From Canon to Sony. Almost.

I wanted to love the A7RII. I’ve been a fan of Sony’s cameras for a while. The RX1 is fantastic, and one of my favorite cameras for walking around. I’ve recommended the RX100 to many people and used it for one of my favorite shots last year. The A7 series is brilliant, but you basically lose autofocus with adapted lenses, and Sony’s lens lineup, while improving, isn’t as good as Canon/Nikon.

My main system has always been Canon, and each camera and lens has been fantastic. But Canon’s been a bit uninspired lately. I really wanted the 5DS to be like the D810: great image quality and low-light performance. Instead we got something designed for the studio with meh low-light performance, and the rumors of the 5D IV have it being about the same res as the 5D III. That resolution isn’t bad–it’s better than my original Canon D30 (not 30D) for sure–but after using a D800, it’s not jaw dropping.

The A7RII seemed the perfect solution. Phase detection (aka fast) autofocus with adapted lenses! High res (42MP) and great dynamic range/low-light performance. Oh and high-quality 4K video. Dang! I pre-ordered one almost immediately and was thrilled to see multiple videos showing AF speeds with adapted Canon lenses on par with using them on Canon bodies. After 2.5 days of shooting with my A7RII, I’ve concluded that if Sony’s FE lens lineup works for you or you only shoot landscape/slower subjects with your Canon lenses, the A7RII is absolutely worth switching for and fantastic. If you shoot anything that moves, it’s not ready for prime time.

Day 1
Yay! Unboxing! I was so excited to play with the Sony that while one battery charged, I put the second included battery in the camera and connected it to the wall via the included short USB cable, sitting on the floor experimenting. A couple key tips:

  • Wi-Fi is on by default and kills the battery. Turn it off by enabling Airplane Mode.
  • Enable Release without Lens so that adapted lenses work properly.
  • Make sure you’re using Phase Detection AF! (Gear tab, screen 7, AF System)
  • In-body stabilization needs help with adapted lenses. Screen 8 of the shooting settings let under Steady Shot Settings let you switch it from Auto to Manual and then specify the focal length you’re using. I bound the Auto/Manual screen to C2 and the down button on the command wheel to bring up the focal length screen so that I could quickly adjust this while shooting.

I set my autofocus settings (via the Gear tab, screen 7, Custom Key Settings) so that:

  • C1 was bound to Focus Area, letting me pick my focus mode.
  • The Center button (on the dial) is set to Standard so that I could press it and then use the directional command dial to move the focus point
  • AEL Button was set to AF On and AF/MF Button set to AF/MF Ctrl Toggle to set part 1 of back button focus
  • (Gear tab, screen 5) AF w/ shutter was set to Off so that my camera used back button focus and not shutter-based focus.

I also put the camera into AF-C (continuous) and high-speed continuous drive, even though it drops the dynamic range a hair. I always keep my Canons in AI Servo and continuous.

My first experiment was putting a Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II with a Metabones IV adaptor (with the latest firmware) onto the camera. It recognized it properly, and I tried focusing on different objects in sight. Only 3 AF modes are available with adapted lenses, Wide, Center, and Flexible Spot (you can change the size of the spot). Wide will basically pick what to focus on for you and did a good job most of the time, but I prefer telling the camera what I want to focus on. I switched to flexible spot. It focused quickly and accurately on most things in my office, and changing the size of the spot helped deal with the few cases it struggled with. But, I found one case it just couldn’t handle. For some reason, trying to focus on the charger drove it nuts. I finally manually focused for the example. (Automatic zoom for assist is disabled with adapted lenses but you can manually zoom or just use focus peaking.)

The A7RII wouldn't autofocus on its charger.

The A7RII wouldn’t autofocus on its charger.

As I experimented more, I found it struggled in lower-contrast areas and with anything reflective, no matter what settings I picked. My 5DIII handled every situation perfectly.

Later when I tried a 100-400 MkII, AF didn’t seem to work at all with the A7RII. It would sometimes lock focus but then it would just start searching, even if everything stayed still. But my office and patio aren’t real-world, so the next morning I went for a walk.

Day 2
I started off with the Canon 100-400 MkII. Long story short, it works once in a while at 100, and beyond that, it doesn’t work. If you start way out of focus, it never finds focus. If you manually put it almost in focus, it might actually find focus, but then it’ll continue to hunt. Even when it locked, it immediately unlocked itself and searched again. But I found this great blue heron in a tree, manually focused (the focus peaking helped!), and the 100% crop was stunning. This made me want to figure out how to get the A7RII to meet my needs!

Manually focusing the Canon 100-400 MkII on the A7RII.

Manually focusing the Canon 100-400 MkII on the A7RII.


The detail the A7RII captures at 100% is amazing.

The detail the A7RII captures at 100% is amazing.

I switched to the 24-70, and I found it worked much better in daylight. Both in wide AF and flexible spot, it locked, even onto moving objects, stayed with them, and was just great! The Canon 16-35mm f/4 L IS worked similarly well.

The A7RII could easily focus onto San Francisco's unique sights with an adapted 24-70.

The A7RII could easily focus onto San Francisco’s unique sights with an adapted 24-70.

