Years ago when I was a newspaper photographer I visited a U.S. Navy research vessel that carried a deep-diving submersible called the Sea Cliff. This small deep submergence vehicle routinely plunged to 20,000 feet below the ocean’s surface for scientific studies of the ocean floor. The scientists who rode along in the DSV would place bags of styrofoam cups on the outside of the vehicle when they performed their dives. The incredible pressure at those depths crushed the styrofoam and shrunk the cups to the size of sewing thimbles. Before they sent the cups below, they would decorate them with felt tip pens so when shrunken down they would appear as intricate decorations on the tiny cups. When they returned home they would give out the amazing souvenirs to friends and supporters. Why do I bring up the story of the Sea Cliff and its tiny little cups? The Sony A7RII is kind of like those cups. The first thing I noticed when I picked up the Sony A7RII was it’s heft. For a small form factor camera it’s surprisingly heavy and solid, kind of like someone put a full frame DSLR under intense pressure and produced a sharper, smaller version. Now you get the story, right?
Considering the incredible collection of technology the engineers at Sony have crammed into the A7RII, the diminutive size is really astounding. No where else will you find a 42+ megapixel, full-frame, back-side illuminated CMOS sensor floating within a magnetically-generated 5-axis stabilization frame. Add to that innovation the 399 phase-detected autofocus points and you have a whole lot of data being generated, and that information is powered, processed, stored, and presented by layers upon layers of circuitry and gadgetry. This dense assortment of stuff is wrapped in a metal shell that Sony technical experts assure me is up to the rigors of heavy-duty use in challenging environments. It’s no surprise that the camera feels so solid in the hand. With the battery on board, the camera weighs in at 625 grams, which is considerably less than the 950 grams of my trusty Canon 5D Mark III. At the end of a long day of shooting, those missing 325 grams are a welcome relief to tired old photographers like me. The young bucks can sling those D4’s and 1D X’s all day, but those of us with higher miles look to smaller, lighter gear to mitigate the toll of aging.
There are other features of the A7RII that bring joy to the hearts of the tired and lazy, the nicest of which is the articulating LCD screen. My Canon 5D Mark III and 7D Mark II have nice clear LCD screens, and when I am shooting landscapes and the camera is on the tripod, I am almost always using those screens in Live View mode. As long as the screen is close to my eye level, the arrangement is comfortable. As my students hear me say often, photographs made from eye level can be quite boring, so I try to get my camera lower or higher than eye level to crank up the interestingness. In Live View, that means my face has to get to the camera’s altitude to compose, focus, expose and confirm the shot. These tasks are often met with much groaning, rolling around on the ground, and gnashing of teeth as I play photo yoga with my camera. I picked up a CamRanger a couple of years ago, and with that installed on my Canon, I can use my iPhone or iPad as a remote Live View controller for the camera. It’s a wonderful thing that I have used many times to save my back and knees, but the contraption requires more cables, batteries and rip rap that serve to slow my roll. The articulating screen on the Sony pivots up and down to allow me to use the camera above head height and down to ground level. I use it all the time and it’s a thing of beauty. The A7RII also emits a WiFi signal that I can use with my iPhone or iPad to control the camera like the CamRanger; but it’s built in, not dangling off the camera like a wind chime. These two features alone are compelling reasons to look hard at the Sony.
How a camera feels in your hands is important. In the age of smartphones we’ve become trained to contort our hands and send our fingers sprawling about to tap and slide. We think nothing of tip-tapping long messages on tiny glass screens, and many cameras out today follow the path of expecting us to adapt to their design ethic. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and I wouldn’t go back to days of keypads and flip screens. Cameras aren’t phones, they are creative tools that when they become familiar become extensions of our wills.
