You early adopters out there, you’re feeling like darned prophets now aren’t you? So precisely what has happened and why do I think something very exciting has just crystallised (with the Sony A7R II being only part of it)?
Investing into a new, fledgling system is not for everyone and I know when I bought my Sony A7 and A7R in 2013, a lot of people were put off by the immaturity of the system (in fact even calling it a system was inappropriate). Then there were the shortcomings of the bodies: awkward shutter button location (for some), noisy shutters (especially A7R), shutter vibration (A7R), a lack of In Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) and the almost total absence of native FE mount lenses. Nonetheless, some of us believed the FE system was going to be a huge success and that Sony would invest hugely.
The quick arrival of the Sony A7II showed that Sony was keen to listen to criticism and implement improvements, yet there were those who were upset that it was ‘too quick’, because there was now something ‘better’ than what they had just bought. Lenses began to arrive and, while the FE 24-70 f4 OSS has impressed few people wider than 35mm, the Sony G 70-200 f4 OSS was very well received, followed by the very decent 16-35mm f4 OSS. Nonetheless, the absence of wide primes, macros or fast portrait lenses was the elephant in the room.
But this has all changed. In the last three months, the Sony FE system has gone from bright hope to the most ground breaking camera system in a decade. I am not paid by or supported by Sony in any way and have bought all my own equipment, but I genuinely believe I have just typed an understatement.
No, it is about Sony (and Zeiss) removing almost every single remaining reservation people have about the FE system and it goes something like this:
Lenses: Wants and What we Got!
We need wide primes (and affordable performance under the Sony banner)! Here, have the Sony 28mm FE f2 lens which (compared upon release) is 60% the price of the excellent Zeiss 35mm f2.8 Sonnar, yet wider, faster and sharper. It is priced in line with Canon and Nikon prosumer lenses, yet is faster, similarly priced and lighter.
We want the BEST wides to really show off those 36MP! Here is the Zeiss Batis 25mm f2, which is a better performer than the extremely well received Zeiss ZF and ZE lenses for DSLRs. It is also half the weight (in line with the likes of the Nikon 28mm f1.8G). In fact, it may be one of the best performing 24/25mm lenses made for any system, ever.
We need a FAST 35mm. The Sony Zeiss 35mm f1.4 Distagon is quite large and expensive, but it is one of the best lenses of this type ever made.
We need a decent portrait lens! Here enters the Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8, which is a pocket Otus…. while containing stabilisation. It has beautiful bokeh, is sharp yet smooth and looks close to perfect.
Macro? Sony 90mm f2.8 G, which is universally praised as a phenomenal performer. Big, yes, but superb.
Better grip and shutter button location.
No shutter vibration. In fact silent shutter would be nice.
Much better AF that the A7R. Better than the A7 II would be good!
Better high ISO than the A7R possesses (you know, because we really want everything, no matter how unreasonable)
In short, the best of the A7S, plus the A7 II, plus the A7R plus some more sprinkles on top, all in one camera, right now!
What We Got: the Sony A7R II… and it is all of these things. While in-depth reviews are not yet out, certain things can be expected from this camera and all of them good! It has a groundbreaking first Back-Side Illuminated (BSI) Full-Frame sensor, which should improve noise performance considerably and 42.4MP (I’d have been fine with 36, but six more is nice). The A7R II may well be quite a bit more expensive than the A7II, but both models offer a huge amount at their price points – the former offering quite a bit more and not just in terms of megapickles. What’s more the A7II chassis is now proven and some of the features that have migrated into the A7R II already well known.
The A7R II looks like it is the best at everything, rather than being hobbled in one or more areas. Sony has done precisely what the doubters said they never would, which is produce a camera that does everything well. It is not the camera for everyone, but there are no gimmicks and games to this camera: it is a very clear statement of intent and recognition that Sony not only listened, but pulled all the stops out. A new A7R type body needed lenses to do it justice, just as the great lenses needed a body without shutter vibration to do them justice and Sony got this all right in quick time.
