Sony caused a major stir in the photographic world when it introduced the 24MP Alpha A7 and 36MP Alpha A7R, because they were the first mirrorless cameras to have full-frame sensors – the same size as a 35mm film frame.
[Update: the Alpha A7 II has since been replaced by the Alpha A7 III – one of our favorite cameras right now. There's a number of improvements on the new model, with an all-new sensor and highly sophisticated 693-point AF system, while handling and performance has been improved also. However, the Alpha A7 II is still a great buy and can be found at heavily discounted prices, making it a very tempting proposition.]
What's more, these two cameras (subsequently joined by the 12MP Sony Alpha A7S) are incredibly small for full-frame cameras, not too dissimilar in size to the Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1, and offer a similar level of control.
Now Sony has created new waves of excitement by introducing an update to the A7 in the guise of the Alpha A7 II. However, some may feel that changes are rather small as, like the vast majority of the new camera's components, the sensor is the same full-frame (35.8 x 23.9mm) 24MP Exmor CMOS device as is used in the original Alpha A7.
- Features in-body image stabilization
- 2.4-million electronic viewfinder
- Full HD video, not 4K capture
The biggest news about the Alpha A7 II is that it's Sony's first full-frame compact system camera to feature in-body stabilisation. This means that the sensor can move to correct for accidental camera movements during the exposure. This 5-axis in-camera image stabilization may be unlikely to tempt existing A7 users to upgrade, but it does make the new camera more attractive than the older model to new buyers.
The stabilization corrects X and Y axis movements as well as pitch, roll and yaw for both still and movie recording. When a stabilised Sony lens is used on the camera the two systems combine to give optimised performance, choosing the best one to use for the focal length and each type of correction. The stabilization effect is optimised, but not cumulative, as one or the other system is used, not both.
Helpfully, those using older (or third party) lenses that cannot communicate with the camera can input the focal length manually to use the in-camera stabilization system.
It's probably worth reminding ourselves at this point that the Sony A7 series uses Sony's E-mount. This means that these full-frame cameras can accept both full-frame and APS-C format E-mount lenses, but the image size is reduced when APS-C lenses are used. Alpha mount optics made for Sony's DSLRs and SLT cameras can be used via an adaptor. There are also adaptors available to allow Canon and Nikon lenses to be used.
Sony has also given the Alpha A7 II some of the video features of the A7S. For example, it can now record in the XAVC S, AVCHD or MP4 format. Plus, there's simultaneous dual format recording in MP4 and XAVC S or MP4 and AVCHD format to provide an easy format for sharing along with data-rich footage for editing.
In addition, Picture Profiles offer the ability set the Gamma to Sony's S-Log2 for reduced contrast and greater dynamic range, plus the Time Code feature helps with scene identification and footage syncing from multiple cameras. You can also attach an XLR microphone via an adaptor.
On the still images side, the Sony Alpha A7 II supports uncompressed 14-Bit raw image capture. This feature came later into the camera's life by way of the firmware 2.0 update that released on November 18. Before it, the Sony Alpha A7S II and A7R II both supported uncompressed raw shooting.
Other specification highlights of the Alpha A7 II include a sensitivity range of ISO 50–25,600, a 0.5-inch 2.4-million dot electronic viewfinder (EVF), a tilt-angle 3-inch 1,228,800-dot LCD screen, a claimed battery life of 350 shots, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, a maximum continuous shooting rate of 5fps and a standard shape hotshoe with extra contacts to connect accessories like the microphone adaptor mentioned earlier.
Build and handling
- Feels nice and solid in the hand
- Moisture and dust sealed
- Excellent electronic viewfinder
Like the other cameras in the Alpha 7-series, the A7 II has rather angular, old school appearance which many photographers will find appealing. It also feels nice and solid in the hand. According to Sony the sensor housing has been made stronger in the A7 II with more magnesium alloy than in the original camera. This, combined with the camera's moisture and dust sealing, should make the camera pretty durable.
Sony has given the A7 II a deeper, more comfortable grip than the A7 and there's a new richly textured coating that gives excellent purchase. On the back of the camera there's also a small but effective thumb-ridge, which has the same coating as the front grip. These elements combine to make the camera feel very comfortable and more secure in the hand than the A7 when shooting or walking between shots.
