Sony a7R II Review

Introduction

Sony’s a7R II, initially released fall 2015, marks the official successor to the acclaimed A7R. In many ways, it represents the culmination of all the best features, improvements, and technology of all previous a7 cameras. Following its announcement, it quickly rose as the most anticipated a7 series camera released, as it’s lotted not only for its stills capability but now video as well. On paper, this camera promises a lot and looks amazing. It finally brings everyone’s wish list into fruition with an enormous 42.4 BSI CMOS sensor, 4K recording, image stabilization, and excellent autofocus into a single camera.

But, does the reality live up to the hype? Is this finally the mirrorless camera to come into the forefront to compete with SLRs? Can this finally do it? And can this finally be the mirrorless camera that professionals consider a worthy option? Sony aims it as a competitor to Canon’s 5D Mark III, 5DS, and Nikon’s D810. All of which are veterans in the game. Today, we assess the strengths, weaknesses, and the answer, whether this was finally the mirrorless camera pros long awaited.

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What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Sony a7R Mark II?

Pros:

Image Quality

It features a 42.4MP Back-side Illuminated CMOS sensor without an Optical Low Pass Filter coupled with the Bionz X processor. Compared to the predecessors 36.3MP sensor, this is a 17% increase in resolution. The results are images that rival medium format cameras in scale and fine detail. Outside of resolution alone, the sensor is now backlit, allowing the camera to gather more light and thus provides cleaner images in low light. Overall, the 14-bit RAW photos supplied by the sensor and processor combination are extraordinary, with unparalleled dynamic range, color rendition, and detail.

Like the A7S, users can switch between both full-frame and APS-C (Super 35) formats, giving your lens an extra 50% zoom.

It features continuous shooting speeds of 5 fps, impressive considering its enormous file sizes. These speeds make it directly on par with Canon’s 5DSR.

Video Quality

It inherits virtually the entire feature set of the A7S, all with the benefit of a larger sensor with surprisingly little trade-offs. The most notable is that it shoots 4K Ultra HD video up to 30 fps, without a crop, or in the super 35 mode at a full sensor readout. In also shoot 1080p full HD video up to 60 fps, allowing for slow-motion capture. As with the image quality offered in photos, the video quality, too, is brilliant and, arguably, on par with the FS7 in many respects. The 4K video also shoots in a good bitrate of 100 MBps, though a 64 GB U3 card is required to take advantage of this high-quality format.

It also features Sony’s S-log2 picture profile, increasing the camera’s dynamic range to a whopping 14 stops and makes it on par with the A7S. Using this profile simultaneously provides flatter footage, which lends itself to better post-production adjustments. Thankfully, Sony has reduced the native ISO to 800 in this mode, instead of 3,200, which makes it far more feasible for outdoor shooting at wide-open apertures.

It features helpful video features like zebras for exposure clipping indication, focus magnification, and peaking.

It delivers a clean HDMI out, in this case, a 4K 30p 8-bit 4:2:2 signal.

It offers a dual proxy recording function, which simultaneously records 4K and 720p videos. The benefit of this mode is that this low bitrate video file reduces the performance demand on computers, and it also provides a file for immediate sharing online.

Low Light Performance

It features a native ISO from ISO 100-25,600, further expandable to 102,400. Low light performance in both stills and videos is surprisingly excellent considering the camera’s large sensor. Users can expect usable results up to ISO 6,400 in the cameras full-frame mode or ISO 12,800 in the Super 35 mode. Though ISO 12,800 requires minor post-production noise reduction, however. Nevertheless, this camera delivers results that make it almost on par with the A7S.

Focusing Performance

It has a hybrid phase-detection autofocus system with 399 AF points, 25 of which use contrast-detection, spread to supply excellent coverage across the entire image area. This system also comes bundled with eye-detection, ensuring precise focus on the eyes even when shooting at a wide open aperture, and lock-on AF. The combination of these two systems accurately tracks subjects across the frame, removing much of the need for focus recomposition, simplifying workflow. Overall, AF performance has improved significantly over the predecessor, which previously was quite slow in this regard.

Display & Viewfinder

It has an OLED electronic viewfinder with a rather large magnification of 0.78x and an excellent resolution of 2.36M dots. Not only that, it also provides better coatings, which overall have significantly improved the viewing experience compared to the predecessor.

It features a similar 2.95-inch TFT monitor as the predecessor. However, it now delivers a better resolution of 1.23M dots and better articulation. Now it’s adjustable up to 107° and down to 41°. But, otherwise, the screen is mostly unchanged, and it still includes a sunny weather mode, which provides excellent viewing when composing outdoors in bright sunlight.

