Sony Alpha 7R II Review
The combination of subject recognition off the imaging sensor and depth-awareness from on-sensor phase-detect AF points makes for compelling AF not just for stills, but particularly in video. Most professionals will manually focus their footage for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because they don't trust AF systems to change or rack focus smoothly, without any hunting. That's changing with advanced on-sensor phase detection and subject recognition / tracking. The use of on-sensor phase detection means the camera can interpret the distance to the video's subject, meaning there's very little footage-destroying focus hunting. And image analysis as the sensor is constantly read means the camera can automatically find faces, or other subjects you designate, and follow them no matter where they move to in the frame. With such a compelling AF system, what's sad is the egregious omission of a touchscreen to quickly and discretely specify our target.
Not only does the a7R II offer refocusing in video with little to no hunting, it offers some degree of control over the AF behavior, giving you control over the AF speed ('Drive Speed') and how willing to be distracted the system is by other would-be subjects ('Tracking Sensitivity'). This means you can decide whether you want video that tries to stick on a single subject or video that gently drifts between different subjects. Tracking Sensitivity can be set to 'Normal' or 'High', with the latter easily distracted and quickly jumping to a new subject or a new subject distance if your subject moves quickly. Drive Speed can be set to 'Slow', 'Normal', and 'Fast', with faster settings prioritizing speed of refocusing at the cost of smooth transitions and hunting. We take a look at all 6 possible combinations of settings in detail below. Download the higher quality version to view subtle differences between the modes.
Tracking Sensitivity / Drive Speed Combinations
While all modes are likely compelling for different use cases, our experience shows the best results are achieved by keeping AF Drive Speed either 'Normal' or 'Slow' - the results tend to become too rushed and jumpy if set to the 'Fast' setting. However, if your priority is to maximize the number of short in-focus clips at the cost of jumpy transitions (that is, you're not shooting an interview), fast may very well be useful. In fact, it's what we use in our erratic face tracking example further on below.
The focus sensitivity setting will depend on what you're trying to shoot: moving subjects are likely to benefit from the sensitivity being set to 'Fast' but if your subjects are predominantly static, keeping it on 'Normal' will prevent the camera from getting easily distracted.
Compared to peers
To put this in context, we shot the Sony alongside the Nikon D810 and Canon EOS 5DS, both of which attempt to use contrast-detection autofocus to focus in video. The results are exactly as you'd expect: a constantly moving subject leaves the DSLRs constantly trying to hunt for focus, while the depth-aware a7R II does an impressive job of keeping up with the subject. Just as importantly, the Sony rarely under- or over-shoots, keeping visually-distracting focus wobble to a minimum.
The above example uses face detection but has the subject simply walking towards and away from the camera. What happens if the subject moves around erratically? Below, we show how well the combination of face detection and phase detection keep up with an erratically moving subject, starting with subtle movements, ending in more aggressive, erratic walking. Tracking Sensitivity was set to High, and Drive Speed was set to Fast. The results are nothing short of impressive: most of the footage from the Sony camera is entirely usable, even at 4K resolutions (download the 4K file below), while most of the footage from the DSLRs is unusable. This is disruptive performance, demonstrated for the first time in a full-frame video camera (the a5100/6000 behaved similarly). You can likely even trust this AF system for serious video projects as long as your subject isn't moving at unreasonable speeds. That means for documentaries, interviews, engagement love stories, or your baby's first steps. And this makes the lack of a touchscreen for focus point selection all the more egregious.
As with many recent Sony cameras, the a7R II can't use its all of its main autofocus tracking modes when shooting movies. Instead you are limited to face detection, manually specifying an AF point, or reverting to the older, simpler 'Center Lock-On AF' system, that requires you to center the subject in the frame before asking the camera to track it. We're perplexed as to why this is offered, but the far more practical and user-friendly 'Lock-on AF' isn't; 'Center Lock-On AF' is cumbersome and yet another menu item you'll have to assign. Furthermore, we hope to see Eye AF implemented in video in the future.
