Sony A7 II Review

March 4, 2015 | Mark Goldstein | |

Introduction

The Sony A7 II is the world’s first 35mm full-frame compact system camera with 5-axis optical image stabilization, providing up to 4.5 steps faster shutter speed of correction. The Sony A7 II has a 24.3 megapixel full-frame sensor with an optical low-pass filter, a dust/moisture-resistant magnesium alloy body, ISO range of 50-25600, 30% faster hybrid auto focus system with 1.5x improvement in performance in tracking, 5fps burst shooting, XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, tiltable 3-inch LCD screen, NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity, Full 60p/24p HD movie recording with added XAVC S and S-Log2 support and 4K photo output for viewing on Ultra HD displays and TVs, and 40% faster start-up time. Ergonomic improvements include a new front dial, a bigger right-hand grip, a repositioned shutter release and a reinforced lens mount. The Sony A7 II is available now priced at around £1299 / $1699 body only or £1549 / $1999 with the Sony FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens.

Ease of Use

The aluminium bodied Sony A7 II is slightly bigger and heavier than the original A7 model that it replaces, but it's still quite small and slender overall, measuring 126.9 x 95.7 x 59.7mm, and weighing 556g (140g more than the A7) without a lens, battery and memory card fitted. This increase in size and weight is largely down to the much bigger handgrip, which protrudes forwards and is more DSLR-like than on the A7. We found it easy enough to get to grips with the A7, but the new grip on the A7 II makes for an even more secure hold. Sony have taken advantage of the bigger surface area to re-position the shutter release, which now sits in a much more logical position on top of the handgrip, with a new command dial also more conveniently located on the front. All-in-all, we're impressed with the ergonomic improvements that have been introduced on the A7 II, and feel that the resulting increase in size and weight is a worthwhile compromise. Also located on the front of the A7 II is the newly reinforced lens mount using magnesium alloy and a small porthole on the left for the self-timer/AF illuminator.

The Sony A7 II is the world’s first full-frame camera with an optical 5-axis image stabilization. Most image stabilization systems compensate for camera shake by correcting yaw and pitch. Sony claim that camera shake is actually caused by five different kinds of motion, and their image stabilization mechanism additionally corrects for horizontal shift, vertical shift and rotary motion (rolling) for both still images and movies. The A7 II offers 4.5-stops of compensation, slightly behind the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 which offers 5 stops, but very impressive considering that the A7 II has a much larger sensor. Furthermore, the in-body system ensures that the A7 II can stabilize all kinds of lenses, not just those with the FE designation, including E-mount lenses without Optical SteadyShot (OSS) and A-mount lenses as well, although third party lenses without any electronic contacts only benefit from three axes of compensation, and you need to input which focal length you’re using.

On top the A7 II has an external hotshoe, dubbed the Multi Interface Shoe, for attaching one of a range of accessories, including an external flash. Thanks to its electronic front curtain shutter, the A7 II has a sync speed of 1/250th sec, making it well suited to flash-based portrait photography. Turn the On/Off switch on the top plate and the Sony A7 II readies itself for action in under a second, noticeably quicker than the A7. The adequately sized shutter-release button has a definite halfway point, determining focus and exposure with a bleep of affirmation and focus points highlighted as green rectangles on the LCD. Note that wehn you do fire the shutter, it continues to emit a rather loud mechanical sound which isn't particularly well-suited to more candid moments.

The A7 II uses a hybrid AF system which employs both phase-detection and contrast-based auto-focusing, with 117 phase-detection points and 25 contrast-detection points. Despite being 30% faster according to Sony, the A7 II still takes a little longer than we'd like to lock onto the subject compared to a comparable DSLR or a class-leading compact system camera like the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

When you choose to manually focus, a distance scale is displayed along the bottom of the LCD screen, MF Assist can be turned on to magnify the image and help you get sharp results, and there's also the same convenient Peaking function from Sony's DSLRs that highlights sharply-focused areas of the image on the LCD screen. Go on to take the shot and JPEG or Raw images are quickly committed to memory in a single second, the screen momentarily blanking out and then displaying the captured image before the user can go on to take a second shot.

Sony A7 II
Front of the Sony A7 II

A round shooting mode dial with a knurled edge and positive action is also located on top of the camera. This lets you quickly switch between the various shooting modes that are on offer. Sony has included Intelligent Auto scene recognition, which works in virtually identical fashion to the intelligent auto modes of Panasonic's and Canon's compact ranges. Simply point the A7 II at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of a number of pre-optimised settings to best suit.

Adding to the A7 II's snapshot simplicity, these features accompany face recognition and smile shutter functionality on board, the former mode biasing human faces in the frame and the latter mode firing the shutter when it detects a smiling subject. The Face Detection system automatically adjusts the focus, exposure and white balance for people in the frame, and can even be set to distinguish between children and adults. Smile Detection offers three self-explanatory options, Big, Normal and Slight. Used in conjunction, the Face and Smile Detection systems do result in more hits than misses, especially in contrasty lighting conditions, although all those smiling faces could ultimately freak you out a little! The self-portrait options in the self-timer menu work by automatically taking the shot with a two second delay after either one or two people have entered the frame.