The tactile interface between human and tech is critical when the tool is in hand for hours and hours at a time. A shutter button that is too far back or too small will eventually lead to fatigue, which in turn will sap creativity, which will kill the joy. When the joy is gone you’ll find another way to spend your creative juice and the camera will join the treadmill in the basement. Camera ergonomics have been a neglected topic in the design of many mirrorless cameras for way too long. Canon and Nikon have been masters of elegant ergonomics in their DSLRs for decades. For working pros and avid enthusiasts who carry their cameras for extended periods of time, the form factor of a beefy DSLR with those rubbery grips, fat buttons, and luscious dials make using those heavy beasts possible. Mirrorless camera makers have moved deliberately away from the DSLR aesthetic and embraced slab-sided retro designs that look great dangling from thin leather straps, but not so hot in the hand. We’ve forgiven this denial of comfort because the little mirrorless cameras are lighter and we haven’t looked to them to replace our “serious” cameras until now.
Sony has found a good compromise between the retro chic aesthetic and DSLR utilitarianism in the A7RII, (to be fair, they found this compromise with the A7II). The grip is a very nice size for my hand, and my right index finger falls naturally on the big smooth shutter button. The old A7 design put the shutter button high on the top plate which demanded a twist of the wrist to reach. My Fuji X-T1 suffers this flaw as well. My thumb nestles nicely on the protruding grip on the back of the camera within easy reach of the customizable buttons arrayed back there. The grip material seems to be the same rubbery stuff found on my Canon cameras. It works well when wet and offers just the right degree of tack to keep my hand in place, which over hours reduces the amount of grip pressure I have to use and thereby mitigates fatigue.
Sony’s A7 cameras feature a handful of custom buttons, and they are spread out around the camera to enhance their utility. This is such a welcome change from traditional cameras with their one button-one job methodology. My allowing for wide-ranging customization of buttons, you need fewer buttons. Fewer buttons means a cleaner interface, less openings in the camera shell, and a lighter camera. Sony’s deep and sometimes-confusing menu system can be almost completely ignored once you get the buttons on the camera configured just so. The function (Fn) button on the back opens a customizable menu where you can access critical camera functions. This is similar to the Canon and Fuji “Q” button and I’ve found that I really only need to dive into the menu system when I want to fiddle with things. I expect that once I truly have the camera set up right, my field trips to the menu will become more and more rare.
Let’s talk about the knobs. Sony only has two on the top plate of the A7RII: one for mode selection, the other for exposure compensation. I typically ignore both. I am a manual shooter 90% of the time, and if I wander from “M” it’s only over to “A” for Aperture Priority mode. The Sony has the usual alphabet soup on the mode knob, with two custom setting memory locations, movie, panorama, Shutter Speed Priority (S), and those two modes no self-respecting photographer should ever land on - P and AUTO. Seriously, Sony? P mode? AUTO? On a $3,200 professional-level camera? I had the opportunity to talk with one of the Vice Presidents of Sony America during the press event a couple of weeks ago and this came up. I explored him to consider removing the fully-automated modes from the A7 series of cameras. I’ll save this topic for a future post, as I clearly have some issues to explore there!
Back to the Mode knob. It is a locking dial, and I like this addition. There’s few things more distracting than discovering a few frames into something that the camera is on the wrong mode. The big knurled knob on the Sony does stand tall on the top plate and I am sure it would spin inadvertently as I pull the camera out of my bag. The neighboring exposure compensation dial does not have a lock, and I find this acceptable. I don’t use the EC dial much, and the one on the A7RII does seem stiff enough to discourage accidental spins. For the most part, it’s out of the way and out of mind.
The back of the A7RII is pretty standard fare for modern cameras. The LCD takes up the entire left ⅔ of the back, which leaves a small strip of real estate for buttons before you get back into grip country. In this space Sony has placed a control dial, a smattering of buttons, and a clever switch-and-button device for controlling focus and metering functions. This lever and button arrangement is customizable and many back-button focusers will enjoy using the button for that purpose.
The control dial on the back is a nice size, with a clean smooth feel. The wheel is clickable, and each of the quadrants can be customized to click control various things. The stock settings are familiar: drive speed, display, and ISO. The center button is the camera’s stock “Enter” button, but this too can be changed.
There are two other control dials on the camera, one is parked in front of the shutter button and the other on the back edge of the top plate on the right side. These dials are set up to control shutter speed (index finger) and aperture (thumb), and these can be reversed in the menus. I find the index finger dial works well for shutter speed, but the location of the thumb dial is too high for constant use, so I’ve programmed the control dial on the back to handle the aperture settings. This is so close to the classic Canon control layout that it feels like home.
