A Few Notes on the Sony A7s II.

April 7, 2016

Since I bought the camera, I’ve had lots of people asking me various things about it. For the first couple of weeks, all I managed to do was shoot stills of my cat and roam pointlessly through the menus. Being a Canon user ever since I started photography (aka 2008), switching systems was a bit challenging since buttons change place, menus are divided differently. The whole “going mirrorless” thing was also a drastic change since the camera HAS TO BE ON in order to see anything. On the bright side, powering up is lightning fast (that coming from a MagicLantern adept, used to extra loading times for modules and LiveView), and being able to record video looking through the viewfinder instead of the LCD screen is also a nice feature, since it provides a lot more of stability.

I spent the entire first day just messing around the menus. They go several layers deep and getting the right settings can be tricky. One of my best sources of reliable information regarding these settings was a seminar by Philip Bloom, which is actually for the A7s I, but most of it applies to the A7s II. There a few differences between both models, and I think they are 1600 ISO as the minimum for shooting S-log, instead of 3200. There’s also the 5-axis stabilization that wasn’t present in the Mk I, and S-log3 in addition to S-log2 – which is even less contrasty.

On the downsides, I still haven’t learned to expose stills properly. Most of my raws come out extremely underexposed. The safest way to do so is trust the histogram instead of what you’re seeing on the screen (any of the screens). Opposed to that, bringing these very same underexposed raws into Lightroom gives you a hell more wiggle room than Canon ever gave. You can pump up the exposure almost up three stops and still be free of weird noise. Speaking of noise, low-light performance was the key aspect for me to choose this camera. Being able to push the ISO high and don’t worry about noise is something I started to get used with the Canon 5D3, pushing ISO 1250 and not worrying too much. On the A7s II, I’m pushing ISO 12800 and getting clear images. Also, the noise cleans up very nicely in post.

Underexposed still brought back to life!

More cool stuff: customizable buttons. LOTS of them. With plenty of functions to assign. I’ve set mine close enough to my Canon settings but I still struggle with a few settings I have to tweak when shooting (like the previously mentioned stabilization) and other functions I didn’t have in the 5D3. Among the functions I didn’t have in the 5D3, the A7s II offers Zebras and Focus Peaking right out of the box. The Zebras work flawlessly, but I’m still getting used to the Focus Peaking (it’s not as efficient as MagicLantern’s).

Now frame rates and crop factor! 4k internal is awesome. I’m not a fan of 4k itself, but for downscaling and stuff like that, it’s amazing. The camera also offers an APS-C crop mode, which punches 1.6x into the sensor, for a S35 area recorded to HD resolution. That’s pretty awesome since it allows us to use S35 lenses on a full frame camera (and kills the need for a smaller sensor camera as a B-cam). You can also shoot 120fps in 1080p, but that punches a 2.2x crop. For that reason I got a Metabones Speedbooster from EF to E mount, which brings the crop down to APS-C when shooting 120fps.

The image stabilization is pretty awesome, especially for people like me that don’t shoot using modern lenses, just vintage glass. It works by moving the sensor according to your hand movement. If the lens has electronic contacts, the camera knows its focal length and everything is fine, but using non-electronic lenses is also supported, you just need to manually set the focal length so the stabilization is done properly.

Shooting S-log is amazing, but it takes a lot of NDs and stopping down the lenses for a correctly exposed shot during daytime. I had SLR Magic’s VariND on at the maximum strength while shooting both at sunset and sunrise well after the sun was up and before it was up. The low noise level also helps for stopping down the lenses when shooting at night, fighting off that common issue of razor thin depth of field because the only way to expose the shot is at f/1.2.

A thing that really bothers me is that neither screen is sharp when you hit the magnification button to check focus. On Canon’s you undoubtedly know when focus is right, but on Sony there is a lot of back and forth before settling on a focus distance. This issue is countered by the ability of magnifying during recording (something Canon doesn’t allow), so I constantly hit it up in the middle of a moving shot, just to be sure focus is right.

The size of the camera is another thing that’s drastically different from the 5D3. Much lighter and smaller, it felt a little TOO small for the first few days and my hand started to hurt after using it for a while. Now I’m more used to it, but reaching the buttons sometimes requires finger gymnastics during the shots. Battery life is much shorter than Canon too. The camera comes with 2 batteries already, and I ordered another three right out the bat because they drain very very quickly with constant use. To handle this I kept switching the camera off and on again right before shooting.

One thing that I saw no mention anywhere before experiencing on set is the fact that the camera’s screens turn black when you try to record internal 4k while outputting to an external monitor. Everything works fine until you press REC. When you do it the screen turns black and you only get the video feed in the external monitor. If you switch the resolution down to HD, the screens behave normally, but that forced us to jump through a few hoops on set.

I haven’t had any issues with the 8-bit log files (they graded wonderfully so far) and the amount of space I’m saving, as opposed to shooting raw on the 5D3, is a blessing. Not to mention the super simple workflow, with no concerns with drop frames, decompressing, debayering, taking forever to render in After Effects, filling cards in a heartbeat, all those obstacles. I had many times when I avoided shooting something on the 5D3 because H264 wouldn’t give me enough quality, and shooting raw would be overkill. On the A7s II is quite the opposite: since I know how to expose for video, sometimes I just shoot a few seconds to make sure I’m getting the picture.

That’s a framegrab

I am still learning how to expose for stills. Maybe I need to shoot in a Picture Profile that ISN’T S-log, maybe it’s just a transition between systems. One thing is certain: even when I expose correctly, Sony’s colors in post aren’t as pretty as Canon’s. And I really miss the ability to stretch the LCD image when shooting anamorphic (farewell, MagicLantern, I’ll both miss you and support you forever).

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