It has been a pretty long time since I’ve purchased a new camera body, which is somewhat surprising to me considering the amount of rambling on about gear I do around here. I’ve pretty much abandoned the idea of upgrading my Canon full frame body as they’ve been so far behind the curve for me in offering a realistic upgrade in spec and performance for the ever increasing cost, that I’ve just decided to hold onto my legendarily ancient 5DmkII as a full frame backup. The 5DmkIII and mkIV are both solid cameras. I just never saw the asking price as justified when my 5DmkII still compared favorably, spec wise for my shooting. When investing in a new camera body, (which hopefully is never out of physical necessity) I want something new, or seriously upgraded to provide me with a new tool, not just an expensive, shiny version of what I’ve already got. I’ve long been waiting for a new Panasonic GXx model to be announced, as well as waiting to see what Sony would do with an a7III. When Sony recently announced the new a7RIII (see here at B&H), I realized I’d be waiting for a while longer yet to see what they’d be offering in their more budget friendly a7 series upgrade, and seeing what they’re doing to the “R” line, it seems a fairly linear upgrade mostly geared to speed and video, neither of which I’m horribly in need of upgrading. Don’t get me wrong, I think the proposed claim of 15 stops of dynamic range and the ability to shoot 10fps with AF and AE capabilities at 42mp is certainly notable, it’s just a hard sell for me, considering it’s going to be launched for nearly a thousand dollars more than its predecessor is going for with the current rebates. (I can use that near grand toward a GX9 *cough* c’mon Panasonic *cough*)
Be warned, this article is merely me justifying my purchase to myself. It may read as if I’m a little crazy, talking in sporadic, half baked thoughts as I convince myself of this purchase. It’s a good exercise I find, and one that through it, may benefit others who may be in a similar position, so I hope it will aid any of us looking at the recent Sony fire sale in that way.
This led me to the new rebates on the a7RII, which has, since its launch long been (literally, it’s almost 2.5 years old!) one of, and for a long while THE highest performing sensor on the market, only recently displaced by the new Nikon D850 sensor, which was then quickly usurped by the new medium format Hasselblad X1D-50c sensor which may even be leapfrogged by the new a7RIII once all the testing is done. That’s saying something considering that many other full frame (and Medium Format!) cameras have been released in that time frame. I’ve been both a fan and critic of my Sony a7II over the last few years, and if you’re a Sony fanboy and new to this site, be warned as I will have some constructively critical things to say, but I’ve decided to stick with them for at least one more (personal) upgrade cycle, and here’s why…
Nothing is perfect, right? When spending as much time with cameras and camera gear as I have over the last couple decades, I’ve learned that everything will have its compromises, and truly understanding those, along side how to work with, in and around those compromises is the fastest way to be satisfied with the gear and allow you to focus on your photography. It’s all a balancing act on the part of the customer (us) in considering the value and different qualities versus the cost. Digital cameras are literal super computers nowadays, and companies are needing to advance their technology in major leaps to stay relevant to the consumer.
Why then might I have chosen to invest in a camera that is A) 2.5 years old, and B) going to need to last me for the next few years as tech advances all around us?
Well firstly, I have the fortunate reality of not needing blistering frame rates, nor do I do much in the way of high end video. I shoot mostly static, or reasonably slow moving subjects so my AF needs are minimal. Precise single frame AF is a must, and any tracking, continuous AF features, as long as they’re reasonably reliable, are a bonus. Sure 14 frames per second with anticipatory four dimensional AF functioning might be cool, but when considering what the highest level cameras are going for these days, my money will go much further being invested in food for my kids, or if I’m lucky, lenses or other cameras. I don’t need that, and I’m at a place where I feel comfortable not unnecessarily paying for that. I’m a working photographer, although that is slowly fading to the wayside by design these days too. I still get paid to point my camera at things and build an image from a creative standpoint from time to time, but as my priorities and focus shift in life, so too do many of these projects and I’m good with that.