Dials and buttons aside, the exterior of the A7RII is devoid of frills. Even the badging is understated. The metal shell is very nicely coated with a textured paint that feels tough and looks tougher. The matte finish is very classy in a Stealth Bomber sort of way. The trademark Sony orange ring at the lens flange is pretty cool. It adds a bit of attitude to this aesthetically-restrained body. Speaking in restrained, the small plastic hatches that cover the micro USB, HDMI, headphone and microphone ports are small, discreet and very tight fitting. This is a nice change from the cumbersome covers on many DSLRs and the flimsy flaps on most mirrorless cameras. The SD card hatch is also very solid and firm. There is no play in the door, like on my Canons and Fuji. No squeaks or insecurity there at all. Nicely done. On the base the battery door is just as robust as any Canon or Nikon door. The tripod socket is metal and based on teardown photos I’ve seen of the A7RII, you can replace the entire tripod socket plate easily should you need to.
The question of weather sealing is a valid one. How does the A7RII compare to its full-frame competitors? As a frequent landscape photographer who enjoys shooting in the rain, I am naturally concerned that my $3,200 investment will fail in the face of the elements. Sony Artisans Colby Brown and Brian Matiash routinely put their A7-series cameras in nasty conditions and they swear that they are up to the job. When I pressed a pair of Sony reps about this they were very careful not to claim any kind of weatherproof promises with the A7RII, but they did say that the camera has been designed and built to be robust in adverse conditions. I asked about gaskets, o-rings, and other waterproofing measures and they shrugged them off as marketing gimmicks. They pointed out that the largest vulnerability to a camera system’s weatherproofing is the body/lens mount. As a Canon L series lens owner I can attest to the flimsy nature of the rubber gasket on those lenses. What’s the point of installing thick seals on every button, dial and door only to leave the big seam between lens and camera open to the weather?
As someone who has soaked many cameras and lenses, I can testify to the resilience of modern cameras to water. Where I have always had my biggest challenges is controlling fogging inside of my lenses. I’ve shot for hours in driving rain (I do use a camera cover or towel to protect my gear from getting too soaked), and I have never had a camera die on me. I have, however, had many weather-sealed lenses fog up from water intrusion. The culprit is almost always the interlocking barrels that extend and retract to zoom and focus the lens. The Canon EF 24-105 F4L was the worst for this.
If the dominant risk to my gear is fogging of lenses due to water intrusion, the debate about the weather resistance of the body is mostly academic. The Sony A7RII has very little in the way of body gaskets, o-rings, and moisture barriers. The only obvious gasket is on the battery door. Does that mean the camera will soak up water like a sponge? Absolutely not. The camera is so tightly assembled and holes in the shell are relatively sparse that I don’t think the camera will have any problems in light rain. If the rain really kicks in, I will cover the camera. Simple as that. “But what about those Zodiac trips in Antarctica?” you ask. My answer… what freaking Zodiac trips in Antarctica? If I am going to travel to Antarctica and go all Nat Geo, you can bet I will protect my gear. Salt water will kill any camera, sealed or not. Storming a beach in a small boat with an unprotected camera is for the fool-hearty. The foolhardy usually care more about how they look than how their images look.
So I think the Sony A7RII is built to take a beating. Based on my limited experience shooting breakdancers in water, I can tell you the camera can get soaked. During the Sony event, I was drenched by splashing water in a hot and muggy warehouse. I was using a loaner A7RII and Sony lens, so I didn’t hold back or worry about the gear, I just got in the thick of it. There were other people doing the same on each side, and no body complained of foggy lenses or failing cameras.
From the outside, it seems the A7RII is ready for serious business. The ergonomics of the camera are set up to foster long days of shooting and the customizable nature of the system’s buttons, dials and menus will make it much easier to get past the technology and into the creative process. The A7RII may be the best camera I’ve ever used.
In future posts I will explore the A7RII’s autofocus prowess, image quality, compatibility with Canon L-series lenses, and general awesomeness. Stay tuned.