The spirit may move me to comment on one or two narrow aspects of my photographic journey from Sitka to Seattle, but I think it’s time for me to summarize my experiences. If you want to start this report from the beginning, look here.
A little context: as I said at the outset, I eliminated wildlife photography as an objective for the trip. This allowed me to leave the big Nikon cameras and glass at home, and afforded me a much lighter load, which advancing years have made more important to me than it once was. Once that objective was eliminated, the a7RII was a natural choice. In retrospect, I think it was the perfect choice for me. I got images of impressively high quality with ease while being relatively lightly burdened. That’s about as good as it gets for travel photography.
I now have made about 12,000 exposures with my two a7RII’s, not counting laboratory test images. Granted, many of those, especially on the Alaska trip, were for panoramas, and therefore probably should be derated, but I’ve spent enough time with the camera to form a set of opinions. They are mostly positive, in most cases, enthusiastically so. Once you eliminate the photographic situations in which the a7RII is not an appropriate tool, there are many great things about the camera, some good things about the camera, and a few negatives.
First off, the things the camera is not particularly good for:
- Fast action, such as sports or some kinds of wildlife photography. The native lenses just don’t autofocus fast enough, and the frame rate doesn’t go high enough.
- Use with very long lenses and nonstatic situations. The manual focusing on the a7RII and its siblings is about as good as it gets for a full frame camera, and in static situations that’s all you need. However, native long lenses are thin on the ground. I’m not a Canon shooter, so I can’t use the Canon big iron lenses, but that may be a way around this issue.
- Single shot, nosebleed megapixel landscapes. For that, you should probably buy an 80 megapixel Phase One, and be done with it.
It’s actually a pretty short list. I might think of a few more items, but those are the ones that might make a difference to me. How I deal with that list is by using the Nikon gear for fast action and/or long lenses, and stitching for extremely high resolution landscapes. If I can’t stitch, then 42 megapixels is going to have to be enough for me, and I don’t feel deprived at this point. My Hasselblad H2D-39 received very little use before I got my hands on the a7RII. It has received no use at all since.
Before I get to the advantages of the a7RII for the kind of photography I was doing on the trip, let me comment briefly on each of the five lenses that I took.
- The Leica 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar (WATE) is a perfect match for the camera. The lens is small and light, and fits the body well in that respect. While soft in the corners wide-open, stopping down to f/8 affords crisp performance across the frame, and even f/5.6 is pretty good. As you might expect, there is a significant amount of edge falloff, which can be fixed in post (at a sacrifice of dynamic range), or left alone in the cases where it enhances the image. Unfortunately, my WATE experienced spontaneous lens disassembly (SLD) early in the trip, and didn’t receive nearly the use that I’d hoped.
- The Sony/Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 FE is a little sweetheart of a lens. It’s tiny. It’s even got a cleverly designed small lens hood. It is sharp on center. It’s okay for most purposes in the corners, even wide-open. Stop down a couple of stops, and it’s good across the frame.
- The Sony/Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 FE is a great lens by any standards. Shoot it wide-open and the center is great. Stop it down to f/4 and it’ll give the Zeiss 55/1.4 Otus a reasonable run.
- I just love the Sony 90 mm f/2.8 OSS FE macro. It is commendably sharp. Focusing is completely internal, which means that it won’t suck dust into the camera. It even has a handy focus lock button near the objective end of the lens. It is neither small nor light, but, considering that it goes to one-to-one and is reasonably fast, I don’t see how Sony could’ve made it much different in that respect. I took this lens on the trip in spite of the fact that 90 mm is within the range of the 70 to 200 zoom just because I like to use it so much. In retrospect, there were few pictures for which I couldn’t have used that zoom or the Zony 55, so, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, it was a waste of weight to take it on the trip. I’m still not sorry I did so.
- The Sony 70 to 200 millimeter f/4 OSS G FE lens is, when compared to the Nikon and Canon equivalents, about average in size and weight for its specifications. It’s maybe a tiny bit sharper than my Nikon 70 to 200 f/2.8 at the apertures the two lenses have in common. It sharp in the middle at all apertures, and reasonably sharp in the corners at f/8, especially if not zoomed all the way out to 200 mm. I was a little worried about using it for stitching, which rewards across-the-field sharpness, but at f/8 it was plenty good enough.