In addition to the regular Program mode, which provides the full range of camera options and additionally allows you to change settings like the ISO speed and metering, is the welcome inclusion of Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and fully Manual modes which let you independently set the aperture and shutter speed, making the A7 II instantly appeal to the more experienced photographer. The ability to choose from 30-1/8000th second shutter speeds opens up a lot of creative potential. There's also very welcome support for the RAW file format, which is really the icing on the cake for serious photographers, although we don't like the fact that you still can't capture Extra Fine JPEGs and Raw files at the same time. Two Custom modes on the shooting mode dial allow you quickly access different combinations of settings.

The proven Sweep Panorama mode lets you capture a panoramic image very easily without the use of a tripod. All you need to decide is whether you would like to start from left or right, top or bottom. Then press and hold down the shutter release while doing a "sweep" with the camera in hand. Exposure compensation is available before you start the sweep, but the exposure is fixed once you depress the shutter button. After you are done with the sweeping, the camera does all the processing required, and presents you with a finished panoramic image. There are two modes, Standard and Wide. Note that if you do the sweeping too slowly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will be truncated.

Sony A7 II
Rear of the Sony A7 II

In the clever Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur scene modes, the A7 II takes six shots in a rapid sequence, typically at a high sensitivity setting and a (relatively) fast shutter speed, and then combines them into a single image that has somewhat less noise than a single shot taken at the same ISO and exposure settings. In our experience, the difference between the two modes is that in Anti Motion Blur mode, the camera is more willing to pick a really high ISO setting like ISO 6400 to maintain a fast shutter speed, whereas in Hand-held Twilight mode, it will only go as high as absolutely necessary to avoid camera shake at the chosen focal length. If light levels are truly low, however, the A7 II will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.

The tiny dedicated Movie button on the rear of the A7 II allows you to start recording a movie with a single, rather awkward push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button. The Sony A7 II now supports the XAVC S format, which is based on the professional XAVC codec and records full-pixel readout Full HD video footage at up to 50Mbps. The A7 II can also shoot 1920x1280 pixel video at 60p/50p/60i/50i or 25p/24p in the AVCHD format, and 1440x1280 or 640x480 pixels at 30fps in the MPEG4 format. There's the ability to change the EV level, white balance, metering, ISO speed, DRO/HDR, creative style and picture effect, plus various audio recording options. If you set the shooting mode dial to Movie, you can also choose from Program, Aperture or Shutter priority and Manual modes, giving you full control over exposure for both stills and movies.

The clean HDMI output from the camera also allows video to be viewed on an external monitor or recorded on another device. High-resolution still images can be displayed directly on a 4K television, offering four times the detail of Full HD. The A7 II incorporates extensive customizable color and gamma controls, offering the ability to adjust the gamma, black level, knee, color level, and more, as well as use the same S-Log2 Gamma Curve that is found on high end Sony Cinema cameras, plus it offers multiple timecode recording options to meet different workflows.

The Sony A7 II can shoot full-resolution 24 megapixel pictures at up to 5fps, quite a fast rate for a 35mm full-frame camera. To achieve the full 5fps you need to set the drive mode to the Speed Priority Continuous option, which locks the focus and the exposure at the first frame. The A7 II's regular continuous burst shooting can change the focus and exposure between frames but provides a slower rate of 2.5fps.

The Clear Image Zoom function effectively digitally doubles the zoom range of the attached lens, using Sony's Pixel Super Resolution Technology to increase the magnification. The Auto Object Framing mode uses face detection and the rule of thirds to automatically crop and create more tightly framed shots. The same Pixel Super Resolution Technology ensures that the resulting image is still a full 24 megapixels in size, and the original uncropped image is also saved for easy comparison.

Sony A7 II
Top of the Sony A7 II

Sony's long-standing D-Range Optimizer and HDR functions are present to help even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow. You can see from the examples on the Image Quality page that these features produce a photo with noticeably more dynamic range than one taken using one of the standard shooting modes, but at the same time without replicating the often "false" look of many HDR programs, and both offer a wide degree of customisation that's previously only been seen on Sony's DSLR/SLT range.

Completing the top of the A7 II is a second prominent dial for setting Exposure Compensation and two small button marked with C1 and C2, which as the names suggest can be customised to access one of the camera's key controls.

On the back, instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Sony A7 II has an electronic viewfinder. The OLED electronic viewfinder on the A7 II is borrowed from the NEX-7 and NEX-6 compact system cameras and the A99 DSLR, and is simply excellent. It has a large 0.71x magnification, 100% field of view, and a staggeringly high 2,359,000 dot equivalent resolution, resulting in a display that's virtually indistinguishable from a more traditional optical viewfinder.

