Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sony a7 II (ILCE-7M2) Hands On First Impressions

Sony's A7 will be updated on December 5th 2014 with an upgraded second version, available in Japan only. The new camera will ship globally in early 2015. The second version of the camera improves on the first generation with:

  • 5-Axis sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Improved autofocus speed and tracking
  • XAVC S video codec, 50Mbps
  • S-Log2 picture setting  à la Sony A7s
  • Redesigned front grip
  • Front command dial relocated,  à la Nikon

It's also important to also note what hasn't changed:

  • 117-point phase-detection and 25 contrast detection AF points: This is the same as the A7. By comparison, the Sony 6000 uses 179 phase detection points.
  • Same NP-FW50 battery. For reference, the A7 is rated at 340 shots under the CIPA testing standard
  • Rear control cluster is still the same. More about this later 

Quite frankly, the inclusion of in-camera image stabilization is enough to get many people excited., given how well the system on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 works. Sony will probably be coy, but its very likely that the a7 II's image stabilization system is descended from Olympus technology, given that Sony acquired part ownership of Olympus after the accounting scandal of 2011.

(First posted November 21st, 2014. Updated November 28 with hands on impressions with a pre-production unit at the 2014 Broadway Camera Black Friday Photo Expo.)

Body and Design

Compared to the original A7, the Mark II is slightly thicker and chunkier all around. This starts at the grip and applies to most of the body. The rear controls and EVF are familiar, but the body trim is different in various new ways. For example, the SD card slot now inserts into the camera at a slightly more oblique angle. The battery compartment/grip is noticeably thicker... some will like this and some won't. The A7 wasn't a difficult camera to hold. However, the front control dial on the original A7 was sub-optimally placed; usable but your index finger tends to not fall naturally onto it. On the Mark II, the dial is more comfortable to reach to, but the overall shape of the grip doesn't give it much prominence. On the whole, if you've used the A7 or A6000, the Mark II will feel like familiar. This is an important consideration for Sony, as user interface continuity is a key to building on the first generation's success.

5-Axis Image Stabilization

"Coy" because it may or may not be the case. The E-M1 uses a Panasonic-derived sensor, which surprised many when it was first discovered. As is always the case, the path of technology is never quite so straight. Sony maintains that it is their technology and not Olympus' but if you've followed the business, nobody ever admits to where the source technology originally came from at the time of camera launch. it could very well be the case that Sony developed their technology independently, but that would be a huge opportunity cost on supposed partners battling the incumbent top two.

Regardless of the technology source, the implication is that image-stabilization expands the usefulness of the currently limited FE lens selection by adding stabilized functionality to the two primes (55mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2.8). Though the system doesn't suffer for lack of f/1.4 primes, some are nonetheless disappointed that there are no native ultra-fast aperture lenses. Image stabilization doesn't mitigate this, but it does allow for better depth of field control with the existing primes in challenging light conditions.

The 5-Axis image stabilization also works in conjunction with the in-lens systems on the Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS and the FE 70-200mm f/4.0 G OSS. This is an improvement over the Micro Four Thirds system; on an E-M1, if the camera detects that the lens is stabilized, it will deactivate the in-camera system... it's one or the the but not both. How much double-action image stabilization helps remains to be seen. It should be noted that 5-axis correction also seems to well on lens-based systems like that used in the Pansonic FZ1000. Where image-stabilization becomes truly interesting is in video work. Sony mirrorless cameras have always been something of the modern day version of a digital back. They have somewhat flat form factors and are amenable to mounting third party lenses. The a7 II seems to be a potent tool for utilizing legacy full frame lenses in video work in this regards. 

If you are truly one to dream big, how about imaging the possibilities of an adapted Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH on the a7 II? No doubt many people are dreaming about this already, but it is important to remember that Leica lenses are not as telecentric as those used on other systems. This means that you will get noticeable vignetting and colour shifts on wide angle lenses, but 35mm and up should be fine. if you aren't lusting after the best possible lens choice, the a7 II looks like it will be a fun camera to use with inexpensive Voigtlander lenses.(Just as an aside, it's a bit of a myth that you have to shoot completely manually when adapting M-lenses. The camera will still meter, its just that the aperture information isn't passed onto the camera body. Long story short, you can use a manual lens in aperture priority mode; you adjust the aperture per usual and the camera will automatically adjust shutter speed. you can't do it in reverse in shutter priority, as the camera has no means to articulate the third party aperture system.)

