|Review rating: ***|
|List of sponsored/free gear: None
Did I get paid for this review? No
This is the complete and comprehensive review of the Sony a7S II (B&H, Amazon) camera for video production and stills. We will also compare this camera to the Sony a7R II (B&H, Amazon) and Sony a7S (B&H, Amazon) to see which one’s the best deal for video work.
Let’s get started.
In a nutshell:
The Sony a7S II is a full frame camera that shoots uncompressed 12 megapixel stills and severely compressed 4K video, and surprisingly does both well. The singular most unique thing about this camera is its unrivalled low light ability (actually the a7S is a direct rival, as both of them share the same sensor).
Before reading and watching the review, it is important to first understand the four major goals for this review:
- Is the a7S II a good upgrade for those coming from another platform?
- If you currently own an a7S, should you upgrade to the a7S II?
- If you’re contemplating between a new/used a7S and an a7S II, is the price difference worth the new features on the a7S II?
- If you’re shooting video, is the a7S II better than the a7R II?
For starters, you might want to watch my earlier a7S and a7R II reviews as well:
For video shooters, I’ll try to assess and give my thoughts on what projects the a7S II is suited for:
- Features films
- Short films
- Corporate videos
- Documentaries – feature length
- Documentaries – short length
- Wedding videos
- Music videos
- Live events
We will also look into whether or not it’s wise to invest in a Sony system at all, what lenses to pick, ergonomics, ISO performance, rolling shutter, and finally, which log setting works best – S-Log3 or S-Log2.
Why did I buy the Sony a7S II?
- Family, travel and street photography with manual focus
- Backup to the a7S and a7R II without having to buy another external recorder
- Silent shooting
- Personal documentary and video projects in 1080p and 4K, without resorting to RAW recording
- To use my existing Nikon manual prime lenses, and not be platform bound
- A ‘review’ camera for future wolfcrow reviews and videos!
Review of the features of the Sony a7S II, and footage
First, please watch ‘Transit City’, a personal short film I made using the Sony a7S II.
This personal project was planned for a black and white release, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave out the colors because it added so much to Mumbai’s “nightlife”. The idea was to show a side of Mumbai rarely seen.
It was shot on the Sony a7S II, internal XAVC S 100 Mbps 4K, mainly in S-Log3 (a few shots in S-Log2). Some shots where exposed using the wolfcrow system but I tried all kinds of exposure levels to stress test the camera to the max.
It was color corrected with Lumetri. Noise reduction was applied in only two shots, can you tell which? If you see any compression artifacts, it’s probably the Youtube compression. Vimeo does a better job, but unfortunately is restricted to 1080p. Best to watch it in 4K (at least 1080p or higher). No sharpening applied.
A few shots were stabilized in After Effects, though it didn’t help much due to the massive amounts of shake (that’s what it’s really like traveling!). Even a gimbal wouldn’t have worked, only a true car rig would have – but this was a run-and-gun shoot.
Total production: 5 days
Editing: 3 days
Color grading and finishing: 1 day
And here’s my comprehensive review of the Sony a7S II:
Update: If you update to firmware version 1.10 the sunspot issue has been fixed. See below for video.
Summary and Notes
The following is a summary of whatever I’ve covered above:
About log shooting
I hate to break it to you, but log is not easy. In fact, there are three ways to shoot video: RAW, log and baked-in (Rec. 709 or some other preset, but finished), and log is the hardest to understand and expose. From the video:
A lot of people buy into these systems because they get hooked with log footage and its promise of cinematic quality, but are unable to get rid of the noise or flatness. The easiest way out is to purchase or download some LUT somebody made and slap that on to your footage. Then your footage looks like everyone else’s. Over that you apply noise reduction plugins and assume it works like a magic eraser. The problem is, if you use noise reduction, you lose resolution. And the more noise you have, the greater this loss. It doesn’t take long for your footage to have the equivalent resolution of plain 1080p sampled up to 4K. The same principle when applied to 1080p footage makes it look like standard definition.
