New Challenges, or How I Fell in Love with a Mirrorless Camera

In 2015, I did a lot: I bought my first manual car; I presented at Apple's annual conference for the second time; I visited seven National Parks/Forests (and remembered to use my annual pass at one!); but perhaps more significantly than anything, I found a new hobby in photography.

Just a week ago, I launched a brand new website dedicated to my photography efforts, and announced the release of a portfolio photo book, 2015, which is available January 23rd in hardcover, on iBooks (you can pre-order it now!), and as an ePUB or PDF download (Update: the book is now available for purchase on my website!). In 2016, I want to go even further with this newfound form of artistic expression with which I have become so enamored.

So, to that end, I set myself a number of goals. On the conceptual side, I want to:

  • Make more books, especially some smaller, topic-centric, more affordable ones
  • Get more comfortable taking pictures of people I don't know
  • Take more pictures of people I do know
  • Practice a ton of different lighting techniques

It's been well demonstrated time and time again that a good photographer can take great photos with any camera, but that doesn't mean that making an investment in good gear isn't fun! Good tools enable you to respond more quickly (or appropriately) in different environments, so in 2016, I set myself some equipment goals as well:

  • Upgrade to a full-frame Nikon DSLR body (almost certainly the excellent D750)
  • Explore the possibility of adding a mirrorless system to my inventory
  • Buy a cheap, used film camera and make a bunch of mistakes

Not wanting to fall behind too early, I figured I'd better get a jump on some of that in January! So, that's exactly what I did: I spent the last five days with a Sony α7R II mirrorless camera, and put it through its paces in environments that were challening both for it, and for me.

Note: this blog post is actually an equipment review of the Sony α7R II. Bet I had you fooled, huh!

The Premise

After CES, Sony's impressive showing had me investigating their current camera line-up. I was first drawn to the α7 II, since it seemed like a reasonable peer to the D750 that I was already planning on purchasing—a 24.3MP full-frame sensor, reasonably fast autofocus, and a fairly flexible ISO range.

However, after careful consideration, I decided that that didn't really make sense for me: if I got that α7 instead of the D750, then I'd just be signing myself up to buy a bunch of new lenses for no real change; if I got it in addition to the D750, then my gear would be in complete overlap, and if all I wanted was a back-up camera, there are much cheaper ways to do that.

I decided, therefore, that if I were to invest in a mirrorless system, it needed to have a hook: something that starkly differentiated it from my DSLR gear. That's when I turned my attention to the α7R II—an equally attractive body, but with a properly-absurd 42.4MP backside-illuminated sensor. Combine that with the in-body image stablization that's present on all of Sony's α7 cameras, what many people consider the best electronic viewfinder in the industry, and a fairly complete line of compact but tack-sharp E-mount lenses, and you have a camera that would justify its existence on a shelf in my bedroom.

The Sony α7R II

My original plan was to rent it, along with a couple of lenses, for a weekend and put it through its paces. Being a very popular camera, though, and thus unavailable for this particular weekend, I instead decided to take the advice of a friend: just buy the damn thing.

There was a challenge, though, that my friend put to me along with this advice: if I were going to go through with this fairly sizable purchase, after a week with the camera, I would have to justify it with a review and some sample photos. And that's exactly what I'm doing.

I purchased an α7R II of my very own on Tuesday, it arrived Wednesday, and I immediately set to the task of testing it out. I also purchased the Sony-Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens, and rented the Sony-Zeiss 16–35mm f/4 and Sony 90mm G f/2.8 macro lenses to aid in my task.

A photo of a crosswalk light in Cupertino, while testing the camera.

The Promise

The camera certainly talked a big game. In addition to its 42.4MP sensor which promised exceptional image quality, it claimed great results in low-lighting conditions, with a maximum native ISO of 25,600, expandable to 102,400 (impressive, if not for the fact that the new D5 has 102,400 at the top-end of its native range, but I think we can all agree that that's just incomprehensible).

There's also Sony's 5-axis in-body image stabilization system, which claims to give you an extra four stops of shutter speed—certainly a boon, given that most of Sony's zooms only go to ƒ/4—and a 399-point autofocus system with on-sensor phase detection rumored ("rumored") to rival DSLR performance.

A photo of my chair, desk, and primary photo-editing machine.

So what did I actually expect? Excellent image quality, for sure, but I never really bought the claims of good low-light performance. The fact that most review websites described its high ISO performance as "surprisingly good" wasn't exactly confidence-inspiring, either—"good for a 42-megapixel camera" does not low-noise photos necessarily make. It's a simple truth that, all other things being equal, a smaller pixel size means less light means more noise at high ISOs—even with backside illumination, 42 million pixels is a whole lot to fit in a 35mm sensor.