Physical Layout & Ergonomics

In body and design, it is mostly unchanged from the predecessor, and it features a similar magnesium alloy construction with a matte black finish. With that, the camera is weather-sealed, though not to the same robustness of the competition. The most notable change is the repositioned shutter, which now creates a far more natural and comfortable engagement than the original. The camera also comes with four custom buttons, as well as the standard controls, to deliver immediate access to the most used functions. And, unlike the predecessor, it now allows customization over its button configuration. However, configuring its layout to your preference will require some patience and a potential review of the users manual. It’s also worthwhile to note that the custom buttons don’t translate separately to photo or video modes.

The grip is now more recessed, proving a better and more secure hold in hand. Overall, the camera is even more well balanced than before and is heavy enough to be substantial and stable. But, not too heavy that it becomes bulky and cumbersome, a nice compromise here.

Niche Features/Extras

It features built-in 5-axis image stabilization, which Sony rates for 4.5 stops of stabilization. While not industry-leading by any means, the system works well and is quite helpful, particularly when using unstabilized lenses. It’s also smart enough to recognize when an optically stabilized lens is attached and automatically disables if the lens delivers better performance than what it alone provides. Overall, it can easily allow users to shoot exposures of a 1/10 of a second handheld. Though, at this point, it’ll require a bit of technique as well.

It has an electronic front curtain shutter as well as an entirely silent shutter. These options are perfect for those desiring the absolute best image quality available by eliminating vibrations induced by the shutter mechanism. And it’s also helpful when discrete shooting is required, such as weddings.

It has Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting the camera to a smartphone for image transfer or remote shooting.

It has access to Sony’s PlayMemories app store, where you can purchase or download a variety of applications for use on the camera. The most notable of which is an intervalometer, giving users in-camera time-lapse functionality.

It supports USB charging.

It has a headphone input.

It has a microphone input.

Cons:

Video Capabilities

While the camera shoots uncropped 4K, it doesn’t do so with a full sensor readout, unlike the A7S. Instead, it uses pixel binning to achieve 4K resolution, which reduces the camera’s resolving ability, even more so in low light and increases the presence of aliasing and moiré. For the best quality, shooting 4K in the super 35 mode is recommended, as this does away with any pixel binning, while simultaneously, improves the cameras low light performance.

The camera suffers from rolling shutter when shooting 4K, particularly in the full-frame mode. So, take caution when panning with this camera during recordings.

While the camera features super slow-motion, these recordings are limited to 720p and not 1080p. Shooting 120 fps in 720p isn’t particularly exciting in today’s world.

It lacks any pro-level video features like waveforms and vectorscopes.

The XACS S codec used is incredibly taxing on the computer’s processor, and coupled with the lower 8-bit 4:2:0 subsampling, the footage quickly falls apart following significant post-production alterations.

Easily the most notable drawback is the overheating that occurs when shooting in 4K. The actual time when the camera overheats varies based on the ambient temperature. However, you can expect between 15-20 minutes until the camera will completely shut down. Sadly, this problem doesn’t make shooting in 4K with this camera a viable option if you plan on shooting any long-form content, documentary, or event work.

Battery Life

Sadly, it uses the standard NP-FW50 battery, which Sony rates for only 340 shots per charge. This figure is right at the 350 shot industry-standard lifespan expected for mirrorless cameras but undoubtedly means you will need extra batteries.

Display

It lacks a touchscreen display. Instead, using the d-pad is the only means of focusing with this camera, which is quite cumbersome in today’s age and also introduces vibration while recording. Overall, it’s a shame considering this is otherwise an excellent camera for video.

The rear screen isn’t as sharp as it could be, making it challenging to assess critical focus, primarily when recording videos. Not only that, but the brightness and contrast also reduce when filming in 4K, making it incredibly difficult to judge proper exposure.

Menus

The camera features standard Sony menus, which are somewhat complicated and not particularly beginner-friendly. This camera will require much time during the initial familiarization process and a trip to the users manual for proper configuration.
Ergonomics

Unfortunately, the power toggle falls directly next to the front control wheel, which increases the likelihood of accidentally turning off the camera dramatically.

The movie record button is still the same awkward and recessed position on the side of the grip, which makes it supremely difficult to find quickly.

The mode dial now has a lock, which is unnecessary as this wasn’t an issue with the predecessor.

The camera now uses plastic dials, instead of the large metal dials from the predecessor. These new dials are slightly harder to turn and don’t provide that premium tactile feel.

The camera lacks an AF joystick. When you couple this with the lacking touchscreen, changing AF points and navigating menus are both quite tedious. It’s a dance with the d-pad here.

It offers the smaller micro HDMI port, which isn’t ideal when using external monitors. Cables attached to these ports often come loose, which ruin video recordings, and are prone to bending. The camera has ample space in this compartment, so a larger mini HDMI would be helpful.

