Sony a7II: A Real World Review

Posted By on Jun 18, 2015 | 31 comments


The Sony a7II is the most technologically advanced camera I have personally used. The camera has been with me almost every single day for four months now while touring through Costa Rica, Mexico, and road tripping across America. In this post, I share my experiences with the Sony a7II. I’ll review some of my favorite features and some of the quirks of this high performing camera.

Introduction

The Sony a7II is the company’s fourth full-frame interchangeable lens mirrorless camera and spec-for-spec it’s arguably the most technologically advanced camera I have ever used.

The a7II is notable as the first full-frame mirrorless camera to feature an in-body image stabilization system. The built-in Sony SteadyShot system promises to offer about 4.5 stops of stabilization capability which should help reduce the effects of camera shake when using slower shutter speeds. I chose to pack the a7II on my trip to Costa Rica and Mexico specifically for this stabilization system. With two months of minimalist traveling (I carried all of my clothes, camera gear and travel items in nothing but a 35 liter backpack) and several months roadtripping in a small hatchback, I wanted a camera that could serve as my do-everything travel camera: a landscape shooter, street photography shooter, and video recorder. Before I got the a7II, I made extensive use of the Sony a7S for much of my night sky photography and video recording.  I felt that some of the updates that the a7II offered, like image stabilization, and lower price might be more suitable for my travels abroad.

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On paper, the a7II seemed to combine everything I loved about the a7S (Sony full frame sensor, excellent focusing aids, S-Log2 video recording, etc.) while adding an excellent image stabilization system and improved ergonomics. I love to shoot short video clips of our travels and the a7II’s stabilization system seemed like it might be able improve the quality of handheld video when compared to shooting on the a7S, which suffers from substantial rolling shutter effects. I loved the image quality of the video on the a7S but when using it with lenses that lacked stabilization, it was very difficult to produce quality handheld footage on the a7S. The ability to record 4K video is still a pretty low priority for me so I felt that sacrificing some of the benefits of the a7S might be worth the changes found in the new a7II.

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I’ve been using mirrorless cameras for a couple years now and so I’ve experienced first hand a lot of the progression that these cameras have made, especially in comparison to their DSLR cousins. Compared to the more traditional DSLR, mirrorless cameras offer some distinct advantages that I have grown to love: electronic viewfinders, manual focus assist overlays, more compact bodies, smaller lenses, and the ability to adapt pretty much any kind of lens ever made. The a7II offers all of these features that I love, a very good sensor, and most of the things that you would expect from a high-end camera like user customizable controls, useful exposure aids like zebra-striping overlays and video features like s-log2 flat picture profiles for color grading. The a7II is certainly packed with a lot of features but it’s it also has numerous quirks and some downfalls that keep it from being perfect. Let’s take a look.

 

First Impressions

The a7II is an advanced piece of photography gear. It has a lot of very high-end specs, the most notable of which are its 24 megapixel full frame (36mm x 24mm) sensor, an ISO range of 100-25,600, 5 fps shooting and an in-camera stabilization system.

  • 24.3MP full frame CMOS sensor
  • 5-axis in-body image stabilization
  • Hybrid autofocus (25 contrast and 117 phase detection points)
  • 1080p video including S-Log2 Gamma Profile capability in XAVC-S
  • Wi-Fi with NFC and downloadable in-camera apps

At several hundred dollars more than the original a7, buyers will want to weigh their personal need for what the camera offers over the original a7: better video functionality, in-camera stabilization and some updated ergonomics

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In terms of specs, the a7II is almost identical to the original a7 with the only notable addition being the addition of the in-body image stabilization system, increased video recording capability (the ability to record in a flat picture profile with an S-Log2 gamma curve and a higher bit rate XAVC-S codec) and an improved grip and shutter button. Other than those three things, the camera is very, very similar to the original a7. I personally felt that image stabilization would be an attractive enough feature to go for the upgrade over the original a7, especially since I love using manual focus lenses like the Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar (full review) that otherwise would not offer the benefit of stabilization on any other camera. If stabilized video or the improved video codecs offered in the a7II sound like very low priority features for you, maybe consider the original Sony a7 instead.

 

Controls and Handling

Let’s talk about one of the most obvious changes between the a7II and the original a7: the body design. Compared to the original a7 line, the a7II grip shape is significantly deeper and, in my opinion, more comfortable to hold in the hand. The position of the shutter button and the shape and position of the control dials on the grip are much improved from the original a7. Each control dial can be set to control either aperture or shutter speed depending on your preference. In aperture priority, both dials will control the f/number while in shutter priority both dials will control the shutter speed by default. Overall, I very much like the body changes in terms of how the camera feels in the hand. That said, the camera is also noticeably heavier.

