Sony A7Rii: A Film Photographer’s Review

Sep 1, 2015 | Equipment Reviews, Film vs Digital | 22 comments

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 hhelpful’ 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.

Magens Bay Overlook, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, Dramatic, Sunrise, Orange, Mountains, Ocean

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.

 

Oppenheimer Beach, St John, US Virgin Island, Palm Tree, Tire Swing, Caribbean, Paradise, Ocean, Beach

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.

Please subscribe to my email newsletter for updates on art shows, new images, and blog posts.  You can also follow me on Facebook.

 

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

22 Comments

  1. John Macfarlane

    The ultra wide angle Sony E mount 10-18mm works great on the A7R2 .It’s not a full frame lens but IQ is amazing between 12 -17mm with very little vignette around the edges

  2. Dave Everett

    Richard, I like your style and this review. Why? Because your points are practical ones and ones that most of us would see and agree with if we weren’t caught in the perpetual vortex of pixel (and equipment) peeping. You point out what to be concerned with and what not, and you sound like an informed, experienced photographer speaking and not a tech geek fan boy.

    I’m a 45 year veteran of photography, dating back to learning on a 4×5 Calumet view camera at Brooks institute. Funny thing is, I’m capturing better images now, as a non-retired senior, than I ever did as a professional advertising photographer. I’ve experimented with a great deal of equipment, even to the point of taking very bad pics with the first commercially available digital (Logitech Fotoman) in 1990 when I could have had much better images on film (my wife is still upset about those shots of the kids back then).

    Well, keep writing, because the digital photography world needs to hear your voice of reason, and although I was reasonably happy with the Sony bodies and lenses I currently have, your argument about Sony mirrorless lenses on Sony bodies makes a world of sense. You’re actually the first photographer to state that the lens OS and body OS work together, which I suspected all along….

    Thanks Much,
    -Dave Everett, BPA

    • Richard Auger

      Hi Dave, this is the first gear review on my blog, so thanks for the encouragement! I agree that online reviews have turned into a black hole of pixel peeping and fanboy paid reviews. My hope was to provide a view of a fine art photographer that makes prints for a living. Great story about the old digital! Early adopting digital cameras must have been a great experience. Thanks for commenting

  3. VicTor

    Nice review with interesting arguments which are making my decision to purchase a7rii more and more solid. It’s so awful feeling to watch the inner conflict in myself between being fascinated by the abilities of this little gem and being scared by it’s price. If I buy it together with Batis 25 then it costs almost 5,000 € here in Europe, it’s crazy!

    By the way this “loosing of the feeling like a pro” you mentioned is IMO exactly the reason, why so many DSLR-user are looking for any even so little-tiny fault with a7rii and blowing them up to the dramatic problems. They are seldom honest enought to admit that the real reason for such dislike is not 12-Bit RAW or “awfull” AF, bad response, battery life and so on, but simply this self-centered missing of the Pro-feeling. Just my two cents.

    best

    • Richard Auger

      Thanks VicTor. I totally agree about the sticker shock, but as I always rationalize to myself, ” it’s still cheaper than a drug habit”. I forgot that in Europe, the price on this stuff is much higher. If you take photos all the time, then the price is worth it I think.

      I’ve learned quickly to enjoy being more stealthy with the small camera. The final giant print is where a photographic artists pride should be. Enjoy that new camera!

  4. Adrien Patané

    Great common sense review Richard! ive been looking for an unbiased review based on real experience in the field – as someone thats just switched from Nikon (D800) to Sony i couldn’t agree more about the EVF, whilst shooting the full moon the other night I was blown away by the ability to manually adjust my exposure on the fly to get it just right and shoot!

    • Richard Auger

      Thanks Adrien. I had the D800E, and don’t miss it one bit. EVF has really changed my shooting style.

  5. Dennis Frates

    Thanks for your great review, Richard. I too sell prints like you and have done so for over 30 years. I think I have read just about every review out there on this camera, but yours is the first I’ve seen to address the landscape, fine art side of things. I love my Sony A7RII. As a landscape photographer who has shot 99% of my images from a tripod I’m not too concerned with high ISO, image stabilization, and a lot of other features this camera has to offer. They only thing that really matters to me is a sharp, clean file that can be enlarged to enormous proportions as I often am requested. This camera delivers in this respect. That being said, I particularly like what you said about hand holding shots, and not being pegged as a “professional”. I have been doing some hand held shots with “Steady Shot” activated and I’m impressed with the results.

    I also shoot with the Pentax 645Z and it is a remarkable camera, but in side by side comparisons, I find the Sony is very close to the quality I get from the Pentax. The Pentax gives me that medium format 3-D look that I’m in love with, but if I hadn’t already purchased this camera I would let the Sony be my only camera – it’s that good.

    Anyway, thanks for your perspective on this camera. I’m sure there are also a lot of other photographers using this camera primarily for landscapes, and your post is very helpful for this.

    • Richard Auger

      Thanks Dennis. I checked out your photos – really nice! I have a friend who is also torn about Pentax vs Sony and has both. I also love the 3-D look of medium format. I considered getting the Pentax, but I can’t carry both a heavy digital and heavy film camera systems simultaneously.

