This non-review comes in three parts. First, my impressions. Second, thoughts about where the A7II fits in. Third, musings about Sony's plans and full-frame cameras in general. You can stop at any point and ignore the rest. Or you can stop now, if you like to read only positive stuff.
This was meant to be a long review of the new Sony A7 II, but it was not to be. Just when the rental camera arrived, I fell sick and when I started feeling better, the camera needed to be packed up and shipped back.
Normally, considering how little use the camera saw, I wouldn't write anything. But I felt something was missing in the first impressions and review posts I encountered on the web: the sense of whether this camera is not only better than the regular A7 but also better than its peers. That's in the end what matters, right?
So often on the web, especially in the early days after a new release, the brand lovers and click-seekers proclaim the newbie the best ever and one that you should buy right now. No wonder, the A7II, while barely in people's hands was ruled camera of the year in several places.
Nah, it would never be my camera of the year. Three cameras would vie for that title in my mind: the Fuji X-T1, the Pentax 645Z and the Nikon D750. And even these aren't so special that I would call any 2014 camera groundbreaking. We have to see what 2015 brings.
In my short time with the A7 II all I concluded was that it's an improvement over the A7 and that's about it. It's a fine camera and all, but still not what it should be in terms of overall speed, haptics and size/weight.
Even though I didn't shoot much with the A7II, a few things surprised me right away, things that would give me pause were I considering buying this camera. I've only seen others commenting on the same impressions in forum posts, but I have not read a review or blog post mentioning these same things. That's why I'm doing it here. After all, I'm not here to please Sony, I'm here to inform my readers.
Let's first go back a year. I was then that I was testing the Sony A7R, which I had bought, and the Sony A7, which I had rented. After a lot of going back and forth, in the face of an internet love affair with these cameras, I finally concluded that I saw a point to the A7R, it being a very flawed camera enveloping an amazing sensor. That camera, I concluded, could be used for slow stuff. I kept it for that purpose and used it quite a bit, but never got a thrill shooting with it. The thrill is in looking at the results.
At that time, I also said I didn't see a point to the A7, a less flawed camera, but still nothing I would want to use on a daily basis, especially since you can get good results with much more capable cameras in the same price range. A little later Fuji announced its X-T1 and my beliefs were strengthened even more.
Then in comes the Sony A7 II. Everybody writes how this is a better camera, how it has amazing in-body stabilization and how Sony has produced another miracle.
I admit that I can't help myself. Whenever everybody is enthusiastic about something, I start wondering: really? Is this indeed the second coming of Sony? I gotta see this.
So, there I found myself. Lousy weather outside, lousy feeling inside and a box with a new camera on the desk. Also on that desk: an Olympus OM-D E-M1 that I own and a Fuji X-T1 that I bought recently to give it a shot. And that A7R, ready to be sold.
My first impressions:
Wow, this thing is sturdy! The A7 II feels really solid, unlike the previous A models. That's nice. Gives confidence. Good move.
But, but. Why is it so heavy? It's much heavier than the first A7 and my A7R. It's heavier than my Olympus or Fuji.
If these Sony's (Sonys? Sonies?) get heavier, and the accompanying zoom lenses are already pretty heavy and large, how much of a weight advantage do I have over similar DSLRs moving forward?
Why go mirrorless for the sake of going mirrorless only?
I grab the A7 II with my 55mm lens, the E-M1 with the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens and the X-T1 with the 18-55mm zoom lens and take a few quick pictures of my wife in okay but not great indoor light.
The Sony struggles. The thing doesn't focus. It racks back and forth for a while, before it locks onto my wife's eye. My wife was standing still, by the way. Oh no!
Olympus up next. Same situation. Same light. Same wife. Same eye. Bang, focused.
Fuji next. Zoom lens here. Set at about 50mm equivalent. Again, same everything. Bang, focused.
I know, only one test. Not really comparable lenses. Not totally fair. But it is what it is and it shouldn't have been.
