My totally non-scientific test of a Sony A7R II

Last week I had the incredible fortune of testing out the latest and greatest camera on the market, the new Sony A7R II. Now this camera has been reviewed, poured over, and dissected by every major media outlet online, but there was something so continually robotic and monotonous about the words I was reading that I was dying to handle this beast myself. I have a pretty lucky life and this here was no exception. A very close friend of mine, Jay Perry and in fact purchased one and received it ahead of his delivery date. True to form and consistent with his incredible character and generosity, he allowed me to test shoot with it. A dream come true. And given my shooting style, I decided that it would be best for me to do a thorough test with no lighting equipment whatsoever, and put the high ISO performance of this camera to the test (which for me was really what I was after, more on this later). I called up my friend Max who is an actor and a great character study, and proposed to him that he be my model for this shoot. He jumped at the chance and away we went.

Shot at 1/125th, F2.8 ISO 12800 on the Sony A7R II

Shot at 1/125th, F2.8 ISO 12800 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

First, some of the impressive technical data about this camera, then on to my impressions and some sample images.

  • 42 MP Full-Frame Exmor R BSI CMOS Sensor
  • BIONZ X Image Processor
  • Internal UHD 4K Video & S-Log2 Gamma
  • 5-Axis SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization
  • 399 Phase-Detect AF Points & 5 fps Burst
  • 0.5″ 2.36M-Dot XGA OLED Tru-Finder EVF
  • 3.0″ 1,228.8k-Dot Tilting LCD Monitor
  • ISO 102,400 and Silent Shutter Mode
  • Durable Reduced-Vibration Shutter Design
  • Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity with NFC

Impressive indeed, but this tells us precious little about what it is like to actually use the thing. My first and most immediate impression was that this thing was small and if I were ever to use it I would absolutely have to buy the battery grip. This is not a point that necessarily applies to all people as I am well above averaged size, however it is worth nothing by someone coming from Canon’s professional camera series (I currently shoot a 5D Mark II without a battery grip) and was immediately a detriment in my mind.

Shot at 1/200th, F2.8 ISO 51200 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

Shot at 1/200th, F2.8 ISO 51200 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

We had a metabones adapter on the camera and I was therefore able to access my entire Canon library of L lenses, some old, some new, as well as the 50 1.2 that Jay had brought with him. I set out to learn the menu structure as quickly as I can. My previous experience with Sony menu’s consisted of no more than quickly playing with my fathers last generation A series which was straightforward enough. I will say this though, Sony could definitely stand to hire someone whose principal focus in life is logic, as the layout of the menu was ridiculous, and groupings of functions most definitely defied logic and reason. Again however, this is FAR from a deal breaker, just not something I’m used to, and something I’m certain I could and would get used to quickly. Its just another little thing holding them back from being a true provider of professional camera equipment. To be clear, I would not hesitate to buy this camera because of the menu structure.

I quickly learned the locations of the controls I would be shifting between for most of this shoot. Shutter Speed, Aperture control and ISO equivalent. I banged off a couple of high ISO shots and quickly ran to my computer to have a look. Strangely enough, they were smaller than expected files, resolution wise, until Jay pointed out to me that his friend who had done a quick video test with the unit may have switched the crop factor to super 35mm as that produces better video results. Fair enough. And after some searching I found how to change it back and suddenly I had access to the full 42 megapixels. As someone whose bread and butter is producing high quality art prints, I was theoretically in heaven.

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What you have to understand is that I am writing this review as someone coming from a camera that in every way imaginable revolutionized the industry, yet is using technology that is at least a decade old. In so many ways then, this Sony was indeed a revolution to me. This was also the first mirrorless camera I had ever used. Having a view finder and an articulating screen that shows me EXACTLY what my image is going to look like is… well its a game changer to be honest. I probably sound like a cave man exploring technologies that have existed for a while but I suspect I’m not alone in considering an upgrade path from an older camera to something new and modern, be it Sony or otherwise.

Shot at 1/125th, F2.8 ISO 16000 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

Shot at 1/125th, F2.8 ISO 16000 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

My first images pushed the camera immediately as I moved back and forth between ISO 12800 and ISO 64000. The camera was having a very difficult time focusing in the extreme low light, however I am not in a position to comment as to whether or not this was a limitation of the camera’s ability itself, or a limitation placed on it by using off-brand lenses with an adapter. I lean towards a bit of both, and would love the chance to slap some Zeiss glass on this thing. I pressed forward regardless and after a few images I told Max I simply couldn’t wait anymore and HAD to go and review on my Macbook Pro.

My first impression was astonishment. I couldn’t believe that an image shot at 25600 ISO could be so… useable. And let me comment on that because I actually had a small argument with my dad about this. How many people who purchase this camera, do you think, will actually be publishing/selling/producing critical images for clients? My guess is that the percentage is very low. If you are producing a layout for Vogue, I would not be shooting it with this camera at 25600. But for one of my art prints? Not a problem at all. A few adjustments in Camera RAW (I do not use Adobe Lightroom and most of my editing actually occurs in Camera RAW) and I imported an image into photoshop. I quickly ran it through Imagenomic’s Noiseware Professional and was amazed at the results (in the days following the shoot I have made several prints of high ISO images, one as high as ISO 51200 and I would not hesitate to sell it as an art print). So how exactly do we define a useable image? To me, its no more or less simple than an image I produce that produces a positive reaction from anyone. Be it online, in print, a nice photo is a nice photo. Do I wish that all of my images had mission-critical low noise levels? Absolutely. But we now live in a world where quite frankly we are no longer a slave to artificial light to capture what our minds envision, and I couldn’t be happier. I placed the memory card back in the camera and got back to work.