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The increased weight when compared to the original a7 is primarily due to two things: the addition of the in-camera image stabilization system and an increased use of magnesium alloy construction. The front plate of the original a7 was a plastic/composite cover while the a7II rides on a fully magnesium alloy chassis and enclosure. The camera chassis is also thicker from front to rear in order to fit the extra components of the stabilization system. The result is a camera that feels significantly more solid and well-built in the hand but also starts to show some chub when compared to other mirrorless cameras. Roger Cicala of LensRentals.com did an excellent teardown of the a7II that shows many of the significant internal changes that were made in the a7II and shows how much complexity the in-camera stabilization system adds to the design. Mr. Cicala’s teardown also gives light to a concern about weather sealing: despite some loose claims by Sony about dust and moisture sealing, the a7II does not seem to be truly weathersealed. The a7II is, perhaps, not the best camera to take out in a downpour or to the dusty desert of Burning Man.

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As far as buttons go, the a7II is still very similar as it predecessors. Anyone familiar with Sony alpha cameras will feel right at home. If you’re coming from another brand like Nikon or Canon, there might be a bit of a learning curve but major conventions are still adhered to. It still has a very familiar layout with a mode dial, two control dials and an exposure compensation dial. Compared to the original a7, the a7II adds one more custom function button to the top plate, making for a total of 10 customizable function buttons on the camera plus the ability to customize the function of the rear wheel. On select lenses, like the Sony FE 70-200/4 G OSS, it’s also possible to customize the function of the lens’s “focus hold” button via the a7II’s menu. These buttons are programmable to a huge list of functions, nearly anything you’d like access to (except viewfinder/monitor control, more on this later). Programming these buttons, however, does require a lot of menu searching to map any given button to the function that you desire. For comparison, some competing cameras like the Fujifilm X-T10 and X-T1 allow you to customize any button by providing a contextual menu after holding down that particular button for several seconds. The a7II’s system is not as convenient but once you have all the functions set as desired, it’s rarely necessary to re-enter the menu to change anything. I was a little bit disappointed that separate customizations are global and thus not independently programmable to the ‘1’ and ‘2’ modes available on the mode dial.

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Like the other a7 cameras, the a7II still features the excellent Fn button for accessing an on-screen custom function menu for quickly accessing extra functions, whether it be zebra-stripes, focus peaking level, ISO, metering, flash compensation, or pretty much any function possible. The a7II’s main menu system is rather deep so I’ve made any menu function that I use often accessible via the Fn button for quick access.

The a7II still feels like the original a7 in operation but has a substantially better grip at the expense of increased size and weight. It’s not that the a7II is particularly big. Compared to Canon’s smallest full frame DSLR, the Canon EOS 6D, the Sony a7II is still smaller and lighter but by a narrower margin than what I would expect of a mirrorless system. If you’re considering the a7II, it’s important to keep in mind that if size and weight are a priority, the original a7 is still substantially smaller and lighter while still offering almost identical image quality and at a lower price than the a7II, too.

Overall, It has still taken me some time to get used to the operation of Sony cameras. I think that for most shooting situations, Sony’s cameras are fine but there are still some quirks that might not be desirable for some photographers, especially if you’re accustomed to the familiarity of a DSLR. The a7II has a lot of menu settings. It’s submenus have submenus and for any given function, there is often more than one way to access it (custom buttons, menu, Fn menu, etc.). Therefore, it’s in the photographer’s best interest to use care with the custom button assignments and customizable Fn menu to create the quickest access to the most used settings. That said, there are still some unavoidable annoyances, despite the extreme level of customization. Let’s talk about some of these quirks and what it’s like to shoot with the a7II.

 

Shooting Experience

At the time of this writing, I’m currently traveling with the a7II and a couple wide angle prime lenses: the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar T*, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 and the Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5. The camera has been with me to Costa Rica, Mexico, and on a road trip all over the United States.

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SteadyShot and Video

The first and most noticeable difference in the a7II over its predecessors is the built in sensor stabilization system. It’s works very well for stills in particular but also improves video shooting to a degree. It also functions when using on fully manual lenses like the Voigtlander 15mm/4.5 Heliar III that I have with me. The SteadyShot system opens a brand new capability for the extensive number of lenses that are adaptable to the Sony E mount.  I found it possible to shoot handheld as slow as 0.5″ on a 35mm lens, about 5 stops slower than typically recommended but this is with some careful practice. I think it’s more reasonable to push exposures about 2 to 3 stops with the SteadyShot enabled. One of my favorite features of the stabilization system is that when using the manual focus magnification function, the camera automatically stabilizes the image, making it much easier to get precise manual focus when shooting handheld. The a7II automatically selects the best stabilization settings for native Sony lenses and it’s possible to set a custom focal length for manual lenses. For example, I can manually set the focal length to 24mm for my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 Lens when shooting with it to ensure the most accurate stabilization.

