SONY α7 II REVIEW
In a renewed bid to take over the full-frame mirrorless cameras market, Sony has launched the α7 Mark II, a refreshed version of the wonderful α7. The original α7 was already a champion in many aspects, so how does the α7ii trump its predecessor? Sony kindly lent us a review unit so that we could find out for ourselves!
On first looks, the Mark II is pretty much the same as the Mark I, what with keeping the 24 megapixel count, overall size/appearance and all; but delve in deeper and you'll find there are many differences! For one, the α7ii features Sony's 5-axis image stabilization which is really quite good. The AF system and ergonomics of the camera has also improved and these improvements all become evident once the camera enter one's hands.
DESIGN, BUILD AND CONTROLS
The α7ii is overall a neatly designed camera. The build quality feels good (and it should with a full magnesium alloy body, something usually found in prosumer-level-and-better cameras), none of that cheap plastic feel that typically accompanies compact sized cameras. When I first picked up the α7ii, I immediately sensed that this was one robust camera that would be able to take quite a bit of abuse in the field. The matte black finish is a real bonus too (I'll admit I've a soft spot for matte finishing) which is really suitable on a camera; you won't be spending half your time cleaning off never-ending fingerprints and grime.
The α7ii is also rated to be weatherproof, something which I jumped at the chance to test out since it simply happened to be raining on the day I took it out. Despite prolonged exposure to a combination of light drizzle and a short but heavy downpour, the α7ii showed no issues; all the buttons worked as they should and the camera could turn on and off as per normal.
The buttons on the α7ii are nicely placed and none too cluttered to operate despite the rather limited real estate of the camera for buttons as compared to full-sized conventional DSLRs. The layout of the buttons are good with perhaps the tiny exception of the "MENU" button which is located at the top left area on the back of the camera, a slightly harder to reach area.
The α7ii also features a lot of dials, perhaps in an attempt to take on a slightly more retro look. The dials feel good and click well, you can easily operate them without actually looking at them (since most people tend to tweak their settings while looking through the viewfinder). The exposure compensation dial is just one perfect example of a dial frequently operated while looking through the viewfinder and Sony does good by catering a dedicated dial for such a purpose rather than having users jump into the settings menu (which would result in eyes away from the viewfinder) as is so often in other camera systems. The scroll-wheel on the back of the camera feels smooth to turn while at the same time providing just enough resistance for you to know how much you've turned. I experience no issues with over or under dialling on either the scroll-wheel or the dials. If you ask my honest humble opinion though, I feel that there's one dial too many on the α7ii. There's one at the front, one near the top at the back and one more scroll-wheel on the back as well. Even shooting in Manual Mode, I found that I only needed to operate at most 2 dials, one for adjusting shutter speed and the other for tweaking aperture; the third dial is rather redundant. Perhaps Sony could do away with one of the dials near the top of the camera, perhaps the back dial since it's located so close to the exposure compensation dial.
The grip of the α7ii is also improved form the α7. With a deeper handgrip, I found the camera a lot more comfortable to hold, something I would gladly compromise size for (as it is, the deeper grip makes the Mark II that little bit fatter, but it really doesn’t make a difference with a lens attached).
The α7ii sports a 3 inch LCD screen that produces excellent colours and is visible even under bright daylight. Photos looked sharp as they should on the screen in all conditions and the screen's packed with pixels. Sony did well not to include touch features on the screen, for I honestly think they're a hassle to have on cameras what with occasionally activating them with your face pressed to LCD or haywire inputs when the screen's wet and all. The tilting LCD's a good measure although it would be good if it could tilt sideways instead of just up and down. As it is now, the tilt's good for when you need to bring the camera down low but don’t want to lie down on the floor or when you need to raise the camera way above your head to a high vantage point and can't bring your eye to the viewfinder; but say you wanted to take a selfie: now that would be a little harder for the LCD doesn't cater for a 180 flip around.
The shooting main screen is also clean and easy to look at with all the vital settings prominently displayed. Sony also manages to beautifully integrate an electronic level as well as a histogram into the main screen which is a really great feature so kudos for that! Other settings are neatly arranged as boxes by the right side of the screen although they can be a little confusing to get into at times.
With Sony being amongst the pioneers of Electronic Viewfinders (EVFs), it's no surprise that the α7ii comes installed with one. Sony has put in the OLED EVF that has become standard in many Alpha cameras and I can confidently say that it's one of the best EVFs out there with excellent contrast, sharpness, and good response time. I'm not one for EVFs (preferring traditional Optical Viewfinders instead for a more realistic view) but I felt comfortable using the α7ii which proves really how good the EVF is. The α7ii's EVF is big and bright and Sony knows how to make full use of an EVF by fitting an alarming amount of information into it such that you can adjust all the settings from within and literally shoot with your eyes glued to the viewfinder all the time (something you cannot achieve with conventional cameras using OVFs). Sony has also thought to add a sensor to the EVF which detects if "your eye is looking through the EVF" and switches off the screen in response; much like how phones use a proximity sensor in deciding when to turn off the screen when you bring it to your face during a call. The α7ii's proximity sensor is however a little over-sensitive and often results in the EVF and screen alternating between on and off with just slight movements of the head away from the camera (and hence the EVF) which can be a little annoying. EVF being EVFs though, there's still that slight bit of difference they need to catch up to OVFs. For one, at night with high ISOs being employed, while the EVF is able to rather accurately reproduce the scene as would be shot, there's a certain amount of lag that while almost negligible and ignorable, still would be good not to have at all.
