Sony A7R II Field Test Part II
Sony A7R II Field Test Part II
A tale of two nights: From the county fair to glittering New York
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 11/11/2015
Recently, I shot with the just-launched Sony A7R II on a press trip in Portland, Oregon. (Not seen it? You'll want to start with my first field test, and then come back to this one afterwards.)
Nutshell view: A quick recap of my earlier experiences
After that first experience with the new model, a followup to the earlier Sony A7R, I found much to love on the new Mark II model. In particular, I really appreciated its brand-new body, inherited with some subtle tweaks from its current-generation sibling the A7 II.
The ergonomics are noticeably better, with the shutter button in particular being much more comfortable to reach and press with your index finger. No question: The Sony A7R II is a much better camera than was its predecessor in this respect.
I also loved its very compact size by full-frame camera standards, something it inherits from the earlier model. Even with a few lenses, you can get away with a very small camera bag indeed when shooting with the A7R II. Compared to a full-frame DSLR kit, the difference is frankly night and day.
That compact size I found particularly impressive given that this is a camera with a fairly generous selection of external controls. There's no way around the fact that the A7R II is a very feature-rich and thus rather complex camera, though, and it can present a bit of a learning curve to get the most from, although the main functions and controls pretty soon become second nature.
I was also thrilled by the Sony A7R II's much-improved autofocus, and found its image quality in good lighting conditions to be absolutely superb, especially when paired with a high-quality lens. The new, higher-resolution image sensor absolutely adores detail, and you can get some very generous print sizes indeed from this camera.
I did, however, also find a few concerns in that first outing with the A7R II. The menu system, for example, does a fairly good job of putting the most commonly-used options where they can be accessed quickly, but more obscure options can be tricky to find, with the menu layout feeling somewhat disorganized.
Some functions are also modal: That is to say that they're grayed out and inaccessible unless you can figure out the corresponding option which must be changed to access them. And the PlayMemories Camera Apps in particular are confusing, siloed off from the main menu system as they are, even though many of their options are duplicated in (and yet completely separate from) those in other menus.
More significant, though, were the somewhat abbreviated battery life of the A7R II, as well as a rather sedate write speed that left me waiting too long after shooting bursts of images.
(That's something I'm particularly sensitive, though, as I tend to shoot not only raw+JPEG but also with three-shot bracketing for reviews, to be sure I get all the imagery I need.)
On balance, though, I found far more to recommend the Sony A7R II than not in that first shooting experience. Now it was time to conclude my field testing with a more in-depth look at low-light performance, as well as other features such as video capture and wireless connectivity.
Off to New York, but first a trip to the fair
I had a really great shooting opportunity lined up for the bulk of this second field test, but before then I spotted another chance to get some interesting photos that would let me see how the A7R II handled long-exposure photography. The Tennessee Valley Fair was under way, and it struck me as a nice chance to try shooting some long exposures of the fairground rides, something I've also tried recently at a different fair in our review of the Pentax K-S2 DSLR.
As it happened, the long exposures I shot with the A7R II weren't as interesting as those from the other fair, but that was in no way the Sony camera's fault. The rides were just more spread out at the Tennessee Valley Fair, and I couldn't get the angles that I wanted because there were so many more people around. But I still turned out to be very glad that I went, because another opportunity presented itself instead: A really colorful display of Lego models created by local students.
Great results handheld in dim indoor lighting
You'll see some of my images of both the fairground rides and Lego exhibition throughout this field test, and there are more in my Sony A7R II gallery. And since the lighting in the exhibition hall was quite dim, it turned out that while I'd gone to the fair mostly for the long-exposure opportunities -- and for some family fun, of course -- I got my first chance to stretch the A7R II's legs on higher-sensitivity shots instead.
And I have to say, I was very pleased with the results. Although its high resolution is a great boon in daylight, allowing really large print sizes or lots of cropping post-capture, I'd been concerned that image quality might suffer as the sensitivity ramped upwards, but while noise levels certainly increased the results were still very usable indeed, shooting handheld in low light.
Off to New York to shoot side-by-side with the A7S II
Heading to New York with that knowledge in mind, I knew I'd get some great results in this incredibly interesting and vibrant city, and the A7R II didn't disappoint in the least. As it happened, I was in town for a Sony press trip, shooting the A7R II's low-light loving new sibling, the A7S II, which trades off a lot of resolution for much larger and more light-sensitive photodiodes. There's no question that the A7S II was even better than the A7R II in low light, but the higher-res flagship model nevertheless acquitted itself very well as I roamed New York on foot, seeking interesting subjects.
