Updated: Sony will be adding some impressive features with firmware 2.0 releasing on November 18, including uncompressed RAW shooting and phase detect autofocus. Sony caused a major stir in the photographic world when it introduced the 24Mp Alpha 7 and 36Mp Alpha 7R because they were the first compact system or mirrorless cameras to have full-frame sensors – the same size as a 35mm film frame. This is something that has still yet to be done by any other manufacturer. What’s more, these two cameras (subsequently joined by the 12Mp Sony A7S) are incredibly small for full-frame cameras, not too dissimilar in size to the Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1, and offer a similar level of control.
Now Sony has created new waves of excitement by introducing an update to the A7 in the guise of the A7 II. However, some may feel that changes are rather small as, like the vast majority of the new camera’s components, the sensor is the same full-frame (35.8 x 23.9mm) 24Mp Exmor CMOS device as is used in the original A7.
Like the rest of the Sony Alpha 7-series, the A7 II is aimed at experienced photographers and therefore has aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes. Not wishing to exclude relative newcomers, Sony has given the A7 cameras program and automatic modes along with a collection of scene specific shooting modes. It’s also possible to save images in RAW and/or JPEG format.
The biggest news about the A7 II is that it’s Sony’s first full-frame compact system camera to feature in-body stabilisation. This means that the sensor can move to correct for accidental camera movements during the exposure. This 5-axis in-camera image stabilization may be unlikely to tempt existing A7 users to upgrade, but it does make the new camera more attractive than the older model to new buyers.
The stabilization corrects X and Y axis movements as well as pitch, roll and yaw for both still and movie recording. When a stabilised Sony lens is used on the camera the two systems combine to give optimised performance, choosing the best one to use for the focal length and each type of correction. The stabilization effect is optimised, but not cumulative, as one or the other system is used, not both. Helpfully, those using older (or third party) lenses that cannot communicate with the camera can input the focal length manually to use the in-camera stabilization system.
It’s probably worth reminding ourselves at this point that the Sony A7 series uses Sony’s E-mount. This means that these full-frame cameras can accept both full-frame and APS-C format E-mount lenses, but the image size is reduced when APS-C lenses are used. Alpha mount optics made for Sony’s digital SLRs and SLT cameras can be used via an adaptor. There are also adaptors available to allow Canon and Nikon lenses to be used.
Although the A7 II has the same hybrid AF system as the A7, with 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast detection points, Sony claims that new focusing algorithms enable a 30% increase in AF speed, with faster and longer high-speed drive and a 1.5x improvement in AF Tracking performance. Thanks to the firmware 2.0 updated, the Sony a7 II becomes the second Sony camera, along with the flagship α7R II, to offer fully-functional phase detection AF on A-mount glass in addition to E-mount lenses. The tracking AF performance has also been improved by using technology from the Sony A6000 and A77 II, adding Lock-on AF (Wide/Zone/Centre/Flexible Spot) to help follow moving subjects. This means that the camera uses data about object distance from all of the AF points to inform the processor about the location of the subject, whether it is moving in relation to the background and the location of other objects in the scene.
This enables the camera to continue to track the subject after another nearby object has interrupted the view. There’s also improved motion detection to help identify the subject and distinguish it from the background. Sony also claims that the A7 II’s start-up time is 40% faster than the original A7. It will be interesting to see whether Sony passes any of these algorithm-based improvements onto the A7 with a firmware upgrade. Sony UK was unable to comment upon this point. Sony has also given the A7 II some of the video features of the A7S. For example, it can now record in the XAVC S, AVCHD or MP4 format. Plus, there’s simultaneous dual format recording in MP4 and XAVC S or MP4 and AVCHD format to provide an easy format for sharing along with data-rich footage for editing.
In addition, Picture Profiles offer the ability set the Gamma to Sony’s S-Log2 for reduced contrast and greater dynamic range, plus the Time Code feature helps with scene identification and footage syncing from multiple cameras. You can also attach an XLR microphone via an adaptor. On the still images side, the Sony a7 II supports uncompressed 14-Bit RAW image capture. This feature came later into the camera’s life by way of the firmware 2.0 update that released on November 18. Before it, the Sony a7S II and a7R II both supported uncompressed RAW shooting. Other specification highlights of the A7 II include a sensitivity range of ISO 50–25,600, a 0.5-inch 2.4million-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF), a tiltable 3-inch RGBW 1,228,800-dot LCD screen, a claimed battery life of 350 shots, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, a maximum continuous shooting rate of 5fps and a standard shape hotshoe with extra contacts to connect accessories like the microphone adaptor mentioned earlier.
