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Sony A7R II review: A full-frame powerhouse, the A7R II leaps beyond its predecessor

Its excellent photo quality, Improved performance, great video (including support for 4K) and compact, comfortable design speak for themselves.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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13 min read

As Sony's been building its A7 series of Alpha full-frame mirrorless cameras, each model has made compromises: great sensitivity but low resolution ( A7S II ), sharp image quality but slow autofocus system ( A7R ), fast autofocus system but not best-in-the-line photo quality ( A7 II ). But with its latest entry, the A7R II, Sony tosses all its newest technology at it.

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8.4

Sony A7R II

The Good

For the most part, the Sony A7R II delivers terrific photo and video quality in a compact, well-designed body.

The Bad

Terrible battery life and a mushy shutter mechanism may negatively impact your shooting experience. Also, there's general highlight clipping in still photos and artifacts in some high-ISO-sensitivity shots that we hope Sony can improve via a firmware update.

The Bottom Line

It needs a little more refinement, but overall the Sony A7R II is a great camera for folks who need a high-resolution full-frame model in a more compact design than a dSLR.

In the newly reignited war over resolution in pro cameras, Sony's A7R II slips in at 42 megapixels, right between the Canon 5DS R 's 50MP and the Nikon D810 's 36MP. But the camera doesn't really need to claim highest resolution to stand out in the crowd of full-frame cameras; its excellent photo quality, great video (including support for 4K) and compact, comfortable design speak for themselves.

The camera costs $3,200, £2,800 or AU$4,500. That's not cheap, and while it's less expensive than the 5DS R ($3,900, £3,200, AU$5,540), it's more expensive than the D810 ($3,000, £2,380, AU$4,000). What the money buys you, though, is an excellent and compact full-frame mirrorless camera that's more suited for shooting video than its dSLR counterparts.

Image quality

This camera incorporates the first a full-frame BSI (backside illuminated) CMOS sensor (Sony's Exmor R branded sensors). BSI sensors have become extremely popular because their construction makes them more sensitive in low light than traditional CMOS imagers and because their structure allows for faster the readout speeds needed to support high-frame-rate video and stills.

Sony A7R II full-resolution photo samples

See all photos

BSI technology allows Sony to cram the 42.4 megapixels on the sensor and attain ISO sensitivity of up to ISO 102400 -- even in video -- while enabling a lot of other new features in the camera. Sony claims that all its current FE-mount lenses can resolve detail for higher resolution sensor, though I don't think the company had the inexpensive 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 in mind with that statement. I tested with a variety of Zeiss (the Batis 25mm f2 and 85mm f1.8) and Sony ZA lenses (35mm f1.4, 90mm, 55mm f1.8, 90mm f2.8 macro) however, and they all seemed to rise to the challenge.

As is the hallmark of the A7R models, the sensor doesn't have an optical low-pass filter (OLPF), which facilitates sharper images but the tradeoff is usually moire artifacts. (Moire is the color or wavy lines caused by interference between high-frequency patterns, like fine weaves, with the sensor grid.) Sony clearly does moire reduction as part of its JPEG processing, because there's none in the JPEGs while there's clearly a bit in their raw equivalents. However, even the moire in the raw files isn't nearly as I've bad as I've seen from some other cameras.

The camera has an excellent noise profile, with one exception. JPEGs look very clean through ISO 1600, remain quite good through ISO 6400, and remain usable all the way through ISO 102400, albeit "usable" depends upon how you plan to use them. The one exception: above ISO 6400 horizontal bands start to appear in dark areas, and I couldn't figure out a way to fix them, at least with existing raw-processing software. Not in every shot, but they cut across all the color channels and they're in enough photos to indicate it might be a problem for some people.

