IRL: The Sony A7R Mark II (Part 1)

IRL = In Real Life; A occasional series (inspired by Engadget.com) on the reality of using gear or running a project or anything film related after the initial excitement has worn off.

This post (part 1 of 2, possibly) will be short and sweet due to lack of time. If you want a full detailed review of the A7RII, look at this this critical one, or this gushing one, and any of these from our friends at NewsShooter.com. You can also see some video related tests from the always great Erik Naso here. Those posts will guide you through the geek, and show you many great stills and video tests as to how the camera looks. (TL:DR; it looks pretty damn good.)

This little post is in regards to the reality of using the thing for a few weeks - mostly for video (but not exclusively) in a documentary shooting style. I am not paid by Sony to do this, and we purchased the camera out of pocket from Best Buy.com. 

I will use one of my now classic bulleted list formats to get to the meat of my experiences quickly. Ready? Let's get to it:

Why the A7RII for a primarily video shooter?

I recently purchased a Sony RX100 Mark IV (which I shall talk about in a future post; its an amazing tiny camera) and a Sony A7R Mark II. The A7RII was designed to replace (for us) the Sony A7S for a few basic reasons:

  1. It is easier to hand hold, with a much better grip, and has a better more hefty build without being as big as a Canon 5D whatever camera.
  2. It’s 5 axis In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) is outstanding and makes handheld stable footage possible with even prime lenses with no IS built in.
  3. It records 420 8 Bit 100Mbit 4K XAVC-S Internally with no pixel binning in a Super 35mm crop mode (and also a pretty nice full frame mode as well, albeit pixel binned with the slightest of slight aliasing)
    1. It outputs 422 8 Bit 4K via HDMI, which records nicely with an Atomos Shogun or Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+ recorder in 4K at much higher bitrates, much like the A7S does.
  4. The camera has Slog 2 (which grades well with any existing A7S LUT or profile for example from FilmConvert). But you can use it at ISO 800!
    1. This is huge. The A7S, lovely as it is, requires a minimum of ISO3200 to shoot Slog2. This was almost a show stopper in bright sunlight, as you had to stack NDs and a variable ND was not enough. The A7RII however can use that Vari ND just fine.
    2. For comparison, the FS7 is ISO2000 but has built in ND, and the RX100 Mark IV and RX10 Mark II start at ISO1600, but have a built in 3 stop ND.
    3. It shoots by far the best quality and lowest noise in S35 mode, so you can lens like a S35 camera and also use a Speedbooster to gain back the one stop you lose to the A7S noise wise. 
    4. This lets you get essentially the same low light performance as the A7S up through ISO 12,800 - which is astonishing seeing as the camera has 4X as many pixels to deal with.

Yeah, we like to shoot stills too sometimes. Behind the Scenes (BTS), a pretty scene/sunset to inspire, scouting locations, whatever. We are artists too, and we like our stills too damnit!  This is in fact where this camera really shines. On top of all if the above (the IBIS is critical for stills too):

  1. This camera has a new backside illuminated sensor at a whopping 42.5 Megapixels that somehow manages to be only one stop more noisier than the vaunted A7S up through ISO 12,800 (in S35 mode.)
  2. Did I say 42 Megapixels? This is great for downsampling to say, 20-35 megapixels, and getting an amazingly clean and insanely detailed image, or for heavily cropping and still getting a large image file, or just to print big posters at 200-300 dpi. It’s simply awesome.
  3. A larger, clearer EVF - the largest on any full frame camera
    1. s you likely know, an EVF is critical for video shooting. It gives you another point of stabilization against your body, and you can see in bright light. The EVF on this camera is quite good, and huge, offering peaking and image magnification.
  4. 399 phase detect autofocus points, allowing for the first time some modicum of decency with autofocus for stills with adapted Canon lenses, and even usable AF for video with native Sony and Sony/Zeiss lenses.
    1. We have the Metabones Speedbooster Ultra and Mark IV smart adapters, as well as a full range of Samyang/Rokinon cine primes from 14mm to 135mm, as well as the Canon 24-105 F4 IS and the 70-200 F2.8 IS Mark II lenses from canon. 
      1. The Canon lenses above worked ok for stills autofocus in decent light (fairly fast), but not when the light got low, and not for video.
      2. Essentially, with some Canon lenses you can shoot non-moving subjects fairly well without issue using the camera's AF.
    2. We also shoot with the Sony Zeiss 55 F1.8, 25 F2,8, and the 24-70 F4 OSS - all FE lenses (full frame E mount), which all autofocus very well in any light, and for video as well. (Zone mode is especially good for subjects to the left or right of the frame, such as in interviews.)
  5. You also get outstanding dynamic range, where you can pull tons of information with relatively low noise from the shadows (in stills; video is still decent with Slog2); see these stills images from Marco Arment below:

