Let me just start by saying, it doesn’t matter which way you look at the Sony A7Rii, it is a ridiculous thing. Ridiculous in every sense. If you view it as bad, it’s ridiculously bad, yet entirely simultaneously it can be viewed as ridiculously good! I know this for a fact, since I myself have both views depending on the day you ask me. In the extremes, the Sony A7Rii is a camera I love to hate and hate to love, and through this relationship with it, it manages to perfectly illustrate the worst of the problems I have with modern digital cameras… So I thought I’d write my sort of Sony A7rii review…
Actually, this isn’t the only reason I wanted to write about it. If you pay close attention you will have noticed that photos taken with these Sony A7 series cameras have recently sneaked their way into posts on 35mmc. I posted a few in my Jupiter-3 post, there’s even a picture of one of them in the post about the Yashica lens mod… And this next photo was taken – for fun – with a Sony A7rii. A rare occurrence, let me tell you!
This has all happened for a few reasons really. Prior to getting my M9 I kept getting asked to include a few digital results in reviews. I decided it couldn’t hurt – so one of the full frame Sony’s seemed like the logical choice. It’s also happened because of the previous interest in lens adapting and modification rearing its head through my playing with various compact camera lenses. Not to mention the fact that actually, I use them to take most of the gear photos that accompany the posts write on here. To be fair, they’re also compact and 35mm format too, so in some ways maybe they deserve a place… maybe… …
One way or another – however I try and justify it – the Sony A7Rii has pushed its way into this blog, and really this probably just comes down to the fact that it’s a big part of my photography life. It is after my main works-camera; the work horse of my photography and video company. It’s possibly even the camera I take most photos with. As such, I know it fairly well, and me being me, this also means I have quite strong opinions about it!
Sony and me
The Sony A7Rii is one of 6 cameras that Sony has released in roughly this form factor in the last 4 and a half minutes – or at least that’s how it seems. In reality it’s probably been about 4-5 years since the original A7 hit the market. I’ve so far owned half of these cameras. I had the A7R first, then the A7S, and now the A7Rii. The first two replaced my Nikon D800 which was the last Nikon in a long line of DSLRs I’d owned dating back to when I bought my D70s when it first hit the market. The original Sony A7R was built around the same sensor as the Nikon D800, so when one replaced the other, I thought the step would be easy. I was very wrong! The Nikon functioned properly as a mature professional product. As a first generation product the A7R had some significant limitations. In fact, I later sold the A7R after I became so frustrated with the autofocus that I felt sure I would smash it.
In fact on one occasion I did smash it… but that was down to its flimsy build quality and an accident in the studio, and not my frustrating experiences. (Pro tip, it’s good to have good insurance if you shoot with Sony cameras professionally!) I digress. One way or another, my Sony A7R was eventually replaced with a Sony A7Rii resulting in this being my main works-camera with the Sony A7S as a backup.
Thankfully Sony thought it wise to implement autofocus that actually functions into both of these cameras. In fact, it actually works so well now that I haven’t dreamed of throwing either of them out of the window for autofocus issues, even once… But this doesn’t mean I don’t think about replacing them…
The issue is – even before you take into account how they function and perform – with Sony replacing these cameras every few years with new better models, I feel driven to replace them every few years. This has the unfortunate impact of them feeling almost disposable. As such I don’t find myself bonding with them as tools in the way I do with my Leicas, or indeed as I did with my Nikons before. Now you might ask why I am so driven to replace them so frequently? Well, sometimes I ask myself the same question, but actually I find myself having some surprisingly sensible answers that are largely to do with the nature of the Sony system.
A young system
As alluded to, the system itself is still very young. It’s not like the Nikon or Canon systems of SLR’s where advancements amount to little more than minor refinements. The difference between the first gen Sony A7R and second-gen Sony A7Rii is stunning. The original had the aforementioned impossibly slow autofocus, but there were plenty of other problems ranging from significant to the seemingly quite odd. Even the A7R shutter button felt like it was in the wrong place! It’s safe to say, the A7Rii solved a good chunk of issues in the upgrade from its predecessor. As such, as a user of this system, seeing such significant upgrades happening, just makes me wonder just what the A7Riii will bring?
