After Bob Hamilton’s first impressions in the glorious landscape of Scotland a few days ago, here are a few more notes on the Sony A7rII’s performance compared to its predecessor.
Before my A7r moves on to a new owner in a few days, here’s a comparison between the original superstar and its much anticipated offspring. On the menu: ergonomics, build, ease of use and image quality. Plus a more subjective discussion on aesthetics.
Conclusion first: although image quality is significantly improved, the resolution increase doesn’t play much of a role in that. 42,2Mpx is a lot of data but, compared to 36Mpx, it represents a mere 8% linear improvement and the excellent per-pixel sharpness of the predecessor doesn’t seem to have changed for better or for worse. A7rII files can take significantly more sharpening, but that doesn’t make them immensely better resolution-wise.
Side by side resolution
Here is a sample test photograph made with a Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM at f/4 with the Sony A7rII (left) and Sony A7r (right). Both cameras on auto white balance and no exp compensation. As you can see, both are conservatively exposed to preserve highlights but vignetting is significantly reduced in the A7rII. It’s possible my A7r’s AWB was not functioning properly, let’s ignore the yellow shift for now.
Center crop at 100%. You’re a better observer than me if you can spot any significant differences here. Small details may be a tad more discernible on the left, but none of this would be visible even in a 20″ print, not even with a loupe. Note the light variations in the background and roof, though. Volumes are more palpable in the background. Contrast is slightly lower on the newer camera. In the bottom left zone, we have a similar story, with the welcome bonus of an image quality that is not mushy even in the out of focus and / or blurry areas. Colours and tones are more differentiated, the photo seems brighter and more lively. Resolution is also slightly better and holds sharpening better, too.What happens when you push the limits ? Not much. Here is a center crop at 100% using a Zeiss OTUS 85 at f/8. Few lenses match this resolution and the sensors are the limiting factor here. Differences ? Nope. (note that the A7rII is on the right, here). But, to my eyes, the background is a tiny bit less grainy and there is a tad more life in the leaves with the A7rII. Subtle nuances though.So that’s it. If a massive increase in resolution is your motivation, save 50% and buy an A7r. But there’s a lot more going on that does justify the added expense … And it’s visible both in colour and B&W.
It takes more than a couple of photographs to determine the dynamic range of a camera, and more time than I’ve had so far. But I’m working on it and DxO will probably give us their verdict very soon. Still, here are two photos of the same scene made within seconds of one another with the Zeiss Distagon 2.8/15 ZF.2. SOOC (except white balance) and each with its histogram.
Here, the difference in contrast in the sky is quite striking. The newer camera gives the whole picture much more exposure without blowing the brightest parts of the sky. I don’t think the dynamic range is any higher in the newer model, but it’s possible the roll off is more gentle. I chose a Nikon–mount lens over an M-mount to eliminate the possibility of large vignetting differences between cameras. But I’m not yet sure what is happening and am running tests to be published very soon.
On ergonomics the A7rII takes a *big* leap forward.
The body feels better in hand, it is slightly heavier, feels beefier and more solid. My wife summarizes that as more masculine than the A7r.
The bayonet is a lot tighter.
Button layout is better on the top, and every bit as puzzling as ever in the back. Some small changes have been made to the photo review process but they don’t make much difference. However, reallocating the center button of the wheel to initiate the zoom would make it almost perfect. Nearly there.
The stabilizer is a boon but requires fidly incursions into the menu system to specify the lens’ focal length whereas a dedicated button would have been appreciated for this repetitive task. Ditto white balance, which seems to have disappeared from the controls and is not relegated to the Fn button (a very minor thing, given how well white balances seems to perform and haw well thought out the Fn menu is).
Also, and this is my only other niggle, the EVF is a tad disappointing at first. It’s brighter in dark situations and its bigger. People always want bigger, I don’t know why. I’m now having to scan the scene as if placed too close to a widescreen TV, rather than seeing everything in one sweep. But people like bigger and people will be happy. No, what’s a little bit disappointing is the colour. It seems to me there is less colour differentiation in contrasty situations than before and that makes composition a bit less intuitive. Also, focusing manual lenses is (initially) a bit more difficult. But it all comes together after a few days.