The stabilization works well for video, but it’s not a replacement for real stabilization equipment like a gimbal, glidecam or tripod. The a7II SteadyShot shows a marked improvement in handheld video but it won’t be able to compensate for large movements or really jerky moves like shooting while walking. By comparison, it’s no where near as good as the SteadyShot system built into the Sony RX100 III, but the RX100 III relies on both optical stabilization and digital cropping to achieve its silky smooth stabilization. I imagine the use of computer stabilization in post processing in combination with the a7II’s SteadyShot could produce some very smooth video motion. Straight out of camera, the a7II’s SteadyShot makes the most sense for static handheld shots with light panning at the most. I’ve put together a clip of some footage from our time in Mexico and Costa Rica, all shot handheld on the a7II with SteadyShot enabled to give you an idea of the video quality of the camera. For the most part, a lot of handheld shots can come out looking like they were shot on a tripod or fluid head but any kind of heavy motion and the SteadyShot can’t quite keep up.

As far as video picture quality, the a7II produces generally nice 1080p footage and the inclusion of picture profile control for shooting in a flat gamma profile like S-Log2 is helpful for post production color grading. That said, the a7II still relies on line-skipping to produce its 1080p image so the video is a lot more prone to moire and artifacts than the a7S (for example, check out the asphalt on the bottom of the frame at 1:37). So overall image quality of the a7II’s video seems just slightly lower quality than the a7S and much more on par with the other full-frame DSLRs on the market. So while the a7II has the added benefit of of stabilization, I still think the a7S still comes out as the winner for video production quality. This, of course, corresponds well to the fact that the a7S is also significantly more expensive than the a7II.

 

Quirks

The first and most obvious quirk of shooting with the a7II, in my opinion, is autofocus control point size and position. It requires too many button presses to adjust the position of the focus point: click the assigned button to open the Focus Settings menu, click the center button to enable moving the point and then use the 4 way directional rear pad to change the point’s position. Many other cameras allow you to adjust the point’s position directly with the directional pad, no additional button presses required, but the a7II requires at least two additional presses before it’s possible to move the focus point. In general, I tend to just leave it at the center and use the focus and re-compose method to get most of my off-center compositions.

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The next quirk that seems to affect me the most is the speed of the a7II. It seems fast in most operation until you start using continuous shooting or video modes. While actual shooting is fast, after recording a burst of photos or a video, the camera will prevent you from entering the menu, playback mode or changing any setting for several seconds, instead throwing up a message that says “Writing to memory card. Unable to operate.” Similarly, the camera has an excessively slow start time, at least 1 second long before the camera is ready to shoot and up to 4 seconds when booting for the first time with a fresh battery.

 

Battery Life and the Electronic Viewfinder

The battery life of the a7II is rated to a maximum shot number of 350 but in my experience this number will vary dramatically. Sometimes I can greatly exceed the rated battery life. For example, when shooting time-lapse footage, with the monitor disabled, I can shoot over 1000 frames on a single battery. Other days, if I have the viewfinder brightness turned up, use the Wi-Fi functionality, and review photos often enough, I’ll usually just fall short of the rated 350 shots. In practice, I usually make it a habit to carry an extra battery in my pocket when I’m out shooting with the a7II.

If you’re careful about your power usage, the camera has plenty of battery life. As soon as you get complacent about shutting the camera down though, it can suck down pretty fast. The day that I made this photograph of the tree, I shot numerous long exposure timelapse sequences with the a7II and the battery lasted for more than 500 shots.

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One noticeable battery hog on the Sony a7II (and the other a7-series cameras for that matter) is the eye-sensor activated electronic viewfinder. The little viewfinder is a bigger power hog than the rear LCD monitor and the viewfinder automatically turns on when anything is brought in range of it. Under normal expectations this wouldn’t be a problem as long as the viewfinder isn’t overused but there’s a serious battery draining issue that plagues the a7II and other Sony a7-series cameras: as long as the eye-sensor detects anything in range, the camera will never enter power-saving mode.

This issue means that when the camera is on and carried in a normal manner (with the strap around your neck and the viewfinder against your body), it will never enter power saving mode and the viewfinder will remain on, rapidly draining the battery. Anyone accustomed to using any other pro-oriented camera would expect it reasonable to leave a camera on, ready to shoot and rely on the power-saving sleep function to turn off most of the power-hogging functions of the camera between shots. A quick half-press of the shutter should immediately wake the camera, ready to fire the first shot. With the a7II or any other Sony a7-series camera around your neck, the camera will just stay on and drain the battery.

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If you want to make it to sunset with the camera around your neck, be sure to turn it off when you’re not using it. I constantly remind myself to turn off the camera to preserve the battery life and overall, I  think this need is detrimental to shooting spur of the moment occurrences as it requires you to turn the camera on and wait for it to start up (which isn’t instant) before you are able to shoot. Worse even still is to forget to power off the camera when you’re not using it for extended periods of time only to find that it has drained nearly 40% of its battery while around your neck doing nothing.

Now although the viewfinder is a culprit in reducing the camera’s battery life, I must say that it’s a joy to use. It’s as good or perhaps even better than the viewfinder found on the Fujifilm X-T1, something that camera is well known for. I like the deep eye socket relief on the a7II and the viewfinder seems capable of nice and bright levels for shooting in direct sun. There’s a plethora of information available through both the viewfinder and LCD and that’s one of the reasons I love using the a7II: zebra striping for any luminance value from 70-100+, different levels of focus peaking, a multi-axis level/artificial horizon, a real time histogram, or, if preferred, nothing but the scene.