Never ending upgrades
This is the question that pretty much summarises everything I dislike about the digital photography industry. The never ending upgrade path is enough to drive me to distraction! But unlike with Nikon where I became quite pragmatic about it and shot with cameras for much longer, Sony have me trapped in this idea that 2 years is plenty long enough to own a digital camera.
What’s most frustrating for me is the reason I feel so caught up in this frame of mind. I’m no longer after better image quality, I’m not after higher numbers of pixels, ISOs or even focusing speed anymore. I literally can’t think of anything else Sony could bring in those “bigger” or “faster” stakes, the A7Rii has all those things pretty much nailed. All I want from the next generation of Sony is for it to be a better camera.
When I say “camera” here, the distinction I want to make is that I don’t want another “gadget” like the one I hold before me today. Possibly slightly unrealistically, I want the camera that my old Nikon D3 was, with the size of the A7Rii. Not knowing if that what’s next from Sony, or if there will be at least a good sized step in that direction just keeps me waiting for the upgrade… Which frankly, is just not the way I like to live my life!
The issue is – whether I like it or not – having sold my Nikon’s and committed to the Sony system I’m not about to take a step backwards. I’m sold on the theory of a mirrorless camera, now I just need the reality to catch up with my practical needs. Until then, there’s no escaping from the fact that my main works camera is the Sony A7Rii, and really as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I don’t think I could possibly be any more torn about how I feel about it!
The Sony A7rii Review
The Sony A7rii is a full frame 42 megapixel compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. It has a BSI sensor, which as far as I know is the first of its type in this size of camera/sensor. BSI stands for back side illuminated (which is funny if you’re English and have a puerile sense of humour). What exactly this means I don’t [care to] know, but what I do know is that it’s technology originally used in small sensor cameras to increase the low light/high ISO capability alongside increased pixel counts. Scale that technology up – as has been in the A7rii – and you find yourself with a large sensor, a very large pixel count and – thanks to the backside illumination – very low noise even at fairly substantial ISOs.
Additionally to this, there’s also very good phase detection AF (the lack of which made its predecessor slow), 5 axis image stabilisation, 14bit raw processing and it does in camera 4K video to boot. If you don’t know what much of these numbers and phrases means, it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that this all adds up to a device that has stunning output potential. In fact in real terms, the output is so good that it completely outperforms my needs. To the extent in fact that – when combined with the way the Sony A7rii is designed – it makes me feel like a lazy photographer.
Absurd high ISO performance
The cornerstone technical feature in the lazy approach that the Sony A7Rii’s instils in me is the aforementioned high ISO/low light capabilities. I really can’t emphasise enough how absurd the high ISO performance of this camera is; it can be used almost without concern for the ISO it’s set to. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve delivered photos to clients that were taken at 12,800 ISO, and comfortably too. What’s interesting about the high ISO output of this camera is that thanks to its extraordinary pixel count, what noise there is seems relatively hidden in the tiny pixels. There is noise there, but you have to zoom in so much to see it, it’s hardly visible when viewed as a full image.
As a professional with clients to satisfy, I won’t deny that this does bring some significant advantage. For example, I’ve made dimly lit wedding venues look reasonably bright, without needing to worry about flash. This pains me a little bit, as the results tend to be those taken in rooms where the light is poor and lacks contrast, resulting in images that I just wouldn’t take within my hobby.
Unfortunately, the world has turned to a point where people still want weddings in fancy hotels with terrible lighting, but at the same time also want discrete reportage photography with coverage all day. Given these shooting circumstances, I just find it hard to argue that shooting 3200iso at f/1.4 is a better option than f/2.8 and 12,800iso.
