18 Hours with: The Sony A7s II Review

Resort Bar, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

Resort Bar, PCU 2016 – Kerrville, Texas

Back a month ago, when I attended Precision Camera University (PCU), I borrowed the Sony A7s II and two lenses for the night. I got a good feel for the camera, enough to give my impressions in a “18 Hours with” review. Ironically, my first “18 Hours with” review was the Sony A7 back in 2014.

Much has changed since Sony introduced the A7 series, 2 years ago. Full frame mirrorless has begun to dominate the discussion, overshadowing the other mirrorless vendors and posing a real threat to Canon and Nikon’s DSLR dominance. Sony, for their part, has introduced a confusing array of six cameras with similarly named models, all in the full frame mirrorless space.

Sharmita Poses, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

The A7 series comes in three flavors. The all-purpose A7, the high-resolution A7r and the low light A7s. It’s easy to confuse the r and s models so think r=resolution and s=sensitivity to light. Then, instead of discontinuing the older models, Sony kept the entire line when they introduced the Mark II versions of these cameras. Thus there are 2 versions of the A7, 2 versions of the A7r and 2 versions of the A7s. Confused?

I’m reviewing the Mark II version of the A7s, which is the camera optimized for low light. With only a 12MP sensor and excellent video features, many think of the A7s II as a video oriented camera. I have very little interest in video, but found the A7s II compelling for still photography. Is this camera a game changer for low light? I wanted to know.

The Design and Build

Sony has done an admirable job creating a compact body to house a full frame sensor. It’s noticeably smaller than a Canon 6D, which is one of the smallest full frame DSLRs. The original A7 bodies, however, seems a little lacking, especially the A7 which has a plasticky feel. They are adequate but don’t feel premium or professional. With the Mark II, the bodies have greatly improved. All three lines now share the same body, made from a beefy magnesium alloy.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

The A7s II grip has been enlarged which worked well for the small prime lenses that I used, the Sony FE 35mm f2.8 and the FE 28mm f2 lens. Taken together, the camera has a professional, high quality feel. There’s no hint of cheapness in the switches and dials. A noticeable improvement from the original line. The camera feels like something between a professional DSLR and a mirrorless camera. It doesn’t have the heft and utilitarian build of a Canon or Nikon Pro body but it doesn’t have the jewel like preciousness of an Olympus PEN-F or OM-D.

The A7s II is professional but not luxurious. Luxurious may seem like an odd adjective for a camera, but that’s they way the new Olympus PEN-F made me feel when I reviewed it. The finely detailed switches and dials, with the perfect amount of resistance, plus the two toned black and chrome evokes a timeless, quality feel. The Sony A7 cameras feel entirely different. They are modern, all black and stylish in a no-nonsense kind of way. They are not flamboyant but not boring like DSLRs. I think the Sony design perfectly suits the target audience.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

User Interface

The Mark II’s beefier grip fits great in my smallish hands and is a noticeable improvement from the Mark I. The body and grip are, however, a lot smaller than serious DSLRs, which some may argue, is the point of mirrorless cameras. The body works great for prime lenses up to medium-sized zooms but may be lacking for the larger zooms.

The two top control dials on the front and back are slightly awkward. I found it hard to change these dials while having a firm grip with one hand. The back dial is placed away from the thumb grip and both dials are recessed deeply into the body. The locations of the custom and record buttons are also hard to reach and thus the camera works better two-handed.

My favorite feature is the in-camera 5-axis image stabilization (IS), which I also use extensively on my Olympus E-M5 Mark II. I’m glad Sony added this. The IS, especially when coupled with the camera’s high ISO performance, will make this a beast of low light shooting. Beyond the changes to the body, having in-camera IS is the main reason I would consider the Mark II over the Mark I.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

I’ve often heard complaints about Sony’s menu interface, and it’s true, it is complicated. But, in these days of fully optioned cameras, cameras from most vendors are more complicated than they have to be. I’ve grown accustomed to Olympus but their menu interface can also be bewildering to the uninitiated. That said, in less than an hour, I was able to shoot the A7s II effectively and the dense menu system didn’t get in the way. No doubt, my experience shooting many brands helped but the Sony menus are fathomable, with some practice.