Shutter

The shutter on the a7II has the capability for either fully mechanical or first curtain electronic shutter modes. Both modes are rather loud, with the fully mechanical shutter having a very heavy “kerch-clunk!” sound. The camera is a little bit quieter in first curtain electronic shutter mode but it’s still loud compared to a lot of other options on the market. There is no silent shutter mode like on the Sony a7S or Fujifilm X-T1 so this isn’t the best camera choice for shooting at the orchestra or some other situation where you desire to be “stealthy”.

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That said, some auditory feedback is usually welcome for most shooting situations. One of the only times that I truly became aware of how loud the a7II shutter can be is in an art and history museum in downtown San José, Costa Rica. The Museum was relatively empty mid-week so one of the more prominent sounds was my camera clicking away. It never seemed to be completely disturbing but it’s certainly not the quietest shutter sound

 

In-Camera Apps

Many of Sony’s camera have the ability to download apps via Wi-Fi for increasing functionality. In the case of timelapse shooting, the a7II requires either a third party intervalometer or the purchase and installation of the Sony Playmemories Time-Lapse app which costs an extra $9.99. I personally still think it’s lame that a feature as simple as an intervalometer is not included by default but at least it’s an option. The Time Lapse app offers a number of presets for various timelapse shooting situations as well as custom settings. It’s the same app that I used in my a7S review and not much has changed since. It’s nice to have the functionality but the need to enter a completely different shooting mode just to start an interval timer is a lot clunkier than most of the built-in interval timer functions found in most other high-end cameras (e.g. Nikon and Fujifilm). Furthermore, the performance of the apps is usually rather slow. Menu navigation is often different than outside the app, button presses seem overly slow in performance, and many of the camera functions you might normally use (like certain custom buttons) are not usable while running an app.

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There are also other apps available on the Sony PlayMemories app store in addition to the Time Lapse app. With apps like “My Best Portrait”, “Smooth Refection”, “Light Painting”, and “Sound Photo”, it seems like it’s filled with mostly gimmicks but I’ve found practical use of certain apps like “Touchless Shutter” for a no-vibration way of starting or stopping a bulb exposure and the “Smart Remote Control” app for controlling video and still recordings via a smartphone.

While the app features look really cool on paper, they still feel clunky and slow in practice. Hopefully we’ll see improvements over time. Unfortunately, the Sony app store is completely closed to developers and that’s frankly a shame for the development of future improvements to the in-camera apps. Essentially, we’re at Sony’s mercy.  I think the app store thing, while “with the times”, is a misstep in Sony’s camera line. If execution of the apps was more seamless with the “regular” camera interface, I might have a more positive outlook on them. No other enthusiast camera line seems to offer anything quite comparable as installable apps so it’s hard to compare to the likes of Canon and Nikon but I might have chosen to ignore this feature of the a7II if I didn’t make extensive use of the Time Lapse app.

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Autofocus

One of the improvements that the a7II claims over the original a7 is an improved autofocus system. The camera features additional on-sensor phase detection autofocus points when compared to its predecessor and supposedly offers improved autofocus speed and tracking capability. I’m personally a manual focuser, shooting about 90% in manual focus mode with the occasional press of the AF/MF button to autofocus. For single shot AF, I’ve found the a7II to perform well. The native FE lenses are the absolutely quietest lenses I have ever used for focusing (they’re almost perfectly silent, it’s amazing) and the a7II catches focus fast enough in most situations.

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That said, the a7II has a strange behaviour that compromises its AF performance at all but the lowest f/numbers: it keeps the aperture stopped to match the f/number while focusing, reducing the incoming light to the phase detection pixels. That means that if you stop to f/5.6, the camera will focus substantially slower than if you left the lens at f/2.8. I believe this is a software decision to allow the camera to simulate, in real time, the depth of field of the lens.

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In practice, stopping down the lens reduces the incoming light to the autofocus sensors and thus reduces the performance of the camera’s autofocus substantially. The problem is especially apparent at high f/number settings: the focus speed of a lens set at f/16 is noticeably slower and less accurate than when the same lens is set at f/2.8 on the a7II. I think this behaviour is a stupid decision on the part of the designers and one of the bigger downsides of the a7II. This problem could easily be fixed with firmware, providing substantial improvements to Sony’s autofocus system but I low confidence that Sony would provide such a service.

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In my testing of the a7II, the continuous AF and tracking capability of the camera works but is still not quite up to DSLR standards. The camera will predict subject movement fairly well while shooting a continuous burst of photos but it will tend to need to “recatch” focus once the burst is finished. The camera also features a “Lock-on AF” mode but I’ve found that this mode usually and eventually loses focus or can often start tracking the wrong object. I think that these AF heavy modes can work in a pinch but they’re still not as good as a traditional DSLR. Basically, the a7II is not a sports shooter. If you want a camera that performs excellently at tracking subjects, the smaller and cheaper Sony a6000 is excellent in this regard.