I should take a pause at this moment to thank a couple of friends, because this was actually only my second trip to New York, and I'd never have gotten half the photo opportunities I did without their help. One of the nice things with press trips like these is that they let folks like myself in the photo press meet face to face, compare our thoughts on various cameras, and create bonds that help us share our love of photography with our friendly rivals. And for this trip, I spent a good while shooting with two photographers who are much more familiar with NYC than I.
A quick word of thanks to my colleagues at other publications
Chris Gampat, better known to the public as founder and editor-in-chief of The Phoblographer, lives in the New York area and after the press event wrapped up -- I was there for an extra day -- spent quite some time pounding the pavement with me looking for great photos. And so too did Gordon Laing, the man behind the UK-based Camera Labs website. Although he doesn't live there, Gordon has obviously spent quite a bit of time in New York, and clearly has a love for the city which I found rather contagious. I'm sure I'd still have found plenty to photograph without both gentlemen's help, but as a New York newbie, it was a whole lot easier and more fun with their assistance. Thanks, guys!
Note to self: Choose gear that matches the Sony A7R II's strengths
Once I got down to the fun of roaming New York on foot, I quickly realized I'd erred in my choice of camera bag. Coming from Hong Kong originally --a city with a truly superb and very easy-to-understand public transport system -- I personally find New York's subway system a bit of a challenge, and so I ended up walking almost everywhere. When I chose my bags for the trip, I opted for a bag large enough to take the camera, lenses, my rather chunky desktop-replacement laptop, tablet and all the other electronic gadgetry that I figured I might need on the trip, in the hopes of it not all having to go in the hold where it's not treated with the same care I'd lavish on it.
That hope turned out to be in vain, because the bag didn't actually fit in the overheads or under the seat on my flights, and once I was out and about shooting, it was just far bigger than I needed for the A7R II, even with a healthy selection of glass. I would've done better to just opt for a smaller bag -- perhaps a messenger bag -- and then a separate laptop bag. In other words, something that plays to one of the Sony A7R II's key strengths: It's compact nature. Lesson learned!
A whole lot of fun to shoot with, day or night
But while the bag I'd chosen wasn't a great choice, there's no question that the A7R II was. Shooting with it was just as fun as in the daytime on the Portland trip, and since I'd had the camera in-hand for a while, I was pretty familiar with it and getting great results. I had brought a tripod along with me just in case -- yet another thing which had been packed in that carry-on bag for protection -- but never once felt the need to actually use it. In spite of its very high resolution, the full-frame A7R II was still more than capable of shooting handheld in relatively low ambient light.
Great low-light autofocus more often than not
And as I reported in my earlier field test, the Sony's autofocus system also handled low light admirably. Only a relatively few times did I hit a scene where it had to rack focus or failed to lock focus properly on the first try or two, and in every one it was a circumstance in which I'd expect most cameras to struggle. Autofocus is definitely a strength of this camera versus its predecessor.
Impressive white balance, too
For the most part, white balance in low light was also very good. I did hit a few scenes in difficult lighting that tended a bit on the warm side, especially indoors. Most of the time, though, the A7R II handled even fairly complex lighting well, giving me images that were attractive and which matched my own memory of the scene.
Very good sensitivity / noise levels for handheld low-light shots, despite the high resolution
And the high ISO performance struck me as pretty great -- which is saying something, considering that I was shooting this camera alongside the A7S II, which has truly epic high ISO performance. (Good enough that it prompted our publisher and founder, Dave Etchells, to pen a blog post for our Caffeine Priority series entitled "When ISO 25,600 is just what you do", describing his epiphany at just how far we've come since the film days.)
Sure, you're not going to get the same high ISO performance out of a camera with so much higher resolution than has the A7S II, but the Sony A7R II really acquits itself well in this area nevertheless. I found myself happy to shoot at up to ISO 12,800-equivalent routinely, and pushed as far as ISO 51,200-equivalent or even a little beyond as the shots demanded it.
It wasn't really until I got quite close to the upper limit of ISO 102,400-equivalent that colors started to get too muted, and detail too muddy thanks to noise reduction under realistic viewing conditions. Sure, viewed 1:1 onscreen, noise was quite noticeable well before that point, and not the most film-like I've seen -- Sony's JPEG noise reduction seems to have a tendency to introduce a somewhat blotchy look when viewed from way up close -- but for a camera with 42+-megapixel resolution, I was seriously impressed.
Continuous Eye AF is a great (if well-hidden) feature
But enough of low-light image quality; we have other important things to discuss. I'll start with one which is interesting in that it's a very useful feature, and yet Sony seems almost to have gone to pains to hide it, which I find rather a shame. I might have missed it myself, tucked away as it is deep in the Sony A7R II's menu system under the custom control configurations, had author and pro photographer Gary Fong not called attention to it on the Portland trip.
