Somewhere during our last fall trip to New England, I came to the realization that I really liked this camera, the Sony A7r Mark II. Now this was not a casual determination and it wasn’t one based on limited experience. Rather, as my photography friends will attest, I always seemed to be using the latest release, greatest pixel depth on the market. If the truth be known, I have used just about every leading Digital SLR and digital back since the first Nikon D1 in 2000,. Whether I am ashamed or not, over the last 15 years this list has included a number of the early and later Nikon models; Canon’s EOS 1D and 5D series bodies, Kodak DCS Pro Bak 645 and DCS Pro 14n, the Leaf Aptus 75; as well as several Phase One digital backs. Finally, the Sony Nex and A7 series bodies as well as the Fuji Xt-1. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like a wander though the wilderness, rather a journey through the advancement of technology, sensor evolution and image processing.
Why do I like this camera? In a recent article at DP Review, they make the point that there is still not a camera that is best at everything and that a person needs to find one that is best for them. For the way I need and want to shoot, this camera fits me the best of the ones I have used in the past. So what are these characteristics that makes it the best for me? But first, I did not come to the use of the Sony A7 series bodies easily and I should talk about this process first.
When Sony first announced the the Sony A7r (and A7), I was an early adopter. The smaller, lighter body containing approximately the same sensor as the Nikon D800e appealed to me. Secondly, since it is a mirrorless camera with the a shallow depth between the senior and the lens mount, I figured this would allow the use of a wide range of lenses beyond just Sony lenses, like Leica M lenses. Shortly after acquiring the Sony A7r in December, 2013 I was quite impressed with the images it produced. This is one of my first images from the A7r in December.
Give some of the early images, I decided to take it to White Sands National Park in early January 2014 with mixed results, some very good images like the one following,
However, there were 3 major issues that I discovered with the camera that caused me to bail on the body. The first was its shutter shock. Most DSLR’s shutter created vibrations in the camera and virtually all of them required the use of their mirror lock to reduce this vibration when shooting with a slow shutter speed or when using a long lens. Unfortunately for the A7r, since it had no mirror, that option was out and it also did not have an electronic front curtain shutter like the A7 allowing the minimizing of the vibration created by the shutter. An image taken just prior to the one above was the victim of this vibration. Both were shot with the same settings. The consequence was a higher level of failure rate on images.
Secondly, was the issue of lenses available to be used on the Sony A7r and A7 cameras. While there was a large number of range finder lenses that would fit the Sony A7 bodies, the design of the lenses and the consequence of the sharp ray angle produced significant color cast on wide angle lenses. Here is an example from a Contax 28mm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon. To make this problem even worse is that there was not an easy way of fixing this problem. The limited number of lenses designed for the A7 bodies and the problem of getting a wide angle lens that did not produce color cast caused me to give up on the bodies. Some also complained about Sony’s RAW file compression and the lack of a lossless option was a concern to a number of photographers. However, I never found this to be a major concern with my style of shooting.
So what turned around the process?
First of all, my wife and I do a fair amount of travel and the size and weight of the camera bag had become an important issue. In 2013, we made a fall trip to Tuscany with a camera bag that included the following Nikon gear; a D800e, D7100, Nikkor 24-120, 24mm f/3.5 PC-3, 14-24mm f/2.8, 12-24mm, 18-300mm and a 80-400m VR II. Along with the F-stop Gear Tilapia, SB700 flash, batteries, filters and accessories, the total weight was around 24 lbs. Of course this doesn’t include the tripod and head. Enough weight to cause Alitalia to charge me another 65€ Euros. So when we were getting ready for a March 2015 trip to Spain, my wife gave me the mandate to reduce the size and weight of my camera bag. Consequently, I came up with a camera bag that included a Sony A7r, A7 Mark II, Canon 17mm TS-E, Canon 24mm TS-E, Sony Zeiss 16-35mm, Sony Zeiss 24-70 f/4, Sony FE 55mm f/1.8, Sony 24-240mm lens and a Minolta 100-300mm G lens. This equipment along with an F-stop Gear and other equipment allowed me to reduce the size of the camera bag and weight to approximately 16 lbs with no loss in image quality. I would also maintain that I was able to increase lens options, specifically with the Canon 17mm TS-E.
So, why do I like this camera
- Seize: As mentioned above, a major consideration to moving to this camera is the size and weight of not just the camera but of lenses and other components that go with it. Here is an image of my hiking bag which includes a Sony A7r Mark II, Leica R APO lenses 21-35mm f/3.5, 35-70mm f/4 and 80-200mm f/4 lens along with a Leica R 2x extender. Also included is a Leica M 18mm Super Elmar and a Voiglander 15mm Super Heliar III. Also included, a Novoflex Leica M to Sony E mount adapter and a Metabones Leica R to Sony E mount adapter. Other items are a Nissan i40 flash, a Sony RM-VPM1 remote control, a Vello wireless Shutter Boss with time-lapse and long exposure control, a Petzl head lamp, a Goal Zero batter for my iPhone, a couple of Sony’s NP-FW50 lithium batteries, a Hoya variable neutral density filter (1 to 10 stops), a B+W KS Pro polarizing filter, some step up rings, a Storm Jacket for rain, a white balance filter, a red Think Tank adjustable cable, a couple Micro Lens Pouches, a OpTech lens pouch for the Leica 80-200 and the Osprey Stratos 24 back pack. All for around 13 lbs. To be honest, I have not quite worked out the advantage between using the Sony 16-35 versus the two wide angle range finder lenses. I should also point out that by using a smaller, lighter camera allows one to use a smaller and lighter tripod as well.