Furthermore, if you mount a lens via an adapter, your AF choices are severely limited: even with electronic adapters like the Metabones Smart Adapter or Sony's own LA-EA3, the camera appears to disengage its distance-sensing phase-detection AF system, meaning you're much more likely to see focus wobble and severe hunting in your videos as the camera uses contrast-detection to find focus. You can forget about continuous AF as well. We'd recommend manually focusing if you're using adapted lenses.
Picture Profiles and S-Log 2
The a7R II includes the Picture Profile set of tone and color response options. These are best understood as a high-end, video-centric alternative to the camera's Creative Style color modes. The camera includes six editable presets that allow a high degree of control over the camera's gamma curve and color response, allowing output that matches the industry standard ITU 709 profile, for instance.
The Picture Profile system provides access to the S-Log 2 gamma curve, a very flat tonal response curve that dramatically brightens shadows and rollos off highlights so that a very broad amount of tonal information gets pulled into the relatively narrow confines of the camera's 8-bit video output. This results in very flat, washed-out footage, but footage that has the maximum scope for grading in post-production. It's kind of like a 'Raw' format for video, as it allows one to bypass the typical JPEG and video processing of the Raw data that tends to sacrifice tonal range for contrast or 'pop'. The end result is that you can capture stops more highlight range by (under)exposing for the bright portions of your scene, while not having darker tones clip to black. See our example from the Sony RX100 IV's similar mode below.
Processed Raw / SLog-2 preview in Live View
Sony has gotten pretty clever at the implementation of S-Log2, with the camera only jumping to a minimum stated base ISO of 800 when shooting S-Log2 (it used to be 3200 on the a7S). The actual hardware-level amplification, though, is around ISO 125 or thereabouts, meaning that were you to shoot a Raw still at base ISO 800 with S-Log2 enabled, the image would be equivalent to an ISO 125 Raw with S-Log2 turned off. This essentially means that the camera is peforming very little image/video brightening at the hardware level with S-Log2 enabled, intelligently brightening shadows, but not highlights, after capture in order to brighten shadows more than highlights. This allows the camera to retain almost the full dynamic range of the sensor in S-Log2 video, provided you try and stick to ISO 800.
What does this all mean?
The a7R II shoots incredibly detailed 4K video, but if you're shooting for ultimate resolution, as well as better noise performance and dynamic range, here's how the modes rank in terms of quality: 4K Super 35 > 4K full-frame > 1080p full-frame > 1080p Super 35. The best results come from the Super 35 crop, meaning you never get the full low-light benefits that a full frame sensor should give you. For that, you'll need an a7S II. Super 35 on the a7R II appears to sample more pixels and sensor area than full-frame in video. That extra sampling, though, means that rolling shutter is more of a problem in Super 35 than in full-frame mode.
Generally, 4K footage is superior to 1080p footage from the camera, so even if your final output is 1080p, you should shoot 4K and downscale. There are some exceptions though. If you need frame rates higher than 30p, the extra card space, or need to shoot continuously for more than half an hour at a time, full-frame HD makes sense. Especially as 4K full-frame downscaled to 1080p isn't vastly better than native full-frame 1080p: the difference is nowhere as dramatic as 4K Super 35 (better) vs 4K full-frame (worse), or 1080p full-frame (better) vs 1080p Super 35 (worse). Avoid 1080p Super 35 whenever possible.
It's not just incredible detail that makes shooting video on the a7R II compelling. As we showed on the previous page, on-sensor phase-detection makes for decisive focus, with very little hunting. Combine this with face detection, and you've got a compelling way to shoot interviews, documentaries, or even your baby's first steps. Meanwhile, S-Log2 uses a clever combination of underexposure and shadow boosting to extend dynamic range of footage. Scenes that conventionally force you to choose between blown-out skies or dark foreground subjects suddenly fall within the grasp of the camera's capabilities, giving videographers the freedom to shoot in challenging light.
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