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The Sony a7II in the Nepal Himalaya

Back in September, I posted about making the switch to Sony after almost 20 years shooting Canon pro cameras. I’d been bombarded with the Sony a7 popping up in my social media and photography news sites and became intrigued to see what the hype was all about. At the same time, I was recognizing that Canon seemed sound asleep. My phone could do more than my cameras. It took only one trip to the camera store to convince me I needed to try the a7II. I bought a system and put it to work all summer. The results were impressive.

But, a few key issues had popped up causing me some reservations to fully commit to the system for a big trip. And, a big trip was in the works. We were about to leave for a month in the Himalaya for several projects, one of which was joining Ueli Steck on his latest climbing project.

Ueli Steck and Colin Haley buried in climbing gear. On these trips I love not being buried in my own camera gear.

My reservations about the Sony system were primarily concerning the battery life. In the Himalaya, weeks might go by without the ability to plug in and charge. We use a Goal Zero solar system that has always been great for past Himalayan trips. But if the weather wouldn’t allow charging, how long would my six batteries last. The other issue was the cold. I had already experienced the Sony a7II lasting for 60 images on a fresh battery in 0 degree weather. If I was shooting in low temps, and solar charging wasn’t an option due to cloudy weather, how long would I be able to shoot? But, the Sony was simply too good to leave behind. I’d already fallen in love with how light and compact it is, and the focusing system blows Canon away. The Sony was going, but a Canon 5d Mark III would go as back up.

For years, this is how I’ve worked in the mountains. An Fstop camera bag mounted on my chest allows quick access and keeps a bit of weight out of my main pack. With the Sony, the entire package became a lot smaller and lighter.

Shooting Ueli and Tenji Sherpa climbing the north face of Cholatse with the Sony 70-200 f4.0. This was the first ascent of the north face by a Nepali. Tenji is a great friend and watching him grow as a climber, and guide, has been hugely rewarding.

One month after making that decision, everything played out as expected, the Sony performed brilliantly. Besides beautiful image files, the light weight was hugely appreciated when going to 6000+ meters, the whole camera package was super compact and minimalistic, the autofocus spot on, and for travel photography and working with people, it’s a much less intimidating camera to point at someone. Yes, batteries needed topping off every day, but we had the sunny weather for the panels to do their work. Had it been cloudy, things might have been different. There was a three day period where we just didn’t have time to get the batteries on the charger, and during this time we were down to one battery. But, it just took being ahead of the game with two fully charged Goal Zero batteries ready to charge the Sony. The solar goes on these trips anyway, it just needs to be managed well.

Ueli and I getting some work done while all systems charge

To summarize where I am now with Sony – the switch is complete. I am a Sony user, our Canon gear will likely go up for sale. For now, the battery issue is what it is. I have figured out how to make it work with solar and other batteries (see below). My only lasting gripe is the size of the buttons on the back of the camera which are key controls for managing the system. They are simply too small. With gloves on, they’re virtually impossible to use. Not a chance. So, ski season…. hmm, okay, maybe hold off selling the Canon.

Charging the Sony and Macbook Air directly from the Sherpa 100

Goal Zero Solar Panels and Backup Batteries

Nomad 13 and 20 Panels – Chained.

Nomad 7 Panel – Purely for charging while walking, can be attached to a pack.

Sherpa 100 – For charging via AC adaptor or USB. I was able to charge the Sony body directly with USB while having my AC charger in at the same time. Another advantage over Canon – the ability to charge the battery in the camera.

Venture 30 – Allows the ability to charge while on the move. You can even charge the Venture 30 while walking, and being plugged into the Sony at the same time.

With this set up we not only charged the Sony, but a Macbook AIR, Suunto Ambit, Petzl headlamps, iPhones, Kindle, Satellite Phone, and Iridium internet base station. A ridiculous amount of “stuff”, but it’s our work, and the mountains are our office.

Obligatory notice that we are in no way affiliated with or being paid by Sony for any of this spray – we just like what they are doing.

I had about one second to make this image before the monkey swiped at me, snarled, and ran off. The camera responds perfectly to quick shots when set up for rapid response.

The Yaks were walking while eating, making the composition tough. I was able to easily move the focus points in anticipation of where they’d be when I needed to shoot. Key for working quickly or on the fly. And, gotta love that high ISO…

Shooting with Ueli requires moving with Ueli. The size & weight of the Sony became a necessity when I started doing things with him.

5300 meters and zero degrees was pushing the limits of the Sony batteries.

Selfie on the streets of Kathmandu while documenting the current condition of Nepal after the earthquake, for REI.

