Sony a7s ii Review for Filmmakers (with Sample Footage + Canon EF Lenses)
In this video I'll cover what S-Log video settings I recommend filming in, my experience using Canon EF lenses with the Metabones adapter, how some of the biggest problems with filming on this camera can be overcome, and whether I'd recommend someone switching to Sony or mirrorless cameras for making videos.
But first, let's start with some of the features of the Sony a7s ii. This camera is pretty small. The hand grip is smaller than I'm used to on a 5D Mark III or C100, which makes it a little harder to get a solid handle of and it feels front heavy with a big lens on it. That's why I opted to have the VGC2EM Vertical Grip on it almost all the time. Plus, this gives you an additional battery slot to use both batteries it comes with at the same time, which you'll need.
I was only able to get somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes out of each battery with continuous use. Compared to the 3 hours of a C100 battery or the hour or more I get from a 5D, takes some getting used to. You can work around this by just buying a lot of $50 batteries though.
If you're going to invest in any mirrorless camera, consider getting its AC power adapter. You can also power the a7s ii off a USB power pack using the USB input. I also found myself turning off the LCD when I was using only the electronic viewfinder to save battery.
The camera has a built-in recording limit of 30 minutes at a time, so expect to keep hitting record while recording something longer than that. I didn't have any issues with it overheating while recording continuous 4K for almost an hour, but I've seen other tests where it shuts off after 50 minutes, which is still better at than the a7r ii. If I really needed to record a multi-camera interview that would last over an hour, I'd just shoot in 1080p, not 4K.
The screen on the back tilts 90 degrees up and about 45 degrees downward, but when I wasn't on a tripod, I found myself using the EVF most of the time. This is something I got used to doing on my C100, but that you can't do on a DSLR.
Many people complain about the position of the record button, but it wasn't that big of a pain for me. I'd love to be able to program it for the shutter button, but you can map it to any of the custom C buttons, as well as being able to map focus modes, white balance, and more. I'd set the 4 C buttons to whatever you end up going into the menus to change the most.
The hot shoe on the top of the camera could be used to place a monitor, shotgun mic, or a LED light, but the best option is to pick up the Sony K1M or K2M XLR Microphones. These record dual track audio directly into the camera and you can actually see the levels of both tracks right on the LCD.
The a7s ii has built-in, 5 axis stabilization, so even if the lens you're using doesn't have built-in image stabilizing, you'll get smooth footage from the camera. This uses more battery, but if you're handholding, it is worth it. Here's a shot handholding with a Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 Lens. Look how steady this is! At 85mm! And there is none of that micro-jitter you get while handholding a DSLR.
I wasn't able to turn on this setting with any of my Canon lenses and the Metabones Mark IV adapter though.
My experience with using Canon lenses on the a7s ii via the Metabones adapter was hit and miss. Auto-focus rarely worked for me and some of the focus assist abilities, like the LCD zooming in when pulling focus manually, didn't activate. While shooting completely manually though, I was able to get some really beautiful 4K footage on any of my 7 EF lenses, which is impossible on any Canon camera right now at $3,000.
While using Sony lenses, the continuous autofocus worked really well for tracking a subject, even at a low aperture like f1.8, which would be impossible to manually pull focus with.
If you're going full into Sony and the alpha series, I'd recommend getting Sony E-Mount lenses. You'll get all the features, like the 5-axis image stabilization and multiple autofocus modes. There are less options overall for E-Mount, but most of the main focal lengths are there, especially with the new G-Series lenses and all the options from Zeiss.
My Recommended Settings
The Sony menu systems are notorious for having a ton of tabs to flip through and find what you're looking for. If you buy this camera I recommend you spend a bunch of time learning where everything is, but for this review I'm just going to walk through how I would set up this camera and share some of my notes on how to get the most out of it.
The a7s ii's sensor is the low light king in this price range, with the least amount of noise in a high ISO image I’ve seen yet. This allows you to shoot with no practical lighting at night and still get a useable image, within reason.
If you're wanting to get the most dynamic range out of this camera, meaning saving highlights and having details in your shadows, you'll want to be shooting in S-Log 2, S-Log 3, or at least the Cine-4 picture profile.
Filming in S-Log 3 + S-Gamut3.Cine is super flat, and will give you the most of dynamic range, but the most work to color grade in post. S-Log 2 (which is picture profile 7) is less flat, but has a native and minimum ISO of 1600, which is pretty high for shooting outside at a shallow depth of field. This means you have to shoot at a small aperture like f16, change your shutter speed to something faster (which is not ideal), or invest in Neutral Density filters for each of your lenses.
A good middle ground is to film using Cine-4, which is decently flat, but the ISO can go way lower. And you still get about 14 stops of dynamic range.
I change the sharpening to -7, so I can add that back in during post. Then leave the detail set to high.
I would film with the histogram showing by cycling through pressing the display button. I don't like it as much as a waveform monitor on a C100 or an external monitor, but it is better than just the exposure meter on the bottom middle of the LCD screen or EVF.
I would also turn on the zebras to help me not overexpose the highlights and turn on focus peaking, set to Red & Medium. Although it is still kinda hard to tell whether something is actually in focus or not, as the LCD on the back isn’t the greatest. However, to combat this you can 4X zoom in with a compatible lens while focusing.
