(Pocket-lint) - The very first full-frame compact system camera, the Alpha A7, was such an out-there trend setter that it nabbed the Pocket-lint Awards gong for best system camera back in 2014. Fast-forward a couple of years and, as we tread into 2016, the latest-generation A7 II is here.
With the original A7 we loved the image quality available from that large 35mm sensor size, but didn't love the limited battery life. In the A7 II there's all-new 5-axis image stabilisation, improved autofocus and a tweaked design - but is that enough to see the second-gen model crowned as the most impressive system camera yet?
We've been using a Sony Alpha A7 II with a couple of lenses over three weeks, both in the UK and abroad, to get a sense of its highs and lows.
Sony A7 II vs A7: Design evolution, not revolution
If you're brand new to the E-mount Alpha series then it's a case of evolution rather than revolution, but the A7 II's new design is a little more refined and altogether more usable.
The first thing that can be clearly felt is the enlarged grip, which is more pronounced than that of the first-generation model. That makes the A7 II a little deeper and larger than the original, but as full-frame cameras go its near-60mm depth is as dinky as they come.
This grip is ideal when there's a larger chunk of glass attached to the front, such as the 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom that we've been using throughout this review for far-away shots. However, this particular lens is effectively useless for close-up work, for which the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 has been our go-to stand-in (and a bloomin' brilliant one at that).
The grip isn't the only design change though. The A7 II's shutter button has also moved forward into a more logical position, which feels less compact-camera-like and more compact-system-camera-like in its operability. A small change, but a positive one nonetheless.
The arrangement of front- and rear- thumbwheels has also been moved slightly. The A7 II's front thumbwheel is still present, but it's hidden more into the body rather than the large stylised dial of the original model, which also makes way for the shutter button's new home.
The A7 II also introduces an additional function button - which can be user assigned - meaning C1 and C2 reside on the top of the camera, while C3 sits to the rear. In our arrangement a tap of the C2 button could be used for switching between autofocus area options, in conjunction with the rear rotational d-pad (which acts as the third rotational control dial on the body).
Sony A7 II review: Performance push
Truly living with a camera is the best way to test its performance, which might be stating the obvious but gives a greater breadth of time to find those nuances - both good and bad. In the three weeks we've been shooting with the A7 II we've snapped family pets at Christmas gathering, stage concerts, low-light tearooms, and even some product photography for this very site.
By and large the A7 II performs well, but its improved autofocus system - which uses the same 117-point phase-detection system, paired with 25-area contrast detection, but betters it was new algorithm tweaks (as per the A6000) - lacks the same level of detail that something like the Canon EOS 5D III offers for both single and continuous autofocus.
As an example, while shooting a Chinese stage concert from afar, the continuous autofocus did a reasonable job of following the main subject, but rarely was the focus absolutely precise. So even when hammering out a burst of shots - something the A7 II handles well enough, at up to 5fps - if the focus is off then all shots will be off. We're not saying that every single frame ever shot will be perfect from any camera, given the unpredictability of subjects in low-light conditions, but with Panasonic offering Pinpoint mode in its Lumix compact system cameras, as one example, or Canon and Nikon offering highly effective 3D tracking continuous autofocus options, the A7 II feels altogether simpler.
There are improvements compared to before that can be felt though. Compared to the original A7R (the higher-resolution, contrast-detection-only model) and the A7 II certainly avoids the accidental "focus-on-background" issue that we had identified. And, overall, the A7 II is fast to operate in a variety of conditions. Not the fastest in the world, but still capable.
The best way to focus, especially with a lens such as the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 thanks to its huge manual focus ring, is to tweak manual focus when in DMF mode, which magnifies the focus area to 100 per cent scale on screen (but only when the shutter is held in half depressed). That could be said of other cameras too, of course, but with a full-frame sensor on offer the depth of field is more pronounced so precision is all the more critical.
Sony A7 II review: Battery life
One issue with an all-electric system camera setup is the drain on the battery. In the A7 II there's a 2.36m-dot OLED viewfinder - the same 0.5-inch size as the original A7, but roughly double the resolution - that does a great job in use, but doesn't help the battery situation.
Indeed the review sample A7 II we received came with no less than five batteries (three more than come in the box as standard - but the fact that Sony ships it with two is a sign to its concerns). And, just like with the first A7, the battery life is really limited.
If anything it's worse in the A7 II because great features like sensor-based image stabilisation are yet another drain on power. We've easily been getting through three batteries a day; sometimes we were shooting just 100 shots per battery given the in-between standby time, which could be seen as an issue of our method of use, but it's not an issue with almost any other camera we use in this way.
And there's no way of avoiding some kind of screen-based display in use. The rear 3-inch LCD screen, with its ample 1.28m-dot resolution, was often switched to brighter settings to counter glare and sunlight, something its WhiteMagic tech (there's a layer of white dots to enhance the brightness of the usual red, green and blue ones) helps enable.
We like this screen's tilt-angle mechanism for waist-level work, but would prefer a vari-angle hinge instead for more creative control and video work. Plus there's still no touchscreen option in this camera, something that Sony seems entirely shy to include, whether in its top-end RX10 II or RX100 IV (both of which are still great, mind).
Sony A7 II review: Lens choice is critical
Much as we bemoan the limited battery life, having spent a morning rounding up some of our favourite pictures taken using the A7 II there's no denying it's a corker when it comes to delivering the visual goods.
If, that is, you get the lens selection right. Because the range of full-frame E-mount lenses out there - identified by the FE mark - isn't exactly vast. There are a fair number of E-mount lenses, sure, but not all are FE-designated, which means they won't cover the whole frame and, while they can still be fitted to the A7 II, will work instead on a crop factor basis.
Get lens selection wrong and things aren't great - something we've previously aligned at the soft-to-edges 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 - which, in part, the 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 falls foul of at its longer zoom extension.
Get things right, however, and results are glorious. The 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss that we keep banging on about may be physically huge as prime lenses go (it's expensive too, at £1,459), but its silky-smooth bokeh and sharpness even at f/2.0 is a sight to behold. Close-up focus could be yet better, but that's about the only shortcoming we can throw at this lens. In particular we love the traditional aperture ring, which we've been using all the time, old school style.
Sony has been rather transparent in its need for more lenses, with the E-to-A-mount LA-EA4 adapter enabling all A-mount lenses to operate with autofocus (limited to a 15-point phase detection system, which is handled by the adapter itself). It'll cost to buy, of course, plus you'll need to handle the slight extra physical size of such lenses, but it opens up a wider range of optics nonetheless.
Whichever lens you have on the front of the A7 II, one thing that's worth its weight in gold is the 5-axis image stabilisation system - because it'll work with any lens, even in conjunction with lens-based stabilisation optics, to counter for pitch, yaw and roll. This in itself might be reason enough for original A7 owners to upgrade.
Sony A7 II review: Image quality
The sensor in the A7 II is the same 24.7-megapixel one as found in the original A7, albeit with tweaks to signal processing made for supposed better image quality. So while the difference between first-gen and second-gen models isn't going to be huge, we've still got a lot of love for the large scale and significant depth-of-field control on offer here.
What makes the A7 II excel in particular is that its competition, such as the Canon EOS 5D III, isn't available anywhere near this price point. Therefore, and just as we said of the original model, the A7 II's image quality is pretty fantastic.
Sure, it might not win a prize for best low-light image quality, but even our ISO 6400 shots from stage or of fish in a tank in low-light avoid unsightly colour noise, instead opting for fine grain. The main thing that suffers as the ISO sensitivity rises is the level of detail. That can be said of any camera, but by ISO 3200 the A7 II's results lack the bite they so clearly show at ISO 100-800.
We've found colour and saturation to be occasionally erratic, too, but this may come down to a matter of taste. Shoot raw in combination with JPEG and the world is your oyster in the ability to tweak results in post production. We've preferred using the raw shots anyway, particularly at the lower ISO settings, as they avoid lens correction that further softens the JPEG images. A little sharpening in post and the fine grain on display looks great.
If you want full-frame quality then Sony hasn't cut any corners in the A7 II. It's big quality from a small scale. But it's not necessarily a more affordable route into full-frame, given the importance of lens choice and, in this instance, the general lack of FE E-mount lenses on offer. With that 35mm Zeiss f/1.4 we were certainly one happy bunny.
From stills to moving images, the A7 II can capture in XAVC S or AVCHD flavours, with 1080p at 60/50/20/25/24fps frame-rate options. There's the obvious omission of 4K, but with the A7S model targeted at the videographer market, Sony has all bases covered within the Alpha range.
Big quality from small scale: that's what the Sony A7 II represents to us. And having used the A7 II for three weeks we've snapped some ace shots from this impressive little camera.
Not that we'd call it a perfect camera, though, despite its sensor-based 5-axis stabilisation addition and autofocus tweaks making it an altogether more advanced offering than the original A7. That stabilisation system alone is enough reason to trade in an old body for new.
Just like the original model, the A7 II suffers from very limited battery life, while that autofocus setup isn't as altogether detailed as some of the competition out there. Plus the range of full-frame (FE) E-mount lenses is certainly limited, despite adapter options also being available for A-mount lenses.
But get the right lens on the front of the A7 II and its potential results are quite spectacular, which is what makes it so recommendable. Just don't expect it perform like a smaller version of an advanced DSLR and it'll more than meet those alpha expectations.