Sony Alpha 7R II Review
16 Conclusion & Samples
Conclusion - Pros
- Class-leading low light Raw performance, thanks to the first-ever BSI full-frame CMOS
- Impressive dynamic range in Raw, even at high ISO
- Dramatically improved JPEGs, with sophisticated sharpening and well-controlled noise reduction
- DRO and S-Log2 offer extensive dynamic range in JPEG
- IBIS and electronic first curtain ensure ease of high resolution imaging
- Continuous Eye-AF gives ground-breaking hit rate for portrait, candid, event photography
- Ground-breaking autofocus with third-party lenses
- Low light continuous AF capability matches or exceeds DSLRs with fast primes
- First full-frame mirrorless to truly challenge DSLR phase-detect systems
- Industry leading AF frame coverage
- Silent shooting is a joy, and comes with negligible image noise cost
- Extensive set of video support features including S-Log2, Zebras, and peaking
- Razor sharp 4K footage from Super35 region of sensor
- Decisive AF in video, with face detection
- Best-in-class Programmable Auto ISO implementation
- One-touch AF point magnification in image review, making for quick focus check
- Camera operation possible during USB charging - useful in emergencies
Conclusion - Cons
- No direct AF point control
- Lock-on AF still remains unpredictable and often unreliable
- Camera focuses stopped down in AF-C, often crippling AF at small apertures or in low light
- Eye-AF and Lock-on AF not available with 3rd party lenses, nor in video
- Subject tracking in video is poor, while the complete auto 'Wide' mode is prone to jump to the background or between subjects randomly in complex scenes.
- Camera drops to 12-bit mode in continuous shooting, dropping dynamic range
- Exposure parameters frozen while shutter is half-depressed (save for Dial EV Comp)
- Viewfinder eye sensor is over-sensitive
- Buttons and dials are either too small, recessed, or mushy
- Inane interactions between menu items lead to poor experience and too many greyed out items
- Buffer is sluggish to clear, making quick image review and focus check difficult
- Video never shows low-light advantage of full frame sensor
- No in-camera Raw conversion
- No touchscreen
- Very limited battery life
By Rishi Sanyal
Sony has turned a lot of heads with the introduction of the Alpha 7R II. It brought so many new features that on the day of announcement, many of us in the office were already thinking 'take my money' - and that was only halfway through the feature list announcement. The rest of it was icing on the cake - some serious icing. Further in-depth testing only impressed us more, as we found the camera to have unprecedented capabilities. But also, serious shortcomings. We sum up our thoughts below.
Sony touts its second-generation a7 cameras as offering improved ergonomics but, while some aspects are improved, others have gone backwards. Our existing concerns about the poor organization of the menus are more accute than ever, as a result of the a7R II's complexity and extensive feature set. A Nikon-esque re-organization of options, improved subheadings, and a custom 'My Menu' system would really help. Second, several key features including movie options and crop modes can't be added to the 'Fn' Menu, forcing you to use the main menu more than necessary. Finally, the camera all too often greys-out options, forcing you to change the incompatible setting prior to changing your desired setting. This is distracting and time consuming. We'd prefer the camera to over-ride any incompatibility so that you can quickly engage the feature you want.
On the physical side, the shutter button's been repositioned to a more sensible position, but the C1 | C2 have now been relocated such that you'll bend your forefinger back to arthritis-inducing positions to activate them. Contrast this to top plate buttons on a 5DS or D810: all easily reachable with a slight shift of your forefinger. The new dials, while better in some ways, are worse in others: they're easier to turn relative to the a7 II, thankfully, but they're far too recessed, with far too subtle 'clicks' to dial-in a precise number of steps quickly. This is particularly true of the rear dial: too often your thumb will just brush past the dial rather than turning it due to the tiny detents, or you'll turn the dial more or less than you'd intended and, worse, will have to concentrate hard to count the number of clicks you've turned it. Ultimately, this means you'll have to check the screen to see how much you changed your aperture or shutter speed, whereas with a D810, the dials provide enough haptic feedback that I know exactly how much to turn a dial, and just as importantly, how much I have turned it.
