Review: Sony Alpha A77

When I wrote about my first impressions of the Sony A77 last month, it received an overwhelming response and it became very clear to me that this is a hot camera right now. After spending about a month shooting with it, I can now clearly see why. This is the first Sony camera I have used that I feel properly competes with the likes of Canon and Nikon. Competition drives innovation, and I think a camera like this could be just what the market needs to drive pro-sumer DSLRs even further. But does it live up to the hype?

Items used in this review

Tech Specs

(from B&H Photo and Video)

Imaging
Camera Type Digital SLR with Interchangeable lenses
Lens Mount Sony Alpha/ Minolta
Camera Format APS-C / (1.5x Crop Factor)
Resolution Effective Pixels: 24.3 Megapixels
24 MP: 6000 x 4000
Sensor Type / Size CMOS, 23.5 x 15.6 mm
File Formats Still Images: JPEG, RAW
Movies: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264
Audio: AAC
Noise Reduction Yes
Memory Card Type Memory Stick Pro Duo
Memory Stick PRO HG-Duo
SD
SDHC
SDXC
Image Stabilization Mechanical
AV Recording
Video Recording Yes, NTSC
Aspect Ratio 4:3, 16:9
Audio Recording With Video
Focus Control
Focus Type Auto
Focus Mode Single-servo AF (S), Continuous-servo AF (C), Manual Focus (M)
Autofocus Points 19
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type Electronic
Viewfinder Coverage 100%
Viewfinder Magnification Approx. 1.09x
Diopter Adjustment – 4 to +3 m
Display Screen 3″ Rear Screen Tilting  LCD (921600)
Screen Coverage 10%
Live View Yes
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity 100-12800
Shutter Type: Electronic
Speed: 30 – 1/8000 sec
Remote Control RMT-DSLR1 (Optional)
Metering Method Spot metering, Center-weighted average metering, Multi-zone metering
Exposure Modes Modes: Aperture Priority, Auto, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority
Compensation: -5 EV to +5 EV (in 0.3 EV steps)
White Balance Modes Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Flash, Fluorescent, Fluorescent (Day White), Fluorescent (Natural White), Fluorescent (White), Incandescent, Kelvin, Manual, Shade
Flash
Built-in Flash Yes: Auto, Fill-in, Off, Red-eye Reduction, Second-curtain Sync, Slow Sync
Continuous Shooting Up to 12 fps
External Flash Connection Hot Shoe
Performance
Self Timer 2 sec, 10 sec
Connectivity AV Output, HDMI C (Mini), USB 2.0
Software Requirements Windows: XP (SP3), Vista (SP2), 7
Mac: OS X 10.3 or later
Power
Battery 1x NP-FM500H  Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 5.59 x 4.09 x 3.15″ / 14.2 x 10.4 x 8.0 cm
Weight 1.44 lb / 653 Camera body only

Design and Ergonomics

A lot of this information is going to be repeated from my first impressions post, but having spent about a month with the camera now, I can give more insight into how the camera feels while shooting.

I had mentioned before that I felt it is a relatively large camera, but not overwhelmingly so. Coming from the petite Nikon D7000, it feels big, but in reality it isn’t any larger than other competing cameras like the Canon 7D. Weight is well controlled, and it certainly isn’t going to weigh you down at all while shooting throughout the day, despite it’s magnesium alloy build.

Speaking of the build, while it’s primarily constructed of magnesium alloy, like many high end DSLRs, there are some cheap-feeling bits. The hand grip, while large and well contoured, wiggles around a bit and doesn’t feel completely secure. In addition, the buttons and knobs (particularly the mode dial) feel cheap and light, as if they were an afterthought. They’re not at all unusable, but you’re right to expect slightly higher quality tactile controls for a camera of this price. Otherwise, build quality feels good. The articulating screen is incredibly solid, and gave me no signs at all that it would wear over time. The shutter button has a familiar “squishy” feeling that many high end DSLRs have, and I’ve grown to love with my D7000.

I have no complaints about the appearance of this camera, although I’m not sure I would call it a “pretty” camera. Cameras in this class are tools, and are not generally made to look good, so I won’t focus much on that. The shape is familiar, and is reminiscent of any standard DSLR you’ve seen before.

In Use

In my first impressions post, I complained about a general lagginess I had experienced when changing settings or accessing menus. I was informed shortly after that there had been a firmware update released by Sony to resolve such issues, and I immediately installed it on my review unit.