It retains shadow detail quite well through ISO 6400, but clips highlights, frequently irretrievably, across almost the whole ISO sensivity range. Raw files naturally do better -- the Standard default Creative Style used by JPEGs increases contrast so you lose both highlight and shadow detail -- but I still missed a lot of highlights. Hopefully, the firmware update slated for later this year, which adds lossless compression to the raw files, will make a noticeable difference; the first casualty of lossy compression is highlights and shadows. Problems with highlights are typical for BSI sensors, unfortunately.

Sharpness and color, on the other hand, rate as excellent. Even with the default Creative Style, color reproduction is quite neutral, and while the saturation is pumped up a bit I didn't see any real hue shifts except in a generally difficult-to-reproduce red (which was more accurate in the raw). And photos are sharp, with great detail resolution as long as you've got a high-quality lens.

It's a testament to the A7R II's photo quality that despite its issues, I think most people will be happy with the images they get from the camera, especially under controlled lighting environments, like studio shots.

In addition to adding Quad HD (3,840x2,160 in 30p, 25p and 24p) recordable internally or externally, the A7R II supports a Super 35mm crop mode, which uses the center two-thirds of the sensor and downsamples to 8MP. This is important if you want to preserve the angle of view with some lenses.

The video is great, both HD and 4K. Right out of the camera with no Picture Profile enabled, the video looks sharp and high-contrast with colors that pop. Because of the aforementioned issue with highlight clipping, you really need to shoot with one of the flatter Picture Profiles for your best chance of preserving them, though interestingly the highlight and shadow reproduction in video at high ISO sensitivities looks better than in stills. And while there's some noise jitter at high ISO sensitivities, it's still terrific in low light -- far better than anything I've seen in its price class thus far. (I did not test recording to an external drive.) It really makes we want to see what Sony's done with the video-optimized A7S II.

Analysis samples

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As you'd expect, the A7R II's JPEGs are pristine at low ISO sensitivities, though you can see some moire in the brush bristles. Lori Grunin/CNET
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The JPEGs are excellent through ISO 1600, but you start to see some noise in the shadow areas at that point (look at the white brush in the shadow of the brush on the left). Smoothing from noise reduction becomes visible at ISO 3200, though even at ISO 6400 it still looks very good. Lori Grunin/CNET
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Even at ISO 12800 the camera's JPEGs retain a significant amount of detail, and though noise is quite visible at ISO 25600 and above, photos remain reasonably usable -- depending upon your needs, of course -- all the way to the top of its ISO sensitivity range. Lori Grunin/CNET
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Unfortunately, starting at about ISO 12800, horizontal lines start appearing across the mid-to-dark areas of images. It's not just the JPEGs, it's in the raw files as well, both in Adobe's raw codec and the Sony-specific Capture One. It's more noticeable when the images are viewed scaled down, but you can still see them at 100 percent. Lori Grunin/CNET
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In its default standard Creative Style, the A7R II renders a very neutral white balance, saturating the colors without pushing the hues to shift. Lori Grunin/CNET
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The Neutral Creative Style dials back on the increased contrast and saturation of the Standard style, though it maintains the sharpness. Lori Grunin/CNET
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Not all lenses resolve the maximum detail of the sensor. Sony's relatively inexpensive 28-70mm zoom can't compare to the company's own Zeiss offerings (like the Sonnar T* 55mm f1.8 ZA). Lori Grunin/CNET

Performance

It's not the fastest camera -- the Nikon D750 is the standard to beat at the moment -- but the A7R II fits solidly in the middle of the full-frame pack, and its performance is pretty consistent whether you're using a middling lens like the 28-70mm or a good prime like the 55mm f1.8. What did surprise me is that it's roughly the same speed as the A7 II.

It takes about 1.5 seconds to power on, focus and shoot; slow startup is one of the general weaknesses of interchangeable-lens models compared to dSLRs. Autofocus is much improved over previous models, running about 0.3 second in both good and dim light. The original A7R used Sony's pokey 25-area contrast autofocus system; this model not only incorporates the hybrid phase detection/contrast autofocus system that appeared in later Alpha models, but it includes 399 phase-detection points covering 45 percent of the image area (the contrast AF is still the 25-area system).

