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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.