The Sony A7II and its absurd shadow recovery.

Oct 16, 2016

Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.

The Sony A7II and its absurd shadow recovery.

Oct 16, 2016

Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.

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Until today I’d known my Sony A7II could handle the shadow world, but I could never bring myself to push it. Mainly out of fear, no actually entirely from fear of losing the image. Recently I had the absolute pleasure of working at Rebecca Bathory’s place I decided to test the range once and for all.

I wanted to keep shooting at f/8 and above as well as 1/60 but still below ISO400 (the Sony really starts to break down past ISO400 in sharpness from my experience). Now if you’ve ever tried shooting those settings inside, you’ll realise that it’s pretty much a black screen except for direct light sources. I wanted to work out for myself the following question: Is it better to shoot the camera at sharper settings (higher shutter speed, higher aperture, low ISO) and let CaptureOne do the heavy lifting for the lack of exposure? OR Shoot with wider Aperture, lower shutter speed (1/30 but rested on a table) and high as balls ISO (1200).

As it turns out, much to my surprise actually, shooting HUGELY under exposed (we’re talking 4-5 stops here) and sticking to the settings I would shoot during ideal situations I found that when bringing the information back in post, I was left speechless. For medium format shooters out there you’ll hardly be surprised, but for the one’s out there still on 35mm film / cropped sensors I think this will come off as a bit of a “holy marshmallows”.

Nikon users may not be impressed as heavily, though that’s because they are already using Sony sensors ;)

Here’s a direct comparison of the RAW exposure vs the 3 stop push.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty frickin insane.

To get an idea about the noise, here is a close up of a selection with both dark and bright areas. Yeah there is a fair bit of noise, but it looks pretty pleasant compared to the multicoloured noise you can expect from other sensors. It looks really “natural” so to speak, (but still not a scratch on ISO50 Medium Format *drools*).


Here are some more examples:

And now, here’s the killer. This image was underexposed by 5 stops and while the end results is pretty much unusable, take into consideration just how much information that 35mm sensor is capturing beyond what you’re seeing on the LCD. It’s insane! The signal to noise ratio considering it’s 5 full stops underexposed is just absurd to me.

So what was the value of this post to you guys? Was it to sell you a Sony (here if you wondered) or was it to show you how awesome technology has come along? NOW with that said Medium format has been doing this for about 10 years, so to have this level of signal in images so underexposed within a 35mm sensor, I think that’s pretty awesome. A friend of mine recently joked “So you’re trying to tell me that Sony has made the first usable 35mm sensor?” haha! In some ways I think we can see the truth in that statement even if it is heavily loaded ;)

To finish off I wanted to add in a tripod mounted shot difference between shooting at ISO 800 and ISO100 then bringing the underexposed shot up in post and comparing the noise / clarity. The settings for each are as follows:

ISO 100 @ f/8 – 1/200 (4 stops underexposed)
ISO 100 @ f/8 – 1/30 (2 stops underexposed)
ISO 400 @ f/8 – 1/30 (0 stops underexposed)
ISO 800 @ f/8 – 1/60 (0 stops underexposed)

Here’s 4 stops underexposed at ISO 100 vs a well exposed ISO800

We can CLEARLY see here that underexposing by 4-stops warrants a far less usable image than shooting at a higher ISO800.

Here’s ISO100 (2 stops underexposed) vs ISO 800 as before.

From this I deduce that the ISO100 looks better by having more detail and similar levels of noise to the ISO800.

As you can see shooting at ISO100 and letting the post do the work you actually end up with a better image than shooting it “right” in camera (as long as it’s within 2 stops underexposure). That’s an approach not many people actually do on purpose and with intent for a better end shot.

It was requested to show the Sony at ISO6400 and 10000 so you can see those below, though I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to shoot a camera that’s sensor is specifically designed to be shot at ISO100 for it’s maximum dynamic range outside of that?

Regardless further reasons to not shoot the Sony past ISO800 (and stick to ISO 100 if you can).



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Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.

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44 responses to “The Sony A7II and its absurd shadow recovery.”

  1. Cheyne Toomey Avatar
    Cheyne Toomey

    Brett Swain

  2. catlett Avatar

    I’ve refrained from saying this for the longest time but this blog’s before and after illustrations could be A LOT better. When it takes a long time trying to figure out what before and after is supposed to mean in an illustration it is not a good thing. IMO you would be a lot better off dropping the hovering darkness with the before and after text and show a simple left / right before and after labeled that way. Your “proof” on this article completely lost me.

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      I’m sorry to hear this, I can pass this onto Udi for you to see if there’s perhaps a better way.

      1. catlett Avatar

        Thanks! I think that the answer is that simpler is better. Why rollover and make something darker when a side by side before and after just works?

        1. Greg Silver Avatar
          Greg Silver

          The side by side doesn’t work as well on a phone which I’m using right now. I personally like the slider (on a phone anyway)

          1. Joseph Parry Avatar
            Joseph Parry

            Same, it slides the page for me on a phone.