Secondly, even at its current price, the a7RII is the third most expensive camera I’ve ever purchased, so I didn’t enter into this decision lightly. I have lived with the a7II for three years as an “upgrade” to my Canon system (and general full frame) needs. For travel and every day stuff, the micro 4/3 system remains my go to, but for interiors, portraits and product stuff, I’ve been using the larger sensors for much of that, and I feel comfortable with the setup of mostly Canon EF lenses adapted to the Sony body by way of the Metabones EF>FE adapter (see here).
Alright, onto my initial feelings on the a7RII as an upgrade to my a7II. While I will be doing a far more in depth look and comparison shortly between these two cameras, I will walk you through my brain waves in regard to deciding on this guy, and wanted to share this before the rebates on the a7RII (which still include a 4TB external hard drive) expire this Saturday, November 4th for those who may be riding in the same water faring vessel as I am.
I have long said, and still feel that 42 megapixels is too much for most everything I shoot. The file sizes are huge and they’re resource leeching on the CPU side of things. No one NEEDS 42mp to create a lovely image, but it does have its advantages over the more modest 20-25mp sensor options. Those, to me beyond pure resolution when wanted, are cropping/compositing, and printing. That’s really about it.
When compositing components of single images into an amalgamated image, having a high resolution piece of one subject or another allows for more latitude when compositing. I don’t do a ton of compositing in my post work, but I do love to build composite images from time to time, and as my paid photography work intentionally slows a bit, I might have more time to play on a personal level, and this excites me.
Printing is something that I do fairly often. While my home isn’t plastered with wall sized prints, I have done a fair bit of large prints for my self, friends and family. Much of that has been panoramic landscapes or the like. I’ve long sung the praises of using normally spec’d sensors to build a stitched panorama, and still will, but having the ability to use a slightly wider angle, with fewer frames to achieve the same, or higher final resolution will be beneficial if for no other reason than having it as an option. If ever I get commissioned to print something the size of a barn, I guess I’ll have a more resolution rich option to build that as well with this new sensor.
Really, outside of that, the difference in specs between these two cameras are pretty minimal for my use. Sure the a7RII has 4K video resolution at 24/30fps versus 1080p at 24/30/60fps max res on the a7II. The a7RII has 399 PDAF on sensor AF points vs 117, can shoot the same 5fps at full resolution but at less than half the total burst of 22 frames vs 50, but otherwise, any differences are fairly pedestrian. I am interested in real world results from a backside illuminated sensor (BSI) in high ISO performance while nearly doubling resolution, and will look at that when I start tearing into an actual review. That the a7RII’s shutter is rated for 500,000 cycles is also a nice boon that largely gets forgotten vs the 250,000 rating of the a7II.
While mentioned above, this will be one of the obvious differences that I’ll be looking at moving forward, and hope to be happy with in my decision. I don’t need this type of resolution for much, but I’m also hoping that the upticks in dynamic range and even high ISO shooting when looking at these two, nearly equally aged sensors, provides me with a justifiable satisfaction having just shelled out over two grand. Still, one reason I’ve seriously considered this camera as an option has been hearing time and time again, that even with the resolution bump from 6000 x 4000 pixels (24mp) to 7952 x 5304 ( 42.2mp) there is less noise, or probably more accurately, less noticeable noise at higher ISO settings. While seeming to be contrary to logic, BSI sensors which have traditionally been used prior in smaller, higher pixel dense sensors, enable better noise performance compared to a non BSI sensor of the same or even lower resolution, so that will be interesting for me to have a good look at.
The a7II, while quirky as eff, has been a solid performer in the IBIS, frame rate, low light, dynamic range, environmental sealing and even video columns for me, and I don’t expect my shooting will be drastically changing with this move. What I am hoping to see though, is a more responsive version of the camera I’ve come to be used to, because the a7II is a slug in response and wake times, etc. To be fair, it is marketed and sold at a consumer price point, and never touted as a professional stalwart. The a7RII, until the a9 was released, was held aloft as Sony’s “pro” mirrorless body, and my first impressions are that it hasn’t sped up my interactive experience very much, comparatively. It still seems to lag a bit, but that is merely just my first impression. I want to thoroughly compare it to its little brother before making any major claims or complaints.