In fact, they did more than what we asked for. The camera has nearly 400 AF points covering most of the screen and has very quick AF even when using adapted Canon EF lenses via the Metabones adaptor. Er, say whaaat? Yes, Canon EF lenses appear to be performing with very snappy and assertive AF on the new A7R II, meaning a big problem for Canon and big smiles for Canon users like me. This means that instead of having lenses we love, but which are only usable slowly and deliberately on the Sony bodies, we can now actually use the AF ‘for real’. That transforms the potential of lenses like the 50mm f1.2 L and 85mm f1.2 L II. It also means Canon users have even less need to retain an EOS body. Canon is making some of the best full-frame lenses in the world today and unquestionably the best tele-zooms.
The A7R II is unlikely to compete with prosumer DSLRs in AF performance (AF tracking being the primary deficiency with mirrorless cameras), but in every area it now competes or in many areas vastly exceeds them. So what does all of this mean for the consumer?
1. The person wanting to shoot weddings can now shoot silently on the same camera he or she uses for travel and landscapes. The original A7R sounds like a tin full of coins hitting a marble floor! If the wedding shooter market significantly opens up, this will mean a lot more pros shooting the A7 series. And for this person there is now the FE 35mm f1.4 Distagon and 85mm Batis.
2. Canon owners can sell up everything apart from unique glass, assuming they do not need the superior AF tracking of the EOS bodies, assuming that EF lenses are as good on the A7R II (via Metabones adaptor) as early reports suggest. Everyone prefers shooting only one platform for a given task (this is relevant to the above point, where a wedding photographer may now be happy to ditch their 5D III and shoot the EF 85mm f1.2 on a A7R II, but its too early to say if this is really going to cut it. Yet.
4. The videographer can shoot internal 4K on the same camera used for night time street photography (IBIS, amazing new sensor), travel, landscapes, family shots and everything else, while carrying a 600g body, not a 1400g one.
5. The travel photographer or lightweight-loving hiking landscape photographer can sling a A7R II, 25mm Batis, 35mm Sonnar, 55mm f1.8 Sonnar and 70-200 f4 OSS into a pack and produce staggering image quality. If he/ she knows that long lenses are not required, the 85mm Batis can be used instead, saving a pound in weight (approx. half a kilo).
6. The really, really lightweight photographer can take off with their original A7, 28mm f2 FE and 55mm f1.8 FE Sonnar for street and documentary work, while producing wonderful image quality. For many, the 35mm Sonnar was great, but having that 28mm now means much less is wanting in terms of ‘wideness’. This will be me, for some of my work. 28mm on camera, 55mm in jacket pocket. See, no bag required…
7. The Canon shooting architectural photographer can now shoot an amazing 42MP FF with miles more dynamic range than the Canon bodies offer, with more native lenses that will do it justice and a 17mm & 24mm TS-E, with a shutter that does not vibrate. Nice.
8. The wildlife & travel photographer can now seriously mix up Sony FE and Canon equipment, knowing the 42MP Sony A7R II won’t introduce vibration with those beautiful long Canon primes.
9. Landscape photographers who were holding back because of no top quality primes wider than 35mm are likely to now be convinced. Sure, something wider than 25mm would be nice, but 25mm and 35mm covers most of the wide work for most photographers and we all know wider lenses are coming (assuming you are not 100% happy with the 16-35mm f4 OSS for critical work).
What holes remain?
These are just thoughts, but I am confident that Sony and Zeiss will deliver on at least 50% of them within the next 12-18 months (we can leave out the tilt shift lenses from that, as this is a big ask).
A very small, light, affordable (slowish) 40-50mm pancake. I think a lot of people would appreciate this for travel and street, where f1.8 is not needed but compactness is.
A Sony branded 50mm f1.8. Half the price of the Zeiss 55mm FE Sonnar, this is needed to encourage more buy in at the bottom end.
Ultra-wide prime, circa 15-18mm (I’d like to see a 19mm and 14mm if I could choose, but suspect Zeiss will release either a 15mm or 18mm Batis). I’d like them to keep it slow if that means keeping it compact. f4 is fine by me. We know they are working on several more lenses….