        2. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          I’m not sure of the darkness thing you;re referring to? I just get a clean slider going left or right based on where I drag and the other side remains the same, it’s merely a sliding mask?

  3. Jimmy Avatar

    My D810 will do the same shadow recovery… nothing really to write about.

      1. umptious Avatar

        I read the article and then I read it again – it’s one easily skipped line that’s given no great emphasis even though it contradicts much of what you’ve written. Don’t blame the reader for your poor writing skills.

        (And, no, I don’t own a Nikon.)

  4. Chase Webb Avatar
    Chase Webb


  5. Nicolas Racine Avatar
    Nicolas Racine

    I’d like to see some examples of shadow recovery at high ISO. How about showing us what it looks like at 6400 or even 10000 ISO? Not bragging about so and so brand, I am just curious what it looks like.

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      Sure I can do that for you np, I’ll update the article within the hour.

      1. Stereo Reverb Avatar
        Stereo Reverb

        Because some (all) of us wants to see this the upper limits of what this camera can be pushed to and what can be achieved by it… since to anyone who shoots at night or dark place- High ISO is something that we all find extremely important. :)

        1. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          Well technically you shoot high ISO because you’ve NEEDED to, to capture the low light. If you could get the same detail from a lower ISO and just push it in post it wouldn’t matter would it? :D

          1. Stereo Reverb Avatar
            Stereo Reverb

            As someone who shoots concerts a *lot*- many times in small badly lit clubs (and in one case, a show lit entirely with 2 single candles), yes, i’d like to see how well the camera can handle at max performance. It’s the equivalent of reading a Road and Track article testing the newest Lamborghini, where the author only describes driving it at 60 mph- and saying, yes it can go to 200 mph, but if the car handles as well at 60 mph, is there really a need to test it at 200 mph? ;)

            There are still plenty of us out there who want to see how it handles low light in camera rather than having to push the images it in post. :)

          2. Joseph Parry Avatar
            Joseph Parry

            Fair enough. Though if you can push it fine in post I still don;t understand the need for it to perform better at a higher ISO?

            Regardless, fair enough my friend!

      2. Nicolas Racine Avatar
        Nicolas Racine

        I am a concert photographer, and I shoot mostly at 6400, 10000 and 12800 ISO, and I am always on the lookout for a better camera to do the job. My Canon 6D works great, but I have heard a lot of good about the Sony in low light, so I wanted to see. Thanks!

        1. JOhn C Avatar
          JOhn C

          I believe the A7S series is better in low light than the A7 or A7R. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong.

          1. Joseph Parry Avatar
            Joseph Parry

            You’re absolutely right! Let me link you guys to an insane ISO 20,000 test:

            There’s also ISO 80,000 on the a7s ii. Absolutely insane.

          2. Nicolas Racine Avatar
            Nicolas Racine

            Yes, the A7S is absolutely incredible. I was blown away by this video. However, 12 MP sensor is way too small for me. i understand how it does not matter much in video, but if I have to crop my image (which I often do), I will rapidly lose IQ. The search goes on. Thanks for all your answers!

          3. Joseph Parry Avatar
            Joseph Parry

            Not a problem at all!

  6. Jonas Tawil Avatar
    Jonas Tawil

    Tim Bakker

  7. Alper Özer Avatar
    Alper Özer

    “A friend of mine recently joked “So you’re trying to tell me that Sony has made the first usable 35mm sensor?” ”

    lol, how old are you and your friends, 15?

  8. Daniel Lowe Avatar
    Daniel Lowe

    thanks for showing in detail, what “native ISO” really means on the Sony A7R2 (ISO 100, basically)

    I shoot video and timelapse, I’m still trying to find the realistic ISO limit on the A7R2 for night still photos (vs the A7s, which does just fine at crazy high ISOs)

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      It was the A7ii not the A7Rii though from comparison they seem to behave the same way, even the double mp count of the A7Rii seems to offer little detail over the normal A7ii.

  9. Exit138 n Avatar
    Exit138 n

    Like you Joseph, I’m impressed with the A7II.

    Every time I start lusting over the A7RII or A7SII I have to give my head a shake and remind myself that I haven’t even tapped into 50% of what the A7II can accomplish.

    CaptureOne is really a great app and to boot, we Sony shooters benefit from being able to get the Pro version for 1/5 the cost!

    1. Frank Nazario Avatar
      Frank Nazario

      I can strech a bit more than that… even if you did hit the 100% Nirvana of use from your camera, the interesting thing in photography is to then push the envelope and see how far more you can take it… and in conjunction with the Capture One post processing work flow… you would be extremely hard press to even think of an upgrade, of course, if you are a gear head. Please dismiss all above said. LOL!

      1. Joseph Parry Avatar
        Joseph Parry

        Until Medium Format I completely agree!

      2. Exit138 n Avatar
        Exit138 n

        True Sir ;-)

    2. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      Yes but it’s limited in some ways I believe, no sessions etc or something like that. There was a reason I didn’t get the Sony version vs the full blown version.

