Fstoppers Reviews the Groundbreaking Sony Alpha a7II Full-Frame Camera

Fstoppers Reviews the Groundbreaking Sony Alpha a7II Full-Frame Camera

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.

Build Quality

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.

Buttons

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.

Weight

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.

Features

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.

Battery Life

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.

Video

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.

Autofocusing

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.

Manual Focusing

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.

Price

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.

Log in or register to post comments

27 Comments

Not to be pedantic but it's either the Alpha 7II or the a7II, the a stands for alpha.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I think I just sprained my eyes.

Ryan Mense's picture

Right on, but for purposes of how the silly web works it's beneficial to throw in both at least once. That's why (besides the title) I only reference it once like that in the article. I'm hoping most people can look past that :)

Spy Black's picture

I liked that Sony paid attention and moved the shutter release button forward. The ergonomic feel of the previous camera was an immediate "no" for me because of that shutter release button. Overall, certainly looks like good evolution all around. I'm surprised it only has one card slot however. Generally speaking, a lot more attractive now.

That's the big thing I don't like about the a7II. Moving the shutter release negated theability to reverse a grip and trigger it comfortably with a thumb for low the ground shots.

Also, the older ss/a dials are way better on the a7.

No 4K video is the biggest disappointment! Bombarding us with so many models, none of them perfect, it is a strategy that baffles me! Also the lack of an upgrade plan, makes all Sony cameras obsolete after 6 month! This happened to my 7R that I replaced with a Panasonic GH4, a marvel of technology, ergonomics, menu setup and incredible 4K video.

ALEXANDER TARDIF's picture

Huh?
Would you rather have more options, or less options when it comes to choosing...well, anything! "None of them are perfect"... could you point us to the "perfect" camera plz? How, exactly, does your camera become obsolete in 6 months again? You mean by ongoing release of fantastic new glass in various FLs? And finally, if you're replacing A7R with a GH4, well, buddy, I'd equate that move to replacing asparagus with bananas in your salad.

If you were looking for 4K video, why didn't you buy A7S and chose A7R in the first place? And you replaced it with GH4? I'm not saying GH4 is a bad camera, it sure does a decent job with 4K video but... it is mediocre with photo quality. Strange choice

Sony continues on the correct path, the only part that I don't agree with this review is the AF section. I have seen on videos how well the camera auto focus, and yes I understand that the top dslrs are still better but for what I have seeing that is enough for the majority of professional work (except the most extreme) I seriously doubt that the a7II has a worst AF than the 5D mrk II or the original 5D and they were the industry standard for wedding and studio photography for over 6 years

Ryan Mense's picture

What I wrote matches up exactly with your points, doesn't it? We both agree top DSLRs are still better and we both agree the a7II would work for the majority of pro work. What part are we disagreeing with?

Bavarian DNA's picture

He maybe referring to your statement that pro photogs will have problems with the AF. In his opinion that they shouldn't, if this is the case I do disagree with Allan.

Pros may have no problem using it for studio work, micro and landscape pholography, in general you will have no problems in less movement environment and decent low light.

Now to the article itself, Ryan, thank you for this nice article. You did a nice job reviewing this camera. I like this camera size and compactness, if just I can install Nikons system on it, I would buy it in a heart beat.

Anyways it is a matter processing engine taste, not because I'm loyal to any brand, I'm not :)

I will have to make some test, low light AF it's great (amazing improvement from my Canon), but I need to test movement, something like a dance on a dark salon or a person walking on a dark church to really know, I hope that I'm right and this camera is going to be more than enough for weddings and events

Yes we agree, my comment was more for the last part "but those who pay their bills..." make me feel like this camera is still not up for professional work and I wanted to make a comparison between the old vs the new, But in fact your article was the cherry on the top for my decision and I made the switch from Canon to Sony I received it yesterday and I'm so happy right now

Anonymous's picture

Like I said in my comment below, the focus is faster in normal light setting son the A7 II, but even the Mark II kicks the A7's but focusing in low light situations.

While I never compared the two side by side, I find the a7ii has excellent af performance in any light. You just have to get used to the orange beam that it shoots out. the 24-70 f4 is a good all around lens, but this camera really shines when you mount Leica m lenses to it.

