Introduction and features
Sony has had ambitious plans for the camera market ever since it bought Konica Minolta’s camera business in 2006. But after some initial excitement there were only sporadic periods of activity, and the attention of many photographers and industry observers waned somewhat.
Then in September 2013 the company launched the RX1, an impressively small compact camera. A little over a year later the Alpha 7 and 7R were unveiled, and we really started paying attention. These were the world’s first compact system cameras to feature a full-frame sensor, and their small size drew an audible gasp at the UK press announcement.
While the Alpha 7 had 24 million pixels and was designed to be a ‘fast’ all-rounder, the Alpha 7R boasted 36 million pixels, and was intended to be attractive to landscape and still life photographers looking to capture masses of detail.
Since then we’ve had the 12MP Alpha 7S, which is specifically designed for low-light and video shooting, plus an update to the Alpha 7, the Alpha 7 II, which has 24 million pixels.
The latest addition to the range is the Alpha 7R II, the highest-resolution model yet, trumping the A7R’s 36 million pixels with an effective pixel count of 42.4 million. This is coupled with Sony’s Bionz X processor, which enables a native sensitivity range of ISO 100-25,600, with expansion settings taking the range to ISO 50-102,400. It’s also possible to shoot at up to 5fps (frames per second) with functioning continuous autofocus (AF).
To push detail resolution even further, the sensor has no optical low pass filter (OLPF). And to enable the photosites (pixels) to be made bigger than they would otherwise be, the A7R II is the first camera to feature a full-frame back side illuminated (BSI) sensor.
Sony has also used copper wiring instead of aluminium on the sensor, and this helps to increase the sensor’s readout speed by 3.5x over the original A7R’s. In addition to boosting image transfer times this should help improve autofocus speed, and help combat rolling shutter effect in video mode, as the information is relayed quicker.
Whereas the original Alpha 7R has a contrast-detection autofocus (AF) system with 25 points, the A7R II has a hybrid AF system that combines both contrast and phase-detection focusing. This has a total of 399 points covering 45% of the imaging area.
Sony claims the A7R II’s new sensor design enables the autofocusing system to be 40% faster than the previous camera’s, while new algorithms enable better motion tracking. With this in mind the new camera has a wider range of focusing modes than the original model.
These include Flexible Spot and Lock-on AF (Wide/Zone/Centre/Flexible Spot – with small, middle and large options as well as Expand Flexible Spot) to follow moving subjects. The camera uses data about object distance from all of the AF points to ascertain the location of the subject, whether it’s moving in relation to the background, and the location of other objects in the scene.
In another first for a full-frame camera, the A7R II has in-body 5-axis image stabilisation, which helps reduce image blur in stills and jitters in video footage. Sony has upgraded the 0.5-inch 2,359,296-dot electronic viewfinder to an OLED, and there’s also a new shutter unit that’s designed to create less vibration and which has a 500,000-cycle life.
Although Sony says the A7S is the best option for shooting video with a full-frame compact system camera, the A7R II is the first full-frame CSC to offer 4K recording in-camera; the A7S requires an external recorder.
There are two options for recording 4K footage with the A7R II; the best quality is produced when the camera is set to Super 35mm, as there’s no line skipping or pixel binning. The downside to using this mode is that the video frame is narrower than when shooting stills. Alternatively, Super 35mm mode can be turned off so that the camera uses the whole imaging area – presumably with pixel binning.
Other video-related improvements over the A7R include the ability to use Picture Profiles and set specific values for Black Level, Gamma and Knee (highlight compression), plus colour adjustment (Colour Mode, Colour Level, Colour Phase and Colour Depth) and Detail.
The Gamma settings include Sony’s S-Log2 setting, which is claimed to increase dynamic range to up to 1300% to retain highlight and shadow detail, and generate footage that looks very flat straight from the camera but which is ideal for post-capture grading.
