The Sony A7R II that I rented for the past 10 days, brand new in the box from the rental company, needs to be shipped back today. Ten days, in between dropping off our son at college, isn't enough to really test a camera this complex. But it's enough to judge the key elements and to get a feel for it.
And to be ambivalent about it as I pack it up to return it. Ambivalence seems to be my thing with Sony cameras, I have learned.
As is usual these days with new Sony A7-series cameras, the internet is bulging with positivity. First there was the excitement over full frame in a small and light A7 camera, then over the awesome 36-megapixel sensor of the A7R, then over the amazing low-light capability of the A7S, followed by IBIS on the A7 II and now the 42-mp, IBIS and internal 4K offerings in the A7R II. On paper, it's something to drool over every time.
In practice, Sony has been following the traditional software development model: build it up to 'good enough,' start selling it, improve on it and sell the next version not much later. This resulted in A7-cameras to come with some stellar specs but also with some annoying shortcomings, which then largely disappeared in the next version. Largely, but not totally.
The camera to suffer most from weaknesses was the original A7R, a crude and slow camera surrounding an amazing sensor. After much hemming and hawing, I did keep my A7R, but never enjoyed shooting with it, though I did love the resulting image quality. It rode along my other cameras with a few small primes, in case some slow landscape work presented itself and I wanted the best quality without the need for any kind of speed.
And now Sony brings us the successor, the camera the A7R should have been. And then some. In a nutshell: the A7R II is an awesome camera. It combines great image quality with enough operating speed to be useful in most situations. On top of that, it's good in low light, takes great lenses, offers internal 4K video (which I didn't try) and does a good job focusing a bunch of Canon lenses.
It's also overkill for most of us, at least in the resolution compartment.
I'm a skeptic, especially when it comes to something that's hyped up, so I'm going to play it cool from now on.
First I look at the two key elements of any camera: image quality and the joy of using it (this is an enthusiast site, so joy matters).
Then I look at where it stands in the larger market.
Then I sum up my conclusions. And my ambivalence.
You can read all about the 42mp sensor and its BSI CMOS technology somewhere else. Each new acronym that's added to sensor and processing technology promises us something amazing, but the result is often incremental in the real world. I honestly don't care what's under the hood as long as the engine delivers.
And deliver it does. I never had any complaints about the sensor in the original A7R and I certainly don't have complaints about this one. Files are smooth, with incredible detail and low noise. Dynamic range is impressive, as it has been with Sony sensors for a while now. Colors could be warmer in the JPEGs, but are easily adjusted to one's liking.
Some people complain about Sony not giving them lossless RAW files and they see artifacts that shouldn't be there. I'm not one of them. I'm not enough of a pixel peeper to see those artifacts or go looking for them. That doesn't mean I don't believe the doubters and if I were heavily post-processing my files, I'd think twice before buying a Sony.
Unlike many, I'm not so sure Sony is going to offer a firmware update. Still, I'm not wishing for more when it comes to image quality. That box is easily ticked off for me.
Joy to Use
I don't like the ergonomics of this camera, or any Sony A7-series camera. There, I've said it. It's true, but you might not share my dislike. When it comes to handling a camera, our judgment is often highly personal. So, I'm going to rationalize my impressions as much as I can, but feel free to disagree. I urge you to try the camera before you buy it, especially if you've never shot with a Sony before. Judging from forum posts, I'm not the only one not entirely enthralled with Sony's interface and body style.
Imagine this: I just spent more than a week with the Sony A7R II and the Zeiss 25mm and 85mm Batis lenses (on loan from Carl Zeiss), probably one of the top combos you can own right now. I'm taking pictures with that stellar glass on the newest camera on the block, getting a whopping 42 megapixels. And I missed my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and Canon 1D X...
Again, haptics are a personal thing and some hate the Olympus interface while most of us have issues with the heft of the big Canon. But somehow, for me, the Sony just didn't sit right and I longed for the other cameras. Over the week, I tried to put my finger on what's not working for me.
I think the key element is the way I generally shoot, which is using the smallest focusing point and moving it around when necessary. I don't trust any camera to choose my focus point. I want to be able to move the focus point fast. On my Canon and my Olympus, I can move it right away. On the Sony, this is at least a two-step operation as the wheels that move the focus point have other functions that take precedence.
In general, the Sony, despite being a $3,000+ prosumer camera, has the core interface of a consumer point-and-shoot. Yes, you can program a lot of the custom functions, but attaining the directness of the competition, be it a top DSLR or a top mirrorless camera is hard to achieve.
I also found that for me, many of the buttons weren't easy to reach. Most of the buttons and wheels just didn't sit well for my hands which made operating them counter-intuitive. I was fumbling around too often and having to bend my fingers in uncomfortable ways. I'm glad I didn't have to shoot for hours on end with this camera.
Flip Side & Issues
On the flip side, the camera generally did its job well. It focused fast in good light with native lenses, including the Batis lenses. Its continuous autofocus is decent, but not quite up to speed compared to top DSLRs or Sony's own A6000. The maximum frame rate of five shots per second isn't stellar, but to be expected when you realize the camera is writing 42mp files to the memory card. The in-body stabilization works as advertised and makes a critical difference.
I was also impressed with the focusing speed of the Canon lenses that did focus with the camera, like my 24-70mm f/4 and the 70-200mm f/4, using the Metabones III adapter. I was disappointed that my Canon 85mm f/1.8, 135mm f/2 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II didn't work with the Sony. The 24-70 f/4 focused fast but struggled in low contrast beyond 50mm. Up to 50mm it was like a native Sony lens. Pretty neat.