|Canon EF 16-35mm F4 IS | ISO 100 | 45 sec, F8|
This too-subtle feedback from the dials is continued with the rather mushy buttons. It's common to think you've pressed the AF/MF toggle but get no response, or to accidentally turn the rear dial, rather than press one of its four-way buttons. We've lost count of the times we've accidentally disengaged Auto ISO by turning the rear dial, rather than pressing the DISP button as intended. And yet the quick access to ISO via a direct dial is useful enough that I don't wish to disengage the dial either. The problem is exacerbated if you operate the camera wearing gloves, which landscape photographers are likely to do. The small body doesn't particularly excuse these shortcomings: Olympus dials and Fuji buttons have significant haptic feedback, and remain easy to turn or activate, yet don't do so inadvertently. This makes them far more robust and operable. Perplexingly, Sony added a lock to the one dial I never turned inadvertently: the mode dial.
On a more positive note, the grip is beefier than the original a7R, which makes it easier to balance heavier lenses. However, the short form factor means you can't get a full grip with all fingers, and the corner of the body can dig into your palm. Thankfully, these concerns are moot if you attach Sony's vertical grip, which makes the camera feel far better in your hand, and extends battery life to boot. You can't charge batteries in the grip though (making charging cumbersome), and I wish Sony's grip offered the wireless control the excellent, yet buggy, 3rd party grips offer. The nice thing about the vertical grip is just how little it weighs: the a7R II with grip and two batteries still feels far lighter than my D810, and I certainly don't miss the D810's weight in-hand. I also don't miss fixed LCDs on DLSRs: trying to get a low perspective alongside your toddler, or a flattering 'looking down' perspective of a model, is much easier with an articulating LCD, and holding the camera out with extended arm is easier with a small lightweight a7 than hefty DSLR. One thing I've always appreciated about the a7-series is its extensive physical control: I can access all exposure parameters, and now even Auto ISO minimum shutter speed, via direct dials and buttons. I can't do that on any of its peers. Sony does get some things right, and they've shown significant improvements.
The a7R II is generally very snappy and responsive, but with some caveats. While 5 fps is respectable (3 fps for AF-C with adapted lenses) for a 42MP camera, sports shooters are not going to flock to the a7R II. EVF/LCD blackout, and the stop-motion succession of last-shot images during 5 fps shooting, means it's difficult to follow fast subjects during bursts. In fact, it's this dropout of the live feed that is arguably the biggest limitation when it comes to shooting sports, not the AF system itself, which is incredibly capable. Even shutter lag has been impressively minimized to Nikon DSLR levels. DSLR shooters might notice the slightest of lags in changing settings, simply because of how instantaneous changing settings on DSLRs is compared to the heads-up display required to change certain settings on a7 cameras. That said, most will never notice this, and overall performance is quite good.
|Sony 70-200mm F4 G | ISO 100 | 1/6 sec, F8|
What many will notice, though, is the amount of time it takes to write files to even the fastest SDXC II U3 cards. While the buffer itself is healthy (~23 Raw/Raw+JPEG), clearing the buffer takes a long time, during which time frame rate drops to 1 fps. You can continue shooting, change settings via dials, buttons, and the Fn menu, but you can't enter playback or the full menu. That means you'll have to wait until the buffer clears to shoot video or magnify your image in playback to check focus. In fact, press Magnify right after a shot and the camera will either ignore you outright, or display an uninviting 'Unable to Operate' message, after which it fails to automatically play back and magnify even after it's done writing. That is, the a7R II doesn't even queue your Magnify request. This leads to the awkward experience of hammering the Magnify button in the hopes the camera will listen (if you hit it at just the right time, it will) and, ultimately, meant I'd often just forego checking focus and, unfortunately, come home with misfocused shots that I should've reshot.
