Sony a7S Mark II Review

Introduction

Released in the fall of 2015, Sony’s A7S Mark II is the official successor to the original A7S. And it marks the second generation of Sony’s video-centric mirrorless lineup. The original model quickly rose as an industry setting release, renowned for its low light performance.

And it set new standards in low light, allowing filmmakers and photographers to produce content in scenes previously impossible, with minimal noise. With this release, Sony aims to continue the trend. On paper, it brings along several substantial improvements, most notably 4K video, updated log profiles and a superior design.

But, considering this is a rather niche product, will it compete favorably against Panasonic’s GH4 and Nikon’s D3S?  And with the announcement of this lineup’s third generation, is this model still relevant today? Let’s find out.

Sony-a7S-Mark-II-specs

 

What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Sony A7S Mark II? 

Pros:

Image Quality

It obtains the same 12.2MP Exmor CMOS sensor and Bionz X image processor from the predecessor. However, Sony tweaked the processor with this installment, improving low light performance. They’ve also added the uncompressed 14-bit RAW format, which provides better latitude in post-processing. Despite having only 12MP in resolution, the image quality remains good. The camera offers plenty of detail and excellent dynamic range. And the color renderings are both accurate and vibrant.

Sony’s also dampened the shutter with this release. This change reduces the vibrations from the sensor and the shutter shock that plagued earlier models. Overall, it’s a welcomed change that makes the camera more stable when shooting long exposures or slower shutter speeds.

It provides continuous shooting speeds of 5 fps, the same rate as the A7 II. However, the buffer depth is improved, and the camera now offers over 60 JPEGs and 25 RAW + JPEG before slowing.

Video Quality

New for this release is 4K UHD video. And the camera now shoots 4K video up to 30 fps and 1080p Full HD video up to 120 fps, both internally without crops. This represents a significant change over the predecessor, which only offered 4K video via HDMI. Both resolutions record using 8-bit 4:2:0 to the XAVC S or AVCHD formats with a bitrate of 100 Mbps. Compared to the original, the footage produced from this camera is noticeably improved and remains excellent. The footage is sharp and free from both artifacts, moiré, and motion compression. And shooting in full-frame also delivers superb shadow detail recovery and high ISO performance. Sony’s also addressed rolling shutter with this model, and the camera performs noticeably better in this regard.

The camera also obtains the newer S-Log3 profile, in addition to standard S-Log2. The former increases the camera’s total dynamic range to 14 stops, adding more flexibility in post. And these flatter profiles have more information embedded to retain detail during high dynamic range scenes. And they’re welcome additions for filmmakers.

It obtains Sony’s High Frame Rate Movie mode, which slows the in-camera 120 fps video to 24 or 30 fps. It’s a helpful addition that saves time during post-processing. However, this mode is silent and crops into the frame. And the crop makes it challenging to shoot wide-angle lenses. Also, if you want to maintain audio, shooting standard 1080p 120 fps, then slowing in post-processing is best.

It has zebras for highlight warning indication.

It has a clean 4K 8-bit 4:2:2 output via HDMI for use with external recorders, monitors, or to live stream.

Low Light Performance

Low light performance is extraordinary. The camera features a native ISO range from ISO 100 to 102,400, further expandable to a high setting equivalent of 409,600. And users can expect usable images up to ISO 25,600 and video up to 12,800. Compared to the predecessor, this is a ½ stop improvement. But a change that makes images noticeably better across low light conditions.

Focusing Performance

It features a 169 point contrast-detect AF system, with sensitivity down to -4 EV. This system brings along both Lock-on and Eye-AF, both of which work well at tracking and locking onto subjects during still shooting. And, as a whole, it’s a substantial improvement over the predecessor archaic 25 point system in comparison. While it’s not the higher end phase-detection system from the A7R II, it works reasonably well in most conditions.

The camera also offers focus magnification and peaking, for those who prefer manually focusing.

Battery Performance

It uses the standard Sony NP-FW50 battery. And battery life is suitable for the class. Sony rates the camera to deliver 370 shots per charge when using the rear LCD. But, it does only provide 60 minutes of video recording. So, we recommend extra batteries for prolonged shoots.

