One year after the announcement of the original Sony Alpha a7, the new Sony a7II takes calculated steps towards improving function and ergonomics in their full-frame compact system camera series. With its revised exterior design now fashioning a pronounced grip with a DSLR-like forward-angled shutter button as well as the internal introduction of five-axis sensor-shift image stabilization, Sony turns their base model a7 into a not-so-basic specialist of its own. In this Fstoppers review, I examine the good and bad of how the Sony a7II performs with real-world use.
Prior to the release of the a7II, Sony’s full-frame mirrorless line included three camera bodies. The two specialists in this line, the Sony a7R which packs a high-resolution 36.4MP sensor and the Sony a7S known for its incredible low-light video performance, are both more or less seen as the “professional” versions on top of the non-specialist jack-of-all-trades Sony a7 base model. But now with the release of the Sony a7II, it seems that there is no longer one base model camera and two specialists, but rather three distinct specialists all having equal worth requiring a bit more introspection to decide what is the right buy.
Departing from the matched exterior design of the Sony a7, a7R, and a7S, the a7II consists of a thicker body to contain the five-axis SteadyShot INSIDE stabilization and has a noticeably deeper grip. Some buttons have been added, moved, and refined over the previous design standard. Featuring a full magnesium alloy body and stainless steel mount, the overall construction of the Sony a7II feels very solid while handling it. The matte black finish looks gorgeous, especially when compared side-by-side with the other Sony a7 series cameras which have a glossier finish. While still slimmer than comparable DSLRs, the Sony a7II fits in your hand very similarly thanks to the protruding grip. There’s also an accented flange on the backside of the body for your thumb to hold against that makes carrying the camera down at your side a pleasure. It’s a simple and smart ergonomic design that allows you to grip the body with less exertion while carrying it, but still maintain an similar feeling of control.
I find the button layout to be quite nice and allows for quick access to many different options. Unless I miscounted, there are 20 separate control buttons right at your fingertips, with many of them being customizable in the menu system. Speaking of the menu system, it’s archaic at best with long lists, confusingly abridged wording, and graphical icons that don't really help narrow things down. This actually makes me pretty happy to see so many physical controls because the less time I have to rummage around in the menu, the better. Good news is that after programming the camera’s buttons with the controls you prefer to have at your fingertips, you really don’t see the menu system much at all. For me personally, I ran out of menu control settings I needed programmed to the buttons which actually left me with a surplus of buttons to customize. To me, that’s an OK problem to have.
Looking more closely at the buttons on the Sony a7II, the actual construction and tactility of most of them is pleasant. The tension in the exposure compensation dial is spot-on perfect. The embedded dials on the front of the grip and on the top rear have distinct stops to them at each click in the dial, but I would have preferred if they were even more pronounced. These two dials are typically going to be controlling your shutter speed and aperture, and I found that once in awhile I would rotate the clicks too far when changing these settings (and almost always did so when gloves were on). The biggest issue in controls, however, is the flat scroll dial on the camera’s backside. While I love that this small area has the ability to control six different customizable things (up, down, left, right, center button, and scroll wheel), it starts to fall apart once you realize how easy it is to accidentally press one of the buttons when scrolling the wheel. The fix seems simple enough, make the four directional buttons stiffer to press, or a deeper compression to activate, but alas it is how it is at the moment. Accidental button presses in this area happen to me every single time I’m out using the camera, and it always takes me valuable seconds to figure out which button I accidentally pressed, press it again to undo whatever unwanted thing I caused, get back to scrolling to my intended setting (ISO speed in my case), and then finally shoot my subject.
The weight drop from a comparable DSLR to the Sony a7II is enough to make you smile if that’s where you are coming from. With the Sony a7II coming in at 1.22 pounds, the weight of your lens is essentially what determines everything in this department, and perhaps more specifically, if you’re using a telephoto lens or not. I find that any lens that I own that isn’t my Sony FE 70–200mm f/4 is basically a non-issue when it comes to being a carrying burden. There’s really no discernible difference between slinging a Sony a7II with the FE 55mm attached over your shoulder and carrying around a tiny compact camera in the same fashion. The weight reaches that point where it’s the same all-day-carry comfortable feel.