Other changes made since the A7 include a slightly larger shutter button which has been moved forward to make it easier to reach.We found this to be a good move as the button falls under the point that we automatically reach to when holding the A7 II.
Just below the shutter release, at the top of the grip, is a small protruding dial that's used for exposure adjustments. This replaces the large dial found near the shutter release on the A7. While the new dial is a little fiddly to find when you've got cold fingers, this is a better control arrangement than on the original A7.
Shifting the shutter release off the top-plate has made room for a second custom button on the A7 II, giving greater opportunity to customise the camera. Meanwhile, the back of the camera looks almost identical to the original A7, apart from the fact that the C2 (custom) button has been relabelled C3.
On the subject of customisable buttons, it's worth spending some time using the camera and experimenting with different customisation settings.We found it helpful to set the button at the centre of the navigation pad/wheel to access 'Focus Settings'. Pressing it when shooting in Flexible Spot Focus Area mode then activates AF point selection mode. From here the desired point can be selected using the control dials or the navigation pad. Sadly, there's no touchscreen to speed this up.
Fortunately, like the other A7-series cameras, the Alpha A7 II has an excellent electronic viewfinder (EVF). This provides a nice clear view of the scene with plenty of detail and, as usual with an EVF, it shows the impact of any settings adjustments – although this can be turned off if you prefer. The image in the EVF is very natural, with just a slight shimmer here and there to remind you that its an electronic device rather than an optical one.
There's a helpful little sensor just above the EVF window which detects when the camera is held to the eye, turning off the main screen and activating the finder. This works well and is helpful on many occasions, but it sometimes turns off the screen when the camera is held close to your body or a finger passes near it, which can be a pain. Unlike some other compact system cameras, the A7 II doesn't have a button nearby that can be set to override the sensor and toggle between using the EVF and the screen. There's also no customisation option to this effect.
- 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast detection points
- 30% increase in AF speed over previous model
- Solid tracking performance
Although the A7 II has the same hybrid AF system as the A7, with 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast detection points, Sony claims that new focusing algorithms enable a 30% increase in AF speed, with faster and longer high-speed drive and a 1.5x improvement in AF Tracking performance.
Thanks to the firmware 2.0 updated, the Sony A7 II becomes the second Sony camera, along with the flagship A7R II, to offer fully-functional phase detection AF on A-mount glass in addition to E-mount lenses.
The tracking AF performance has also been improved by using technology from the Sony A6000 and A77 II, adding Lock-on AF (Wide/Zone/Centre/Flexible Spot) to help follow moving subjects. This means that the camera uses data about object distance from all of the AF points to inform the processor about the location of the subject, whether it is moving in relation to the background and the location of other objects in the scene.
This enables the camera to continue to track the subject after another nearby object has interrupted the view. There's also improved motion detection to help identify the subject and distinguish it from the background.
- Image stabilization works well
- Auto White Balance is a good performer
- Good focusing performance
Naturally, we were keen to investigate the performance of the A7 II's stabilisation system. When using the camera with the Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS lens mounted, which is stabilized, we found we could get acceptably sharp results at 70mm using a shutter speed of 1/6sec. While this stabilisation doesn't quite meet the 4.5EV maximum claimed by Sony, it is very good. It's important to remember that the results can vary from person to person and factors such as how much coffee you've drunk can have an impact!
The automatic white balance system is also a good performer and can be relied upon in a wide range of lighting conditions. As usual it struggles a bit under some artificial lighting, but it's very easy to set a Custom white balance value. You just navigate through the white balance options to the Custom Setup option, press the button at the centre of the navigation controls to select it, then aim the lens at a neutral target before pressing the central button again. You then have the option to assign the recorded value to one of the three custom settings for later selection.
When shooting outside in bright winter sunshine, we found that many of my images benefitted from dialling a little negative exposure compensation when using the A7 II's 1200-zone evaluative metering system. In some cases I did this to retain the highlights and in others to give better colour straight from the camera. The benefit of an electronic viewfinder is that you can see the impact of any exposure adjustments before taking the shot, so the need for exposure compensation isn't a major drama.
