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

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Sony Alpha A7R II

(Part #: ILCE-7RM2)
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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.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Image quality 9.0

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.

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.

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

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
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
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
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
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
The Neutral Creative Style dials back on the increased contrast and saturation of the Standard style, though it maintains the sharpness. Lori Grunin/CNET
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.

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