I was also hopeful, but skeptical, of the autofocus claims. Having just come off of two weeks shooting with a D750—a camera that was imbued with the legendary 51-point autofocus system of Nikon's then-flagship D4S—my standards were set pretty high. And although Sony's on-sensor phase detection is quite good (it's the same kind of technology Apple calls "Focus Pixels" on the iPhone camera), I wasn't really expecting it to match even a moderately quick DSLR. After all, Nikon accomplishes its autofocusing feats thanks to a fairly chunky, dedicated 91,000-pixel RGB sensor mounted inside the mirror box.

Lastly, I wasn't prepared to be convinced by the camera's handling. Sony does not have a propensity for designing great user interfaces, and although they make great sensors, a good sensor does not make a well-handling camera. The company, if nothing else, lacks experience in the pro camera domain, and I figured they might have trouble recovering lost ground.

One thing was certain, though: I was still expecting some exceptional photos.

Note that the photos below have been scaled down and compressed a bit to make sure this post loads quickly. Sometimes, some of the sharpness captured by the camera is slightly diminished; trust me when I say, though, the originals are fantastically sharp!

The Test

During coffee breaks and in the evenings, I managed to squeeze in a few test shots at least once a day since receiving the camera. Some of them came out quite good, and that massive sensor was really showing it could pull its weight.

Colorful straws at Tpumps in Cupertino.

In order to test it more comprehensively, though, I knew I needed a full-day, multi-environment test: something that would let me try a lot of different lighting scenarios, subject matters, and ergonomic challenges to really see what the camera was capable of. For that, I turned to my friend Bora, and her friends Joe, Kiana, and Maggie. We planned a day in Berkeley, and at 11 AM today, I hopped in Klaus and set off, the camera never leaving my side.

Maggie peruses books on Joe's bookshelf. A wide-angle shot of the room, with Maggie's reflection visible in the mirror.

The day began at Bora's place, with Maggie and Joe finishing their morning coffee. I mounted the 16–35mm onto the camera, and started shooting some shots of the living room, trying to give the dynamic range a run for its money. We sat, we chatted, we posed for photos while trying as hard as possible not to make them look staged.

Maggie finishes her coffee before leaving Bora's place.

Eventually, though, hunger got the best of us, and we hopped in the car for a ride to the Genova Delicatessen for some sandwiches.

Joe, Maggie, and Bora contemplate the case of many meats.

It was there that, over our delicious meal, we mapped out a plan for the day. We would drive next to UC Berkeley's Botanical Garden, explore the outdoor trails, wander through the greenhouses, and take a stop in to see the special exhibit of drawings of plants native to the island of Alcatraz. There was also talk of seeing the new Star Wars, but that's neither here nor there.

We finished our food…

Joe enjoys his meal. A vegetarian sandwich from Genova Delicatessen. Maggie and Joe enjoy their lunch.

… and set off on our journey, as the rain started to fall.

We emerged from cloudcover at the botanical garden shortly after 1:30 PM, parked the car, and headed into the garden. I was packing a bunch of excellent new gear from Peak Design, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to put that through the ringer as well. I switched from the Slide I had been using (today in Lassen red), mounted a Capture clip onto my belt, and attached the camera at the hip as we headed inside. Already the benefits of the mirrorless body were apparent: while it had been manageable-but-uncomfortable with my DSLR, the Alpha sat much more gently at my waist.

Cloud cover at the botanical garden. Joe, Maggie, and Bora under a tree.

It was raining only slightly as we started our walk, which was great for my photos: all of the plants were just slightly wet, which gave me a chance to exercise the macro lens I had brought along, along with the manual focus assist features (like focus peaking and focus zoom) of the EVF.

Water on a succulent. A vibrant, flowering plant. A just-a-bit-prickly cactus. Wet, grassy fronds.

There are only two words to describe the results when properly focused: incredibly sharp.

A drop of water clings to a leaf. Beads of water on a cactus revealing the structure of the plant's outer layers. A 100% crop of some of the beads of water on the cactus.

For reference, the top image is actually a crop from the original 42MP to about 13MP; the third image is a 100% crop of the second image, showing the detail captured inside the water droplets.

