How 30 Days With the Sony A7RII Made Me a Better Photographer

Like many photographers, I have been intrigued with Sony’s line of A7 Mirrorless Cameras. While I love to shoot with my DSLRs, the idea of using a small, more compact camera that boasts many of the same features as my DSLR is very appealing. So when Sony recently released their new A7RII camera packing 42 megapixels and internal 4K video with the option of also shooting at 120fps, I knew this was a camera that I had to try.

While I tend to shoot a lot of fashion and fine art photography, because of my background in online publishing, I spend a lot of time shooting behind the scenes photography for other photographers. I love being able to tell the story behind all the amazing work that my talented friends create, and lately I’ve wanted to use video to better tell their stories.

While my Nikon D800 and D4S do shoot video, there are a couple reasons that they aren’t the perfect solution for me. Neither camera will shoot in 4K, and neither will shoot faster than 60fps. While I could upgrade to the new Nikon D810 or new D5 camera, the Sony A7RII was very appealing to me because it will not only shoot internal 4K video, but it will also shoot super smooth slow motion at 120fps, all in a super compact and light package.

In addition to shooting great video, at 42 megapixels, the A7RII is also a great camera for landscape and fine art photography. While planning a recent trip to Hawaii, I realized that this could also be a great opportunity to test out this camera as a landscape and travel camera. Luckily for me, B&H Photo was kind enough to loan me the camera for 30 days to test out the highly buzzed about camera. What I didn’t realize at the time, was how much use I would get out of the camera in those 30 days, and  how the variety projects I would use it on would push me to learn new skills and become a better photographer as a result.

In this review, I will share my thoughts on this camera, which I loved, and will explain how it performed during each of these different types of projects. This won’t be a technical review. I simply want to share my thoughts, experience, and the imagery I was able to capture using the device.

My First Day

As a Nikon D800 and D4S shooter, my first impression of the A7RII was that it was incredibly small and light compared to those other two cameras. Without a lens, you could probably fit it in a large pocket. With a small lens, it will fit into a small shoulder bag, with room to spare.

Shortly after receiving the camera, I was scheduled to shoot some behind the scenes photos during a photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar Serbia. Since I had just received the camera hours earlier, I figured that it would be a great opportunity to test out the camera’s video functionality.

I have always wanted to shoot behind the scenes video on set so I figured this would be a great place to test out the new camera. What I really liked about the A7RII is that it can shoot video in 4K if I need really high resolution files, or it can shoot at 120 frames per second if I want to shoot beautiful super slow motion video.

The only Sony lens that I had at the time was the 16-35mm f/4.0 lens that I requested from B&H. Since I was expecting to use the camera as a landscape and travel camera for a trip to Hawaii, I hadn’t thought about requesting a lens that was better in low light. This proved to be an issue throughout the day as behind the scenes photography is generally shot in some of the worst lighting conditions.

The location that we were shooting in was an old farm house in upstate New York, while absolutely beautiful and about as charming as you could imagine with its spiral staircases and antique decor, it was incredibly low light in many spots. So the 16-35mm f/4.0 lens wasn’t the best lens for this type of use. The camera did its job though and for my next video project, I made sure to be a bit better prepared.

Event and Street Photography

The next chance I had to use the A7RII was at an event a friend of mine was hosting just before fashion week. Since I knew that I might have the opportunity to shoot some backstage video a few days later during New York Fashion Week, I decided to rent a Canon 50mm f/1.2 Lens and a Metabones adapter and bring it along with me to her event to test everything out. While I was still learning the camera’s functions at this point, I thought it performed well, although I did notice it having trouble autofocusing at times.

At the event, I was able to take a few photos and even send those photos to my friend using the camera’s wifi functionality. While I think the wifi functionality could definitely be improved, it did what it needed to do and allowed me to send her the photos immediately following the event, which I think is pretty amazing.

After my friend’s event, it was night time in New York City. I live within walking distance to the event location so I decided to shoot some street photography and see how well the camera performed in low (ish) light. I walked near the Penn Station area all the way up to Time Square before I decided to just take the train the rest of the way home.

While the A7RII isn’t known for its ability to shoot in low light, when combined with the Canon 50mm f/1.2, I thought it performed very well. Time Square and midtown probably aren’t the best places in the world to test a camera’s low light features given how well lit it actually is, but I thought that the photos turned out beautifully.

One of my favorite aspects of the A7RII was that given its size, I didn’t make such a spectacle of myself while shooting photos on the street. While it’s very common to see people walking around in New York City with a DSLR slung over their shoulder, a D800 or D4S attached to a 24-70 f/2.8 or a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which is my usual street photo combination, can draw a lot of attention. With the A7RII however, I didn’t feel as many eyes on me, especially when I was shooting at fairly close range to people.

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Morgan Library and Museum

After a few days with the camera, I was beginning to feel more comfortable using it and bringing it places where normally I might use my D800. So when I was invited to a private tour of The Morgan Library and Museum with a handful of other Instagrammers, I figured this would be a perfect place to shoot some stunning architectural photography using the 16-35mm f/4.0 lens.

I had seen photos of the Morgan Library and Museum before the event but to be honest, I just wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it was. As soon as I saw the space, I knew I had made the right choice by bringing the small A7RII, the 16-35mm f/4.0 lens, and a small tabletop tripod.

I was actually the only person who brought a tripod with me, so while everyone was having breakfast, I snuck off to shoot some of the beautiful rooms that make up the campus before the spaces became full of other Instagrammers.

While I knew that I captured some beautiful imagery while I was at the event, it wasn’t until I got home that I realized how incredible the photos looked and how fantastic the image quality of the A7RII was. It was at this point that I realized this was a camera I might actually want to buy.

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Backstage at New York Fashion Week

During New York Fashion Week, I am often hired to shoot either backstage before a show, or the runway during the show. That season, I was hired by Youngblood Cosmetics to shoot a show for an emerging designer named Karigam. I generally only shoot backstage photos but at the last minute, the client asked if I could shoot some video, as well.

Since I already had the A7RII, I agreed and brought along the Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens and a Metabones adapter that I had rented earlier in the week. Since I had the opportunity to test this combination a couple of days earlier, I was confident that I would get some fantastic footage. During the show, the camera worked perfectly. I got some great footage with the A7RII and snapped some fantastic photos backstage before the show and on the runway during the show using my Nikon cameras.

Shooting Behind the Scenes Video for Harper’s Bazaar KZ

After shooting some great footage during fashion week, my friend Yulia Gorbachenko invited me on set for her beauty photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar KZ. I’ve worked with Yulia before, shooting some behind the scenes stills, but since I had the A7RII, I decided to shoot some video for her this time.

At this point, I had already returned the Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens and the Metabones adapter, but since I didn’t need to autofocus, I went ahead and purchased a Fotodiox adapter from B&H so I could use the A7RII with my Nikon lenses. I also went ahead and purchased a Monfrotto video head to stabilize the camera and get some smoother camera movements.

I brought along my Nikon 105mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.4 lenses to shoot the video with, and also occasionally used my 24-70mm f/2.8 as well. While the adapter for the Nikon doesn’t allow for autofocusing, it didn’t matter for video, and I spent the day getting some great footage while pausing on occasion to shoot stills as well.

At this point, I should probably mention one of the biggest complaints that I have heard about this camera from other photographers. That would be battery life. The battery life on this camera is very short. For each and every video project that I used this camera on, battery life was an issue. At the time of this review, I only had one battery, so I had to be very careful about how much video I shot, and how long I left the camera powered up. So I would definitely recommend bringing along several batteries for any project that you use this camera on.

Trip to Hawaii

My original reason for wanting to try the A7RII was to test it during my trip to Hawaii. While my D800 will take fantastic landscape photos at 36 megapixels, and is an awesome travel camera, it is large and bulky and not always ideal. For our trip, there are two reasons I wanted the A7RII: to take beautiful high megapixel landscape photos, and to take some fun travel photos of my wife and I during our trip.

This is where I thought the Zeiss 16-35mm f/4.0 lens would be a good choice. Not only can it take incredible landscape photos, but I thought it would also be good for taking quick travel snaps during our trip without me having to haul around a bunch of lenses.

The first full day on the island, I was still a bit jet lagged and woke up early to take some photos around the resort. The Four Seasons has some beautiful fountains on property so I thought they would be a great first test of the A7RII.

The first issue that I ran in to almost immediately was that the A7RII had quite a bit of trouble focusing on the fountains. I tried switching between focus modes without much luck. I wasn’t sure if this was due to low light or to the movement of the fountains. After some time, I did manage to walk away with a couple of keepers but in this situation the focusing seemed unreliable.

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Later that evening, I grabbed my Gorillapod and took the A7RII to the beach to shoot a few sunset photos. At this point, I wasn’t exactly sure what the beach would look like at sunset and wasn’t terribly familiar with the resort, so I waited until sunset, framed up a few shots and fired away.

This was the first time I was able to see the A7RII really shine on this trip. I took a few beautiful sunset photos, then right before we ran out of light, decided to put the camera on a timer and take a selfie of my wife and I on the beach. I really loved how it turned out.

For this photo, I combined two exposures so I could erase my footprints from the sand.
For this photo, I combined two exposures so I could erase my footprints from the sand.

The next day, my wife and I rented a Jeep and decided to drive towards the Road to Hana. We stopped for lunch at a popular spot on the way and made our way to the Twin Falls. It was midday at this point, so the lighting wasn’t good enough to get any great shots of the waterfalls so we snapped a few photos of ourselves and headed back to the resort.

After exploring the resort more thoroughly, I found a great spot overlooking some cliffs that I knew would be great for a sunset shot. So I set up around sunset and waited for the magic to happen. We had some incredible cloud cover that evening so I knew my shot was going to look amazing. I shot a series of bracketed shots while the sun was setting to make sure that I got the right exposure and was really impressed with how well the A7RII performed.

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Conclusion

I had a very productive month using the A7RII and put it through its paces as much as I could. I shot street photos in New York City, backstage video during New York Fashion Week as well as two photo shoots for Harper’s Bazaar, I shot architectural photos at the stunning Morgan Library and Museum, and even brought it with me all the way to Hawaii and back. While I have wanted to try out the Sony A7 cameras for a long time, I honestly wasn’t prepared for just how much I would like using it.

The camera weighs almost nothing compared to the Nikon D800 and D4S, and it is much more conspicuous. Its small size means I can place the camera almost anywhere, and being able to tilt the screen was also very helpful, not just for video but for photos as well. I also felt that the image quality on the camera was fantastic.

The biggest frustrations I had with the camera however were due to the lack of lens choices I had at the time on the Sony platform. While I thought that the Zeiss 16-35mm lens that I used worked well with the A7RII, especially for landscape and architecture, it wasn’t always the best choice for the type of photography that I shoot, which is often done in less than ideal situations and in very low light places. I would need to purchase several more Sony or Canon lenses and unfortunately, that isn’t something I have the budget for at the moment, although Sony’s new line of G Master Lenses is very appealing to me.

With that said, the A7RII proved to be an excellent addition to my toolbox. Because I shoot so much behind the scenes content, having a powerful camera like the A7RII was extremely helpful. When I shoot behind the scenes or backstage photos, I generally carry two cameras for stills, one on each hip. With the A7RII, I was able to carry a third camera over my shoulder or set it nearby on a tripod to quickly shoot footage when I needed to.

While I experienced some frustrations during my time with the A7RII, generally the photos I shot using the camera were very good, and the video was excellent. Would I purchase the A7RII? The answer is unquestionably yes. It is absolutely an amazing camera. The images I shot with it turned out fantastically well and I loved how light and compact it was.

Unfortunately, the A7RII isn’t the best fit for my current toolset however. It would be hard to justify purchasing the A7RII for my photography when I have a perfectly good D800 in my bag. While the A7RII shoots absolutely spectacular photos at 42 megapixels. Those 42 megapixels aren’t that far off from the 36 megapixels my D800 shoots, and I already have a nice collection of lenses that work perfectly with it.

When I started reviewing the camera however, my original intent was to use it for landscape and travel photography. As it turns out, I used the A7RII much more effectively as a video camera than for my photography. Since shooting video in low light is important to me, the recently released Sony A7SII is actually a much better option for me than the A7RII and a camera that I now own.

I hope that you enjoyed hearing about my experience using the Sony A7RII and hope this article helps you decide if this camera is right for you. Please feel free to let me know any thoughts or questions you might have about this camera system.

Note: This article was originally written in October 2015 and has been updated slightly to reflect new product releases from Sony. Between the time I wrote this article and published it, I actually went ahead and purchased the A7SII. I’ve recorded several videos with it since then, and I love it!