Tilt and Shift lenses! Sure, there is no need considering the Canon lenses, but I have a sneaky feeling that Sony and Zeiss are going to go down this road. If they do, it will be the biggest statement of commitment possible, as these lenses are not big sellers in terms of number, but they are considered core equipment for architectural, interior and urban photographers. Native lenses would negate the need for adaptors, which everyone would prefer to shoot without.
Longer Pro Tele-Zoom, perhaps a 200-400? Surely this is coming. For now, FE shooters can use the amazing Canon 100-400 Mk II, but native lenses will surely follow…
Consumer 100-300mm zoom. the 24-240mm is expensive and looks to be not that great optically. A 75 or 100-300 would make much more sense for most people, combined with the kit lens.
Affordable 85-90mm Sony Lens. Duplication with the Batis? Yes, but Sony will aim to bring in people at a lower price point, so combined with the 28mm FE and a possible future 50mm f1.8 Sony, the lighter spenders can still be well-served.
A pro quality wide Zoom! The 24-70mm is not convincing wider than 35mm. There are rumors that Sony has filed a patent for a Zeiss type 28-70mm f4 OSS, so perhaps they have realised this is a problem and will release a revised design that performs very well at 28mm? I hope so. With the 16-35mm out there, I am sure most people would trade the loss of four (lousy) millimetres at the wide end for a much better design overall.
Non-Lossy RAW files! Yes, it appears Sony is working on this too and can deliver this through updated firmware. Excellent.
A Pro-spec Body. This may arrive sooner than we think, but lightning quick AF, rugged build, full weather sealing and much more can be expected.
Many of those unconvinced by the original A7 cameras and pre-2015 lens line up may now be convinced. More Canon and Nikon shooters will jump across, because the AF is good enough for all but sport and wildlife shooters. Some high-end M43 users may do so (though M43 still has some really strong selling points and remains cheaper). Even some Medium Format shooters will do so. Pros who think in terms of decades will now consider it, because this is what we have now and it is clear that so much more is coming. Why? because this systems is already a huge success and we are only at the foot of the upsweep. Its also worth noting that this is the first time that Sony’s best sensors have not debuted in a Nikon and you can make of that what you wish. Personally, I take that to mean Sony is naked in its ambition to depose Canikon. They’re going for the jugular now, because they think they are ready.
Sony has said that it is very profitable, much more successful than expected and they are making a point of telling us they are enormously committed. There are rumours of a A6000 sized FF body in development and that will capture more of the M43 and Fuji market, especially now that there are affordable lenses like the 28mm FE out there. Now that the FE system is carving and defining its niche (DSLR topping IQ, mirrorless compactness and EVF advantages like IBIS), what is its competition? At the moment, there is none that I can see. Fuji is doing great in APS-C land and M43 is a different beast, in the main.
You know those impressive photos much loved by Nikon and Canon in the 1980s, that seemed to be in every magazine, showing the huge spread of their bodies, lenses and accessories? This will be Sony in 2020….
Maybe Canon and Sony will explode onto the ‘high end’ mirrorless market, now that Sony has proven its viability, but I don’t think so. Sony has the sensors and the raw technology and so are in a commanding position. Its great for consumers, but it also makes me sad to see these great names languishing long after the boat left the docks. If Canikon are expecting to belatedly impress us, they had better be quick about it, because I can foresee a lot of Canikon bodies and lenses hitting epay pretty soon… and once people have gone through the agony of disinvesting in a system that took a decade to build, very few will be convinced to pull a U-turn. Besides, with all this already on offer from Sony, why would you?
For those of you sitting on the fence, the water is now safe for you to jump in with a huge smile on your face. There is no way Sony is walking away from this. They’re onto a winner with the A7R II and they know it.
P.S. I wonder if Sony will drop the A7 II in the next generation and stick with the twin ‘S’ and ‘R’ lines and bring up the middle with a much cheaper full-frame compact body. We will have to see!