Those are the main reasons. You basically get all the A7S advantages, but with a much more usable Slog profile, and in built stabilization, and a very clean full scan S35 4K video mode. You an still add an XLR pack on the intelligent hot shoe too, and this thing is petty small.

Essentially, over the A7S this camera gives me a much higher quality (in raw detail) stills image, and internally recorded 4K quality that is essentially the same as the A7S' external 4K in all but the darkest low light without having to strap on a recorder. Plus you gain all the advantages of the A7S - small form factor, amazing image (14+ stops DR in stills, about 12 in video) for what is essentially a more capable hybrid camera than the A7S is.

And yes, most of us still master to HD. I used to slap 4K in the face when it cost a small fortune to obtain. However, now you can really get "4K for free" and as such it has become a useful too. 4K offers you the good ole benefits we have talked about now ad nauseam:

  1. Better image sharpness due to downrezzing to 2K/HD
  2. More cropping/stabilization/digital panning options
  3. "Future proofing"

So it's good to have, even if your audience will likely never notice, especially if you are moving the camera which will reduce that spatial resolution anyway.

What sucks?

Note - I said this is a hybrid camera - in operation it's much like a super DSLR, with all the negatives that entails. This is neither the perfect stills camera, nor clearly the perfect video camera. Let’s look at the downsides, and what they have meant for me in actual use:

  1. Battery Life. In short, it's not great at all. You can get just under 1 hour, sometimes less, of 4K recording under one battery. This isn’t much different than the A7S however.
    1. The good news is the batteries are cheap (knock offs that work just fine cost $10-15 a piece on Amazon.com), and you can power and charge the system via USB power. This is new, so those big battery packs for USB you can buy will indeed power the camera.
  2. Overheating - only while recording 4K internally (UPDATE 12/19/15 - NEW FIRMWARE MAY HAVE FIXED THIS!)  Yes, this camera overheats in certain conditions. This is clearly stated in the manual, so Sony was aware of it. What does this mean? Essentially, given a day that is not over 90 degrees farehheit in the direct sun, you can record for about 20-30 minutes maximum before it must shut down and cool down. This is with internal 4K recording, mind you - external recording is unaffected. Your mileage may vary but that's a decent ballpark. 
    1. UPDATE - SOLVED? 12/19/2015 - Sony has released a new firmware (V3.0) to combat this overheating issue. When running in S35 mode, which is the preferred mode for this camera for video, I was able to shoot over 3.5 hours continuously, just swapping out batteries, without an overheat warning. The temperature of the room was 68 degrees. This is a HUGE update, as before I was lucky to get 45 min in such temperatures before it shut down. The camera is also much cooler.
  3. It cools down quickly (if that helps any), if you do run into the overheating. That said, you're likely to heat up quicker the next time if the camera has been on for a while.  
  4. I managed to record over 3.5 hours continuously in 4K to an Atomos Shogun recorder (until the Shogun’s battery died; the A7RII was on a USB power brick) without issue,
  5. The recording had to be triggered on the Shogun. If i triggered on the camera, the camera oddly overheated after 30 min, even though it was not recording anything. The image quality was the same when triggered both ways. I don’t know why this is; I notified Atomos and Sony.
  6. This camera can NOT be used to record long interviews, events, or long gimbal takes without an external recorder attached. It (may) overheat... it's ok with an external recorder and the new FW 3.0 may have solved this.
  7. At this point you're probably thinking: WTF is this thing is useless for real work? Well yes, and no.. It depends your goal with it. IF you use the A7RII as a 4K B-cam, or for B-roll - where you don’t continuously run the camera - it’s absolutely fine, even while recording internally. Why? Because my typical b-roll takes are under 15 minutes a piece.
  • I shot for hours at an event the other day, internally recording 4K, with IBIS on. All handheld, all moving fast, using the EVF, all keeping the camera on. It was indoors about 75 degrees. I had zero problems, and never once did the camera overheat. I also recorded in 90+ degree F heat on a very hot beach for 5-10 min at a time for over an hour with no issue.  So it depends on how you shoot and what the purpose is. 
  • For many, takes under 10 min is more than sufficient for all but interviews and long, continuous event coverage. It depends on what you are doing.