Sony is a company I would consider to be a market leader in innovation, with its cameras often loaded with advanced features unseen in other cameras on the market and the α7ii doesn't let anyone down in this aspect. Featuring a 5-axis in-body sensor-shift image stabilization system, the α7ii allows you to compensate for pitch, roll, yaw, vertical and horizontal displacement. The in-body system also means that you can attach any lens to the camera and the IS system would just work, even if the lens has no built in EF system and even if there are no electronic contacts on the lens to transmit data.
[1/125; f/8.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
I personally tested this out on both photos and videos and was really impressed by the IS system that is the world's first 5-axis stabilisation system to be found in a full-frame camera. The above image was shot while I vigorously shook the camera and I would say the results are good with no visible camera shake even at a not-so-high shutter speed of 1/125s which can result in blurred photos should camera movement be pronounced. While filming videos, the power of the stabilization system is even more evident. The fluid shift of the sensor to compensate for camera movement really helps to improve videos by eliminating annoying dizzying shakes and rolls and what not that usually accompany free hand filmed videos. While it's not going to be a match for cameras mounted onto Glidecams, with a combination of good movement techinques on the part of the user and excellent stabilization on the part of the camera, the resulting video can be really smooth!
Another wonderful feature that the Sony α7ii has would be its neat feature to communicate with your smartphone wirelessly. Just one tap of your smartphone on the NFC enabled α7ii and the camera automatically connects with your phone (provided you have the Sony app PlayMemories installed on your phone). And a few good things come from this, amongst them being the ability to transfer RAW photos to your phone and process them immediately for all you social-media-savvy who feel the pressing need to update your Instagram/Facebook. And if your smartphone's not NFC enabled, no worries, the α7ii can link up via WiFi as well.
To me, something even better than the instant transfer and processing of photos would be the capability to shoot remotely. By connecting via WiFi, you can then see what the camera sees on your smartphone, control the settings via the app and shoot remotely! I can see many multiple uses for this including composing the image on your phone with the camera on a "faraway" tripod before taking a group shot, hiding in the shade while your camera sits out shooting in the sun, camouflaging into the deep shadows of the forest while your camera shoots wildlife remotely to avoid disturbing any of them, etc. There are just so many possibilities with such a function. The best thing? There's almost no lag for the app which makes it really great for capturing the instantaneous moment type of shot like wildlife.
The auto-panorama function's not something new in cameras/smartphones but many manufacturers (on smartphones especially) have yet to perfect the algorithm. Many times, panoramas appear either disjointed or with huge variations in exposures between the two ends of the image. Lots of manufacturers have panorama algorithms that fail to recognize clouds and trees and often screw up when images have too much of those features.
[1/160; f/8.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
Sony, however, seems to have mastered the perfect panorama algorithm. In all the panoramas I tried using the α7ii, I was able to obtain high quality shots with no visible disjoints nor any issues with varying exposure levels in different segments.
[1/250; f/11.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
For in-camera panorama, the α7ii really performs quite well. The stitching is fast and accurate, just like you would expect if you had loaded multiple RAW photos into Photoshop for stitching on a computer. This speed can be attributed in part to the powerful BIONZ X image processor that Sony has packed into the α7ii. There is no visible compromise in image quality either. My sole complain would be that the panoramas are stored as JPEGs with no way to export individual RAW photos which make up the image.
[1/160; f/9.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
With many panoramas, distortion becomes a problem as algorithms fail to compensate for the spherical movement of the camera as the images are capture, resulting in a significant "bulge" of objects in the centre of the panorama. The α7ii again satisfies with its outstanding algorithm by compensating for this rotation and computing corrections to ensure the image looks realistic instead of looking like an elongated fisheye image. As evident from the above image, the jetty towards the centre of the shot only suffers from very slight distortion.
Someone once said to me that if there were only 3 cameras he could buy, they would be the Canon 5D series, Sony α7 series, and Nikon D800 series. All there cameras offer the best colours in photos with nice and accurate colour reproduction.
[1/320; f/8.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
The Sony α7ii lives up what that someone said to me evidently. On the day that I took the α7ii out for a full day review run, the skies were largely overcast, and gloomy. The colours in the skies were really subtle and most cameras would produce images which leave much to be desired despite the best post-processing. Not the Sony α7ii though. Despite the muted blues in the skies and gloomy mood all round, the α7ii captured the inert vibrancy of the scene and with simple slight tweaks of vibrancy in Adobe Camera Raw which took me all of three seconds, I was able to restore the wonderful colours of the scene, something which only good cameras can pull off. The excellent α7ii sensor was able to pick up all the colour information in the scene and store them accurately as a RAW photo, allowing users to easily extract and boost these colours in the photo with minimal editing.
