In my pursuit of finding my next camera, I turned to the Sony A7R II ($3,198 on Amazon). I have to admit that the main reason I went to the Sony A7R II next was to compare its full frame sensor to the Fujifilm X-Pro2's crop-sensor I had just rented. I loved the Fujifilm X-Pro2 as you can read about in my review here. But I figured that maybe the reason I loved it so much was because I hadn't experienced any other mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. So, I began my search on the internets for any promo codes for rental sites, and ultimately found myself on LensRentals.com. LensRentals packed the body and lenses in a nice bag that I could easily carry the whole camera system around in. Although it was not pelican cases, I liked that there were separate individual cases specifically for the lenses.
I could not get over how compact the body of the A7R II was when I pulled it out of the bag. Unfortunately, that excitement was short lived. As soon as I attached the 35mm f1.4 Zeiss lens ($1,498 on Amazon) to it, the camera became extremely top heavy and I knew immediately it was going to be difficult to take pictures one-handed with this camera. The actual grip on the body is actually laid out nice for your right hand. With the exception of the video button (admittedly, I did not take any video with this camera), the buttons are laid out fairly nicely.
The first thing I noticed when first messing around and taking the first shot was how incredibly fast this camera autofocuses. The first thing I noticed when I got the images on a larger screen was the sharpness and resolution of them. Also, the familiarity of the modes and digital interface approach to changing settings was very similar to my Nikon system, just laid out much better.
So What Sony A7 Camera is for Me?
One of the hardest things for me initially when looking to rent a Sony interchangeable lens camera was answering the question above. Which body was right for my needs? Sony has 3 classes out currently: the A7 II; A7R II; and the A7S II. I had read astrophotography blogs that raved about the low light sensitivity of the previous A7S and couldn't wait to get a hold of the A7S II. I read a million reviews on all 3 of them, each explaining why such class was best for this specific shooting scenario. But wait a second here, these cameras range from the low end of the A7 II at $1,600 to the high end of $3,199 for the A7R II. How are they not great cameras for every shooting situation?
This is when you realize, you've gone way too far down a rabbit hole and you've found yourself surrounded by only the gear-head fanatics of photography. I boiled down each camera to the following:
- A7S II - has a 12.2 MP sensor, the smallest of the three, but that is modified to have larger individual pixels and coupled with the BIONZ X image processor gives the camera an expansive dynamic range with minimal noise and notable sensitivity from ISO 100-102,400, which is further expandable to ISO 50-409,600. Also, the camera has enhanced video capabilities not found on the A7R II or the A7 II that allows it to shoot professional level video without overheating. Great for low light & video so astrophotographers and videographers.
- A7R II - has the largest sensor at 42.4 MP, ISO range of 100-25,600 and expandable to 50-102,400 with an incredible hybrid autofocus system with 399 phase detect and 25 contrast detect points. The camera has 4k video capabilities but is prone to overheating after 30 mins of continuous shooting. Meant for the professional landscape, sport, portrait, wedding photographer that needs to print still shots.
- A7 II - has a bigger 24.3 MP sensor and more limited ISO range from 100-6,400 and expandable to 25,600. Still has a great hybrid autofocus system with 117 phase detect and 25 contrast detect points. The camera has the same video capabilities as the A7R II. Basically, the lower end alpha series model that is still great for general photography.
I was really tempted to rent the A7S II as I really was hoping to capture a great milky way shot with the summer approaching and the core of the galaxy rising earlier. However, the bottom line came down to being more interested in the camera focused on still images and not video. The A7R II was the one for me.
What I loved about it
I have to say the main things I loved about this camera boil down to image quality and the speed of the autofocusing. But let's go down the line...
While any person getting into photography should learn not to judge a camera by the number of megapixels the sensor has, there's something to be said about the A7R II's 42.4 MP full frame sensor. Mind you, I'm shooting through some great glass in the Sony Zeiss FE Distagon 35mm f/1.4 but the sharpness of the images that come out of this camera is just amazing. Shooting at an image size of 7952 pixels x 5304 pixels is massive and can definitely fill up your hard drive quickly at 41 MB compressed RAW and 81.6 MB uncompressed RAW. The sharpness and creamy smooth bokeh you can achieve with the combo of the A7R II and lens is jaw-dropping.
