Sony a7rII – Mirrorless Camera Review

The Sony a7rII restored my faith in photography 🙂

This is a review of the Sony a7rII camera I have owned since release; I pre-ordered when it was first announced. It is my favourite camera to date. Before buying the Sony a7rII, I had previously owned a Canon 5D mk III. It was a great camera at the time, especially due to its fast autofocus system, ergonomics, and its great lens and accessories selection. There were a few things that lead me away from the Canon 5D mk III and partly from photography in general. I felt somewhat uncomfortable using the Canon 5D mk III in public because of its large size: people would stare at it. It was rather cumbersome and if I made a spur of the minute decision to go out, it would often stay at home; this applies to the Canon 5D mk IV and my argument is still relevant, in my opinion. At the time, I thought the image quality was great and I didn’t really have a problem with it. I didn’t enjoy the experience enough, and a little while after selling my equipment I missed having a camera. I then began to look for a smaller camera, but it was hard to find something with the image quality of a decent DSLR. I knew I would get irritated if I bought a camera that offered me less than what I had before. I’ve seen a few photographers “downgrade” to micro four thirds for example, and I’m glad they’re happy, but that’s not for me.

Choosing the right camera can be challenging and a somewhat daunting task, especially if it’s with a completely different brand to what you’re used to. Mirrorless cameras have been shaking up the photography scene for quite a while now and the Sony a7rII in my opinion was the first camera to truly beat a DSLR (it doesn’t beat it at everything). The Sony a7r had various issues you’d expect from a first generation camera and the Sony a7II is good but its autofocus isn’t great and its image quality isn’t good enough to brag about–it is still very good, don’t get me wrong, and it’s a reasonably priced camera. At the time of release, there simply wasn’t a full-frame camera to match the image sensor of the Sony a7rII–this is still somewhat the case, one year later.

I plan to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern America and this plan has been delayed repeatedly; should this plan fall through (I will know roughly around September 2017), I will be travelling across Canada or at least somewhere miles from home. My camera research and decision making has been hugely effected by a dream. When I bought the Sony a7rII, I knew I wanted a camera that had great resolution for large prints, good colours, good ISO performance, and it’d be small enough that I would use it regularly in my day to day living. Researching mirrorless cameras seemed like the obvious choice, but if you’re a wedding photographer or an action photographer, the decision becomes more complicated.

Roughly a year ago when I bought the Sony a7rII, I would have advised a wedding photographer to stick with their DSLR but the decision making process has become more and complicated by the lenses and accessories available. The Sony a9 has shaken things up too. I would look at the Sony a9 for wedding photography, but I believe it’s overpriced. I’m aware it’s cheaper than the competition, but I still think it’s overpriced.

The Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 GMaster lens, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GMaster lens, Sony 85mm f/1.4 GMaster lens, the recently announced wireless flash triggering system and even the Sony a7sII make welcome additions to a wedding photographer’s bag. In my opinion, I would use Godox flashes instead of the Sony, but if we are talking about going purely native here, Sony has introduced it’s first radio controlled wireless flash.

For those unfamiliar with Sony, there are five main things you should know:

  • Sony produce amazing image sensors
  • Sony’s partnered with Zeiss
  • Sony’s produced video cameras for years and their mirrorless cameras are crammed with electronics; their experience as an electronics company benefits them; they aren’t simply a company that makes playstations–read about Hollywood and you’ll soon see this is true
  • DSLR innovations have plateaued, their sales have declined, the share prices of the companies that make them have declined, and mirrorless cameras are only going to get better and better
  • Sony’s products generally drop in price after a few months

When we buy into a new system, the amount of research we have to do simply depends on what we want the camera to achieve, what our current camera doesn’t achieve, and what money we hope to save or spend. Those unfamiliar with Sony might not be aware of how they price their products–it’s not just with cameras–ever since I can remember, Sony have always had expensive items that soon became cheaper; they justified this by saying it pays for “development” costs. Personally, I don’t like this strategy, it doesn’t reward the early customer–it hits them in the face–and it gives you a certain amount of grief a few months down the line. This trend has arguably been broken in the UK, as the Sony a7rII has been holding it’s price quite well. You can generally assume Sony will reduce prices at a quicker period than Canon and Nikon, etc.