I ran into a few issues. First of all, using the silent mode under artificial lighting can result in pinkish stripes on your frame. Apparently, this is true for all mirrorless cameras with an electronic silent mode.
I thought the EVF on my copy of the camera was too bright and had to set it down a notch to find it pleasing. Images looked fine in the review, but looked too bright before taking the shot, at least when viewed in the EVF. I haven't seen anybody else comment on this, so it might just have been my copy.
Like others, I found it harder to focus manually using the zoom function than with the A7R. If there was a lot of detail in a scene, I had trouble at both 5x and 12.5x zoom to get it right. It looked like the details were shimmering in the EVF. On the other hand, IBIS made it easier to hold the image steady, especially at 12.5x zoom. From reading the forums, this is an issue for some people, but not for others. If you don't use manual focus, it doesn't matter.
Battery life is also pretty bad. Nah, it's really bad. This is one camera that forces you to always carry at least one spare, even on short outings. The batteries are small, so it's easy to take a few extra, but you're still left with the hassle of constantly having to charge them. The Sony is not alone in that, though, as all mirrorless cameras struggle with battery life, just not to this extent.
All other issues I have with the camera are little details and not unlike little things that bug me about other cameras.
That leaves the one big issue that I think needs to be addressed: the price.
So, before I do that, let me be clear again: the Sony A7R II is a good camera with a great sensor. It's an enormous upgrade from the original A7R and one of the best cameras on the market today.
It's also very expensive. Let's add some perspective.
First off, if you're only looking for one camera that you can combine with some great lenses and you don't need the mind-boggling array of Nikon and Canon lens options or TTL flash, this could well be that camera. It combines the latest and the greatest. Really, the only downsides I see are that the ergonomics don't match the competition's and that you'll be taking 42mp pictures all the time. That's a lot of resolution for your family snapshots.
Moving on, there are three ways to look at the A7R II: as a successor of the A7R; as a replacement for a larger and somewhat heavier DSLR setup; as a player in the top of the mirrorless camera segment.
As a successor to the A7R, the II is a vast improvement. It's better built, it's faster, its shutter is quieter, it adds IBIS, it adds 4K video and is just a much, much better body. Now, that A7R was so flawed as a camera that it wasn't hard to improve on, but the II is really a major step up.
But it's also way more expensive than the original. With prices of good used A7Rs hovering around $1,000, those not in need of the improvements in the II can have almost the same sensor performance for much less money.
Alternative to DSLR
As an alternative to a DSLR, the A7R II offers top image quality in a somewhat smaller and lighter package. As Sony made the second generation of its A7-series heavier and its lenses are generally bulky and heavy, the size and weight benefits of full-frame mirrorless over DSLRs have diminished since the first A7s were introduced.
It's beaten only by Nikon's D810 for overall versatility in a stills camera and by the Canon 5DS(r) with pure megapixels. Those DSLRs are faster to operate and offer access to a vast array of modern lenses. They also offer flash capabilities that the mirrorless brands can only dream of. There's no winner, as the choice depends on personal preference.
As a competitor in the mirrorless field, the A7R II resides at the pinnacle of image quality, far above the rest. The next camera up would be the A7R, followed by the 28mp APS-C Samsung NX1 and the 24mp full-frame Sony A7II. The other mirrorless camera makers only produce APS-C and micro four-thirds sensors of lesser resolution, so sensor-wise Sony is a clear leader.
But the Sony full frame cameras also come with zoom lenses that are enormous compared to the other mirrorless brands and the top-notch prime lenses are also getting bulky. The savings in size and weight of a mirrorless system compared to a DSLR kit are much less apparent with the most recent batch of Sony A7 cameras than with the competition.
On top of that, cameras like the Fujifilm X-T1 or the Olympus OM-D E-M1 stand a notch above the Sony for speed and build quality. As far as functionality is concerned, I also think Panasonic, Fuji and Olympus beat Sony, but here opinions can vary. Still, they're about $2,000 cheaper. And the resolution they deliver is good enough most of the time.
So, if you want faster operating speed, take the top Fuji, Panasonic or Olympus cameras (I can't speak for Samsung, as I've never tried it). If you want less bulk and weight, especially with zoom lenses, don't go for Sony.
If you want the best combination of full-frame image quality and features, pick Sony, but not necessarily the A7R II.
Because in most circumstances 42 megapixels is overkill. Few of us need that much resolution all the time. Are you really going to pay extra for resolution that you don't need most of the time?
Not sure about you, but I'm on the fence. I was ready to shell out up to about $2,200 to replace my A7R, but I'm not ready to pay $3,200. Unlike others, I doubt new prices will come down quickly.
In reality, my Canon and Olympus setups can deliver under almost all circumstances what I need. Sometimes I need better performance in low light or the maximum amount of resolution I can afford.
So, from my perspective, the A7R II is a niche camera, a camera you pick up when you want maximum resolution but not a camera that you use all the time. I regard the Canon 50mp DSLR the same way, as a niche camera to have alongside a regular lower resolution 5D Mark III.
On the one hand, the A7R II is just an awesome combo of resolution, IBIS and 4K video and worth every penny. On the other hand, it's too much, esp. for photographers who don't care for the video capabilities.
So, there's the rational me calling it overkill. Then there's the other side of my brain hurting as I wrap up the camera and put it back in the box. Because, despite my reservations, the Sony A7R II is one hell of a camera and if my wallet didn't say 'no' for now, I'd rush into ordering one, overkill or not.
By John van Rosendaal