The Sony A7Rii with 24-70,, Mamiya 7ii with 43mm, and Fuji GX617 with 105mm attached.

Introduction

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the Sony A7Rii that is rated ‘most helpful’ on Amazon.com.  After 8 days in the Virgin Islands and extensive testing, I thought I would repost an extended review with some additional topics.  My perspective comes from that of a fine-art photographer who frequently prints his images large, not pixel peeping and wasting time obsessing over technical non-sense.

I mostly shoot black and white 120 film, and make my living selling big fine-art prints. I returned to film 5 years ago for aesthetic reasons, and reinvented my style and won many awards for my silver gelatin prints.  As time moved on, I wanted to reintegrate color back into my workflow, so for the past two years, I’ve tried many digital systems and hated them all (5dmkiii, D800E, etc). The Sony A7Rii is the first digital camera I really like and can live with.

Since last December, I’ve brought along a Sony A7R (with 16-35 and 24-70 zeiss lenses) in additional to my film gear.  The A7R was a slow, clunky focusing camera with an amazing sensor. I liked the mirrorless concept and light weight (especially EVF), so I tolerated its faults.  The mark ii version is a vast improvement; about 5 generations ahead of the old one. Sony has fixed just about every complaint with the A7R, while adding some unique features.

I am the last person on earth to run out and buy the latest gear – and then review it in a blog post. I was lucky enough to walk into a local store who had one for me to try and buy. I was not happy about the price, but I could quickly see why it cost so much. The build quality and speed were terrific. You’re definitely paying an early adopter fee for all the R&D, and the fact that this camera has no competitive equivalent to drive the price down.  It will be years before all this technology becomes cheaper, so go ahead and buy it now. At least this time Sony includes 2 batteries and a charger.

 

Magen's Bay, US Virgin Islands captured August 2015 with the Sony A7rii

Magen’s Bay, US Virgin Islands captured August 2015 with the Sony A7rii, Sony 70-200 f/4 Lens.  Handheld, 3 shot stitch.

Positive Thoughts of the Sony A7Rii:

 

1) Rangefinder Format.  This is the first camera to shoot as unobtrusively as my rangefinder film cameras, except that I get a really nice preview. DSLRs were always old technology slapped onto modern technology.  I hate DSLRs because you constantly need to ‘chimp’ and take your eyes away from the viewfinder to check exposure.  SLRs were also never intended for landscape and fine-art photographers. With mirrorless, you can get a full what-you-see-is-what-you-get preview before hitting the trigger.  You see a true final exposure with constant depth of field preview.  No need to review an LCD for focus or exposure.  I used my friend’s D800 the other day, and realized how much I now hated optical viewfinders.  I also forgot just how oversized and heavy it was.

2) Improved Viewfinder (EVF).  The new viewfinder is more improved then you can initially tell. When turning a polarizer, for instance, I can see the change in sky much better, and I can better tell what a polarizer does to exposure over an SLR. The screen is sharper, bigger, and very high resolution, with 100% coverage. I can distinguish background blur from what is in focus, even with a 16mm at f/4. I can manually focus far more accurately than with a DSLR.  For the first time, I know exactly what my digital camera is going to do before clicking the shutter release, allowing me to shoot one or two photos instead of 20 just in case the camera messes something up.  I have confidence in the camera’s ability to do things right the first time, like my film rangefinders.  This is what Canon and Nikon should be doing instead of jamming in more and more megapixels onto the same tired old SLR designs.  For folks with aging eyes, I want to point out how much easier this camera is to use than a DSLR, especially in low light and with use of a ND filter, where an optical viewfinder will be dark.  I could write an entire blog post about the value of an EVF.

3) Sony Sensor.  DR of the sensor is astounding. Like the mark 1, you can underexpose and recover the much of the scene without a grad nd. Ignore people obsessing over lossless RAW.

4) Sensor Stabilization.  The 5-Axis IBIS (In-Body-Image-Stabilization) really works. The A7Rii built-in stabilization works seamlessly with built-in lens stabilization.  I just returned from 8 days in the Caribbean, and found that I no longer need a tripod in 80% of my work, since the IBIS allows “tripod sharpness” (I loathe the overused phrase ‘tack sharp’).  Tripods kill creatively; further, tripods signal ‘professional’ to many people, who will then try to throw you out of a location.  The A7rii allows me to be stealthy.

 

Captured in the Virgin Islands using a Sony A7Rii and Zeiss 16-35mm. 16mm, f/10 ISO250, 1/250s, Polarizer. The sensor stabilization allows consistent tripod sharpness handheld.

Captured in the Virgin Islands using a Sony A7Rii and Zeiss 16-35mm at 16mm, f/10 ISO250, 1/250s, Polarizer. The sensor stabilization allows CONSISTENT tripod level sharpness handheld.  It’s also far more effective with wide angles then lens IS.  Shooting handheld especially allows much more creativity with super-wides, something I never enjoyed with film.  Further, with tripods, people assume you’re a professional, and attempt to throw you out public places.  I enjoyed being stealthy during my photo adventure.