What’s so great about the a7RII on a trip like this? I hardly know where to start.
- Electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS). The camera shares this feature with all of the alpha 7 cameras except the a7R, which, it could be argued, before the a7RII came out, needed it the most. It is great to have a high megapixel wonder and not worry about shutter shock. I note that the Nikon D810 also has EFCS, and is quite usable on a tripod once you get used to pressing the shutter release twice. However, because of the way that Nikon implemented it, and more fundamentally, the presence of a flapping mirror on the camera, EFCS is not usable when the camera is handheld, and, as I mentioned earlier, although I took a tripod on this trip, I never used it.
- In body image stabilization (IBIS). This is a real confidence builder, and let me use ISO 100 in situations where I would’ve had to switch to 640 or 800 without it.
- Autofocus performance. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for static subjects, the autofocus accuracy of the a7RII exceeds that of any camera I’ve ever used, not by a small amount. When the lenses are wide-open, it’s almost as accurate as manual focusing. When they are stopped down a bit, it is absolutely as accurate, unless the subject contrast is weirdly tricky. I am not used to being able to zoom in to one-to-one in Photoshop and to reliably see pixel-level sharpness, but, since I’ve been using the a7RII, I’m beginning to trust the camera more. I still shoot a few extra shots of a really good subject just in case the first one isn’t in critical focus, but so far in my experience with the a7RII, I’ve never had use those shots.
- Live histogram and zebras. Having a live histogram makes exposure in fast-moving situations easier, but you do have to take it with a grain of salt. I wish the Sony engineers could’ve provided a three channel live histogram overlayed like the one in Lightroom. Before this trip, I’d never used the zebras, but after getting caught out by the live histogram in one situation, I started using them with the level set to either 95 or 100%. If you’re not going for the whole ETTR ball of wax, though seem to be good numbers, but I have yet to do calibration against real raw histograms.
- The two speed ISOlessness. Having the increase in conversion gain occurring at ISO 640 is a great thing, allowing almost all photographs to be exposed using the camera set to one of two ISO levels. This simultaneously provides simplicity and high-quality.
- The ability to use just about any lens ever made for full frame cameras.
What’s merely good?
- 42 megapixels. How dare I call the full frame camera with the second-highest pixel count merely good? Not because it’s not a 50 megapixel Canon. It’s just that 42 megapixels is not much of an improvement over the 36 megapixel standard set by previous generation Sonys and Nikons.
- Size and weight. Adding IBIS to the camera caused the a7RII to bulk up a little bit. It’s still a relatively small and light full frame camera, just not as strikingly so as it once was.
- Battery life. Some of you are probably surprised that I didn’t put this in the negative category. I find the battery life to be entirely adequate, if not up to the standards of pro-level cameras like the D4, or even the D810. During the entire trip, I never had to replace a battery in the field. In fact, although I brought two chargers, I only plugged one of them in, and never had a queue of more than one battery awaiting charging.
- The direct exposure bias adjustment dial. I’ve figured out how to incorporate this handy feature into my exposure strategy.
- The menu system. I devoted a post to this at the beginning of the month.
- The automatic EVF/LCD switching. This is been well covered by me and others. When you bend over to have a good look at the LCD screen on the back of the camera, especially if you’re wearing a hat, the screen goes dark. This “feature” also keeps the camera from being as useful at waist level as it otherwise might be. There is a great workaround which came from a reader, which gets you the equivalent of the a directly accessed manual two-way (EVF/LCD) toggle on the Leica M240. Set C3, the custom button next to the finder, to “Finder/Monitor Sel.” Then go to “Gear>4>Finder/Monitor” and set it to manual. I didn’t know about this on the trip, but, since the EVF on the a7RII is better than the ones on its forbearers, by the end of the trip, I was holding the camera up to my eye whenever I needed to access the menu system outdoors.
- No passive LCD panel on top of the camera. This means that you have to go into the menu system for things that would be more simply and directly accessed on Nikon or Canon systems.
- Controls too easily moved. The dials, buttons, and wheels all have a light action. Sony could take a lesson in haptics from Nikon and Canon here. Some have complained about the new lock on the mode control. This fixes a problem that I didn’t have; one of the few controls on the previous cameras that I didn’t inadvertently misadjust was the mode dial.
All in all, I feel blessed to have such a competent photographic tool at my disposal.