Field experiences with a Sony A7S II

The Sony A7S II is a unique all-metal full-frame system camera. It has best-of-breed features for both photography and video. Its dramatic low-light capabilities — manually from ISO 50 to 409,600 — make low-light photography accessible to everyone. It has a 35mm equivalent full frame sensor in a package the size of a compact camera. And it does 4K XAVC video with Sony’s highly acclaimed S-Log 3 curve that allows for HDR colour grading.

The first thing that struck me as a user of a Sony A700 was the small size of the Sony A7S II. The second thing that struck me was the huge sensor that sits right behind the lens. The lack of a mirror protecting it sent a shiver down my spine. Imagine you accidentally touch that surface… But such is the temptation of innovative technology that I immediately forgot about the risks and started mounting the E-mount 50mm/f1.8 prime lens Sony delivered with the camera.

The other included lens for the test was a Vario-Tessar 24-70mm. I have a Vario-Sonnar for my A-mount A700. Much to my surprise, however, mine is rated as an f2.8 across the zoom range, while the E-mount is “only” an f4.

The 50mm lens had a rather noisy auto-focus motor, while the E-mount Zeiss was just as silent as my own A-mount one. Bokeh on the Zeiss in particular was very nice. Speaking of noise: you can turn off the “clack” sound when pressing down the exposure button for silent photography, but I didn’t find a menu option that would also turn off the beeps when auto-focusing. Silent photography is great for wildlife photography, but to me it felt strange. I turned it back on shortly after having shot two images with it.

Sony A7S II with Zeiss lens

Setting up the Sony A7S II

The A7S II has the usual set of buttons and knobs and a typical Sony settings menu. You can access most features with many different buttons. It all looks a bit overwhelming for a Sony novice, but if you’ve ever had a Sony camera before, it’s all too familiar. I personally don’t find Sony’s menus extremely difficult to decrypt, but they do require you to check your settings several levels deep to make sure everything is set up as needed.

The full digital nature of this camera was one of the things I personally had to get my head around. For example, I’m used to manually focusing by actually looking down a rather dark viewfinder. The A7S II on the other hand has an excellent, extremely bright viewfinder to focus. If you want it, you can also use the tilting monitor — most people these days seem to prefer that.

I set the focus aid to focus peaking and when manually focusing, I got these red focus peaking lines along object edges — just like what I’m used to from focusing with Atomos Ninja and Shogun monitors.

You can pretty much set up the camera to behave exactly the way you like it.

Picture quality

With an A7S II, picture quality may refer to the image quality of the 12MP photos you can shoot with this camera, or the quality of the video it is capable of shooting. The photo quality at ISO 100 is the same as what the A700 is capable of. I can stretch the A700 to about ISO 800 before noise starts kicking in. With the A7S II noise isn’t a problem all the way up to ISO 6400. Above that threshold noise becomes visible, but it gets worse much less quickly than with the A700.

Sony A7S II

With the A700 I have to use a flash if I want to shoot indoors. With the A7S II that’s less the case. The video quality of the A7S II is very good. I shot my test clips with Sony’s S-Log 3 and S-Log 2, and the picture quality with both tone curves is smooth. I shot 4K simultaneously to the internal memory card and via the micro-HDMI port to a Shogun Flame. Due to the internal 4:2:0 chroma subsampling recording, the clean HDMI-out footage captured by the Shogun Flame looked more detailed in dark areas. The Shogun captures video in 4:2:2.1 Both recording methods output an 8-bit colour file, so when it comes to colour grading in post-production both will need you to be careful because there’s almost no headroom to go wild.

Handling in the field

The A7S II is lightweight, much more so than a full-scale dSLR with a comparable lens. Even the E-mount Zeiss lens was light as a feather. It allows you to hold the camera for long periods of time without getting cramps. That’s great when you’re shooting video with no mounting accessories or stabilisers.

One thing I would have liked to be different is the location of the two turning wheels, which I left at their default functionality: aperture on the one and exposure on the other. The front wheel sits very close to the On/Off switch and especially at first I accidentally turned off the camera a couple of times. The back wheel has the same type of problem. It sits close to the exposure compensation wheel…

After spending a couple of days you get a better sense of the exact location of the wheels and the problem vanishes, but in the beginning it was frustrating.

