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Sony Alpha 7 Mark II

April 29, 2015

Smartphone cameras are getting ever more powerful and capable nowadays – as a matter of fact, some think it’s just a matter of time before a new innovation or app surfaces and gives these cameras the power and capabilities of a DSLR.

That day may be far off, if ever it is indeed to come – and until then, we’ll have to look to cutting-edge cameras like the Sony Alpha 7 II to help us take truly awesome photos.

Details and specs
The Alpha 7 II is one of the latest in the company’s range of full-frame mirrorless cameras, which aims to meet the needs of more serious photography buffs who want cameras that can take killer photos, but which aren’t as bulky as the usual DSLR.

What truly distinguishes the A7 II from its Sony brethren – and from all others out there at this point in time – is its optical five-axis SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization feature, which counters issues such as angular shake or pitch and yaw, shift shake or movement along the X and Y axes, and rotational shake or roll. The A7 II is the very first full-frame camera to come with this feature. In short, this camera helps users take sharper, clearer images in situations that would normally have required a tripod for extra stability.

Additionally, the A7 II is the first member of the Alpha 7 family to undergo a substantial change in body design in the spirit of making it even more usable than its predecessor. In keeping with the fact that the A7 II’s magnesium-alloy body is somewhat larger and bulkier than the original 7 (necessary due to the image-stabilization feature), the A7 II boasts a meatier handgrip, making it extremely comfortable to hold and use.

The control layout has also been refined – the front- and rear-facing control dials are smaller and recessed into the camera body to prevent accidental actuation, and the shutter button is now larger and atop the grip itself (in the A7 it was placed on top of the camera body). Plus, there’s an extra custom function button on the camera body itself.

Size-wise, the A7 II weighs in at around 1.2 lbs without a lens, and measures 3.8 x 5 x 2.4 inches (HWD). As mentioned previously, it’s relatively larger and bulkier than the A7; whether that’s an unwelcome thing is up to the user, but this heft doesn’t really degrade the camera’s performance.

As befits a top-end Sony camera – par for the course in the rarified segment in which it plays – the A7 II has the specs it needs to do well in this arena. It boasts a 24.3MP, 35mm full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor; the advanced BIONZ X image-processing engine; and a 117-point focal plane phase-detection AF sensor.

Other features of interest: The A7 II also comes with an XGA OLED Tru-Finder viewfinder with very high resolution and contrast (2.36M dot); built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, to make sharing your pictures a breeze; and a 3-in 1,228.8k-dot tilting LCD monitor (more on which later).

What it’s like to use
We put the Alpha 7 II through its paces and came away suitably impressed. Not only does it take good photos, which is of course par for the course for this sort of camera, it’s also super easy to use.

And additionally, with this camera, Sony is staying true to the trails it’s blazed with its a7 series – a range of usable professional cameras that bucked the “smaller, smaller” trend of point-and-shoots, and even other mirrorless cameras.

First off, we have to tackle the elephant in the room: the A7 II’s heft. Those of you who’ve cut your teeth on minuscule mirrorless cameras may well wince when picking the A7 II up. While not DSLR-big, it’s not small either, and it demands to be used with two hands (or maybe a tripod). But that heft comes courtesy of the image stabilizer, so no quibbles.

Fit and finish is just plain excellent, as befits a Sony that also happens to be at or near the top of the line. The A7 II is just rock solid and all its switchgear feels like lasting quality.

Those of you alternating between using the viewfinder and the screen might be surprised, as we were, at the sensitivity of the eye sensor (that autoselects which of the two to switch to). It’s so sensitive, as a matter of fact, that running one’s finger or even the camera strap in front of the viewfinder is enough to trip the switch. Not a dealbreaker by any means but something to watch out for.

Taking photos and video
The pictures we took with the A7 II were excellent, as can be expected of a camera at this level. Just as with any pro-level camera, you can of course select between Auto mode and a plethora of manual modes depending on your needs, skill level and/or the situation.

The large, meaty grip is simply outstanding, making the camera very comfortable to hold and operate. It’s definitely an improvement over the A7’s, and far better than that of many other cameras.

When snapping shots, we were impressed by how quick and responsive the Alpha 7 II felt. No beating around the bush with this fellow – it took pictures immediately, making older DSLRs and other cameras seem a bit pokey by comparison. (The downside to it is how loud the shutter can get when you’re taking pictures – and note that it can’t be silenced, so just make sure you’re not in a place where shutter noise will be a problem.)

Plus this camera’s key feature, its image stabilization capabilities, really help it fly when you’re out and about taking pictures. It just works, and works well. For instance, we had no need to brace the camera to the chest for added stability when taking many pictures.

You’ll just need to figure out if this IS feature is worth the added heft. Some people might well find said heft a dealbreaker, while others might be alright with the tradeoff. A test is in order to determine whether it’s right for you.

The tilting LCD was another standout feature, easily allowing for the A7 II to be used at high or low angles without needing to resort to guesswork. It’s an impressive LCD – shots set up through it are true to the actual shot. Of course if you’d rather not use the LCD, go ahead and take shots using the high-res viewfinder – it works perfectly well as well.

The interface took a tiny bit of acclimatization at the start, but once we figured out where everything was – a process that took just a few minutes – we were good to go and never needed to look back. The redesigned controls are easy to operate and the overall interface a snap to use, whether you’re taking photos in Auto or you’re fiddling with the manual settings. The large number of customizable buttons is a boon to those who like to switch settings, but who don’t want to waste any time jumping between them when in the heat of the moment. And the dials are less obtrusive and accidentally actuated than before – always a very welcome change.

Video worked out great; all you need to do to take videos is hit the red record button on the right and to the side, and you’re in business. Users are able to select between a range of automatic shooting modes and manual ones to take video, and there are also more advanced features such as markers and dual video record (allows users to capture both high- and low-quality video at the same time).

The integrated mic wasn’t the best – the sound was always a little muffled even when it was at its relative best – so consider an external mic if you really do need to take video. We also recommend a tripod to ensure consistency – the A7 II is, after all, a bit on the hefty side – but you can trust the IS to do its best for shorter videos and “action vids” taken while on the go.

While the lack of a touchscreen will doubtlessly irritate some people, we didn’t actually miss one; the A7 II’s bevy of manual controls and customizable buttons go a long way towards compensating for it not having a touchscreen.

Oh, and we weren’t able to test this feature, but the camera also lets you stitch together panorama shots just by selecting the requisite setting, firing away and moving the unit from left to right.

Conclusion
So there you have it, the Sony Alpha 7 II. It’s right on the cutting edge, being the only full-frame mirrorless camera to feature in-body image stabilization. (For many people, this will be enough of a reason to buy one.)

It’s a tad larger and heavier than other mirrorless cameras are, but that comes courtesy of its keystone feature, its five-axis sensor-based image stabilization system. However you see it – whether the weight is a minus, a plus or not an issue – this heft and handling translate into excellent performance and noteworthy shots.

Other key features of the A7 II, such as its multiple custom buttons, articulating screen and excellent viewfinder just sweeten the pot.

The Alpha 7 II is very well put-together, exceedingly capable and great to use; this one’s a camera you can’t afford to pass up on if you’re in the market for such a unit.