That afternoon, I went to Borrow Lenses in San Carlos and tried out a few lenses, trying to track cars driving by on the street, all in ideal conditions (4pm on a summer day light with a clear sky):

  • The Canon 500mm f/4 L IS II worked well, similar to the 24-70. Focus acquisition was almost as fast as on a Canon body (< 1 sec), it tracked well, and it worked nearly as well with a 1.4x teleconverter.
  • The Sony 70-400 A-mount lens with the LA-EA4 adaptor worked really well! Lock-on AF was enabled, and it was great to watch. This is sort of like ring of fire AF on the Canon, where you put the center of the frame over the object, start AF, and it’ll track the object as it moves.
  • The Sony 500mm A-mount with the LA-EA4 worked similarly well, and lock-on AF was available. I was quite happy and thought I’d found a solution! But, with the Sony 1.4x TC, the A7RII didn’t recognize the lens: it couldn’t set the aperture and was manual focus only.
  • I was later able to try the 70-400 with the LA-EA3. Lock-on AF was not available, and the overall AF performance was too slow to be useful for wildlife. Even though the EA4 limits the number of PDAF points (13?), it tracked better for me than the 70-400 + EA3

I spent $100 to rent the 70-400 and LA-EA4 to try during the weekend with my fingers crossed it’d be a viable alternative to the Canon 100-400.

Later that night, I brought the A7RII to dinner with some friends. Normally I would take the RX1 or something small to dinner, but I wanted to try the AF in lower light. Using flexible spot AF and placing it on my friend’s face, it sort of worked. But it was more frustrating and as slow or slower than my RX1’s contrast AF. Restaurants are always tricky, and the A7RII with adapted lens did somewhere around adequate, but I was hoping for better.

The adapted 24-70 struggled some in low restaurant lighting, but when it worked, it was awesome!

The adapted 24-70 struggled some in low restaurant lighting, but when it worked, it was awesome!

Day 3
I met up with a friend who has a couple FE mount lenses, and we went for a walk downtown. The day before, I’d noticed that while the 70-400 could lock and track a subject really well, once I started shooting, even as I kept the AF-On button mashed down, it would not effectively track anything past the 2nd or 3rd shot. So basically, the first shot in a burst is sharp and the rest are not. I heard that back button AF can limit the effectiveness of AF-C’s tracking, so I switched back to shutter-linked AF. Unfortunately I had the exact same results. We stopped by a dog park, and I ended up with lots of shots like this where the AF missed.

AF-C might lock on initially, but after the first shot in the burst, the shots looked like this (or blurrier).

AF-C might lock on initially, but after the first shot in the burst, the shots looked like this (or blurrier).

I was set to release priority while in AF-C (balanced wasn’t available). When I switched to AF priority, the frame rate dropped to maybe 2 fps.

For slower things, I continue to be blown away by this camera. This shot is with an adapted Canon 24-70, and I was able to recover so much of the shadows and highlights in Lightroom.

The dynamic range of the A7RII files is awesome!

The dynamic range of the A7RII files is awesome!

There’s a flock of cherry-headed conure parrots in San Francisco that hang out around the Ferry Building in the afternoon. While most were too far away in a tree, a couple flew to a lamp. It was a very tricky lighting situation, and the A7RII/70-400/LA-EA4 tracked them quite well (about what I’d expect with my Canon). My friend was shooting 4K video, hand-held, with the FE-native 135 A-mount 135mm f/1.8 with the LA-EA4 (it was small enough I thought it was FE), and it turned out beautifully!!

The 70-400 and burst mode worked pretty well with these parrots moving around a lamp post.

The 70-400 and burst mode worked pretty well with these parrots moving around a lamp post.

Unfortunately when I tried shooting seagulls, my results were very different. Shooting seagulls is a great way to practice bird photography and it’s quite hard to do well because they’re close and fast. Unfortunately while various AF modes tracked the gulls pretty well, as soon as I started pressing the shutter, all bets were off. I didn’t get a single keeper from that series.

To end the day, we walked out on a pier, and I was using my friend’s Sony 24-70 f/4 FE lens. (Oddly, my Metabones + 24-70 wouldn’t register at all on his A7RII). Wow, it was so much smaller than the Canon 24-70 + Metabones! I saw some seagulls moving around, and I sat down/waited for one to walk towards where I wanted him. When one landed, I went to flexible spot AF and put it over the gull. Even though he didn’t move much or quickly, AF tracking while shooting just didn’t work. The first shot again would be sharp, but then the AF would just start going in and out. It was frustrating to look at my images and see this: in focus, out of focus, out of focus, in focus, out…

One shot would be in focus (A7RII + Sony 24-70 FE mount)

One shot would be in focus (A7RII + Sony 24-70 FE mount)

And the next would be out of focus.

And the next would be out of focus.

Conclusion
During this time, I was trying to figure out if I had a setting wrong or if there was something I could do to improve AF performance even with native lenses. I didn’t find anything. (If I’m wrong, please ping me!) At the end of the day, Sony’s AF system–even with native lenses–just isn’t as good as what I’m used to.

If cash were no object, I’d keep the A7RII for sure because when it works, wow! If Sony made every lens I wanted or I spent most of my time in situations where AF didn’t matter, I’d switch to it for sure. But since I’m in situations where things move fairly often (I’m heading back to the North Pole next month and then South Georgia later this year), this camera isn’t right for me. I need something that I’m confident will work. There’s nothing more frustrating than missing the shot because of your gear, and I was swearing a lot while shooting these past few days. I’ll go back to lurking on the Sony sites, hoping the situation changes. But for now, I returned my A7RII.