Battery life remains an issue with the a7R II: you'll have to make sure you always have extra batteries with you. Another remedy is to shoot using the vertical grip: in fact, with two topped up batteries in the grip, the camera lasted full days of shooting on a recent trip to Iceland, despite cold weather shoots lasting from sunrise to sunset. To be fair, though, I rarely worry as much about keeping my DLSR battery topped up, and were I shooting continuously at a wedding or a sports event, I'd have plenty of extra Sony batteries with me. Fresh ones, too, as these batteries, like all batteries, lose life over time: but with lower capacity batteries, you notice this decline sooner. Worth mentioning is the fact that all recent Sony cameras continue to shoot while charging over USB. This is great in emergencies - you can plug your camera in to a power source or external USB battery pack and continue to use it.
The a7R II brings disruptive autofocus technologies to not just mirrorless cameras, but to cameras in general. The a7R II offers the widest coverage of phase-detect AF (PDAF) points of any full-frame camera, period. It focuses Canon EF and Sony Alpha mount lenses quickly using phase detection, even continuously, and can do so more accurately than native DSLR bodies because phase measurements are made on the imaging plane and are less sensitive to residual spherical aberration. In other words, say goodbye to AF microadjustment and lens calibrations. It can even automatically focus on faces with DSLR lenses, one-upping many DSLRs at their own game. And speed of continuous AF is formidable, if not chart-topping. Have a look at how fast the camera refocuses the Sony FE 35mm F1.4, both in center AF and using Eye AF. This isn't a scientific measurement, but we doubt any camera is capable of anything faster - in single drive, anyway.
|Zeiss Batis 25mm F2 | ISO 400 |1/250th, F2|
Speaking of Eye AF, it's finally available in AF-C, making it indispensable for capturing candids and erratically moving subjects. Portrait, wedding, photojournalist, event, and newborn photographers: rejoice. Paired with depth-aware phase-detect points covering most of the sensor, you just hold down Eye AF in AF-C and your subject is always pre-focused at the moment you press the shutter button. That's quite a boon for candids - in the shot above, my mother's moment of happiness with her new daughter-in-law is captured at just the right moment, because I didn't have to move my AF point, or center focus-and-recompose. I had Eye AF held down the entire time, and at the decisive moment, I framed my shot to include my desired subjects, and simply pressed the shutter button. Could I get this shot with my DSLR? Sure, but it's about keeper rates and creative freedom: removing the camera and its (focus) limitations allows me to focus on the moment, the photograph.
There are certainly limitations though. Lock-on AF, while improved, can still be unreliable. No direct access to AF point selection is bordering on inexcusable for a camera of this class: first pressing a button and then using a mushy 4-way dial to move the AF point is cumbersome. A touchscreen could've helped, especially if it functioned while using the viewfinder like the Nikon D5500, but alas, there is none. This makes the moments you do need to revert to using the camera more like a traditonal DSLR cumbersome. One thing still missing on the Sony is an infrared AF assist beam, which DSLRs typically trigger on external flashes and commanders to focus in total darkness - an absolute necessity for dance floor wedding photography, for example. The orange AF assist lamp on the a7-series is not a solution: it's too bright, distracting, and has limited success since it doesn't project a crosshair pattern that's easy for a phase-detect sensor to identify.
Finally, when it comes to adapted lenses, there are quirks. Performance and speed can depend on adapter/lens combo, so you'll have to experiment. Furthermore, many AF area modes, like Zone, Expand Flexible Spot, Lock-on, and Eye AF aren't available. Phase detection also isn't available with adapted glass in video. That said, single point and Wide (auto) area AF-C work incredibly well, and I think we're just starting to get a taste of what a true hybrid camera could be. I personally won't give up Eye AF for 3rd party glass, but will happily use Canon's incredible recent glass for landscapes, switching to native FE lenses for people photography. Ideally, we wouldn't have limited feature sets per lens, picking the best glass for the job but, in all fairness, it focuses non-native lenses! We're also seeing some incredible native glass of late, with small and fast focus elements designed to take advantage of the incredibly capable AF system of the a7R II. The Zeiss Batis lenses alone, for example, make the a7-series enviable. The sheer flexibility of a hybrid camera is incredibly compelling.
