Digital devices often look good on paper but don’t always follow through to meet the promises of their specifications. Not so with the Sony a7R II, which is chock full of features, technology and performance enhancements that held real promise when first announced. Should you believe the a7R II hype? Yup.
The a7R II is the fifth in Sony’s excellent a7-series of full-frame mirrorless cameras and, like the a7-to-a7 II succession, offers in-camera 5-axis image stabilization and a deeper grip on a slightly larger body. Among other physical adjustments and improvements, controls have been slightly revamped to complement the camera’s new grip.
Under-the-hood updates are the most notable, however. Built around a newly developed 42-megapixel backside illuminated sensor, the a7R II jumps in resolution from its predecessor’s 36-megapixel sensor. The camera is now capable of a native ISO from 100-25,600, which can be expanded to 50/102,400. Continuous shooting moves just a little faster at 5fps, up from the a7R’s 4fps.
Vibration is a special concern with high-resolution cameras and the a7R II’s new 500,000-cycle shutter was designed to reduce vibration by 50 percent compared to the a7R. A silent shooting mode is also available for quiet, vibration-free shooting.
Even more impressive is the camera’s 399 focal-plane phase detection AF points, providing exceptionally broad coverage across the sensor. Paired with 25 contrast AF points, Sony claims about a 40 percent faster focus response with the new model. Using an LA-EA3 or LA-EA1 mount adapter, Sony A-series lenses will also take advantage of the faster AF system.
Video features have also been updated and the a7R II can now capture 4K video in-camera, with full-frame and Super 35mm crop options. Taking advantage of the XAVC S codec, the a7R II records at 100 Mbps for 4K and 50 Mbps for full HD. You’ll also find several other advanced video features including S-Log2 Gamma and S-Gamut and clean HDMI output. For slow motion fans, there’s a 120fps movie mode, albeit in 720p.
As expected, the a7R II, like its siblings, is Wi-Fi and NFC compatible.
The new, deeper grip is a welcome change to the a7R II. Even though the camera is slightly larger and measures 5 x 3 7/8 x 2 3/8-inches and weighs 1 pound 6 ounces (with battery pack and media), the size and weight differences are minimal. The deeper grip delivers maximum impact.
Sony a7-series users will have no trouble transitioning to the a7R II but will find a larger and lockable mode dial. The shutter, on/off switch and forward dial have moved to the top/front of the grip and provide another ergonomic improvement to its predecessor.
Most controls are within easy reach but we found that, as on the a7R, the red movie button is difficult to activate. It’s tiny and flush to the side of the camera and while there’s no chance of accidentally triggering video capture, finding the button by touch was challenging, as was applying the right amount of pressure to engage the movie mode.
The one external control we’d put on our wish list, though, is a dedicated manual focus point selector. Although you can customize a dial for quicker access, we’d rather have a dedicated button.
Given the a7R’s image quality, it only stands to reason that the a7R II would be a strong performer. Images are clear, sharp and finely detailed, in part thanks to the lack of an optical low-pass filter. Textures were reproduced with great accuracy. Colors were rendered naturally shooting a Standard profile, which can be tweaked and fine-tuned to your preferences with the camera’s various Creative Style options.
The camera handled image noise quite well and its noise profile is certainly improved over its predecessor’s. We wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at ISO 6400 and, unless making large prints, might push it to 12,800. After that, it’s really up to your sensitivity to noise (no pun intended) and the final output requirements.
We didn’t test the a7R II’s video as extensively but the footage we shot—and footage we saw from others—was quite good. Images were sharp, clear, with accurate exposure and color rendering. While HD and UHD footage was stable, 4K footage shot in crop mode exhibited more rolling shutter than that shot on any other resolution. It wasn’t a deal breaker but something to keep in mind.
While we were pleased with the camera’s overall performance, battery life was disappointing. A CIPA rating of 290 shots (EVF) or 340 shots (LCD) isn’t that impressive and we found that we ran down the battery more often than expected. With that in mind, if you buy one accessory for the a7R II, make it a battery grip for double the capacity.
The a7R II’s continuous shooting speed of 5fps doesn’t qualify it as a sports shooter but thanks to the camera’s fast and accurate continuous AF and tracking, moderate sporting activities (like skateboarding) can be captured with more focusing hits than misses. For static subjects, the camera quickly locks in focus in good light and only very slightly more slowly in low light. Focus peaking is available for critical manual focus as well. But one of our favorite features is Eye AF, which keeps the focus on a subject’s eye—which is ideal for static or slower moving subjects.
For handheld still images, Sony’s 5-axis image stabilization system worked well, as it does on the a7 II. Having often tried to maintain a minimum 1/125th sec. shutter speed, especially when caffeinated, we easily handheld shots captured as slow as 1/60th sec. For those with steadier hands than ours, slower shutter speeds are within easy reach.
Using a high speed card, we were able to capture about 22-23 RAW and large/fine JPEGs at 5fps before it slowed to a crawl, which is impressive for a camera pushing such large file sizes. But it took longer than expected to clear the buffer—at least 25 seconds by our rough estimate.
Overall, the a7R II generally met or exceeded our expectations. It’s a solid camera and will make an excellent addition to the gear bag of any photographer who’s looking for a high resolution, high quality but compact mirrorless camera. The a7R II is a great backup for DSLR shooters for a lightweight alternative and while current a7R users may think twice about shelling out $3,200 to replace an already highly capable camera, the new model offers a long list of improvements—and 4K recording—that may be worth trading in the older model.
Fast-action shooters need not apply but for those whose subjects move at a slower pace (or not at all), the a7R II deserves strong consideration.
PROS: Excellent image quality; extensive feature set; 5-axis image stabilization; fast and accurate AF; good noise performance at high ISOs.
CONS: Relatively slow buffer clearing; slow start-up; rolling shutter in 4K crop mode; pricey.
PRICE: $3,200 (body only)