Over the past two years, it would appear Sony’s internal motto has been to “Turn Heads,” having released one fantastic camera after another. In that time we saw the a7R, a really fantastic mirrorless 36-megapixel full-frame camera, the the a7S which dramatically changed how we thought about low-light cameras, and Sony also released the FS7, a cinema camera very much in the vein of the F55 but for a fraction of the price. Now Sony has unleashed the successor to the a7R, the a7R II and, with a couple exceptions, it does not disappoint. The Sony a7R II is a full-frame mirrorless 42-megapixel camera that shoots 4K internally. While this is a really great stills camera, Sony is obviously trying to capture the market when it comes to small form cinema cameras. This is a camera that will give every other budget cinema camera a real run for its money with a 4K image that is pretty darn close to the Sony FS7.
The Sony a7R II is a full-frame camera with a 24mm x 34mm CMOS sensor with 42 megapixels. The camera records 100mbps 4K at 30 fps or 24 fps in the compressed XAVC S at 4:2:0 but is capable of 10 bit 4:2:2 when using a capable external recorder. The a7R II has the wonderful ability, like the a7S, to switch between full-frame and super 35mm, giving your lens an extra 60 percent zoom. This is crazy-handy, and we use it all the time with both cameras. If HD is your resolution of choice, then you have a few options: XAVC S HD, AVCHD and MP4. In HD the a7R II records up to 120 fps in 720p.
The Sony a7S is actually a very small camera when compared to anything other than the Blackmagic Pocket Camera. It’s about the same size as the a7S and a7R. At 5 x 3.7 x 1.9 inches, this camera is smaller than most cinema lenses you would put on it. It weighs in at about a pound.
The body of the Sony a7R II is constructed from a magnesium alloy and finished to a matte black. The small camera fits in the hand nicely and feels very durable, but as usual, a durability test was not one we chose to perform.
The layout of the camera is nearly identical to the a7R and a7S. It has a 1.2-megapixel display screen that pulls back and tilts, though it does not turn or swivel. The viewfinder is very similar to a7S, and that’s a great thing. The viewfinder is amazing and is a real pleasure to use. It’s bright, with great contrast and is a higher resolution than the display at 2.4 megapixels. One of the first tests we put this camera through was to take it on a night hike up the side of a mountain outfitted with just the Sony FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 G OSS Lens, and no tripod. The a7R II was a real pleasure to use handheld with the viewfinder. It has a very natural feel, and with the new steadyshot image stabilization system, this is a small camera that can be used effectively handheld — but more on that later.
The factory default button layout on the Sony a7R II is just as annoying at the a7S, with the video record button on the side of the camera on the grip, the difference is, unlike the a7S where you are stuck with that placement, the a7R II has the ability to completely customize the layout of the buttons and also added two more custom function buttons. This is really terrific, as one of the biggest sacrifices we make when using small-form cameras like DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is there are very few buttons. The total number of buttons on the camera is nowhere near the FS7 or any other large-form camera, but it's a step in the right direction. Also the thing is a pound and ridiculously small — we’ll deal with it. One thing we really liked was assigning a custom button for the focus peaking setting so we could easily turn it on and off, what we would really like, though, is to be able to program one of the buttons to setting that switches between full-frame and super 35m. Come on, Sony! There’s an astounding 62 other choices, but not that one?
Like the a7S and the a7R before it the a7R II records to to standard SD SDHC, SDXC, Memory Stick Pro Duo cards, but for video, just make sure they are high speed and at least 64 GB in size.
The biggest question most people have with the a7R II is whether it is as good in low light as the a7S. First of all, the ISO range is more limited than the a7S. The a7R II maxes out at 25,600 with an extended range up to 102,400 and the a7S tops out at 409,600. We put the camera through a series of tests comparing how each camera did starting at ISO 800 and going all the way up to the max of 25,600. The tests were done in 4K, both full-frame and super 35mm mode with the picture profile five (PP5), mostly because S-Log tends to have a lot more noise than the other profiles. In full-frame, the a7R II reaches its usability limit at ISO 6,400, after that the noise is too much to use in most professional settings, but surprisingly in super 35mm mode, the camera was usable all the way up to ISO 12,000. We found this shocking because the a7S is so much noisier in super 35 mode than full-frame. However, the a7S is usable at a much higher ISO than those in either mode. Disappointingly, the low-light performance was not at all a match for the a7S, but that’s what the recently announced a7S II will be for. It should be noted that the bar is set pretty high by the a7S; the a7R II does decently well in low-light and leaps and bounds better than Blackmagic and many other cameras. If you’re lighting your scenes, this is a non issue. Low-light performance is not a fix for laziness.