In fact, rather than go into an in-depth explanation of the feature, I'd suggest watching a video Gary shared at the time on YouTube, showing off just how it works with the help of a rather photogenic model. In a nutshell, though, it allows you to pair continuous autofocus with not just face detection, but instead by detecting and focusing specifically on the subject's eyeball.
It can lag behind or fail to locate the eyes if your subject is moving a lot, so you won't want to use it for sports, but then this isn't really a camera aimed at sports shooters. But for its intended use -- portrait / wedding photography or candid family photos -- it works just great. There are likely some samples shot using it in the gallery, but unfortunately I didn't think to note which photos I was using it for, so I'm not entirely sure if any made the cut from the many, many hundreds of great shots I had to cull down to a reasonable number for sharing on the site.
Really, the only downside to the function is that it's so well hidden. If you buy an A7R II -- and based on my experiences, I'd recommend doing so if you're not completely tied to another mount, and don't want to deal with adapting lenses -- I'd suggest configuring Eye AF on one of the customizable controls as one of the first things you should do with your camera, so you too can get sharp autofocus on your subjects' eyes, rather than the tip of their noses.
Excellent image quality in 4K, and very good in Full HD too
In my previous field test, I promised to discuss video capture on the Sony A7R II, and true to my word it's time for that discussion. If you're an avid reader of our news page, you'll quite possibly have already seen my sample videos, as I shared them shortly after they were shot in Portland. (I just felt that the earlier field test was already getting rather on the long side, so saved them for this one instead.)
Click to download the original file
To try and keep a long story short, video image quality is very impressive indeed. Shooting in 4K and recording in-camera on such a compact full-frame camera is quite the experience. My workflow isn't yet 4K-ready, as I had only just updated my computers and TV shortly before it became the "next big thing", but I can definitely see an argument for shooting in 4K even if you're in the same boat as me.
Click to download the original file
The reasons for that are twofold. Partly, it's because even if you shoot 4K and then downsample to Full HD resolution, you'll get noticeably better image quality than if you'd just shot at Full HD in the first place. (At least, assuming your video editor is up to the task, of course.)
Click to download the original file
The second reason strikes me as even more important, though: If you're planning on Full HD output, shooting at 4K resolution allows you to crop or stabilize in post-production without throwing away image quality unnecessarily.
Click to download the original file
Of course, you can shoot at lower resolution if you want to, and here too I felt the image quality to be very good, although noticeably less detailed than 4K capture as you'd expect. But on the plus side, 60 frames-per-second capture becomes available at Full HD resolution if you want to emphasize smoother motion or provide a slow-motion effect, rather than maximizing resolution.
Click to download the original file
A robust Wi-Fi feature set with super-simple one-tap sharing
And finally, we come to Wi-Fi capture. Here, you'll know what to expect if you've shot with any of Sony's other recent cameras, as the feature is very similar across the line. I found the remote live view feed to have good range and be quite stable with my Android smartphone -- also a Sony product as it happens, imported from Europe since I couldn't buy the model I wanted here in the US market at the time.
And I really enjoyed the remote control capabilities as well. My favorite feature, though, is a no-brainer: The unbelievably simple NFC tap-to-transfer function. You'll need a phone with an accessible NFC radio -- and that sadly rules out Apple, who lock this function down, limiting the hardware only to work with Apple Pay at the expense of all else -- but if you are on Android you likely have one already. And if you do, it's really one of the best Wi-Fi transfer implementations I've seen.
Simply bump your phone to the camera (roughly aligning the antennas on both), and a few seconds later you'll have a copy of the image on your phone, ready for sharing. It really doesn't get any simpler than that, and it's perfect for the way I tend to use social networking. I seldom want to share whole rafts of photos at once, although that's still possible if you want to do it. Most of the time, there are just one or two photos I want to share, and the Sony A7R II accomplishes it with aplomb.
And with that, we've reached the end of my second and final field test. If you've not already done so, do go back and have a look at my previous field test for info on ergonomics, daylight shooting and plenty more besides. And don't forget to look at my gallery, as well as our performance results and lab samples. We will, of course, have the conclusion of the review and more, coming soon, but in the meantime I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that I like this camera a lot.
In fact, were I not already fairly deeply invested in a competing DSLR system, having spent more than I care to remember on lenses and other gear over the last half-decade, the Sony A7R II would be right at the top of my list. And that, really, should tell you everything you need to know!