Hands on Impressions

In actual use, the system shows a lot of promise in pre-production units. The system can achieve a high degree of stabilization when activated. Unfortunately, it's hard to quantify by subjective use alone but in terms of effectiveness it seems to be better than the in-lens systems in most of the E-Mount lenses, and definitely superior when pairing a stabilized lens with the in-body system on the camera. However, the subjective impression is that the Olympus OM-D E-M1 paired with a short(ish) prime is still the gold standard in terms of image stabilization; if the A7 Mark II in production trim can beat that, then it will have achieved a very high technical threshold.

Truth be told, image stabilization systems are following the same path as what we are seeing in advances in lens sharpness. The first Sigma Art lenses where astoundingly sharp for the price, but as time has gone by, the market is starting to take for granted that lenses like the Sigma 50mm Art or the Zeiss branded Sony 55mmf/1.8 FE can be had without having to pay stratospheric prices for. Likewise, the A7 Mark II might appear to be revolutionary because it is the first mirrorless full frame camera to be stabilized, but its more than probably that in the far future that we will look back and see it as more of an evolutionary progression.


Also worth waiting for is to see what improvements Sony will be able to achieve in autofocus speed and reliability. The A7, unlike the A7r has phase-detection elements. The improvement in autofocus performance is there, but it's also underwhelming relative to what it competes against. In still subject acquisition, the A7 is nowhere near as fast as the E-M1, nor does it track lateral motion as dependably as on an upper-level DSLR. Conversely, the A6000 is quite good at these things, hence the hope that the same performance will show up in the a7 II. Time will tell.

However, despite all the talk of the mirrorless encroachment into DSLR territory the a7 II is a serious contender in image quality but less so in ergonomics and functionality. There is no official word of battery life just yet, but it won't be enough to match an equivalent DSLR. Likewise, the basic control layout is usable for enthusiasts but is inadequate for professional work. Possibly the biggest flaw in the Sony ergonomic scheme is the inability to select AF point position quickly.  This is especially frustrating as AF point selection is one of the most used actions for situations where the composition changes from shot to shot, such as event shooting. 

Hands On Impressions

As mentioned in the description of the basic UI, the AF operation of the Mark II, at least for the per-production unit, is the same as the first A7. As per Son'y claims about improved AF speed and performance, that much is evident. The difference between the A7 and the a7 II is that with the first camera, if you hadn't been told that it had phase detection capabilities you might not notice that they are there. The faster speed and of the second version gives the  phase detection motion tracking more prominence, but at least on a subjective basis, it doesn't feel quite as snappy as on the A6000. On Wide Area with  AF-C, the camera will track a moving target in the same way that the A6000 does, but the focus lock will start to lag behind the subject at lower velocities. So far the Mark II still doesn't look like a sports shooter's camera, but the new AF system will place it near the top of the mirrorless category. The competition (Fujifilm X-T1 and Olympus OM-D E-M1) can track motion fore-aft but are weak with lateral motion.

Concluding Thoughts

World-wide availability won't be possible until early 2015. With the Japan-only launch, Sony is simultaneously creating pent-up demand while putting existing store stocks of A7's and A7r's at risk.  There are a few ways that are effective at slowing sales of existing products; announcing the imminent arrival of a better product is ostensibly one of them. This is an area that Sony needs to work on if they want to make more sizable dents into the Canon/Nikon duopoly. When Sony brings out a new high end product, the wait to get one can be excruciating if it is in high demand and low supply... which is basically what the situation was at the end of 2013 when the A7/A7r were announced, which was then repeated again in the summer of 2014 with the A7s. In other words, if you are impatient and want to get one in your hands as early as possible, the only way is to commit to a pre-order. Otherwise, it will be financially wiser to wait for greater availability and discounting, as the A7 II will likely be the volume leader in Sony's full-frame lineup.

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