Movies can be shot in XAVC S format with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression, or AVCHD with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 or MP4: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 compression. In NTSC the maximum quality option is XAVC S format at 4K and 30p/100Mbps while in PAL it’s XAVC S 4K at 25p/100Mbps. As usual Full HD shooting is possible, with frame rates up to 60p at 50Mbps (NTSC) or 50p at 50Mbps (PAL). There’s also Time code to help with scene identification and syncing footage from multiple cameras.
Build and handling
Like the other cameras in the Alpha 7 line, the A7R II has a retro SLR-like design. However, Sony has taken on board some of the criticisms made of the original A7 and A7R, and has made the same handling tweaks to the A7R II as it did to the A7 II.
The front grip is more pronounced, making it more comfortable and secure in use. The shutter release button is moved forward onto the top of the grip, and beneath it there’s a conveniently placed recessed dial for adjusting settings. This has created space for a second customisable button on the top plate.
As with the rest of the A7 series, the A7R II has a magnesium alloy construction and is weather-sealed. Most of the camera feels very solid, with a pleasant density, but the front grip creaks when it’s held tightly – I’m not talking about the type of grip that crushes bone in a handshake, but the grip that’s required when you’ve got a lens like FE 16-35mm f/4 or 70-200mm f/4 mounted.
Sony has added a lock to the mode dial to prevent it being knocked out of position – it’s the type that has to be pressed every time the dial is rotated, rather than our preferred ‘lock-and-unlock’ type.
Instead of the barrel-like dial that’s located above the thumb rest on the A7R, the A7R II has a more standard slim dial. Although the camera is relatively small I found this a little awkward to reach with my thumb when holding the camera one-handed.
One of the great things about the A7R II is that it’s highly customisable. The control wheel on the back of the camera, for example, can be assigned to adjust one of six settings – I found it useful for adjusting sensitivity quickly – and one of 62 functions can be assigned for access via each of the four Custom buttons.
Three of the navigation buttons and the centre button on the back of the camera can also be used as shortcuts to features, and 12 of 34 functions can be assigned for access via the Function menu. The default setup makes a good starting point, but it’s worth experimenting to find your optimum configuration.
It would be nice, however, if there were two Function menus, one for stills and the other for video, and given the level of customisation that’s available in other areas it seems strange that the A7R II doesn’t have a customisation screen in the main menu. Stills photographers will find everything relatively sensibly arranged, but the navigation process could be streamlined with separate sections for stills and video shooters.
As it stands, videographers may find that they have to keep jumping backwards and forwards within the menu. For example, the option to activate Super 35mm mode for video is located in the Custom section of the menu, away from the video quality settings, which are in the Camera Settings section – on the same screen as the drive mode and bracketing options.
And while the Picture Profile options, which allow Gamma etc to be set for video (and stills) are located in the Camera Settings section, they’re five screens away from the Video Quality settings.
I found the 2,359,296-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) superb for composing images. It’s clear, and plenty of detail is visible with no obvious texture, although its preview is a little more vibrant than both the scene and the captured image; this is the opposite of the Alpha 7 II’s EVF, which makes the scene look quite dull. The captured image itself is a good likeness of the image viewed on a monitor.
In decent light the magnified view in the viewfinder, or on the excellent 3-inch tilting screen, makes focusing manually a breeze. In relatively low light the slight shimmer of noise makes the view a little soft, and finding the point of focus a bit trickier – but it wouldn’t be easy with an optical viewfinder either. Focus peaking is helpful, but this depends upon how much contrast there is in the scene and, as usual, it may not highlight the area you’re most interested in.
When I tested the Sony Alpha 7 II the sound of the shutter firing came as a surprise because it was so loud – it almost sounded like there was a mirror clacking around inside the camera. Thankfully the A7 R II’s shutter is quieter; it’s not exactly a whisper, but it’s less obtrusive than the A7 II’s.
As on the Alpha 7 II, the record button for shooting video is on the side of the thumb-ridge on the back of the camera. This is quite awkward to access; it’s not a problem if the camera is on a tripod, but if you’re hand-holding it’s hard to reach, and there were several occasions when I thought I’d pressed it with my thumb when I hadn’t.