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Comments 10

  1. Hi,
    thanks for the appraisal and all the shots.
    I considered switching (all be it from Nikon) but I figured that once you add the metabone (I was happy to keep my Nikkor glass and couldn’t afford a complete switch anyway), a gazillion batteries and possibly a battery grip, the weight saving has to be overall marginal. Do you use a battery grip at al? Did you really feel a huge difference?
    Instead, I upgraded to the d810 (from the 610) and have a much more capable camera, albeit 200g heavier.
    thanks

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Julien,
      I haven’t got an exact number of the total weight between the the two systems, but it is significant. I don’t use a grip on the a7 as I don’t want the extra bulk or added weight. Six extra batteries is a lot, but they weight very little – which might be part of the problem. Canon batteries are heavy, but they work. I thought about how the solar panels and Goal Zero batteries are additional weight, but for us on these trips – they go anyway for all the other things needing charging. For work here in the Alps, the six batteries is enough, and if necessary, something like the Venture 30 will go along as well for additional juice.

  2. Dan, looks like a great trip to Nepal. Do you use the 24-240 much, I will be shooting a lot of winter climbing this winter in Scotland, this will be my first winter with sony (canon still there if buttons too small). Changing the lens is not always an option as you will know, just wondered if you use the 24-240 and are happy with it’s performance.

    1. Post
      Author

      The 24-240 is a kind of non-work trip lens, or a lens for when I am going to take just one and the work is not critical. The quality is good, even very good I’d say, but certainly not great. Our 70-200 f4 is certainly much sharper. The 24-240 is pretty sharp in the center, less so on the edges, and it seems to like being shot around f8. More and more images are only being used online these days – and for this, it is perfect. Overall, I like the lens.

  3. Thank you for your review. I have also recently switched to the Sony system. A question on your Goal Zero system, what sort of setup do you realistically need to maintain the Sony batteries and other small devices? How many (and what size of) panels would you regard as a practical minimum to keep you going? Does altitude make a difference to the number of panels?

    Thanks in advance!

    J

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Jason,
      In Nepal, I always chained two panels, the Nomad 13+20. This charged the Sherpa 100 and devices at the same time when there was full sun, which we always had. I’m not sure about what the bare minimum would be to keep the Sony and misc devices going, probably this very set up – but it really depends on how much time you have. More time = more charging. The Venture 30 is a sweet little battery for many things, non-expedition needs. You need to play with the set up and see what works best for you.

  4. I’ve been looking for a review like this ever since the a7ii came out. Thank you very much for writing it. I, too, want to minimize my kit. I would like to switch from my now outdated 7D to the a7ii and I have a couple questions for you.
    1. Regarding the batteries, it sounds like the only option is to carry loads of them. It’s a bit of a nuisance, but I think I can live with it. What is concerning is their poor performance in the cold. How did you overcome this, since even the extra batteries you were carrying are subject to the cold. Was the battery life considerably shorter in 0 deg C temperatures? Like you said, 0 deg C is not even very cold…
    2. I know you were using a 16-35mm when you first got the a7ii. Have you stuck with that lens as your ‘go-to’ lens for this camera (aside from the obvious telephoto shots of course)?
    3. Finally, when using your 16-35mm, how often are you shooting at 16mm? That is quite wide on this FF sensor.

    Many thanks!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hi Kevin,
      Glad you found the post and it helped.
      1. Battery life below freezing is abysmal, I had all 6 batteries and was rotating them through. One would last for about 60 frames and die, I’d put a warm one in from my pocket and use it, while the other warmed up. And so I rotated them. After warming up they’d come back to life, but always with reduced power. So, 60 frames, then a 100% charged battery would be at say 60%, and so on.
      2. Yes, the 16-35 lens is my go to lens. I shoot wide a lot, so it is what stays on most of the time. It’s a great lens, and I shoot at 16 all the time, it is very sharp edge to edge at apertures around f8.

      Thanks for the read! // Dan

      1. It must be saying a lot about how much you like this camera if you are still willing to change out the batteries every 60 frames. That is truly abysmal and, especially in your type of photography, I imagine that it is incredibly disruptive to both your photographic workflow and your ability to perform athletically.

        One more question:
        In hindsight, now that the Nikon D750 has come out and proven itself, would you still have chosen this a7ii, considering its abysmal battery performance in the types of environments you often find yourself in? Let’s say you put the Nikkon 16-35mm f/4 on the D750. That comes in at ~1500g, compared to ~1100g for the a7ii plus its 16-35mm. Does that weight (and slightly smaller size) still make it the best choice for you over a D750?

        Thanks a lot Dan! Your photography inspires me to keep shooting!

        1. Post
          Author

          Kevin,
          Truthfully, I haven’t used it enough in the cold to have the annoyance set in yet. And for winter shooting I am pretty sure I’ll be dusting off the Canon gear.
          About the Nikon comparison, I don’t really know anything about the Nikon system as we’ve always been Canon, I’d have to look at it. But, overall, I am happy with the switch to Sony as it does (mostly) what I need it to do, and the image files are superb. I am anxious to see what the new uncompressed files look like in V2, and, just yesterday I got the a7RII, so I am committed to the system… I like to do more than mountain sport photography, we shoot a lot of travels stories as well, and for this the Sony also excels, low light… silent shutter, small, simple.It just has a lot going for it – but one of my favorite is I have had incredible results with the autofocus.
          Thanks for the kind words regarding our work!

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