Five-Axis Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization
The biggest new feature that has everyone talking is the five-axis sensor-shift image stabilization. While not the first mirrorless camera to incorporate the technology, it is the first full-frame camera to break ground and equip one. Basically, the image sensor is “floating” within the body of the camera and moves to compensate for movement in the five axes of X, Y, yaw, pitch, and roll. Many photographers are excited about this feature being placed in a full-frame camera because that means any lens ever made, with the right adapter (for which there are plenty), has now magically upgraded to have image stabilization. Sony claims their SteadyShot INSIDE technology in the a7II can compensate 4.5-stops worth with stabilization. I didn’t rig up some elaborate lab tests to see if that was truly the case, but I can tell you that from using the lens like a human being that I’m in love with having the stabilization in-body. It certainly changes the way you interpret the light around you, because now you are capable of shots that required different settings or different lighting conditions to pull off. However, it is important to realize the limitations of stabilization. It isn’t a true substitute for good low-light ISO performance. With image stabilization inside the Sony a7II, yes you can pull off shots with less available light, but if your subject is in motion, the stabilization will not help you. This is in contrast to say the Sony a7S which can shoot quality images at high shutter speeds in low-light situations because of its excellent ISO performance.
Image stabilization in the Sony a7II is the bee’s knees, but it does come with a price. You may have heard that battery performance on the Sony a7 series is nothing to write home about, and that’s true. It’s not crippling, but carrying at least one spare battery is standard practice because of it. Now with the Sony a7II and the sensor physically moving about to compensate your movements, the battery life has gotten even worse. It’s difficult for me to judge exactly how much worse because winter temperatures here in Wisconsin wipe out batteries at an accelerated rate, but compared to my Sony a7R I wasn’t getting near the same mileage in the same cold conditions. Rationally speaking though, this isn’t a terribly huge issue. The solution is to have spares on-hand, which are small, light, and relatively inexpensive ($49.95). Battery life isn’t something that actively kills your picture-taking experience if you know what you’re dealing with and simply carry a spare in preparation.
Capable of recording 1080p video at 60fps, the Sony a7II is about what one would expect for the price point and “general use” classification in 2015. It features an HDMI output as well as external microphone and headphone jacks. While it is lacking in 4K recording capabilities, Sony did add the XAVC S codec to this camera which records at 50mb/s. Recording with XAVC S requires faster SDXC memory cards with at least 64GB storage capacity. Therefore, the 16GB SanDisk Extreme memory cards I own were incompatible to play around with this. However, the results of recording in 1080p at 60fps look very good to my admittedly hobbyist eye of video. When recording handheld in a stationary position, the SteadyShot image stabilization works very well to maintain a fluid motion as you pan around, and is very capable of holding down a static shot. If you are in motion as you record, the SteadyShot really doesn’t offer serious help other than taking out the tiny hand tremors. Recording 1080p 60fps on my iPhone 6 Plus and walking around looks almost like it was shot with a Steadicam setup, whereas doing the same with the Sony a7II shows much more obvious stepping and XY movement. Shooting video with image stabilization turned on also sucks down the battery at a rapid pace. If you’re shooting video more frequently, it would probably be wise to pick up a battery grip for the Sony a7II so that you have two batteries ready to go. If you’re actually quite serious about video, I’d also consider finding the money to pay for the pricier Sony a7S which can output 4K and has phenomenal low-light performance as we’ve showcased a number of times on Fstoppers.
Going into the review, I was excited to see how the autofocus faired against the sad performance of the Sony a7R I own. The Sony a7II has a hybrid autofocus system, which means it relies on both 117-points of phase-detection as well as 25-points of contrast detection. Sony says that the autofocus speed has increased 30 percent over the original a7. I don’t know if I simply can’t shake my previous experience with Nikon DSLRs or what, but autofocus with the a7II still left something to be desired. I can readily tell that it works faster and more accurately locks in to the right spot over my a7R, but it still isn’t as fast as comparable DSLRs selling today. It isn’t all bad though. With fair lighting and unobscured distinct objects to focus on, it hits focus points just as well as any other camera I’ve owned in the past few years, it just takes slightly longer to get there. Honestly though, that’s pretty interesting when you hold a Sony a7II in one hand and a beefy DSLR in the other. I think the autofocus performance of the Sony a7II will be good enough for many users, novice and professional alike, but those who pay their bills by getting sharp photos of fleeting moments in time may want to consider holding off.