 

5) Silent and Softer Shutter.  Soft shutter finally gets rid of camera shake on long lenses. I repurchased the 70-200 f/4, which works worlds better than on the mk1. Silent shutter allows hand held exposures that are super slow. E-front curtain shutter has a nice quick chirp sound, vs the old clunky a7r that drove me nuts.

6) Customization and Controls.  Lots more settings and customization. I spent a good 4 hours customizing each switch. Then, I programmed the 1 and 2 dial for switching between tripod exposures and hand held. Lots more bracketing options. Bulb mode works better with wireless remote.  You can disable the video button.  The list goes on and on.

7) Focus is Accurate and Fast.  Focusing is great. Really great, even in low light with the f/4 lenses. My intention is to only use native sony lenses. The real focusing system works much better for closeups with wide angles, and other situations where the a7r struggled.  Further, the A7Rii, as others have confirmed online, may be the first camera ever to get focusing right almost 100% of the time.

8) Speed.  The camera is now lightning fast and super responsive. This is from the combination of fast shutter and focus.

8) Finally a Pro Body.  Build quality is terrific. Gone is the twisty, bendable lens mount. Too bad they didn’t use real gaskets (although tight build is important for good weather sealing).

 

The small form factor and light weight allow small bags and easy travel.

The small form factor and light weight of the Sony A7 system allow small bags and easy travel.  Think Tank Trifecta 10 backpack is a available here on Amazon or  on BHPhoto

I can also use lighter tripods with the silent shutter.

The soft shutter and light weight allow much lighter duty tripods for long exposures.

 

9) Light meter.  This doesn’t get enough attention, but the meter is sooooo more accurate in mirrorless cameras in general, especially with portraits.  I underexposure everything about 1/2 to 1.5 stop for landscapes.

10) Lens Choice Expanding.  More lens choices coming soon. Sony and Zeiss are dedicated to the e-mount system, and more 3rd party lenses are being released.

11) Accessories.  Knock-off accessories are really good, and most from a7r work with a7rii

12) ISO performance is great, but I can’t compare since I mostly only use 100-400 iso.  New DXO Mark showed this is the best overall sensor ever made.

13) Size and Weight.  The camera is very small and light.  I held my friends D800 with 24-105 attached.  I forgot how heavy and oversized that rig was.

 

My favorite local spot captured with the Sony A7Rii and 16-35mm at 15s, f/16. The soft shutter allow sharp long exposures with confidence.

My favorite local spot captured with the Sony A7Rii and 16-35mm at 15s, f/16. The soft shutter allow sharp long exposures with confidence.

Some Drawbacks

 

1) Lens Choices.  Sony is still catching up with lens choices. No ultra-super-wide, no fisheye, no wide primes, etc. Some lenses are branded Zeiss, but are made by Sony and cost more for the zeiss name.  Many new lenses are coming fast.  I’ll be getting the 25mm Batis and 50mm Loxia soon.

2) Power Hungry.  Battery life still sucks, which affects video users more than me.  I use about 1.5 batteries per day on a serious photo expedition.  Wasabi batteries are cheap and good (easier than carrying film). Turn off the pre-focus, which will save power. Turn off camera when not in use.

 

One week worth of film next to one week of batteries. Not sure I know what all the fuss is about.

9 boxes of 120 film I normally carry on a trip next to 4 Sony batteries.  Lets keep it in perspective about carrying a few extra batteries.  BTW, the box of 220 Velvia film is worth more than those batteries and two chargers.

 

3) Weather Sealing.  No gaskets for super-duper weather sealing.  Although no manufacturer is making claims about weather sealing like they used to.

4) User Guide.  Included camera manual is useless. Spends more time on liability stuff than using the camera.

5) Maybe Too Small.  Camera is a bit small without a bottom arca swiss plate, even with my small hands.  Perhaps if it were bigger, I would complain it were too big.

6) Shutter Throw.  Shutter button needs to be more sensitive.  Throw is too long; I prefer a ‘hair trigger’.

7) Write Speed.  Camera won’t write RAWs faster than 35mb/s on any SD card.  The buffer, though, is enormous and makes up for it.

Some Tips:

 

1) Silent shutter and/or continuous mode will only give you only 12bit files. Use e-front curtain instead.  For long exposures with a telephoto, or super slow exposures hand-held, the silent shutter is just awesome for the very small loss in shadow detail.  Update:  In practical terms for my shooting style, I can’t tell the difference between the 12 bit and 14 bit files unless they are badly underexposed and then brightened.  Even then, the difference can be fairly small, especially at low ISOs.

2) Spend a good 4 hours customizing all the buttons. Make the camera fit your needs.

3) Turn off DRO and Long Exposure NR.  These things should be done later manually in photoshop.

4) I set the image review to off, which prevents the photographer from having to chimp, and allows a more subject connected, intuitive style of shooting that I associate with film rangefinder cameras. BTW Film SLRs were always terrible, and not made for fine-art photographers.