Sony a7rII  Features

These features at the time of researching seemed important to me, for my trip. After owning the camera for a while, some of my opinions have changed.

Constant autofocus during video

I am not hugely into videography; however, I thought that if I were to hike 2,600+ miles, it would be foolish to assume I won’t video anything. Once I bought the camera, reality hit me in the face and I realised I love manual focusing. Before buying the camera, I imagined it from a DSLR perspective, but it’s much easier than focusing a DSLR. I’m glad I have the option of both however, as I’m not exactly good at videography.

Manual focus aids

This feature is everything I imagined it to be, and manual focus aids are highly important to me. You can use a split prism screen on a DSLR but it’s messy (I’ve tried them before, and they’re difficult to implement without getting dust inside the camera; they also mess up the light metering capabilities of the camera).

I believe that manual focus is essential for wide angle landscape shots, and the Sony a7rII has an easy to use zoom feature–it is not perfect. I wish it would magnify near where your focus selector is and still show the rest of the frame. Fujifilm cameras do this. Magnifying the whole frame makes framing the shot rather difficult when you’re focusing. The Sony a7rII is considerably better than any DSLR when manual focusing, and it’s still excellent, I just wish they’d make it perfect and implement some kind of split focus system.

Charge the battery or power the camera from a USB power source

The Sony a7rII is an extremely strange camera when it comes to battery life. On one hand, it’s gimped by a 1,080 mAh Lithium-Ion battery–Sony should improve the battery technology–and on the other hand, it’s an extremely efficient camera that draws roughly 2.7 watts during shooting. In real world usage, you can expect to get roughly 500 shots from one battery if you use the viewfinder or the monitor (the screen on the back of the camera): a DSLR can give vastly different results depending on your shooting style.

  • Do you only use the viewfinder?
  • Do you do street photography?
  • Do you do a lot of landscape photography?

After using the Sony a7rII for a while, I can safely say I use the monitor a lot. Before I owned this camera, if you criticised the battery life of the 5D mk III when using live view, I would have said “who cares?”, “who uses live view? or “everyone uses the viewfinder”. DSLRs have terrible autofocus when using live view and they rarely have tiltable screens unlike the Sony a7rII. There are definitely advantages to using the screen on the back of a camera when shooting landscape photographs. I’d viewed this from the perspective of a DSLR, but upon owning the Sony a7rII since release, I can say that my perspective has changed.

I’ve written an extensive article regarding the battery life of the Sony a7rII: http://photochirp.com/information/sony-a7rii-camera-battery-and-gps-solution/. It is a huge subject to cover and I would suggest reading it and drawing your own conclusions. The too long, didn’t read version: the battery life can be greatly extended by using a cheap USB power bank and for those where this is an option, I suggest carrying a couple of batteries.

As a side note, the Sony a7rII comes with a tool that lets you fix a cable to the camera. The instruction manual says it’s for HDMI and while this is true, it doesn’t mention that it also clamps power cords. This is great news as far as I am concerned.

 

Canon 5DSRThe above is taken from a Canon 5D mk III manual, here you can see that the Canon battery weighs twice at much, it’s almost twice the capacity and its live view performance is actually less than the Sony. If you’re a landscape photographer that uses live view a lot, mirrorless will give you a better battery life. I wouldn’t suggest using the viewfinder for landscape photography on a DSLR because the focus is inaccurate, plus it can be annoying when mounted to a tripod.

 

Sony a7rIII’ve found that I can take more photographs than what is depicted here but these are straight from the user manual.

