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Sony a7R Mark II Underwater Review

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Sony a7R Mark II Underwater Review

Hi Res Photos, Low Light Performance, Superb 4K Video

The Sony a7R Mark II is a full frame mirrorless camera that shoots 42 MP stills, 4K video, and has low light capability that is second only to the best low light camera ever, the Sony A7S. Can the new Sony a7R II perform on all fronts as promised? Read on to see photos and 4K video from this revolutionary camera.

This video was shot in Lembeh, Indonesia by Jim Decker using the new Sony 90mm macro lens.

This video was shot in Grand Cayman by Russ Sanoian with both the Sony 16-35mm lens and Sony 28mm lens with fisheye converter. All clips were shot with ambient light, a color correction filter, and a manual white balance. No video lights were used in this video.

Hi Res Sensor with Low light Performance

The Sony a7R II is the first full frame sensor camera to feature a back illuminated sensor. By moving electronics off the sensor, the sensor can gather more light, leading to better low light and high ISO performance. A full discussion of this technology is beyond the scope of this article, but in viewing images shot from 100-1600 ISO, I can't tell any difference in noise. So I would say, yes they did accomplish low noise, high ISO, and hi res in the same camera. The seemingly impossible has become possible!

This motodi octopus was shot at ISO 1600, and shows no signs of noise.

Same Body as A7II--And the Same Housing!

The camera bodies of the A7II and Sony a7R II are the same with the exception of the mode dial having a lock button and the screen being slightly thicker. A simple upgrade part should solve the mode dial issue, and while we doubt there are any issues of the screen causing fitting issues, please contact one of our camera experts at Backscatter for further information if you need help putting a Sony a7R II camera system together. All this being said, this is a super small full frame body that is a fraction of the size of an SLR. If you shoot pro events like weddings, real estate, or high end studio work, you'll want to get the battery grip not only to extend battery life, you'll need it to make it look like you're not shooting something your uncle would pull out of his pocket at a wedding. Its size doesn't make it look pro, but it definitely is.

Due to not having an optical viewfinder, the Sony a7R II is much smaller than rival full frame SLR cameras.

Great Control Set for Underwater Shooters

The control set of the camera is very well laid out and ergonomic, making quick changes on the fly super easy. There are dedicated dials for shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure compensation. There's a number of custom function buttons and most other buttons can have their functions reassigned. There's the ability to reassign focus to the AF ON button on the back of the camera which can be accessed by your right thumb, just like an SLR.

On the housing I used to test the camera, the Nauticam NA-A7II, there was no access to the rear dial pad which controlled ISO. There is a workaround by pressing the right button of the rear control pad, then move up and down to select ISO, then press enter. However, most housings out for the A7II don't have access to the rear dial pad.

Overall the ergonomics and control set are excellent and one of the best we have seen on any camera.

Autofocus with Canon Lenses--Use Your Current Canon Glass

While the big news reported on most photo review sites has been how fast the Sony a7R II can focus with Canon lenses with a Metabones adapter, we've had mixed results with our own testing. Some Canon lenses actually focus super zippy quick with either a Metabones or Photodiox adapter, but we've had some disappointing results as well. The Canon 8-15mm, Canon 16-35mm II, Canon 17-40mm, 24-70 all worked really well and focused super quick. But we had issues with both 100mm macro lenses, neither achieving focus at all within macro distances, and only finding focus at all at about 20 feet away on occasion. We tried the Tokina 10-17mm and had no focus at all, and the Sigma 15 aperture blades freaked out when trying to activate focus. We could not come up with a pattern, i.e., old versus newer lenses, or type L vs. non L lenses. We'll dig into this more and see if we can get more information, and also would like to see if others are having the same results.

For this reason I recommend using Sony glass as a first choice, but I have no hesitation on using a Canon wide lens like a Canon 16-35mm II or Canon 17-40mm, and will definitely be using the Canon 8-15mm as a regular choice since Sony doesn't a have a fisheye zoom lens like that in their arsenal.

The Canon 8-15mm focuses super quick with 3rd party lens adapters. This setup will probably yield the most versatile wide angle video setup. In full frame mode the Canon 8-15mm will yield a full circular fisheye to a full frame fisheye, and when in Super 35 mode the angle of coverage is approximately that of the Tokina 10-17mm lens when in the 10-15mm range.

Best Sony Lens Choices for Underwater

When the first A7 camera came out a few years ago, the major criticism was no native glass. Sony has aggressively developed and released many lenses since then designed specifically for the A7 series of full frame cameras. Specifically for underwater, our favorite lenses are the Sony 28mm with fisheye converter, Sony 16-35mm, and Sony 90mm macro. This will cover just about everything you want to do underwater. Don't shortchange the Sony 28mm with fisheye converter because it's not a true dedicated fisheye lens. I've shot it previously on other A7 models and can definitely say it is very sharp.

