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Sony A7 MKII Hands On

by Michael Reichmann

Sony plays to win, and hates to lose. A few years ago I sat next to the then president of Sony U.S. at a corporate function, and in the course of discussion he made the point that the company had identified digital imaging as a key business that they were going to be seriously committed to, and though it might take them some time it was their goal to eventually supplant either Nikon or Canon as the #2 camera company in the world.

At the time I thought those to be brave words, but now, while those other two companies have sat with their thumbs in the proverbial dark place for the past few years, Sony has forged ahead with mirrorless technology. Indeed they are the only camera maker with a mirrorless full frame camera, and not just one model, but a whole line-up of them, as well as APS-C models.

With the recently introduced Sony A7 MKII we see a continuing evolution of what was once the NEX brand and is now just Sony's Alpha brand with the new full frame FE mount. Confused? Of course you are. So apparently is Sony. They charge model names and series branding as fast as they introduce new models, which is several times a year. And unlike some camera makers, who every now and then add a bit of chrome and new mag wheels to last year's models, Sony actually introduces new technologies, and marketplace confusion be damned.

This is both a criticism, and praise. Some companies (you know who I mean) are slow, stodgy, conservative and cautious. None of these adjectives can be applied to Sony. They are impetuous, aggressive, innovative and overall risk takers. If they screw up, as they sometimes do, they simply brush themselves off and forge ahead. I find that though Sony's mistakes (and there have been many) can be annoying, they are made as a consequence of a continuous process of product innovation. I much prefer this to the tortoise-like "play it safe" approach of the more established players. It's just more fun to watch and it makes the products more interesting to work with.

Steel Car. Hamilton, Ontario. December, 2014
Sony A7 MKII with Zeiss 24-70mm @ ISO 200

First Impressions

I have something of a love / hate relationship with Sony cameras. Sony produces some of the world's best sensor technology, but in the past Sony has had some of the world's worst menu systems, and has made countless design mistakes with its camera's ergonomics. But, they are nothing if not persistent, and after numerous iterations they pretty much get things right. This is the case with the A7 MKII. From the NEX 5 to the NEX 7 to the A7r, features, functions and interface have shown a steady improvement and enhancements, and I can say up-front that there is now little of substance that I find to criticise; a first for a Sony A or E mount camera.

The A7 MKII's body is weather sealed and is made with magnesium top and front panels as well as interior frame. This lends both rigidity and lightness. And though it appears to be pretty much the same externally as the A7, when the two cameras are placed side by side it's obvious that almost every surface has been changed as well as many controls.

The MKII is slightly larger than the previous A7, A7r and A7s. Not a lot, but enough to make it a much easier camera to handle, more mainstream in this regard, while still remaining amazingly small and light for a full frame camera.

The grip has been totally redesigned and is now much more hand friendly, with the shutter release moved from its previous awkward position standing proud on the top panel, to a slightly slanted position on the grip, where it falls much more naturally to hand. The power On / Off switch still surrounds the shutter release but again is in a more mainstream, and easier to find by touch.

The front control dial is now located at the leading edge of the grip, and the grip's finger indents are more comfortable. My only real negative comment here is that when wearing gloves in winter there is precious little room for fingers between the grip and lens when a fatter lens is mounted. This is one of the prices to be paid for making a camera this small.

Photographers will appreciate that there are now four custom function buttons marked C1 – C4 on the top and rear panels, and combined with the rear D ring, comprise 10 custom controls which can be programmed with 56 different functions. I also find the operation of the camera's controls to be slightly "heftier" and less prone to accidental mispositioning,

The battery is the same as on previous models, but the accessory battery grip is new.

Passing Through. Hamilton, Ontario. December, 2014
Sony A7 MKII with Zeiss 16-35mm @ ISO 125

Autofocus

The days of mirrorless cameras being limited to contrast detection autofocus are now well and truly over. The A7 MKII has 117 on-chip phase detection points that cover the central third of the image area, and an additional 25 contrast detection points that cover out to about 80% of the image area.

Sony claims that focus tracking is 30% faster than with the previous A7 and the MKII is capable of shooting at 5 FPS for up to 77 fine JPG frames. My tests showed that about 30 raws at 5 FPS can be captured, and then the camera settles in to about 1.5 FPS until the card is full. These tests were conducted using a Sandisk U1 Class 10, SD/XC 95 MB/s card. (Note to card makers – can we please clear up card rating nomenclature? It's a bloody incomprehensible mess at the moment.)