When the goal is taking a photo of a slightly drunk uncle Steve making inappropriate jokes after a few to many pints of Boddington’s, does a hair’s breadth of depth of field make a more interesting photo, or does capturing a bit more focus of the face of Auntie Sarah who’s evil-eyeing Steve from over his shoulder? In the world of documentary wedding photography, the answer is almost always the latter!
That being said, once you’ve extrapolated that specific advantage across the very-few-other situations I might find within the realms of my pro career, I personally struggle to find much real world else use for very high ISO shooting.
Lazy ISO-less auto shooting
That is of course apart from where it comes to the laziness I mentioned. Some people call cameras like these ISO-less. What’s meant by this is that to all intents and purposes they can be shot at a broad range of ISOs with little impact on the results. I mentioned that there’s an impact on the images, but that it’s only really visible when you zoom right in. This is especially significant to me as a professional photographer as it means that really any impact to the files is only evident to me in my post process. Broadly speaking, clients don’t zoom in on images, and even if they do, a lot of the time the images they receive are downscaled meaning that they can’t zoom in so much as to be able to see it anyway.
The result of this is that the auto-ISO function of the camera becomes a huge crutch. When I’m on a shoot I’ve got to a stage with the Sony A7rii that I just feel like I can let it do its thing. Quite often I just set it to auto ISO and aperture priority, set it so it doesn’t use a shutter speed less the 1/125th of a second or an ISO higher than 12,800, and just take photos with little concern for what ISO it’s choosing.
The viewfinder; and making a good exposure
This is all further aided by the fact that it has an extremely good digital viewfinder. When you put the Sony A7Rii to your eye, there is little sense of a disconnect from reality as there used to be with digital viewfinders. In fact, since the viewfinder is such high quality, and yet is still digital, it brings about with it the distinct advantage of you being able to accurately see the exposure you’re about to take. If what you see is not what you want, more importantly, you’re able to quickly act on the information before you press the button.
With all the automatic functions working, acting on the exposure info in the viewfinder comes down to using the exposure compensation dial that sits conveniently under your right thumb. This means that even in pretty difficult lighting situations, a near fully automatic shooting camera can really easily be manipulated into taking the exact exposure you want very quickly and easily. This is so much the case, that I even find myself looking at the screen on the back after I’ve taken a photo less with the Sony A7rii than I did my DSLRs.
Manoeuvrable raw files
What makes all this even more crackers is that even if you do over or underexpose, there’s so much room for manoeuvre in the raw files that it hardly matters. Admittedly, with how fool proof the automatic exposure system is when combined with the exposure compensation dial, it’s hard to imagine getting an exposure wrong. Of course, in reality, difficult lighting is difficult lighting, and snap judgements about what to expose for aren’t always going to be correct. With the A7Rii though you can err so much toward retaining highlights that areas of an image can be very dark and still be readily recoverable. As with any camera, it’s good to practice to find that line where the noise becomes too intrusive for your tastes, but I’ve found shooting the Sony A7Rii remarkable in this regard. It certainly makes exposure a less worrisome process.
Another massive crutch is the absurd resolution of the thing. 42mp is such high out-of-camera resolution that it sometimes feels like it’s nudging me to not really work all that hard even when it comes to framing. After all, if I don’t like the framing of a photo I take, I can just crop it to something I do like.
When I first starting shooting digital as a pro, one of my cameras – the Fuji S5 pro – was six megapixels. Six! Nobody complained about file sizes then, and nobody would now. My backup Sony A7S is only 12mp, and that never gets noticed as a limitation either. As a pro I’m hardly ever (read never) shooting for massive end physical image size, and even if I was it would be very rare that I couldn’t get away with delivering a 2000 x 3000px image.