For my personal use, often using manual focus lenses and doing more methodical work like landscape photography, the a7II’s excellent manual focus peaking and focus magnification features are excellent for most of the shooting that I do so the missteps in the autofocus system don’t personally affect my ability to get the shots I want.

 

Image Quality

I am very satisfied with the Sony a7II image quality. The 24 megapixel sensor is more than enough resolution for pretty much everything I shoot and the camera handles low-light shooting very well. For low-light, it’s certainly not the a7S, but it’s quite good, even when paired with slow lenses. I would say that it’s sensor quality in terms of noise is perhaps just shy of the Canon EOS 6D, and very similar to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III which were my primary cameras for a long time and are good performers in their own right.

I’ve put together a collection of some of my favorite photos from my time with the camera so far. See below.

Costa Rica

For our first month of travel, we spent our time in Costa Rica. Living in the suburbs of San José, Costa Rica proved to be more of a photographic challenge than I thought. Furthermore, I limited myself to shooting solely with a 35mm lens for capturing the country. We initially explored the urban and suburban regions around Heredia and San José before venturing off to the rainforests of La Fortuna and the beaches of Manuel Antonio.

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One of the accessories that I have kept with me on my travels is an infrared filter. I’m still learning the best methods for shooting with it but I found it could render some dramatic black and white images. The a7II was fortunately very easy to use for shooting infrared as the live view was able to still allow me to precisely focus. Autofocus still worked through the infrared filter which is something I did not expect.

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The small urban center of Heredia where we stayed had a wild mix of contrasts from nicely maintained apartments to corrugated steel shacks. Most of the residences were secured with steel gates and barbed wire. Despite Costa Rica’s role as one of the most affluent Central American countries, it still has a substantial amount of poverty and crime. We did not encounter any problems while we were traveling but I did keep a close eye on the a7II at all times, taking it out only when needed for a photograph.

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When we arrived in La Fortuna, we rented a small 4×4 to reach the quiet town of El Castillo where we enjoyed some amazing views of Volcan Arenal, an active volcano adjacent to a massive man made lake, Laguna de Arenal. For most of the time there, the volcano was obscured by fast moving clouds. Only on occasion would the clouds part to show the summit. In order to capture it, I recorded several timelapse sequences with the a7II’s Time Lapse app,  just hoping that I could get at least one frame with the summit visible.
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The area around the Arenal Volcano is a national park and there are numerous commercial outfits in the park that offer tours of the rainforest. We opted for a “hanging bridges” tour where we explored the rainforest on foot, sometimes lofted several hundred feet high in the canopy of the forest.

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For much of the beginning of our rainforest hike it rained. Knowing that the a7II is not truly watersealed, I kept it in my bag in between downpours. The camera did withstand a few droplets here and there but I was still cautious, doing my best to keep it dry.

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México

The next set of photographs is from the second leg of our travels with the a7II: Mexico. We met a lot of amazing people in Mexico and many of them, like Rodrigo and Lu (pictured below), were kind enough to allow me to photograph them. I’ve already voiced my concerns about the a7II’s AF system, and like I said, I think it could be improved but in practice it seems to work just fine most of the time. Shooting the couple’s portrait of Rodrigo and Lu proved to be one of the more difficult situations for focusing but the camera did a fine job at getting critical focus in the dim backlit conditions of the sunset.

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In extremely low light shooting, the a7II’s noise profile is generally pleasant. When pushed to the extremes, the RAW files will show a salt and pepper grain that I usually find pleasant. The take home point is that the camera is a fine low-light performer but it’s not the best-in-class. The lower resolution Canon EOS 6D and Sony a7S are slightly better low-light performers. That said, the total differences in noise performance are small when compared to other full-frame cameras and ultimately the use of a reasonably fast aperture lens will make much more of a difference in low-light performance. I still really like a lot of the results I got from the camera at high ISOs and dark exposures. I found the grain to still be pleasant even at the maximum ISO 25,600 and so I would have no hesitation pushing the camera that high if the situation deems it necessary.

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For the portrait above, it was almost completely dark outside. In order to try to achieve as clean an image as possible, I kept the shutter time relatively long at 1/6th of a second and the lens wide open at f/2.8. Even with such bright exposure settings, it was still pushing the limits of the camera. I had auto-ISO enabled and so the a7II pushed the photo up to ISO 25,600 to keep a neutral exposure. The image is processed in Adobe Lightroom with default noise reduction (color noise reduction 25%) and no additional noise reduction applied. The result has a very film like grain to it and I would have to say that I’m quite pleased with the look. I think this is a great example of shooting with the a7II at the extremes of its capability. I don’t think I would have been able to stay still enough for the 1/6th shutter time had the a7II not had the SteadyShot system enabled. You can still see the effects of the slow shutter time if you look at Monica’s hair moving in the breeze.

