New Sony a7R II: First Impressions

An interior under incandescent illumination at ISO 1600 with the Sony a7R II at 1/40 second at f8.

I finally got my hands on a new Sony a7r Mark II camera last week and, so far, I’m very impressed. I spent some time coming to terms with the menus, buttons and dials (I’m about half way there) prior to heading out for an evening photography session in the City of Melbourne.

Stairs at Southbank, Melbourne photographed with the Sony a7r II camera. Out of camera JPEG.

One Lens To Rule Them All

I wanted to keep the session as basic as possible. I used a single lens: the lovely Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4, and set the camera up for autofocus via the back button focus feature. I know some folks will feel it folly not to be working with focus peaking, but my approach is simple. Get used to the camera, one operation at a time. And, for the first few days, auto focus will be just fine.

I think this approach is also important as, believe it or not, there will be folks out there who will use this camera on Program or, so called, intelligent Auto exposure modes and may never deviate from Auto Focus. Many will need to know how accurate the camera will focus, when set to Auto Focus, under low light conditions.

Stairs at Southbank, Melbourne photographed with the Sony a7r II camera. RAW image processed in Lightroom. ISO 800, 1/200 second @ f4. 

OM Lenses

The term OM stands for Other Manufacturers. In this case meaning manufactures other than Sony.

I expect to do a test with the new Metabones Mark IV adaptor and some older Canon lenses, belonging to an old friend, in the next day or so. I’II report those findings when the time comes.

I have a few Nikon lenses, but just don’t think they’ll be a good fit for the Sony a7R Mark II camera. I’m referring here, primarily, to their size and weight. For tripod based work they’ll probably be fine, but for hand-held photography they’ll likely be a bit tippy. The comfortable balance between camera and lens can so easily be lost when mounting lenses not designed and manufactured with the camera in question. 

As far as my Nikon lenses are concerned I expect I’II put them up for sale, together with my Nikon D800e camera, in the next few days.

A night time view of Southgate, Melbourne with the new Sony a7R II camera. ISO 1600, 1/15 second @ f4. RAW image processed in Lightroom.

Leica Dreams Can Come True

I have 3 spectacular Leica lenses and have just ordered an adaptor so that I can use them with this lovely, new Sony camera. They’re manual focus lenses, but I believe I’II be able to work with them without too much trouble.

Interesting I handled a Leica M240 camera the other day. It has the traditional rangefinder focusing system and I was very happy to discover that my eyes are still able to manage this lovely and unique focusing system. That’s good to know if a suitable Leica camera appears over the next few years.

In the meantime I’II be using my wonderful Leica lenses with the Sony a7R II camera with its rather unique approach to manual focusing.

No doubt it will take me a few sessions before I’m familiar with the camera. Again, my plan is to add one or two new features, approaches or technologies with every session. Bear in mind that this very first session was conducted, for the most part, in the dark. Tiny black buttons and black dials on a black camera body can be tricky to navigate. Once you know what you’re looking for this can be done largely by feel and via muscle memory. But, given the circumstances under which I was working, I think the simplistic approach I brought to this first session working with the new Sony camera made a whole lot of sense.

Here’s how I set the camera.

A lift illuminated by artificial light at Southbank, Melbourne. Sony a7r II camera at ISO 1600. ⅛ second @ f8. RAW image processed in Lightroom.

Image Quality

I set the camera for simultaneous RAW and JPEG. I only ever work in RAW mode but, as I know many of you prefer to set your camera to JPEG, I’ve included some out of the camera JPEGs for the purpose of comparison.

A night time photo of an impressive spiral staircase at Southbank in Melbourne. ISO 6400, ⅛ second @ f8. RAW image processed in Lightroom.

High ISO Noise Reduction

I’m going to include images here without any Noise Reduction applied in Lightroom. While that would be part of my normal workflow I decided to try the in-camera High ISO Noise Reduction setting, which I set to Medium (the highest/most aggressive setting), mainly for the sake of the camera-generated JPEG files. Again this is what novice users would usually, knowingly or otherwise, opt for.