If you're going to edit down to a wider aspect ratio, you can turn those on to show up directly on the LCD while filming too.
To shoot in APS-C crop mode you have to change from 4K to 1080p, which you don't have to do on the a7r ii's 42 megapixel sensor.
So you can't shoot in 4K with EF-S lenses without digital zooming later, otherwise you’ll see vignetting in the image and have to crop it in post.
Upgrade Your Camera Using These Tips
Because this camera captures an 8-bit, not 10-bit, recording, you'll get "banding" in slight color transitions, like in the sky or single color walls. I've read you can minimize them by filming in the Cine 4 profile and then grading it with a S-Log 3 LUT though. I've put a link to that below.
The a7s ii only records in a 4:2:0 color space in camera, so if you know what that means and need more color information, you'll want to get an external recorder to capture 4:2:2.
To shoot in 4K you need at least UHS-1 SD cards, but I’d recommend going to UHS-3 if possible. You need UHS-3 for 120 frames per second slow motion.
Expect to see a lot of rolling shutter when panning quickly back and forth or when a fast moving train or car goes by. It can be minimized when in APS-C mode, but is still a big visual problem.
If you’re going to get an a7s ii and you need autofocus, go with native E-mount lenses. The Metabones adapter is great when you want to test the camera and have a bunch of Canon glass, but I miss having reliable autofocus when in a rush.
Get the XLR-K2M adapter for better audio and 2 XLR inputs through the hot shoe. If you need to mount the microphone on a rig, get the K1M instead.
When shooting in a Log profile, I'd overexpose a little, maybe a stop, just like I do on the Canon C100 Mark II, so there is less noise in the shadows, then drop the black levels and shadow levels in post.
In my opinion, Sony footage looks more “video-like” than “film-like”. This is all a matter of taste and you can do stuff in post to off-set it, like adding grain or removing sharpness, but as you move up to 4K, the footage looks almost too crisp and too clean.
So, who do I recommend this camera for?
If you're buying your first mid-range camera for making videos or short films, this is a fantastic option. Possibly the best on the market at this price range. The gorgeous 4K image, low light sensor, image stabilization and focus modes (while using a Sony E-Mount lens), built-in focus peaking and exposure zebras, a headphone jack, K2M-XLR microphone adapter, and electronic viewfinder make this a solid option for any production.
The biggest cons to me are the limited battery capacity, overheating at about an hour filming 4K, a 30-minute recording limit, recording in only an 8-bit 4:2:0 color space, it being almost too small, and no waveform monitor.
Is The a7sii Worth It?
If I switched over to using the a7 series cameras for filming, I’d get a XLR-K2M microphone adapter for $500, the vertical battery grip for $300, a monitor/recorder from Atomos for $1,000 (for a larger screen, waveform monitoring, 4:2:2 recording), a rig with a top or side handle.
Or for about $1,000 more than all that, I could get a Sony FS5 which gives you built-in ND filters, more physical buttons, a more ergonomic form factor, and overall, a camera that is meant to shoot video.
If you need to be able to take photos too, that changes things. But if you only need video recording, lately I’ve been leaning towards cameras that do video first, not a hybrid option.
If you’re a filmmaker or full-time video creator, going with a dedicated video camera as your A-cam and picking up an a7s ii for a solid b-cam or a small kit when you need to be more mobile or discrete is a great set-up.
But if you’re just getting started or want to upgrade from a point-and-shoot like an RX-100 or an entry level mirrorless or DSLR camera, and you’re not going to kit it out like I just described, this camera is a great option for the price.
Now, would I recommend switching from the Canon ecosystem to Sony for a camera like the a7s ii?
The image quality on this camera is really great and at 4K, is much better than anything from Canon in this price range, other than maybe the XC10 (which doesn't have interchangeable lenses). If you're still shooting video on DSLRs like the 70D, 6D, or 5D Mark III, this camera is a major upgrade. Both in image quality and in how you'll shoot with it.
If you have a lot of EF lenses and you're invested to Canon though, I really like my C100 Mark II, and even the Mark I version, despite only recording in 1080p. The C100 has a 4K sensor that downscales, so you get most of the benefit of the extra resolution anyway, and you get the benefit of it being a dedicated video camera with full use of your EF lenses.
Since my wife is a wedding and portrait photographer and we share gear, the only cost-effective way for us to do so is if we stick with a single brand, so it would take a lot for us to completely switch. I'm not saying we never will, we're just mostly happy with our set-up right now and I don't have clients asking me for 4K at all yet.
We'll have other videos coming out soon on the differences between the a7s II and the a7r II, as well as the a7s Mark II vs. the original a7s Mark I, so be sure to check those out too.
Thanks to B&H for sending this camera to me for review and to Paul Gero, a Sony Artisan Photographer, for showing me how he uses his a7R ii and Zeiss lenses.
Check out the links below for more info on any of the gear we mentioned in this video.
Items Mentioned on B&H Photo Video
- B&H: Alpha a7S II Mirrorless Digital Camera
- B&H: Sony VGC2EM Vertical Grip
- B&H: Metabones Canon EF Lens to Sony E-Mount Adapter, Mark IV
- B&H: Sony XLR-K2M Adaptor Kit with Microphone
- B&H: Sony XLR-K1M Adapter Kit with Microphone