So I’ve never really done a gear review before. I take the ones I read online with a grain of salt, as most of them are not done by people who use the cameras or gear the way that I do. But as more and more of my colleagues have been moving to the smaller mirrorless cameras (Leicas, Fujis, and Sony A7s mostly) I’ve had the opportunity to see the images come out of them, and they’ve looked pretty good. I’ve also felt that with two Canon 5D mkiii bodies, a few L primes, and a 70-200 2.8L I was carrying a lot of gear and it can get heavy both for a day of shooting and in transporting to and from the field, in airports, etc.
So last year I borrowed a Leica M240, and used a Fuji X-Pro 1 for a while. I loved the image quality of the Leica, but found it fiddly to use (aperture ring and focus ring are hard to grip separately, I’m sure it just takes getting used to). Plus the prices is just too high for what you get. I liked the X-Pro 1’s form factor and light weight, but the APS-C sensor just doesn’t cut it for me, and I don’t like approximating focal lengths for it. Just didn’t work for me.
So I kept using my regular gear: 2 Canon 5d Mk iii bodies, and the excellent Canon Primes: 24mm f1.4L, 35mm f1.4L, and the stellar 50mm f1.2L, along with an old copy of the 70-200mm f2.8IS I (very heavy!). In the field I’d usually have one body with the 50 on it, one with the 24 or 35 on it, and the long lens with me or nearby in a bag. I love the way the Mark iii handles, and I love the images from it. The Mark iii is an exceptional camera. More World Press Photo images are won on that body than all the others combined. That alone doesn’t make it good, but the fact is that Canon nailed what we were all looking for in a field camera body back in 2012: Proven ergonomics, excellent weather sealing, a mature and well-supported system with accessories, excellent fast primes, excellent zooms for those who like zooms, dual card slots, and a great sensor. I don’t use DSLR’s for video, so I don’t care about those features on any of these cameras. I’m just thinking of them as stills cameras.
But the fact is that with any of those lenses on it, it’s big. After handling a friend’s A7s in New York a while back I went out to shoot on the street with my Mark iii with the 50 on it. It just felt huge. It’s noticeable, and it can be imposing. There are times when a big camera doesn’t matter. And there are times when you want to be discreet. It’s not that discreet. Since I had been thinking about it, I took the plunge. I walked into B & H and traded in one of my Mark iii bodies and the 35mm 1.4L for a Sony A7II and a voigtlander 35mm 1.4. That was my first Mark iii and it was pretty beat up. Some of the top dials were held in place with Gaffer’s tape. But still I got almost a straight trade for it and the canon lens for the A7II.
So I’ll give you a quick rundown of my impressions after using it for almost a month now. I have not used it extensively in the field, so some of my observations may change.
1. Size and Form Factor.
It’s small. Very small. That’s really good in some ways. With a small lens, it’s very discreet. Obviously it’s much smaller than the 5d Mk III. And with a small rangefinder lens it’s way smaller than the Mark III with any L glass on it. Hands down if you need a smaller and light system, the Sony is a good choice. But with that small size it becomes ergonomically harder to handle. It just doesn’t fit comfortably in my hand, and I don’t have big hands. Put an L lens on it with a metabones adaptor and it becomes almost impossible to shoot one handed. The Mark III can be held in one hand easily with it’s beefier and more rubberized grip. More important than that is that the Shutter Speed and Aperture dials are not in the right place and are almost impossible to use one handed on the A7II. The fact that the front (on my cameras set for Shutter speed) dial is horizontal makes it very difficult to use, you have to adjust your index finger and your grip to access it. In addition it is located too close to the ridge that your middle finger sits under, so it’s hard to dial. Again, I have slim fingers too. On the Mark III the front dial is positioned vertically behind the shutter button and doesn’t require any grip shift to access. The rear (on my cameras aperture) dial cannot be accessed with my thumb one-handed. Period. It’s not located in the right spot. And both dials are recessed too far to use comfortably anyway. They feel far more fiddly than the sturdy and precise dials on the Mark III.
