Lotta really good cameras came out this year but if I had to choose the one that set the enthusiasts' world on fire and changed the aim point I'd have to pick a camera I don't own...

Of all the cameras in the equipment case that I've squandered my hard earned 
money on I would have to say that my favorite camera to hold in my hands
and take photographs with would have to be the Olympus OMD EM-5.2

But it's not 2015's photo world changer.

That honor would have to go to the Sony A7R2. 

And here's why: Sony made a halting, tentatively, half-assed start with their A7 cameras. When they were announced I had high hopes for the line but my first test with them back at launch in 2013 was disappointing. The shutters were so loud that, if you were photographing human models, you would have to stop shooting to give them verbal directions because, otherwise, they would never hear you over the nerve-wracking clatter of the horrible shutters. Just cheesy.

The bodies were a bit too small and seemed, delicate to me. The evf finders were no better than those in cameras that had been on the market for quite a while. But most damning was that, even though Sony seems to be the source of all imaging sensors, they cut corners on both their raw files and their Jpeg processing. Similar sensors in Nikon cameras just spanked the hell out of the Sony trio at the outset.

There were people who embraced the cameras. Mostly people coming straight from DSLRs who were finally willing to at least try the seductive reality of electronic viewfinders for the first time. The praise they have for their Sony A7 (original lineup) cameras is partly a sigh of relief that came from embracing the new viewing and reviewing technology that underlies the mirrorless experience; not from the superiority or enhanced usability of the cameras themselves.

I wanted to like the Sony A7; and especially the A7R, but after many attempts at a warm embrace I left them on the curbside and moved on with my life.

That was then. But life and camera design move on. I think Sony had a good bit of success with the new cameras and a large part of the success is wrapped around the fact that the cameras give one a reasonably priced entree into full frame imaging with high quality sensors and the ability to use a very wide array of third party lenses from many sources, and from across decades. Whatever the reason I think Sony's collective camera design brain sent the message to the Sony Borg that there really was a market for their wares and, if they had a flagship product to rally consumers the fight to sell more product in the channel would be easier. They needed a "halo" marketing product to prove that, as far as image quality was concerned, they could go toe to toe with the best on the market. They might even better the high point.

The product that I think will come to define the Sony A7 line as a workable group of cameras for high aspiration non-professionals and people who mostly make a living with their cameras will be the A7R2. Not only because they put in their best sensor, and keep improving the processing via firmware updates, but because they finally paid attention to the quality of the mechanical offering. The camera is no longer a melange of composite panels and metal but is now a more robust, all metal construction. The finder optics and finder resolution is much better. The body is beefier and feels much more solid in one's hands. Coupled with a battery grip it finally feels adequate as a support for heavier lenses like the Sony Alpha 70-200mm f2.8, along with an Alpha adapter.

The investment that Sony made in Olympus seems to be paying off with some good technology transfer in the form of a five axis, image stabilization system that works well. Much work was done to ensure cleaner and more nuanced Jpeg files and a recent firmware upgrade gave users beefier, less compressed and higher bit depth raw files. The imaging pipeline currently sits near the top of the DXO sensor rankings. Toe to toe with the Nikon D810.

But the one thing that got my attention and put the A7R2 firmly in the "great camera, I should get one some day!" category is the new shutter. Nice to have all the imaging system stuff better figured out but it still would have been meaningless to me if the shutter rattled along like a Yugo with a quarter million miles on the speedometer and hundreds of marbles in the trunk. A camera with great imaging is always sabotaged if the handling, audible and visceral aesthetics suck.

So Sony finally listened. Either to pundits or their customers or their own inner sense of pride as camera designers, and they worked on making the shutter significantly good. Tremendously good. They've lowered the register of the noise that it makes and done away with a large part of the high frequency clatter-ation that drew the attention of bystanders and camera haters. The shutter is nearly in the rarified field of, "acoustically enjoyable" machines. And this makes all the difference in the world.

So, why is the camera my pick as the break through camera of the year? Because it has just about everything a high end mirrorless user would want for the first time ever in the mirrorless/evf-enabled space. It's got a state of the art sensor that's got resolution to spare. It handles noise as well as just about any advanced camera on the market today. The in body image stabilization is competent and welcome. The shutter is significantly better and rated to work for half a million cycles. The camera works with an incredibly wide array of lenses from just about every maker. Love that Nikon 135mm f2.0? It's one cheap adapter away from being equally wonderful on the Sony.

But then there's also the bonus set of features! The camera does full on, 4K video and according to almost all sources of video knowledge and lore, it's a 4K codec that does a great job as far as sharpness, detail, color and utility. It may be a better file than the ones that video people are trying to squeeze out of the A7S2 (the 12 megapixel model).

The camera is a decent size now that it's been pumped up a bit. It feels great in one's hands (subjective, for sure) and the shutter is no longer an offensive pile of sound crap and vibration.

What's not to like about the camera? The usual stuff people complain about when moving from battery sipping behemoths with large power reserves, and, as always, the lower performance of the AF system when tracking fast moving objects. It is true, the ubiquitous Sony battery (used across most of the line and the RX10 cameras) is a weakling compared to the batteries in full sized DSLRs. While the A7R2 may be about 300 shots from a fully charged battery my Nikon D750 gets anywhere from 1200 to 1500 shots from its battery.