Sony claims that in S-Log the dynamic range of the a7R II is similar to that of the a7S, which is an impressive 14 stops. While did not perform an scientific tests, we did a lot of comparison of the two cameras and they both performed about the same. The a7R II seemed to retain highlights marginally better, but nothing too extreme. The Sony a7R II, just like the a7S, is at its very best when over exposed. These cameras retain highlights better than most video cameras, so you can get away with it. When metered correctly or slightly underexposed the images quickly become noisy and lack range. They completely fall apart — that is true in every picture profile but especially S-Log. If you overexpose by about a stop magically that noise disappears and the image is amazing. If you have shot on the a7S, you are familiar with this silly work around.
One thing Sony has improved on is moiré — we found it difficult to produce.
Unfortunately rolling shutter is still an issue; Sony has yet to find a way around it. Rolling shutter isn’t as bad as it used to be, but we still need to work around it. The a7R II is about the same as the a7S, so don’t move your camera around quickly, particularly side to side, and don’t shoot propellers. Avoid these situations and you’ll be fine. One thing Sony has improved on is moiré — we found it difficult to produce. Even when shooting fine mesh, the detail is there with very little loss. The a7S has fantastic detail, and is a super sharp camera. The first thing we did was turn the sharpness down on the camera. In the menu, Sony calls sharpness “detail.” We find that you can sharpen an image in post easier than you can soften it while keeping the image looking natural — that and no one like seeing a subject’s pores and wrinkles.
The a7R II takes the same NP FW50 battery that the a7S and the a7R take, but when shooting 4K that battery drops quickly. Very quickly. We got about thirty minutes of battery if the camera was left recording non-stop, and a bit longer when turning the camera off between shots. The a7R II actually powers on very very quickly. When hiking, if we saw something we wanted to shoot, I would flick the power switch with my finger while bringing the camera up to my face and by the time I was looking through the viewfinder the camera was ready to go — real pleasure when compared to the a7S, which takes longer than it should to power on.
The poor battery life became apparent when we were testing the overheating problem of the camera. We set up the a7R II in the bright sun on a 107-degree northern California day and rolled 4K 100mbps in an attempt to see how long the camera would go before shutting down, but to our surprise the battery went first, at about 30 minutes in. Fortunately, changing a battery is super easy and quick. We were up and running again in less than 20 seconds. The camera went for about another six minutes before it overheated and turned off. We had to let it cool for a few minutes before it would stay on any longer than 30 seconds. This is a real problem for event videographers and documentarians, who need constant recording. However, in all our practical applications of the camera, this never became an issue and we were shooting all day in the sun — granted it was for shots that lasted less than a minute before moving on to the next one. This is an issue that needs consideration before buying the a7R II.
A fantastic new addition to the a7R II is Steadyshot. Sony built a five-axis image stabilization system onto the sensor. This can be turned on and off and the sensitivity adjusted. We mostly kept it on auto and it worked great. When we took it up the side of a mountain, and while standing there panting out of breath, we were still able to get smooth shots — shots that would normally be riddled with vibrations, jitters and jerks. The system works surprisingly well. It’s also a smart system. If the lens you’re using has a better image stabilization system built-in, then the camera will detect it and use that instead of steadyshot.
Sony also claims to have improved the autofocus accuracy and speed on the a7R II. They’re right. When compared to the Sony a7S, the a7R II performs much more quickly and more accurately. The autofocus behaves much more like traditional video autofocus and not like photography autofocus; the transition is very smooth. When steadyshot is turned on, there seems to be little difference in the speed and ability of the autofocus. The focus tracking has been perhaps the biggest improvement though. In the a7S, focus tracking is unusable. With the a7R II, it works great in bright light and but struggles in darker situations. For the most part, focus tracking is a very usable feature.
The Sony a7R II is a big leap forward in a camera line that continues to make leaps forward with significant improvements in areas like focus control and button customization while at the same time retaining many of the great improvement of the previous cameras. S-Log performance is fantastic; the dynamic range and image quality are astounding. Unfortunately, it does not have the same low-light performance as the a7S, but the a7S only has 13-megapixels on the same size sensor. The a7R II has 42, so of course the a7S would do better. Many are wondering if this is a replacement for the a7S and the answer is no. They are different cameras that have different strengths and weaknesses. This is a very powerful tool for filmmakers, both as a primary camera or a B camera to be used with a higher-end cinema camera.
- Fantastic image quality
- Internal 4K recording
- Built-in image stabilization
- Fully customizable buttons
- Overheats in warm weather during extended recordings
- Poor Battery Life
- Not as Good in low-light as a7S
Jason Miller is a professional filmmaker, editor and visual effects artist whose work can be been seen in feature films and national marketing campaigns