I’ve finally taken the leap into a mirrorless camera with the Sony a7Rii (aka a7R Mark II). Is it an amazing camera? Yep! Does it take take insanely good photos? Yep! Is it finally a mirrorless camera that focuses as well as a DSLR? Yep! Will it replace my D810? No, but that wasn’t my intention. The Nikon D810 is the finest camera I have ever used. The image quality and ergonomics are incredible. But that said, it’s somewhat large and gets pretty heavy when you load up a backpack with a few lenses. I got the a7Rii to help travel light, but I’ve come to find it offers much, much more. In fact, the a7Rii is a total game-changer for mirrorless cameras. It’s the first camera that brings top of the line full-frame image quality along with state of the art focusing, not to mention 4k video. It isn’t perfect yet, but it is the first mirrorless camera that can not only go “toe to toe” with top of the line DSLRs, but beat them on numerous fronts. In this article, I’ll go through my impressions of the a7Rii from the perspective of a long-time DSLR user – the awesome highs, a few lows, and how I plan to use both systems in the future. And if you’d like to see what lenses and accessories I’m using with it, please check out my gear page.
Where does the a7Rii excel?
- Size and weight. Carrying a big, heavy pack all day is a burden. With this system, I save about 1/3rd of the size and 1/3rd of the weight compared to the D810.
- Autofocus! This is the first mirrorless camera that can not only match a top of the line DSLR camera, but in many ways is better. I would love to have f/1.4 lenses on this camera, because I expect I’d get a lot more eyes in focus or be able to use wider apertures with moving subjects. I’ve been completely blown away on this front – the a7Rii has completed exceeded my expectations. Not only is the focus fast and dead accurate in situations where the D810 would do well, but it offers greater coverage of the image with the highest quality. And the eye focus system is insanely good. It literally tracks a subjects eyes in real time. You can shoot a moving subject up close with a wide aperture lens with this camera – unreal!
- Image quality! 42 megapixels, electronic front shutter, dampened shutter, very good dynamic range, low noise. This camera (along with the Carl Zeiss lens lineup) takes world-class images. In fact, I’d say some of my images look better than what I’d expect from the D810, though I haven’t done extensive head to head testing.
- Video. The world’s first 4k full-frame camera. Granted, some will complain that heat issues mean that you can only shoot continuously for modest lengths of time, but this is a huge step forward. And if you just shoot HD, the autofocus is better than the D810 for video.
- Image stabilization. Having stabilization built into the camera is a huge plus, as none of my prime lenses have it. And Sony’s five-axis system is extremely good.
- Low light. I haven’t tested this extensively, but I’ve been extremely impressed with the quality of images at ISO 6400. There’s very little noise. Of course the image stabilization system helps significantly. And the autofocus system appears to do very well in tough lighting. This is a camera you can push to the limits. When I really want to travel light, I think I’d be ok leaving the tripod at home with this camera.
Where does the a7Rii fall short?
- Software quality. The a7Rii feels a bit like like a beta product in one regard… it locks up frequently. It hasn’t stopped me from shooting, but I’ve never had to reboot a camera as if it was an old computer. In the past three days, I’ve probably had the camera lock up and become unresponsive at least 10-20 times. That’s more than I’ve seen with years of shooting with the D800 and D810. Sony needs to release an update to address these software bugs ASAP. Thankfully, simply turning the camera off and on (or quickly removing and reinserting the battery) works 90% of the time – though you sometimes need to try multiple times before it starts working again.
- User interface. The a7Rii has 26 primary screens for configuring the camera, and some of these have some fairly significant sub-screens. And there is essentially no built-in help (if you are willing to give up a custom button, you can get a short description, but most of the descriptions are too basic to actually explain anything). I spent almost 10 hours figuring out how to set up this camera. If you want to save yourself a lot of time, take a look at the settings I use on the a7Rii for landscape/portrait work. Thankfully, once you’re setup, the camera is very easy to use. In fact, I feel much more comfortable shooting through the viewfinder on the a7Rii than I do on the D810. I get a lot more useful information in the electronic viewfinder, and the smaller number of buttons is more easy to remember.
- WiFi and apps. The idea of a programmable/connected camera certainly appeals to me, but the execution here falls well short of my expectations. Getting connected to WiFi is a painful chore, and the Sony PlayMemories app store experience is an exercise in frustration. Sadly, I will probably never use either of these features on this camera. I was particularly looking forward to using WiFi to pull images off the camera for sharing on social media, but I’m just not sure it’s worth it. If Sony updates the software to simplify the experience, these could become incredibly useful feature.