I spent most of the walk with the macro lens mounted on the camera, playing with manual focus sometimes, and sometimes enjoying the results the autofocus system produced. For instance, the two photos below are of the same branch, one with the background in focus, one with the foreground in (very sharp) focus.

A forest scene with the background in focus. The foreground focus of the same scene, showing detail on a pussywillow.

The only thing more impressive than the sharpness at the sensor was its dynamic range. It had absolutely no trouble keeping highlights and shadows in check, all while capturing extremely vivid colors rivaled only by my Fuji X100T (which still takes the prize for versatility of color reproduction options). Note that this was also with DRO (dynamic range optimization) turned off—if you're shooting in-body JPEGs, I imagine your results could be even slightly improved with that feature turned on, although all of my shots were 14-bit uncompressed RAW.

An extremely color-deep photo of a leaf on the trail.

It was at this point, though, that the rain started to come down a bit more heavily, so we retreated to some plants of a more indoor variety in the garden's many greenhouses.

An upward-facing shot from inside a greenhouse at the garden. Maggie looks up at some of the rainforest plants inside the greenhouse. Bora and Maggie photograph some greenhouse plants. Bora and Joe stop to take a breather.

Our next dash through the rain took us to Julia Morgan Hall for the exhibit on the Alcatraz Florilegium. This also triggered a bit of an impromptu photo shoot.

Joe leans against the wall in a totally-not-staged photo. Bora, Joe, and Maggie relax on a window bench in Julia Morgan Hall. A slightly artsier version of the above, Bora, Joe, and Maggie put on their best disaffected faces. Maggie silhouettes herself in front of a window at Julia Morgan Hall.

Gathering enough courage to brave the rain once more, we greenhouse-hopped to a place where Bora got very excited. She provided some accidental education to other patrons standing to the side.

Bora and Maggie peer through the glass in a greenhouse. Maggie and Joe look at some plants. A brightly-colored soft plan hanging from the greenhouse ceiling. Bora supplies on-on-one flora education. A shot through the greenhouse roof.

One last greenhouse hop to a place with many cacti and succulents…

A succulent in the cactus greenhouse.

… and a stop at the gift shop…

Joe peruses a book in the garden's gift shop.

… and we were on our way back to Bora's place, where candles were lit…

Maggie sits next to a candle on the dining table.

… cuddling was executed…

Joe and Kiana on the couch.

… and Kiana excitedly explained Special Relativity. Hilarity ensued.

Kiana reads An excited Kiana demonstrates relativity as it applies to gravity. Kiana and Maggie laugh at a video recording on Bora's phone.

Around 5 PM, I packed my gear back into my Domke camera bag and hit the road back home to San Jose.

The Bad Parts

It's important at this point to point out that not everything was rosy during this test drive.

For starters: this is not a professional camera, at least not in terms of what most people mean when they use the phrase. Let me be clear, the image quality (which on this camera, is exceptional) is only a small part of what makes a camera "pro." The vast majority of the weight in that term comes down to ergonomics and performance, and the way this camera comes set up out of the factory, its ergonomics are terrible.

For example, by default, using manual focus on lenses without a dedicated manual switch (i.e., almost all of them except the macro lens I tried) requires holding down a button on the rear of the camera while turning the focus ring, and keeping it held down while you release the shutter. Image review, which happens on both the LCD display and in the electronic viewfinder, is on by default and configured for 10 seconds. 10 seconds?! In what world would I possibly want to look at the photo I just took for a full sixth of a minute? What's even worse is that the SD write time sometimes gets added to the review time, so you could be looking at that image for 12 seconds or more. (Update: this is completely untrue: Amazon sent me a used camera by mistake, and the previous owner had configured that [terrible] setting. The actual default is 2 seconds, which is much more reasonable.)

Most depressingly of all, ergonomically speaking, is (in true Sony form) the full 28-screen menu system—28 screens, I might add, that don't even contain every camera feature! There are some features—including one of the camera's party pieces, eye-tracking autofocus—which can't be used until they're manually assigned to a custom function button on the camera body.

Beyond ergonomics, the camera's high ISO performance was much as expected: lousy. Like I mean properly bad. With the camera's (actually quite good) auto ISO system frequently kicking the ISO up to 6400 in low light scenarios, I frequently found myself cringing when viewing the photos at 1:1 on my iMac's Retina 5k display. The photos do clean up quite nicely with a bit of Lightroom noise reduction, but the fact remains, I have many photos from the D750 at ISO 8000 that came off the camera in a far more usable condition than some of the Alpha's at ISO 3200.