The Sony 28mm with fisheye converter, Sony 16-35mm, and Sony 90mm macro will cover just about everything you would want to photograph underwater.

The Sony 90mm macro lens is the longest macro lens released for any mirrorless camera to date. This is a huge deal as it gives a big advantage with a longer working distance for shooting with skittish macro critters. When adding on a diopter for shooting super macro, you'll still have a longer working distance than other shorter focal length macro lenses, even without a diopter.

The Sony 90mm lens has a greater working distance than other shorter focal length macro lenses. This allows more working distance when dealing with skittish subjects that might otherwise take off if you got too close.

The Sony 90mm macro lens and the way the camera system handles focus might be a little foreign to someone coming from a DSLR. First, you are either in AF mode or MF mode, even if you have reassigned focus away from the shutter to the AF ON button. In AF mode the focus ring has no effect. This is in contrast to Nikon and Canon whose lenses can be manually focused whether in AF or MF mode. It's really simple to toggle between AF and MF modes. Simply assign the center button to AF/MF toggle. This can be an annoyance for anyone coming from either a Nikon or Canon system used to working this way, but it's easy to get used to the way the Sony works and it has some advantages.

This frogfish was cropped to a vertical from a horizontal shot. With 42mp of resolution, a crop like this still yields almost 19mp of resolution. This is great for super tiny critters where additional optical magnification would result in near impossible to pull of depth of field.

Focus Peaking--See Super Macro Critical Focus Even If Your Vision Isn't Perfect

When in MF mode you can also have focus peaking active. This will show you areas in focus highlighted in your choice of color. The color isn't too overbearing and is a massive help in determining critical focus. For those who can see critical focus on a screen or optical viewfinder very well, this is a must for macro shooting. Just look for when the critical area you want in focus is highlighted in the color of your choice, and fire.

A huge advantage for super macro shooters is to jump over to manual focus and have focus peaking active to see areas of critical focus without having to squint through a viewfinder. When in manual focus mode you also see the distance scale of the lens so you know what distance the lens is focused and and which way you're turning the focus dial.

Focus peaking also works with depth of field (DOF) preview. The gain on the screen compensates for any loss of light from stopping the lens down, but it is still important to use a focus light to help see subjects clear and help with AF performance in low light. This is an advantage over SLRs as most cameras either don't have access to the DOF preview button, and when you do, the viewfinder is too overly dark to actually see anything when the lens is stopped down, plus there is no peaking in the viewfinder.

For something like this that is smaller than a grain of rice and moving really fast, I couldn't tell if it was in focus just by looking at the screen. It would have been impossible to see critical focus without focus peaking. Shot with Sony 90mm lens and Nauticam SMC, so the reproduction ratio is a little bit greater than 2:1.

Easy to Capture and Edit 4K Video

This is the first time we're seeing 4K 30p video in a full frame camera recorded to an on board card. The video recording format is Sony's XAVC 4K file structure. Unlike the dreaded HD format AVCHD, the files in Sony's XAVC 4K format are standard .mp4 files that can be opened up natively in any pro level video editor like Final Cut or Premier and don't require any transcoding. You don't even need to maintain their proprietary file structure, just go directly to the "CLIP" folder and start working. The bit rate is 100 mbps, so the files won't take up much more room that an HD file from the Canon 5D Mark III which records at 92 mbps.

For most of the macro video I shot, I shot in manual mode with Auto ISO and used the exposure compensation dial to dial it down -.3 to -.7. I used this method for the macro shots since I was dealing with a constant light source from my video lights and my lighting conditions weren't changing during the shot. For wide angle where lighting conditions can change during a shot I would not use this method, but shoot a fixed exposure to avoid having the camera do weird exposure changes during a shot.

The wide-angle video shot by one of our salespeople, Rusty Sanoian, shows off more of the performance of the Sony a7R II. The blue water transitions are super smooth, the dynamic range is what was really makes this camera shine in wide-angle video. If you take a look at the school of jacks sequence that starts at about 0:30, you'll see the surface really holds surface detail well. The ship wreck sequence that starts around 2:24 and really shows a lot of detail in the really dark areas down at the bottom at the keel, while also maintaining nice highlight detail near the surface.

Stop the Wobbles With 5-Axis Image Stabilization

Stop the wobbly footage! The 5-axis image stabilization in the body of the Sony a7R II eliminates everything but the jerkiest camera movements. It will smooth out the wobbles and make you think you're better than you are until you turn off the image stabilization and see how forgiving the camera can be with it on.

Full Movie Recording Functionality in Photo Mode--No Need to Switch Modes to Execute a White Balance!

