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The Sony A7RII A Year Later

A little over a year ago I wrote about the joy of switching to mirrorless from my Canon DSLR system.  I had originally bought an A7II and then upgraded to the A7RII shortly after it’s release.

I was blown away by the image quality and couldn’t help but pixel peep every single image and marvel at the ridiculous clarity from the 42MP sensor.

At the time I started writing a blog post about the A7RII, but so did everyone else on the planet as it was one of the most talked about cameras in many years, so I decided to skip that blog post as I really didn’t think I was going to say anything that everyone else wasn’t already saying,  instead I thought I would hold out for a while, until after after the “new camera” glow wore off.

It was likely I was going to overlook any negative points in favor of the good ones which would result in a biased review and so I thought the best way to write about this camera was after owning it for an extended period of time.

So, what do I think about the A7RII after using it for over a year?

All photos in this article were shot by myself using my Sony A7RII over the past year

The Image Quality Is Still Exceptional

If you’re not a pixel peeper, you will be if you buy this camera. It’s impossible to not be.  If anyone who owns this camera tells you they do not pixel peep, they’re straight up lying.  It would be like owning a million dollar piece of art and only ever looking at it from across the room.

The image quality still impresses me, even though it’s old news to me now.  I firmly believe this camera takes some of the highest quality still photographs in the world.

Note that I said “highest quality” not “the best”.

The images are razor sharp and finely detailed with huge amount of latitude when it comes to recovering shadow data or blown high lights. Seriously, It’s almost cheating in some cases.  I have shot some amazing photos, but i’ve also shot some really terrible ones and even the terrible ones can be pushed to a point where they look great.  I really do feel like it’s cheating sometimes.

Shooting landscapes on the A7RII is incredible. There is just so much detail. I actually see things I didn’t see in real life when I get home and start pixel peeping.

Having said that, the images can lack a bit of depth sometimes.  Colors occasionally appear sterile and clinical and although “accurate” in most cases I often wish they had a little more life in them.  

The Sony picture style presets pretty much just feel like a saturation slider rather than carefully thought out color profiles.

My Fuji X100T for example is a far less capable camera but can produce exciting and captivating images with less effort.  This is mostly due to Fuji’s color representation which I find to be far superior and above all, visually interesting.

It’s safe to safe this is a RAW only camera. When you’re spending this much on a camera, it’s a crime to not shoot RAW but I used to enjoy shooting JPG+RAW and discarding the RAWs that I was really never intending to process, whilst keeping the JPG purely for memory sake.  I find that I don’t do that much now and simply shoot RAW 100% of the time.

It’s not a deal breaker and I can always fix these colors and depth in post production (as you can see) but it requires more of my time,  it just feels like sometimes my Sony images lack a bit of life which Is why I say they are the highest quality in terms of sharpness and detail, but not necessarily the most interesting.  This is just personal taste though and I have come up with various preset in Lightroom that remedy my color concerns.

The Battery Life Still Sucks, And I Still Don’t Really Care

The battery life sucks. We all know that, when I bought the camera I thought I wouldn’t care too much about it and just carry spare batteries, I was how ever a little concerned I would get fed up with it further down the track.

12 months on I feel about the same.  The battery life is annoying but i’ve been able to make do with 2 batteries for most jobs.  I had one day where I was filming all day and had to charge both batteries twice during the day,  but it wasn’t a big deal and if I were doing that more often, I would just buy a few more batteries.  I also bought a 3rd party battery grip for $70 and it works a treat and allows me to load up 2 batteries at once.

I still feel the battery life should be better for a camera in this price range, but if given the choice between adding more bulk and sticking with the same battery, I would stick with the same battery. In most cases I can head out for a day and just take one battery. On heavier days i’ll take two.

There are power saving measures you can take which are now just second nature to me, but when I made the switch from DSLR I just couldn’t get used to not having my camera always on.  Now I let it fall into power save mode and simply tap the shutter release before I start to move the camera to my eye and it’s pretty much ready before it gets there.