So the size is a tradeoff. The A7II is definitely smaller and easier to pack, carry, and use discreetly than the Mark III. But ergonomically the Mark III is the hands down winner. I can hold and shoot it all day with no problems. Additionally, the light weight and small size of the A7II becomes less of an advantage when you add either a Canon Prime with the metabones adapter, or any other larger legacy lenses you might have. Even the Sony 35mm FE 1.4 is huge and heavy and outsizes the A7II Body. I will say, paired with the Voigtlander 35 1.4 or the Sony/Zeiss 55mm FE 1.8 it does handle nice and discreetly, and I like using it for that reason. Right now I have my Canon 50mm 1.2L on it with the metabones adaptor and it’s not noticeably lighter than my mark iii with the 24 1.4 on it…
A final note on ergonomics. As I mentioned, I with they’d put the front (shutter speed to me) dial behind the shutter button and in a vertical orientation. And it strikes me that instead of the chintzy rear dial they threw in there, they could repurpose the fairly useless exposure compensation dial as a shutter or aperture control dial. I think that would add a lot to this camera.
2. Durability, weather sealing.
I know that Sony claims that the A7II is a step above the other A7s in terms of weather sealing, and is built with a magnesium chassis. I’ve seen the tear down of the A7II and it looks weather sealed to some extent. But it doesn’t FEEL anywhere near the build quality or sturdiness of the Mark III. That’s an issue for me. I don’t baby my gear. It goes in the bag, or it’s on me, and it’s gonna bang against stuff. When you’re in the field, especially in rubble and tight spaces you can’t protect your gear from dings and dents. I’ve dropped my Mark III and it’s bounced and been fine. I’ve seen friend’s Mark III’s that have terribly broken screens and dented bodies, and they still shoot great. You’re not supposed to be able to submerge them, but I know a few that have been dropped in water and still worked. Certainly you don’t need to worry about shooting in a drizzle with them. I don’t know if the A7II will handle that or not. It doesn’t FEEL like it will. But time will tell, like I said, I don’t baby my gear and I’ll find out.
The Electronic Viewfinder of the A7II feels pretty nifty. Being able to preview the image before you shoot is a cool thing. But when I switch back to the Mark III I find that I LOVE the brightness of the optical viewfinder. It is just easier for me to use. Definitely the Mark III viewfinder is better in low light. But I almost never use the rear screen on the Mark III except for menus and image review. I find myself using and liking the tilting rear screen on the little sony. It makes shooting high or low angle way easier, and without having a camera up to your face you’re left with an easier time interacting with people. I like it. Some people complain that they wish it was a touchscreen, but that doesn’t bother me. All in all though, the combo rear screen and EVF make this little camera a battery hog. Wow. Even when you set it to turn off after 10 seconds you’re not gonna get more than 1/2hour to 45 minutes of solid shooting off of one of these tiny little batteries. And the fact that you have to buy more batteries as well as a battery charger makes the camera that much more expensive, and therefore closer in price to the Mark iii anyway. Overall I think the EVF works fine (could be brighter) and the rear screen is far more useful than the Canon’s.
3. Lenses and System.
No question, the Canon System is far more mature and advanced. You need an intervalometer? Got one. Want radio flash control? Got it. Want fast Primes? Got it. Want extreme telezooms, got em! The canon L series lenses are beautiful in my opinion, and are the real center of their system. The bodies might change, but these lenses are really built and will last a long time. We all know the glass is the real key. You can take a so-so sensor and put great glass on it and get good results. But if you put shitty glass on a great sensor you lose any advantage. But the L lenses are heavy, no doubt about it. I have the Sony/Zeiss 55 1.8 and while I actually DO miss the 2/3 stop difference, it’s not that big a deal, especially with the great image stabilization that sony has put in. It’d really easier to carry and shoot a smaller and lighter package. But I did a test and put the Canon 50mm 1.2L on the sony with a metabones adaptor and shot the same scene at the same time as I shot it with the Sony/Zeiss 55 1.8. You can tell the difference. Maybe it’s just a matter of taste (or familiarity) but i prefer the tone of the image made through the Canon L glass. However, this is not a lens/camera combo I could use in the field. The autofocus with the metabones adaptor is unuseably slow. It works great on manual, but autofocus is a joke through the adaptor. Sony has built in some great manual assist focus features so using legacy manual primes is a joy with this camera. I sometimes use those legacy manual primes (like the nikkor 50mm 1.3) on the mark iii, but without peaking or an evf magnification feature they are difficult to use. To use manual on the canon you have to use Live View mode to focus precisely. It’s just more well-thought out and easier on the Sony. But using any of the adaptors for the sony adds a good 1.5 inches to the length of the lens, unless you’re using the Leica M-mount adaptors which are much more flush.