All in all, the EVF feels like it’s been designed to win over Canikon clients who object to the EVF experience and it should go a long way towards that goal.
The in-camera stabilizer works really well. With alt lenses (M-mount, ZF 2 …) it feels closer to 2.5-3 stops than the official numbers. With my 35 Distagon, 1/13s is always great and I often pull off 1/6s. Brilliant for hand-held waterfalls, for example. And, coupled with a 1-2 stop in ISO management, that is a huge leap forward for real-life use!!
Keeping the best for the end, the camera is reactive (it wakes up in a second or so) and has the most sublime shutter. The button feel is great and the noise is so enthralling you want to erase to full-silent mode from the menu. As annoying as the A7r’s shutter could be on long sessions, this one just begs to be used again and again.
So let’s just pause for a second here.
When the A7rII was rumoured, users were divided in two camps: those who wanted better image quality, whatever the cost on usability. And those who didn’t care much for more megapixels but wanted a more professional feel to the camera. Sony didn’t choose. Sony did both. They addressed almost all the criticisms and made the files even more succulent than before.
So: Kudos and thank you Sony. That is a magnificent achievement. Having been one of the vocal critics in the past, I’m really happy to write these words today
Cat picture alert.
It’s not my fault. The A7rII’s arrival coincided with my arrival. 1 whole month in sunny Arizona and I have to re-adapt to work and ordinary everyday life on the day this wonder-camera turns up on my doorstep. Uh … So cats it is 😉
So: “What does the mog say ?” (crazy song alert)
It screams “Super white balance”! That and the taming of the hue.
It gets better.
Close to home is a small waterfall that drops into a very deep pool where local authorities have fitted a floodlight. The water downstream appears an otherworldly blue, as in some underwater sea caves.
Believable ? I hope so because, with the story, I find the photograph plausible. And yet, this is the original file, SOOC (straight out of camera).
Throw it a curved ball (as in wild reds) and the A7rII laughs it off with perfect separation.
It seems that, through the combination of slightly lower contrast, better white balance and something else (see aesthetics discussion below), colours show better differentiation. Without being more saturated, they feel bolder and more balanced.
So far, I’ve only seen white balance slip slightly in very overcast situations where the resulting shot can err on the cold side a little bit.
It’s hardly surprising that “purer” colours in the source file would produce better defined tones when submitted to digital colour filters. And they do. What I’m seeing is not only more clarity, notably in the shadows, but also better, smoother tonality. Even with contrast pushed significantly read way too much, as above 😉 ), photographs remain rich and smooth. This was not always the case with the A7r which could sometimes become grainy and harsh.
In a recent article about the Leica Monochrom M246, Thorsten Overgaard describes the issues met when dealing with the extremes of the luminance scale on that otherwise brilliant Leica camera. (note: like most of Mr Overgaard’s writings, that is a must read). With that in mind, I made a few photographs in high contrast situations and found the result very satisfying. As mentioned above, I don’t think the dynamic range has been extended compared to the previous camera, but it does feel like the highlight rolloff is more gentle and manageable. See below for a literal rendition of a strong evening side light. The grass was burnt, in camera, but came back well in post processing. This, however, is one of the situations in which I think the EVF could be improved with a more adaptive contrast management.
This is the more important aspect and probably where Sony have worked hardest.
In my short time with the camera, it hasn’t felt like the sensor has measurably better performance (except possibly in the mega high ISO that matter not a lot to me) : dynamic range doesn’t seem improved, resolution is essentially the same and gamut is too difficult to measure without specific instruments, so I can’t comment on it.
But, if quantity is the same, quality sure seems a lot different. Sony have already explained that RAW is still compressed and hasn’t gained in bit depth. Yet, I would have believed the contrary, such is the sensation of greater purity and fluidity. The A7r was already a great performer, that felt less digital than other cameras. V2 is fantastic and a small but distinct notch better in this (probably unmeasurable but) essential aspect. Photographs, even when pushed hard, don’t get that slightly cartoonish look that happened on occasion with the previous camera and others (see my A7r Monument Valley photograph below).
