If you thought the megapixel war was over years ago then you might shocked by the latest cameras released by Nikon, Sony, and Canon. The D810, A7RII, and 5DsR are the biggest and baddest pieces of artillery on the front line, and today the team at Fstoppers is going to determine once and for all which camera is the best. With enough megapixels to challenge some of the most popular medium format cameras, these compact full frame cameras pack a lot more punch than you would think. Don't believe us? View the full high res images and take the poll yourself!
Before we get deep into our thoughts about all three of these cameras, let me make this clear that we are not here to bash or praise any one of these cameras without good cause. Yes, both Patrick and I shoot with Nikon but as most of you know we are the first ones to point out when something isn't up to speed, is disappointing, or flat out sucks. The truth be told, if you simply want to create photographs, all three of these cameras are absolutely amazing in image quality, and if your photos aren't great it probably isn't because of the camera but instead you probably don't know how to take a good photo with the gear you already have.
It is very clear that the most talked about camera of the three is the Sony A7RII which is creating a media buzz storm in the photo world. Sony has taken on a very different approach with their A series cameras and because they are the only mirrorless camera in this test, the Sony will have some extra challenges to overcome. Canon and Nikon have become the industry standard for high quality DSLR cameras and it would be foolish to think that any brand could just come in and take the crown away from them overnight. So while our review might seem harsh at times towards Sony, it is simply because they have a few major concerns to address before they can be viewed as an apples to apples contender with a professional DSLR. That being said, everyone at Fstoppers is extremely excited to see this new underdog take on the big boys. It is clear why Sony is gaining so much ground because they are implementing features and upgrades that professional photographers actually want while Nikon and Canon keep slowly releasing uninspiring cameras year in and year out.
With that preface, let's get on with the tests!
Let's first start with how the actual camera feels in your hand. Everyone is already pretty familiar with the Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras (and even the Sony Alpha series) and how bulky and large they are next to smaller cameras. It seems that in most cases people typically believe smaller is better (except for the recent wave in smart phones lately). While it is true that smaller and lighter cameras are easier to travel with, they don't always feel great in your hands especially when you mount professional 2.8 lenses to them.
This is where in my opinion the Sony falls short. For a travel camera, yes the Sony is absolutely the camera I'd prefer hanging around my neck, but the A7RII isn't aimed at travel photography. It is being sold as a high resolution studio camera for professionals. By the time you add a professional telephoto lens, a battery grip to balance out the heavy lens, and strap on your Sony or Metabones lens adapter, this lightweight camera becomes VERY similar in weight and size to a full sized DSLR. As we address later in this review, you are going to need a lens adapter and a ton of extra batteries which completely takes the "small and lightweight" argument completely out of the equation for me.
To be perfectly fair here, Sony does win part of the ergonomics test by having the best ISO, Shutter, and Aperture button layout. As a professional photographer, these three settings are going to be adjusted more than any other setting besides maybe White Balance. Nikon and Canon both require you to push and hold an extra button to change ISO while Sony has wisely attached ISO to the right hand lower thumb wheel. This means you can easily and quickly change ISO, Aperture, and Shutter without taking your eye out of the viewfinder (EVF in this case) and make every change with one single hand. The Canon 5DS R is the next easiest with the ISO button on top of the right hand grip and the Nikon D810 is the worst by having a dedicated ISO button on the left side which requires your left hand to leave the lens to make this change.
Dynamic Range Test
Dynamic range represents how much data the camera can capture in both the highlights and the shadows. Typically digital cameras can capture between 11 - 15 stops of light without crushing data on either side of the histogram. For this test we decided to take some test photos of a high contrast image and see how much detail we could pull out of the shadows while keeping the blown highlights to a minimum. I'll be the first to admit this is not the sort of situation you will be shooting in often but it does offer a unique environment to really pull out the shadow and highlight recovery.
Our test results are pretty consistent to what other more sophisticated review sites have found. The Nikon D810 revealed just a little more detail in the shadows under the car than any of the other cameras, and the Canon 5DS R was the clear loser. The dynamic range on the Sony camera was between the Nikon and the Canon but the lens flair from the Sony 24-70 f/4 lens was so bad that the resulting image was actually worse than the Canon. I wish we would have been able to use the same Tamron 24-70 2.8 lens on all three of these cameras because it would have removed the lens as a variable but unfortunately the lens selection for the A7RII is pretty small even from third party manufacturers.
It's pretty amazing to see how far dynamic range has come in the last 10 years. Having the ability to recover bright highlights and open up deep shadows is a very valuable tool for any photographer, and we were shocked how much details was still there hiding in these grossly underexposed night photos. That being said, these cameras seem to be aimed at studio photographers who have more control over their lighting ratios than other casual shooters. In the studio I don't think any of these 3 cameras really gives a huge advantage over the others especially if your total scene contains less than 12 stops from shadow to highlight. If you are a landscape photographer, you will either go with the Nikon for the best dynamic range, the Canon for the most resolution, or maybe the Sony just to have a lighter camera while sacrificing both dynamic range and resolution just a little bit.
The ISO Test
One of the most exciting upgrades with each new camera is better performance in high ISO ranges. Both the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5DS R have maximum native ISOs of 12,800 while the Sony A7RII has one extra stop of native ISO at 25,600 (all three cameras have a few extra stops of software expandable ISO). For the sake of making our tests as fair as possible, we decided to only push the ISO to the max native ISO of the Canon and Nikon. Therefore, ISO 12,800 was used as the main high ISO mark for all three cameras.
As you can see from the small jpegs above, all three of the cameras produced a pretty incredible image at these insanely high sensitivities with very little ambient light on the subject. After processing the RAW files through Lightroom, we had a very hard time distinguishing the 3 cameras from one another and ultimately decided that all three cameras tied when it came to the signal to noise ratio. We found this fairly shocking since there has been so much hype behind Sony's new Back-Illuminated CMOS sensor technology.
As stated in the video, we did push the Sony ISO even higher to see how it performed but honestly the noise was so bad that in our opinion it really shouldn't be considered an option for professional photographers. That being said, we find it hard to justify shooting anything above ISO 6,400 unless you are just trying to capture something in pure darkness. Most professional photography and video work is always done with some sort of supplemental lighting even in "low light" nighttime scenes. So while the excitement of having these new insanely high ISO options is pretty neat, ultimately it is still pretty much a novelty and produces unprofessional looking results.
Auto Focus Test
If there was one test I was really curious about it was the Auto Focus Test. So many people have told me that the one thing really holding them back from jumping onto the mirrorless bandwagon has been the slow auto focus compared to the traditional DSLR. When Patrick and I traveled to Photokina last year, we took a Sony A7s along with us to test out during our European journey. We were absolutely amazed at the extreme low light performance of that camera but the autofocus was so bad that we concluded that neither of us would feel comfortable shooting the A7s at a wedding reception (we had the same 24 -70 f4 lens with us too).
Times have changed in just a year or two though. While we were skeptical that any of the photos would be in focus for this test, the Sony A7RII performed as well as the Nikon and only slightly less than the Canon. To be fair to all of these cameras, our "Miley Cyrus" test was a beast of an autofocus test. All the lenses were shot at 70mm and the swing of our wrecking ball celebrity spanned a good 7 feet from apex to apex. As a whole, the entire group of cameras locked onto focus about 30% of the time with the Canon 5DSR just barely winning out.
If you were one of the photographers who warned us that AF performance on the mirrorless system would be a deal breaker, you need to give the A7RII a try (and the new A7sII as well). It is too early to tell if the increased performance of the A7RII is going to become the standard for Sony auto focusing but if this is the future then we are pleasantly surprised.
4k Video Test
For some reason photographers like to complain about the added video functionality being packaged into each new DSLR that hits the market. Video and photography is a converging market, and those professionals who want to remain successful in their craft are going to have to learn how to create content through both mediums. For this test we wanted to see which camera would give us the clearest and sharpest image straight out of the camera.
Obviously the Sony outperformed both the Nikon and Canon because it is the only camera that can shoot native ISO directly to the memory card. Prior versions of the A7 series cameras could also shoot 4K video but required an external recording device to process and capture the footage. As we found out from our tests, the main reason an external recording device is needed is because these larger megapixel sensors tend to overhead when processing 4K footage internally. The Sony A7RII locked up on us a few times while filming, and the only warning it displayed was a short "Internal Temp High, Allow it to Cool" error.
While I have to applaud Sony for pushing the envelope and giving us the high 4K footage we desire, this overheating issue is simply too risky for me to fully adopt this camera for my video work. Many online reviews have said that in order to mitigate this problem you need to shoot in cooler temperatures and also pull the LCD screen out to allow proper cooling of the camera. Our video test was done in about 70 degree weather (while raining on us) and the LCD screen was tilted away from the body of the camera. The failure happened about 30 minutes into recording which is an all too typical continuous record time for interviews, timelapses, and other extended scenes.
