the Sony a7 II that was released earlier in the year — and which, let’s be honest, is the a7R II’s true predecessor if you disregard megapixel count) — 5-axis SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization is built in to give the user control over 4.5 more stops of light. The sensor will compensate for movements in the X, Y, yaw, pitch, and roll axes. And it’s not only native FE lenses that benefit from this. Like the generous autofocusing system, any adapted lens will work with the in-body stabilization. In this case if your lens doesn’t transmit focal length, or are using a non-electronic adapter, you can still manually input the focal length into the camera to gain the notably great benefits.

Sony a7RII with FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro, 1/125s at f/2.8, ISO 2,500

Sony a7RII with FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro, 1/125s at f/3.5, ISO 1,250

Sony a7RII with FE 70-200mm f/4, 1/8s at f/9, ISO 100

Video

The a7R II is probably a dream come true for travel photographers who need to shoot both photos and video at the highest quality in the smallest package possible. Although the a7S was capable of 4K shooting, it needed an external recorder to do so. Recording 4K video in the XAVC S codec at 100 Mbps on the a7R II can be done directly to the internal SD card (needs to be Class 10 UHS–3 rated).

Video can be recorded either using the full frame of the sensor or in Super 35 mode. The downside to shooting 4K video full frame on a 42-megapixel sensor is there is way too much data for the processor to handle in full. Therefore with the a7R II they bin lines which costs you a little bit of image quality. In Super 35 mode you get the full pixel readout, but at the price of recording at a APS-C crop factor. To me, both of these modes produced very detailed results.

The a7R II produces video internally in 8-bit 4:2:0, or if you already have an external recorder it can be used to record in 8-bit 4:2:2. The S-Log2 picture profile is also available to capture the widest possible dynamic range of a scene for those that love to color grade their work to produce the highest quality results.

Sony a7RII with FE 35mm f/1.4, 1/400s at f/1.4, ISO 250

Battery Life

With the large full-frame sensor, in-body image stabilization, and 4K recording capabilities being powered from within a small-sized chassis, there’s a compromise to be made in battery life as physical space becomes an issue. It’s a case where you can’t have it all. Sony has addressed battery life in a couple obvious ways with this release. First, the a7R II cameras come packaged with two batteries in the box rather than only one. And second, for the first time in an a7 camera you can finally truly turn off the rear LCD screen while the camera is powered on. Previously, switching off the LCD screen wouldn’t really switch off anything, it would more just remove all the display information and show a black screen and still consume power.

Sony a7RII with FE 16-35mm f/4, 25s at f/8, ISO 100

What Could Be Improved

Depending on how you use your camera, such as putting those five frames per second to use in burst mode, you may run into a road block several times while using the a7R II. I know I did. The problem occurs when you want to review your images right after you shoot them. With auto-review turned on, the camera settings are essentially disabled until the image processor is able to write every photo to the memory card. With auto-review turned off, you can change camera settings but now you can’t review your images or enter the menu until the buffer clears — and it takes a long time to clear. Shooting 22 frames in raw, before the continuous shooting mode slows down (which is 4.4 seconds of holding down the shutter button), I would need to wait 18 seconds before the buffer clears. Doing 10 frames in raw (2 seconds of shoot time) had me wait 5.5 seconds, and 4 frames in raw (less than a second) still had me waiting for 2 seconds until the camera unbricked. Raw+JPEG brought it to a whole other level of annoyance, where 22 frames made me wait 28 seconds, 10 frames made me wait 10 seconds, and just four frames made me wait 4.5 seconds. Compounded to the frustration is that you have no way of knowing how much more time you need to wait, and the camera doesn’t remember that you asked to review the images. That means you have to mash the playback button repeatedly until you can finally see your images.

The mode dial on top is the first of the a7 series to include a lock button in the center that requires you to press in to spin. There’s also no way to disable the lock. I don’t know who was having issues with accidentally changing modes because the dial is out of the way and fairly stiff on all the a7 series cameras I’ve used, but the lock isn’t necessary and is just a nuisance.

The articulating LCD screen is great, and I use it every time I go shooting. With that, I wish it was more flexible in the positions it can move to. It can pop out and face upwards to 107 degrees, but it can only angle to face downward to 41 degrees. There were a few times where I needed it to go further to get a creative high vantage point or to rise above obstructions in the frame. I know video people would also love if it could flip out sideways to see the screen from various viewing angles so you can step out from behind the camera.

Sony a7RII with FE 35mm f/1.4, 1/3,200s at f/1.4, ISO 250

Conclusion

The camera body is a tool that facilitates the freedom to express yourself visually. While the image capturing components and their specifications inside of them can be important, the best camera bodies are the ones that get out of the way of a shot you envision in your mind’s eye. When you have a camera where you don't need to be questioning it in the scenarios you are put in — Here it comes, am I going to be able to nail focus? What if I need to crop this in later? Is it too dark to handhold now? Can I get all this or am I going to clip? — it places all that focus and energy towards creative thinking and refinement of your craft. The Sony a7R II is an artist’s camera; it hits on so many diverse points in its technical capabilities that reaching your creative peak is a great deal less challenging.

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25 Comments

Spy Black's picture

This certainly is an interesting evolution, I guess for fashion or sports it's DOA, but for other forms of shooting it could work. I'll certainly have to check the EVF out, for me EVFs are the Achilles heel of mirrlorless, they're too low in res and, more importantly, don't refresh fast enough.

I think within 1-3 years mirrorless may finally reach a point in function and battery life where the DSLR may finally have met it's match.

Ryan Mense's picture

If you ever get the chance to test out the EVF on this camera I'd love to hear your thoughts. I think even you would be impressed by the fast refresh on it.