Honestly, it took me a good week of shooting with this camera to get used to the speed of the autofocus. It was so much faster than any other camera I had used in the past that I actually was taking shots a split second before the moment I wanted to capture because I'd been program to anticipate the moment. However, once I adjusted myself to it, I began capturing shots of my daughter and her friends playing that would of passed me by with a slower autofocus camera. While I really missed the Focus stick on the Fujifilm X-Pro2, the Sony does have a way to map the center button of the dial on the back of the camera so that you click it then move your single point of focus around. It's definitely not as intuitive as the Focus stick but still affords you somewhat of the ability to move focus points around fairly quickly.
Low Light Performance & LCD
I was really excited to take the camera out at night and test the low light performance of the sensor. I knew I opted for the A7R II instead of the A7S II but figured this thing had to still kick butt when pointed at the night's sky. I took it outside of town about an hour away to my little brother's house, setup the tripod and pointed it at where the milky way should be rising. What I saw in the LCD screen was amazing. I literally could see the faint milky way through the LCD screen on the back of the camera before I even took a shot. This ability alone is phenomenal for astrophotography and nightscapes because you can actually frame your faint object before you take the shot. After I took my first shot, I was even more amazed with how much of the milky way showed up in just a 15 second exposure. Finally, I knew that it was really possible to take one of those milky way shots you see online without even using a tracking mount. Needless to say, I was super impressed with the low light performance of the A7R II and cannot really imagine how much better these shots could look through the A7S II.
The Small Details
- The software on both the camera and on the iOS app is surprisingly good. It was very easy for me to sync my iPhone up to the camera's wifi and download all the images I took that day in one click of a checkbox. You can also download software from the Sony PlayMemories Camera Apps store to do things such as time lapse, angle shift, or even stitched together a motion shot. It's not the most intuitive app store I've been too but it's cool that they offer such capability.
- The tilt screen LCD. Thank you Sony for saving my back and neck with making the LCD come out and tilt.
- The battery life. LensRentals sent two batteries standard with the A7R II rental, which I took to mean that I'd need the two batteries. Turns out, I never ran out of batteries while shooting with this camera.
What I did not love about it
With high end cameras like the Sony A7R II, you really have to be picky to find faults but there are definitely some here. Arguably, some of these things are personal preferences and are generally made in comparison to the Fujifilm X-Pro2 as this was the camera I had rented right before it. Either way, here's me registering my complaints.
- The biggest complaint I have with this camera is the bulkiness of the camera when you add a great lens like the Sony Zeiss FE Distagon 35mm f/1.4 I was shooting with most of the time. Literally, I was worried the whole time shooting that the camera was going to topple forward over my hands and on to the ground if I didn't keep a death grip around it and the lens. The whole system is extremely top heavy with such a lens attached to it.
- The digital interface of everything other than the aperture ring. After shooting with the more retro feel of the Fujifilm X-Pro2 with knobs and manual dials everywhere, I missed them when shooting with the A7R II. I found myself stepping back away from the viewfinder to make sure the settings I want were right. Part of this is because I find it strains my eye to navigate a menu through a viewfinder.
- As much as I praised the speed of the autofocus (and it's incredibly fast), this camera desperately lacks similar technology of the Focus Stick found on the X-Pro2. You should be able to move the point of focus around with ease without removing my eye from the viewfinder.
- Limited lens selection for the FE mount that covers the entire sensor. I'm sure this will be alleviated as time goes on but currently the variety of lenses available is fairly limited.
- The price of this bad boy. At $3,199 for the body and another $1,498 for the lens for a total of $4,697, this camera definitely comes with the Sony price tag. That being said, for a professional photographers camera with the craftsmanship that made it, I can understand why it costs what it does. Just saying for even the more adventuresome amateur photographer, it is too costly.
Bottom line: the Sony A7R II is on the cutting edge of mirrorless sensor technology and paired with a sharp lens, like the Sony Zeiss FE Distagon 35mm f/1.4, it'll capture some of your best images to date. However, it comes with the caveat that you'll never really forget that the camera is there. Whether it's the ergonomics with the weight of the lens or the need to use a digital interface for any change not pre-set/assigned to a button, you'll find it sometimes can get in the way of the moment. Though with its incredibly fast autofocus system, you'll also discover the ability to take shots you just missed with other cameras. At the end of the day, I would still recommend this camera for its pure hardware specifications so long as cost is not a concern.