One thing that’s clear from both our real-world and lab tests is that the Alpha 7R II can resolve a lot of detail – but then that’s the whole point of having a sensor with 42 million pixels. As you’d expect, the highest level of detail is captured at the lowest sensitivity settings, but interestingly we found it impossible to match the JPEG’s in-camera processing when processing raw file images of our chart using the supplied software – the JPEGs resolve very slightly more detail.
In the lab we found that the A7R II is just about able to reach the maximum score in our resolution tests, but it doesn’t out-resolve the chart, and can’t quite match the 50MP Canon 5DS for detail, although that’s hardly surprising given the difference in pixel count. Similarly, the A7R II is able to capture more detail than the 36MP A7R and Nikon D810.
As sensitivity is increased to mid-range values the JPEGs take on a slightly painterly appearance at 100% on-screen. This becomes even more evident at high values, with edges appearing a little harsh while the areas in between are a softer wash of colour. This makes the JPEGs look over-processed at 100%, although they look okay at normal viewing sizes.
Sample image: The A7R II is able to resolve an impressive level of detail, and the fabric of the umbrella is clearly visible in the droplets of water in this shot. You can also rely on the auto white balance and 1200-zone evaluative metering systems to deliver accurate colours and exposures even in tricky conditions – this shot could easily have looked dull and cold. Click here for a larger image.
Raw files have more granular noise present, so it’s possible to create images that look more natural at 100%. Noise levels are kept within acceptable limits throughout the native sensitivity range (ISO100-25,600), but I would avoid the high expansion settings (maximum ISO 102,400) unless getting a shot is more important than its quality.
While the most obvious use for a 42MP camera is shooting landscapes, still life and portraits, most enthusiasts and many pros want a camera that can do a bit of everything. With that in mind, the A7R II’s autofocus system is pretty good. It’s capable of getting moving subjects in sharp focus quickly, and can even track them in fairly low light provided there’s a reasonable level of contrast. When this drops, for example when shooting indoors, the AF can become rather ponderous.
It’s also hard to predict exactly where the focus point will be when using Lock-on AF mode – although it does a good job of tracking a subject the precise point of focus may be very slightly off where you want it to be.
When shooting in the photographers’ pit at Fairport’s Cropredy Festival, for example, I found that the camera did a good job of latching on to performers on stage, but in Lock-on AF mode it sometimes focused on a guitarist’s hand on the neck of their instrument rather than their face, which meant that the focus was a few inches off.
Sample image: This lighting provided a stern test of the A7R II’s autofocus system, but it managed to deliver a sharp result with the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens mounted. Click here for a larger image.
Sample image: Although some areas of this ISO 1000 JPEG image look rather over-processed at 100%, it displays a high level of detail. Click here for a larger image.
Similarly, when photographing a runner coming towards the camera it tracked them well, but the precise focus point was sometimes just a little off. In many cases the image is still acceptably sharp, although it depends on how the image will be used, and at what size it’s viewed.
Interestingly, I found that the Olympus OM-D E-M10 II’s autofocus system was just a little more accurate than Sony’s, but this could have been helped by the fact that I was using an f/2.8 lens (M. Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO), whereas the Sony FE 70-200mm lens only has a maximum aperture of f/4.
I also found that the A7E II’s continuous autofocus system was rather jumpy with stationary subjects, and it occasionally adjusted out of focus before snapping back in; this means that manual focus is still the best choice when shooting video.
Using the new stabilisation system makes a marked difference to the image in the viewfinder, as well as to the final shot. When using the FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens, roughly a third to half the images I shot at the longest point with a shutter speed of 1/15 sec looked acceptably sharp at 100% – that’s not bad going.
Sample image: This shot required an exposure of 1/60 sec at f/8 and ISO 12800, which gives an indication of how low the light was. Manual focusing was a little tricky because the viewfinder image was naturally a little noisy and soft – it was a case of finding the ‘least-soft’ point rather than the sharpest focus point. Click here for a larger image.
Using the stabilisation when shooting video takes the finer jitters out of the footage, but you still need to take care how you support the camera – and naturally it can’t compensate for more pronounced movements, such as those caused by walking with the camera.