 

Sony Power Consumption

As you can see, its power consumption is considerably less than a DSLR. The DSLR has a longer battery life in general because it’s not constantly displaying information to a monitor; however, when it uses electricity, it uses a lot (it has an extra autofocus sensor and most DSLRs have extra processors too). This means that if you were able to attach a solar panel directly to the camera, like you can with a Sony, it would not benefit you in the same way as the wattage is too high. You can read about attaching a solar panel to the Sony a7rII in a separate review I did of the Solar Paper: http://photochirp.com/reviews/solar-paper-lightweight-usb-solar-panel/.

Stabilisation

Stabilisation is not something that I find absolutely essential all of the time, but if you are cold and shaking, it is extremely useful. It is also great for taking simple videos too. Stabilisation isn’t just useful for steadying the camera during the exposure, but it helps to steady you when framing the shot. At first, I believed I might have preferred an even smaller and lighter camera to in body image stabilisation but it is very, very nice. The camera balances nicely with the prime lenses I own.

Wi-fi

Wi-fi is extremely useful for uploading photographs to a phone when you’re travelling. It’s not implemented that well due to the software, but Canon’s native alternative is ridiculously expensive. The phone app allows me to tag the photographs using the phone’s GPS–the main use for this is with taking JPG travel photographs. It’s extremely easy to upload a photograph to flickr, but I would like to see an Instagram app.

GPS

The Sony a7rII lacks GPS and subsequently you cannot geotag photographs with the Sony a7rII alone. GPS units built into cameras are pointless as they eat batteries and the sensors are inaccurate and annoying as you have to wait for them to find a satellite. Sometimes I think simplicity benefits a product–Sony already struggle with menu systems. A much better alternative if you have lightroom is to use a GPS watch and merge the log file with the photograph. If you’re taking a JPG and need the GPS coordinates immediately, then the phone can be used. A hot shoe GPS accessory might be nice for some people and perhaps Sony would consider it in the future, but to be honest I don’t see anyone complaining once they have tried the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire or the Garmin Fenix 5x.

On the fly white balance

The OLED viewfinder allows me to get a good estimate as to what the white balance should be set at. The OLED is not completely accurate, but you can definitely get the whitebalance in the right ballpark. Grey cards are good in some situations but they simply neutralise colour; if you are in a place with blue lighting and you want to capture that blue lighting, then a grey card is not going to be of use at all. I don’t claim to be a great photographer (far from it), but technically speaking, my photographs are exposed correctly and I haven’t had any issues with the white balance (I must confess to using the auto white balance quite a lot as it’s extremely good).

Silent shutter

Americans that read this are probably cringing right now. In most cases, the volume of the shutter doesn’t matter, but when it does matter, it really matters i.e. inside Churches. I haven’t ever found I’ve used this feature much. It works as advertised. I live in England, and other than ginermous 0.5 inch spiders (I’m pretty sure they’re proof hell exists), there’s no scary creatures. I’m not sure if the shutter volume would alarm any dangerous creatures found in other countries but I would assume not.

Sony a7rII quirks

The spot metering meters from the centre and not from the focus point (same with 99% of DSLRs), but that is not an issue. The metering lock feature is better than Canon’s and the focus compensation dial is considerably more useful. I think it wouldn’t hurt Sony to link spot metering with the focus point and they should be slapped for not doing so, but pragmatically speaking it doesn’t matter 99% of the time.

The menu system is crazy, there’s video options in the photography menus and it’s just a complete mess. The menus themselves are easily remembered if you use them frequently, but they aren’t logical at all. I know where everything is as I’ve memorised it, and I don’t struggle with finding things, but they still take extra button presses because they’re a complete mess. I would like to be able to have crop mode automatically enabled in video but disabled for photography. It’s a small software problem that’ll likely not get implemented but it would be nice. I don’t see why the camera doesn’t have any buttons to the left of the camera (left of the viewfinder). Certain functions don’t get memorised for “C1” or “C2”, for example, if I want electronic first curtain shutter disabled or if I want crop mode to be enabled, it won’t store in that specific memory. This makes switching between still photography and videography even more of a pain, but at least you can save the Picture Profiles e.g. SLOG 2, to the “C1” and “C2” modes.

