Sony makes excellent cameras. In the last few years, they launched a completely new full frame camera system that has pushed the bounds of digital photography. I switched entirely to Sony gear after first seeing the tremendous low-light capability of their a7S and have enjoyed many outings shooting astrophotography on many different Sony camera bodies since.
I have previously recommended Sony gear to countless numbers of fellow photographers looking for the best landscape astrophotography cameras. That is no longer the case. If you want to shoot landscape astrophotography, don’t buy a Sony. If you already have a Sony camera, don’t update the firmware.
Here’s why I no longer recommend Sony cameras and how the latest firmware update made Sony’s a7RII and a7SII terrible for astrophotography.
In August of 2016, Sony made firmware changes to their two flagship a7 series cameras (the a7RII and a7SII). The update (3.30 on the a7RII and 2.10 on the a7SII) was supposed to include improvements for radio controlled lighting and overall camera stability and temperature control. But hidden in these improvements is a change that affects the image quality when shooting long exposures, particularly astrophotos. The problem has been dubbed “Star Eater” by others in the astro community.
The “Star Eater” problem is a form of software spatial filtering designed to reduce noise in photos, particularly hot pixels. Unfortunately, the rather rudimentary filtering algorithm that Sony is using easily mistakes sharp pinpoint stars for noise, deleting them from the image or greatly reducing their brightness.
The result is an astrophoto with less stars and the appearance of diminished resolution. Sony a7RII and a7SII cameras with the latest firmware exhibit this problem for all exposure times longer than 3.2″. Furthermore, the “Star Eater” issue affects RAW images (whether uncompressed or not) and cannot be disabled by any means. To top it off, it’s impossible to downgrade your firmware to a previous version.
Here’s a comparison of an unaffected exposure with a “Star Eater” exposure at 100% crop:
The firmware change was introduced months ago but is only now starting to be noticed as more and more astrophotographers update the firmware of their cameras. I have confirmed the issue myself and it has been discussed and analyzed many times on other places around the online photography community, particularly on the DPReview forums, Cloudy Nights, Jim Kasson’s Last Word, and more recently on Sony Alpha Rumors.
Bad spatial filtering isn’t new to Sony’s Alpha cameras. Even with the older firmware, all recent Sony alpha mirrorless cameras including the a6000, a6300, a6500, a7S, a7R, a7, a7II, a7SII and a7RII exhibit the “Star Eater” issue when using the Bulb exposure mode. Untracked landscape astrophotography rarely requires exposures longer than 30″ so I never found that the issue affected my photography. Now, with the latest firmware updates on the a7RII and a7SII, what was once a problem that only affected the niche case of Bulb exposures now affects all reasonable untracked astrophotography exposure times for common focal lengths. And on their flagship mirrorless cameras to boot.
I’ll admit that it is a problem that requires a fair bit of pixel peeping. Some photographers might never even notice the issue. But as our community shifts more and more towards the enthusiast, to the photographer who really cares about the finest capability of their equipment, an issue like this is tremendously disappointing to many of us.
Personally, learning of this change (and verifying the issue for myself) has led me to question my desire for future Sony camera bodies (it is still unconfirmed if the new Sony a9 is affected). It has certainly made me very skeptical of future firmware updates from Sony. Mostly, I hate the thought of having recommending a camera to so many people only to learn that something has changed that would have me question my original recommendation. These aren’t cheap tools.
So, it is with great disappointment that I will no longer recommend Sony cameras, particularly the a7RII and a7SII with the latest firmware, until we see a fix. If you’ve shared the same love of Sony cameras as I have in the past, and you own one of these cameras, help us reach out to Sony directly by emailing Sony Listens at: SonyListens@am.sony.com .
They introduced the problem with firmware. They can fix it with firmware. If enough of us email, maybe we can get them to issue a fix.
I have already started reaching out to Sony directly as well as writing to several of my contacts close to Sony to see if we can get some action. So far, Sony has not responded to my initial emails and many other photographers have experienced the same lack of response. I think that the only way to get a fix is to keep trying to contact Sony. If you have contacts at Sony, any help reaching out to them would be greatly appreciated by me and many others.
About the author: Ian Norman is the co-founder and creator of The Photon Collective and Lonely Speck. Ian is a full-time traveler, photographer and entrepreneur. In February 2013, he called it quits on his 9-to-5 to pursue a lifestyle of photography. Follow Ian’s photography adventures on Instagram. This article was also published here.
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