Video quality is very good on the whole, with Sony’s S-Log2 setting enabling a much wider than normal range of tones to be recorded. Rolling shutter effect is visible when you pan the camera quickly, but it’s not bad.
There have been reports of the A7R II cutting out because of overheating during 4K video shooting and recording to an SDXC card. As usual, it’s possible to shoot continuously for a maximum of 29 minutes and 59 seconds at a time; I found that the camera got quite warm during prolonged shooting, and it cut out halfway through an attempted second half hour of continuous shooting.
Lab tests: Resolution
We chose three rival cameras for the Sony A7R II to see how it measured up in our lab tests: the Canon EOS 5DS, which, along with the 5DS R, is the highest-resolution full-frame camera currently available at 50 million pixels; the Nikon D810, which with 36 million pixels on its full-frame sensor can’t quite match the Canon 5DS for detail, but is still an excellent choice for Nikon lovers; and the A7R, Sony’s 36Mp CSC which produces superb images, making it an attractive and more affordable alternative to the A7R II.
We’ve carried out lab tests on the Sony A7R II across its full ISO range for resolution, noise (including signal to noise ratio) and dynamic range. We test the JPEGs shot by the camera, but we also check the performance with raw files. Most enthusiasts and pros prefer to shoot raw, and the results can often be quite different.
Sony A7R II resolution charts
We test camera resolution using an industry-standard ISO test chart that allows precise visual comparisons. This gives us numerical values for resolution in line widths/picture height, and you can see how the Sony A7R II compares with its rivals in the charts below.
JPEG resolution analysis: While mid- to high-sensitivity JPEG images look a little over-processed at 100%, they capture an impressive level of detail, which we found unable to match when processing the raw files with the supplied software.
Raw (converted to TIFF) resolution analysis: While it beats the 36MP Alpha 7R and Nikon D810 for detail (at all but the highest sensitivities in the case of the D810), the A7R II can’t quite match the Canon 5DS, which out-resolves our chart.
Sample resolution charts
This is the chart we use for testing camera resolution. The key area is just to the right of centre, where a series of converging lines indicates the point at which the camera can no longer resolve them individually. We shoot this chart at all of the camera’s ISO settings, and here are two samples, at ISO 200 and ISO 6400.
Click here for a larger version.
Click here for a larger version.
Lab tests: Dynamic range
Dynamic range is a measure of the range of tones the sensor can capture. Cameras with low dynamic range will often show ‘blown’ highlights or blocked-in shadows. This test is carried out in controlled conditions using DxO hardware and analysis tools.
Dynamic range is measured in exposure values (EV). The higher the number the wider the range of brightness levels the camera can capture. This falls off with increasing ISO settings because the camera is having to amplify a weaker signal. Raw files capture a higher dynamic range because the image data is unprocessed.
Sony A7R II dynamic range charts
JPEG dynamic range analysis: Despite its high pixel count, the A7R II puts in a solid performance for dynamic range, and images have a good depth of tones.
Raw (converted to TIFF) dynamic range analysis: The A7R II’s dynamic range is down on the original A7R, but it still compares favourably with that of the Canon 5DS, indicating that the camera captures a wider range of tones in a single image.
Lab tests: Signal to noise ratio
This is a test of the camera’s noise levels. The higher the signal to noise ratio, the greater the difference in strength between the real image data and random background noise, so the ‘cleaner’ the image will look. The higher the signal to noise ratio, the better.
Sony A7R II signal to noise ratio charts
JPEG signal to noise ratio analysis: The A7R II’s in-camera image processing does a good job of controlling noise, enabling the camera to turn out an excellent set of results.
Raw (converted to TIFF) signal to noise ratio analysis: The A7R II competes well with the Canon and Nikon cameras, with noise kept well hidden for much of the sensitivity range.
Sample Sony A7R II ISO test results
The signal to noise ratio charts use laboratory test equipment, but we also shoot a real-world scene to get a visual indication of the camera’s noise levels across the ISO range. The right side of the scene is darkened deliberately because this makes noise more obvious.
ISO 200: Click here for a larger version.