Here’s the part where I rail a little on Sony. Sony has produced amazing, chart topping sensors, and compelling price points. No denying that. The a7II was my choice because of what it offered in a full frame package, for just under $1700. That is a huge point that needs to be taken into consideration when any criticism is aimed at it. Even the Canon 6D, which was it’s closest direct competitor was $200 more, didn’t have nearly the AF capabilities, nor the sensor, didn’t have any IBIS, and wasn’t as well weather sealed. This was a bit of a coup for Sony, and was enough for me to bite. Now, all that said and done, the a7II has been a good, but not great camera for me, from an operational standpoint. It is S L O W to wake and respond. Often times it resets itself between battery changes requiring me to re-enter the time and date, which is horribly annoying, especially if I’m actually, actively shooting anything. The menus are frustratingly maze like, the LCD screen coating started to wear off within a month of buying the camera, the hotshoe struggles to respond consistently with my PocketWizard radio triggers, and then there are little annoyances like the EVF sensor’s sensitivity being far too much so that anything that passes within a foot of it seems to turn the LCD off making adjustments while on a tripod challenging for instance. The batteries are notoriously weak, and my original Sony battery started dying entirely, going from a reading of 40% to red blinky shutdown within a few frames, after about a year of normal use. There are areas that Sony needs to improve, but they do have the tools to create a wonderful image file, and these may be the realistic tradeoffs we were mentioning at the beginning. I would not shoot sports nor events with a Sony a7II, personally. I just wouldn’t trust it to be reliable. Interiors, landscapes and portraits though? You bet. My question for my new a7RII now is, will it be more responsive and reliable?
Sony is an electronics company that I’ve always felt had a hard time providing a concise argument to serious photographers who needed discerning tools for the most demanding applications. Giving a clear message as to what it was trying to provide, and why it made more sense than the big Canikons of the world other than “great sensors.” Their consumer cameras were always decent, their sensors have been superb, but they’ve seemingly struggled to translate all of that into a well streamlined shooters tool as opposed to a consumer cam with good sensors, in the original a7 series cams arguably, and the a7II in my opinion. I’m hoping I change my tune on that front with the a7rII, and from initial reports, the a9 does seem to be performing at a higher level, but also in a completely different price bracket. I’m more used to the quirks having shot the a7II for three years now, and it does sound like Sony used the a7rII to up the game a bit when it was released, so I’ll see how it suits me. They have seemed to paint the lines between their three a7 models decently, with the sensors being the primary differentiation. To me, the a7/a7II was always a 6D/D750 competitor, the S series has been a video and low light focused platform, and the R series was a high resolution “Studio” and landscape tool, maybe trying to play between the 5D and D8xx platforms. The trick is though, many serious shooters have been using the respective full frame platforms in DSLR land for a while, and are heavily invested. The cross platform functionality that smart adapters provide make it easier for us to bounce around a bit, but there are only so many compromises we’re willing to swallow. That goes for all companies offerings.
I’ll have a look at these types of differences over the coming weeks between my two Sony alphas, do my best to objectively compare them, and report back.
IN CONCLUSION…for now.
Obviously, I’ve got some testing and comparing to do, but initially speaking, I’m pretty excited to see what this camera is capable of. My first thoughts on the a7RII are that it is slightly more responsive, and geared to be a higher performance tool compared to its more budget friendly sibling in the a7II although, it does not seem to have definitively remedied the laggy response times upon these first few days, to my eye. Looking at it as an upgrade for me seems to be somewhat well founded as the first look at these image files are pretty bonkers, and I will be putting it through its paces in the coming weeks.
I’ll be looking most specifically at how the increase in resolution will effect the overall image quality compared to the 24mp a7II, as well as getting a better feel for how it responds and performs in daily and studio shooting scenarios. Stay tuned!
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