A little over a year ago, Sony fired a warning shot across the bows of Canon and Nikon by releasing the world’s first ever full-frame mirrorless camera – the A7. It was small, light and the image quality matched that of a flagship D-SLR, but the price was much more competitive than other full-frame offerings. In fact it caused quite a ripple in the full-frame market, and a noticeable number of photographers made the switch from their bulky D-SLRs to the more streamlined A7. Well, Sony is back with an updated version – the A7 Mk II – and this new generation builds on the success of its predecessor, and comes with a raft of new features and technical refinements.
Features & Build
The headline grabbing feature of the A7 Mk II is its 5-axis image stabilisation system; the first full-frame camera in the world to boast such advanced sensor-shift technology. It can compensate for camera movement in five different directions, including pitch and yaw, X and Y axis and roll compensation. This means it can be handheld up to 4.5 stops slower than would otherwise be possible, without introducing the blur of camera shake to your images. And the great thing about sensor-based image stabilisation is that it’ll work with all Sony E-mount lenses. In fact, it’ll work with almost any lens (apart from four A-mount lenses), but an adapter is required for third-party lenses.
The chip is a 24.3Mp full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor. It measures 35.8x23.9mm and will produce images with a resolution of 6000x4000px. This is the same spec as its predecessor, the A7, so there’s no increase in resolution.
Sony has stuck with the same engine too, the BIONZ X image processor. The native ISO range hasn’t been touched at 50-25,600 but it is 40% faster at booting up.
The pairing of sensor and processor allows images to be captured at a fairly pedestrian 5fps. Previously, this dropped to a sluggish 2.5fps if you wanted the camera to continue focusing while shooting, but new advancements mean the A7 Mk II will keep firing at the top frame rate while tracking a subject.
There’s also a newly-enhanced Fast Hybrid AF system. It employs a 117-point Phase detection AF sensor with 25 Contrast detection points, and new algorithms makes the AF 30% faster than the A7.
All these components are housed in a robust magnesium alloy body, giving a body-only weight of 556g. The rubberised front finger grip has been enlarged to improve comfort and provide further purchase, and there’s the welcome addition of an extra function button too.
On the metallic top-plate you’ll find a rotating mode dial. From here the M, A, S, P, Auto, Scene, Sweep Panorama, Movie and two User modes are selectable. There’s also a chunky Exposure Compensation dial and the shutter button has been shifted forward to sit on top of the newly enlarged finger grip. Two other dials control the shutter speed and aperture, and on the back there’s a neat array of controls.
Dominating the rest of the rear is a 3in LCD, which packs in 1,228k-dots and offers a greater resolution than the A7. There’s no touchscreen functionality but it can be tilted up 107º or down 41º to help compose frames from awkward angles. If you prefer your eye to the viewfinder, the A7 Mk II offers a 2,359k-dot Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). This has 100% coverage, real-time image adjustments and engages automatically via a sensor.
Performance & Handling
The A7 Mk II is smooth and textured in all the right places. The weight is finely balanced, and the new and improved grip means you can confidently hold it with one hand. The buttons and main dials are made from the same premium material as the body, giving this CSC a high-end feel. The controls are all within thumb-reach, so there’s no need to drop the camera from your eye to make adjustments.
Accessing the settings is speedy and intuitive. Most of the more frequently used options are just a thumb-press away, and 10 of the buttons can be customised so you can set up the camera to reflect your personal shooting style. Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all adjusted with dedicated wheels, so it’s easy to manually control the exposure.
With your eye to the viewfinder, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were looking at an electronic screen – it’s brilliant! There’s a small amount of lag on start-up, but after that it’s crystal clear. If you’re framing up with the camera held at arms’ length, the tilting screen makes it a breeze.
When shooting handheld in low light, we activated the SteadyShot function and were hugely impressed. At a shutter speed of 1/8sec, we found most of our shots to be pin sharp. With it turned off, nearly all suffered from the characteristic blur of camera shake. It’s a fantastic safety net, but it’s worth noting that blur will still be picked up if your subject is moving.
For the most part, the focusing was fast and accurate. However there were a few occasions where it would hesitate – and the focus hunted back and forth before locking on to the subject.
The BIONZ X image processor was rapid, too. When set to shoot RAW, we managed to shoot 28 frames before the buffer filled, and these files took 14secs to be saved to our 95MB/s PNY SDHC test card. A single RAW file took 1.5secs to be saved. Switching over to JPEG, we rattled off a burst of 90 shots before the camera paused, and these were recorded in 15secs. A solitary JPEG took just 1sec to save.
Value for Money
The A7 Mk II comes bundled with the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens and costs £1699, or it can be purchased for £1499 body-only. This makes it one of the most affordable full-frame options.
There are more wallet-friendly ways of going full-frame though. The Nikon D610 D-SLR currently costs £1199 (body only) and has a 24.3Mp sensor and 39 AF points.
The A7 Mk I is still available too at £999 (body only). The sensor and processor are the same as the Mk II so image quality will be very similar, but the update has the advantage of the 5-axis image stabilisation system, as well as a few other tempting refinements.
The A7 Mk II is a fantastic camera in its own right, but as far as updates go, not many owners of the original A7 will be looking on with envy and wishing that they’d waited. But, if you’re coming in fresh to the market you’ll appreciate its faster startup time, constant 5fps burst rate and enhanced autofocus. Although refined, the AF did occasionally hunt in low lighting. The write times and maximum burst rate were also a little run-of-the-mill, giving it a performance rating just short of five stars. The image quality is just as solid as its tank-like build and it’s £1499 body-only asking price is fairly reasonable too. Image stabilisation is one of the main essential features in photography, and you will undoubtedly save money with this system as you won’t have to fork out for expensive, stabilised optics. It’s sure to come down in price over time too when retailer discounting kicks in.
- Street price from: £1179 (Body only as of June 2016)
- Resolution: 24.3Mp (6000x4000px)
- Format: RAW & JPEG
- Sensor: Full-frame Exmor CMOS (35.8x23.9)
- ISO: 50-25,600
- Shutter: 30-1/8000sec & Bulb
- AF system: Fast Hybrid AF
- Focusing modes: Single shot AF, Continuous AF, Direct Manual Focus (DMF) and Manual focus
- Metering: Multi segment, Center-Weighted and Spot
- Burst rate: 5fps
- Monitor: 3in, tilt-able 1228k-dot TFT LCD
- Viewfinder: 2,359k-dot EVF
- Pop-up flash: No Hotshoe: Yes
- Video: Full HD 1080p @60fps
- Write speeds: 1.5secs RAW, 1sec Extra Fine JPEG
- Storage: SD, SDHC and SDXC
- Weight: 556g (body only)
- Dimensions: (WxHxD) 126.9x95.7x59.7mm
- Visit: www.sony.co.uk
This review was first published in the April 2015 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.