And here are a few more of my favorite shots from our time in México:

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All of the photographs made with the a7II in this post so far were made with the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar T* lens. It’s the smallest full frame lens available for the Sony E mount and it proved to be a very good travel lens for our time abroad. It’s small and unassuming, sharp and very quiet in operation.

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One of the projects I worked on while in México City was the creation of an online a levitation portrait class. All of the photos featured in the class were shot on the a7II. To see all of the levitation photo examples, check out my writeup about the class or click on the photo below: intro

 

The United States

Upon returning to America, Diana and I set off on a road trip to shoot photos while touring our home country. At this point in our travels, I was able to carry a bit more gear so I added the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 and Voigtlander 15mm/4.5 Heliar III to my bag so some of the photos below feature some different fields of view when compared to the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 that I had with me in Costa Rica and Mexico.

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The a7II shows excellent dynamic range capability. Shadow details tend to be extremely clean and pull out of the image nicely. In practice, I have found that the RAW files from the a7II tend to be very forgiving in post processing exposure changes. I had some early concerns about Sony’s RAW compression scheme (an article detailing the effects of Sony’s RAW compression on dpreview.com) but in practice I have yet to find a case where I have noticed the effect. (Update: Sony has since released firmware update 2.00 that adds uncompressed RAW capability to the a7II.)

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While the a7II is certainly the heaviest mirrorless camera I have used, I still found it small enough and light enough to bring backpacking. One of my favorite shooting experiences so far was on a backcountry hike through the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. If you’d like to see some more photos of this locale, check out some of the sample shots in my Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar III review.

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With a fast lens, the a7II performs very well in low-light just as you would expect. I have found it to be a very good performer for astrophotography and other low-light shooting and I have no hesitation holding on to this camera for my on-going road trip across the the United States where I’ve taken every opportunity to capture the night sky in many of the remote dark locations where we have been staying. Paired with my personal favorite lens for astrophotography, the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, capturing the Milky Way was easy-peasy with the a7II. The a7II seemed to show the best results in these low-light conditions when used above ISO 800. At ISO settings above 800, the camera showed the best shadow details and tended to maintain an acceptable level of detail all the way up to ISO 25600. Overall, the camera did a great job at picking up faint star and airglow color.

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And even shooting the stars with the relatively slow Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III lens yielded some very good results. Despite the lens’s dark f/4.5 aperture, the camera made nice images in nearly pitch black conditions. The take home point is that the a7II is a very good performer in these kinds of conditions and I have no hesitation recommending it for use in low-light conditions. If you want to read more about my adventures shooting astrophotography, check out my Milky Way photography blog, Lonely Speck.

 

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Conclusions

The Sony a7II is a very good camera with some impressive specifications for the price. The a7II is not without its quirks. It’s user interface still lacks the polish I would expect of such an advanced camera. It’s a little slow to start up, it has a very long and deep menu system that is more complex than it needs to be and there are distinct bugs in its operation like the fact that it will not enter power saving mode if the viewfinder is obscured. The biggest disappointment is that these quirks and issues were some of the only gripes I had about the previous generation and they’re still present in this latest iteration and that’s one of the reasons I won’t be giving this camera a highly recommended rating. While the quirks can be worked around, I still wish they weren’t there in the first place. I’ve spend a fair bit of this review outlining a lot of the quirks of the camera but on the grand scheme of things, none of the issues I have with the camera completely overshadow the fact that it’s a very good and very capable photographic tool.

The Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III mounted with the Hawks Factory Leica M to Sony E Mount Helicoid Adapter V5 to the Sony a7II

The Sony a7II with the Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III

 

Most importantly, the a7II excels in image quality and offers the unique capability of internal image stabilization which is a first for any mirrorless full frame camera. Photographers and cinema enthusiasts looking to shoot handheld video will appreciate the stabilization capability, especially when paired with otherwise non-stabilized lenses. The stabilization system in the a7II is not a replacement for a real video stabilizer rig like a gimbal, but it does provide a tangible improvement in the smoothness of motion in most handheld shots.  The a7II has a tremendous feature set and as a result, it feels like you get a lot of camera for the money. It’s biggest competitor, in my opinion, is it’s predecessor, the original a7, which, at the time of this writing can be found for nearly $700 less than the a7II. For some, that $700 might seem like a steep price increase for the addition of in-camera image stabilization and a few video, body and button changes. Photographers shopping for a compact full frame camera should keep in mind that the cheaper Sony a7 shares the same sensor for much cheaper and in a smaller package but without the updated grip design nor the in-camera stabilization system. If stabilization is a priority for you, the a7II is the perfect choice but if stabilization is not a specific requirement, the original a7 offers a much more affordable alternative with similar image quality.

