We recently did a quick preview of Sony's new A7 Mark II, the brand new revision to last year's full-frame mirrorless camera. Since then I've had a chance to spend significantly more quality time with the Mark II, and am ready to ruminate on what's better and worse on version two.
In my last post, I wrote mostly about the A7 Mark II's 5-axis stabilisation system, which is by far the most significant upgrade. The system does what it says, besting the capabilities of any optically stabilised lens. With the Mark II, I was able to drop my shutter speed to 1/25, even 1/15, without any blur in my photos. Keep in mind though, that this was when I was extremely focused on keeping my body and hands perfectly still. When you're shooting more casually, don't expect to drop the shutter speed quite so much for sharp results. Also, many people forget that stabilisation systems will not help you at all if your subject is moving. Getting blur-free photos of your kids, for example, will not be easier with 5-axis stabilisation. Its main utility is in shooting stationary scenes without a tripod. Still, 5-axis sensor shift is a huge advantage. It's not quite as impressive as the similar system that Olympus uses in its high-end mirrorless cameras, but it does make a difference, and Sony is the first to implement such a system on a full-frame camera.
You would think the added guts would drain battery life, but somehow — according to Sony — the battery life is actually very slightly increased on the Mark II. I didn't notice much of a difference in practice, and in general the battery life is still really poor, but it's pretty amazing it doesn't drain even faster than the original.
But there are many more smaller alterations on the A7 Mark II, both inside and out, that your average ultra-particular photographer is going to want to take stock of. I have the advantage of owning an original A7. I have been shooting with it for almost a year, and know it inside and out.
Upon first picking up the Mark II, I was impressed with how much more tactile and professional it felt. The body is almost fully outfitted with a nicely textured magnesium alloy shell, ditching the shiny plastic of the original. The beefier grip is nice, but I'm not convinced the difference makes any kind of...difference. Also changed is an ever-so-slight increase in body size and a fair amount of added weight. Whether this is a pro or con is highly subjective. Some will feel that the added heft actually helps make the camera feel more stable in the hand and less like a toy. To others, it will be more burdensome.
Many minor changes have been made to the layout and action of the buttons on the Mark II. On the top, things have a bit more breathing room, with the aperture wheel moved onto the grip along with the shutter button. There are now two custom function buttons up top instead of one, and they are both easier to find and press with the finger. I like these changes overall, however I do miss the larger and more click-y feel of the old aperture and shutter control wheels. The newly reduced size makes them a bit harder to locate blind, and the action has been dampened. Maybe Sony was going for silence over feel, which they achieved, but I'm not sure I like that tradeoff. I am disappointed that the shutter button hasn't been improved too. It was, and still is, very mushy. There is no distinct 'click' between a half-press and full-press. I hate that. One thing has been improved and that's the sound of the shutter. It's still fairly loud as far as mirrorless cameras go, and you don't have the option of a fully silent electronic shutter like you do on the A7s, but the noise has been subdued a bit, and sounds more pleasant on the Mark II.
On the rear of the Mark II, the biggest change is to the two buttons flanking the EVF — a menu button and custom function button. On the original A7, these were incredible mushy and hard to press because they were so close to the ridge of the LCD panel which sits just below them. On the Mark II, the two buttons are larger, with more distinct action, and sit on a slant making them easier to press. My biggest gripe about the revamped back panel is the tilting LCD display. Although it has the benefit of extending with more clearance from the body than before, it suffers greatly because it's so hard to flip out. The bottom of the display where you would use a finger to casually tilt the screen away from the camera is now almost flush with the body. This means there's nothing for your finger to grasp. I literally have to wedge my nail into the seam to flip out the screen. Super annoying. Also annoying is the apparent reduction in quality of the electronic viewfinder. This isn't listed as a spec change, but look through the Mark II's EVF side by side with the original in low light, the newbie definitely has more noise in low light. It's nothing major, but still makes you think, "WTF?"
The following images were all shot RAW and exported to JPG through Lightroom. View full resolution versions on our Flickr gallery.
The A7 Mark II is billed as having 30% faster focusing, due to an improved algorithm (as opposed to new hardware). Focus speed from camera-to-camera is hard to judge, and when you are talking about only a 30 per cent difference, your eyes can play tricks on you. But what I can say is that it certainly seemed a little bit faster when shooting in extremely dim situations. New to the Mark II is the lock-on AF tracking feature that Sony introduced in the a6000 last year. It works fairly well, though we didn't have an a6000 to compare it to.
Video shooters were disappointed with the image quality of the original A7. It was riddled with rainbow moire patterns and jagged aliasing artefacts. It really just didn't cut the mustard, especially with its outdated AVCHD codec. Sony replied by introducing the A7s, a model tailor-made for video. That camera delivered in a big way, with really great image quality and insane low-light performance.
The A7 Mark II also incorporates the newer XAVC-S codec and a host of image and audio control options found in the A7s. That's great, but the footage still doesn't sing. It's an improvement for sure, with visibly less moire in areas of detail. But there is still quite a bit of it, and there is virtually no increase in overall resolution.
Here's a GIF of how bad the moire can get on the Mark II:
It's a big disappointment, because the 5-axis stabilisation is such a great feature for steadying shaky hand-held footage. But it's mostly wasted on sub-par image quality. A more minor video issue which incised A7 owners was the awkward record button placement, and the inability to map that function to the shutter button. Well, nothing's changed. You're still stuck with the same way of starting a video clip.
Video shooters who want a great image will have to hope that a future version of the A7s is introduced with the 5-axis system. It's anything but a sure bet, because Sony needs to differentiate their models, and right now, the big reason to buy the A7 mark II is the 5-axis stabilisation. Unfortunately for video shooters, it is still hobbled by lacklustre image quality.
If you're in the market for a high-end mirrorless camera, I would say the A7 Mark II is a stellar choice. You can't find the combination of still image quality and stabilisation in any other system, and the price is pretty darn good at $US1700. The native E-mount lens system is still limited, but Sony is investing heavily in it, and you can be sure many lenses will roll out in the coming year or two. In the mean time, you can have a blast adapting legacy lenses from Leica to Canon. Sadly, video shooters are still better off with the A7s and optically stabilised lenses. And if you're a current A7 owner, its a judgment call whether its worth selling your camera for a grand or so and investing more money in the Mark II.