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
Hands-on First Look
Click here to see our Sony Alpha 7 II Sample Image Gallery
The Alpha 7 II is Sony’s update to its groundbreaking 24-million-pixel full frame compact system camera. The two biggest additions from a photographer’s point of view are a redesigned (and much more SLR-like) grip and control layout, and the incorporation of in-body 5-axis image stabilisation. Just on their own, these are pretty compelling reasons to pay close attention to Sony’s latest offering. Sony says that the ‘Mark II’ doesn’t directly replace the previous model in its lineup, but instead sits alongside it as an upgraded option. The Alpha 7 II will cost £1500 body only, and £1700 in a kit with the FE 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens.
Compared to its predecessor the Alpha 7 most key components are unchanged, including the 24.3-million pixel full frame sensor, Bionz X processor, and 2.36-million-dot OLED viewfinder. However the tilting rear LCD now includes WhiteMagic technology, with a white dot at every pixel location alongside the usual red, green and blue, for improved visibility in bright light. Sadly, though, the screen is still not touch-sensitive.
Alongside its big updates the A7 II gets a whole range of additional refinements. Autofocus has been improved, with faster focus acquisition and improved tracking, and startup times are quicker. Videographers also get a host of the latest features, including the XAVC S codec and S-Log2 gamma. Build quality has been upgraded, with the A7’s composite front and top plates replaced by magnesium alloy, which makes it feel that little bit more solid.
Revised grip and ergonomics
Externally, the biggest changes to the A7 II lie in its handgrip and control layout. The original A7 design borrowed its grip and control dials from the NEX-7, but rearranged the positioning of the viewfinder, shutter button and dials relative to that model. The result was a design that never felt properly cohesive. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant to use, but neither did it offer the impression of its controls all falling naturally to hand, unlike other small compact system cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Fujifilm X-T1.
The A7 II, in contrast, gains a brand new grip, which will look instantly familiar to existing owners of the company’s SLRs and SLTs. It’s also likely to be more welcoming to users of other brands of SLR, which I suspect is no coincidence. Not only is the shape re-sculpted to a more conventional form, the shutter button is repositioned, and the front dial now placed at the front of the grip. Two customisable buttons sit between the shutter button and the exposure compensation dials on the top-plate, and can be configured to operate a wide range of functions.
Having had the opportunity to hold the A7 II and play around with its controls for a while, I have to say that it feels like a huge step forward from the previous model. The grip shape is just much more natural in your hand, and all of the control dials are within easy reach, as are the two top-plate function buttons. The overall impression is of a camera that – finally – just feels ‘right’. I think quite a few photographers who weren’t quite sure about the A7 will be won over by this new model.
Like its predecessor, the A7 II has no fewer than four dials where most cameras make do with two. This may sound excessive but ends up being very logical – alongside the dedicated exposure compensation dial, one controls shutter speed, the other aperture, and the vertical real dial can be set to change the ISO. Crucially all of these dials are operable by your right hand, so there’s no need to change your grip while shooting. This gives such a straightforward way of working that, after using the camera for a while, it starts to feel strange that other cameras don’t all do the same thing.
Five axis in-body image stablisation
The A7 II’s key new feature is its very clever in-body image stabilisation system. It’s not the first time we’ve seen image stabilisation in a full-frame camera – Sony’s already done that with its Alpha mount A900, A850 and A99 cameras – and it’s not the first 5-axis in-body image stabilisation system either; that honour belongs to the Olympus OM-D E-M5. But it’s the first time we’ve seen a full frame sensor with 5-axis stabilisation, and that should be really exciting for both photographers and videographers. Sony told us that, despite the two companies entering a technology sharing partnership in September 2012, this new system is unrelated to Olympus’s, and instead is all its own work.
So what does ‘5-axis’ mean? Simply put, most IS systems are designed to compensate for pitch and yaw movements, i.e. the lens rotating upwards and downwards or from side-to-side, which is usually the most important contributor to camera shake. The 5-axis system adds in corrections for movements of the camera vertically and sideways, and this improves the stabilisation effect when shooting close-ups. Meanwhile the fifth axis corresponds to rotational correction around the lens axis, which becomes important during movie shooting and long exposures; crucially this is one thing that in-lens optical stabilisation systems simply can’t correct. The net result, according to Sony, is that you can use shutter speeds 4.5 stops slower than usual before images will be blurred by camera shake.
Users also gain image stabilisation with every single lens mounted, including optics such as fast primes for which optical stabilisation is rarely included. This is particularly important for users of Sony’s Alpha mount lenses, none of which have built-in optical stabilisation. In principle the system should also work with third-party lenses mounted using adapters, for example Canon EF lenses on a Metabones Smart Adapter.