In normal outdoor daylight conditions the A7 II's autofocus system is very good, being fast and accurate in most situations. It even copes well with moving subjects and can keep up with them as they move away from or towards the camera. The Lock-on AF modes are particularly good with this type of situation. Once the subject is identified, the camera draws a box around it, the shape and size of which varies depending upon how the camera perceives the subject. The box then stays over the subject as it moves around the frame – unless the subject moves a bit too fast or erratically.
The AF system still does a very respectable job in low lighting situations, but in very low light there's sometimes a little hesitancy and a back-and-forwards adjustment.
While the A7 II's AF system is very capable, professional or enthusiast sports photographers are probably better off with cameras like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II or Nikon D500 which give them greater control over how a subject is tracked. I found the A7 II was able to keep up with a runner and produce a series of sharp images in daylight, with just one or two having missed focus.
- Alpha A7 II produces very high quality images
- Good image noise control
- Produces pleasant colors
We were very impressed by the results produced by the original Sony A7 and as the A7 II uses the same sensor and processing engine we knew that it would perform well. Our faith has not been disappointed as the Alpha A7 II produces very high quality images in a range of conditions and it's capable of capturing lots of detail.
Image noise is also controlled well through the lower, middle and moderately high sensitivity settings. By ISO6400 there's quite a bit of chroma noise visible in raw files viewed at 100% and when noise reduction is turned off. Simultaneously captured JPEG files in the camera's default noise reduction setting, however, look very good. The colored speckling is concealed well without too much loss of detail. The remaining luminance noise is fine-grained and evenly distributed with no banding or clumping so images look natural even at 100%.
Step up to ISO 12,800 and 25,600, however, and the noise reduction applied to JPEGs starts to take its toll, with more noticeable loss of detail and smoothing at 100%. Simultaneously captured raw files bring the opportunity to fine-tune noise reduction to find an acceptable mid-ground with some noise visible along with greater detail. For the most part though, I would avoid the top sensitivity setting if you want to view images at high magnification or make prints at A4 size or larger.
At 100%, edges in the A7 II's JPEGs captured at low and mid-range sensitivities are a little more defined than the area between them, which makes the images look quite digital at this magnification. At normal viewing and printing sizes, however, the results look superb.
For the most part the A7 II produces very pleasant colors in its default 'Standard' Creative Style mode. It's a good all-round option, but the 'Landscape' setting tends to produce more attractive landscape images with greater saturation, a little more warmth and slightly higher contrast.
As it sits mid-way between the 36MP Alpha 7R and the 12MP Alpha 7S, the 24Mp Alpha 7 II is the all-rounder, generalists' model. It's likely to find favour amongst those who don't need the huge file sizes that the A7R generates and who want faster autofocusing, but who aren't primarily concerned with low-light and video performance.
That's not to say that the A7 II a "Jack of all trades and master of none". It's capable of resolving a heck of a lot of detail and noise is controlled very well from ISO 50 to 6400. The autofocus system is also very fast and accurate in decent lighting conditions and it's capable of getting moving subjects sharp. Nevertheless, it probably still wouldn't be the first choice of camera for a sports photographer.
We love the feel of the A7 II and how it sits very comfortably in the hand. Photographers with larger hands sometimes find the Sony A7-series of cameras more comfortable to hold and the controls less fiddly to use than those on the Olympus OM-D E-M10 and even the OM-D E-M5 and OM-D E-M1.
Having image stabilisation built in to a camera body is a huge plus point because it means that just about any lens you mount on it becomes stabilized. We may not quite have matched the claimed compensation figures for the A7 II's system, but it enabled us to take sharp images at much slower shutter speeds than would normally be possible.
The Sony A7 II produces images with an impressive level of detail and lovely color. Although I found that you need to keep an eye on exposure and use the compensation dial to occasionally vary it by 1/3 or 2/3EV from the recommended settings, with an EVF to show you the impact of such changes and a dedicated dial on the top-plate, getting the correct exposure is easy.
The in-camera stabilisation system is also useful and enables sharp images to be taken at shutter speeds that would not normally be possible when hand-holding a camera. It gives extra creative potential with the ability to use shutter speeds that blur moving subjects while the stabilisation produces a sharp background.
It all adds up to make the Sony A7 II a very attractive camera.