      1. Exit138 n Avatar
        Exit138 n

        Joseph, yes the free version for Sony users is neutered but I purchased the full Pro version for $50 USD (vs. the $250 USD price for Pro). Limited to Sony cameras but full functionality.

        1. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          OH what! I didn’t know about this? I thought it was purely a limited version end of? Damn I could have saved so much money!

  10. Alejandro Ilukewitsch Avatar
    Alejandro Ilukewitsch

    Great examples, and very useful for someone looking into getting into the a7. Thanks for the effort, but as an ex Sony a7ii user I wouldn’t be soy joyful about those results, unless you were coming from apsc sensor cameras. Actually I found in real life the results in recovery from the Sony a7ii very lacking :( The nikon DF felt much better and even the Leica m with its outdated sensor.

    To me the images from the a7ii were always grainy unless exposed correctly :)

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      Interesting! I’ve found the Sony recovery to be excellent thus far. Though after seeing Medium Format files I’m not sure anything 35mm satisfies my taste now.

      1. Alejandro Ilukewitsch Avatar
        Alejandro Ilukewitsch

        Heheh I am trying to avoid those files :) cant afford them so better not even open one in Lightroom :)

        1. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          I don’t blame you *cries*

  11. QA Avatar

    i think your level of surprise is an eye opener. Many shoot without flash and push the envelope. With that as a goal the technique benefits with practice. the results are a feedback loop for the next try. when fantastic, or wildly unexpected results occur the ability gets fed back in and refined. My 5DSr was not supposed to be nearly as good in low light as the 5D3… wrong. You tweak your techniques and post adjustments and get rewarded. It is addictive!

    Welcome aboard!!!

  12. Daniel Högberg Avatar
    Daniel Högberg

    Great test! I once upon time owned an old Nikon D5000 with the Sony 12.2mp aps-c sensor, I think the same that was in the Fuji X-a1 and the original Fujifilm X100. That sensor was also iso-less, I always shot it at iso 100 and underexposed, getting the same amount of noise as shooting at the appropriate iso, BUT saving the highlights. I so miss that sensor! Today I have the Panasonic GX80/85 which also is iso-less, but the colours and contrast is not as nice as the old Sony 12.2mp sensor in the Nikon D5000..

  13. mark Avatar

    Thank you! I am a a7ii user… but still did not get what the 35mm has to do with it. I am new in this photography hobby. If you could explain to me what the 35mm has to do with the settings to get the impressive raw post edit results… I will be glad. :)

  14. Linas Vaičiukynas Avatar
    Linas Vaičiukynas

    There are certain drawbacks to it…
    1. Its cool that you can recover a lot from shadows, but when you need to take a picture at iso100 in a dark area, you cant see anything through the viewfinder, so first you need to increase ISO to make the viewfinder brighter, set your composition, lower the ISO, take the shot. Well this is not only slow as hell but is annoying as hell too… It is nowhere near intuitive or advantageous over other systems.. And what is the damn purpose of IBIS when you cant use low ISO in dark areas since you dont see anything through the viewfinder.. The camera has stabilization but its usage is very limited in this regard..
    2. Higher ISO is worse than canons higher ISO :/ and shadow recovery from higher ISO is the same or slightly worse… If I need something to shot at iso6400 – I would take canon 6D all day long…
    3. Lag in dark areas.. EVF lags, back lcd lags and so on… The darker the more lag you will get, and sometimes if you are using manual focus because of the lag you wont be able to focus precisely, especially if you are using very fast lenses with shallow DOF.

    I moved to Sony from Canon, I cant really understand all the hype over Canon or any other systems, because the Sony A7 II feels very unbalanced and has many small issues that need to be addressed more. It is complicated although the camera feels powerful and capable it just takes too much effort and too much “digging” to actually use it to the fullest. And even so in certain conditions – hard condition for cameras, this camera will be a let down compared to any DSLR because it wont deliver the same level of performance it does in normal conditions. Canon 6D on the other hand was really well balanced camera it may have lower DR, but it delivers consistently good results at good and at bad conditions alike. Even when pushed at ISO6400, you dont really need to worry about lagging EVF or that you might not be able to push enough shadow details and you need to lower the ISO to 800 to do that…

  15. Reynante M. Martinez Avatar
    Reynante M. Martinez

    Hey there, Joseph.

    I am SO late for the party here. But I just wanted to tell you THANK YOU and what a gem this post had been. All along I thought it was always best practice to keep my shots “properly” exposed as I see them on screen/EVF, but looking at your comparisons, I’m convinced that underexposing and lifting the exposure in post is a better alternative.

    Thank you!

  16. Nemo Avatar

    dpreview have a nice tool that compares in this specific capability. It not only shows the true dynamic range of each ISO (which DXO marks also does), but also shows the quality of noise. It’s available at 1:1 pixel, but also scaled to emulate printing. Check out the low dynamic range of Canon 5DIII, the banding of Nikon Z6, and the improvement of Sony A7III compared to A7II. You can also predict the behavior by checking DXO mark dynamic range for a given ISO, but you will not know about banding. This is for ISO100 to ISO6400 boost in post (+6 stops).