Speaking of memory cards, I was using my high speed card from my GoPro along with an SD adapter. I noticed that the write times to the card were often lagging behind a speed which I would consider acceptable, however I am under the impression that this was caused by the adapter, and not the memory card or the camera itself. It’s worth noting though. 42 megapixel RAW files are large files, and a buffer can file up quick if you shoot quickly. Luckily for me this is not very much in line with my shooting style so it was never truly an issue. RAW files typically came back at 41 megabytes each.

Shot at 1/125th, F2.8 ISO 25600 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

Shot at 1/125th, F2.8 ISO 25600 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

If I am to be honest, I found the camera’s operation feel to be… less than professional. I say that with a caveat mind you, as I did not have enough time with it to reprogram functions to new button locations to better shoot my operational style. Part of the issue with me was the button layout, which seemed to be designed by engineers and not photographers, and part of the issue was again the size of the camera itself. Additionally, I found the buttons did not depress in a satisfying manner which I could confidently reproduce shot after shot, and thusly I ended up depressing the shutter button early on several occasions. Again, this is nitpicking, but it is worth noting.

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It is telling that Sony packaged two batteries with this camera as the battery life is simple abysmal compared to what I am used to. Again this is not a deal breaker as you should always have spare, charged  batteries on hand, but it is hard to picture anyone using this camera to, say, shoot a wedding without being annoyed by the frequency of changeover. You would certainly need a grip for such an assignment. I’m certain there are settings in the camera I could use to extend this range, however I did not have that kind of time. It would likely be worth having eight batteries with you at all times, because the sensor in this thing is IDEALLY matched to an event like a wedding.

And my god, that sensor. I can’t imagine there is a better and more versatile sensor on the planet that is available to purchase right now. If all of my nitpicks with this thing above warned you off this as a potential purchase, let me be clear to you that the quality of the images it produces, speaking as someone that barely even touched upon its potential uses, more than makes up for it. And this leads me to the personal opinion part of this admittedly non-scientific review, and why I am now so very torn.

Shot at 1/200th, F2.8 ISO 51200 on the Sony A7R II (only slight adjustment in Camera Raw of Temperature/Shadow/Black everything else left to default)

Shot at 1/200th, F2.8 ISO 51200 on the Sony A7R II (only slight adjustment in Camera Raw of Temperature/Shadow/Black everything else left to default)

I want to love this camera but I just can’t. Not yet. When I factor in all that is involved with switching from one body to another of a new brand, I’m just not certain its yet worth it. I type this realizing that my opinion may change by the end of the day tomorrow. When I put on my trusty old Canon 28-70 2.8L I had to manually focus (its too old to work with the adapter) and it didn’t bother me one bit, in fact, it was refreshing in a way and still allowed me to produce stunning images. I have spent precious little time manually focusing my 5DII however the way in which the Sony handles this task leads me to believe I’d welcome it as a change/challenge. I was not particularly enamoured with the colour of the images coming out of camera (Canon still has the best colour science hands down) however again, not a deal breaker since if you understand how to actually edit, you can move the image to how you envision it, easily. As someone with a keen interest in shooting video, I did not test this function whatsoever and that was perhaps a mistake as it produces simply outstanding results from what I’ve seen online.

I am torn because this is literally the perfect camera for my shooting style, yet it is not the perfect camera. I can rationalize that the only thing that matters is the image, because when it comes down to it, that is the truth. I can look past all the shortcomings I mentioned above to have full time access to those absolutely silky smooth high ISO’s. But again I would be speaking as someone who has never really tested the most modern offerings from the other camera companies, a statement which just leads me to anger as for some reason Canon feels no need to respond to their competitors right now and get back into the game. Give me a 5D Mark IV with useable ISO up to 51200 and I’ll stay in your camp. Yet all us Canon users hear is crickets. In a way, I’m ready to make the leap for nothing other than spite. Yet here I remain sitting on my hands, undecided about what to do.

Shot at 1/60th, F2.8 ISO 32000 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

Shot at 1/60th, F2.8 ISO 32000 on the Sony A7R II (noise removal software utilized in post)

Which leads me to the only thing close to an actual deal breaker for me, and why, as of this writing, I am not going to make the jump to Sony. The compress their RAW images, which is a massive and glaring oversight to me. Crippling this incredible machine like that is something I’m all too used to from Canon, but this particular thing is a HUGE no no for me. I just can’t accept this complete and total lack of foresight on this. I understand that programmers likely worked tirelessly to get the algorithm just so, but look around online. Their RAW image compression is causing a loss of detail and I’m not okay with it. It may not be an issue in the VAST majority of usage studies for this thing, but it is for me. And it is something I truly hope they consider fixing ASAP.

All of the above stated, here is my final conclusion.

If it made financial sense, I would switch to Sony Tomorrow. In order to do so I would need to do the following:

  1. Purchase the camera and a grip for it, whereby I would have a more comfortable camera to handle and hold.
  2. Purchase two high speed memory cards
  3. Sell off my Canon body and most of my lenses, likely only keeping my 70-200 2.8L IS II (arguably the best lens of its kind, ever) and make the switch to Sony or Zeiss lenses covering a full focal length range from 16 to 135mm
  4. Purchase a portable mop to consistently clean up the drool that the images from this thing induce

And yet when I type it out, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to make the leap. And so here I am, absolutely torn about what to do. One thing has been made perfectly clear to me via this experiment. It is time I upgraded. Whether I wait for Canon to respond, or whether I make this leap of faith is the decision I will wrestle with in the coming weeks and months. I am doing a fine job of ignoring my techno-lust for new things however I simply cannot deny that I am shooting with technology that is limiting my creativity, and it is time for a change.