What makes Sony’s interface extra challenging is, they combined the video oriented features throughout the entire menu system instead of in a dedicated area. This makes things seem extra complicated, especially for the stills photographer. There is no doubt, Sony has the opportunity to improve the interface but at least it’s better than the original NEX camera days. Also, the interface is quite consistent between different models, including the well regarding RX100 compacts. Which means, once you learn Sony’s menu language, you can use this knowledge across their entire line of enthusiast cameras.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

Image Quality

At 12MP, this camera is not ideal for high-resolution imagery — Sony has the A7r II for that, with a beefy 42MP. So, this won’t be my landscape camera of choice. However, I think it can work quite well for everyday usage — the kind of camera that works well as a jack of all trades. It works well for street photography, especially at night, and the behind the scenes shooting I did at PCU. Note: my image quality observations are based on JPEGs. While I shot in JPEG + RAW, I didn’t have a RAW processor for the A7s II.

Don’t be deceived by the resolution stats, however. There is more to detailed images than megapixels. There is lens quality, of course, as well as the sensor and image processing engine. For example, my 24MP Nikon D3300 DSLR with kit lens looks about the same as my 16MP Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, resolution wise. Yes, the 24MP images and files are larger but I don’t see any more detail. I’m guessing that the Nikon kit lens does not have the acuity to resolve 24MP worth of detail, thus the extra 8MPs of resolution doesn’t help.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

With the Sony A7s II, despite the “paltry” 12MP, I saw equal or more detail than with my Olympus at 16MP, especially in darker conditions. Perhaps the Sony lens is sharper but I’m also willing to bet that the superior low light sensor and image processing help tremendously. The net effect? 12MP is more than enough to get crisp and detailed files. It turned out to be less of a limitation that I thought. Would I prefer 16MP? Sure, but not at the expense of low light performance.

After a number of years of not liking the Sony color, the new model is greatly improved and color is no longer an issue for me. Honestly, I still like the Olympus color a bit more, but this is going to vary on individual tastes. The Sony JPEGs, for example, are a bit more flat and muted than Olympus, with a color pallet that’s somewhat cooler. But this can easily be tweaked in post. Gone are the days when I got greenish-yellow skin tones.

I found that the A7s II tended to underexpose more than my preference. I often dialed in +1/3 to + 2/3 exposure compensation. I’m sure that’s to preserve highlights and the darker shadows can always be lightened in post production.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

High ISO Performance

I’ve seen demos of crazy high ISO performance with the A7s II, particularly for videos. But video performance and stills are different. At PCU, my upper limit was mostly around ISO 10,000, though a few hit 20,000 and one image hit 32,000. Roughly speaking, ISO 20,000 on the Sony A7s II seems about equivalent to ISO 4,000 to 5,000 on my Olympus E-M5 Mark II. So there is at least a two stop improvement in high ISO performance. The color on the ISO 32,000 photo was rough but it made a decent black and white — the noise/grain tends to work better for monochromes.

I didn’t shoot crazy high ISOs because I didn’t need to (though only a few years ago, ISO 20,000 would be considered crazy). I used prime lenses at f2 to 2.8 and Auto ISO. Even shooting at night by campfire or inside a dark bar, almost all images stayed at or below ISO 10,000. And, by the way, that’s with a shutter speed averaging around 1/80 of a second. That means in practice, instead of using astronomically high ISOs, I can shoot at “reasonable” ISO 6400 to 10,000 with a decently fast shutter speed. That’s the kind of headroom the A7s II enables. I’ve gotten accustomed to shooting in dark conditions with the Olympus, but I usually need to drop the shutter speed quite low. When you shoot at 1/30 or a second or slower, you tend to get a lot of motion blur unless you tell your subjects to hold still. That, of course, does not work for candids or street photography.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

I also shot indoors in decent lighting at 1/320 ISO 3,200, which allowed me to capture quick candids without motion blur. I get a higher keeper rate with a faster shutter and remarkably I get to shoot indoors at outdoor like speeds.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

Keep in mind that Sony have not overcome the laws of physics. You have the same limitations of increased noise, decreased dynamic range and color, as you raise the ISO. It’s just that the acceptable ceiling for image degradation has been raised considerably. Which means, under most normal conditions, you can use this camera without resorting to tricks. What kind of tricks? Using very slow shutter speeds, flashes or making artistic compromises because you know the camera can’t possibly make the shot you want. With most cameras, I would be hard pressed to capture dancing in a dark bar without motion blur. It doesn’t mean that I won’t use motion blur as an artistic effect, but now I have the choice.

Sharmita, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas
Laura, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

I also made environmental portraits in available light. I preserved the mood of the place and without complicated supplemental off camera lighting. I took these two photos at ISO 4000 and 5000 — high quality, low noise images.