I have to give the nod to Canon here. Their lens lineup is just miles beyond what sony has right now for the Full-Frame e-mount system. If you can live with a 2.8 35mm prime, their sony/zeiss one is ok. But most of us who shoot primes want the faster primes. And for those who shoot zooms, f4 is just not in the professional realm, even with image stabilization. Caveat, on the A7s, you can bump the ISO up really high. But as I’ll discuss below, you can’t do that on the A7II without introducing a LOT of noise. The Sony 35mm 1.4 is a great lens, but is even bigger than the canon primes with adaptors! It defeats the purpose of a small camera I’d say. Of course Sony is partnered with Zeiss, and there is no reason why they can’t come out with some great lenses to fill out this system over the next few years, and I’m sure they will.
Finally, as far as system goes, Canon wins in the flash department too. The Canon St3 transmitter (or a 580 or 600 speedight as a master) on the camera will allow you full auto or manual control over off camera strobe. It’s a very well-thought out system and it works great. It is in fact one of my favorite uses of the canon system. It just works. Sony has nothing like this for off-camera flash. Even using their top of the line flash as a master only will trigger a slave optically or via IR (line of sight). It’s not only a generation behind, but doesn’t support radio triggers from other manufacturers, at least as far as I’ve read. So if like me you shoot off camera flash, Canon is the better bet.
Finally, and this is just a nitpic… Why the hell do they make a 55mm lens instead of a 50?!?! We are all used to seeing and shooting the 50. Why change what works? Sure it’s not a big change, but it makes a subtle difference.
Well I really like the in camera 5 axis stabilisation in the A7II. It allows you get great IS even on legacy manual lenses. What a great idea, and it is implemented well and seamlessly. This alone makes up for the slower speed of some of the Sony lens offerings. And if you pair it with a lens that has superior in lens IS, it defaults to that, which is cool. This one goes to Sony, because canon doesn’t have it, and the in-lens stabilization they have gone with increases the weight and expense of their lenses. I think Sony has the wave of the future here.
5. Card Slots.
Well, if you depend on your work being safe there is no choice here. the Sony only has one card slot. As a pro I need to know that if I have a card fail I’ve got a second one in camera. Why didn’t they do this?!?!?! Yes, they have a nifty wireless transfer thing. But it only works with jpgs. I don’t shoot jpg, I shoot Raw. So if I shoot this camera in the field I have to use smaller cards and switch them out more often so that if one fails I do not lose as much.
6. Sensor and Image.
This is subjective. The sensors in both cameras are about the same resolution. The Sony gives you more flexibility in terms of cropping and aspect ratio, but it’s a draw. In low light the Canon is markedly better. For one, if you are shooting at night you can bump the ISO up to 112,000 and at least get your focus. The Sony simply doesn’t do as well in the dark. It shows in my opinion much more visible luminance noise above 1600 ISO than the Canon. Maybe it’s not even MORE noise, maybe it’s the QUALITY of the noise that bothers me. I’m looking forward to seeing what the A7SII looks like as far as low light performance goes!
Apart from the low light issue I really do like the image out of the A7II. I like it as much as the 5d Mark III. It says a lot about the Canon that this older sensor can compete at all with the much newer and faster Sony sensor. In the end the ‘IQ’ is subjective, and I like them both. They both will produce images that display great on a monitor, resolve well and hold up well to normal post-processing, and print well up to normal printing sizes for this size sensor.
In short, I’m keeping the A7II where I didn’t keep the Fuji X-Pro 1 I had last year. It is small, light, useful, takes great pictures, and despite some flaws for the work I do, will work great as long as it can handle a few hard knocks and damp conditions. Paired with small light lenses this is a great normal light camera that renders great images. It will greatly reduce the weight i carry and the space it takes up in my bag. All in all it’s a great camera and to me stands above the Fuji offerings because it’s full frame.
But It’s not good enough to make me get rid of my other Mark III body and my canon primes. The canon L glass looks better to my eyes than any of the sony glass. That’s my opinion, you may like the zeiss look. In addition the durability, water resistance, shock resistance, ease of use, and the off camera lighting system makes me still think the Mark III will be useful for some time to come. In low light (say taking pictures of stars or long exposures at night) the canon works great while the A7II is barely useable.