Sony a7S II - Front

Few camera manufacturers garner more excitement in the low budget and small production community these days than Sony, and deservedly so. Sony has been one of the biggest and most important professional video camera manufacturers for a long time but were late in the DSLR and mirrorless game. That changed dramatically after the release of the a7S. Amid much anticipation, Sony has dropped their follow up, the Sony a7S II and really on the the heels of the new a7R II which came out just a couple months ago and was really a spectacular camera. The a7R II had a lot of great new features that improved on both the a7S and the a7R, the only thing missing was the insane low-light performance of the a7S.

We were really hoping the new a7SII would basically be the love child of the a7R II and the a7s, a 4K mirrorless camera with great image quality, fantastic focusing features and built in image stabilization, all with the ability to shoot in very low light. What we got isn’t exactly that. While the Sony a7S II looks identical to the a7R II, it’s missing some of our favorite features, but most important, it’s missing a new logo on the front, it just says a7S, not a7S II. When I am out shooting, how will people know I just spent a bunch of money on the new camera? Sony, why can’t you play into my ego just a little? Your mirrorless cameras are tiny and you can’t tell the models apart.

Looks Aren’t Everything

Let’s take a look closer look at the camera itself. Again it looks exactly like the a7R II and very similar to the a7S. The new a7S II is thicker and heavy than its predecessor, the a7S, and has that nice matte black finish like the a7R II. This is good; the a7S is almost too small, but the a7S II feels like a professional stills camera in your hand, though it is still much smaller than something like a Canon 5D mk III.  Also, like the a7R II it has several custom function buttons that you can program to do almost anything you want. You can even move the record button to someplace more logical than its default — the side of the camera. This camera retains all the great features of the a7S. You still have focus peaking and zebra stripes, a menu system that is for the most part pretty easy to understand and use, a fantastic viewfinder and an LCD display that pulls back and tilts. It would be great though if the LCD did more than tilt, like perhaps pull around and swivel.

A really great feature that debuted on the a7R II is a 5-axis image stabilization system built into the sensor. Other than 4K, that was our favorite thing about the a7R II. The stabilization system on the new a7S II seems to be very similar, and that’s fantastic. It works really, really well. We were able to walk around the streets of San Francisco with no tripod or support system, just the camera and some lenses, and still get some great footage. One of the biggest issues with these small cameras is that generally you need some kind of stabilization system when not locking off the camera on a tripod.  By solving this, the a7S II, like the a7R II, is a really fun camera use is almost any situation. One problems we experienced with the 5-axis image stabilizer is that it tries to stabilize the sensor even when used on a slider or dolly. We didn’t notice this until we were going through footage, but many of our slider shots had some subtle image warping due to that system. We recommend you turn it off when using a slider or dolly.

The Sony a7S II has a 12.2-megapixel CMOS sensor very similar to the a7S. The image out of the Sony a7S II is superb. The sensor handles skin tones nicely in every picture profile, but especially when using Slog. The image is super clean and very cinematic. There is a lot less noise than the a7S, in particular when you down convert the 4K footage to HD. The latitude in the a7S II is amazing and incredible in Slog, just like the a7S, you can get around 14 stops. Don’t expect an image too much different from the a7S, outside 4K and Slog3, footage from the two looks and feels very similar. That’s not a bad thing though. These Sony Alpha cameras do an amazing job at retaining information in the highlights, there were many cases where we thought we were clipping but there was still infomation there. Its a sensor that tends to produce better images when slightly over exposed, just like the rest of the Alpha cameras. This is a sensor that also captures a lot of detail, and normally that would mean moire issues like the a7R II, but we are super happy to report that we noticed no real moire problems.

The latitude in the a7S II is amazing and incredible in Slog, just like the a7S, you can get around 14 stops.

The Sony a7S II, like the a7S, has the ability to record up to 120 frames per second, but unlike the a7S, you can record it in full HD, not just 720. Now a 120 frame per second isn’t anything crazy like the 960fps on the FS700, but it’s still really great.  Know this though, when shooting 120 fps, the camera really crops the image, much more than the standard 35mm crop. Speaking of which, when recording HD you still have the really great ability to switch between full frame and super 35, but unfortunately not when shooting in 4K.