Yes, the camera is better and faster than the original A7 (duh...). The grip is much better than the A7. The IBIS is a great thing to have, especially with older lenses, but isn't needed with the already stabilized Sony zooms. Yes, the shutter button is better positioned. Yes, the lens mount is much, much sturdier.
No, the dials are harder to reach. No, the lens removal button is way too finicky. Can't find the damn thing. No, the interface still reminds one of a point and shoot instead of a camera ready for fast action.
I know, I actually didn't do much with this camera. And I won't. It's only 24 megapixels. Its image quality, if it gets the shot, it undoubtedly better than my Olympus or Fuji. But not that much better that I'm willing to deal with the fact that Sony has once again delivered a camera that's awesome in its promise but lacking in its execution, at least compared to the competition.
The wait is on for version III.
The A7 II Against the Competion
Am I too harsh? I don't think so. Yes, you can attack me all you want because I didn't take this camera through all its paces. I admit that. But once again, where's the real advantage over the competiton, be it high-end mirrorless offerings from Olympus, Fuji, Panasonic and Samsung or low-end full-frame DSLRs from Canon or Nikon?
The A7R and the A7S are unique in their fields, offering those 36 megapixels that otherwise are only available in a much more expensive and larger Nikon D810 or offering that low-light performance that otherwise is nowhere else available. But not so the A7 and now the A7 II.
The A7 II offers 24 mp in full frame but not much more over other cameras. For normal use, the Olympus E-M1 and the Fuji X-T1 come close in final image quality and are better overall cameras. They're also lighter and - especially in the case of the Olympus - much smaller when combined with their stellar lens offerings.
Small DSLRs might have that damned mirror, but I bet that the newly announced Nikon D5500 is one capable machine compared to the A7 II, while also offering 24 mp in a light and small package. And for half the price.
So, once again, I don't see the point of the Sony A7 II. It's not offering enough over the competition, unlike its brethren, the Sony A7R and the A7S.
Sony's Plans and Full-Frame Cameras
Lots of people are lauding the IBIS in the new Sony. Sure, it's nice, especially when used with older lenses. I do hope the successor to the A7R will also have IBIS.
But it leaves me wondering who's in charge of planning at Sony. Who decided to introduce a bunch of relatively large high-priced lenses with built-in stabilization before rolling out a camera that won't need the stabilization of those lenses anymore?
At least Olympus, that company that the so-called experts said would disappear in 2014, had the wisdom to first introduce IBIS and then build lenses that didn't need the extra weight and cost of lens stabilization. Seems a smarter course to me.
That's especially true now that the A7 II is not only heavier than its predecessor, but after it's also become clear that full-frame lenses will still be large clunkers. The Sony f/4 zooms are about as large and heavy as the Nikon and Canon f/4 zooms and, with their built-in stabilization, fall in the same price range. A bag full of Sony zooms isn't much different from a bag full of Nikon/Canon zooms of the same specs. Until recently the cameras were much lighter and smaller, but with the weight gains, only the smallness remains.
At the same time, DSLRs can get smaller while still offering access to a range of lenses and accessories that Sony can only dream of at this point.
It leads me to believe that in the end, mirrorless and mirrored full-frame cameras will be little different from one another. Some might like a mirrored version better, because of the optical viewfinder. Others might prefer the what-you-see-is-what-you-get EVF option on the mirrorless cameras.
So, it's going to be interesting to see what this year will bring. Rumors have it that Sony and Canon will both introduce a high-megapixel camera. The Canon is said to be a DSLR, while the Sony is likely mirrorless.
Canon is also said to re-enter the mirrorless category with a serious contender. Personally, I wish Canon would build a mirrorless camera that could take my existing Canon lenses without an adapter. I have no clue if that's even possible, but a man can dream.
Since I'm invested in both Canon and Sony, I'll wait. If Sony finally builds a camera that not only offers stellar image quality but also the speed and functionality similar to an Olympus E-M1 or a Fuji X-T1, Sony it will be for me. If Canon trumps Sony at the cost of just a bit more weight and bulk, Canon it will be.
By John van Rosendaal