Prior to last week’s announcement of the much-anticipated Sony a7R II ($3,198 – Order Here), I was given the chance to put Sony’s latest mirrorless fullframe camera through the paces for 48 hours in New York.
Upon their arrival in New York, Sony’s product team handed me a pre-production a7R II camera with black gaffer tape concealing all the revealing badges and running Firmware 0.01. They told me nothing about what to expect – they wanted me to shoot with it for a day and tell them what I thought.
42.4 MP Sensor
As soon as they handed me the camera I began digging into the menu looking for the file size. Half my friends were begging for a 50mp camera. The other half wanted “No more megapixels – just better high ISO performance.” So I wondered who would get their way. It turns out Sony decided to split the difference with a 42.4 megapixel sensor essentially splitting the difference between 36 and 50.
Sony Senior GM for Digital Imaging Kimio Maki explained 42.4 mp struck the perfect balance between resolution and sensitivity. Like the original a7R, a7R II has no anti-aliasing filter. It can deliver the finest detail AND ISO range expanded for better performance at high ISOs. SWEET!
Electronic Front Curtain Shutter + Silent Shooting
Unlike DSLRs, which simply open and close the shutter to record an exposure, mirrorless cameras must close and open the shutter at both the start and end of exposure. But Electronic Front Curtain Shutter (EFS) replaces that first close-open by electronically activating the sensor to start exposure. Due to its sensor readout speed , Sony a7R 36mp sensor it was not possible to enable EFS with a7R so I fully expected Sony a7R II to have EFS.
Two things surprised me.
First, while I expected a7 RII’s electronic front curtain shutter to be quieter than a7R shutter without EFS – but a7R II was audibly quieter than a7, a7S, a7II with EFS. I asked Sony’s Alpha Product Manager Kenta Honjo about this prior to the a7R II announcement and he confirmed I was correct. The a7R II shutter was indeed dampened. Not only is it quieter with less vibration, but the dampening is also expected to double the life of the shutter. SWEEEET!
Second, Sony didn’t stop with EFS. I was very pleasantly surprised to find Silent Shooting Mode in the a7R II Menu. Silent Shooting mode uses an electronic rolling shutter, and yes, Sony a7S has Silent Shooting Mode but it’s 12mp sensor means much less data needs to steam from the electronic rolling shutter. Sony a7R II Silent Shooting was possible because data streams off the a7R II Back-Illuminated Sensor 3.5 times faster than previous Sony sensors. (More about that later…)
Silent Shooting is great for golf and tennis photographers and anyone shooting on a film set or in a courtroom. But silent shutter isn’t my choice for portraits. The audible click of a shutter – even a quiet one – is very helpful feedback to the person in front of your lens. I tested this out on one of my favorite photo subjects who also preferred the quiet sound of EFS to the absolute silence of Silent Shutter. And who am I to argue with a master?
5-Axis Image Stabilization Optimized for 42.4 MP
No surprise here, as expected Sony a7R II adds 5-Axis Sensor-Shift Stabilization, just like it’s a7II sibling. With 5-Axis Sensor-Shift Stabilization, any lens you own – even lenses that could never have it before such as Leica and other legacy glass -can now be image stabilized on a7R II’s fullframe sensor both for still and video.
Sony A-mount camera bodies have had image stabilization since 2006. When E-mount was introduced, the goal was to make E-mount bodies as small and light as possible, so Sony chose to put image stabilization into lenses when possible. Great news is the a7R II body is a mere 10mm deeper than it’s predecessor.
It’s first worth mentioning what image stabilization can and cannot do. In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) can allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds without blur from camera movement – but it will not freeze subject movement. Image Stabilization won’t stop Usain Bolt in his tracks, but it will allow you to shoot images of a still subject in dim light at slower shutter speeds without camera movement.
The ISO Goes to 102,400!
While Sony a7S remains Sony’s low-light Beast, a7R II expands ISO to well-beyond the range most of us need. It’s native ISO range goes from ISO 100 to 25,600 – expandable down to 50 and up to a whopping 102,400. I rarely use the expanded range though I will use ISO 50 when I need to pull down exposure a stop without reaching for a ND filter.
World’s First Back-Illuminated Fullframe Sensor
Sony a7R II’s first ever Exmor R Back-illuminated structure (BSI) enhances light collection efficiency of this new 42.4-megapixel CMOS sensor. By moving the circuitry to the back of the sensor, it allows the photo diodes to sit closer to the gapless OCL. Moving circuitry to the back coupled with quick-transmission copper wiring outputs data 3.5 times faster, while moving the heat away from the photo diode to minimizing image noise to reveal fine details in every picture. Photographers who shoot extreme long exposure photography like my pal Thibault Roland are going to love this.