In terms of 1080 video quality, we found the Sony to win this category easily as well. The Sony does produce the highest quality since it can record at 50mbps in 1080p (100mbps in 4k), but the Nikon and Canon footage still looked pretty good with their lowly 23mbps and 30mbps data respectively. Many people get caught up on the resolution alone when it comes to video quality but the truth be told, the total bitrate is more important since it gives you more information to color grade the footage in post. The Sony also offers an sLog profile which gives you the dullest image with the most dynamic range possible but you do have to dig deep into their menu system to find it since it is not labeled anywhere. NOTE IN THE VIDEO: we accidentally wrote kbps instead of mbps but the overall results are still the same.
Slow Motion Test
Since we produce a lot of youtube videos, having extra features like being able to record in slow motion are really important. The results for this test were similar to the previous video test in that the Sony was the clear winner in overall image quality. I would say the Nikon did okay in this test but the lower 38mbps bitrate still doesn't compare to Sony's significantly higher 51mbps files. The clear loser here is Canon which is a bit shocking considering they have always been the leader in DSLR video. This flagship camera cannot even shoot 1080p at 60fps and all of their footage had to be upscaled 100% which caused a major decrease in image quality. One might argue that Canon has divided their photo and cinema cameras into two different offerings but when you see that Nikon and Sony are offering 1080p at 60fps in their lesser expensive cameras it doesn't really make sense.
One thing that these cameras are all lacking is the ability to shoot faster than 60 fps. The iPhone and many other cell phones can now shoot 120 fps at 1080p and even 240 fps at 720p. Obviously the quality from the iphone isn't going to be up to Hollywood's standards but it's still pretty amazing for web usage. As mentioned above, Sony has found a way to push 4k into their small camera body even with the overheating issue so maybe there is a similar barrier at the moment with large sensors and super fast frame rates. Even so, 120fps seems like a useful feature we would like to see in future full frame cameras even if it is only intended for short 5-15 second clips. Apparently the brand new Sony A7sII will shoot 120fps at 1080 which is exactly what we are asking for (let's just hope it doesn't over heat). Why none of these cameras shoots 120fps even at 720p is beyond me.
High Resolution Photo Test
Without a doubt, the most important test for all three of these cameras is how well they resolve detail in a real world studio photoshoot. Since the Nikon, Sony, and Canon cameras are 36mp, 42mp, and 50mp respectively, these cameras are clearly aimed at delivering the highest quality photographs ever produced by a DSLR style camera. This amount of clarity has never been available to the general public outside of having to buy a medium format camera, and in many ways these three DSLR cameras are directly competing with the larger sensor format.
For this test we wanted to give you the reader the chance to guess which file came from which camera. All three RAW files were shot at the same settings and then tweaked ever so slightly to get the same WB and shadow/highlight detail, and overall color. We then exported the files and resized the Canon and Sony down to 36mp to give Nikon a fair playing field. You can download all three ultra high resolution images below (click image to open full res file) and take the quiz. We will release the results in a few days.
One final thought, although all three of these cameras have a massive amount of resolution, the difference between 36mp, 42mp, and 50mp is not as much as you might expect. Sure, every little bit of increased resolution lets you crop a little tighter and print massive images that you can walk right up to and examine in full detail. However, when you stack the three resolutions up next to each other you can see that all three of these files are pretty similar in size. The advantages are no doubt HUGE when compared to another flagship cameras like the Nikon D4s which is only 16mp, but the difference in resolution between 36mp and 50mp might not warrant you to upgrade and jump ship to another camera brand. In fact, some of you may be surprised by your findings in the above resolution test when you look at all the images scaled down to 36mp for comparison.
A few thoughts on what WASN'T covered in the video
Everyone knows that Canon and Nikon have the widest selection of lenses for their cameras, and they should since they've been in the photo game longer than most of the other manufacturers. I'm sure some physics guru can explain why Sony HAD to change their lens mount from the A mount to the E mount but that decision could be the most costly decision the company has made. Not only does it limit Sony DSLR users from using the Sony lenses they already own, but it also makes it increasingly difficult for 3rd party lens makers like Tamron, Sigma, and Rokinon to offer their contributions to the Sony platform because they have to make 2 different mounts now. If mirrorless is the future, you would think it would be wise to make the jump from DSLRs as easy as possible. At the moment Sony does not have the two most flagship lenses available at all, the 24-70 2.8 and the 70-200 2.8. For this reason alone, I would not consider the Sony system for most of the portrait work I do both inside and outside especially if you rely on zooms over primes.