What's questionable?


This image (courtesy of RawDigger) shows what can happen in a very bad scenario where your exposure is not ideal. This does NOT happen in video mode from what I can tell.

  1. Stills: They RAW is lossy-compressed - UPDATE DEC 2015 - SOLVED!. The primary purpose of this camera is to shoot near-medium format quality stills. Huge, beautiful, low noise, high dynamic range stills. But, uh this camera (and none of the Sony A7 series) does not record 14 bit RAW files, but actually 11+7 bit lossy compressed Raw files. Cue panic right? Well, if you read posts like this (pretty well written one from RawDigger,) yes! Right? Um... No, not really.
    1. In practice, however, I have found this means little. I can push and pull the files quite a few stops in each direction and see no posterization or other odd image anomalies.
    2. Every file is about 40 somewhat Mb, which makes the (relatively slow) write speed to the card more bearable as well.
    3. If however, you regularly shoot shots where there are a lot of high contrast junctions, such as bright buildings against black night skies, or star trails.. AND you push or pull the image 4+ stops… you can start to get some blocky artifacting at those junctions.  This is very similar in appearance to what I saw with the Canon Cinema EOS C300 video camera when it was released, and can look ugly.
    4. Basically this is a mountain being made out of a nearly imperceptible mole hill - all the Sony A7 cameras have this issue. Only the most severe of pixel peepers will ever notice - and even then under certain specific conditions with heavy manipulation of the RAW files. I simply don't see it, and I am staring at 200% on a 4K (14 MP) monitor! 
    5. I do not see any of these artifacts in video mode, either (S35).
    6. That said, this issue should not be there at all, so be on notice. If you don't intensely push the images, you are fine. Look at these images below courtesy Marco Arment if you don't think you can push these images. This camera is astounding for the price - for stills.
    7. UPDATE 9/15/15: Sony has added UNCOMPRESSED RAW via a firmware update for this and the A7SII!  This is superb news for those who want to shoot with zero compromises. The only downside is that the camera buffer fills up much quicker and this causes the camera to take much more time to offload images. But you can do it... it's there.
  2. Menus. While Sony has improved the ergonomics of this camera over the A7 Mark I bodies, in many ways, Sony still has a way to go in menu technology in particular. Like the PXW-FS7, there seems to be little rhyme or reason why items are where they are, with horribly unusable prompts to you that essentially say "nope" if you aren't in the correct mode.
  3. The EVF punch in magnification is only 4X in video, and not entirely crisp enough for 4K. You can likely get close using the peaking and that punch in, but it's not perfect, You will potentially get a better result using an external EVF or monitor with peaking, such as the Atomos Shogun anyway. (The PXW-FS7 is the same way).
    1. In still mode, the 5X magnification is muddy and mostly useless, but the 14.5X (?) mode seems 1:1 and is very sharp - great for manual lens focusing.

So... is it worth it?

There are other plusses and minuses to the camera, but those are the key ones I have noticed. The very short version is that this is a pretty rugged, well built camera with fairly amazing low light capability (nearly the same as the A7S), with mostly clean video and stills to ISO 6400, very good 4K and amazing stills in a small body with IBIS for $3200. It's not perfect, but there's a LOT of good coming from this camera.