ISO 6400: Click here for a larger version.
With 42.4 million effective pixels the Sony Alpha 7R II is the highest-resolution compact system camera currently available, beating the previous holder of the crown, the 36MP Sony Alpha 7R, by a considerable margin. This hike in pixel count enables the new camera to beat both its predecessor and the Nikon D810 for detail resolution, but it can’t quite match the 50MP Canon EOS 5DS and 5DS R, the highest pixel-count full-frame cameras available.
The A7R II scores a couple of other firsts for full-frame cameras, having 5-axis image stabilisation and a backside-illuminated sensor. The first innovation makes it possible to shoot stills at significantly lower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible, while the latter plays a part in keeping noise levels down as sensitivity rises.
Although it has the highest pixel count of the Sony A7 series, Sony has made the A7R II much more attractive to videographers with the ability to record 4K footage, writing to either a memory card or an external recorder. Naturally, there’s also a collection of Full-HD recording options, and Sony’s Picture Profile options enable you to create footage that meets your requirements, whether those are producing footage that looks good straight from the camera, or video that’s ripe for grading.
The performance of the autofocus system can be a little variable, which means it’s not the ideal choice for serious sports enthusiasts or pros, but it is capable of getting sharp results in quite challenging conditions, and it’s worth getting to know the various options.
Sony has also taken the opportunity to make a few handling improvements with the A7R II; it’s now more ergonomic in shape, making it more comfortable to hold.
One of the most attractive aspects of the Alpha 7 series is that the cameras are small for full-frame models, yet have an extensive feature set and lots of control options. Having a full-frame sensor enables the photosites (pixels) to be made larger than on an APS-C format sensor of the same pixel count, so image quality is better; it also offers the ability to restrict depth of field dramatically to blur backgrounds and emphasise subjects.
As with many of its other cameras, Sony has given the Alpha 7R II lots of customisation options, which means that many of the buttons and the Function menu can be set to your preferences. The camera feels well made, and with a couple of exceptions the controls are well laid out.
Having an electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a significant bonus in tricky exposure situations, as you’re able to preview the effect of camera settings. While the A7R II’s EVF tends to be a little more vibrant than the scene and the final image, it provides a superb, clear view, and in decent light manual focusing is a cinch.
I found the rear control dial a bit of a stretch to reach with my thumb, and the video record button is oddly located and awkward to operate when the camera is hand-held. And that creaking grip is disappointing.
It would be helpful for the stills and video features within the menu to be separated out, so that there are fewer options to scroll through and options are easier to find. In addition, it would be nice if there were two customisable Function menus, one for stills and the other for video.
A touchscreen would also go some way to speeding up menu navigation and settings selection, as well as AF point selection.
When the A7 and A7R were first announced their price helped make them an attractive alternative to the likes of the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D810. The A7R II is much more expensive, with a street price that’s only around £400/$500 lower than that of the Canon 5DS.
Even taking the sensor design and additional video technology into account, this seems a lot for a brand that’s trying to establish itself as a full-frame camera contender, and which has relatively few directly compatible lenses. Perhaps it’s a mark of how big a chunk of the market Sony has been able to bite off, or maybe of how much it thinks videographers are prepared to pay.
The Alpha 7R II isn’t perfect, but it’s a very good all-rounder that’s capable of delivering top-quality high-resolution images in a wide variety of situations – and it weighs a heck of a lot less than its DSLR competition. In fact the A7R II is such a good all-rounder that if it weren’t for the price difference between it and the A7 II you’d start to wonder about the future for the 24MP model.
Many pros are starting to look seriously at compact system cameras. The A7R II’s AF system may not quite match that of similarly priced SLRs, but it’s more than good enough for general photography, and the camera comes with a viewfinder that enables you to see what you’re going to get, a very capable stabilisation system, and high-end video features.
However, pros who are used to DSLRs also want a wide range of high-quality lenses. Sony is working on this, promising to have 20 directly compatible optics available by early 2016. We’d like to see some wider fast primes as well as longer telephotos, and f/2.8 optics that compete directly with the offerings from Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Tamron.
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