- Battery life. You are going to need lots of batteries. Thankfully they are small. I’m a little more concerned with the charge time across multiple batteries. Each battery takes several hours to charge, which means I’ll need to bring multiple chargers when I travel if I expect to have heavy days of shooting (when I might easily deplete 3-4 batteries in a day). Not a big issue, just something to plan for.
- Long exposures. I see a lot of hot pixels in 30 second exposures, and have read of similar experiences online. I hope this is something is able to address via firmware, as I would really like to do some very long exposures while traveling. You get great images with noise reduction turned on, but I don’t want to spend 10 minutes taking a 5 minute exposure. This can be fixed in post, but it looks to be more work than I’d have with the D810.
- Jan 2016 update: As of the latest firmware, I am not seeing these hot pixels. I believe Sony has addressed my concerns.
- No smart cutoff for the Electronic Front Shutter. The electronic shutter really only matters over a certain range of shutter speeds, which does not include 1/1000s and faster – where the EFS can cause exposure issues. It seems that a simple solution would be to have the camera automatically disable EFS at fast shutter speeds, and I hope Sony provides a firmware update to address this (or at least allow it to be added to the custom function menu so you can quickly turn it off if needed).
- No exposure delay for continuous bracketing? You can set a delay and then have the camera automatically shoot a sequence of 3-9 exposures. However, there is no delay between shots, and the rear shutter causes a lot of vibration (just hold the camera and you will have no doubt). At the same time, in my quick and unscientific testing, I have yet to see any degradation of image sharpness for the 2nd through 9th image in a bracket, I may be worried about nothing here. Still, I’d love to see an optional 1 second delay between exposures.
- HDMI port is exposed to the elements if you connect a wired remote release. If you are trying to take long exposures around the beach, watch out for salt spray or rain getting into the open port. Making separate protective covers would be ideal. I plan to cut off the end of an HDMI cable and use it as a plug when needed. Maybe this isn’t necessary, but I don’t want to find out the hard way.
- Sensor cleaning is too manual. I have the D810 set to clean itself every time I turn it off and on. I don’t know yet how big of an issue dust will be on the a7Rii, but I wish the cleaning option wasn’t a manual operation buried deep in the menus.
Would those issues stop me from recommending the camera? Definitely not – they’re either relatively minor or issues I can work around. I’d like to see many of them addressed, but the pros here far outweigh the cons. It’s an awesome camera, but just like the D810, it’s better suited to some tasks than others – so I plan to use both cameras extensively.
When would I use the a7Rii instead of the D810?
- Travel. The key reason I got this camera was to give myself a smaller/lighter option for traveling. I’ll certainly still use the D810 for some trips based on the reasons below (particularly if I plan to do much long exposure or architecture shooting), but I’m really looking forward to the extra freedom this should give me. And this will be especially helpful when I travel with the DJI Phantom 3 to keep the pack weight down to something I’m comfortable wearing for a day.
- Family portraits and street photography. Eye focus on the a7Rii gives me a much better chance of keeping up with fast moving kids and unpredictable situations. The smaller size and tilting LCD (can camera like a waist-level viewfinder) make it less intrusive, which can make it easier to get people to relax for the camera.
- Video. Focus peaking, a very smooth autofocus, and 4k video hands down better, though I don’t actually do much serious video work.
When would I use D810 instead of the a7Rii?
- Astrophotography. The 14-24mm f/2.8 offers an extra stop to freeze stars and a wider angle of view. ***
- Weddings. More choice of fast portrait lenses, simple ability to switch between matrix and spot metering for fast paced critical exposure work, can run all day on the batteries in the vertical grip, TTL bounce flash with my Nikon speedlights, and dual memory card slots to provide backup.
- Architecture. When I need tilt-shift for architecture, I’ll primarily be using the D810.
- Sports and Wildlife. The current maximum 200mm Sony lens won’t cut it for me. ***
- Studio and creative portraits. The Nikkor f/1.4 lineup of lenses can’t be beat, though you could certainly do most jobs just fine with the Sony lineup. ***
- Concerts / theater. Highlight-priority metering is very useful in this type of lighting, and the f/1.4 lenses are great for creative focusing and low light.*** On the flip side, the a7Rii has a much better auto-ISO option and the tilt screen would be helpful for shooting overhead in a crowd.
*** I don’t see much point in using a Nikon lens adapter – it takes away the size/weight advantage (not to mention autofocus for Nikon lenses, as I have yet to find a Nikon to Sony adapter with support for autofocus).
Those are just my first impressions – how about yours? I’d love to see your comments below.
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