If you need help exposing for S-Log2 and grading log in general, here are two videos I’d made earlier (I’m not a colorist, and definitely could use more practice there):
About using LUTs
LUTs have their place, but it’s not a magic bullet. In fact, it’s like the drug that cures one thing, but with devastating side effects. I’m not a big fan of LUTs, but if you’re interested in it here’s a comparison I’d made earlier of Film Emulation LUTs – Filmconvert vs Magic Bullet Film vs Juan Malera’s free LUTs:
APS-C mode vs FF mode
Unfortunately, you can’t shoot 4K, internally or externally, in APS-C mode. This is a major fail and is the most disappointing aspect of the a7S II. If this was an important aspect of your work, this single most omission will steer of you clear of this camera.The crop factor in APS-C mode is 1.5x.
Really good and clean. Reference audio from the internal microphone is useful.
The ‘blue’ channel clipping problem
It appears again. It’s the third camera that has this problem, and I think Sony cannot or does not want to fix it.
It is slightly better than the a7S. The rolling shutter artifacts are better in APS-C mode, but too bad you can’t shoot 4K in this mode.
Like the a7S, the resolution in 1080p drops at 60p and 120p. So you shouldn’t try to match 24p with 60p, without having a ‘sharpening’ (or blurring!) plan upfront. It’s noticeable.
HFR (High Frame Rate) mode allows you to shoot 120 fps while having a time base of either 24, 25 or 30 fps. You also have a 120 fps mode. The difference is, with the HFR mode, you can playback your clip in slow-mo in the camera itself. Either way the camera uses the same functionality, just records at a different time base, that’s all. You can do the same thing by shooting in 120 fps and dropping it into your desired timeline.I didn’t find any recording limit, but the most I’d recorded was about 5 minutes.The crop factor I found, after experimentation, is 2.1x, so the full frame camera becomes a micro-four thirds in HFR.
HDMI quality and options
Clean HDMI, full resolution, and you can dual record 4K to both external recorder and internally at the same time.
Weather protection and toughness
It is not weather-proof, but is weather resistant. I have shot in a light drizzle, and the camera has gotten wet, no issues. The camera is tough for professional use, and even the LCD is surprisingly scratch resistant and tough, though I’ve managed to get the LCDs of both the a7R II and a7S II scratched.
Excellent in both video and stills mode.
Aliasing and moire
None. This is a true 1:1 sensor readout, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Some of the lenses haven’t shown up yet, and Sony has only 5 primes (with apertures all over the place), five zooms (not all of equally good image quality) and one cinema zoom (of meh quality but definitely usable and practical).
Sony needs to stop making cameras and start making lenses.
Exists. One of the banes of this camera due to the poor compression and 4:2:0 chroma subsampling.
Excellent. Filmic and organic, but you must know how to shoot and expose correctly. Otherwise you’re going to see ugly noise.
Unacceptable. Internal XAVC S 4K cannot be graded without a visible loss in quality. You won’t see it with basic use, but it’s very fragile for professional use.
Poor battery life
Buy more batteries. Batteries drain out like there was a leak or something. Thankfully cheaper batteries exist.
You need a 64GB SDXC U3 Card for 4K
These are more expensive, so watch out. Only U3 cards can sustain the data rate required for 4K.
AF with video
I don’t use it and I don’t recommend using it. Rudimentary at best.
I get a good usable 13 stops and that’s all I want. It’s filmic in both S-Log3 and S-Log2.
Low-light and ISO performance
This camera is the undisputed reigning world champion.
Better than the a7R II and not as common. But it exists.
If you update to firmware version 1.10 the sunspot issue has been fixed. Here’s a video at 25p:
Exists while shooting PAL. Does not exist in NTSC (24p) mode. Only exists with the following picture profiles: 800% Rec. 709, S-Log2, S-Log3(Only with firmware v1.0)
Weird artifacts at high ISOs
I’ve found two kinds of weird artifacts that were not present in the a7S:
- Vertical lines (like it’s raining)
- Color shifts, usually to red and back.
Both these only appear at extremely high ISOs, but I hope somebody can confirm this.