Overall, in spite of its quirks, the a7II is still does what it’s supposed to do extremely well. Judging the a7II on the scale of its competition, it offers a unique package. It’s smaller than most DSLRs, offers internal sensor stabilization, and some of the best still image quality on the market. For many, the capability to mount nearly any lens ever made and still have the benefit of sensor stabilization is enough of a reason alone to jump on buying the a7II. From a standpoint of capability, quality, and price, the a7II is hard to match. It’s, simply, a very capable piece of photography gear that will produce some excellent videos and stills. 4/5 Stars. Recommended.

Where to Buy

I personally buy almost all of my equipment through B&H or Amazon and without them, this review would not have been possible. They’re two of the most reputable online retailers, they each have an excellent return policy and are guaranteed to have the lowest prices anywhere online. If you are considering buying the Sony a7II, or any camera equipment for that matter, consider buying through the affiliate links on this page. You won’t pay anything extra but Photon Collective will receive a small commission (usually 2-4%) to help run the website. Here are the links for the equipment used in this article:

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Ian Norman

Creator at The Photon Collective
Ian Norman, co-founder and creator of The Photon Collective, is a full time traveler, photographer and entrepreneur. In February 2013, he called it quits on his 9-to-5 to pursue a lifestyle of photography. Follow Ian on Twitter and Instagram.

31 Comments

  1. i really enjoy your analysis and even more the way you write.

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  2. Thanks for the detailed review! I am a landscape amateur photographer (astrophotography time by time) struggling with choosing my next camera. I am considering the upgrade from an old DSLR and would like to get a mirrorless (dimensions and weight matter to me). So I am asking, how would you compare this camera to the new Fuji X-T2 regarding landscape photography? I would like to invest in a system without regrets, thank you so much 😉

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  3. Great review Ian! Love the way you write. It’s not just a review but I real use of the gear. I sold my canon 7D to buy a new one to capture photo but video too. The best way is to have 2 camera: video and photo but I’m not rich 🙂 I usually shot portrait photo and “street photo” but the last 2 years I use the camera to video too.
    The Gh4 a great to video and the Panasonic GX8 seem to be the good camera to do photo and video but the Sony A7II feel better in Photo and I love to experiment diferente lens (Helios, takumar, canon, etc). I don’t need 4k but a good camera to video too. The Sony A7ii are a good option to do this job?
    Thks 🙂

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  4. Ian, ole buddy: appreciate the comprehensive review.

    However, I disagree with one of the repeatedly mentioned major quirks – namely, that related to power saving. You certainly missed the Custom Setting Menu, Page 4 option titled “FINDER/MONITOR”.

    Using that option you can select MONITOR only. That switches off the viewfinder and enables power saving; the camera goes to sleep after 65 seconds. I timed it 🙂
    Yes, this limits user to using the LCD Monitor for on-the-spur-of-the-moment shots but enables keeping the camera alive.

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  5. Hi Norman,

    My name is Tamas. I’ve been following your site for a long time. It’s a really good review, btw. I would like to buy a camera for backpacking, bicycle touring, landscape photography and everyday use. It was always a problem for me to capture certain moments on the way due to the lack of professional camera. I’ve been reading reviews of the Sony A7 cameras for a long time, but It is still hard to decide which is perfect for my needs. The main reason that makes the choosing difficult is that I like astrophotography as much as you do. In terms of dynamic range which camera perform better, the A7II or A7S? Do you find enough that 12 MP for everyday use?
    What do you think about the new A7S II?

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    • I suggest you just get yourself a Nikon D3300 with the 18-300 zoom.

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  6. In your XT1 review on lonely speck, published before this review, you wrote that you prefer the XT1 over the A7ii. Is that still the case after using the A7ii on your trips?

    Thanks,

    Nick

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  7. Hi
    Great review .. Still have to read in full.

    A query..

    U had been a canon user with 5d and canon lenses.

    I have plenty of canon lenses 70 200 2.8
    16 35 2.8
    100 mm
    50 1.4 etc

    However i use it on 7d.

    I want to go full frame and get ibto compact wagon as well with a7 2 or a7 r or 6d or a used 5d m 3.

    Y didn t u consider using extensions on a7 keeping your existing canon gear aswell

    Regards

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    • Use of adapters to use Canon gear is viable with the a7 series but most of the lens designs are rather large and auto-focus is pretty variable depending on the lens. There are a lot of photographers that keep their Canon lenses but use the a7 bodies. I think it’s all up to personal preference. The 6D and 5D Mark III are both excellent cameras and if you already have the glass, may be the better choice in terms of monetary practicality.

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      • News about the U.S. Election will mostly be found in other posts. Short version: the Republicans won the House by a large margin, but failed to retake the Senate. — BThis may actually be a good thing.Now the House can throw legislation at the Senate, and have not just Obama but the Democrat Party as obstructionists.Plus they have enough true conservatives to hold filibuster in full effect for Judge confirmations. Not to mention that the GOP now occupies the House position with authority to investigate the Obama administration.