Austin Rogers's picture

Hi Jerry! The Sony EVF (from my experience with the 7II) does have some pretty rad features including focus magnification like your GH1, focus peking (which is adjustable), settings preview, etc. You can set it to auto-review in the finder but I typically have that feature turned off. :)

In my now-ancient a7, the evf gives me a ton of data. Zebras will give me blown highlights, and focus peaking is fine for basic work, but focus magnify is where it shines. I zoom in to ensure critical focus is achieved on eyes for portraits. For native lenses, eye af is magic. Also, you can use nd filters and still make adjustments to focus. Add in you can actually view video while shooting it through the viewfinder, and I just don't know how those with ovf's work effectively anymore.

ALEX ~'s picture

I put the EVF complaints right there with the battery complaints. Easily get 350-450 shots with any of my A7xx bodies, including the new A7Rii. I have grips, but rarely use them. Batteries are small, A7Rii comes with 2 in the box. Is it really THAT big of a deal not to get 800 shots on a single battery? C'mon, if you're shooting more than 350 shots in a row with no time (about 10 seconds?) to swap out batteries, you're way too fancy of a photographer, lol.

Spy Black's picture

A matter of personal tastes, I suppose. I've yet to see an EVF I'm comfortable with. Not that I can't work with them, but the refresh, resolution, and brightness in daylight is a big deal for me. For instance, I was really excited about the Fuji XT1 when it came out, then I looked through the EVF. That was the end of that. So it will be interesting to see how the EVF in the new Sony is.

Spy Black's picture

Jittery-looking video. It's not a smooth, continuous motion. I've seen this in every EVF I've looked through so far. I find it distracting and annoying. Needs a higher refresh rate (more fps).

Lack of resolution pretty much speaks for itself. Scenes lack detail when you're composing your shot.

Brightness when using it in daylight is another issue I've seen. When you first look through the EVF when walking around in broad daylight the EVF is dim and takes a few seconds for the eye to adjust. Again, very distracting.

I'm confident all these issues will be resolved, and I'm curious to see how the new Sony's EVF performs relative to these issues.

Spy Black's picture

I must admit I find your adamant defense of the EVF quite amusing. :-) I'm glad it works for you. I think however that after shooting for over 40 years, I kinda, sorta have a pretty good idea of what works for me and what doesn't. ;-) Right now, EVFs don't cut it for me.

I'm confident that will change however, and probably in short time. Mirrorless are the future of photography, and my hat's off to Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, and Olympus for advancing the state of the art. The DSLRs days are numbered, but they are still the primary professional tool around.

Doesn't it? It does af-c with eye af with Canon lenses.

Reply lfail....

I would buy it immediatly if i could have video autofocus with Canon lens !

Doesn't it? It does af-c with eye-af on Canon lenses.

Have a 645Z and almost bought a Sony as a back up, but the lack of weather sealing for their bodies and lenses is what led me to buy an Oly EM5II, for the price youd expect them to be sealed. (maybe on the next gen).

Austin Rogers's picture

To my knowledge they are dust and water resistant. The lenses don't need the gaskets found on most other brands because of the tight(er) fit. I'm still yet to take mine out in a dusty or rainy environment but am pretty confident on their ability to hold up to Canon / Nikon standards. Interesting side note — the new Zeiss batis lenses *do* have the rubber seal for some reason.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Austin is correct: The entire Sony A7 series and all FE lenses have been weather resistant from day one. I recall seeing a number of videos of people pouring water straight onto the cameras and lenses without any ill effects.

Mind you, Roger Cicala of LensRentals would kindly remind everyone that 'sealed' is not a guarantee of any sort. His company has found flies, spiders (complete with webs), and other such items inside of lenses that claimed to be weather sealed. They've also found rugged materials such as scotch tape covering access ports for screws to provide 'sealing' against the elements.

Specs and everything around the cam sounds great and I would love to give Sony a try but there is a absolutely no-go for me as wedding photographer.
They still do not have a second slot for instant backup.
I use the dual slot on the 5D Mark III for instant backup, I could not sleep well without it any more.

Austin Rogers's picture

I'd totally kill for a second SD slot or room for a more robust CF / XQD card.

Heber Vega's picture

I'd love to hear/read a pro wedding photographer using this body. I'm really tempted to buy this camera but I'm still afraid of its performance during weddings.

Lee Morris's picture

Great review Ryan!

Chris Kennedy's picture

Question on video, any experiences with shooting 4k and the a7rii overheating? Whether in s35 mode or full frame and if outputting externally to a 4k recorder?

Everything else about it sounds perfect, and am strongly considering picking this up as a C or even B camera for my productions. But this overheating issue I've heard about is making me think on waiting for a a7sii.

Totally agree , an articulating screen like they used on the a99 would of been great .

Benjamin Thomson's picture

Pros and cons to both. I personally prefer the tilty screens for shooting waist level style.

Casey Berner's picture

Fantastic review Ryan. One of the best I've seen and one of the most thorough I've seen; and I'm not just saying that because I work here too...

I'm curious to see if Sony comes out with another a99 as I prefer its size to the size of the a7rII . The a99 just has better ergonomics and it's slightly smaller than my D810 , which I adore but wish it had an EVF.

going back to using Sony mirrorless for a professional photographer -Sony lenses are not ready for it yet and it will take years. As a professional and being ready for any job you will have to consider having 1:1 macro, 2.8 in any range, tilt and shift, sports high fps and many others for any situations. It's just not half way yet so will stay with Canon for a longer while. When doing shoots and studio work, the size of the camera doesn't really matter. It's how much it is compatible with lighting and accessories systems you have to use... Can you imagine if Sony could put all of the recent innovations in A mount system and create a BadAss Dslr ? I would buy it ... and it would be milky way more advance than Canon MK4 :) ... live preview, 4k, high resolution, quick auto focus and that dynamic range :)