[1/160; f/10.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
The dynamic range on this camera is also excellent and is definitely comparable to many professional traditional DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mark III. I myself own a 5D3 which is rated for about 12 stops of dynamic range and though there is no official data for the α7ii on dynamic stops, I would put it at about 12 stops too. As evident from the above photo, the scene presented a wide variety of differing exposures with the skies being much brighter than the waters and then there being dark patches of rain clouds in the skies: all of which are at a different exposure value. The α7ii does not fail and manages to reproduce the shot well without any significant detail loss in any areas despite the vast contrast between the foreground and background of the image. Such feats are only accomplishable on cameras with good sensors that feature wide dynamic ranges and the α7ii is most definitely one of them.
[1/13; f/10.0; ISO6400] (shot with α7ii)
Perhaps one of the few important issues that most users look into for camera performance, noise at high ISOs. The α7ii in general handles noise pretty well! Even at ISO6400, there is relatively minimal noise (as can be seen in the above image), nothing too significant that cannot be corrected with a little Noise Reduction applied either within Adobe Camera RAW itself or with professional noise reduction software. Despite the high ISOs, the α7ii holds it ground well, accurately reproducing colours for most of the part. There is also no loss in contrast or detail at these high sensitivity levels which tends to be a common occurrence in not-so-good cameras. Of course, the Sony cannot match up to the 5D Mk III or D800 which have better processors whereby the 2 larger cameras have lower noise at higher ISOs, but hey it's a compromise of size and quality and for its noise performance despite the compactness, I think the α7ii puts up a really good fight.
[1/2500; f/4.5; ISO1600] (shot with α7ii)
With the α7ii, Sony has fitted in a new hybrid autofocus system which uses 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast-detection points to achieve what the company claims to be 30% faster AF performance as compared to the α7i. To be brutally honest though, while I don't deny that the AF performance is fast, I am however slightly unsatisfied with the AF system on the α7ii. Yes, the camera locks on focus fast, but most of the times it tends to select the wrong AF point if you allow the camera to choose the AF point from the entire zone. Being used to my 5D Mk III, I'm accustomed to having the autofocus lock on fast and on point whenever I need it to, especially if I'm shooting sports or fast moving subjects. I took the α7ii out for a spin to shoot images of pet dogs one of the days. The dogs though, being the hyperactive puppies that they are, jumped and ran around quite a lot which left me continuously shifting my composition while running after them to take shots. In my post shoot review though, I found that I had to delete over half of the shots due to them being off focus. Admittedly shooting puppies isn't the easiest task for AF systems but I should like to have at least two-thirds worth of usable shots; something that Sony needs to take a leaf (or two) from Canon and Nikon's books.
[1/160; f/8.0; ISO100] (shot with α7ii)
All in all though, I must say that throughout the course of my time with the Sony α7ii, I was immensely satisfied with the camera overall and duly impressed by its prowess. This tiny little mirrorless camera (relative to traditional bulky DSLRs) has repeatedly pushed the limits of what I thought was possible from a mirrorless and a "small-sized" camera. The α7ii offers all the perks of a full frame without the size that comes with it (like in the huge cameras that are the 5D3 or D800). I was for most of the part very happy with the camera and the shots captured with it; so much such that I would have no qualms posting shots from the α7ii onto my personal photoblog, flickr, 500px, etc. accounts.
The α7ii slots well into a market where increasingly people want compact-sized cameras that can fit into their normal bags; something light they wouldn't mind carrying in their hands or hanging round their necks all day; something with all the wideness and beauty of a full frame; something with top-notch photo quality and imaging performance, the list goes on. In short, the α7ii targets a group of people who want the features and functionality of a high-end DSLR like the Canon 5D3 or a Nikon D800 but mind the size and weight of those. Being significantly smaller and lighter, this Sony α7ii is just the perfect ideal for them. As I've probably hinted more than once in the review (and I'll say it for good this time), the Sony α7ii could give the Canon 5D3 and Nikon D800 a good run for money.
In all honesty, after having used the α7ii on review for a good few weeks, it has made me seriously consider procuring the α7ii as an excellent companion for a camera (good move Sony). If only I wasn't already so heavily invested in the Canon system of cameras and lenses (that it would not be worth to sell off my equipment for a system jump) or if I wasn't so cash-strapped, I would already have gone out to buy a new Sony α7ii, it's that worth the money! Now, if only a miracle could happen and this review unit magically finds its way back into my hands (permanently), that would be real swell (I know you're awesome like that Sony)!
Read more about photography at the humble photoblog I maintain over at http://fjwphotography.wordpress.com and also do check out more photos on my Flickr http://www.flickr.com/fanjw!
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