I hope someone comes out with a 135 prime with autofocus. I may have to get the alpha adapter to bide my time.

I just received it yesterday and I have to disagree. The a7II AF performs great at low light, far better than the 5D mrk II, at first I had some problems, but after playing a little with the settings the AF was very fast and almost always nailing the focus, even in low contrast and low light, I took this photo in a completely dark room with my monitor screen being the only light source (on top of the keyboard is the lens cap, that was the focus point) the 5D was completely lost and never found something to focus on

cranking the levels on Photoshop you can see that the camera nail the focus

Get the Sony 135/1.8.It is a match for the Zeiss 135/2 APO. It trades shots, but it gives you af. Stunningly good.

Anonymous's picture

I've been shooting with this bad boy all week now.

The ergonomics are FANTASTIC, the button placements are supper natural. I got it with the 55mm 1.8 Zeiss lens, and I've never seen such sharp images shooting wide open, blows my Mark III with the 85mm L 1.2 out of the water on sharpness. It also handles noise like a beast. Completely in love with this camera. The one major downfall though is it needs A LOT of light to focus. it really struggles to focus in low light situations which is unfortunate, but so far is my only beef with it.

Ryan Mense's picture

With my a7R, I typically start Lightroom noise reduction at 10 for 100 ISO. With the a7II I always seemed to be around 6 or 8 at the same ISO level. I wasn't able to really tell if it was good with noise or if it was the optical low-pass filter, which the a7R doesn't have, buffing some of it out.

Anonymous's picture

I'm just comparing it to my Mark II and Mark III, and it seems to preform way better with handling noise than both of them, it's just the focusing in low light thats killing me. I like to shoot wide open, so I keep my studio darker so I don't get ambient light in the image. I tried throwing on a ND filter, and still same thing, it had a hard time finding something to focus on.

Anonymous's picture

Over all I'd recommend someone buy the a7II over the Mark III any day though.

Bavarian DNA's picture

Ok, are you used to do the same reduction when you used to use DSLR gear? I tried both the a6000 and the A7R and what caught my attention is that my Nikon is producing a much cleaner image at various ISO levels, I really thought that I'm doing something wrong with Sony camera settings and that I didn't install the proper Sony driver. I really wanted to like this cute compact camera. But I think that Sony processing engine is what I'm not used to.

I switched from A99 to A7II and I ditched my beloved A-mount Carl-Zeiss lenses while doing so. I don't regret this decision. Now I have Zeiss 55 1.8, 35 1.8 and 2470 4.0 which all do the job, especially 55 and 35. What I suffer most is focus settings in A7ii. I have been a Sony user since A230 was introduced and I am very familiar with Alpha system. However, I miss the focus region setting in A99 where I had 3 options and although they were mostly in the center of the frame, it was easier to manage because it did cover where I wanted to focus in the first hand. A7ii has a similar option but the region you chose is almost half of the frame and it's a hit and miss most of the time. The lock-on flexible AF (which is a small square to focus first and then to pan and tilt later on) is good but when shooting people in motion, I feel like I have to change the targeted AF point for every shot.
The batteries are not that strong but I cannot say they are weak. I shoot 600-700 photos in one charge in warm weather and it is enough.

I just pulled the trigger on the a7ll, and anxiously await its arrival. Can anyone clarify how the RAW files are compressed and what that mean in regards to post production work flow? I see a few references to 11+7 compression, but am unclear about a real world application. Is anyone unsatisfied with the RAW images from the sony a7ll?

Sony RAWs are still captured in 14bit but are compressed in camera using a 11+7bit lossy algorithm, which does lose some information but in my experience in real world applications it hasn't been anything to worry about, Sony's RAW files still capture a tremendous amount of detail and stack up well with Nikon with resolution, colour depth and dynamic range. I just upgraded from an A77ii to an A7ii a few weeks ago and the RAW files are some of the best I've worked with from a Sony camera.

Adrian Lyons's picture

"Image stabilization for video is good when you are stationary, but slacks when you are in motion." that made me chuckle. Of course you would only want to have image stabilization when you're mounted on a tripod!