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      • It has been a pleasure seeing your photos. A few years ago my sister went to Istanbul, and all she could talk about was how dirty it was. I was aghast when she told me this, but then my sister is a stuck up bitch who sees “ancient” as “dirty”. One of the many reasons I hate her! Your pictures are gorgoous. What a beautiful place Istanbul is. Thank you for sharing!!

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  8. hello! i read all your review and it is pretty impressive buy i have a question, i’m a wedding photographer and i want to buy my first full frame, this sony a7ii is one of my top cameras to buy, do you recommend?

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  9. What would you choose for astrophotography – a7II or a7r

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  10. I consider the lack of GPS capability to be an incredible and unbelievable error. This capability is portant for both my archaeology images, and recreation astro landscapes. In fdct, this is so important that a bought an external GPS for my 6D to easily record direction pointed as well as location. It us unfortunate and itonic that sony pioneered built-in GPS for dSLR and then abandoned the tech.

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    • I felt the same when i bought my A77 II. Now i use GeotagPhotoPro on my Android phone to do the job. It works very well and doesn’t take extra time to find the satellites every time you switch on your camera. The accuracy of this app is excellent. Maybe this is something for you.

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  11. Hi Ian,

    You mention in the article that you’re currently using an infrared filter. How are you getting on with this? Any plans to put together a write up on your experiences? I’ve just bought myself an A7rii with 35mm F2.8 and really interested in some infrared photography a go at some point!

    Linford

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    • I prefer the a7S for its increased sensitivity and spectacular low-light performance.

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  12. This is your second review that I am reading and I am impressed. Thank you for sharing both your observations and photography.
    Onto the gear part. Why not replace that huge Samyang with the Voigtlander 21mm, which shares the same filter size as the 15mm? This way you will be able to review it, so I can decide whether it is worth buying 🙂

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    • Thanks Vlad!

      I’ve been looking at the Voigtlander 21mm for so long as an option… I am, however skeptical of its use as a night photography lens because most of the very fast Voigtlander lenses that I have used seem to have pretty high levels of aberration. That said, I was very pleased by the 15mm Heliar III so maybe I should give the 21mm Ultron a shot.

      I’ve been testing the new Sony FE 28mm f/2 and it’s pleasantly excellent (except in the distortion dept.) so I think I might end up replacing the 24mm with the 28mm. That said, I still love a little ultra wide shooting so a fast 21mm is enticing.

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  13. Great review! Ive been shooting with the A7ii since it got released almost. I also wrote a real world use article about my experience with the Zeiss 16-35, which can be read on the blog of my website at http://www.albertdros.com This might be interesting for people having doubts because of its pricetag. I previously shot almost all of my landscapes with the 14mm f2.8 Samyamg and now as a landscape photographer , the 16-35 is on my cam 90% of the time.

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    • I’ve been hoping to try out the 16-35mm f/4 sometime. After using the Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III, I’m no longer afraid of slower lenses on the a7II so the 16-35mm/4 looks like an excellent choice to cover the wide range.

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  14. I have been using the Sony A7 for the last year, mostly landscapes with my collection of Konica Hexanon AR legacy lenses and have been delighted with the results. I am impressed too with the A7 28-70 kit lens I must say. Of course with all those legacy lenses to use I am very keen to get the A7ii for the IBIS and was on the point of upgrading when Sony announced the A7Rii. This appears to be my dream camera but at the launch price being quoted I am hesitant to buy it in place of the A7ii.

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    • I think we’ll have to see how how the a7RII fares. It’s certainly very expensive but seems to offer a package that nothing else seems to match.

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  15. I hope you get a chance to review the A7r2 when its out. I’m planning to get that because of the amazing specs on it. I’m currently using A7, but when I bought it I was hesitant because of lack of IBIS. Its my first Sony camera, but what got me into it was the A99 when I played around with its IBIS. But since I figured…..technology is moving towards mirrorless, took the plunge and got the A7 to get a headstart on the lens collection until something like the A72 came out. Now…….I want the A7r2 instead!

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  16. What a great and timely write up – I’m an upgrader from the A6000 and now have the A7, and have been considering the A7II, mostly for image stabilization and weighing the extra weight & $$.
    – What is your funky soft wrap around the camera strap? That sony strap is nice and small, but has bad feels…
    – How does that 24mm 1.4 balance with the A7, especially on a strap or out on a hike? I’m trying to decide on the Rokinon/Samyang 14 F2.8 or the 24 F1.4 as my astro lens, but they are both pretty hefty for that camera. For now I’ve been using the crop sensor Rokinon 12mm F2.0 for it’s small size, which crops to about 15mm equivalent, but you’re working with about a ~15 megapixel image at that point.

    Great stuff, thanks!

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    • Jordan, the soft wrap is just a little sleeve that my girlfriend fashioned to fit over the stap.

      The 24mm f/1.4 is still a very large and heavy lens, especially to hang around your neck. I have been preferring the new 28mm/2, which I just got as a replacement for the monster 24mm f/1.4.

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      • What about the Zeiss Batis 25 f2.0? Anyone tried it? How is it for milky way photos?

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