Sony A7S II Review

December 3, 2015 | Mark Goldstein | |

Introduction

The Sony A7S II is a new 35mm full-frame compact system camera with a 12.2 megapixel sensor that provides an incredible ISO range of 50-409,600 and high dynamic range. Other standout highlights of the A7S II include internal 4K video recording with full pixel readout without pixel binning in full-frame format, Full HD 120fps and 4x/5x slow motion recording, gamma assist display, time code and optional XLR audio inputs, 5-axis image stabilisation system, BIONZ X image processor, a silent image capture mode, continuous shooting rate of 5fps, and an enhanced auto focus system with 169 AF points which can operate down to light levels as low as EV -4. The A7S II also features a dust/moisture-resistant magnesium alloy body, 0.78x magnification XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, tiltable 3-inch LCD screen, and NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity. The Sony A7S II is available now priced at around £2499 / $2999 body only.

Ease of Use

The aluminium bodied Sony A7S II is virtually identical to the A7R II and A7 II cameras, measuring 126.9 x 95.7 x 60.3mm and weighing 582g without a lens, battery and memory card fitted, some 140g more than last year's A7S. The A7S II has a large handgrip which protrudes forwards and is more DSLR-like than on the original A7S. We found it easy enough to get to grips with the A7S, but the new grip on the A7S 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 A7S II, and feel that the resulting increase in size and weight is a worthwhile compromise. Also located on the front of the A7S II is the newly reinforced lens mount using magnesium alloy and a small porthole on the left for the self-timer/AF illuminator.

The A7S II is Sony's latest full-frame camera with 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 A7S II offers 4.5-stops of compensation, slightly behind the Olympus OM-D E-M5 which offers 5 stops, but very impressive considering that the A7S II has a much larger sensor. Furthermore, the in-body system ensures that the A7S 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 A7S 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 A7S 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 A7S II readies itself for action in a just over a second, noticeably quicker than the A7S. 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.

The A7S II has a brand new reduced-vibration shutter with an electronic first-curtain that produces 50% less vibration from shutter movements than on the A7S, a very welcome improvement. The new shutter also offers an impressive cycle durability of approximately 500,000 shots, comparable to most pro-level DSLRs. The new Silent Shooting mode does exactly what its name suggests, taking the picture quietly without any sensor vibration or movement via the electronic shutter. In conjunction with the incredible ISO range, this turns the A7S II into a candid photographer's dream ticket.

The A7S II uses an enhanced "Fast Intelligent AF" contrast-detection system, comprised of 25 contrast-detection points and nine central AF points that have been split into 16 segments each, rather than the phase-detection systems that the A7R II uses. Although a little quicker than the A7S camera, the the A7S II's AF system does still suffer from a slight lag when shooting in good light or bad. It's certainly not terrible, but it's still enough to limit the A7S II's use to slower moving subjects, and it's also not up there with quicker contrast-based auto-focusing systems from the likes of Olympus and Panasonic on their compact system cameras.

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 and Zebra functions 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.

A round shooting mode dial with a knurled edge and positive action is also located on top of the camera with a new locking button at its centre, which is a little annoying in practice as you now need to use two fingers to change the shooting mode.

Sony A7S II II
Front of the Sony A7S II

Despite ostensibly being a camera aimed at professionals, Sony has still 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 A7S 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 A7S 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. 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 A7S 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.

In the clever Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur scene modes, the A7S 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 A7S II will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.

The Sony A7S II can shoot and record 4K video in multiple formats including full-frame and cropped Super 35mm formats, both without pixel binning. The Sony A7S II can output uncompressed UHD 4K, 3840 x 2160 pixel video (30p/24p/25p) at a 4:2:2 color depth without downsampling to either the inserted memory card or over HDMI to compatible third party recorders. The A7S II also supports the XAVC S format, which is based on the professional XAVC codec and records full-pixel readout 4K footage at 100Mbps and Full HD video footage at up to 50Mbps. In addition 1080p HD footage can be recorded at 120fps in XAVC S mode for 4x/5x slow motion recording.

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.

Sony A7S II II
Rear of the Sony A7S II

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 A7S 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 new S-Log3 Gamma and S-Gamut3 curves in addition to S-Log2 that are found on high end Sony Cinema cameras, plus it offers multiple timecode recording options to meet different workflows.

The Sony A7S II can shoot full-resolution 12 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 A7S II's regular continuous burst shooting can change the focus and exposure between frames but provides a slower rate of 2.5fps.

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 A7S II is a second prominent dial for setting the Exposure Compensation and two small buttons marked with C1 and C2, which as the names suggest can both 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 A7S II has an electronic viewfinder. The XGA OLED electronic viewfinder on the A7S II has been further upgraded to offer a large 0.78x 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 A7S 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.

Sony A7S II II
Top of the Sony A7S II

The A7S 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 A7S 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 A7S 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.

There's also a 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 A7S 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 A7S 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 A7S II is very welcome. In total the Sony A7S II offers 10 customisable buttons and 56 assignable functions, making it very easy to configure to suit your particular requirements.

Sony A7S II II
The Sony A7S II in-hand

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 A7S II is the self-explanatory Delete button, which doubles up as the customisable C4 button (accessing the wi-fi options by default).

As denoted by symbols on the side of the camera, the Sony A7S 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 A7S 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 A7S 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 A7S II. Other optional apps available include Picture Effect+, Bracket Pro, Multi Frame NR, Photo Retouch and 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 A7S 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 310 shots. In practice we only got around 200 shots when using the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen, which obviously draw on the battery for power. Sony have included not one, but two batteries and two separate chargers in the box, but it's still a good idea to invest in some extra batteries for an all-day shoot, and you can also recharge the battery in-camera via USB. The A7S II is also the latest A-series camera to be able to use an external USB power source to charge it whilst still taking pictures, which is very beneficial for time-lapses or longer video clips.

The removable memory card is housed within a compartment located on the right of the A7S II (when viewed from the rear), with the camera supporting the SD / SDHC / SDXC format in addition to Sony's own proprietary Pro Duo Memory Stick format. Positioned on both sides of the A7S 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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