I’ve found the exposure compensation dial far more useful than I realised I would. I also like that it has a button on the top of the PASM dial. However, I don’t know why these PASM dials still exist on any camera. I don’t think anyone changes the mode frequently enough to warrant there being a dial for it–it might as well be an option in the camera. I would prefer a user customizable dial but that’s just my opinion. I am nitpicking, and I cannot stress enough how fun this camera is to shoot with.

I think it’s a shame there’s no dual card slot option as redundancy is important for a lot of photographers. I believe this subject is somewhat like a broken leg e.g. “I haven’t ever broken a leg” or “my leg was fine until I broke it”. It won’t take up much of a lawyers time (you can probably write it yourself) to edit your contract to state you aren’t liable for a cards failure; however, if you’re photographing someone’s wedding, do you want to be responsible for their unhappiness in the event a card fails? USB-C and specifically USB 3.1 changes this somewhat. I’m hoping to see phones act as viable backup solutions; USB 2.0 isn’t quick enough for my liking, and some phones with USB-C still use USB 2.0. USB 3.1 offers extremely fast transfer speeds ~ Look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 if you want a portable backup solution.

Who should buy the Sony a7rII

If you’re a professional portrait photographer and the lens selection is suitable, I think I would prefer this camera (aside from the dual card issue) to many DSLRs. The focus is slower in certain situations but it’s far easier to nail critical focus. For action photography, I don’t think it’s as good and I would consider the Sony a9. I’m not a Sony fanboy, I simply think they’ve cornered the full-frame market right now. If you don’t find this suitable for portraiture, I don’t know what would satisfy you. Perhaps medium format.

As I hope you can tell from this review, I knew what I wanted from a camera, and it hasn’t disappointed me at all. For those that aren’t sure what they want out of a camera, it is definitely worth considering, but you shouldn’t forget DSLRs.

Improvements I’d like to be made to the Sony a7rII

I have written a post regarding the improvements I wish to be made via a firmware update.

My biggest complaints are with the menus, the batteries, and the dual card redundancy. The biggest thing to take away from this review is that it’s an extremely fun and lightweight camera to use.

Flash photography with the Sony a7rII

Mirrorless cameras in general haven’t received as much attention from third party manufacturers regarding flash photography, in comparison to DSLRs. The native options are rarely as good as the competition too i.e. Canon and Nikon. Sony have been taken more seriously to other mirrorless manufactuers, for example, Broncolor, Profoto and Elinchcrom all have remote triggers for their flash systems–flash photography doesn’t get better than these companies.

Godox, Nissin and a few other companies produce reasonable speedlights. When I bought the Sony a7rII, I thought the flash photography options available were diabolical, but this has soon changed and it’s helped people take mirrorless cameras more seriously in general.

Elinchrom support Sony with their Sony Skyport trigger; this should make studio photographers pleased. Broncolor have–up until very recently–favoured medium format leaf shutters with their fully manual triggers; however, during Photokina 2016 they announced support for Sony, Canon and Nikon; the results with the Sony a7rII compared to a DSLR should be the same–HyperSync works for all three companies. This gives Sony a huge advantage compared to Fujifilm, especially when we factor into account the sensor size.

The Profoto B1 and B2 now have an air-remote to support Sony, and Sony themselves have announced a radio controlled wireless flash triggering system: FA-WRC1M and FA-WRR1.  The FA-WRC1M radio commander has a ridiculously expensive RRP of £350, and the FA-WRR1 radio receiver will probably dent the pocket too. Sony prices tend to drop soon after release and the GBP is currently in disarray.

