Chances are you’ve seen the classic illustration of the evolution of the human race, from knuckle-dragging ape to striding homo sapiens. If you drew a similar illustration for advanced digital cameras, what would represent the apex of evolutionary progress? When Sony announced the A7 in 2013, it seemed, on paper, a likely candidate. Here was a camera that managed to deliver the sensor the pros craved with the interchangeable lenses they require, in a portable camera body that conventional DSLRs couldn’t match. Mirrorless had come of age. It sounded like the future.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Sony’s A7 is now a series of cameras with its progenitor entering its second generation. We went hands-on with New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño to see how this innovative mirrorless system is evolving.
The A7 II uses the same 24.3-megapixel full frame CMOS sensor that was introduced in the original A7. The native sensitivity range stays at ISO 100–25,600, with an option to expand to ISO 51,200. Like the original, the A7 II has Wi-Fi and NFC for transferring images to mobile devices and remote control.
What has changed is the image-stabilization system. The A7 II features a 5-axis stabilization system (similar to the one that impressed us on the Olympus E-M5 Mark II) to combat shake across a range of camera motions.
The design has also improved. The grip now has an enlarged area for your fingers, and the A7’s plastic front plate has been traded in for sturdier metal. Autofocus has been enhanced as well, with Sony promising a 30-percent jump in AF tracking, thanks to a new algorithm.
The A7 Mark II breaks from what we typically expect in a successor; rather than shed size and weight, the Mark II gains both to accommodate the sensor-shifting, 5-axis stabilizer. It weighs 1.3 pounds compared to the A7’s 1 pound. It’s slightly taller and thicker at 2.38 inches to the A7’s 1.9 inches. The girth increase is in the service of an improved grip, which has more room for your fingers and feels great to hold. While it’s chunky by mirrorless standards, it’s still lighter than full-frame cameras like Canon’s EOS 6D and Nikon’s D610.
There’s a 2.4-million dot OLED viewfinder that Patiño described as “the best he’s ever used” and a 3-inch display that tilts up at a 90-degree angle. But it’s not a touchscreen, and it doesn’t flip out completely from the camera body, which we would have preferred.
The A7 II delivers nearly identical picture quality as the A7, as the sensor and processor are the same. That’s a good thing. Patiño described the image quality as “excellent” with solid low-light performance through ISO 6400 before noise became an issue.
The inclusion of the 5-axis stabilizer greatly enhances still (and video) quality when shooting handheld at lower shutter speeds. We enjoyed blur-free results down to 1/10 sec handheld. The stabilizer performed equally well during video, keeping footage firm even while walking.
The A7 II delivers 1920x1080p60 HD in Sony’s XAVC codec (a variant of H.264) with a bit rate of 50Mbps. It’s not quite as high a bit rate as was achieved on Olympus’s E-M5 Mark II, but it still provided excellent quality. You’ll have the option to crop to an APS-C mode too, to approximate video captured by a Super 35mm-sized imager.
The A7 II starts up fairly quickly and shot-to-shot times were solid. It delivers burst speeds up to 5 fps in RAW for up to 25 frames. Switch to the highest-quality JPEGs and the buffer can accommodate up to 50 frames. This is downright pokey compared to other flagship mirrorless systems, but then again, none of them pack a full-frame sensor, so that’s not entirely fair. Compared to Canon’s EOS 6D, it’s a shade faster. Stacked against Nikon’s D750, a bit slower. It does, however, have a more generous buffer capacity than either of those models, but write times—the time it takes for the buffer to clear—still seemed to lag.
When announcing the A7 II, Sony said a new algorithm would enhance AF tracking by 30 percent, despite the fact that the second-generation camera would employ the same 117 phase detection and 25 contrast detection AF points as the original. While we can’t say for sure if the 30-percent figure is entirely accurate, we were definitely pleased with how quickly the A7 II locked focus in good lighting. Low-light focusing still proved to be a hit-and-miss affair.
The A7 II’s shutter is noisy, clanging loudly to announce each and every frame we shot. Street shooters and others hoping to photograph in relative stealth take note: discretion is not the better part of the A7 II’s valor.
You’ll enjoy 350 shots per charge by CIPA standards when framing with the LCD or 270 when framing with the viewfinder. That’s poor by full-frame standards—at least in viewfinder mode—and trails the performance on APS-C mirrorless systems like Samsung’s NX 1 or Panasonic’s GH4.
When we asked Patiño to sum up his time with the A7 II, he didn’t mince words, telling us “I loved this camera” and that it was “awesome in every way.” When we asked him, glancing at his shelf full of Canon bodies and lenses, whether he would consider switching to a new system, there was a long pause. “I don’t think so.”
For Patiño, years of investment in Canon glass and bodies, and the familiarity of his current gear, among other factors, keep him anchored. We suspect other pros may feel the same.
Since the A7 was announced, Sony has worked hard to seal the deal with more pros. They’ve continued to introduce high-quality lenses for the system in tandem with Zeiss. They’ve diversified the lineup to focus on video (A7S) and high-resolution still photography (A7R), and now have rolled out a second generation that makes compelling improvements to the original. It also bears mentioning that as of this writing, Sony is keeping the original A7 on the market, dropping the price to under $1,000. More work undoubtedly needs to be done—evolution is a process, not a destination—but Sony is definitely on the right track.
PROS: Lightweight; excellent image quality; intuitive menu; tilting display; high-quality EVF.
CONS: Low-light focusing lags behind competitors; sub-par battery life; noisy shutter.