We’ve heard about copper wiring being used to speed up the data transfer on the sensor. It turns out this probably has more beneficial effects than a simple speed boost. In HiFi, copper has a “low res” highly natural sound. If sounds organic, fluid and analog where other metals can sound shrill & brittle. The A7rII feels exactly like this. More airy, more atmospheric, more natural. As if 12 bits had been upped to 16 …
The camera probably won’t appeal to those in love with the A7s’ more “etched” look. It is smooth and understated and can be pushed hard but some will prefer the A7s or M43 styles.
Me, I love it to bits.
Sony have done much more than improve the camera’s technical aspects. They have done what only film manufacturers bothered to do before them. They have crafted a look. A look that probably didn’t happen by accident, given how consistent it feels with lenses of the G range (such as the really lovely G 90 macro). A look that doesn’t superimpose on the scene but seems to add subtlety and delicacy, and lets the individual character of every lens used shine through with greater clarity than before (see contributor photographs, below).
So aesthetics are never in your face, even with slightly exaggerated post-processing as above. The soul of Minolta still stirs and has found very competent successors to move into. Sony have left the electronics appliance business stepped right into the creative photo arena. Can’t thank them enough.
In PP, I Find myself using contrast more often than before and far less of the clarity and saturation sliders.
The new look also means that lenses that seemed harsh to me in the past (the otherwise great Sony-Zeiss FE55/1.8, for instance) need to be revisited. As you’ll see in Bob Hamilton’s photographs, further down, that lens really seems to agree with the new sensor and livens up overcast skies like a stripper at a Strauss-Schumann lieder recital.
In order to show what the camera can do for other photographers using other lenses for different subject matter, here are images made by co-author Philippe and guest contributor Bob Hamilton (who signed the A7rII first impressions post).
Philippe shares flower portraits made using the Zeiss OTUS 55/1.4.
Sony’s A7r was a flawed masterpiece. Flawed in ways that triggered negative reactions along vastly different angles depending on the photographer. I, for one, was quite vocal about the incomprehenisble ergonomics, loud shutter and telluric wake-up times. Others vented about RAW compression and shutter vibrations (neither of which ever bothered me). Others still screamed about every single aspect simply because they feel good when bickering and really should get a life.
The reality of the A7r, however, is that it has enabled vast numbers of photographers to produce *fantastic* images. And, sure, it got up our nose every now and then but what remains is the unprecedented image-making capabilities of that tiny monster.
Many of us expected (dreaded ?) Sony to serve more of the same. More res, more ISOs, more hair-raising frustration. But Sony managed to pull-off something quite different. While my informal and brief testing can’t let me conclude that anything in the quantity department is any better than before (resolution, dynamic range …) quality is a quantum leap ahead in the A7rII.
Build quality, usability quality and image quality.
The noise floor seems lower and images have even more of that lovely medium format look to them. They feel analog, as in the CCD cameras of old. The handling, though quite similar, is much improved where it needed to be. And, thank goodness, Sony have saved us from a mad megapixel rush which would have done nothing but clog up our disks and CPUs. They have managed to serve up better subjective image quality without falling into a number’s game.
One photo friend, who’s judgement I trust compares the level of performance to that of the amazing Leica S (006). Better in some departments, not quite as good in others. But comparable.
Equally important is the fact that, while my A7r and Philippe’s had wildly different white balance outputs, all the A7rII photographs from the various owners I know personally look very similar in tone and colour. Consistency now seems much higher.
Sony seems to have worked on aesthetics rather than numbers. That’s mature and bold and I hope they reap the rewards of that design strategy.
Sony also improved the shooting experience and the confidence in the camera’s quality. Details such as 3-year warranty a really nice to have.
This changes a lot of things.
First of all, forums beware. Rename your categories. Sony can no longer be called alt (alternative gear). They are dominating the image quality scene and, with the help of Zeiss, are releasing a steady stream of really excellent lenses. So good, in fact, that it probably makes more sense to buy native lenses than other lenses, even from very high-end sources.
Secondly, this camera makes me believe in the future. It makes me feel happy about building a system around it, which is not something I’ve felt of any camera in the past 5 years. To me, it really feels like the shift from one technology to another is over (’till next time 😉 ) and that we have arrived at a point which, although it will continue to improve, will not do so in unpredictable directions, making all the rest of the system redundant. This is a camera I want to use for a long time to come. The hunt is over and that feels so great.
Thank you Sony!
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