The 600EX-RT is better built than a Nissin flash but it is only a matter of time before Sony counter it, especially now that they have released their own triggering system. If manual flash is suitable, there’s quite a few options there too. The Sony flashes are archaic–using light to trigger them is an abysmal idea. HSS for studio strobes isn’t as important as profo… some companies would have you believe right now and nor is ETTL. There are definitely times HSS is beneficial e.g. whenever you have some ambient light and the subject blurs at normal sync speed.

Typically speaking, HSS and HS are slightly different. HSS tends to fire a set of flashes all in one go, and this gives the illusion of firing one long flash. HS can make the flash fire for the entire duration of the exposure–either method tends to work the same in practical use.

I’ve perhaps over-complicated this a bit. If you want speedlights, get a bunch of Godox flashes and don’t look back. If you want studio strobes, you’re in luck–the three best companies support Sony.

I really like the Godox TT600S and the Godox TT685S. I would like to buy the Godox TT350S at some point too.

Conclusion

The Sony a7rII does a lot of things right. It has a great autofocus (it’s not as good as a DSLR for the most part but in some situations it’s outright better; its eye autofocus is brilliant) system. The negatives of the camera can mostly be overcome e.g battery life. It’s small but still comfortable, and the weight makes a huge difference if you’re carrying it for a day. The flash options were an issue but they’ve been resolved, and this gives Sony a huge advantage over other mirrorless manufacturers such as Leica or even Fuji.

I’ve mentioned every negative I can think of, because I think those are the possible deal breakers for people, those are the things that a sponsored reviewer won’t necessarily mention. I think that highlighting negatives causes manufacturers to try harder. However, it is a camera that’s always fun to take with me, it doesn’t ever weigh me down, the dynamic range is better than what I was used to, and I find it a lot of fun to use–this should not be understated. You can leave it in the grass and use a phone as the remote shutter; simple things like this seem like gimmicks, but they really aren’t.

When I research electronics, I look up the specifications and try to make my own conclusions after reading millions of reviews; however, I often ignore the subjective. With camera reviews, I had read “the best camera is the one you have with you” and “a better camera won’t take a better photograph” over and over–to the point it became frustrating. Such statements don’t help you make legitimate comparisons, and people that already recognise photography is a skill don’t need reminding. Unfortunately, because some people blindly defend a company, even when that company is in the wrong, it makes it hard to filter honesty from dishonesty. Likewise when the reverse happens i.e. when people blindly hate a company for design decisions they don’t understand, they should be ignored.

What I noticed especially with this camera, which I didn’t notice when switching from a crop DSLR to a full frame DSLR, is how different the whole experience felt. Things I thought I’d never need because they were implemented so badly before, I now realise I couldn’t live without. It is not something someone like me would believe or could imagine, and therefore, I don’t expect others to. If you are interested in this model, my advice is to either rent it, borrow it, or buy from a shop that lets you return it. The spec sheet is impressive enough you should have an interest in it, but it won’t tell you how it feels to walk ten miles and not feel pain.

The weight advantage

If you look at my Pacific Crest Trail Gear List, you’ll see that I was able to create a kit that lets me charge my camera and take great landscape photographs with a minimal amount of weight. The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8, the equivalent lens to the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8, weighs a lot more. The Canon 50mm f/1.2 isn’t a complete equivalent to the Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 because it has a wider aperture, but it is a lot heavier. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 simply isn’t as good and should be dismissed. The Canon body would weigh a lot more and the total would require a heavier, larger filter, and a much much heavier and larger tripod. DSLRs also have a much higher current draw in liveview, and for certain types of landscape photography, liveview is essential.

There’ll be those that argue the GM lenses make this camera heavy, but no one forces you to use them. A prime setup for landscapes and a bit of portraiture is still a lightweight system. It’s more modular than any DSLR.

If you’re looking for a tiny tripod, please look at an article I posted where I made my own miniature tripod suitable for mirrorless cameras.

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