Two sequential shots, either JPEG or raw, takes a relatively slow 0.7 second, but that's not surprising given the amount of data the 42-megapixel camera has to move around. Although given the lower-resolution A7 II's similar performance, that's probably not the cause.

It can sustain a burst at roughly 4.9fps, with autofocus and autoexposure, in either raw or JPEG for 24 shots before slowing significantly. You can start a new burst immediately, but it takes a while to write the photos to the card. And it holds up pretty well shooting raw+JPEG continuously as well. The autofocus isn't the fastest, but then neither is the continuous shooting. By way of analogy, both the burst and autofocus seem up to the speed of a typical Citi Bike rider but not delivery bicyclist, or a fast walker as opposed to a runner.

Thanks to the addition of the phase-detection autofocus, there are a bunch of new autofocus mode options: wide, nine-area zone, center, flexible spot, expanded flexible spot, and the mouthful lock-on AF flexible spot with expanded flexible spot (object tracking). With many lenses you have the ability to manually choose phase detection vs. contrast, though it may require a firmware update for some older Sony lenses. This makes it compatible with lots of dSLR lenses as well, via adapters like Sony's LA-EA4 and Metabones' recently updated adapter firmware with phase-detection support.

The camera can continuously display the areas/points/objects, and it's quite interesting to watch it switch among them. My one complaint is that its lock-on AF area automatically grows to encompass the entire object; you can't set it to track a smaller area. It does seem to track out to the edges of the frame though.

You can also set the video autofocus speed to fast, normal or slow, which can help minimize the focus pulsing in continuous AF, as well as set AF tracking sensitivity to normal or high to reduce the frequency with which it refocuses on subjects passing in front of the camera.

Like the A7 II, the A7R II incorporates Sony's 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization system, so you can benefit from it with every lens. I cannot stress enough how welcome this is. I was able to handhold consistently for stills down to 1/8 sec. with the 35mm f1.4 ZA lens and to 1/15 sec. with the Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8; that's pretty good for me, and steady-handed folks will be able to do much better. Same goes for stabilization during video.

But don't get me started on the battery life. Basically, when you're not shooting, you're charging. You need a minimum of two batteries for a day's worth of work with this camera, especially if you're a heavy viewfinder user. As with drone-battery life, which is equally bad, we've gotten used to the the limited battery life of most mirrorless interchangeable-lens models. But one important advantage a dSLR has over cameras like this for pro shooting is the battery life, which tends to be three to four times better.

Shooting speed

Sony A7R II 0.3 0.3 0.7 0.7 1.5Nikon D750 0.4 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.2Sony A7 II 0.4 0.4 0.7 0.7 1.3
  • Typical shutter lag
  • Dim-light shutter lag
  • JPEG shot-to-shot time
  • Raw shot-to-shot time
  • Time to first shot
Note: Seconds (Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Typical continuous-shooting speed

Sony A7 II 4.8Sony A7R II 4.9Nikon D750 6.6
Note: Frames per second (Longer bars indicate better performance)

Design and features

With only a few exceptions, the A7R II is an exceptionally well designed camera. The dust-and-weather-sealed magnesium-alloy body has a substantial grip and thumb rest that helps to balance heavier lenses, even when shooting single-handed.

On the sloping grip sits the power switch and the shutter button. Here we come to my first issue: the more I use the A7 series cameras, the more I hate the mushy shutter button. If you're used to the snappy, responsive shutter on a dSLR, the A7R II's might bug you as well. When there's autofocus lag it feels even more sluggish, and it makes the camera feel slow overall, and with manual focus it still feels like you have to depress it with a heavy touch.

The top controls include a locking mode dial with the usual manual, semimanual and automatic modes, plus two slots for memory recall, a sweep panorama mode and a dedicated movie mode; while you can shoot video with manual controls in the other modes, you use the movie mode specifically when recording to external devices via HDMI. In addition to the two slots on the mode dial, the camera lets you save four more sets.