- Lens Options: Time has moved on since the early days of the A7r. Not only has Sony and Zeiss produced a broader array of lenses starting to fill in wide angle lenses, but the improvements in adapters make the selection of other manufactures lenses an attractive option. Metabones, particularly with their Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark IV) allows one to use virtually all of Canon’s EF lenses on the Sony A7 and Nex camera with their full autofocus, aperture control and image stabilization. (update: We now have the newly released Sigma MC-11 adapter for Canon to Sony E lenses which is supposed to be even better. One should read Brian Smith’s blog on this issue.)More importantly, one can use the Sony A7r II’s phase detection autofocus for results better than on a Canon body. Personally, I just purchased a Sigma Art’s 24mm f/1/4 lens for a Canon mount and intend to use this for nighttime images. There is work on an adapter which will allow similar functionality from the use of Nikon lenses on the Sony A7r Mark II as well
But what about that ray angle? With the new A7r Mark II body, a significant amount of the color cast has been removed. That is not to say that it hasn’t been totally removed on some lenses, yet the both Lightroom and Capture One have features to eliminate this effect. Here is an image from the Voigtlander 15mm Super Heliar III.
A word about my use of the Leica R lenses: After a considerable amount of research on the available Sony/Zeiss lenses for the A7 series and other lenses out there, reviewing available ITF charts, reading reviews, etc. I made the determination that I was most likely to get the best results from the Leica R APO lenses and I have not been disappointed. I love shooting with these lenses and the fact that they are manual focus lenses works to my style of shooting along with the Sony’s excellent method of handling manual focusing with their peeking abilities. The Leica R APO 80-200mm lens is particularly amazing.
- Shutter Vibration: With the Sony A7r Mark II and its electronic front curtain shutter, virtually all of the shutter vibration has been eliminated. Quite frankly, I cannot remember shooting a camera that is so steady. For example, as you may be able to see, the Leica R 80-200mm lens does not have a tripod ring which is normally found on longer lenses of this sort. The Metabones adapter has a tripod mount, yet the long Leica R lens hangs out quite a ways, with the body not necessarily a strong counter-weight on the other end. However, in all of my shooting (using the remote control cable) I have had no problem with image results, even in very low light and slow shutter speeds (when not considering other possible environmental issues, like wind.)
- Commonality of Parts: One of the things that use to drive me crazy about Nikon was their ability to develop a different battery and/or remote shutter release for every different body they developed. In the example of the camera equipment that I took to Tuscany, the primary reason I took the D7100 as the walk around camera was because it was the first lower lever camera that had the same battery as Nikon’s higher end body. However, it used a different shutter release cable. The same was more or less the same with Canon. With Sony, I am overjoyed that I can use the same battery and shutter release on ALL of the A7 and Nex series bodies. No different battery chargers, no remembering which cable to bring along, There has been a slight problem between flashes and the two different flash heads between the A series bodies and the Nex mount cameras, but this is easily solved the a small flash adapter. I also love it that I can take along two different bodies on a photo trip, a walk around camera and one for more serious shooting and have all the lenses and parts be interchangeable and of not that much more weight.
About Sony’s NP-FW50 lithium batteries and Sony’s reported power drain: First of all, camera power drain from batteries is nothing new. The power loss from Nikon’s 1DH was so bad that I used to carry around an external battery to help me survive my photo journey. Also, the power loss from the Mamiay AFD II body was so bad, I used to always remove the battery pack after I was done shooting and had a separate empty battery pack that I would insert when traveling. The later model Nikon’s were pretty good at controlling their battery loss as well as Canon. I don’t find Sony’s lose to be unusually bad, but the batteries left in the camera will loose their charge. The best approach, is the remove them if the camera is going to sit for a while. This applies across the board from a a5000 to the A7r Mark II. A very good source for Sony accessories is Brian Smith’s Blog. Somewhere on that site, he had a couple of external power options for someone wanting to do some extend shooting and/or video recording. B&H is a good source for that as well.
- Live electronic view finer (EVF) and focus peeking: I must admit that I was reluctant to move from the traditional through-the-lens viewfinder to an EVF, however, it didn’t take me long to adapt to it and now I find it an inconvenience to work with a camera that doesn’t have it. The ability to see the exposure, the histogram, and zoom in on the focus and tweak it with the color peeking setting for an accurate exposure is just great. Again, this works for my style of shooting and keeps me working at a slower pace than if I were shooting in an autofocusing mode. This allows me to review the image at its various points and make sure it is focused as I want it too.
- Raw file compression: Sony has now issued firmware upgrades that allowed the A7r Mark II and A7 Mark II along with the recently released Sony A7s to have lossless raw files. I have not noticed any change other than a significantly larger raw file.
As I implied above, there is not a perfect camera for everyone. The Sony A7r Mark II is not a sports or wildlife camera. If I were shooting those types of images I would look to a totally different solution. (However, I am considering adding one of the lower cost Sigma 150-600mm zooms (Canon mount) to a Sony a6300 for a less expensive birding setup.) This camera works for me and I hope you find a similar camera that fits your needs.