Fast Hybrid AF with 399 Phase Detect AF Points + 25 Contrast AF Points
This short video shows Fast Hybrid AF tracking better than I can describe it. Watch how the small green Phase Detect AF points track the subject around the track.
My favorite part is that the AF points cover much more sensor real estate than before.
Phase Detect AF for Sony A-Mount and Canon EF Lenses Too!
I totally was not expecting this. Every time I asked when On-Sensor Phase Detect would be able to focus DSLR lenses I was told, “Not yet – but we’re working on it,” so I figured we might see On-sensor Phase Detect AF sensors capable of fast focusing DSLR lenses in Sony a7-series Mark III cameras. But I truly didn’t expect to see it this soon!
I had a chance to test it out with Sony 300mm/F2.8 G II and Sony 500mm/F4 G lenses using a Sony LA-EA3 Lens Mount Adapter which now allows you to uses those 399 Phase-Detect focus points to drive Sony SSM and SAM lenses as fast as my A-Mount bodies focus.
In brief tests with Canon EF glass using Metabones, FotodioX and Viltrox Smart Adapters, AF is considerably faster than previous a7-series cameras. Not only is Continuous AF-C tracking possible with the lenses I tested – it’s fast! I’m waiting for a production a7R II with release firmware before I run more extensive tests to update my Canon EF Smart Adapter Compatibility Guide.
Internal 4K Recording and S-Log2 Gamma
Sony a7R II can record XVAC S 4K In-CAMERA 3840×2160 (30p/25p/24p) in 8-bit 4:2:0 using SDXC memory cards, or when using an external recorder like Atomos Shogun you can use clean HDMI output to record in 8-bit 4:2:2
Anyone looking to color grade their footage in post will appreciate the fact S-Log2 Gamma Picture Profile is included for the widest possible color gamut that allows you to capture detail both in the shadows and brightest highlights.
42-megapixel was also the best pixel size for optimal Super 35mm 4K picture quality movies oversampling 15 megapixels down to the eight-megapixel 4K size yielding picture quality better than a professional video cameras.
North Americans Can Finally Choose NTSC or PAL
The rest of the world could always do this. But now North American Sony a7R II cameras can FINALLY switch between NTSC and PAL movie recording modes. All I can say is, “About time!”
Shoot 4K and HD From Full-Frame Width or Super 35
Sony a7R II allows you to shoot Full HD or 4K using ether the full edge-to-edge width of the full-frame sensor or Super 35 crop mode. Super 35 down-samples from 15mp to 4K for improved video quality and virtually eliminates the “Jello Effect” that can occur when shooting movies with DSLRs. In addition to finding a balance between resolution and sensitivity, the decision to go with 42.4 MP as opposed to 45 or 50 mp had a lot to do with optimal down-sampling for video both from Fullframe and Super 35mm.
The EVF gets an update too with a new best-in-class 0.78x Tru-Finder that delivers a larger view than any cameras in the category. 1.0x magnification would be actual size of a 35mm frame. Previous a7-series cameras along with most fullframe optical viewfinders are around 0.70. That’s a much more visible improvement than the number of pixels. Zeiss T* coating have been added to an additional element for a sharper view especially at the edges – at least for eyeglass wearers like me.
In short, it’s Bigger and Clearer.
More Bracketing Modes
HDR shooters will LOVE this!
3 Image: 0.3 EV, 0.5 EV, 0.7 EV, 1.0 EV, 2.0 EV, 3.0 EV
5 Image: 0.3 EV, 0.5 EV, 0.7 EV, 1.0 EV, 2.0 EV, 3.0 EV
9 Image: 0.3 EV, 0.5 EV, 0.7 EV, 1.0 EV
Bracketing WITH SELF-TIMER
Yes, you are reading correctly. It is now possible to shoot bracketed exposures WITH SELF-TIMER!!!
Menu > Camera Settings 2 > Bracket Settings > Selftimer during Brkt > Off / 2 Sec / 5 Sec / 10 Sec
Choose Your Minimum Shutter Speed When Using AUTO ISO
AUTO ISO USERS REJOICE!!! CAN I HEAR AN AMEN???