Two of the four programmable function buttons are on top, as is a physical exposure-compensation dial. As with most prosumer cameras, there are two operating dials, one in front and one in back. Next to the back dial is the third programmable button. On the back you'll find a switch with a button that toggles between manual and automatic focus modes or to control autoexposure lock.

The Fn button below brings up the quick-access settings -- you can control which options appear on that screen -- plus the dial with clickable regions that default to drive mode, display options and ISO sensitivity. Below is the review button plus the last programmable button.

You see that flat button on the side? That's the hard-to-feel-and-press record button. Sarah Tew/CNET

On the outside of the thumb rest is the terribly flat, hard-to-feel and hard-to-press record button. Yes, you can program any of the other buttons to use for recording, but I'd rather have the intended button do what it was meant to do, and I usually have other uses for the programmable buttons. I also wish the camera allowed for mapping the movie formats to a button the way it supports still-image formats or could directly access the Picture Profiles.

The NFC touch spot and card slot are on the grip; it would be great if the camera had two SD card slots like many of the cameras in its class do.

On the left side, the strap hook annoyingly blocks the latch to the mic and jacks, which at least have a different cover than the USB and HDMI connectors.

The tilting LCD is excellent, as is the high-magnification viewfinder. As with almost all the cameras that support autoswitching between the viewfinder and the display, I really wish there were a sensitivity setting; frequently, it switches to the viewfinder when I'm shooting below eye level but close to my body. I usually have to waste one of the programmable buttons to control it manually.

We're also getting to the point where the menu system is becoming somewhat overburdened. The camera menu has nine screens and the settings menu has eight. While it's easy enough to move from section to section, it's hard to remember which screen some of the settings are located.

The A7 models -- all of them -- have had some of the loudest slapping shutters I've ever heard. Sony has a new unit that the company claims has half the vibration of the A7R, and it adds a manually selectable electronic first curtain (which triggers it faster with only a single slap) and a truly silent all-electronic shutter mode. The latter is a bit disconcerting, as it provides zero feedback. At first I couldn't tell if it was actually shooting. More important, as I use the A7 series, I increasingly dislike the mushy shutter mechanism, which requires a heavier touch than I like.

Sony's video PIcture Profiles let you control the gamma; tonal curves and color spaces; black levels and knee (the point at which the blacks clip); color saturation, phase and depth; and edge sharpening. The flat profile uses S-Log2 gamma, which as far as I can tell is the only one that manages to preserve any highlights; I'm not sure if the S-Log3 profile or new gamuts announced with the A7S II will be available as a firmware upgrade for this camera.

Oddly, the Picture Profiles aren't available when silent shooting is on, and I wish Sony had labeled the profiles with something more expansive than "PP1". The profiles also automatically set the minimum ISO sensitivity.

The camera has two useful audio-out options, Live and Lip Sync, which are essentially video-quality priority and audio-sync-priority modes.

Like the rest of Sony's recent cameras, the A7R II incorporates Wi-Fi and NFC for connecting to mobile devices and supports Sony's PlayMemories system for downloading and adding apps to augment the camera's capabilities. PlayMemories has gotten a lot easier to deal with, thanks to the recently added ability to connect the camera to your computer to download. But when you spend this much on a camera, it seems a bit nickel-and-dimey to charge you between $5 or $10 for features like aperture bracketing (Bracket Pro) or lens corrections (Lens Compensation).

Conclusion

With better performance, a better design and an expanded feature set over the original A7R, it really is worth the upgrade if you've got reason to consider it. If you're trying to decide whether the $900 (roughly £1,100, AU$1,600) price difference between the original A7R and the Mark II is worth it, I'd say that depends on whether you shoot video, use autofocus or work in environments where silent operation matters; if you do, then yes, it's worth the extra bucks.