The camera has internal 5-axis image stabilization that works best with Sony FE lenses. When you mount third-party lenses, I believe only 2 axes work, and you have to manually input the focal length so the camera can shift accordingly.
Both work equally well, and if you’re standing still and just panning, tilting or trying to keep the shot steady, it’s great.
However, if you’re walking, or are moving, it will not replace a gimbal or steadicam. It’s better than nothing though, but don’t expect miracles.
Good reasons to switch to the Sony a7-series camp
Here are some things Sony does well:
- Image quality
- Focus peaking and EVF
- Fully customizable buttons and dials
- Decent audio
- Due to the small flange focal distance you can mount almost any lens made for full frame
- USB charging and power
- Image stabilization for any lens you can mount on the camera, even cine lenses.
Good reasons to avoid the Sony a7-series camp
- Is this a professional camera or not?
- Additional app purchases for what should come with the camera
- Some options cannot be customized for easy access
- Very few lenses from Sony
- Sony holds back some features on purpose, like 4K APS-C
- No official LUTs or white papers on the specific log and color gamuts in the camera
- No dual SD recording
- Not completely weather sealed
- LCD cannot swivel
- Complex and disorganized menu that always gets in the way
- Tough to use in cold weather – poor battery life becomes worse, and it’s hard to operate with thick gloves
- Cameras come out every year, and there’s no clear upgrade path
- Professional service is invitational only, and even then you have to pay and qualify.
- Firmware update process can brick your camera.
Sony a7S or a7S II?
This is probably the most important comparison of this review.
Here’s what the a7S II adds:
- Better grip and handling
- Tougher body
- Slightly better EVF experience
- S-Log3 and Gamut Assist
- The ability to configure zebras. With this version you have up to two custom zebra values with ranges as well, and this makes it even easier to expose in log.
- Uncompressed RAW stills
- High frame rate mode
- Ability to configure the record button
- Internal 4K recording, even if you’re only going to use it as a backup it’s good to have.
- Dual internal and external 4K recording, so you have a backup.
- Internal image stabilization, which works reasonably even with third party lenses
- A minimum ISO of 1600 for log, but you’ll still need ND filters
And surprisingly, here’s what the a7S II takes away that the original a7S has:
- You can’t shoot 4K in APS-C mode anymore.
- You have the sunspot issue, but you can work around it for now.
- The camera is bigger and about 25% heavier than the a7S.
I know it’s hard to pick between the two, as the price difference is about $1000-1,500 (depending on whether you’re buying used, new or replacing it). How do you put a dollar value on features? The best was is to ask yourself if these added features will add up over the course of one year (because it’s likely the next model will come out by then) to make up for and profit from the difference.
If you’re not sure, then don’t upgrade. If you have to upgrade, you’ll be absolutely sure without a doubt.
E.g., Slog3 makes shadow noise cleaner. The ability to configure zebras makes handling exposure easier and more precise. Internal 4K recording might save your skin if your external recorder fails for some reason, and image stabilization is helpful no matter what. Finally, if you’re shooting stills, even timelapses, uncompressed RAW is definitely preferable. As a pro, you’d be more confident of your tools and ability to generate great images. If you’re an amateur who doesn’t generate the revenue to justify the added expense, then your choice is not as clear cut. Finally, if you want to shoot 4K, you’ll still need an external recorder and that is more expensive than the price difference. The only major reason you might want to hold on to the a7S is because APS-C mode is critical to your shooting needs. Otherwise, the a7S II can handle more kinds of production work than the a7S can.
Sony a7R II or a7S II?
This is a more surprising comparison, but definitely a worthy one.
What the a7R II brings to the table:
- It can record 4K in APS-C mode as well. If you’re used to punching in you’ll miss that feature on the a7S II, big time.
- ISO 800 for log shooting.
- 42 MP stills for timelapses and panning and scanning
- You can use the Metabones Speedbooster (B&H, Amazon) to gain one stop over the a7S II for low light
- Better rolling shutter performance in full frame mode
- Phase detection AF, though it’s not handy for video
What the a7S II brings to the table:
- The a7S II reigns supreme for high ISO shooting
- ISO 1600 for log shooting.