Menu > Camera Settings 5 > ISO AUTO Min. SS > Standard is default
You can now choose auto minimum settings:
Slower, Slow, Standard, Fast, Faster
Or choose your minimum shutter speed:
1/8000, 1/4000, 1/2000, 1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1 Sec, 2 Sec, 4 Sec, 8 Sec, 15 Sec, 30 Sec
More Function Menu Settings
Drive Mode, Self-timer during Brkt, Flash Mode, Flash Comp, Focus Mode, Focus Area, Exposure Comp., ISO, ISO AUTO Min. SS, Metering Mode, White Balance, DRO/Auto HDR, Creative Style, Shoot Mode, Picture Effect, Picture Profile, Center Lock-on AF, Smile/Face Detect, Soft Skin Effect, Auto Obj. Framing, Image Size, Aspect Ratio, Quality, SteadyShot, SteadyShot Adjust, SteadyShot Focal Len., Audio Rec Level, Zebra, Grid Line, Marker Display, Audio Level Display, Peaking Level, Peaking Color, Silent Shooting, Not set
Custom Button Settings
Drive Mode, Self-timer during Brkt, Flash Mode, Flash Comp, Focus Mode, Focus Area, Focus Settings, Exposure Comp., ISO, ISO AUTO Min. SS, Metering Mode, White Balance, DRO/Auto HDR, Creative Style, Picture Effect, Picture Profile, Smile/Face Detect, Soft Skin Effect, Auto Obj. Framing, SteadyShot, SteadyShot Adjust, SteadyShot Focal Len., Audio Rec Level, Image Size, Aspect Ratio, Quality, In-Camera Guide, Memory, AEL hold, AEL toggle, (Spot) AEL hold, (Spot) AEL toggle, FEL Lock hold, FEL Lock toggle, FEL Lock/AEL hold, FEL Lock/AEL toggle, AF/MF Control Hold, AF/MF Ctrl Toggle, Center Lock-on AF, Eye AF, AF On, Focus Hold, Aperture Preview, Shot Result Preview, Bright Monitoring, Zoom, Focus Magnifier, Deactivate Monitor, MOVIE, Zebra, Grid Line, Marker Disp. Sel, Audio Level Display, Peaking Level, Peaking Color, Silent Shooting, Finder/Monitor Sel., Send to Smartphone, Download Appli., Application List, Montor Brightness, TC/UB Disp. Switch, Not set
Yup, Deactivate Monitor AND Finder/Monitor Select can be assigned to Custom Buttons!
‘MOVIE’ selection allows you to start and stop video recording by pressing a Custom Button of your choice.
Compatible with Sony a7 II Accessories
If you already own Sony a7 II accessories like a Vertical Grip VG-C2EM and a7II L-Brackets they’ll fit a7R II. Of course that also means it share the same tiny Sony NP-FW50 Lithium-Ion Rechargeable Battery as all the other E-mount cameras with roughly the same battery life. It might be a few shots better but let’s face it, it’s a small battery. Sony is aware of the complaints and while I think it may be possible they might be able to make a version with a few more amps – I don’t think anyone really wants them to change to physical size if you could interchange with batteries you already own. So carry a few spares. Did I mention they’re small?
Sony also introduced a new Sony CLM-FHD5 5″ HD LCD monitor, an ideal companion to the a7R II for video shooting. A compact 5.0 type Full HD (1920x1080p) LCD monitor, the CLM-FHD5 features enlarging and peaking functionality for precise focusing, false color and video level marker for adjusting exposure and S-Log display assist to assist S-Log shooting.
• Sony a7R II Camera (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS Lens (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony A-mount 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II Lens (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA Lens (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS Lens (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony LA-EA3 Lens Mount Adapter (Order from B&H Photo)
• Sony 64GB UHS-I SDXC Memory Cards (Class 10/U3) (Order from B&H Photo)
• Quick Release Vertical L Bracket Plate LB-A7M2 for Sony a7II/a7RII (Order from eBay)
• Oben CT-3481 Carbon Fiber Tripod with BE-126T Ball Head (Order from B&H Photo)
Unlike previous a7-series cameras that each have particular strengths or features, the flagship a7R II does everything well. Unless you need to shoot in near darkness where Sony A7S still has an edge at extreme ISOs, the a7R II would be my choice for everything I shoot.
For more tips and tricks about getting the most out of your Sony a7 series camera, check out my book ‘Sony a7-Series: From Snapshots to Great Shots’. It’s your guide to all of the Sony a7 Series I & II cameras. While the camera manual explains what the camera can do, it doesn’t show how to use the camera to create great images! Starting with the Top Ten things users need to know about the cameras, author Brian Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery, carefully guides you through the operating features of Sony a7, a7R, a7S, a7II and a7RII and how to use them. Get practical advice from a pro on which settings to use when, great shooting tips, and assignments at end of chapter to practice what you’ve just learned.
‘Sony A7 Series: From Snapshots to Great Shots’ is available NOW from Amazon