As any basketball fan knows, every player on a team has a role. For Sony’s full-frame mirrorless squad, the a7 and its successor, the a7 II, serve as all-purpose shooters filling many needs. The a7R II specializes in very high-resolution still photography and 4K video recording. And then there’s the subject of this review, the a7S II, which takes its place as the company’s low-light superstar, delivering a super high ISO range and even more video features for serious filmmakers. We tested an a7S II primarily with the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA lens, and help from New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño.
The a7S II follows relatively fast on the heels of the original model, and not everything on the camera has been overhauled. Indeed, the a7s II has the same 12-megapixel full frame sensor with the same (astounding) native ISO range of 100-102,400. Despite that already massive ISO range, the a7S II can be pushed to a maximum of ISO 409,600. Sony has also refashioned its image processing algorithms to better reduce noise as you push the ISO.
The camera has several other major improvements over its predecessor, including internal 4K recording (8-bit) with no pixel binning (i.e. throwing away resolution in favor of faster processing) and the incorporation of a 5-axis image stabilization system. HD video recording frame rates have been bumped to 120 fps for slow-motion capture. Several key video features have also been thrown in, such as S-Log3, a video format that delivers up to 14 stops of dynamic range. There’s a gamma display assistant that helps you view S-Log2/3 footage on the camera’s display in brighter colors than what those Log formats are actually capturing (you don’t have the benefit of gamma display assistant when outputting video to an external monitor via HDMI, however).
The version we tested was running the newest firmware that supports user-selectable compressed and uncompressed 14-bit RAW files.
Sony’s a7S II can practically see in the dark but trades away pixels to earn its night vision.
Like the other updated cameras in the the a7 line, the a7S II has been redesigned from the original model. The result is a more comfortable, more durable build that’s slightly larger than the original but more ergonomic. The magnesium alloy body weighs in at a svelte 1.4 pounds, a half pound lighter than Canon’s 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D810. It’s sealed against dust and moisture, but isn’t splash proof. The shutter is rated for an impressive 500,000 cycles and is noticeably quieter than the shutter on the a7 II. There’s also a silent shutter mode when you really need to shoot in stealth mode.
There are multiple custom buttons on the exterior of the camera to quickly access needed settings. While the movie record button sits a bit awkwardly on the camera’s hand grip, it too can be reprogrammed to a more accessible location.
The bright 3-inch display has 1.2 million dots and can be angled upwards to 107 degrees or downward by 41 degrees. Sadly, it’s not a touch screen. Now that the a7S II can record 4K internally, we would have also liked to see a second memory card slot for extra capacity.
The a7S II is based on a clear trade off: pixels for sensitivity. With a 12-megapixel resolution sensor, you’re not going to have nearly as much latitude for cropping or pixel peeping as you would with Sony’s other a7 models, or with full-frame DLSRs from Canon and Nikon. That said, images from the a7S II were color accurate and Patiño described the JPEGs as having a pleasing, warm tone.
What you get instead of plentiful pixels is a camera with a native ISO range that exceeds many of the extendable ISO settings of rival cameras. Given that, Patiño used it extensively to film behind the scenes stills and video in a recording studio. In dim ambient lighting, he pushed the a7S II across its native ISO range. The camera performed excellently up to ISO 25,600. At ISO 10,000, for instance, we were able to shoot in very low light and recover a remarkable degree of background detail when increasing the exposure in Lightroom.
At ISO 25,600 noise was clearly visible in JPEG images even before zooming in and was harder to remove without serious detail loss in the RAW file. At ISOs higher than 25,600 through to 102,400, Patiño tells us the a7S II wasn’t delivering images he could return to clients, “unless the content really warranted it.” For photojournalism and event photography, though, where the choice can often come down to a poor image versus nothing at all, the a7S II’s ability to create useable images in extremely dimly lit conditions is nearly unrivaled.
(ISO 12,800 @ 100 percent)
The a7S II also includes Sony’s updated firmware, which offers a choice of compressed or uncompressed RAW shooting. Uncompressed RAW files were about double the file size (25MB vs. 12MB for ISO 500 images) and had a bit more noise, though it was easily cleaned up in Lightroom. We didn’t notice an appreciable increase in sharpness or dynamic range in the uncompressed file—certainly nothing commensurate with the 2X increase in file size.
Unlike its predecessor, the a7S II is capable of recording 4K video (3840X2160) directly in camera using Sony’s XAVC codec. Video recorded in camera using the standard gamma curve and picture profile proved excellent, with pleasing color and tone. Patiño especially enjoyed shooting with the Distagon T* 35mm, which produced beautiful rounded bokeh and could be set to a de-clicked aperture for smoothly changing depth of field during filming. Navigating the menu proved a bit confusing though: S-Log settings aren’t clearly spelled out but are listed as unnamed Picture Profiles in the menu. Fortunately, there’s a real-time preview of each profile on the display to give you a sense of your options, but clearer naming would have been preferred.
The camera isn’t super quick to power up, but delivers solid AF speeds through its improved contrast-detection system (169 points). In low light, continuous focus mode struggled but single point AF performed remarkably well. If you need manual focusing, the camera has focus assist and peaking features to aid in composition.
The a7S II’s 5fps burst mode isn’t super-speedy and with AF locked on the first frame, you won’t be able to track a moving subject as effectively as with other cameras in this price point. When continuous AF is engaged, burst shooting drops to a very sluggish 2.5 fps.
Patiño found the 5-axis image stabilization system to be terrific, and while it’s not like “dropping the camera on a Ronin” he tells us that shooting handheld with a7S II at 1/80th produced consistently sharp images. We enjoyed sharp handheld results down to 1/30th sec. The camera is rated for a maximum of 4.5 stops of image stabilization per CIPA standards, depending on the lens.
Battery life measures in at an underwhelming 310 shots per charge by CIPA standards. Packing at least one other battery is a must—tacking on an extra $50 or more to your outlay for the a7S II.
For Patiño, habituated to having 50 megapixels at his disposal with the Canon 5DS, the a7S II’s 12-megapixel sensor made it far less attractive than Sony’s other full frame mirrorless shooter, the 42-megapixel a7R II. In fact, while Sony bills the a7S II as ideal for filmmakers, there aren’t that many differences in the video feature set between the a7S II and a7R II to necessarily make the former a slam dunk winner (even if it is $200 less expensive). That said, the a7S II’s impressive high ISO performance makes it an attractive option for those who require low-light performance above all else.
If you own the original a7S, an upgrade delivers better in-camera stabilization, faster autofocusing, faster HD frame rates at 120 fps and internal 4K recording—pretty significant boosts for video shooters, though there’s less in the update for still shooters. Compared to its full-frame DSLR competitors, only Nikon’s recently announced D5 can exceed the a7S II’s extendable ISO range, but at roughly two times the price. Comparably priced DSLRs can’t touch the a7S II in either low light or video capabilities. It’s lighter and more compact, but slower with a significantly shorter battery life than its pro-level DSLR competitors.
PROS: Light, comfortable ergonomics; high ISO shooting; great low-light autofocusing; excellent video features; internal 4K video recording; Wi-Fi and NFC.
CONS: Low resolution; no touch screen; poor battery life.
PRICE: $3,000 (body)
Related: Camera Review: Sony A7R II