And as for autofocus, I'll admit, it's actually quite good in good light, and even alright indoors—with the right lens. With an ƒ/4 lens, though, the camera was pretty slow to react as soon as it got dark, and depending on subject distance, I did register quite a few autofocus misses.

Last but not least, the battery life. Yeah, it's really, really bad. But hey, pockets were made to carry spare batteries, right?

The Good Parts

But who. The hell. Cares.

Even with all of its shortcomings, this is, without question, one of the best cameras I've ever used.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the image quality is exceptional. One of the reasons I selected Nikon as my DSLR system when I was first auditioning cameras is because of the great dynamic range on Nikon's sensors, and this camera's sensor handily defeats my D5300 in the shadows, and competes pretty closely in the highlights as well. That's no surprise, though, considering that Sony manufactures quite a few of the sensors in Nikon's bodies.

The electronic viewfinder is an absolute joy to use. The Fuji X100T's hybrid viewfinder may be slightly more fun when used in hybrid mode, but in pure electronic mode, the Sony wins, hands down. It's extremely informative, intuitive, considerate (for example, overlaying readings from the camera's gyro so you know if your shot is straight), and beautifully big. Features like focus peaking (which highlights in red your in-focus high contrast features), focus zoom (which 5x magnifies your focus point in the viewfinder during manual focus), and zebra (a marching-stripes pattern that appears in highlights that are approaching overexposure, common on many high-end video cameras) are game changers when composing a shot, and especially in macro work, make manual focusing a dream.

The build quality on this camera is jaw-dropping. Every surface is a delight to touch, the buttons and dials have just the right amount of satisfying resistance, and even the lenses (especially my 55mm) feel extremely high-quality (which they ought to, with those prices). The shutter release, which I initially expected to be feel mushy without a physical "click," is responsive and balanced. It may not be quite as rugged as its DSLR brethren, but it sure is more likely to attract some admiring stares.

And as frustrating as it is that the camera comes setup in such a poor button configuration, nearly every button on the camera body is reassignable, including four dedicated custom buttons. Switch the "hold to manual focus" to "toggle to manual focus," give yourself an eye AF button, add a button to toggle between LCD and viewfinder, and give another button to drive mode, and things are much, much nicer. My favorite tweak? You can assign the control wheel on the back (which functions as a D-pad) to double as an ISO selector—I finally have separate rotatable dials for all three exposure components, no funky key chords required!

It may not necessarily be able to go toe-to-toe with the pros on handling, but to sum it up in a single word, this camera is just plain cool.

The Unexpected Parts

The α7R II is smaller and lighter than a DSLR—but honestly, not by that much. It still looks like a "real" camera. And yet… somehow it doesn't.

I found that people seem to find it easier to relate to this camera than a DSLR—they get comfortable around it much more quickly. Maybe it's that it looks cooler, maybe it's that it's smaller and that makes it somehow less intimidating, or maybe it's just that I think those things about it and that makes me more confident. Whatever the reason, I was able to get much more relaxed candids, much more quickly when shooting with the Sony.

Perhaps the most surprising result, though, is my own attitude towards the camera. I never particularly expected to form any kind of an attachment to the Alpha—it seems, at first blush, to be a very technical camera, a precision tool rather than an object of emotion. But I'd be lying if I said that I haven't grown quite fond of it.

There's something positively intoxicating about using it, about the sound the mechanical shutter makes when you release it (in fact, the camera has a completely silent shooting mode, which is very cool, but I hate to use it because I so love the sound this camera makes when you take a photo). I can't completely put my finger on why I love this camera so much, but I do love it; it inspires the same kind of feeling I got when I first picked up my Fuji, and it backs it up with prints big enough to use on a billboard.

So, I'm Keeping It.

I don't yet know if this camera will become my "daily shooter," as it were, and for any scenario where performance is demanded, I'll definitely still be taking the Nikon out. I'll also still probably favor the Nikon for any specialty or portrait work, because let's face it, Nikon has their lens game on lock—it's just much easier to find a high-quality, purpose-oriented lens for a Nikon body than for Sony's E-mount. And the Nikon bodies will still win for the foreseeable future in inclement weather and extremely low light.

But for daytime landscape work, street photography, BIG portraits, and anything that requires a lot of manual focus (like macro)? The Sony is an easy winner. It may not go toe-to-toe in indoor performance, and it may not have the autofocus of a real "pro camera," but it's got guts, and the absurd image quality (and massive file sizes) to back it up.

My recommendation to you if you like photography? Don't try this camera. Because you won't be eager to give it back.