The Rear Wheel… Feels Like A Toy

This is probably what bothers me most actually.  There is also almost no click when moving the control wheel on the back of the camera.  I constantly bump it and change settings which is really annoying.  Seriously, that wheel needs to be twice the size and about 10 times stiffer to move than what it is now.  It’s impossible to dial in fine tuned controls and it just feels cheap to the touch.   

The Canons have a large stiff command wheel that noticeably clicks when you move it. You can actually count the clicks and not even need to view the display.  The Canon wheel feels like a button under your thumb.  The Sony is small and flimsy and if you put too much pressure on it you end up changing ISO or what ever else you assigned to the control wheel directions.  The rear wheel could be larger if they removed the white labels for ISO and DISP etc. Most people re-assign those buttons anyway so the labels are not needed.

The top dials for exposure compensation and mode are solid metal and are extremely firm. They feel like the way everything should, but the dial on the back is crappy. I wouldn’t care so much if it weren’t such a core control you need to use a lot.

The rear dial on the A7RII feels like it came from a $200 Cybershot point and shoot not a $3200 “pro” body.   I really hope they fix this in future releases and bring the quality up a little.

The Lenses Are Fine. Everyone Please Stop Complaining About The Lenses

I now own the 16-35 f/4,  55mm f/1.8,  24-70 f/4, 35mm f/2.8 and the 28mm f/2.   They’re all good lenses.  Yes even the 24-70 is a good lens that I feel got a bad wrap (or maybe just some bad copies went out).

The 16-35 f/4 is the best UWA i’ve ever used, and I owned two of the Canon models.   The 55mm is the best 50mm i’ve ever used, the 35mm 2.8 is tiny, light and tack sharp and the 28mm f/2 is  great value for money.

At this point I would say the lenses are “good enough”.  I rarely ever curse my lenses for not being able to capture a great shot.   I think when the original A7 was released and there was only 2 lenses, there was obviously valid complaints to be made but the line up is pretty good now.  People need to get over this.

If you dive into the Batis or newly announced G Master lenses you’re really looking at some amazing glass, so can we please quit with the “Sony doesn’t have lenses” debate?  Because they do, and they’re pretty good, and they did this within the space of about 2 or 3 years, which is pretty impressive.

My biggest complaint about the lenses is the price, they’re just so damn expensive. I really have a hard time paying $1400 for a prime lens, even if it’s a Zeiss.  The result from this is that I simply can’t buy all the lenses I want, because I can’t justify owning a $1400 prime lens that I might only use a few times in a month.

It Can Be Slow To Operate

This didn’t bother me at first, but it does now. Turning the camera on, reviewing files, buffering, navigating etc.  Often I turn the camera on and it takes up to 5 seconds until the screen turns on.  I seem to notice this is worse when the camera has been off for a few days, whatever the reason, it’s pretty annoying and makes the camera feel like an electronic gadget instead of a work horse camera.

I miss the speed of my DSLR, not enough to go back to it, but I really hope Sony comes out with some sort of firmware update to speed up the camera.  There appears to be a tonne of systems and services running at all times.

I’m a software engineer by day in and when engineering a large code base we don’t attempt to load all libraries at run time, instead we lazy load them on demand to keep the memory footprint small and the boot times fast. I would be happy to shift some of the processing time to an on demand action like changing modes instead of wasting CPU cycles and memory by keeping every feature and and service operating in the background.  The Sony software feels like it needs optimization.

Auto focus Is Good Enough For 95% Of People

Not once have I thought “I wish auto focus was faster” since owning this camera.  Seriously, it’s fine.  Unless you’re an NFL photographer or a nature photographer shooting moving Cheetahs it’s probably going to be fine for you too.  This is one of those anti mirrorless arguments that annoy me.  If you’re one of the top 5% of photographers that need the ultimate of auto focus speed and 600mm lenses,  it’s very simple, stick with your DSLR.

Let’s not ruin a good portable system by trying to cater to every single professional requirement and adding bulk and weight in the process.