The video and stills images are pretty much wonderful, and the video can easily cut in with the Sony FS7 or F5 for example, even in 4K, with no one noticing in your audience. It’s that good - and there’s something about these Full Frame sensors Sony is deploying that really make the images shine. I personally think the A7S and A7RII even look better than the FS7. The FS7 is a stop or two cleaner in lower light for sure, and it seems to have more useful, wider dynamic range in the highs by a stop or two. But the FS7 can also look clinical, whereas the A7 cameras do not. This is subjective but it’s how I feel.

You can see some graded still frames from 4K that I took, as well as some downrezzed stills in stills mode at the top of this article.

Now are you going to use this as your A camera to cover concerts/live events or interviews or run on a Movi all day? No, nor should you. If you want that, there are cameras out there in this form factor like the Panasonic GH4. The GH4 will run all day in 4K, albeit with significantly less dynamic range, and far worse noise past ISO 1600 (I know, I owned it... it's in a lower league image wise). But tat GH4 won’t quit on you in the middle of a long take either.

Ideally, if you want to get A camera performance, you need an A camera. Luckily, these have been getting cheaper and cheaper in price.

The Sony FS7 for 4K, The C100 Mark II for HD, even the Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K all will get you what you need. No compromises, and you can run all you want. Built in ND, XLRs, and so forth without having to add them on. But that comes at a cost, in money and weight and size. Those cameras will not fit in your hand or in a small camera case. They will look like what they are - video cameras - and are not exactly incognito, even if relatively small compared to larger film cameras. They can slow you down a bit when you want to be as unobtrusive as possible.

No, the “DSLR form factor” (mirrorless in this case) gets you a wide DR style LOG image, a non aliased, super sharp and good looking 4K image with creative depth of field control in something that can fit in your hand. Something that you can actually shoot clean, non-shaky-cam footage with for the first time with your prime lenses. 

The primary advantage of the A7RII is, for me, not 4K. It shoots 100Mbit internal 4K which is only twice the bitrate as 50 Mbit HD (in the A7S) yet is 4 times the resolution. Whenever the camera moves, or is even minutely out of focus, you are back to HD resolution anyway. Most people will never notice; your advantage comes from cropping, non moving scenes, and stabilization in post.

No, the advantages are essentially:

  1. You get an amazingly detailed, nearly medium-film-format (in resolution) camera for stills, with decent autofocus - even in video (with Sony lenses)
  2. You can run and gun with this thing, controlling your pans of course, and get quite stable footage even while holding the camera over your head
  3. You can do so with prime lenses and NO rig.

4K is great, and you can use it for relatively short takes too - but it’s only one reason why this camera is so special. And it’s also one reason why this camera is half baked. Next year, Sony will undoubtedly release the A7R Mark III. Perhaps then better (cooler) processing chips (the BIONZ Y?) will be out that will allow the machine to run without overheating. But no camera is perfect, they simply evolve. 

The A7RII is basically all the A7S was - with more added to get more done. It’s not the “perfect camera”, none are. But wow, for $3000 and be able to shoot video that can cut in with much more expensive 4K cameras and not even need a tripod? I’ll take it. This is a professional tool if you understand and can work within the limitations, just like a GoPro can be.  It's one tool in the kit - not the last one you'll ever need. I tend to like having a small camera and a somewhat larger, more capable one to have choices. It used to be you had to sacrifice much of your image quality over the larger cameras... but no more. You can have your large sensor S35 (or FF) look and have it small and relatively cheap too. You can have it all....

Just remember to bring a bunch of batteries, a recorder, and/or an ice cooler.... and a real video camera if you need a long recording time.

What do you think? By all means: share below. I'll also try to answer your video related questions.  In part 2, I'll share more video and give you a look at using this thing after a few months. 


PS - The RX100 Mark IV is an absolute revelation - basically a Canon 7D in your pocket, and it shoots 4K and 20 Megapixels! But you can only shoot a minute or two between takes if you don’t want it to overheat and shut down. Does that make is useless? Nope… because it shoots FS7 quality footage in decent light… in your pocket. I have shot whole sequences with that camera, I just have to work around the limits of the equipment. More to come.