Display & Viewfinder

It features the same center-mounted XGA OLED viewfinder as the A7R II. And this display offers a resolution of 2.36M dots and a 0.78x magnification. The overall viewing experience remains excellent. The viewfinder provides good magnification with ample contrast and is bright enough to use outdoors.

It also features the same 2.95-inch TFT LCD as the A7R II with a resolution of 1.23M dots. But, this display offers better articulation, now moving up 107° and down to 41°, along with the Sunny Weather Mode. And overall, the screen provides excellent viewing angles, contrast, and enough brightness for use outdoors.

User Interface

It uses standard Sony interface and menus, which remain somewhat well-organized and straightforward. It’s the same folder based approach and two-tiered layout as many of the other Alpha cameras. However, the menus are rather dense, so new users will need to read this camera’s manual.

Sony added an extra custom button with this iteration, now totaling four, C1-C4.

It features the customizable Function Menu, giving users quick access to 12 most used settings.

It has two Memory Recall states, 1 and 2, allowing you to save and transfer shooting presets.

Like the base A7, this camera offers extraordinary customization over its layout. You can customize any of its physical buttons to over 30 functions, easily tailoring it to your shooting style.

Physical Layout & Ergonomics

The camera uses a magnesium alloy construction, which affords the camera moderate weather sealing. But, it’s larger than the original model, however now weighing 584 g body alone, a 20% improvement. Thankfully, this increase makes the camera more rugged. And the added weight also helps stability when using larger lenses. Otherwise, the camera maintains the same modern and minimalistic aesthetic as other Alpha cameras. And the button layout remains logical. All are well spaced and easily accessible without any strain. But, they’re also slightly larger, making them easier to reach than the previous model.

Sony did, however, redesign the grip with this model. And it’s now larger and far more comfortable than before. They’ve also repositioned the shutter button, and it now lands naturally on the grip, right where you’d expect it.

Like the base model, it maintains the dedicated auto exposure dial for quick changes.

And it offers dual adjustment dials for controlling shutter speed and aperture.

Niche Features/Extras

New for this release is 5-axis in-body image stabilization, which Sony calls SteadyShot. And it uses the same system as the base model, which Sony rates for 4.5 EV stops of compensation. This let’s you effectively shoot handheld exposures at 1/2 second shutter speeds. And it’s a substantial addition over the predecessor, which lacks the feature altogether.

It has a microphone input, and you can adjust the levels via the menu.

It has a headphone output.

It has Sony’s Multi-Interface hot shoe, allowing you to attach proprietary accessories without cables.

It has built-in Wi-Fi and NFC, so you can wirelessly transfer images and remotely control the camera.

It has a 1.5x APS-C Crop Mode, which helps extend the reach of the attached lens. However, this mode only works in stills and 1080p FHD recording.

It has built-in HDR.

It has built-in panorama.

It has a fully silent electronic shutter.

It supports USB charging and continuous power.

It has access to the PlayMemories app store, allowing you to purchase and download non-native applications.

It has Sony’s 2x Clear Image Zoom for penalty-free digital zooms.

It obtains the Gamma Display Assist, which adds a LUT to correct S-Log footage. This addition simulates the final grade, which helps gauge exposure, contrast, and white balance while shooting. And it effectively removes the need for external monitors while recording.

You can set the minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO, making it the perfect option when shooting in changing lighting conditions given the camera’s high ISO performance.

Cons:

Image Performance

Due to age, it uses Sony’s older generation of color science. This means the default colors will tend towards yellow and green hues, making them slightly robotic looking in some scenes.

Video Capabilities

Like most cameras in this class, video recordings stop shy of 30 minutes.

Like most Sony cameras, this camera only offers an 8-bit signal internally. And, sadly, the files don’t hold up well when grading before experiencing color banding, even more so if the shots are unexposed. A 10-bit signal is ideal for preventing this. But, as it’s not an option, slightly overexposing the footage will help reduce color banding. Alternatively, shooting 8-bit 4:2:2 via external recorders also helps.

When shooting in S-Log, the lowest native ISO is 1600, which makes it challenging when shooting outdoors without attaching ND filters. It also makes it more tricky to maintain the ideal shutter speed while filming in changing lighting conditions. And with so many lenses with different filter diameters, purchasing external ND filters is both expensive and impractical. Overall, this mode doesn’t provide much flexibility compared to rivals.