This high camera resolution and ability to crop is also aided by modern lenses. Lenses these days are very sharp, but moreover, they’re sharper at longer distances at wider apertures. Even within the length of my photography career, I’ve seen big advancements in the objective quality of lenses available for 35mm size format camera. With my Nikon d800 and 50mm f/1.4 afs – a relatively new lens – I had issues. It was fine closer up, even wide open, but at a distance at the same apertures, the results just weren’t sharp – certainly not sharp enough to make use of the Nikon’s 36mp high resolution for cropping. Since then the likes of Zeiss and Sigma have upped the anti. Toward the end of my time with the Nikon system I had a Sigma 50mm Art which was an incredible lens. And equally with the Sony/Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 I’m never let down when it comes to the resolving power at my fingertips. Combined with the camera, this just gives me even more headroom for cropping.
Awesome, but unrewarding
This all makes for a camera that sounds amazing I know. But, as I’ve alluded to, in use I just can’t get away from how lazy and cack-handed it makes me feel. The issue is, when I shoot with the Sony A7rii I just don’t feel like I’m doing my job properly. This might all sound like I don’t care about my work, or don’t take pride in what I deliver to clients. But this simply isn’t the case. The reality is – as mentioned – the Sony A7rii simply far outperforms my requirements, and indeed the requirements of my clients.
In the world I work in, when I’m taking photos that will mostly be resized down to 1600px on the long edge for use on websites, or at most be used for a full page advert in a magazine where the aforementioned 3000 x 2000px is more than enough, even within the realms of this lazy approach, 99% of the time I’m actually way over-delivering on what I produce.
As a generalist, I produce product shots, photos of building and vehicles, LinkedIn profile head shots, PR and press photography, photos of events etc (you can see all the stuff me and my team shoot here) all to a technical standard that is higher than the expectations of the client. The Sony A7Rii makes this easier to achieve than any other camera in my photography career, but it does so in a way that feels like I’m being lazy. This laziness within the methods with which I shoot it somehow leaves me feeling a little hollow, unsatisfied, and almost like I have cheated my way to the end result. The quality-headroom combined with the level of automation on offer just makes life too easy.
So use the camera properly then!
I’m sure to many his sounds like a completely ridiculous thing to moan about? For one, having a tool that allows one to complete a task in an easier way surely shouldn’t be quibbled at? And really if I have a problem with all the automation then why don’t I just shoot the camera in a more manual way?
Well of course, I could shoot it in a more manual way, perhaps I could set the Sony A7rii properly for each shooting environment as I do with my Leica M9 or any of my manual film cameras. It could even be argued that since the camera allows the room for error that it does, taking a more manual approach might give me back the satisfaction I require, but yet be less risky than if I were to use a less technically good camera. All of this is I suppose true…
A professional (/expert) camera?
…The problem is, using the Sony A7rii as a professional camera feels a lot harder than using it how I do, and not harder in a way that makes it more rewarding, harder in a way that just leaves me frustrated and a little confused. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how I use it, this camera just doesn’t feel to me like it’s designed to be used as professional camera. Trying to use it as one feels like your fighting against a very strong tide of automation and superfluous features – some of which I will come back to in a moment. All this superfluous function is born out of the fact that where it’s not designed just for the professional, it’s actually a camera that’s designed to be all things to all photographers. To a greater or lesser extent, this feels a little like it begins with the lowest common denominator.
A Dad camera?
Unfortunately, at its core, the Sony A7Rii is a bit of a feature packed Dad cam! Conceptually, I explained what I think a Dad cam is in this post about a 90’s Samsung, but in brief, it’s a camera designed to appeal to the “Dad”. As I explain in that post, the Dad is the show-off guy who wants something that’s the best, but because he has no knowledge of a subject, can only guess what best by what has the highest value and highest levels of functionality, including of course lots of auto modes. In the case of the £3000 all singing, all dancing Sony A7Rii, this is visible in the vast swathes of automation built into it and the fact that is does pretty much everything(!!) you could imagine a camera doing.
Unfortunately, this includes what I am going to call the “mega-hyper-superfluous”. Mega-hyper-superfluousness(ness) is a concept I have needlessly, unnecessarily and undeniably quite stupidly invented to further and in greater depth describe the core principle on which these cameras are designed and were created (incidentally, it’s impossible to describe mega-hyper-superfluousness(ness) without being needlessly verbose!)