Video

No Virginia, there is no 4K video. My guess is that this is being reserved for the anticipated A9 model due some time in early 2015 – at least according to the rumour mill. Instead, as with other recent cameras from Sony the A7 MKII uses the new XAVC S codec and offers 1920 x 1080 HD at 60p/50Mbps, 30p/50Mbps, and 24p/50Mbps. There is also the full range of cinema modes along with S-Log2 Gamma to create flat highly gradable images. The HDMI output is clean for use with external recorders.

I didn't have time (or subjects) for testing of the camera's video capabilities, but with the exception of 4K the camera offers pretty much state-of-the-art video capability, and when combined with the camera's full frame sensor the shallow cinematic depth of field that creative film makers are after.

Merry Christmas. Hamilton, Ontario. December, 2014
Sony A7 MKII with Sony 70-200mm G @ ISO 800

Turn On

Not that the camera itself isn't a turn-on, but I'm referring to the length of time it takes for the camera to become alive. On previous Sony 7 series cameras it could take quite a few seconds. With the A7 MKII this has been reduced to a couple of seconds. Still slower than most of the competition. Improvement is still needed in this area.


The Big News

In a move sure to please potential buyers, Sony has added In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) on five axes. This is the first full frame camera with this capability. It appears very similar to that in Olympus cameras, although I have read that it is Sony's own internally developed system. And remember, IBIS was a Minolta innovation, and part of Sony's acquisition heritage.

This may well be the case, but let's not forget that in 2012 Sony purchased a major share of Olympus for USD $645 Million, ostensibly toward a joint venture in the endoscope business. (Possibly to be used to help some camera industry competitors search where their thumbs are located. (Sorry – I can't help myself in seeing the humorous irony in this.)) Errr.. to continue... I wouldn't be surprised if there was some patent swapping going on. This is very common in Japan when competitive companies make non-controlling investments in each other.

Creating in-body stabilization in a camera as small as the A7 series is remarkable. To allow such a large sensor controlled mobility inside such a small space is quite an engineering feat. More importantly from our perspective as users, it allows any lens that can be mounted on the camera to be stabilized.

This raises some questions as to what works with what, and how. Here is what I've been told by Sony:

If a Sony lens with built-in stabilisation is used, in-body Steadyshot does not need to be turned off. The camera will make the choice of which stabilization system to use based on automatic identification of the lens when it is attached. Of course as with all stabilisation systems, if the camera is tripod mounted all stabilization systems should be disabled.  

In the case of an E-mount OSS lens mounted on the A7 MKII the camera can utilize 5-axis stabilization in one of two ways: The in-lens OSS system compensates for pitch and yaw (optimized for the focal length, of that particular lens), while the in-camera system compensates for horizontal (X axis) and vertical (Y axis) shift, as well as roll (Z axis). In other words, both systems are used simultaniously, as best determined by the camera.

Steel Mill – Hamilton, Ontario. December, 2014
Sony A7 MKII with Tamron 150-600mm and LA-EA4 Adaptor
460 mm. 1/1250 sec @ f/9. @ ISO 1250

When a Sony A-mount lens is mounted via an LA-EA3 or LA-EA4 adapter the A7 MKII camera will fully utilize its in-camera 5-axis image stabilization system to compensates for camera shake. Note that the following lenses do not feature built-in distance encoders, and so will only make use of 3-axis image stabilization when attached via an LA-EA3 or LA-EA4 adapter.... SAL16F28, SAL20F28, SAL28F28, SAL135F28 (STF), and SAL500F8.

With third party lenses, if the lens can pass distance encoding information electronically (via adapter) the camera will identify the correct setting for the 5-axis Steadyshot system. If the lens cannot pass distance info it must be set manually via camera menus. When using a zoom lens that does not register a distance value, you must set the focal length manually for the particular focal length used.

