A Hands-On Review of the Sharp-Shooting Sony a7R II

January 21, 2016

By Theano Nikitas

The high-resolution model in Sony’s full-frame a7 series mirrorless camera line, the a7R II is even better than its already-impressive predecessor. It’s been updated with, among other improvements, 5-axis image stabilization, a new 500,000 cycle shutter and a silent shooting mode designed to cut down on vibration, as well as uncompressed 14-bit RAW option (available via a firmware update). 

The a7R II, built around a newly developed 42-megapixel backside illuminated sensor (the world’s first full-frame BSI) provides excellent low light/high ISO performance from 100 to 25,600. The ISO is expandable to 50 and up to 102,400. You’ll also find more responsive autofocus, slightly faster continuous shooting (5fps up from 4fps on the original) and, importantly, internal 4K video capture.

At $3,200, the a7R II is a little pricier than the original model but offers so much more that we think it’s worth it. And with Sony and third-party manufacturers introducing new E-mount lenses and adapters at a rapid clip, it’s easy to create an entire system based around this feature-rich, technologically advanced camera. 

The new a7R II has 5-axis image stabilization, a new 500,000 cycle shutter that’s also designed to reduce vibration, and a silent shooting mode.

A deeper grip is a much-welcomed change to the a7R II. Even though the camera is slightly larger than its predecessor at 5 x 3.9 x 2.4 inches and weighs 1 pound 6 ounces (with battery pack and media), the size and weight gain are worth it for the more comfortable grip. Most controls are within easy reach and logically placed. Slight changes to the body, such as the larger and now lockable mode dial, are also welcome.

Image Quality
Images are clear, sharp and finely detailed, in part thanks to the lack of an optical low pass filter. Textures were reproduced with such great accuracy and detail that your portraits may need a bit more retouching—although we think that’s a fair price to pay for the extra resolution. Colors were rendered naturally shooting a Standard profile but can be fine-tuned to your preferences using the camera’s various Creative Style options. The camera handled image noise quite well and its noise profile is certainly improved over its predecessor’s. I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at ISO 6400 and, unless making large prints, might push it to 12,800. After that, it’s really up to your sensitivity to noise (no pun intended) and the final output requirements. 

Video footage was equally as impressive, especially in full-frame 4K (a Super 35mm crop mode is also available). Images were sharp, clear, with accurate exposure and color rendering. There were few anomalies and while HD and UHD footage was stable, 4K shot in crop mode exhibited more rolling shutter than footage shot in any other resolution. It wasn’t a deal breaker but something to keep in mind.

What We Liked
While the a7R II is an upgrade to the a7R, there are quite a few differences that make the II a more-than-worthy follow-up. The move from 36 to 42 megapixels isn’t as important as the redesigned sensor, which is responsible for many of the a7R II’s benefits. Those benefits include improved high ISO performance along with faster autofocus thanks to the camera’s 399 focal-plane phase detection AF points, which provides exceptionally broad coverage across the sensor. Paired with 25 contrast AF points, Sony claims about a 40 percent faster focus response with the new model, and we believe them. 

To squeeze out extra sharpness from the sensor and keep shake-induced blur to a minimum, the a7R II offers five-axis image stabilization, a dampened shutter and a silent shooting mode. I generally try to shoot at a minimum of 1/125 sec. to avoid camera shake but was easily able to handhold the camera at much slower shutter speeds without any ill effects. Video capabilities and features are more advanced and we have a soft spot for the camera’s slow motion 120fps movie mode. Overall, the a7R II is an impressive update.

What We Didn’t Like
Perhaps my biggest complaint (and I’m not alone on this) is battery life. A CIPA rating of 290 shots (EVF) or 340 shots (LCD) isn’t that impressive, and I found that I ran down the battery more often than expected. Be sure to purchase an extra battery or two. Better yet, if you don’t mind the extra bulk and weight, pick up a battery grip to double battery capacity. 

Although some controls can be customized, I missed a dedicated button for manual focus point selection. I was, however, able to customize one of the controls for that function. 

How It Compares
Other than the extremely expensive and bulky Leica SL, there’s really no competition for the a7R II—at least not in the mirrorless interchangeable lens category. A comparably priced DSLR such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III or the Nikon D810 will certainly deliver much better battery life and faster continuous shooting. On the other hand, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras like Sony’s a7 series—and its lenses—are much smaller and lighter. And that’s why we’re seeing photographers switching to mirrorless as their main or secondary cameras.

In the mirrorless category, though, Sony is really competing against itself. The a7R II is the high-resolution option from Sony, going up against the less expensive 24-megapixel a7 II and the 12-megapixel a7S II with its extreme low light/high ISO capabilities. Of the three, we think the a7R II is perfect for wedding and portrait photographers who, like many of their peers, want to switch to a mirrorless system for at least some of their assignments. It’s a terrific all-around camera, delivers excellent image quality and, while not as see-in-the-dark capable as the a7S II, offers great low-light performance. 

Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for more than 18 years. She’s written several books, pens Rangefinder’s weekly Tech Tuesday blog posts and, although she loves digital, she still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film, thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras.

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