42MP Is Big… And Cumbersome

It’s kind of awesome and annoying at the same time. I really wish there were options to shoot 24MP or 32MP RAW photos (not in APS-C mode).

When I’m shooting landscapes, it’s amazing. The detail is incredible.

When I throw my camera in my bag and head out on the weekend for a casual shoot, it’s overkill. Nobody needs 42MP photos of their cat or their girlfriend eating a sandwich.

APS-C mode helps but it shoots 18MP photos.  42MP to 18MP is too much of a gap,  I want 24MP or 32MP, just let me decide.

When you come home from a day out and you’ve got 10GB of happy snaps it can be a little annoying to manage and process, not to mention the fact that the JPG’s kind of suck from this camera so you end up editing 45MB RAW files constantly.

I’m not even kidding, I built a new computer with a quad core 4Ghz Core i7 CPU and 32GB RAM simply so I could process the images from this camera without having to watch the little beach ball on OS X go round and round while Lightroom processes the image.

Having said this, when the right photo opportunity arrives and the light is right, the stars align and you get that perfect shot, you’re pretty damn happy to have those 42 megapixels, it can be pretty spectacular.

The Menu Is A Mess

You’ve read this already all over the internet i’m sure. I don’t understand how this is still a problem when It could be a firmware fix. Over time you kind of get used to it but I still fumble through menus from time to time trying to find lesser used options. It’s extremely unintuitive to find what you’re looking for and there seems to be no logical grouping of items. Sony, if you’re reading this, here’s two solutions to fix it.

  1. Slice off $120,000 from your budget and hire a User Interface / User Experience designer with photography experience. Let them work on it, implement it, then leave it alone.  Stop letting engineers build the menu systems.
  2. Add another menu tab for “Favorites” let me add any items from any of the other tabs into this menu so I don’t have to dig through 20 odd panels and tabs of seemingly randomly ordered options looking for my most commonly used items.

You’re welcome

IBIS Really Works

I’ve read a few articles over the past few months about how the IBIS is no good and how it doesn’t really help.  I don’t know what test environment they came to this conclusion with but in my testing it has worked fairly well. Not as well as the Olympus but the sensor sizes are massively different, so you can’t really compare them.  I’ve shot usable photos hand held down around 1/15th second. I could of never done that with my Canon.  1/60th second is no longer the hard rule for blurry photos and I’m happy the feature is there.

Eye AF Is Pretty Awsesome

Nailing focus on the eye is no easy task, or at least it wasn’t until I started using this camera. It works pretty damn well although you’ll need to assign it to a button because it’s kind of hidden by default on the camera when you get it.   I rarely shoot portraits, but when I do this is a pretty killer feature.

There’s No “Feel”

This one took a while to realize but this camera has no feel to it. In other words, it’s amazing but I don’t love it.  I really wish this weren’t the case as i’ve invested fairly heavily in FE glass. This is of course a highly personal opinion but never the less I wish this camera had a little more enjoyment to it.

Let me explain

Much like my above points regarding the cheap feeling, flimsy plastic dial on the back the A7RII doesn’t feel like a $3,200 camera to handle. This is of course contradictory to the images that it produces which are of insanely high quality.

The body, whilst solid, kind of looks lifeless. Sharp edges, fragile feeling battery door hinges, sluggish and occasionally flaky operation, the spongey shutter release, the rather unsatisfying shutter sound, the poorly thought out menu system, the terrible battery life etc.

I miss the feeling from my Canon DSLR. Even my Fuji X100T has a more premium feel to it. It’s hard to explain in words alone.  

One feels like a utility the other like an instrument

All of these things kind of add up to an overall feeling about the camera, that being, that it is an amazing and capable device, but not a terribly enjoyable camera to work with.

It’s difficult to explain and maybe it’s less important to you if you’re simply looking to capture the highest possible amount of detail or if you mostly shoot mounted on a tripod but for me I need to enjoy putting the camera to my eye and the feeling of it in my hand but I don’t always enjoy using this camera.  I find more enjoyment later on when i’m processing the images as i’m constantly blown away by the detail captured.