In my initial testing I have found the in-body Steadyshot system to be effective; about as effective as that of Sony's lens-based Steadyshot... about 3 stops worth. I was curious though how it would work with a new lens that I had just purchased specifically for use with the A7 MKII, the Tamron 150-600mm in Sony mount. While the Canon and Nikon versions of this lens have stabilization built in, the Sony version doesn't, making it not such a good match to previous A and E mount cameras (the latter with adaptor). But an A7 MKII with its in-body stabilization makes an ideal match. I did a quick test the first day that I had the camera, and below are some results.

Sony A7 MKII with Tamron 150-600mm @ 600mm

 

Below are 100% on-screen crops of the above frame
No Stabilization
Stabilization with Auto Focal Length Selection
Stabilization with Focal Length set manually at 600mm

I took three shots (actually more, repeating the test several times to ensure that there were no flukes). The lens was hand-held, set at 600mm focal length, and three frames were taken – without stabilization, with the camera choosing the focal length (if it can), and with the camera set for a 600mm lens. As you can see, the best result was with the manual focal length setting, in this case 600mm with the lens at 600mm.

I wanted to see if it would be OK to leave the manual focal length setting at 600mm and try shorter focal lengths, and the quick answer is "No". It's as bad as if it wasn't turned on. I then tried a number of focal lengths with the camera set to automatic focal length selection and the results were "OK", but always were better if I set the focal length manually. My plan therefore is that if I'm working quickly and changing focal length frequently I'll set the camera to Auto selection. If working more slowly or at a fixed focal length for a while I'll set it manually. In the former case though, I will use a high shutter speed than otherwise, just to play it safe.

Please note that these results are derived specifically when using the Tamron 150-600mm. Other lenses may respond differently.


The Sensor & The Rest

The A7 MII has a 24MP full frame sensor, likely similar to the one in the A7 as Sony has not made any claims otherwise. This sensor needs no introduction, scoring very respectably on DXO Mark at an overall score of 90.

Otherwise the camera is chock full of features, as you would expect from a Sony camera; zebras with settable levels, focus peaking with settable levels and colours, horizontal and vertical level indicators, auto-LCD/EVF switching, and the rear LCD is slightly more articulated than in the past, allowing for more clearance from the EVF when viewed from above. There is built-in WiFi along with downloadable Sony Playmemories apps, and also NFC for one-touch image transfer to Android devices. 

I should also note that Sony is one of the companies that "gets it" when it comes to Manual mode and Auto-ISO. You can manually and individually set both Shutter speed and Aperture and if the camera is in Auto-ISO mode it will set the required sensitivity automatically. I frequently work like this, and when using cameras that don't have this capability I find it quite frustrating.

I've mentioned that there are live Zebras with settable levels. This has increasingly become an invaluable way of working for me, and when I use a camera that doesn't have them, or any live over-exposure warning (Hello Fuji – I'm looking at you), I find it really limiting in terms of obtaining optimum exposure.

I will fault Sony, as with so many other camera-makers these days, in not including a battery charger, rather relying on in-camera charging via USB. Here's what I wrote in my recent Samsung NX1 review, and it applies to the new Sony as well... "Selling a camera to serious photographers and potentially to Pros that doesn't have a stand-alone charger is a huge mistake. It means that your camera is made unavailable for shooting when you need to charge a battery." Of course a stand-alone charger is available – at extra cost – which I suppose is the point.

Beach Walk. Hamilton, Ontario. December, 2014
Sony A7 MKII with Sony 70-200mm G @ ISO 100

The (Almost) Fatal Flaw

When the original NEX cameras came out Sony had what may charitably be called the worst user interface ever created for a camera. But now, several years on and with the A7 MKII Sony have left the bad old days behind them (almost) and have produced a camera with a very usable interface due to its high degree of customizability, though its menu layout remains a bit of a dog's breakfast.

There is a still one interface area where Sony has an issue, and that has to do with its ability to allow the user to conveniently separate the focus function from the shutter button and thus allow rear button autofocus. This is a shooting style that I use much of the time, as do many pros.

The problem is that while there is a very straightforward looking AF/MF and AEL lever and button combination it does not work as you might think it should. How's that, you ask? Well, I'd like to be able to flip a switch or press a button and toggle between autofocus on the shutter button and one-press autofocus on a separate button. I'd like to be able to decouple autofocus and autoexposure – simply. Is that asking too much? 