I’ve talked about this countless times on this blog, it’s something I usually describe a “complicated down design”. As I’ve alluded to, the idea of this design approach is basically to make a thing that does all of the things that a thing of its type could possibly need to do – almost regardless of whether or not these things will ever be used. Whilst there are a lot of features in this camera that feel like this to me, there is one that really quite readily illustrates my point:
The Sony A7rii has a mode called “automatic autofocus” – and no it’s not the 1st of April. Even the name for it is ridiculous. Fortunately for me, the use of the same word twice, just goes to support my point about hyper-mega-superfluousnessness…
Automatic autofocus is a mode that is designed to make the decision for you as to whether or not you want the camera to single-shot autofocus or continuous autofocus. Now I don’t swear often on this blog – and that’s despite basically being a potty mouth in real life – but seriously now, what the fuck…? What possible use is this? Is it for people who don’t know what type of autofocus they need and when? If so why are they spending £3k on a camera? Or is it for people who are too lazy to switch between the two modes? Or something else I can’t fathom?
I’ve probably taken half a million photos in my career so far, maybe more. I’ve even shot motorsports and newly-wed couples being showered in confetti as they walk toward me. Both these types of shooting situations, and no doubt a few more have led me to decide continuous AF is worth a try, but really it’s only been of debatable use to me. I’m also very quick to switch it off after as with more static subjects it tends to do more harm than good. So what and how is this AAF going to bring to the table? The crazy thing is, the one time I did use it I’d switched it on by accident, and it didn’t work. Missed focus shots made me go delving into the menu to find out if I’d set something wrong…
In my mind, the only real function this Automatic AF has is to attract the dads who want to know they have all the functions under the sun, and possibly those who lack the technique or understanding to know better.
A Video camera?
What’s really mind boggling is that once you’ve grasped this over complication in terms of its attractiveness to the lowest common denominator, it’s also designed to be attractive to the video professional. As I mentioned earlier in the post the Sony A7Rii has in-camera 4k video, this alone is impressive really, but it also has “s-log2” picture profile things and zebraing and a digital zoom and whole other video-majiggers that escape me a bit, but James our video guy at work gets way overexcited by.
Now, as much as I moan, I probably wouldn’t be without this video function now I have it. We’ve put together some really nice looking video using these cameras… but you should see my face when I’m trying to undo all the modes James sets after he’s finished with the camera… it’s simply phenomenal just how many options there are in this thing.
A lack of true purpose
This all translates into a camera that to shoot it as a professional photographer feels a little like you’re shooting it against its will. It’s not that it wants to be a dad cam or a video camera, it’s just that it is both of these things and tries to be professional camera all at the same time too. Unfortunately, it’s through this over specification that I would and could never describe the Sony A7Rii as a professional spec tool. A professional camera works with you and aid your approach! This thing does almost the opposite – and this is simply because it’s not possible for a gadget this small to provide all of this function properly.
Too small, and too many bucking futtons
I wrote a post for Ilford about this not so long ago. You can have a read of that post here, but the general gist of it is that the compound effect of over-automation and over-specification is a huge increase in buttons and complication of design. The problem the Sony faces is that at the same time as trying to be compact, it does so many things for so many different types of user there could never be enough buttons to properly accommodate all the functionality when combined with how people might like to use it all. The result is that it has 4 ‘c’ buttons that don’t have set functions, and an entire customisable ‘fn’ quick access sub-menu.
I look back at my Nikon days and remember the joys specific buttons for everything I felt like I needed. I suspect in fact, that my Nikon D3 had just as many buttons if not more than the Sony A7Rii. But alongside being big enough to accommodate them properly, the Nikon had features designed for people who knew what they were doing as professional photographers. As such, it was a professional camera for professional photographers and nothing more. Features like rear-button-AF and exposure lock buttons that were right there under you thumb gave a sense that as a professional photographer the D3 was designed for you. These were dedicated function buttons, with useful features that came easily to hand. Ok, I’ll admit, some did have slight customisation options, but at least they were labeled well and the variety of option available to each button made sense to the labelling of the button.