A lot of people have complained about how noisy this camera is, and they are right. There is a lot of noise, but you can reduce it dramatically by overexposing a little. Generally speaking we tend to avoid over exposure in video because we don’t want to clip those highlights, but the Alpha cameras do such a great job retaining that information you can afford to overexpose a bit and when you do that noise is greatly reduced. When you get in post just drop the blacks a little, add a little contrast and suddenly the image is very clean, beautiful and cinematic. This how we have found to get the most out of the Alpha series cameras. Keep in mind all cameras have noise. Film even has tons of noise. No matter what camera, whether you’re capturing the images through a photochemical process or through a digital sensor, noise is produced. Unfortunately, the grain that is there with the a7S II is not quite as filmic as, say, the Blackmagic cameras.

Problems and Issues

We love this sensor and the images it produces, but there are some real problems and annoyances. One of our biggest gripes with the image is that it’s still 4:2:0 color sampling, just like on that first 5D MK II half a decade ago. Now you can capture 4:2:2 with an external recorder, but come on. Also, because it has a rolling shutter there are rolling shutter issues. It will likely remain that way until they make these things with a global shutter — so still no sudden movement side to side. We also experienced a lot of banding issues, almost anytime we had the sky in the shot it was a problem, sometimes more than others. This is not good, there are some little tricks that can be done to help reduce this, but hopefully Sony will address it in a new firmware update.

Another disappointment with the new Sony a7S II was that the focus ability is basically the same as the a7S. There are some small improvements, such as the added facial recognition, but we don’t have that awesome focus tracking that was on the a7R II. We really really wanted to have that on the a7S II. It would appear that Sony wants you to buy both cameras. 

Profiling

Let talk about picture profiles a little. The a7S II like its predecessors come with a bunch of picture profiles, the a7S II comes with nine pre made profiles that you can then customize. This is nothing new or exciting; virtually all cameras have some version of this. What has been super exciting, though, is that the Sony Alpha cameras come with Slog, which until recently was reserved for high-end Sony cameras. We are not going to get into exactly what this means other than it refers to the gamma function and mimics the logarithmic curve of cinema cameras. This profile is designed to be color graded in post, so the image it produces is flat, lacks contrast and saturation and is often referred to as a “negative” much like cineDNG files. These images need to be color graded to look presentable, but they give you so much more information to work with.

Can it see in the dark?

Now the moment you have been waiting for, does the new Sony a7S II do as well in low light as the a7S, and the answer is no surprise: it does better. The images are cleaner, sharper and, of course, in glorious 4K, which means even when you start cranking up that ISO and there is a bit of noise, much of that will become harder to see if you down convert to HD. We found the highest usable ISO was 102,400. Yes, it was noisy and yes, that is an absurd number, but it didn’t look bad — especially after a little noise reduction. The ISO goes as high as 409,600 but it’s really just way too nasty looking. Everyone is obsessing over the low light abilities of the a7S and a7S II, but for the vast majority of us this is something we shouldn’t have to use much. Low light capability should not be a crutch. If you’re a professional, then you’re already lighting your shots and taking great care in doing so. Now obviously, documentarians and ENGs often have to use whatever available light there is and this camera is perfect for that. The rest of us should be more impressed by the image quality than the ability to shoot low light because really it’s a beautiful sensor.

Overheating

One of the biggest problems that many people seemed to have with the Sony a7R II was overheating. It was not unheard of for the camera to shut down after thirty minutes of continuous recording. We conducted a basic overheating test, we let the camera roll continuously in 4K 100mbps at room temperature until it overheated.  A work around a lot of people had with the a7R II was to keep the LCD screen pulled away from the body — we did not do that. At about forty-five minutes in, the battery died and we had to change it out, then at one hour and six minutes, the unit overheated and was unusable for about five minutes. This is could be a real problem for some people and should be taken into account when deciding what camera to purchase. It should be noted however that we shot constantly all day several days in a row, turning the camera off between shots, and never once had an issue.