Sony has persisted for years now though with a system that never quite makes this straightforward. Indeed one major site called the original design "an Easter egg hunt", because to set it up properly requires accessing multiple menus and configuring numerous custom settings. I have spent more time than I care to admit exploring the myriad menu choices available. But the way that the AF functions interact on the MKII appears to be different than how they work on my A7r, thus necessitiating this work-around. If you find a better way, let me know.

Suggested Custom Settings for Switching Easily
Between Shutter Button AF and Rear Button AF

Gear Menu / 1 / MF Assist ON

Gear Menu / 1 / Focus Magnif. Time / NO LIMIT

Gear Menu / 4 / AF w/shutter ON

Gear Menu / 3 / Disp. Cont. AF area / ON

Gear Menu / 3 / Phase Detect. Area / ON

Gear Menu / 3 / Pre-AF / OFF

Gear Menu / 6 / Custom Key Settings / Custom Button 1 / Focus Mode

Gear Menu / 6 / Custom Key Settings / Custom Button 2 / Focus Magnifier 

Gear Menu / 6 / Custom Key Settings / Custom Button 3 / Focus Area

Gear Menu / 6 / Custom Key Settings / Custom Button 4 / AF/MF Ctrl Toggle

Gear Menu / 6 / Custom Key Settings / Center Button / AF/MF Control Hold

Now, with the camera set to Manual Focus (C1) the Center button become a one-shot autofocus button decoupled from the shutter release.

If you press (C2) in Manual Focus mode it magnifies the image (press three times to cycle though the magnifications) and if you have Peaking turned on it will be visible and will aid focusing.

If you press (C4) you return Autofocus to the shutter release.

Incidentally, the reason you turn on the AF area display lines (steps four and five above) is so that you can tell by looking at the screen whether you're in shutter AF mode or manual focus mode. The lines only show in Shutter AF mode.

This isn't the only way to set up control of the camera's autofocus options. There are many other configurations possible. But this is one that works for me. As has been said, it's like "an Easter egg hunt", just not a fun one.

Zanzabar. Toronto, Ontario. December, 2014
Sony A7 MKII with LA-EA4 adaptor and Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 @ ISO 100

The Summary For Now

Less than a week with a new camera isn't enough for my kind of testing. But even such a short period of time has shown me that with the A7 MKII Sony has finally hit its stride in terms of refining the NEX / A7 design paradigm. The early mistakes of dreadful user interface and awkward controls is now mostly past, and instead the A7 MKII has emerged as one of the most usable mirrorless cameras on the market. The fact that it is also smaller and lighter than some Micro Four Thirds and APS-C cameras, while offering a much larger and in many cases higher resolution sensor, just clinches the deal. With its IBIS the MKII will appeal to a great many users of third party lenses as well as Sony's A series lenses via an adaptor such as the LA-EA4.

The review sample body goes back to Sony Canada now, but a couple of weeks from when this is written the A7 MKII will start shipping in Canada, and my order has already been placed with a local dealer, Henry's. It will join my current A7r and set of FE and A lenses, and will be the system that I take with me when I go to Antarctica to teach on two back-to-back workshops in late January and early February, 2015. I will also be bringing my new Tamron 150-600mm, which when mounted on the A7 MKII via a LEA4 adaptor will, I expect, be ideal for shooting whales and other long reach subjects from the deck of the ship.

You can expect to hear more on how this combo performed after those trips, and any additional comments on the A7 MKII once I have had a chance to work with it for several thousand frames in Antarctic conditions.

The Sony a 7 II can be purchased at B&H Photo

December, 2014

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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Photographic lens, Sony α, Focal length, Full-frame digital SLR, Camera, Image stabilization

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Tags: A7 MKII, Sony, camera, Sony A7 MKII, A7 MKII Sony, focal length, A7 MKII camera, Gear Menu, Custom Key Settings, Sony camera, Sony A-mount lens, previous A7, Sony lens, downloadable Sony Playmemories, camera industry competitors, A7 design paradigm, Sony U.S., Sony cameras, camera company, camera maker, past Sony, camera makers, manual focal length, previous Sony, shutter release, A7 series, new Sony, Sony mount, Sony version, easier camera, A7 MII, new camera, shutter af mode, Sony Canada, camera menus., camera shake, Custom Button, Easter egg hunt, manual focus mode, image stabilization