Compressed RAW Is Fine.. For Me

The internet was blowing up not that long ago about how bad the compressed RAW is and how Sony should be ashamed for not offering uncompressed or lossless compressed RAW formats, since then they’ve released a firmware update enabling uncompressed RAW although this results in 80MB RAW files.  I’ve spent a bit of time trying to fault the 12bit compressed files and I honestly have a hard time finding a problem in most cases.

The compression works by shaving out small(ish) amounts of color data that is really only visible in high contrast graduations.  As I tend to shoot mostly in day light or with reasonable light sources, i’ve not been able to see the problem occur in probably 99% of my images.  The times at which i’ve been shooting at night, with long exposures, capturing lights or with heavily under exposed images that i’m pushing in post are the only times i’m able to really see anything that I can remotely relate to compression artifacts, even then It’s been fairly minor.

I have seen the posts online about the banding issues but i’ve just not seen it myself. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but i’m just saying, maybe don’t buy into the whole “I must use uncompressed RAW” hype as much as others are. I’m happy there is an uncompressed option, but i’m also happy I have an option for 12bit RAW that is half the file size.

Of course, if your job depends on low light shooting and magazine quality prints, then by all means, use all the data you can get, but for the rest of us, my camera is on compressed RAW most of the time. My advice would be to just see what works for you.

Wrapping Up

So, wrapping up… I really like this camera, it’s small and incredibly powerful.  There is an old saying that an expensive camera in the hands of an amateur will take worse photos than a entry level camera in the hands of a professional.  Whilst I totally agree with this statement, i think this camera blurs that line quite a bit.  With 42MP and the amazing dynamic range of this sensor,  you can screw up composition and exposure to an impressive amount and STILL be able to crop and recover the photo to what it should of been with very negligible side effects.   Like I said earlier, it feels like cheating.

I have all the lenses I need and whilst they cost me more than I wanted to spend, I am happy with the results i’ve been getting from them.

I you’re a landscape photographer and you are tired of lugging around a big D810 and FF glass, you should buy this camera, it’s impressive, however If you’re more inclined to shoot street or less demanding subjects, it’s really overkill.  The overhead of processing these huge files and the general sluggishness of  reviewing the images on the camera can be frustrating.  Having said that, when you get “the shot” it’s a good feeling when you see just how much information you’ve captured in the image once you start post  processing.

Sony have made an incredible camera, and they’ve done so in such a short amount of time its kind of mind boggling.   My advice to Sony would be to put down the lab coats for a while now, send your engineers home early and invest heavily in the user experience of using these cameras.  The technology is already way ahead of the competition, but where the competition wins is by having an enjoyable camera rather than an impressive electronic device.

Im super tempted to pick up a Fuji X-T2 simply for this reason, I want to enjoy using my camera more than I do with the A7RII.   

Having said that, I wont be selling my A7RII, for landscape work, it’s simply unbeatable and as much as I complain about the feeling of using the camera, I somewhat forget about that once I get back home and start editing these photos.  To this day I’m still blown away and can’t help but pixel peep after every shoot.   

Fingers crossed Sony are hearing these comments from users and invest in creating a better shooting experience with these cameras because if they can nail that, the competition will become a lot smaller very quickly.

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  • High_on_life

    quality post

  • Gary Quinn

    What a great “year later story! I’ve been shooting with the a7RII for over a year now and feel exactly the same with what you are saying. Although I did just pick a near new Nikon D810 for a great deal for when the weather gets nasty and damp here in the pacific northwest.(My Sony stays in the bag as I don’t think the Sony is really as sealed as they say!) As you said,the 42.2mp Sony sensor in a Fuji XT2 body,weather sealed would be perfect! Thanks,…. Gary

    • Thanks Gary,
      Yep im excited to see what Sony do next with their bodies. The MKI to the MKII was a considerable change, I can only hope the MKIII makes similar progress.
      Yep I agree, I know they say its partly weather sealed, but i’m not going to trust it in the rain. I just keep mine dry and dirt free!