I’m not a pixel peeper. The specs of a camera only matter as far as they impact the end results that you need to achieve. What matters to me is how a camera performs for my needs. And my needs have changed. I’m switching from a location based production model to a location independent travel vlogging, freelancer, stock footage, etc model. That’s why I sold my Canons and Panasonic GH4 and got the Sony A7sii. I loved my Canons. My GH4 was a work horse that did almost everything I needed. You can check out my colleague Dan Cox’s multitude of reasons he loves Lumix cameras at NaturalExposures.com. And I agree with him. But for me, for now, I’m loving the A7sii. It’s the best vlogging camera for me right now.
I’ve spent the last 12 years learning and developing my filmmaking skills, earning an MFA, building a couple of companies. And having a hell of a lot of fun and adventures. Most recently my family and I have decided to sell our junk and take a year long trip to Europe. We’ve started a couple of youtube channels (TravelingMel and TravelingFilmmaker) and I’ve had to make some hard choices about my filmmaking style and corresponding gear.
I can’t tote 100lbs of pelican cases and awkwardly shaped hardware around with me anymore. I’ve had to downsize in size and number and make some hard considered choices. I’ll be going over various items of gear that I’ve chosen going forward. Today I’m going to focus on the Sony A7sii and why I picked it as my travel vlogging camera.
I just want to clarify that I purchased all of the gear I mention in this post with my own money. No one has given me or lent me anything. I am very, very open to free gear as long as I can give an honest take on it…. Also, the links to products on this page are often affiliate links. This means that if you follow the link and buy something, you pay the same price but the seller pays a small fee. That helps me travel and keep this site going.
As I said above, I’m not a pixel peeper. I don’t have enough interest to dig deep into the tech details, though I appreciate those who do and I rely on their reviews. I’m much more interested in how a camera performs in the field. The situations I’d be using the Sony in were long term family travel vids and vlogging.
- I needed to be able to shoot in low light as I knew I’d be inside museums and churches and out at night.
- I needed something relatively small to make packing easy.
- I wanted in-camera physical image stabilization
- I needed to be able to shoot in 4K because I shoot stock footage and need it to be as future proof as possible.
- I needed to be able to shoot wide so I could film myself or film others in small spaces.
- I wanted something that would autofocus while filming to make vlogging easier.
- Some other considerations such as file size and format, bit depth, variable frame rates, and lens selection were also important but not primary.
A camera, in the end, is just a tool to enable creativity. While there’s no one size fits all camera, I decided the Sony A7sii was going to come closest for me for now (one day, I WILL be a RED owner again). Here’s why.
Low Light Performance
Ok, this is what the A7s and A7sii are famous for and it was a huge factor in my decision and it has paid off BIG TIME in the way I’ve used it. Trying to film inside the stone stairway of a bell tower or the unlit interior of a gothic cathedral would have simply defeated other cameras. I’ve found myself routinely filming at ISO 4000-8000 on our trip and the image just holds together, especially after compression and upload to our Youtube Channel. I found the Canons and Panasonic video image started to really fall apart at ISO 800 and nearly unusable above ISO 1600. Admittedly, this is a subjective call. But hey, I’m the one shelling out for the camera so it’s a call I get to make and I’m almost giddy at the places I’ve been able to get footage.
The form factor of the A7sii is about 60% of my canon 5Dmkii and 7D and actually even smaller than my Lumix GH4. It’s heavier than the GH4 even though it’s smaller but if takes up less space in my bag. I’d heard a lot of complaints about the record button placement and form on the A7sii but generally speaking, once I trained my hands I’ve had almost not issues with it. The tilt screen is a must have as I’m pretty tall and often prefer to hold the camera at a level commensurate with the rest of you shorties. (My wife won’t let me hang mirrors anymore because no one else can use them) I’d love to be able to position the screen so I can see it while filming myself but honestly, this has been a very minor flaw. I will admit that smaller cameras are difficult to keep steady while going hand-held just as a pistol is less accurate than a rifle. It’s just too easy to tilt and rotate a smaller, lighter form factor which brings up the next feature.
In Camera Physical Stabilization
I own Canon glass, and quite frankly don’t want to shell out for a slew of new Sony lenses. Most of my canon lenses are not stabilized and that makes handheld footage very “bumpy” without a gimbal of some sort. There are several lens adapters for Canon->Sony matching and I went with the Metabones. This is a great little adapter that I’ll talk about more in another post. I specify physical stability in contrast to digital stability because, while Youtube and editing software have the ability to smooth footage somewhat, they are far from perfect and, well, garbage-in-garbage-out. I really wanted to smooth out my bumpy handheld footage and I reluctantly decided to forego a pistol grip gimbal. I just didn’t have the room and they are pretty obtrusive in public places. The Sony has in-camera stabilization where it moves the sensor which met my needs. No current lens/camera stabilization can yet match the buttery smooth stability of a gimbal but it makes my in-the-moment travel vlogging footage much more watchable AND I can use my Canon and Rokinon lenses. Sony calls their feature steady shot and it’s pretty slick. Once you turn it on, you can set it to auto or you can set it to manual and set the focal length of the lens you are using which makes the stability even smarter.