5) The Neewer Arca-Swiss Bracket for the A7ii fits the A7ii. Makes the camera a little bit taller, which is good.

Using Other Brand Lenses

 

Most bad reviews I’ve seen online seem to be about people adapting lenses.  Its unfair to review a camera using Canon lenses, which cripples nearly every advantage of the system.  The sensor stabilization and lens stabilization, for instance, work in sync with Sony lenses.  I sold all of my Nikon gear last November and went ALL IN for mirrorless.  The Sony system is fantastic, and more lenses are coming out soon.  My advice is to either adopt Sony in full, or stay with your system.  BTW, if you sell your used Nikon/Canon lenses in November-December, you will get top dollar and sell them super fast.

That being said, I may eventually adapt the Canon 24 and 17 Tilt shift lenses for special occasions.  Nikon’s tilt shift lenses aren’t that great, I’m glad to have the option to use water lenses are best from each brand system if the occasion arises.

Feeling Like a Pro

 

The Sony A7Rii is the best camera made today.  One issue with the camera I’ve experienced myself, and I I’ve seen browsing some negative reviews, is psychological.  It’s a camera that challenges your ego if you’re used to using pro DSLR systems.  Because it is not big and heavy, the A7 series doesn’t give you that big ego trip out in the field.  When I use to pull out my heavy D800E with a 24-70 2.8, it was a big hammer that got attention and made me feel like a ‘super pro’.  The A7 series is light, small, geeky, humble, and stealthy.  The camera doesn’t make you feel like ‘you’re awesome’ when you’re using it.  It’s instead a precision tool that works unobtrusively to get the job done, and fits back into a light bag.  I was surprised that I missed that feeling of using a gigantic digital camera, not function wise, but ego wise.  I got over this after a few months of using the original A7r, and I think I’m a better photographer for it.

Video

 

I’m not a videographer, but I took a couple of clips in 4k in the Virgin Islands last week and was surprised by the quality on my retina screen.  WOW!  I’ve been hearing about some overheating issues while shooting 4K with with the super mode for over 15 minutes.  I couldn’t replicate the issue on my own camera, even with Florida summer humidity and heat.

Switching Systems

 

Switching from a Canikon DSLR to Sony mirrorless will feel like a bitter, drawn out divorce.  You need to be patient and take a few weeks to learn your new gear until it becomes like a third hand.  It will be worth it in the end.  I switched during my off season last December, when I usually don’t shoot any new work.  Going from the A7r to A7ii was seamless after a day or two of testing. Don’t switch to a new system right before a big, important photo adventure.

Final Thoughts

 

I’v avoided writing equipment reviews for years, since I’m a) too busy running my photo business, and b) digital photographers get really, really defensive about their gear choices.  I’m an analogue photographer and generally have laughed at watching so much fighting between brand loyalty and pixel peeping over the past few years.

But I couldn’t resist writing my thoughts this time.  I’m excited to have finally found a digital camera system that’s going in the right direction for landscape and fine-art photographers.  Because Nikon and Canon stuck with the 35mm SLR format in the early 2000s, as well as the lack of viewfinder technology at that time, people like me have been stuck with the DSLR format.  Its an exciting time for digital photography, where we finally are seeing some real camera choices.  If only I could find a dedicated panoramic digital camera.

If you love your DSLR, than good!  Keep making great images with it.  Take what I say with a grain of salt.  Get out and take more photos!  For me, I’m for the first time truly enjoying digital photography thanks to my Sony A7Rii.

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Me at USVI

 

Accessories and Links

I received a few emails about what accessories I use.  Below are links to all the accessories, camera bags, lenses, and cameras you see in the photos.

Sony A7Rii Body:  BhPhoto

Sony E-Mount Lenses

Sony 16-35 Zeiss Lens:  BhPhoto or Amazon

Sony 24-70 Zeiss Lens:  BhPhoto or Amazon

Sony 70-200 Lens:  BhPhoto or Amazon

Sony Polarizers

I had these before I switched to Sony.  The polarizers have a super slim ring, and a unique inset ring design that makes them much easier to turn, as well as screw off the lens

Sony 72mm Polarizer:  BhPhoto

Sony 67mm Polarizer:  BhPhoto

Backpack:

This bag is accessible from either side as well as the back.  Its perfect for mirrorless with a little extra room for accessories and snack bars.  The small tripod fits in the back nicely.

ThinkTank Trifecta 10 Sling Backpack:  BHPhoto or Amazon

Oben CT3451 Travel Carbon Tripod with Ballhead:  BhPhoto or Amazon

Arca Swiss Custom Camera Plate

This one is really cheap, and makes the camera a little bit thicker

Neewer A7ii/A7Rii Camera Plate:  Amazon

Batteries and Charger

Knock-off chargers and batteries are great these days.  The charger plugs in the wall and the car, and the batteries are just as good as Sony’s.

Wasabi Batteries and Charger:  Amazon