An ISO 12800 image made at Southbank, Melbourne on a pretty gloomy winters' evening.  Camera-generated JPEG image with no extra noise reduction applied on the desktop. 

As the evening progressed and light levels became very low I pushed the sensor up to ISO 6400 and ISO 12800. I did notice a fair amount of artifacts appear in the camera’s electronic viewfinder (EVF). I was expecting this and, while not ideal, it didn’t bother me too much. To be clear the worst of these artifacts were appearing only in the viewing system and are not to be confused with camera-generated noise associated with high ISO and/or long exposures.

An ISO 12800 image made at Southbank, Melbourne with the Sony a7R II camera on a pretty gloomy winters' evening.  RAW image with an extra 70 Luminance noise reduction applied in Lightroom.

While my normal practice is to Expose To The Right (ETTR), working hand-held at very low light levels prevented me from doing this as often as I’d like without pushing the ISO too far. What’s more as camera-generated JPEG files were important to this exercise I was happy to judge exposure largely in camera through what, under normal lighting conditions, is a quite extraordinary EVF.

It’s a fact that most folks set their camera to JPEG and do not process their images on the desktop. Not my workflow, but this post is written for a relatively wide potential user group. Please understand this fact.

ISO and Shutter Speed

To make the process as easy as possible I decided to work entirely handheld, without a tripod and without the advantage of a HDR workflow. These images are basically made on the go, at average to very low Shutter Speeds and high to very high ISO’s.

Rather than testing the absolute resolution qualities of sensor and lens, under ideal working conditions, I decided to make the test as real world as possible.

Illuminated signage photographed with the new Sony a7R II camera hand-held at ISO 800. 1/40 second @ f13. RAW image processed in Lightroom.

White Balance

I kept this to Daylight as I feel this is the best place from which to begin night photography. The Daylight white balance basically means the camera is not trying to correct the color of the light. So, when it comes to photographing one or more different kinds of light source, such as you’d find outdoors at night, you’ll accurately be recording the color of those light sources.

If you don’t like the color of your images it’s easy to change the white balance in camera or, if it’s your preference, on the desktop for those folks working in RAW. I just like to get the image looking as good as possible in camera. So, while I work in RAW mode, I start with the Daylight white balance and change it, in-camera, as I deem fit.

When photographing during daylight hours I’ve found that, under most circumstances, the Cloudy white balance produces the best results. 

Approaching The Devils Number

One thing about us old Landscape photographers, who’ve spent most of our time working with film-based cameras, is that we rarely, if ever, get trigger happy. Although the light was flat and uninteresting I feel I made the most of the 2 hours I was out and about.

I did quite a bit of experimenting and photographed a range of scenes that would be difficult for any camera (e.g., low light, high dynamic range scenes with large areas of quite dense shadows) without the use of a tripod or a HDR workflow.

At the end of the session I’d made 67 images, including one of my feet as I was walking. Once deleted I ended up with, well, not my favorite number. You know, only one digit away from you know what. Look I know it’s superstition, but that’s the power of fable. 88 seems like a much more well balanced destination. Just look at it, perfect symmetry.

A luminous piece of street art at Hosier Lane, Melboure made with the Sony a7r II camera at ISO 800, 1/250 second @ f4.

Light, Color and Composition

I’m a photographer and all my photos are based upon light, color and composition. Subject and story are important, but I’m becoming increasingly interested in mood, feeling and atmosphere. After all, photos that are successful strike an emotive response from our viewers. The above photo was made during my second session working with the Sony a7R II camera.

When color isn’t so important I’m composing the image with a black and white rendering in mind. When light and/or composition aren’t all that great I’II move until they are or, alternatively, I’II move on.

I’II continue posting my initial findings associated with the new Sony a7R II camera over coming days.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru