Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sony a7Sii Joshua Tree Review

Continuing my extended review of the Sony a7Sii (you can read the general overview and the wedding reviews on my blog), I took it to Sequoia National Park and Joshua Tree to see how it would perform (and to deepen my knowledge of the camera).  Being mirrorless-- and a Sony-- its operation is significantly different than my other two cameras.  And in all fairness it has an incredibly high bar to pass in order to make it into my camera bag.  The Nikon D600 (my workhorse) was rated with the 3rd best DSLR sensor when it was released; my Pentax 645D was similarly at the top of its class, only within the even more demanding medium-sensor competition.  So how did the a7Sii fare?

To start let me say that I never intended the Sony to be a primary camera, only a solid backup.  I don't like having identical systems for 1st and 2nd cameras. Since cameras so rarely fail, I like my 2nd to offer something different in terms of tonal quality or features.  I want it to be something I'll use during a session even when my primary kit is functioning just fine.  To that end, the Sony doesn't disappoint.  But let me start with the specifics.

The Good
I wanted to play with the a7Sii with some landscape opportunities; I'd already found that the ever-so-slight shutter lag made it less than ideal for events and sports; I wanted to see how it performed with a still subject.  Normally, I'd chose the Pentax 645D for this job.  And let's be honest-- it's unfair to pit a 12MB full-sized sensor against at 40MB medium format sensor.  The Pentax surpasses in detail and texture.  Still, the Sony does quite well on its own terms.  While the image quality is not quite on par with even my Nikon, it's clearly ahead of smaller sensor cameras, and many full-framed ones too.  Also, the Pentax is freakin' huge; it's not suited for hardcore traveling.  The Sony is the smallest of the trio, and in some respects (silent shutter, low-profile, and tilting LCD) the most versatile.  So even though it doesn't have the same detail and textural depth, I'd still list image quality in the "good" section.

With landscape (and portraiture and architecture), you don't notice the ever-so-slight shutter lag.  The issue doesn't distract in the slightest.

The dynamic range is pretty impressive; it may even surpass my Nikon-- I'll have to test that further.  What makes it so good is that the camera resists blowing out.  You can see it in the blue skies-- I did very little to pull them out in these images.  The darker zones are sometimes a bit mushy, but the camera works hard to keep everything within range.

I'll repeat myself now: the Sony a7Sii is incredibly fun to shoot.  It just feels good.  And the versatility I mentioned before gives it a flexibility that's hard to match.  So even if my other cameras produce better images, there will still be times when I'll chose it above the rest.

A simple $20 adapter allows me to use some incredible Nikon glass. This is the 50mm f/1.2.

Because you can quickly zoom in (I've assigned the Zoom to the button nearest the shutter), focusing with a manual lens is quite quick and beautifully accurate.

The Not-So-Good
When it comes to landscape photography, the Sony really doesn't have any major flaws.  If you're a professional landscape photographer the low resolution (12MB) sensor is an obvious and insurmountable problem. But for the rest of us it does quite well.  And if you use a better lens, you'll get some of that detail and sharpness back.  12MP with excellent glass is sharper than 16MP with mediocre glass.

In scenes with a wide dynamic range, the viewfinder and LCD often make the brightest portions appear blown out.  But just on the screen-- not the image itself.  To compensate,  I took to always having the histogram up in shooting mode so I could tell what was really happening.  It's not blown out, the viewfinder/LCD just doesn't have the same dynamic range as the image.

Color.  Color? Color....  I'm pretty mixed on this one.  Shooting in RAW and converting with Adobe DNG converter, the colors are oddly muted.  Not just muted, oddly so.  You can pull a lot of richness back (in fact the raw files are quite flexible), but it takes more tweaking than with either of my other cameras.  I also, I find it needs a little more sharpening.  I think those qualities qualify as a negative.

But really, there's not much else in the negative.

The wife... tree hugging.

The Verdict
The Sony does a very good job of challenging my Nikon for travel photography.  The smaller size and versatility make it a difficult camera to leave at home.  Let's see what I do the next time I take a major trip (okay, let's be honest, I'll probably take both since the Sony can use the Nikon lenses).  The a7Sii is quite capable for landscape photography, just so long as you don't need a huge amount of detail.  Again, it wouldn't be the choice of a professional in that field, but rather a professional photographer looking for either a solid second camera or dabbling in a field that's not his/her/they specialty.

At times I felt there was some very safely "middle-ground" about the camera.  With the kit lens, it's easy for the images to be good yet unexceptional.  However, I think that with better lenses and a deeper understanding of the camera's qualities it will be possible to create some truly exceptional images.  These images, by the way, were tweaked for color and sharpness, but I didn't take the time to try and find their full potential.

The a7Sii is, of course, really designed for video.  Still images are secondary.  If you judge it as a video camera first and a still camera second, the Sony a7Sii is better than its aspirations:  I'll never grab my Nikon above the Sony for video, but there are times I'd grab the Sony first when shooting still images, which speaks volumes.  And if I had to give up one of my three cameras today, I'd let go of the Pentax.  The image quality is superb, but it can't compete on versatility.  In comparison, it's a boutique camera, a tool for a specific purpose.

Nuts!  I left my tripod at home.  This image was shot with the camera propped on my bag to reduce shake....  Also, in  the dark I couldn't find the shutter delay option, so two strikes against. me.  That functionality is a bit buried in the menu.

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