Lacking Features

It lacks any smaller RAW file formats, for example, RAW small or medium. Only smaller JPEG sizes are available here. With that, you’re stuck with the large, and unwieldy, 100 MB files this camera generates when shooting 14-bit uncompressed RAW. The caveat here is that the camera takes a few seconds to write images to the card, which becomes problematic when shooting continuous bursts. If you fire off 20 shots, you can quickly get into situations where you’re waiting 30 seconds for the images to write, significantly slowing down workflow. Considering this is an easy and helpful feature to code into the camera, it’s a shame to see it missing.

It lacks dual SD card slots. With such a high-resolution sensor, the added storage space would be helpful.

It lacks a built-in intervalometer. Instead, you must purchase a second-hand application using the camera’s PlayMemories to perform this functionality. Unfortunately, you’ll lose $10 in the process, along with another trip to the manual and a considerable amount of setup time. Very inconvenient.

The camera uses Micro USB, not the more modern USB 3.0 format, which means file transfer speeds are quite slow, considering its large file sizes.

When using the silent shutter under artificial light, you will likely experience banding throughout the frame. Thus, shooting with the electronic shutter is best reserved for natural light.

Is this a good beginner camera?

A beginner camera, no. This camera is best for seasoned shooters who are already familiar with digital photography or videography looking for an upgrade over an existing camera. The reality is that as a beginner, you don’t need a 42MP sensor, it’s just not necessary. And considering this is one of the primary highlights of this camera, it doesn’t make it a worthy choice for a beginner. Considering looking into the base Sony a7 cameras instead, whether it be the Mark I or even the Mark III cameras. Sony’s a6000 series also makes an excellent choice.

What are the best lenses & bundles for the Sony a7R Mark II?

General Photography:

FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS

Specifically for Macro Photography:

FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Specifically for Landscape & Astrophotography Photography:

Vario-Tessar T* FE 16–35 mm F4 ZA OSS

Specifically for Portrait Photography:

FE 70-200 mm F4 G OSS
Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70 mm F4 ZA OSS
FE 85mm F1.8

Specifically for Sports & Wildlife Photography:

FE 200–600 mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS

Specifically for Product & Still Life Photography:

FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Extra Batteries:

Sony NP-FW50 Battery

SD Cards:

SanDisk 128GB Extreme SDXC UHS-I Card

Is the Sony a7R Mark II a good camera for you?

For sports, wildlife, and journalistic applications, this is not the best camera. Its main drawbacks come in the form of poor continuous shooting speeds, a shallow buffer, the single SD card slot, and a slow processor. And the combination of these three will slow your workflow dramatically. Consider the Nikon D810, D850, or Canon 7D Mark II cameras instead.

For anyone who shoots mediums that could benefit from the added resolution its sensor offers, namely landscape, still life, architecture, or product photography, this is an excellent choice. It’s also beneficial if you do large format printing or prefer added versatility when cropping.

Between the 4K quality and the number of video-centric features the camera offers, it makes for a capable platform for aspiring filmmakers. Though it’s not the best option at this price point, and you’ll also have to be willing to shoot in the super 35 format for the best quality. Otherwise, it’s undoubtedly a good, well-rounded option.

In the end, the A7R II is a mirrorless camera that certainly tests its competing pro-level SLRs and one that easily convinces working professionals that mirrorless cameras mean business. With this camera, skeptical professionals can finally have confidence knowing that mirrorless is capable, and feel reassured if they choose this camera. Sony has delivered and has thrown every feature they’ve released up until this point in their previous a7 cameras into a single body. And they’ve made the first truly affordable full-frame 4K camera in that process, yet one that delivers image quality that rivals the seasoned pros. Overall it’s an excellent camera, with a couple of minor exceptions, and one that doesn’t disappoint. Sony made a stills camera that simultaneously aimed to capture the market of small form cinema cameras, and that’s what they’ve done. In an era where most camera manufacturers are only offering incremental updates between cameras, this camera comes as a significant leap forwards and a revolution in more ways than one. Well done. Even years after its initial release, it remains one to watch.

Overview
  • Image Quality
  • Video Quality
  • Focusing Performance
  • Low Light Performance
  • Dynamic Range
  • Battery Performance
  • Display & Viewfinder
  • User Interface
  • Physical Layout & Ergonomics
3.4

Summary

In an era where most camera manufacturers are only offering incremental updates between cameras, this camera comes as a significant leap forwards and a revolution in more ways than one. Sony has delivered and has thrown every feature they’ve released up until this point in their previous a7 cameras into a single body. And a camera that tells people mirrorless cameras mean business.