Build and handling
Like the other cameras in the Alpha 7-series, the A7 II has rather angular, old school appearance which many photographers will find appealing. It certainly works for me. It also feels nice and solid in the hand. According to Sony the sensor housing has been made stronger in the A7 II with more magnesium alloy than in the original camera. This, combined with the camera’s moisture and dust sealing, should make the camera pretty durable, although Sony UK cannot give a rating for the level of weatherproofing.
One surprise when using the Alpha 7 II for the first time is how loud the shutter is. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s an SLR with a mirror slapping out of the way before the shutter opens. But no, it’s a compact system camera, so there is no mirror and the noise is solely down to shutter movements.
Sony has given the A7 II a deeper, more comfortable grip than the A7 and there’s a new richly textured coating that gives excellent purchase. On the back of the camera there’s also a small but effective thumb-ridge, which has the same coating as the front grip. These elements combine to make the camera feel very comfortable and more secure in the hand than the A7 when shooting or walking between shots.
Other changes made since the A7 include a slightly larger shutter button which has been moved forward to make it easier to reach. I found this to be a good move as the button falls under the point that I automatically reach to when holding the A7 II. Just below the shutter release, at the top of the grip, is a small protruding dial that’s used for exposure adjustments. This replaces the large dial found near the shutter release on the A7. While the new dial is a little fiddly to find when you’ve got cold fingers, this is a better control arrangement than on the original A7. Shifting the shutter release off the top-plate has made room for a second custom button on the A7 II, giving greater opportunity to customise the camera. Meanwhile, the back of the camera looks almost identical to the original A7, apart from the fact that the C2 (custom) button has been relabelled C3.
On the subject of customisable buttons, it’s worth spending some time using the camera and experimenting with different customisation settings. I found it helpful to set the button at the centre of the navigation pad/wheel to access ‘Focus Settings’. Pressing it when shooting in Flexible Spot Focus Area mode then activates AF point selection mode. From here the desired point can be selected using the control dials or the navigation pad. Sadly, there’s no touchscreen to speed this up.
I also set the down control of the navigation pad to access the Focus Area options. This governs how the AF points are selected, rather than allowing the actual point to be selected. For the majority of my time using the A7 II, I used Flexible Spot mode, usually in the Small settings, as this allows you to select a precise point for focusing automatically. However, it’s helpful to have a quick route to the selection options so you can quickly switch to Lock-on AF, for example, if you come across a moving subject.
It’s also possible to customise the A7 II’s Function (Fn) menu. This menu is accessed by pressing the Fn button on the back of the camera and it gives a quick route to up to 12 features such as white balance, metering mode and Picture Profile. Each of the 12 slots in this menu can be customised to access one of 32 features. I found the default settings good, but it’s worth experimenting and keeping an eye on which features you use. If there’s an option in the menu that you don’t use, or prefer to access another way, then the chances are that you can change the menu to include something more useful.
I found the A7 II’s tilting screen useful when shooting low-level landscape format images. Although it’s very good, like most screens, it suffers a little from reflections and glare in very bright conditions. It can also be tricky to see the electronic level indicator in these situations. And of course, a tilting screen is of little use when shooting upright format images.
Fortunately, like the other A7-series cameras, the A7 II has an excellent electronic viewfinder (EVF). This provides a nice clear view of the scene with plenty of detail and, as usual with an EVF, it shows the impact of any settings adjustments – although this can be turned off if you prefer. The image in the EVF is very natural, with just a slight shimmer here and there to remind you that its an electronic device rather than an optical one. Colours are a little less saturated in the EVF than they are on the screen and in captured images, as well as in real life. While this won’t trouble RAW shooters, it could lead you to boost JPEG saturation via the Creative Style options and created overly vibrant images if you are unaware of the issue.
There’s a helpful little sensor just above the EVF window which detects when the camera is held to the eye, turning off the main screen and activating the finder. This works well and is helpful on many occasions, but it sometimes turns off the screen when the camera is held close to your body or a finger passes near it, which can be a pain. Unlike some other compact system cameras, the A7 II doesn’t have a button nearby that can be set to override the sensor and toggle between using the EVF and the screen. There’s also no customisation option to this effect.