The first ever full-frame BSI-CMOS sensor, paired with advancements in Sony's JPEG processing engine, brings remarkable image quality to the a7R II. Backside illumination confers the a7R II nearly the same low light, high ISO performance as the a7S in stills, outperforming every other high-resolution camera on the market, even catching up to the medium format Pentax 645Z. The JPEG engine has been refined to now provide some of the most detailed JPEGs we've ever seen, outperforming Canon and Nikon JPEGs in terms of detail preservation at both low and high ISO. While 42MP is not class leading in terms of resolution, there's plenty of detail to be had, more than any other consumer camera save for the Canon 5DS. Importantly, Sony provides a number of features to help you get the most out of the high resolution sensor: electronic first curtain and no mirror means the camera doesn't introduce any of its own shake, which can't be said of many DSLRs (nor the original a7R). In-body image stabilization allows for hand-held tack sharp shots at shutter speeds well below 1/focal length with every lens. This adds a remarkable amount of freedom to your shooting - I think much less about shutter speeds to avoid hand-shake and mirror/shutter-shock than I do when shooting with my D810.
Furthermore, a totally silent shutter removes all potential sources of shake and sound, with very little image noise cost (fast moving subjects, however, may show effects of rolling shutter). That's quite an achievement - it's a joy to discretely shoot candids without your subject even knowing when shots are being fired.
|Canon 11-24mm F4 | ISO 200 | 1/30th, F16|
Dynamic range has been improved on the a7R II, especially now that compressed Raw is a thing of the past. The camera has far more dynamic range than Canon's 5DS, but not quite as much as the king of landscapes, the Nikon D810. That's because ISO 64 on the D810 allows you to give it more exposure before clipping highlights, and more light means higher signal:noise ratio and crisper, cleaner images. We'd love to see lower native ISOs due to higher light-gathering capacities on a future a7R, and all landscape-oriented cameras for that matter (along with Raw histograms to best utilize this capacity).
High ISO dynamic range of the a7R II, however, surpasses the D810 and rivals the a7S, due to a dual conversion gain implementation that essentially renders the camera ISO-invariant over two discrete ranges: ISO 100-500, and 640-onward. This means that rather than expose manually at ISO 200-500 or 800 upward, you can dial ISO back to 100 or 640, respectively, and save image brightening for post-processing of your Raw. This potentially affords you stops of highlight range. JPEG dynamic range is impressive as well: increasing levels of DRO help balance the scene by boosting shadows, allowing you to underexpose to keep highlights from clipping, while S-Log2 Picture Profile takes this to its extreme, allowing to compress almost the entire dynamic range of the sensor into an 8-bit JPEG.
The a7R II is capable of extremely detailed 4K/30p video internally, making it far more capable than any other full-frame camera save for the a7S II. And thanks to 399 on-sensor phase-detect points, the camera can focus incredibly well in video with little to no hunting. Up until now, there have only been a few APS-C cameras, like Sony's own a5100/6000 and Samsung NX1/500, that offer compelling AF in video, but this is the first full-frame camera to do so. Round out the fast and decisive phase detection with face detection, and you've got a great way to shoot interviews, documentaries, or even your baby's first steps. The compelling video AF system makes particularly egregious the omission of a touchscreen to quickly and discretely specify your target.