But what about all those people who say "just add an adapter and you can use every lens ever made by anyone?" It is true that we have not tested all of the adapters made by Sony, Metabones, and others, but we were disappointed to find that our Metabones adapter did not allow the autofocus to pass through. Adapters are fine and many videographers and film makers have been using them for decades to get the specific lens look they want out of their cameras. The issue I have with adapters like the Sony LAEA 4 is that 1) it is another piece I have to keep up with in my bag, 2) it adds even more weight and lens torque to a system whose main selling point is that it is so much lighter, and 3) it decreases your image quality and AF in a not so negligible way. Sure, lens adapters are a solution but that solution seems more of a work around rather than the most professional option.
There is no doubt that Sony will release some killer lenses for the E mount in the next few years and they have a close relationship with Zeiss which creates the top rated lens of all time. For me though, I like to buy into a system with lots of options and I do not like jerry-rigging my camera to work with other brands' lenses. It is obvious that Sony is making a huge splash in the camera market which is great for us consumers but at the moment their lack of lenses shouldn't be overlooked for those lusting after the greatest and latest camera technology.
If there is one thing that really plagues the Sony camera it is the battery life. When we recently traveled around the world for Elia Locardi's Photographing the World tutorial, we took one Sony A7s with us to help capture super low light video. What we noticed with that camera was the battery would deplete right before our eyes. You literally could turn on the camera and watch the battery percentage drain down every minute. Unfortunately not much has changed with the new A7RII. The camera even ships with 2 batteries so it's pretty clear Sony acknowledges how bad their battery life is but I would suggest having at least 5 batteries with you at all time if you are going to shoot anything important like a wedding or a full day photoshoot. Don't forget to bring the charger too!
Many people who love the Sony love it because the camera is so small, the batteries are 1/3 smaller than the Nikon or Canon, and the whole thing weighs a few ounces less than a full DSLR. While all of that is true, the sad reality is you will more than make up that weight and size difference by having to carry more batteries around with you (plus the charger). Being the owner of almost every Nikon DSLR camera to have come out, I can confidently say that you can easily shoot a full wedding with only 2 charged batteries. When we produce Fstoppers videos, we do use more batteries than during a wedding but they still deplete at a respectable pace. Luckily there is a Sony Power Adapter that allows you to plug into AC power which is a crucial accessory if you decide to go this route.
Camera Flash Sync Speed
I really do not want this review to feel like a Sony bashing but we honestly did have so many little issues come up with this camera that need to be addressed. During our final studio High Resolution Test above, we found that although the Sony claims the camera can sync up to 1/250th of a second with studio strobes, it actually had a much lower sync speed. In the above test, we set all the camera shutters to 1/200th of a second and noticed the Sony had a lot of vignetting along the left side of the vertical frame. Since maximum sync speed is a huge feature for photographers using flash, we decided to leave the image in the test but we also did a separate test on the Sony just to see what was happening. Here are the results we found.
As you can see, using our Profoto Air Remote and 2 Profoto D1 heads, the Sony A7RII could not sync beyond 1/125th of a second. That is about a full stop of lost flash sync compared to the Nikon which syncs at 1/250th and the Canon which syncs at 1/200th. According to Sony's website, the A7RII can sync up to 1/250 just like the Nikon but in the real world it is going to sync well below that shutter speed. In a future video we are going to test a few common speedlights and studio strobes to see what the actual flash sync is on the Sony but after reading a lot of reports online, it looks like the only system that will give you the full 1/250th of a second sync is the proprietary Sony flash system.
When I first got into photography I always had to have the latest and greatest technology. I thought it made my photography better. The truth is that technology is so good now that you could use almost any current camera to get amazing professional results. A few more megapixels or a stop of dynamic range isn't going to effect your pictures at all.
The Sony A7RII is a great camera. If you don't already have a lot of money invested in a camera system and 2.8 lenses aren't a necessity right now, the A7RII may be a fantastic choice. I just didn't feel like the Sony was able to outperform the DSLR competitors in an area other than 4k video recording. That leads me to conclude that the A7RII isn't actually better than the D810 or 5DSR, it's just a really great smaller option.
Mirrorless cameras are the future and eventually this type of camera will be better in every way than our current DSLRs, but we aren't there yet. You may be tempted to jump ship on Canon or Nikon and move to the "newer" technology that Sony is producing but I can't recommend that. Nikon and Canon will eventually create an even better camera and you'll feel like switching back. This happens every 4 or 5 years.
Take a deep breath and know that your DSLR isn't obsolete. It still takes amazing pictures and it will for quite some time.