As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information, with a choice of five display modes. For example, you can view and operate the A7 II's Function Menu, giving a true preview of the scene in front of you and quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible. The icing on the viewing cake is the clever built-in eye sensor, which automatically switches on the viewfinder when you look into it, then switches it off and turns on the LCD monitor when you look away.

The A7 II's EVF system also performs very well indoors in low light, typically the scourge of most EVFs which have to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. The A7 II doesn't suffer from this unwanted effect at all, making its electronic viewfinder the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder. The truest testament to the A7 II is that we almost exclusively used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that we wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.

Sony A7 II
Tilting LCD Screen

There's also an improved 3-inch, 1,228K-dot resolution White Magic panel LCD screen which can be tilted up to 41° downwards to shoot over crowds or up to 107° upwards and comfortably used outdoors even in harsh sunlight, although it still can't be rotated to the side. Located above the screen and to either side of the EVF are the Menu and C3 buttons.

Press the Menu button and a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with white text on a black background aiding visibility. The seven shooting folders allow users to select image size, ratio and quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too, plus features like long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact activated as a default, and also contains the video quality and audio options, while the six Customise folders allow you to tweak the A7 II to your way of working. Wi-fi, Apps, Playback, and Setup folders complete the long list of configurable options. By default the C3 button allows you to change the Focus Mode, but as the name suggests it can be customised to another function.

To the right is the slimmed-down rear control dial and a useful one-touch movie record button embedded within the edge of the rubberised thumb-rest. Underneath is the combined AF/MF and Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) switch/button, and underneath that the Function button which accesses up to 12 customisable options that appear on in two horizontal columns along the bottom of the LCD screen. The Function menu proves to be a very handy way to quickly change the A7 II's key settings and one of the main ways of setting the camera to suit your shooting style.

The traditional round navigation pad can be used to navigate through menus and options, in conjunction with the small button in the middle which activates whatever it is you've chosen. Three of the four directions on the navigation pad can also be customised to provide a quick way of setting various options. The navigation pad doubles up as a control ring that's used to navigate through and set menu options, and usefully also has a new setting to choose the ISO speed. The ring is a little small, but it's not too over-sensitive and the ability to take full control of the A7 II is very welcome. In total the Sony A7 II offers 10 customisable buttons and 56 assignable functions, even more than the A7, making it very easy to configure to suit your particular requirements.

Underneath the navigation pad is the Playback button, which gives users the ability to dip in and out of created folders of images or the calendar view, view thumbnails, select slideshows and choose transitional effects and accompanying music, or delete shots. Press the shutter button halfway and you're helpfully catapulted back into capture mode. And that's basically it. With a press of the Menu button in playback, users have access to a few in-camera retouching effects, including the ability to crop and sharpen an image and apply red-eye correction. Completing the rear of the A7 II is the self-explanatory Delete button, which doubles up as the customisable C4 button (accessing the wi-fi options by default).

Sony A7 II
The Sony A7 II In-hand

As denoted by symbols on the side of the camera, the Sony A7 II is wi-fi and NFC capable and the functions can be adjusted in the Wi-fi main menu. You can choose to transmit the images to either a smartphone computer, or a compatible TV set. One cool feature of the wi-fi is being able to link the camera to your smart phone using the PlayMemories Mobile app. You can then use the phone as a remote so those outstretched arm 'selfies' will be a thing of the past. The A7 II also features NFC (Near Field Communication) technology (the same technology that's used for mobile payments), which allows you to connect it to a compatible internet enabled device or another NFC-enabled camera by simply tapping them together. You can also use the WPS Push option to locate a hot spot, access settings, edit the device name, display the MAC address or format all settings if you wish.

In addition to the built-in wi-fi/nfc connectivity, the A7 II supports PlayMemories Camera Apps. As the name suggests, this is a downloadable service that lets you add new functionality to the camera, either via wi-fi or USB connection. Smart Remote Control, which allows you to control the exposure and shutter release via your smartphone, is preinstalled on the A7 II. Other optional apps available include Picture Effect+, Bracket Pro, Multi Frame NR, Photo Retouchand Direct Upload, and Sony plans to provide more new apps in the near future. Note that only some of the apps are free.

The bottom of the Sony A7 II features a standard metal screw thread for attaching it to a tripod that's inline with the centre of the lens mount. A lockable plastic cover protects the lithium-ion battery, officially good for 270 shots. In practice we only got just 200 shots when using the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen, which obviously draw on the battery for power. Note that the camera battery is also inconveniently charged via the USB port, rather than a separate charger, so it's a very good idea to invest in some extra batteries.

The removable memory card is housed within a compartment located on the right of the A7 II (when viewed from the rear), with the A7 II supporting the SD / SDHC / SDXC format in addition to Sony's own proprietary Pro Duo Memory Stick format. Positioned on both sides of the A7 II are prominent metal eyelets for attaching the supplied shoulder strap. On the left are two unmarked, sturdy plastic covers, underneath which can be found the Multi port, HDMI port, and the external headphone and microphone connections.

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