The Sony has buttons that are just labelled ‘C1’ ‘C2’ etc. and they just feel plonked wherever there is space on the body with seemingly little thought to ergonomics or what the button might actually be useful for given its position on the body of the camera. Of course, it’s hard not to admit that there’s a lot to be said for setting a camera up to work exactly how you like it, but in use, having unlabelled ‘C’ buttons remains confusing almost no matter how long you spend with a camera.
What’s even more frustrating is that some of the functions can’t be assigned to ‘C’ buttons or the ‘Fn’ menu. Take for example the silent shooting mode or the mode that switches the viewfinder between showing the effect of the camera’s settings and just showing a bright picture, or the mode that stops the viewfinder switching to eye-level from the screen. All of these are buried deep in the menu, yet for me are settings I personally feel I need to access regularly. The customisable buttons and menu can be set some weird and wonderful things, but for some reason, not these three important-to-me functions, and there’s loads more that can’t be set too, loads! Where and why they drew this arbitrary line between what can and can’t be customised I have no idea, but it frustrates the hell out of me!
And then finally, my last bugbear is the stuff that’s missing. Even my aforementioned 1994 Samsung ECX1 has a time lapse mode. Not the Sony A7Rii. Nope, instead you have to connect the camera to the Internet, access an App Store and download a time lapse app for £7.99. As if I haven’t paid enough? Ok, I’m sort of being facetious here – I know I can’t have it both ways. It can’t have just all the features I want and none of the others! But again, why and where was this arbitrary line drawn between what features were needed as part of this camera and those that would be downloadable costed optional extras. I mean for fuck’s sake, how is “automatic autofocus” more useful than an interval timer…?!? Again facetious; personally, I’d rather have neither mode cluttering my cameras menus, but the fact that this camera even inspires the question goes some way to emphasise the lunacy of it all.
Final thoughts (skip to the end…)
The Sony A7Rii can never be everything to everyone. No camera can. The problem is, it tries, and through its incredible effort to offer something for everyone, it feels like it’s purpose as just a simple camera is lost, or at very least highly diluted.
Of course, it’s not the only digital camera that suffers huge over complication of design. Even the few-year-old Nikon D3 that I praised by comparison earlier in the post is vastly over featured when compared to even the most complex of film cameras. For better or worse, camera tech is still largely speaking on a function-additive trajectory that is hard to see an end of in the current landscape of available gear.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. Fuji for example, make very intuitive cameras that are quite heavily focused on just being stills cameras. So why do I shoot a Sony and not a Fuji then? Quite simply, the Sony offers my company the best bang-for-buck. As a multidiscipline photographer who runs an agency that also offers video, the Sony A7Rii offers everything I need in one box. This of course pretty much rounds the circle of the love-hate dichotomy that I started this post with. The Sony A7Rii does all that I need it to do and way more, and by that merit its hard not to have a strong appreciation for it. But at the same time, it still manages to represent everything I dislike in modern camera equipment. It’s farcically overcomplicated, and entirely uninspiring to use. So much so, that I couldn’t even bring myself to use it in any meaningful way to populate this post with photos that haven’t been taken for work or as a job. In fact, it’s taken months for me to finally get around to finishing this post – I even found the damn thing massively uninspiring to write about…
So where does this leave me…? Well, in one sense trapped. I’ve invested in the system, it’s become the backbone of my photo/video services at F8, I have lenses for it that I love, and actually James and Janine who use it at work think it’s great. Of course, in another sense it’s actually inspired something positive in me… It partly inspired in me a greater appreciation for the ‘uncomplicated camera‘, which in turn helped me commit to the decision to buy a Leica M9, a camera I now use instead of the Sony A7rii as much as I can get away with!
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