Updated: Sony adds impressive new features with firmware 2.0 on November 18 2015, including uncompressed 14-bit raw shooting and phase detect autofocus for Alpha A-mount lenses.
The improved raw file recording means the A7 II can capture higher quality raw image data. It won't affect photographers who shoot in the JPEG format, but it could be a useful step up for those who like to shoot raw files and process them later on a computer.
The A7 II's phase detection autofocus system previously only worked with the Sony FE-mount lenses designed specifically for the company's A7-series mirrorless cameras. Thanks to the firmware update, however, this phase detection capability – which speeds up autofocus response – can now be used with the A-mount lenses designed for Sony's Alpha single lens translucent (SLT) cameras. These can be fitted to the A7 II via Sony's LA-EA3 mount adaptor. It's a way of getting extra use out of older Alpha mount lenses on Sony's latest mirrorless cameras.
Sony caused a major stir in the photographic world when it introduced the 24Mp Alpha 7 and 36Mp Alpha 7R because they were the first compact system or mirrorless cameras to have full-frame sensors – the same size as a 35mm film frame. This is something that has still yet to be done by any other manufacturer.
What's more, these two cameras (subsequently joined by the 12Mp Sony A7S) are incredibly small for full-frame cameras, not too dissimilar in size to the Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1, and offer a similar level of control.
Now Sony has created new waves of excitement by introducing an update to the A7 in the guise of the A7 II. However, some may feel that changes are rather small as, like the vast majority of the new camera's components, the sensor is the same full-frame (35.8 x 23.9mm) 24Mp Exmor CMOS device as is used in the original A7.
Like the rest of the Sony Alpha 7-series, the A7 II is aimed at experienced photographers and therefore has aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes. Not wishing to exclude relative newcomers, Sony has given the A7 cameras program and automatic modes along with a collection of scene specific shooting modes. It's also possible to save images in RAW and/or JPEG format.
The biggest news about the A7 II is that it's Sony's first full-frame compact system camera to feature in-body stabilisation. This means that the sensor can move to correct for accidental camera movements during the exposure. This 5-axis in-camera image stabilization may be unlikely to tempt existing A7 users to upgrade, but it does make the new camera more attractive than the older model to new buyers.
The stabilization corrects X and Y axis movements as well as pitch, roll and yaw for both still and movie recording. When a stabilised Sony lens is used on the camera the two systems combine to give optimised performance, choosing the best one to use for the focal length and each type of correction. The stabilization effect is optimised, but not cumulative, as one or the other system is used, not both.
Helpfully, those using older (or third party) lenses that cannot communicate with the camera can input the focal length manually to use the in-camera stabilization system.
It's probably worth reminding ourselves at this point that the Sony A7 series uses Sony's E-mount. This means that these full-frame cameras can accept both full-frame and APS-C format E-mount lenses, but the image size is reduced when APS-C lenses are used. Alpha mount optics made for Sony's digital SLRs and SLT cameras can be used via an adaptor. There are also adaptors available to allow Canon and Nikon lenses to be used.
Although the A7 II has the same hybrid AF system as the A7, with 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast detection points, Sony claims that new focusing algorithms enable a 30% increase in AF speed, with faster and longer high-speed drive and a 1.5x improvement in AF Tracking performance.
Thanks to the firmware 2.0 updated, the Sony a7 II becomes the second Sony camera, along with the flagship α7R II, to offer fully-functional phase detection AF on A-mount glass in addition to E-mount lenses.
The tracking AF performance has also been improved by using technology from the Sony A6000 and A77 II, adding Lock-on AF (Wide/Zone/Centre/Flexible Spot) to help follow moving subjects. This means that the camera uses data about object distance from all of the AF points to inform the processor about the location of the subject, whether it is moving in relation to the background and the location of other objects in the scene.
This enables the camera to continue to track the subject after another nearby object has interrupted the view. There's also improved motion detection to help identify the subject and distinguish it from the background.
Sony also claims that the A7 II's start-up time is 40% faster than the original A7. It will be interesting to see whether Sony passes any of these algorithm-based improvements onto the A7 with a firmware upgrade. Sony UK was unable to comment upon this point.
Sony has also given the A7 II some of the video features of the A7S. For example, it can now record in the XAVC S, AVCHD or MP4 format. Plus, there's simultaneous dual format recording in MP4 and XAVC S or MP4 and AVCHD format to provide an easy format for sharing along with data-rich footage for editing.
In addition, Picture Profiles offer the ability set the Gamma to Sony's S-Log2 for reduced contrast and greater dynamic range, plus the Time Code feature helps with scene identification and footage syncing from multiple cameras. You can also attach an XLR microphone via an adaptor.
On the still images side, the Sony a7 II supports uncompressed 14-Bit RAW image capture. This feature came later into the camera's life by way of the firmware 2.0 update that released on November 18. Before it, the Sony a7S II and a7R II both supported uncompressed RAW shooting.
Other specification highlights of the A7 II include a sensitivity range of ISO 50–25,600, a 0.5-inch 2.4million-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF), a tiltable 3-inch RGBW 1,228,800-dot LCD screen, a claimed battery life of 350 shots, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, a maximum continuous shooting rate of 5fps and a standard shape hotshoe with extra contacts to connect accessories like the microphone adaptor mentioned earlier.