- Two stop noise advantage, so definitely clear footage at high ISO.
- Customizable Zebras
- You can switch off the LCD
- Better battery life and lower overheating
- True 4K sensor readout
I’d say the lower ISO, high 42 MP count and the ability to shoot 4K in APS-C mode make the a7R II (B&H, Amazon) a better choice, overall for run and gun work. How do I know? Because when I shot transit city run and gun style, I wished I had it with me, though it wouldn’t have worked for the extreme low light shots at all. But then again, those low light shots were extreme beyond limits, and I shot a few scenes at ISO 51,200.
However, if you’re shooting deliberate work for the best image quality possible, the a7S II (B&H, Amazon) wins. It covers more exposure scenarios overall, and the 1:1 pixel readout will definitely be better.
What kind of productions can the a7S II be used for?Here are my suggestions for video, based on my personal knowledge, history and usage of this camera:
|Type of production||Recommended?||Alternative*||Better option?^|
|Feature films||Yes||a7S||Arri Alexa, Red Dragon|
|Short films||Yes||a7S||Arri Alexa, Red Dragon|
|Corporate Videos||Yes||a7S||FS7, C300 Mark II, Amira|
|Documentaries||Yes||Panasonic GH4||FS7, C300 Mark II, Amira|
|Wedding videos||Yes||Canon 5D Mark III, Panasonic GH4||FS7, C300 Mark II|
|Music Videos||Yes||a7S||Arri Alexa, Red Dragon|
|Commercials||No||FS7, C300 Mark II||Arri Alexa, Red Dragon|
|Wildlife||Yes||No||FS7, C300 Mark II, Amira|
|ENG/EFP/Run n’ gun||No||Panasonic GH4||FS7, C300 Mark II, Amira|
|Live Events||No||No||Broadcast Cameras|
- *At a similar price point
- ^Price no bar
The bottom line
There is no other full frame camera that shoots 4K video, and also delivers insane image quality even at 25,600 ISO. Now with the a7S II, you also get image stabilization for almost any lens and internal 4K recording. All with almost 14 stops of DR. You’d need to pay a lot more to get a slightly better improvement in dynamic range.
Let’s answer our questions:
- Is the a7S II a good upgrade for those coming from another platform? Yes, as long as you can utilize these new features, are willing to learn to get better image quality, and get paid for it.
- If you currently own an a7S, should you upgrade to the a7S II? Yes, as long as the price difference will put food and an extra bottle of your favorite beverage on your table. I hate to break it to you, if you couldn’t do much with the a7S, you’ll most likely get the same results with the a7S II.
- If you’re contemplating between a new/used a7S and an a7S II, is the price difference worth the new features on the a7S II? See above
- If you’re shooting video, is the a7S II better than the a7R II? For run and gun work, maybe not, but for absolute image quality, yes.
Here’s how Sony has divided the three cameras:
|Low light||APS-C 4K Shooting||Internal 4K Recording|
|Sony a7S II||Y||N||Y|
|Sony a7R II||N||Y||Y|
The a7S two does lowlight and internal 4K, but not APS-C 4K. The a7R II does both APS-C and internal 4K, but not low light. The a7S does not do internal 4K. You can’t have all three. Pick any two features, or pick any two cameras.
All said and done, the Sony a7S II (B&H, Amazon) is a winner, at least until the a7S Mark III comes out next week. If you don’t want to invest time and effort in learning how to expose and grade log, then buy a GH4. It’s cheaper, and it gets the job done. That extra image quality the a7S II will give you won’t come with just the push of a button. If you want that, rent an Arri Alexa.
If you care about it, the camera I prefer personally is the Sony a7R II (B&H, Amazon). The fact that Sony took away 4K APS-C mode in the a7S II tells me, and their competitors, that this is perhaps where Sony will draw the line, and they can’t give you any more without stepping on their pro video cameras. I could be wrong, but the signs are there. However, I can’t think of any manufacturer planning to come out with a full frame camera that can shoot 4K at ISO 25,600 any time soon.
What do you think? Please let me know in the comments below.