At the time of its release, the A7 was overshadowed somewhat by Sony’s flagship CSC, the A7R. Michael Topham finds out whether its successor, the A7 II is significantly better and improves on the A7’s aesthetics and its handling quirks
Intrigued to find out how well the new 5-axis image stabilisation system performed, I tested the A7 II with both the optical SteadyShot image stabilised (OSS) FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens and non stabilised FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* prime lens. When an E-mount lens with optical stabilisation is mounted, such as the 24-70mm, the in-body 5-axis system works in tandem with the lens’s OSS system, with the sensor correcting for rotational and translational movements, leaving angular movements to be compensated by the in-lens stabilisation.
In practice what this allowed me to do is to shoot handheld as slow as 1/10sec and achieve sharp shots that would otherwise be hard to record without the aid of a tripod. Taking the test further, I experimented by finding out just how slow I could go, and if you’re anything like me and have a steady hand it’s possible to achieve acceptable, albeit not pin sharp results, with a shutter speed as slow as 1/4sec.
I must admit I had the EVF braced up against my eye for additional support, but nevertheless the incredibly effective image stabilisation system enabled me to shoot some of the sharpest handheld shots using the slowest shutter speeds I ever have. The effect of the image stabilisation is so powerful that it’s visible on the rear LCD or through the viewfinder when you’re shooting, meaning you’ll clearly know when it’s switched on or off.
For convenience I found myself customising SteadyShot to the C2 button on the top plate for quick access. What’s more, the IS system helps to transform handheld video footage; giving it the sense the camera was attached to a Steadicam stabiliser device to create the seamless and smooth slow panning footage it’s capable of.
While the A7 II might not be built for outright speed, the camera’s processor and buffer is more than capable of keeping up with its continuous speed demands. Loaded with a pro-spec Lexar Professional 2000x 64GB SDXC UHS-II card, the A7 II rattled out 25 frames at 5fps before slowing, taking 18secs to write the data to the card. Switching the format to Raw, 27 frames were rattled off at the same speed, which compares to 60 frames when the file format was set to Extra Fine JPEG and 210 frames set to Fine JPEG.
Overall, the general performance of A7 II is good, though it’s certainly not a discreet shooter. Fire the shutter and you quickly realise how loud it is to shoot with. With no dampening on silent shooting mode it’s less than ideal if you like to operate quietly. While I found it hard to fault the improved White Magic screen at the rear that delivers a highly impressive brightness and portrays excellent detail, I found the colours produced by the EVF rather muted and lacking in saturation compared to the scene as viewed by the eye and captured by the sensor. It goes without saying it’s a great EVF in the way it provides a fast refresh rate and a high 0.71x magnification and though I found increasing the viewfinder brightness helps slightly, the accuracy of its colour could be improved to make it slightly more faithful.
On the subject of the viewfinder, the new softer eyecup the A7 II sports helps to cushion it against the eye with improved comfort as the result – particularly noticeable if you’re a wearer of glasses.
When we reviewed the A7 it delivered a prompt autofocus acquirement and the same can be said for the A7 II. It’s hard to tell just how effective the updates to the AF algorithms are when you first pick up the camera as it locks onto stationary subjects with barely any fuss, even when the light levels drop. If you’re one for finding yourself shooting in complete darkness, there’s always the bright AF illuminator that can shed a beam of light on what’s in front of you.
The changes to the Lock-On AF function appear to have improved things slightly thanks to the updates to the motion detection algorithms, but it did show occasional signs of difficulty tracking a fast downhill cyclist and cars through the frame at high speed. It’s fair to say the camera is at its happiest when it’s predicting slower subjects across the frame that aren’t erratic or fast in their behavior. There’s Wide, Zone and Centre AF modes, however Flexible Spot was most commonly used AF mode for setting the AF target precisely over my subject.
By setting the button within the control wheel to Focus Area it allowed for instantaneous positioning of the AF point using the control dials with a double click. As for AF point size and coverage, there are three AF point sizes to choose from, with coverage getting you within an AF point of the top and sides of the frame.