Rejoice! You no longer need to switch to photo mode from video mode to do a custom white balance. Just need to hit the record button and go. Surely we thought this was too good to be true when we tried it, so we called up our inside guys at Sony to confirm there was no detriment to recording this way. And there isn't. Our inside guy said they had requested the record button to honor the current settings in the current exposure mode being used on the Sony a7R II and on all new models going forward. Let's hope this trend continues as it is much more convenient for the shooter who wants to quickly switch from photo to video. It does beg the question of why there is a movie mode on the mode dial at all.

The bottom line it's much easier and faster to do white balance execution and quicker switching from stills to video and back again than ever before with a Sony camera.

Underwater White Balance Performance

As mentioned previously, you no longer need to switch from video to photo mode to execute a custom white balance. This greatly speeds the process in executing a custom white balance. White balance access can be assigned to a custom function button for quick access, but unfortunately there is no way to program direct access to the custom white balance execution. Hopefully the engineers from Sony will read this and develop a super quick white balance execution. There are 3 custom white balance banks to store your favorite white balances. All this being said, the process is quicker to execute than either a Nikon or Canon SLR.

White balance can be easily accessed by assigning it to the C1 button next to the shutter release.

The downside to the custom white balance is the color limitations. Sony cannot execute a custom white without the help of a red color correction filter much deeper than 15 feet. The color temperature maxes out around 9900 kelvin, and for underwater white balance we need a limit somewhere in the upper reaches of 50,000 kelvin plus. Canon has been the sole reigning king of underwater white balance at all depths without a filter for years now, but Panasonic just joined the club with their new 4K compact camera, the LX100. Being able to white balance without a color correction filter is a huge advantage allowing one to do photo and video on the same dive, or do video lights and ambient light on the same dive. You'll get great color with the Sony a7R II, but you'll need to go in the water dedicated with either a color filter, or lights.

The Sony 28mm lens with fisheye converter doesn't have a filter holder in the back of the lens. We were able to custom cut our own color filters with a punch we purchased online and place it between the fisheye converter and the Sony 28mm lens. An alternative would be to use a Canon 8-15mm that does have a filter holder in the back of the lens.

Record Uncompressed 4K to an External Recorder--Pro Level Broadcast Performance

Like the Sony A7S, the Sony a7R II also has a clean 4K output that can record uncompressed or Apple Pro Res to the Atomos Shogun. If you're a pro shooting for broadcast or cinema productions, or a serious high end hobbyist, the Sony a7R II will record super high quality 4K footage to the Shogun in a 4:2:2 color space ready for the demands of color grading in post production.

Super 35 Mode in 4K--Shoot Tighter Shots Without Changing Your Lens

The Sony a7R II has a feature called APS-C/Super 35 Mode. This mode uses a smaller area of the sensor to record 4K video. One of the benefits Sony claims to using the Super 35 mode is reduced moiré by oversampling the image by about 1.8 times and down converting to 4K. The "hidden" benefit is being able to shoot a scene in both full frame AND cropped modes, both in 4K resolution. In macro this has the effect of getting even tighter shots with no loss of quality or depth of field. This was a big help in pulling off super tight macro video. I did this quite a bit with my macro shots when getting closer with an SMC when the camera was on a tripod and was not practical to move the camera.

You can get tighter shots in Super 35 mode without needing to move your tripod or adjust focus with the same depth of field.

For wide angle shooting with a fisheye lens, it is similar to using a teleconverter on a SLR with a fisheye lens. Except that you can change it underwater in an instant. Rusty did this in his video quite a bit as well and worked great for when you need a tighter crop on pelagic animals, like his shots of the spotted eagle rays. For the ultimate in versatility, use a Canon 8-15mm and you can get full circular fisheye, and with the Super 35 mode it's almost equivalent to the Tokina 10-17mm on a crop sensor camera.


The Sony a7R II is the most advanced camera we have seen to date. In the past there's always been a trade off between high resolution and low noise. No more. This camera is only a very close second in noise performance to the low light king, the Sony A7S. So much so that I wouldn't even consider the A7S anymore, it's that close in low light performance. In this day and age on board 4K video recording is a must and Sony delivers with great looking footage and a "hidden teleconverter" with the Super 35 crop mode.

The Sony a7R II has better features and performance for less than 1/2 the price of some of its full frame competitors. It really does represent a new world order in cameras in a super small full frame package.


  • 42MP AND low noise performance
  • Full frame 4K 30p video
  • 5-axis stabilization
  • Super 35 mode
  • Cheaper than any mid level SLR with more features and performance


  • Needs a color filter for custom white balance help
  • Need to change the camera battery every dive if shooting a lot of 4K footage on dives
  • Although the camera is smaller, full frame lenses are still the same size as full frame lenses from SLRs

Sony a7R Mark II Full Frame Ultra HD 4K Mirrorless Camera



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