Sony Alpha A7R II Digital Camera Review
Sony's resolution monster puts the rest of the mirrorless pack to shame.
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Sony took the camera world by surprise in 2014 by offering not one, but three full-frame mirrorless cameras. The new A7 series certainly made a splash, but none of them really made a strong case for pros to ditch their huge DSLRs in favor of a newer, smaller kit.
Arguably the best stills camera of the bunch, the Sony A7R had a lot to offer, but it wasn't quite fast or dependable enough to be a pro's workhorse camera. Iffy autofocus, a loud shutter, and horrible battery life don't exactly make a great first impression. However, a sequel is finally here in the form of the 42-megapixel Sony Alpha A7R II (MSRP $3,200 body-only).
But a camera isn't just the performance of its sensor: It's the sum of a great many parts. In this regard, the A7R II is a far more competent and serious pro-ready camera than its predecessor. The battery life is as bad as ever, but with improved autofocus, optical stabilization, and 4K video, the A7R II taps into the series' near-limitless potential. But with so many excellent full-frame cameras on the market, can it justify the price?
By the Numbers
It's tough not to whistle at this camera—it's an absolute knockout. Topping the charts in dynamic range, noise, and sharpness, this is the camera you get when you absolutely need to out-muscle every other camera body out there. Even its worst results are merely "good," which says a lot.
There are some notable issues—battery life chief among them—but in our lab tests we found the A7R II's resume to be almost unassailable. There's room for improvement, but that'll probably have to wait for version III.
Design & Handling
There's a lot to love—and hate—in such a small body.
When you first pull the A7R II out of the box, you'll notice that it is a blocky, angular beast of a camera. It's smaller than most full-frame DSLRs, but it's thicker than most mirrorless cameras. Its body is made primarily of a lightweight magnesium alloy, but it's still got a satisfying heft to it.
Once you start shooting, you'll appreciate the robust chunky controls. The grip is deeper than it was on the original—though a bit short—and all of the primary controls you'll need are within reach. Placing the focus mode selector switch underneath your thumb's natural resting place was a nice touch, and Sony's menu systems are relatively simple to operate. It definitely takes some getting used to, but you shouldn't have to hunt too much for your desired settings.
It's not all roses, though. The grip is a tad too short, and I almost always found my pinky hanging off the bottom of the camera. While that's the classy way to take photos, it is uncomfortable, and it makes the camera tougher to grip. You'll definitely notice that if you've got exceptionally heavy glass on your A7R II. You might be able to solve that issue with a battery grip, but it's another purchase to be made.
If you're like me and frame shots primarily through the viewfinder, you'll love the electronic viewfinder on the A7R II. Not only is the eye cup extremely soft and comfortable, but this EVF is plenty wide—blocking quite a bit of ambient light. It's perfect for just about any shooting condition, bright or dark, and you can do lots of things on an EVF that can't be done in an optical viewfinder like focus assist and peaking.
I'll point out that shooting with the A7R II is a little frustrating compared to pro-quality bodies like the Nikon D810 or Canon 5D mk III. Our main complaint is the shutter button. It's a squishy mess, with nearly a full millimeter of travel. That wouldn't be the end of the world, since there's plenty of room to find the half-press to activate autofocus. The problem is there's a defined half-press, a defined point where the shutter activates, and then there's another half-millimeter of travel that accomplishes nothing. It's like driving a manual transmission with a brand new clutch that activates right away; your instinct is to put it to the floor, even though it doesn't do anything.
Again, it's not a big issue, but something as crucial as the shutter button should be perfect. Similarly, some of the controls don't feel as intuitive as they should. For example, during playback if you want to zoom in to check focus you need to first press the "zoom" button, which is only barely reachable with your thumb. This is a camera with three control dials, all of which just scroll through images by default. They couldn't just make one dial zoom in by default?
They're small complaints, but when you're on assignment at an event they inevitably crop up. While I didn't miss any shots, I mostly consider myself lucky. The autofocus was hit or miss, and I swore to myself a few times trying to change some of the less-basic settings on the fly. The stabilization and superb high ISO performance enabled some shots I would've otherwise missed, but the nagging sense that I might miss a moment while I'm fiddling with a gummy control never left me.
Where this camera really shines is in the studio. When you aren't dealing with unpredictable lighting and subjects, lots of the little nagging worries about shooting go out the window. Here is where the A7R II is free to do its best work, putting the wonderful image sensor to good use.
Color and White Balance
Color performance is close to functionally perfect, given that the A7R II posts a ∆C 00 (saturation-corrected) error of merely 2.36, and an overall saturation of 107.7%. You can change this with advanced controls, and bump the color error down even further by sacrificing some saturation.