The A7sii shoots UHD 4k; this means 3840 x 2160 pixels. I’ve stopped using 4k on our youtube videos since it’s unnecessary. I do use it to shoot stock footage though. Occasionally, I’ll use it for the digital zoom ability but rarely. The compressed codec has a small footprint which means I don’t have to cary a dozen 4TB harddrives with me all over Europe or buy new ones for awhile. The H.264 8bit codec (more later) is no RAW but for my purposes it does just fine.
Full Frame Camera
The Sony A7sii is a full frame 35mm camera. For me this is important because I new I’d need to be filming wide most of the time. I knew I’d be in cramped spaces or limited by the length of my arms when vlogging. The full frame means no crop factor like you have on the less expensive Canon DSLRs and the Panasonic GH4. The APSC Canons usually have a crop, or “zoom” factor, of 1.6x. The GH4 is about 2x. While you can get a 7mm lens for the GH4, it’s pricey and all my other lenses would be 2x tighter (1.7x with metabones adapter). With the full frame, my 28mm 1.8 is a true 28mm, not 56mm equivalent. My 14mm Rokinon is a true 14mm, not 28.
Additionally, the full frame means a narrower depth of field. I know it’s become a bit cliche to set your aperture wide open for that close up shot of the leave on the branch, but I still like it. A lot. Especially on the top of a bell tower with Firenze stretching out into the horizon or close on the polished bronze head of a cathedral door. Mmmmmm, mmmmm, good.
Autofocus While Filming
Ok, this was more of a want than a need. I’ve ended up filming much less of myself than I expected so far but a camera that will auto focus while filming is pretty handy. The Canon lenses will do it with the adapter though not very well. So I plunked down for a Sony 16-35mm f.4 that I use a lot. I generally have the auto focus turned off but it’s pretty handy when I need it. It’s fairly easy to turn on and off through the popup function menu. I do use the quick focus button quite a bit.
Other Contributing Factors
I’ve mentioned the ability to use my other lenses and the one sony lens I purchased, but Sony is coming out with new lenses every couple of months. The E-mount is becoming more popular with third party manufacturers such as Rokinon as well. I touched on file size and format but I’d like to go straight to frame rate. The A7sii will shoot at 120fps (at 1080p) and the quality beats the crap out of the 96fps I was getting out of my GH4. That’s right. I said it. This frame rate is not as unusual as it was earlier in the year, but I just filmed crashing waves with it in the Cinque Terre at sunset and I was simply gleeful.
While I’d love to shoot video in RAW, in reality, for my purposes H.264 has been just fine. Someday we’ll have a DSLR that shoots raw at 4k in 120fp but for now, we’ll have to invest in RED for that (one day, I WILL be a RED owner again. Just sayin’). This camera shoots S-LOG3 but I honestly don’t use it. I’ve played with it and find it to be a pain in the ass. It’s almost assuredly a knowledge gap on my part but I have more pressing things to work on for now.
I wish there was a camera out there that did everything I needed in the way I wanted for very little money. There isn’t. Here are a few things to consider with the A7sii.
- It’s pricey. You’ll pay more for this camera than a GH4 or most entry level Canon APSc cameras. You’ll have to make your own decision but I felt it was worth it. At $3000, it’s definitely an investment but compare its features to other beefier, more expensive cameras and I think it evens out.
- That 120fps is great but it has a 2x+ crop factor. In order to do all that data processing, it avoids down-rezzing by taking just the center 1920×1080 pixels from the sensor. This isn’t such a big deal but I haven’t figured out how to preview that view prior to pressing record. However, you can shoot 1080p/60fps in full frame which I may switch too. 120fps results in VERY slow motion.
- I find the apps based system for timelapsing and remote shudder a bit clunky and nerve wracking given the short battery life. I do really like the ability to shoot both jpeg and raw at the same time and send the jpeg to my phone for instagram.
- 8bit 4:2:0 H.264. Remember when I said I’d get back to this? I haven’t had many issues with it but for our purposes 8bit 4:2:0 means the video is harder to grade and you are more likely to see banding in the exposure gradients. This can be an issue in some circumstances but not in mine.
- Sony lenses are pricey and still a bit limited. Their line is expanding quickly though as are third party options.
- The small factor makes it difficult to keep steady. This is true of all DSLRs. If this is an issue for you, invest in a bigger camera or a gimbal.
- This thing eats batteries when recording video. Buy 5. They are cheap. I find a battery lasts about 35 minutes of record time if I’m lucky. I turn the camera off when I’m not recording and carry five batteries.
- This is petty and my own problem, but I want SLOG3 to be easier to use. I’ll figure this out eventually but I’m searching for things to find fault with at this point.
I am undeniably happy with my choice. I have no regrets. I was a bit worried when the GH5 was announced right after I bought my Sony. I worried that it might have low light and full frame but it doesn’t and I’m stoked with my decision. One month along on my trip and I’ve gotten beautiful shots I would not have gotten with other cameras. And that’s kind of what it boils down to for me.
Oh yeah, and it takes great pictures too!
Other great sources for knowledge on this and other gear:
EDIT:(This just in) This was just announced. It’s a preproduction model and just one review so consider the source, as always but looks enticing.
Thoughts? Opinions? Corrections? Let me know in the comments section.