There is a cure for the battery problem and it's a simple one.  Buy more batteries. Carry a couple extra in your pockets. Change as needed. (Or buy into my KickStarter campaign to manufacture plutonium based fission batteries like the ones they use in military satellites. Those last a very, very long time but we are having issues with those damn environmentalists about disposal and some issues regarding manufacturing safety. In the long run I am sure we'll get some regs changed in congress. The bulk of our Kickstarter money is earmarked to pay off politicians...). Seriously though, the Sony batteries are small and not super high capacity but a battery grip is useful and also adds a better gripping design for handholding the camera.  I never asked for cameras to be small, I only wanted mirrorless for the advantages of shooting with EVFs...

The second issue is one that rarely effects my shooting and that's focusing fast moving objects and tracking focus with fast moving objects. I think each generation of mirrorless camera improves in this performance parameter and, for my uses, the camera's focus is more than adequate. In fact, the majority of my intended use for a camera such as this would be to use it with lenses from other companies. Leica, Nikon, and Leica..  In that kind of use the camera also excels because it comes complete with both image peaking and quick image magnification for fine focusing. For an ad shooter that's a perfect combination.

To distill, Sony gets my honor of innovative camera of 2016 because they have single-handedly brought to the market a flagship for the EVF/Mirrorless concept with a camera that checks every box on my list of features. The whole A7 line is the first to implement a full frame sensor with the mirrorless design set. The shutter and mechanical handling is finally in the first rank. And the 4K video is most certainly state of the art as regards video in still cameras.

Had the camera hit the same price point as the one it replaced (the A7R) I would be even more enthusiastic. In a few months, when Sony rushes out a replacement for the A7R2, and the prices drop, I'll probably add one to the drawer. The neat deal is that one embedded in the Nikon system can easily rationalize buying this body as a supplement to the Nikon bodies, since all of them can (with adapters) use the same lenses. And that is one of the genius features of mirrorless cameras, as a class.

Interesting to handle and write about a camera that I haven't been compelled (yet) to rush out and buy. That alone is a paean to how pleased I am with my current Nikon cameras. And at the same time it's probably and indicator of why the camera market is in decline... too much good stuff that works to well. Why rush to replace?

But if you are in a rush to replace, consider using this link:  Sony A7R2 and other stuff...


Wolfgang Lonien said...

A good recap for 2015 I think, gear-wise. And while I'm perfectly happy with my Olympii, I would have to agree onto this one.
On my desk right now, in between my keyboard and monitor is the E-PL5 with viewfinder and the 20mm/1.7 Panny lens - a combination I love and which simply works. But that Sony with a Metabones adapter and a 40mm Canon 'pancake' doesn't sound like a bad choice either. Even autofocus should work...

Roland said...

Agreed. Thanks for being a bastion of GAS common sense! Used a7r2 will be in my future too

Carlo Santin said...

Sony has a bad habit of developing something interesting and innovative and then dumping it and moving on to something else. They got me once with the Nex line... never again.

Gato said...

Agree with both Roland and Carlo - there is a lot I like about Sony and where they are going. But not sure I trust them to stick with it.

So there is a good chance of an A7rII in my future - discounted or used - especially if someone comes up with an adapter to autofocus my Nikon lenses. But I'm not ready to jump into the system yet

Craig said...

My days with Sony as my primary system are slowly coming to a close with no further purchases. I agree that they continue to push the envelope in interesting and innovative technologies, but that's about all they do. They continue to show all the traits of a consumer electronics company, while their strategy for supporting photographers with a full suite of lenses is nothing more than an afterthought.

A few of the moves by Sony that I believe shows their concern in keeping long-term customers and gaining marketplace loyalty:

1. The wonderful move of how they handled their changing of hot shoe mounts for their high end flashes. They dump the Minolta proprietary mount (I won't take sides on that), but then they come out with a crappy plastic adapter that doesn't even appear robust enough to hold their largest flash (HLV-58AM) and the 58's replacement (HLV-60) gets released with an overheating problem they refuse to acknowledge or fix.

2. They come out with really expensive Zeiss lenses in the A-mount that are priced just as expensive as Canon L glass and Nikon's high end lenses, and then moves to the new A7 FE mount that requires a cumbersome and expensive adapter to use the A-mount lenses. How long has Nikon supported their current lens mount? Canon's EF lens mount has been around since the early 1990s.

3. Sony pretty much abandons the A-mount bodies, and certainly any affordable A-mount lenses. I find it interesting that with the new FE mount you pay a serious premium regardless of whether the FE-mount lens has built-in OSS or relies on the second generation A7 bodies to have built-in IS.

I understand the desire to dump the SLR mirror and even the semi-translucent mirror in their SLT cameras to lower their manufacturing costs, but why couldn't they build a A-77 or A-99 body without the mirror? Wouldn't such a body likely weigh less?

4. Continue to support the obviously superior NP-FM500H battery instead of the weakling they've moved to for the A7 line. To quote Kirk, "I never asked the camera to be small..." and I doubt many enthusiast or professional photographers would complain if the body were closer to the A77 body size if they would return to a battery that I regularly got 600+ shots from in my A700 and A77.

Time for me to move onto Olympus or Panasonic unless Nikon comes up with a viable mirrorless camera with a high end EVF.

Richard Sandor said...

I would love to see any of the mirrorless mfrs. buy, license or reverse engineer the AF system used on the Nikon 1 system. That system has many faults, but excellent continuous AF tracking is not one of them and is in fact, a strength. If Olympus had that, I'd be a very happy person.

W Walt said...

Craig, what overheating has Sony refused to fix?