Many people have reported the video button to be in an awkward place. Strangely enough, I disagree. The A7S II is a photo camera capable of some excellent quality video, but it’s not a video camera first and foremost. In my opinion, the video button is located exactly where it makes sense — out of the way.

Shooting video with the A7S II isn’t an unthoughtful action, anyway. For example, you will have to make a choice between setting a Picture Profile or not. Will you set it at its default — which is good for spontaneous movie recording only — or will you pick one of the S-Log curves as in PP7 (S-Log 2) and PP9 (S-Log 3)?

The A7S II for video shooting

Using the A7S II for just some quick Youtube quality video is a shame, as this camera is capable of full documentary quality movies at 1080p or 4K, with or without external monitor/recorder. For locations where you can’t go in with a lot of conspicuous equipment, you can just hold the A7S II as you would any digital still camera. Its weight won’t tire your arms soon, but you may still end up with some shaky footage because you lack stabilisation.

The alternative is to buy the accessories and gear needed to stabilise the camera. A decent tripod with a video head goes a long way and is certainly worth the investment. A complete system with a stabiliser, tripod and external equipment mounting kit is necessary if you are serious about your movie shooting.

If you’re really into making a documentary there will come a point a dedicated video camera makes more sense from an ergonomic point of view. Sony’s PXW-FS5 XDCAM Super 35 camera system is one step up from the A7S II, except perhaps in low-light capabilities.

Low light performance

The low light capabilities of the A7S II have been touted since the first generation of this camera came to market. With a maximum ISO value of 409,600 you’d expect to be able to shoot in complete darkness. That promise goes completely fulfilled, but it doesn’t mean your image will be noiseless. Although I couldn’t test the 409,600 value — even with very little light, setting the camera at this level blows what little “highlights” there are — I did test lower ISO values, including 16,000 and 64,000 ISO.

I wanted to know if any of these high ISO values resulted in images that are actually usable. The answer is not as straightforward as you would expect them to be. Whether these high ISO images are usable depends on the software app you use for demosaicing and noise reduction. I tested with DxO Optics Pro 11, Capture One Pro 9 and Affinity Photo. I don’t have Adobe Lightroom so I couldn’t test with this commonly used app.

Sony A7S II

With DxO Optics Pro, the images were virtually free of noise without any adjustment. I could make them completely noiseless, keeping details razor-sharp by adding a bit of PRIME noise reduction. Capture One Pro came in second. The same images were slightly noisier, but not by much. Cranking up the noise reduction made the images a bit blurry, more so than with DxO Optics Pro. With Affinity Photo I could see how noisy these images are when they’re fresh from the camera. Affinity Photo has a “Development persona” that allows you to tune the photo a bit like Adobe’s Camera Raw, but without the automatic settings that are applied initially.

The 16,000 ISO images were a lot less noisy than equivalent images shot with my A700, but only after processing them through one of the two best RAW editors available, did they become perfect.

Quirks

The review camera unit I was sent had a few quirks. It was still at firmware 1.0. The Zeiss Vario-Tessar started behaving strange after a couple of days shooting. The camera couldn’t auto-focus properly anymore with this lens mounted. The lens shuddered for a couple of seconds every time I tried to focus on something.

The advice from Sony was to reset the camera and if that wouldn’t help, update the firmware. I reset the camera first and that solved the problem. Unfortunately, it also reset all the menu settings I carefully set the days before.

While I was at it, I thought I could just as well update the firmware. No matter what I tried — and I tried everything, including starting the Mac in Safe Mode — the camera could not be recognised by the update app. If this is not just a problem with my old Mac, it forces macOS users to have updates done by their service centre.

Conclusion

The Sony A7S II is certainly a camera to drool over, despite some of its shortcomings. Its full-frame sensor manages to create images that have a sense of space and airiness few other cameras have. Its low-light capabilities are stunning and awesome, although the quality of the end-result depends on the RAW editor you use.

The camera’s controls could be less fiddly, although there’s not much room on the body and its menu system perhaps a bit less deep and occult. But combined with one of Sony’s top-notch lenses like the Vario-Tessar I got a go at, it’s one hell of a machine to shoot still images as much as 4K video.

  1. I covered subsampling and bit depth in this piece: The mysteries of bit depth and chroma subsampling.
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