When an E-mount lens with built-on optical stabilisation is mounted, the in-body stabilisation system works together with the OSS. Sony tells us that the sensor provides correction for rotational and translational movements, while the in-lens stabilisation deals with angular movements. In principle this means you’ll get better stabilisation than using the lens’s OSS alone. This could be especially useful with telephoto lenses, as the the sensor would have to move further to correct shake with these, and there’s really not that much room to manoeuvre behind the E-mount.
For legacy manual focus lenses that can’t communicate with the camera, the focal length has to be entered manually by the user for the system to work, with settings available covering 8 mm to 1000mm; the selection menu can be accessed quickly using one of the customisable Fn buttons. Only three-axis stabilisation is available in this case, so hand-held macro shooters miss out.
The effect of the image stabilisation is visible in the viewfinder or on the rear LCD while you’re shooting, so it’s easy enough to spot if you’ve forgotten to set this correctly. We quickly tried the IS with an adapted M-mount Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2, and while we didn’t have time to test it out properly, it certainly seemed to work.
Finally, Sony also claims that the addition of in-body image stabilisation improves the camera’s anti-dust system, as it can shake the sensor more vigorously to removed any particles that are adhering to it.
Updated lens compensation app
Legacy lens users will appreciate the updated PlayMemories Lens Compensation app, which allows you to program-in corrections for legacy lenses that the camera doesn’t recognise. This data includes vignetting, distortion and chromatic aberration, which can all be associated with a user-specified lens name. These corrections can also be applied during movie recording. The custom lens settings can even be saved to the SD card and shared easily between multiple camera bodies. The app costs £7.99, which is small change compared to the price of the camera.
According to Sony, the addition of image stabilisation has no practical impact on battery life. Its CIPA standard figures are 270 shots per charge using the EVF (with IS on or off), and 350 shots using the LCD (IS off), dropping just slightly to 340 shots with IS on. This is much the same as the A7, and you’ll probably want a spare or two for a full day’s shooting. The battery is charged via the camera’s micro USB port.
The A7 II uses the same hybrid AF system as the A7 before it, with 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast-detection focus points that cover a large area of the frame (approx 60% vertically and horizontally). However Sony says focus speed is now 30% faster, while an improved motion-prediction algorithm gives 1.5x better tracking performance. In practical terms this means that when shooting moving subjects, three shots should be in correct focus for every two attained before.
The Lock-On AF function, which helps track a subject by understanding its size and shape, has also been improved, with updated motion detection algorithms. Apparently the A7 II borrows technology from the A6000 and A77 II, with all of the phase detection AF areas continuously feeding back distance information to the processor. This, for example, helps it to identify when a foreground object might come between the camera and the subject, and ignore it rather than try to refocus.
In our limited time hands-on with the camera, the Alpha 7 II’s autofocus certainly felt improved, and just that bit more snappy than its predecessor. But we’ll have to do a lot more real-world shooting with it to offer a definitive judgement.
Videographers gain many of the refinements seen in recent Sony models, including support for the XACV S codec which allows a bit-rate of 50 Mbps, and the addition of S-Log2 gamma, which retains the maximum dynamic range for easier colour grading in post-production. It’s also possible to record an easily-shareable MP4 file at the same time as full-resolution AVCHD or XACV S. Those who shoot hand-held will also probably appreciate the IS system; especially if the A7 II’s implementation is anywhere near as good in practical use as Olympus’s, which provides uncannily smooth hand-held panning. Unfortunately we weren’t able to test this out during our brief time with the camera.
The A7 II’s revised body shape requires a new vertical battery grip, the VG-C2EM. This holds two NP-FW50 batteries, and includes a second set of main controls including three custom function buttons. Like the camera, it’s dust-and water-resistant.
Spectacle wearers will be pleased to hear that the A7 II comes with a new, softer eyecup. This will also be sold as an accessory that can be retro-fitted to previous Alpha 7 models, with the part number FDA-EP15.
While the Alpha 7 was certainly a ground-breaking camera, packing a full frame sensor into a compact mirrorless body, its slightly oddball design always seemed to count against it; personally I never found it as pleasant a camera to use as its main rivals from Fujifilm and Olympus. The A7 II promises to change all that, essentially fixing most of the complaints that were raised against it. The addition of in-body image stabilisation is the icing on the cake, especially as it should work with a huge range of third party lenses.
At its launch price of £1500 body only, and £1700 with the FE 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS lens, I think the Alpha 7 II looks like it should be a hugely compelling option for serious enthusiast photographers. We’re very much looking forward to getting our hands on one for a full review.