One the whole the A7 II’s controls are sensibly arranged and the menu systems are logically structured. However, I suspect that many users looking to shoot video for the first time will be a little perplexed by the record button. It’s located on the side of the thumb-ridge, an unusual place for any control and not the first place you tend to look.
It’s not a major issue to press this button if the camera is tripod mounted, or perhaps on a rig, but if you’re hand-holding it you need to adjust your grip significantly to press it. This means that the first and last sections of the video are likely to include some wobble while you readjust your grip to and from a more sturdy position. The button is also very small and has a soft action that leaves you wondering if you’ve pressed it sufficiently or not.
As it sits mid-way between the 36Mp Alpha 7R and the 12Mp Alpha 7S, the 24Mp Alpha 7 II is the all-rounder, generalists’ model. It’s likely to find favour amongst those who don’t need the huge file sizes that the A7R generates and who want faster autofocusing, but who aren’t primarily concerned with low-light and video performance. That’s not to say that the A7 II a Jack of all trades and master of none. It’s capable of resolving a heck of a lot of detail and noise is controlled very well from ISO 50 to 6400. The autofocus system is also very fast and accurate in decent lighting conditions and it’s capable of getting moving subjects sharp. Nevertheless, it probably still wouldn’t be the first choice of camera for a sports photographer. Those weighing up the differences between the original A7, which is continuing in the Sony CSC line for now, and this newer model will find little apart from the addition of image stabilization to tempt them in the specification sheet. The differences are primarily in the handling experience. The Alpha 7 II is a very comfortable camera to use with controls generally being within easy reach. The notable exception here being the record button for video mode. Both the A7 and the A7 II are solidly built cameras that look and feel like a professional quality device. According to Sony, the A7 II is a little more robust than the A7, but that’s impossible to tell from the outside. The grips and coatings on the camera certainly make it feel more secure in your hand.
I love the feel of the A7 II and it sits very comfortably in my hand. The thumb-ridge on the back is sufficiently pronounced and at the right angle to allow my thumb to take some the weight of the camera off my little finger which slips under the camera body. Photographers with larger hands sometimes find the Sony A7-series of cameras more comfortable to hold and the controls less fiddly to use than those on the Olympus OM-D E-M10 and even the OM-D E-M5 and OM-D E-M1. Because of the benefit to image quality and depth of field control, a full-frame camera is at the top of many photographer’s wish list, and having one that is as small as the A7 II is a major bonus. The A7 II is a little bigger than the A7, but the difference isn’t dramatic by any means. Having image stabilisation built in to a camera body is a huge plus point because it means that just about any lens you mount on it becomes stabilized. We may not quite have matched the claimed compensation figures for the A7 II’s system, but it enabled us to take sharp images at much slower shutter speeds than would normally be possible.
I’m a fan of electronic viewfinders in principle, so it’s disappointing that the colours in the A7 II’s EVF aren’t a closer match for those on the screen and the final image. There’s not a huge difference and it’s not really an issue for those who shot RAW files (the majority who use the A7 II are likely to), but it could cause problems for those shooting JPEGs. Videographers may also experience difficulties if they don’t want to grade video clips. However, many enthusiast videographers are likely to use the A7 II’s Picture Profiles and Sony’s S-Log2 Gamma to produce low contrast footage that is intended for post capture grading. Videographers may also be disgruntled with the location, size and feel of the Record button on the A7 II. Another concern is that the exposure compensation dial is fairly easily knocked out of position. It has a reasonably stiff action, but this doesn’t prevent it from being moved accidentally away from the desired setting occasionally. As well as their small size, one of the reasons that the Alpha 7 and 7R attracted so much attention when they were first announced was their price. They are not cheap, but they are more affordable than most full-frame cameras. The A7 II is around £500/$400 more expensive than the A7, that’s a big jump.
The Sony A7 II produces images with an impressive level of detail and lovely colour. Although I found that you need to keep an eye on exposure and use the compensation dial to occasionally vary it by 1/3 or 2/3EV from the recommended settings, with an EVF to show you the impact of such changes and a dedicated dial on the top-plate, getting the correct exposure is easy. The in-camera stabilisation system is also useful and enables sharp images to be taken at shutter speeds that would not normally be possible when hand-holding a camera. It gives extra creative potential with the ability to use shutter speeds that blur moving subjects while the stabilisation produces a sharp background. It all adds up to make the Sony A7 II a very attractive camera.