Final Thoughts

The new Sony a7S II is a great follow-up to the a7S in that it is basically the same as the a7S but in 4K with less noise. It’s hard to complain when you get a full frame 4K sensor with 14 stops dynamic that can shoot in extremely low light for under three thousand bucks. Also it’s is not a stretch for Sony to call this a cinema camera, lots of people are cutting the a7S II with higher-end cameras like the FS7. Sony has really put the ability to shoot a stunning image into the hands of low budget filmmakers. This camera is not without its faults and the banding issue is a big one, but hopefully Sony will address it in the next firmware update. Depending on your needs, the Sony a7S II is a great choice.

Strengths

  • Great in Low light
  • Beautiful 4K Footage
  • Great hand feel
  • Image stabilization/handheld

Weaknesses

  • Severe Banding
  • 4:2:0 Color Sampling
  • No focus tracking
  • Image stabilization needs to be turned off on dolly and slider shots

Tech Specs:

  • Sensor Size & Type: 35 mm full frame (35.6 x 23.8 mm), Exmor CMOS sensor
  • Effective Megapixels: Approx.12.2 MP
  • Video Format: XAVC S/AVCHD format Ver. 2.0 compliant/MP4
  • Resolution & Frame Rate: XAVC S 4K: 3840 x 2160 (30p/100 Mbps, 30p/60 Mbps, 24p/100 Mbps, 24p/60 Mbps); XAVC S HD: 1920 x 1080 (60p/50 Mbps, 30p/50 Mbps, 24p/50 Mbps, 120p/100 Mbps, 120p/60 Mbps); AVCHD: 1920 x 1080 (60p/28 Mbps/PS, 60i/24 Mbps/FX, 60i/17 Mbps/FH, 24p/24 Mbps/FX, 24p/17 Mbps/FH); MP4: 1920 x 1080 (60p/28 Mbps, 30p/16 Mbps), 1280 x 720 (30p/6 Mbps)
  • Recording Media: Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo, Memory Stick Micro (M2), SD memory card, SDHC memory card, SDXC memory card, microSD memory card, microSDHC memory card, microSDXC memory card
  • Display Size and Resolution: 2.95-in 1,228,800 dot LCD
  • Lens Mount:  E-mount
  • Audio In: 3.5 mm Stereo minijack
  • Audio Out: 3.5 mm Stereo minijack
  • Video Out: micro-HDMI
  • Shutter Rage: 1/8000 to 1/4
  • ISO Range: 100-102400 equivalent (expandable to ISO 100-409600 equivalent)
  • Shot Assist: Zebra, Peaking, Face Detection, 5-axis Image Stabilization
  • Battery: Rechargeable battery pack NP-FW50

Jason Miller is a professional filmmaker, editor and visual effects artist whose work can be been seen in feature films and national marketing campaigns
 

a7S IIx

Jason Miller
Jason Miller is an Emmy® award-winning director, cinematographer and visual effects supervisor whose work can be seen in theatres, digital streaming services and broadcast television.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for a VERY intelligent & fantastic review; seems I’ve been lucky to find 2 honest and thorough reviewers of wonderfull photofilm-webpages !

    This other reviewer, Andrew Reid, found out in september, that a dark spot appeared where the sun was captured on the Alpha7S2’s video (actually just a LED-bulb could make a dark spot !) and I wondered if the Sky-Banding You have found could be related …

    He learned – by feedback from users (of eoshd dot com) – that it was limited to the PAL-shooting ! NTSC-users had no problems and so changing it to NTSC made it disappear … Maybe there’s is a stupid error causing both these crazy phenomenons ?

    Anyway, I haven’t seen anywhere, that they have released a new firmware, though Sony wrote back to Andrew, that they acknowledged they should make one !

    Maybe You should “join forces” with Mr. Reid (he mentioned other problems too) and tell them Your readers are refraining from buying the Alpha7S2 if Sony don’t fix it soon … 😀

    Thanks again for an important work You do – highly entertaining !!!

    Friendliest regards

    Thomas V. Dahl

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