White balance is decent in auto mode, with the predictable shortcomings in tungsten (incandescent) light, and excellent performance in daylight. If you carry around a grey card, you'll nail white balance every time: the Sony A7R II has outstanding manual white balance performance.
Obviously, this applies to JPEG shots only, as shooting in RAW means you can nudge things one way or another without too much fuss.
As this camera sensor is ten kinds of crazy, it stands to reason that it's also great at dynamic range as well. With 8.63 stops of high-quality (SNR 10:1) dynamic range, this camera is a force to be reckoned with.
But the good news doesn't stop there: high-quality dynamic range doesn't hit 0 stops until ISO 25,600. That's insane. Even at ISO 400 (6.95 stops), the A7R II handily beats many cameras of the last two years at their base ISO settings.
The ability to deliver pro-quality images even at bumped-up ISO settings is a very useful tool to have, and yet another reason why photographers should consider mirrorless for professional work. While this doesn't have the best gross DR we've seen, it's among the best when it comes to using higher ISO settings.
Ain't nothin' quite like it.
One thing is quite clear: The A7R II is stuffed to the gills with features—some useful, others not so much. Items like 4K video, a monster 42.4 megapixel sensor, incredible in-body image stabilization, and in-viewfinder focus assist all make for a flagship-level camera. And while the A7R II isn't the fastest with its burst speed of 5.5 frames per second, it's vastly improved over the original. It's like night and day.
For starters, the 5-axis image stabilization works fantastically well. Brought to the Alpha line of cameras with the release of the A7 II, this feature does a great job of eliminating the ill effects of shaky hands at low shutter speeds. Obviously, this is great news for shooting stills in low light, but it's also stellar for videographers, too.
Like the rest of the Sony lineup, focus peaking and a variety focusing modes make their appearance on the A7R II. You'll also probably make good use out of the focus magnifier if you're apt to lean on manual focus for macro shots, and the flexible focus spot modes are similarly useful. We would have loved to have seen a system much like the one found on the Panasonic GX8 where you use your thumb on the touchscreen to move your focus spot on the fly, but hey, no camera's perfect.
Sony's done an admirable job of developing its FE-mount lens lineup, but relative lack of FE-mount lenses out there, Sony's full-frame mirrorless cameras boast strong lens compatibility through the use of adapters. While you won't get autofocus with most adapters out there, you can dramatically boost the lenses available to be used with your camera by snagging one. The $300+ LA-EA4 adapter in particular allows you to use old A-mount lenses from Konica Minolta's heyday to older Sony-branded ones, and it adds its own phase-detect AF sensor and motor.
For event photographers, the additions of a completely-silent electronic shutter and WiFi sharing are key. The mechanical shutter is still pretty meaty, but it's nowhere near as clunky as the original. This allows you to work without becoming a distraction, and it turns one of the A7R's biggest drawbacks into a selling point.
Those of you out there that like to use accessories with your camera bodies will appreciate the hot shoe located at the top of the EVF. For videographers, the camera supports 8-bit 4:2:2 recording of 4K video with the use of an external recorder via the well-hidden HDMI port on the left of the camera. The lack of 10-bit 4K video is a concern, but there are other A7 cameras that serve that need. To complete the videographer's ensemble, the A7R II boasts microphone and headphone ports behind a door on the left side of the camera.
When shooting in 4K, video is smooth and sharp when shot in Sony's XAVC-S codec. You're left with just 30fps capture so high-speed motion can look a little choppy, but it's razor-sharp.
In bright light, the A7R II is able to maintain between 1350 and 1400 line pairs per picture height, while that number drops to about 1200 in low light (60 lux). That's incredible, and among the best video sharpness results we've seen.
The real draw to shooting video with the A7R II is how well it does in low light. It's times like these where I'm glad the audio is stripped out of video tests if and when we release them. Because the performance here is expletive crazy.
When you toggle Auto ISO, you may notice some dropped frames here or there, but even at 1 lux you can record a scene that reaches over 90 IRE. In fact we weren't able to reach our fail condition (<50 IRE) in our labs without some extreme measures. That's not just impressive, that's almost unprecedented. Only the Nikon D4S and Sony A7S have been able to top that.
A first-ballot hall-of-famer
The Sony A7R II put on an absolute clinic in our lab tests, acing nearly every one. While there are still nagging concerns about these high-resolution sensors, the 42.4-megapixel sensor in this camera is simply one of the best on the market, especially with the ability to shoot in 14-bit RAW. The file sizes are enormous, but at least memory is cheaper than ever.
The sensor's major advantage is its superb dynamic range, allowing you to push exposure in post-processing without suffering excessive loss of detail or banding. In an upcoming software update, the A7R II is going to be able to enjoy the same 14-bit uncompressed RAW as the upcoming A7S II. Additionally, shots taken with the Sony A7R II will have a lot more detail in shadows thanks to the sensor's low noise floor. At 100%, the 42-megapixel shots can look fairly noisy, but the signal to noise ratio is exceptionally high.