Focusing

Focusing speed was a non-issue. For the photos I took that night at PCU, it worked well enough in all conditions that it was not a factor. The A7s II is not a fast action camera, so I wouldn’t use it for sports. But for behind the scenes, street photography and every day events, I worked great.

Shutter Sound

The first generation A7 series is notorious for loud shutters. So much so that, it was a turn off for me. The A7s II is greatly improved with a quieter and more desirable shutter sound. It’s still not as refined as OM-D Mark II but Olympus has the advantage of needing a smaller shutter. Sony has improved that shutter sound to the point that it’s no longer an issue, though it is still noticeable in quiet conditions.

The A7s II also has a totally silent electronic shutter but with limitations. First, it’s susceptible to image distortions from rolling shutter, especially if you are panning while shooting. Also, under certain artificial lighting, you can see a slight banding. It’s a useful feature but use with caution.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

Battery Life

Mirrorless cameras have shorter battery life than DSLRs. They use active, power sucking EVFs or LCD screens and tend to have smaller batteries. That said, the A7s II seemed to have noticeably shorter batter life than my Olympus. I forgot to note if I got a fully charged battery, when I borrowed the camera, but I needed 2 batteries to shoot my 500 photos during that night.

To Sony’s credit, they do have a precise percent remaining readout for battery life. A big step up from my other cameras that have a very crude and non-linear 3 segment battery power indicator. Either way, I would recommend at least 2 batteries or more depending on how prolific a shooter you are. I probably won’t feel comfortable unless I had 3 batteries for my typical events.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

My Likes

1. Fantastic low light performance
2. Nicely detailed files, even at 12MP
3. High quality and robust body
4. 5 axis image stabilization
5. Tilting screen

My Dislikes

1. On the big side for a mirrorless camera
2. Not quite as refined as the Olympus PEN F and OM-D
3. Small but growing lens selection
4. 12MP is adequate but would prefer 16MP
5. Short battery life

Recommendation

Anyone that needs extreme low light, high ISO performance should, of course, consider this camera. There may be Nikon DSLRs, for example, that have similar performance, but they are a lot larger and not as adept with video. You get the advantage of mirrorless with an EVF which display exposure and white balance in real-time. It’s the “what you see is, what you get” type shooting that makes mirrorless a lot more interactive than the traditional DSLR.

For event photographers who want to capture in available light, this maybe a compelling camera. You may not entirely eliminate the flash but with some creativity, it may be possible. For street photography, especially at night, this will be the perfect camera, especially paired with a small prime lens. The A7s II will also be a great every day camera. One that you can shoot in most conditions, without a worry about ISO and shutter speed.

Keep in mind, however, that full frame exacts a size penalty. While the body may be smaller, the lens size is dictated by the sensor. Which means that the Sony full frame lenses are not going to be much smaller than Canon and Nikon DSLR lenses. Moving to full frame mirrorless will only help somewhat for decreases in size and weight. For larger lenses, the smaller body and grip maybe a disadvantage and you may prefer a larger DSLR body. Also, DSLRs still excel at sports and action.

Resort Pool, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

For me?

You can probably tell that I had a fun time with the A7s II — it performed better than I anticipated. While I expected great low light performance, I was surprised how sharp the images were, compared to my OM-D E-M5 Mark II. 12MP was also surprisingly adequate for my needs. PCU, especially at night, was the perfect venue to test this camera. While shooting in a dark bar is usually challenging, it was effortless with the A7s II.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

As primarily a prime lens shooter, the small 28mm and 35mm lenses worked well with the smallish body. However, it was heavier and larger than the comparable Olympus setup. The Sony tugged on my neck and it was a bit more noticeable when carried around. That said, the added size was not a deal breaker with the smaller prime lenses.

If I were a professional shooting low light events, I would consider investing in the A7s II. However, as an enthusiast with an already sizable camera collection, I’m not ready to spend $4150 for an A7s II plus two lenses. I suspect that low light performance will continue to improve and perhaps an inevitable Mark III version is worth looking at. Or perhaps, I can consider picking up a used Mark II in a few years.

The A7s II is a fine camera, not quite as refined and pleasurable as my Olympus, but compelling nevertheless. I’m hard pressed to justify it purely as a low light shooter but Sony is improving their cameras at a relentless pace. I’ll certainly keep an eye on this space for any future developments.

Behind the Scenes, PCU 2016 - Kerrville, Texas

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