When shooting in 1080p at 120 fps, the camera experiences a 2.2x crop, eliminating most of its wide-angle capabilities.

Autofocus Performance

The camera lacks phase-detection AF, which means the autofocus slows in dimly lit scenes. And it can quickly become unusable, particularly in areas lacking contrast.

The camera’s Eye AF only works in stills, not videos.

Display

The rear screen doesn’t have touch input and it doesn’t fully articulate.

Menus

It lacks the customizable My Menu.

Ergonomics

The camera’s MENU button is on the left side of the camera, making navigation a two-handed affair.

And Sony continues to use the same video record button, which remains awkward to press. Thankfully you can reprogram a custom button to operate as a video start/stop.

Lacking Features

It lacks a full sized HDMI output, instead it uses Micro.

It lacks dual card slots.

It lacks a built-in flash.

It lacks a built-in intervalometer for time-lapses. You’ll have to purchase this feature if you want it.

Is this a good beginner camera?

A beginner’s camera, no.

This camera is best for aspiring filmmakers who are already familiar with the basics looking for a more comprehensive package. Alternatively, it’s a strong choice for Astro or event photographers. But, as a beginner’s camera, there are better options for less money. Consider the base A7 or A7II cameras instead.

What are the best lenses & bundles for the A7S Mark II?

General Photography: 

FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS

Macro Photography:

FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Landscape & Astrophotography Photography:

Vario-Tessar T* FE 16–35 mm F4 ZA OSS

Portrait Photography:

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

Sports & Wildlife Photography:

FE 200–600 mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS
Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens

Product & Still Life Photography:

FE 90 mm F2.8 Macro G OSS

Extra Batteries:

Sony NP-FW50

SD Cards:

SanDisk Extreme PRO 32GB
SanDisk Extreme PRO 64GB 
SanDisk Extreme PRO 128GB

Tripods & Gimbals:

Manfrotto Befree Advanced Travel Tripod
E-Image 2 Stage Aluminum Video Tripod
Zhiyun Weebill S Compact Gimbal Stabilizer

Microphones & External Recorders:

Rode Wireless Go
Rode VideoMicPro

Battery Grip:

Sony GPX1EM Grip

Is this a good camera for you?

Yes.

For photographers, this camera is exceptional if you want the level of low light performance it offers. Combined with the updated shutter, outstanding ISO performance, and 5-axis stabilization, it’s ideal for astrophotography or nightlife. While 12MP may not sound like much, the resolution it delivers remains good considering it’s high ISO performance. Larger sensors are great, but they’re useless if most of the details are washed out from noise. And this is where this camera ultimately excels. For this reason, it provides a much better value proposition if you shoot at night. And apart from video, this camera is perfect for low light photography.

For videographers, this is an excellent all-rounder with low light capabilities that weren’t conceivable a few years prior. And for videographers looking for a lightweight, confident solution for documentary productions, this camera’s perfect.

Current A7S owners should consider upgrading if they want 4K video recording, stabilization, and superior ergonomics. These are well worth the upgrade.

For current FS5 or FS7 shooters, this camera makes a solid b-camera to those setups.

In the end, Sony’s A7S II is quite a niche product, indeed. But, it’s the ideal solution for those wanting the best full-frame low light camera. For videographers, it’s an excellent all-rounder well-tailored for run and gun ENG or documentary productions. And given its price, it competes favorably with several cinema cameras over twice the price. And that gives budget filmmakers a real chance to the film stunning 4K footage it offers. As a package, it’s an excellent follow up to the predecessor. And the refinements in ergonomics, build, and features create a real and very relevant option today.

Overview
  • Image Quality
  • Video Quality
  • Focusing Performance
  • Low Light Performance
  • Dynamic Range
  • Battery Performance
  • Display & Viewfinder
  • User Interface
  • Physical Layout & Ergonomics
4

Summary

Sony’s A7S II is an excellent refresh to the original model. It brings about full-frame 4K video, 5-axis stabilization, and a host of welcomed improvements to create a compelling upgrade. As a package, it’s a strong choice for low light photographers and budding filmmakers looking for this category’s best performance.