      I figure more than half the people buying the A7Rii are landscape or fine-art photographers, yet no reviews seem to focus on this. I’m glad you like the review!

  6. Bumpy

    Nice review.

    I’m a hobbiest so you may find fault where I have not, but I’ve got fantastic 150MP panorama shooting 45mm (contax g) handheld six frames overlapping about 1/3rd, f11 w/ small focus differences for foreground vs background frames. Just do not move your feet and look where you shoot. Lightroom 6 panorama stitch had no artifact I could spot on retina iMac at 100%.

    Sooooo easy to get stunning panoramas, I feel like I’m cheating! My only need of a wide angle lens now is for tight quarters (indoors) or moving subjects.

    • Richard Auger

      Hi Bumpy, thanks for the comment. You’re correct, I do the same thing for my digital stitch panoramics. The big limitation is shooting bulb exposures at sunrise and sunset, where light will change drastically over a minute or two, limiting stitching ability. I would love to see, for example, a camera with a 30x90mm cmos sensor. I’ve got 15-20 minute exposures on 6x17cm slides, which I still can’t replicate with digital.

    • Bumpy

      I take your point, can’t pause the sun!

      Crazy idea – would three cameras w/ lens fov such that camera (sensor) spacing allowed image overlap sufficient for stitching work, or would different focal points introduce too much distortion (in practice as opposed to theory)?

      Even though long exposures are ruled out, I think hand held stitched panorama w/ a7rii is incredible – worth distinguishing when it can and cannot be used in a review for the sake of your amateur readers education (I appreciate your comment reply) and to encourage everyone to try handheld pano much like you encourage skipping a tripod.

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    • Richard Auger

      Bumpy, that definitely would work! You would need 3 of the same camera with the same lenses. Thats a lot of gear to gear though. What I’ve always wanted was a single click solution, coming from my perspective of a film shooter.

      Thats a good point, maybe I’ll add a section for handheld pano creation. The IBIS makes it much, much easier to make handheld panos, such as the one at the top of the page. I can move the camera around faster, as well as shoot at higher aperture without a tripod. When I did this on the D800, I inevitably would have one of the 5 exposures blurry, and could never count on a DSLR for handheld panoramic stitching.

    • Bumpy

      3xRX100 is only 100 grams heavier than the a7rii body. Unless you really want shallow dof or can’t live with smaller sensor I think you could get the aspect ratio you want without back breaking gear (assuming rx100 lens can give needed fov overlap). A common bar for mount and a three prong plunger to trip shutters in unison shouldn’t be too hard to fashion….

      I suggest this because economics of cmos sensor production make it very unlikely you will see a wide aspect single sensor unless/until some as yet unknown sensor technology with very different economics comes along. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen…..

  7. Peter

    Thank you for your psychologically astute review via a via the ego factor. And for the technical review. I went to B&H with my memory card and brought back some wonderful images produces in terrible conditions-camera tethered by a cord and fluorescent light. I too said finally, there’s a way out of my DSLR. BUT: yes, smaller format, but weight is similar to my D7100 Nikon, lenses aren’t light and most worrisome is that DxOmark does not seem particularly enamoured with the lenses. The limited lense selection and lack of third party lenses is also problematic.
    I have no doubt about making the switch when I see a greater selection of well tested lenses. As to the price, I have put my children on notice that they will have a decrease in their inheritance!
    Peter

    • Richard Auger

      Hi Peter, going from the D7100 to the A7Rii should be similar weight. But from a FX Nikon body I had before, the weight difference is large while maintaining the D810 large sensor quality. There is a good argument to me made for crop sensor cameras for many people. Sony and Olympus both have fantastic crop sensor mirrorless cameras that are hilariously lightweight.

      Because I only shoot landscapes from wide to mid, the lens selection is fine for me – minus a good wide prime which will be coming out soon. Many of the Zeiss primes are the best ever tested on DXOmark, who will continue adding more lenses soon.

  8. Marc Damon

    Hi Richard,
    thank you for the great review, I enjoyed it. I have pulled the trigger and bought an A7rII myself too a few weeks ago, my first digital camera since 2004. I like it so far, a big learning curve for me. As far as lenses, I do have the Loxia 50mm and like it very much, just be aware that being manual, certain subjects are definitely harder to capture, I got a little frustrated chasing kids around at F2!! The focusing is super smooth and almost therapeutic, you will want to use the magnifying focusing at F2, I really enjoy the lense though. I also got myself a Voigtlander 15mm Heliar III (here is a great review: http://photoncollective.com/voigtlander-15mm-f4-5-heliar-iii-lens-review), and I have to say I love the lense and highly recommend it, it is almost laughable how tiny this combo lens/camera is compare to DSLR equivalent, but the results are truly impressive. If you would like even wider, you can get the Voigtlander 12mm, but I have not tested it. I have had a few times where the camera froze and I had to restart it, otherwise works fine. Keep up the great work. Marc

  9. kian forreal

    awesome review. i shoot mainly b&w film with a leica.. I recently bought this camera and like you said.. finally something good enough with IQ and the actual ‘experience’ to make me switch to digital for most of my shooting.. glad I found your blog and its not just me making the switch, I feel guilt leaving analog behind…. but the a7rii really is a game changer…

    cheers