It's not only resolution and AF that round out the chart-topping video specs. S-Log2 picture profile mode 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 fall within the grasp of the camera's capabilities, giving videographers the freedom to shoot in challenging light. The camera is also capable of up to 60 fps at 1080p, and 120 fps at 720p, allowing for compelling slow-motion video. This isn't as high a spec as the a7S II, which can do 120 fps at 1080p, but to put things in perspective, the Canon 5DS can only shoot 720p at 60 fps, with 1080p maxing out at 30 fps. The Nikon D810 fares a better, capable of 1080/60p but, like the Canon, cannot shoot 120 fps.
There are some quirks of the video from the a7R II. The best results, in terms of resolution, noise, and dynamic range, come from Super 35 (APS-C) crop mode, which means you never get the full low-light benefits that a full frame sensor should give you. For that, you'll need an a7S II. Super35 on this camera appears to sample more pixels and sensor area than full-frame. That extra sampling, though, means rolling shutter is more of a problem in Super35 than in full-frame mode. Furthermore, all 4K footage, even downscaled to 1080p, looks better than 1080p footage.
The Final Word
The a7R II joins a growing list of high-resolution consumer-oriented cameras like the Canon 5DS/R and Nikon D810. It brings 42MP stills and 4K video capture to a relatively small, lightweight body. Features like electronic shutter and in-body image stabilization make for detailed stills and video you'll work harder to get, if you get it at all, from comparable DSLRs or from the a7R II's shutter shock-laden predecessor: the a7R. Meanwhile, advancements in sensor technology give the a7R II nearly, if not absolutely, class-leading noise performance: both with respect to low light image quality and dynamic range.
The a7R II also expands upon the very popular a7-series introduced in late 2013, which is a good reminder of how far Sony has come in under 2 years. Back then, many pondered if mirrorless autofocus would ever catch up to DSLRs, and rightly so given the slow, forever hunting contrast-detect system in the original a7R. Yet with the a7R II, we see a mirrorless camera exceeding DSLR AF in certain ways. You'll want to steer clear of the a7R II if you're a sports photographer, but because of the limitations of interrupted live view during bursts, not because of the AF system. Meanwhile, if you're a landscape, wedding, photojournalist, or portrait photographer, you're likely to experience a higher keeper rate with the a7R II than any DSLR. That's why we use the term disruptive when it comes to this camera.
Furthermore, the idea of a truly 'hybrid' camera is compelling. Using Canon glass for my landscapes on our Iceland honeymoon was shockingly transparent: I rarely noticed I was shooting with non-native glass, and just kept the camera in auto AF-C mode with face detection when shooting my wife with the EF mount Sigma 24-35mm F2. The a7R II pushes the boundaries of not just mirrorless, but also cameras in general. It has many new features that photographers of the future will wonder how they ever lived without. And they're not just there to round out a spec list; IBIS, E-shutter, smooth decisive video AF, and Eye AF all get the camera out of the way and allow you to focus on image making. That might make Sony more a camera company than camera companies. And while skimping on common-sense core features like direct AF point selection or touch-based AF is bordering on inexcusable at this point, much like some aspects of the ergonomics, the a7R II garners our top award - and one of our highest ever scores - for its sheer photography-accelerating technical prowess.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.
Sony Alpha 7R II
Category: Semi-professional Full Frame Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The a7R II brings 42MP stills and 4K video to a small, lightweight body. Electronic shutter and in-body image stabilization make for high quality images and video you'll work harder to get, if you get it at all, from comparable DSLRs. BSI-CMOS gives the a7R II class-leading low light performance and respectable dynamic range. The a7R II also introduces disruptive on-sensor phase detection AF, with the widest coverage of any full-frame camera, precise focus on eyes, professional AF results in video, and the ability to focus non-native lenses.
Review samples gallery
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Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. Because our review images are now hosted on the 'galleries' section of dpreview.com, you can enjoy all of the new galleries functionality when browsing these samples.
Sony Alpha 7R II Samples Gallery
|Fangorn Forest by cand1d|
|Yosemite Falls with Moonbow by Jonathan Shapiro|
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