This is the highest resolution sensor put out by Sony thus far, and its performance ceiling is much higher in terms of raw sharpness than pretty much any camera out there—besides perhaps the Canon 5DSR and medium-format cameras, anyway. As a result, you'll want high-quality glass to use with the A7R II, but you'll squeeze every ounce of performance out of any glass you mount to the camera.
As with any high-res sensor there is always a concern that small pixels will equal more noise. When we pushed it to its limit, however, we found the camera performs surprisingly well even at its higher ISO speeds. This carried over into video as well, where we were able to produce incredibly bright video with as little as 1 lux of light. That's nuts, and it shows just how capable the hardware in the camera truly is.
Sony's also done a good job of tuning the camera's white balance and exposure algorithms to produce consistently accurate results. It's to the point that if I'm shooting RAW or JPEG I just leave most things in auto and forget about it. I've probably said this about a mere handful of cameras, but with the A7R II's dynamic range being what it is (along with its noise and resolution performance) even shots taken at ISO 12,800 are decent enough to be used with minimal post-processing. It's nice to not have to second-guess whether your shots will hold up. If your focus was on point, you've got the shot.
Video performance was generally excellent with the camera. It shoots 4K video in Sony's XAVC S codec, which is based on h.264 compression. This means it's compatible with basically every PC on the market. It's less space-efficient than newer h.265 compression, but it's less of a headache today. From a quality perspective it's quite good. There's some moire issues, but the video is sharp and cinematic thanks to the large full-frame sensor.
Where this all comes crashing down is the battery performance. It's beyond abysmal, putting in one of the worst showings of any camera we've ever tested. Where pro cameras like the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5D mk III will easily top 1,000 shots on a single charge we found you were lucky to get more than 200 out of the A7R II.
Sony combats this by including a second battery in the box, but it's little more than a weak mea culpa. The company has been using the same batteries in its cameras for years, and it's just not big enough to power full-frame sensors, the latest Bionz X processor, an EVF, and the large LCD. I'd easily trade the A7R's compact footprint for double the battery life.
With a super-high resolution sensor with teeny tiny pixels, you'd expect noise to be a problem on the A7R II. However, that's simply not the case with this camera.
Though by default the A7R II applies its most aggressive noise reduction algorithm for JPEGs, even turning the feature off will allow you to shoot up to ISO 1600 without hitting the 2% noise threshold we typically look for to knock a camera. Obviously that's not all that great, but keep this in mind too: Because there are so many pixels to work with, Sony's noise reduction is much better equipped to deal with noise while maintaining fine detail.
I should also point out that having such an enormous image also lets you downsample to reduce the bad effects of noise as well. If you were to being the size of an image shot by the A7R II down to the same 12 megapixels of those shot by the A7s, you'd see about the same—or slightly better—performance. That's nuts.
Take a bow, Sony.
Simply put: The A7R II is an unbelievably good camera. Where the A7 II was little more than a minor edit of the original, the A7R II is a full-blown redraft. It carries over all the promise of the original, while improving it in almost every way.
With a better sensor, 4K video, improved image quality, a vastly more responsive shooting experience, and slightly refined controls the A7R II is just more enjoyable to shoot with. There's no doubting that the original A7R was capable of some incredible imagery, but it always felt like you were fighting the camera, rather than using it.
But it's not perfect. And if you're going to shell out over $3,000 for a camera—especially if it's for your job—you want it to be perfect. There are enough little annoyances that add up to an experience that doesn't feel quite as smooth as it should. And the thin first-party lens selection and abysmal battery life isn't helping things, either.
These are all issues you can work around, of course, but these issues become magnified given the A7R II's direct competition—not to mention Sony's aspirations. This is a camera system designed to woo professionals, with a sensor that should attract the same kind of user as the Nikon D810 and Canon 5DSR. The A7R II holds up well in these comparisons, but if it's day-to-day reliability you're after then the Canon and Nikon options are simply better choices.
But if you're willing to put up with a few quirks, there are the times when everything just comes together. When the autofocus system perfectly tracks a moving subject, the 5-axis stabilization system compensates just right for your caffeinated hands, and the A7R II's 42-megapixel sensor delivers a stunning high-resolution image. Maybe the moment is better told with a video, in which case you can easily swap to capturing it in pristine 4K, even in extreme darkness.
Those are the times when you can see the full measure of Sony's accomplishment. The A7R II isn't perfect, but this is the culmination of Sony's collective work in the imaging industry over the last decade. For years, Sony's mirrorless camera system has been living on little more than the promise of what it could someday be. The A7R II is the moment where Sony finally delivers.
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