One of my favorite treats with the Sony a7II is how well manual focusing with any lens is handled. Between focus peaking, focus assist, having the viewfinder display directly off the image sensor, and image stabilization, this is the camera you want if you love manual focus lenses. Being mostly a nature and landscape shooter, I usually have time on my hands to manual focus many of my shots. After using Sony’s focus assist and focus peaking, I would never want to use a camera at length without those features. With added image stabilization, you’re going to be able to pinpoint sharp focus even faster because there is less handshake movement while holding the camera.
The Sony a7II is currently priced at $1,698 from B&H which makes it $400 less than the $2,098 Sony a7R ($2,298 minus $200 instant savings) and $800 less than the $2,498 Sony a7S. While the original Sony a7 hasn’t been explicitly discontinued yet, most retailers price it the same as the a7II but then offer around $400 instant savings making it $1,298. If you aren’t pinching every last penny trying to get into the a7 line, we can safely disregard the original Sony a7 due to the vast improvements made in the a7II for $400 difference.
Looking at the Sony full-frame a7 line, the pricing of the a7II is certainly favorable towards its targeted customer. Comparing the a7II to the a7R, the $400 bridge between them seems larger than it should. Sure, with the a7R the sensor increases from 24.3MP to 36.4MP with no optical low-pass filter, but the trade-off in going with the a7II is five-axis sensor-shift image stabilization, all-around improvements to body ergonomics, faster hybrid 117-point phase-detection autofocus on top of the shared 25-point contrast-detection autofocus they both have, higher-quality XAVC S video and S-Log2 gamma ability, electronic first curtain shutter, squeezes in one more frame-per-second (5FPS over 4FPS), faster flash sync-speed (1/250 over 1/160), and a better stainless steel lens mount instead of the a7R two-piece metal and plastic junk that I replaced. This all really makes one question how much of a must-have the 36.4MP sensor is. Obviously different photographers are swayed in their camera choices by different features, but even the owners of the product and landscape-friendly a7R have to admit a lot is being passed up on in coming to their decision. This is why it’s surprising that the a7II doesn’t come equally priced as the a7R. The decision between the a7II and the a7S is more clear-cut; If you’re even a bit serious about videography, your eyes should be aimed at the a7S if staying within the a7 lineup.
There are also some “hidden” costs to be aware of. When you purchase the Sony a7II body, it doesn’t come with any batteries or a standalone battery charger (the adapter included with the Sony a7II hooks the camera up to the wall to charge). These aren’t major money pitfalls, but just know that you’ll probably spend an extra $100 on top of the cost of the body to get yourself going.
What I Liked
- In-body five-axis image stabilization works incredibly well for photos.
- The ergonomics are great. It fits well in your hand thanks to the beefy grip and is an all-around positive experience carrying it.
- The new forward-angled DSLR-like shutter button feels excellent to use.
- There are plentiful customizable buttons on the body.
- The all metal lens mount keeps the lenses feeling stiff and non-wobbly when mounted, a problem that some of the original Sony a7 and Sony a7R bodies have.
- Favorable price compared to the other cameras in the Sony a7 line.
What Could Be Improved
- Battery life suffers when using image stabilization.
- The menu system is complicated. You're going to be reading the manual with this one.
- Wheel-dial button refinement to avoid accidental presses when cycling the wheel.
- Image stabilization for video is good when you are stationary, but slacks when you are in motion.
- Cheap feeling accessory doors when compared to the quality of the rest of the body.
If you’ve previously read over the camera specs for the Sony a7II and they intrigued you, but you’ve been holding off for whatever reason, I’m telling you that there is nothing to fear by purchasing the Sony a7II. The Sony a7II delivers a barrage of awesome features and terrific well-rounded performance that amateur and professional photographers will appreciate. Having image stabilization in conjunction with a full-frame sensor is something that excites you every time you go shoot because it gets to be used universally across your lens arsenal. The exterior body design is also the best yet from the Sony a7 series and will feel quite familiar to those who are hopping the fence from DSLR camera systems, albeit much smaller and lighter. Priced at $1,698 and available now, the Sony a7II is a camera that is ready to accept your creative challenges.