Given that you can use your Canon or Nikon lenses with the camera, it's also worth considering as a second body for those systems. However, if you're not in a rush, you might want to wait for the expected firmware update later this year before making the investment.

Comparative specifications

Sony A7 II Sony Alpha A7R Sony A7R II Sony Alpha A7S II
Sensor effective resolution 24.3MP Exmor CMOS
14-bit
36.4MP Exmor CMOS
14-bit
42.4MP Exmor R CMOS
14-bit
12.2MP Exmor CMOS
14-bit
Sensor size 35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x
OLPF Yes No No Yes
Sensitivity range ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 25600
ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 25600
ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 - ISO 25600/102400 (exp) ISO 50
(exp)/ISO 100 - ISO 102400/ ISO 409600 (exp)
Burst shooting 5fps
n/a
1.5fps
(4fps with fixed focus)
n/a
5fps
23 raw/24 JPEG
2.5fps
(5fps with fixed exposure and focus)
59 raw/100 JPEG
Viewfinder
(mag/ effective mag)
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x
OLED EVF
0.5 in./1.3 cm
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.78x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.78x
Hot Shoe Yes Yes Yes Yes
Autofocus Hybrid AF system
Full frame: 25-area contrast AF; 117-pt phase-
detection
APS-C: 25-area contrast AF; 99-point phase detection
25-area contrast AF 399-point phase-detection AF, 25-area contrast AF 169-point contrast AF
AF sensitivity
(at center point)
-1 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV -2 - 20 EV -4 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs.; bulb; 1/250 sec. x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs.; bulb; 1/250 sec. x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs.; bulb; 1/250 sec. x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs.; bulb; 1/250 sec. x-sync
Metering 1,200 zones 1,200 zones 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering sensitivity -1 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV -3 - 20 EV -3 - 20 EV
Best video XAVC S 1080/60p, 720/120p @ 50Mbps; AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28Mbps, 1080/60i/ 24p @ 24Mbps XAVC S 4K 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps XAVC S 4K UHD 2160/30p, 25p, 24p @ 100Mbps; 1080/120p @ 100Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input; jack Stereo; mic input; jack Stereo; mic input; jack Stereo; mic input; jack
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Yes
Maximum best-quality recording time 29 min. n/a 29 min./2GB 29:59 min.
Clean HDMI out Yes Yes Yes Yes
IS Optical Optical Sensor shift
5 axis
Sensor shift
5 axis
LCD 3 in./7.5cm
Tilting
921,600 dots plus extra set of white dots
3 in./7.5cm
Tilting
921,600 dots
3 in./7.5cm
Tilting
921,600 dots plus extra set of white dots
3 in./7.5cm
Tilting
921,600 dots plus extra set of white dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless connection Wi-Fi, NFC Wi-Fi, NFC Wi-Fi, NFC Wi-Fi, NFC
Flash No No No No
Wireless flash No No No Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 270 shots (VF), 350 shots (LCD)
(1,080mAh)
340 shots
(1,080mAh)
290 shots (VF); 340 shots (LCD)
(1,080mAh)
310 shots (VF), 370 shots (LCD)
(1,080mAh)
Size (WHD) 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.4 in.
126.9 x 95.7 x 59.7 mm
5.0 x 3.8 x 1.9 in.
126.9 x 94.4 x 48.2 mm
5.0 x 3.9 x 2.4 in.
126.9 x 95.7 x 60.3 mm
4.7 x 2.7 x 1.5 in.
127 x 96 x 60 mm
Body operating weight 22.2 oz.
628 g
17.2 oz.
487.6 g
22.5 oz.
638 g
22.1 oz. (est.)
627 g (est.)
Mfr. price
(body only)
$1,700
£1,620
AU$2,300
$2,300
£1,700
AU$2,900
$3,200
£2,800
AU$4,500
$3,000
AU$4,300 (est.)
Release date December 2014 December 2013 August 2015 October 2015
sony-a7r-01.jpg
8.4

Sony A7R II

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 7Image quality 9
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