I’m happy to report that while the firmware update improved the lag drastically, I cannot say that the issue is gone entirely. Shutter speed and aperture control lag has improved, but I still experience problems in a number of other areas. For instance, when turning on the camera for the first time, there’s a consistent 3–4 second lag before I can take my first shot. There’s also a lengthy delay when reviewing images and zooming in to shots.

None of this is terribly serious, and not a deal breaker by any means, but I’d like to see Sony release another firmware update to speed things up to a level you’d expect from a camera of this price. Luckily it seems Sony is addressing issues like this quickly, and I’m looking forward to see how future firmware updates will improve these lag issues.

Outside of the general control lag, this camera is lightning fast to use. The phase detection autofocus system is incredibly fast, not to mention wonderfully accurate. I also found that it continues focusing quickly even in very low light, where other DSLRs like the Pentax K–5 start to fall apart. I never missed any shots due to focus problems, and I had nothing but confidence that the system was performing exactly how I expected it. This AF system feels just as snappy as the legendary Canon 7D, and is a joy to shoot with.

In addition to quick focus, the Sony A77 is capable of shooting 12fps continuous burst, because of its lack of a moving mirror. That’s nearly twice the speed of other DSLRs in this class, and is only matched by the $6,800 Canon 1D X. If you’ve never shot at 12fps before, you’re in for a quite a surprise. Because the A77 doesn’t have a mirror flapping up and down, the only sound you’ll hear is the shutter curtain, and at 12fps, it sounds like a finely tuned sewing machine. It’s a unique sound, but very pleasing, and sounds much less like you’re gunning down your subject.

I found auto exposure and white balance to be generally spot on, although I found occasionally the A77 would underexpose by about 1 stop when shooting indoors. This never seemed to occur when shooting outdoors, but I was able to reproduce the problem regularly indoors with 3 different lenses. It wasn’t a huge issue, and was easily corrected with either exposure compensation or post production tweaks, but it was a little odd nonetheless.

One of the questions I received most often about this camera is whether or not I felt that the EVF was a sufficient replacement for a traditional OVF on a DSLR. I was hesitant at first to say yes, as I believed that using an EVF can be a bit jarring at first after years of using an OVF. I can say now though, after shooting with the A77 for about a month, I absolutely love the EVF.

And when I say love, I mean love. The EVF on the A77 is the best I’ve ever used, and I have grown to like it even more than a traditional OVF.

I can’t quite put my finger on what is so special about it, but it really is a fantastic experience shooting through Sony’s OLED EVF with a perfect image of what your captured shot will look like. It’s quick, clear, capable of giving you all the necessary shooting information, and is nothing short of stunning to use. The EVF was the area I was most skeptical about when testing the A77 but man was I proven wrong–this may just be the camera’s best feature.

All in all, despite some minor performance concerns, this camera is a joy to shoot with. The 12fps burst is a ton of fun, and allows you to capture some otherwise impossible moments. The quick AF and gorgeous OLED EVF are the icing on the cake that make the A77 an absolute pleasure.

Image Quality

The A77 is capable of producing incredibly beautiful files, but it’s also capable of producing some pretty dull looking jpegs. The jpeg engine in the A77 is definitely not this camera’s strong point. I consistently felt that jpegs lacked contrast and color reproduction that you were able to pull from the RAW files, and were generally uninspired without some serious post production tweaking.

That being said, if you bought this camera, you’re likely shooting in RAW, and I’m happy to report that it can produce absolutely stunning images when shooting in RAW. At 24mp, there’s no shortage of resolution for you to crop to your hearts content, but even more than that, these files seem to react very well to being manipulated in raw processing. Dynamic range is fantastic, and detail can be pulled out of shadows or blown highlights with ease. Colors from the RAW images are also significantly richer and more true-to-life than those from the jpegs.

It took me some time to get accustomed to how these files react to raw processing controls, as it seems they respond to adjustments slightly differently than most cameras I use regularly. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but my standard post production editing techniques had to be tweaked a bit to accommodate the files responding differently.

Video quality also seems to be pretty amazing out of the A77. I’m not a videographer, and will not comment much on this, but the few test videos I have shot look very nice, and having continuous autofocus with phase detection is a real unique feature for this camera, and works quite well.

The A77 has “Steady Shot” image stabilization built in to the body, and it works very well. When shooting video, it really helps to smooth out jerkiness or rolling shutter “jello” effect, and when shooting images at slow shutter speeds, I can consistently achieve sharp details. I’m always happy to see in-body image stabilization, and Sony’s “Steady Shot” is definitely one of the better implementations.

High ISO

I covered the A77’s high ISO abilities in a previous post, where I compared it to the Pentax K–5, but I’ve added a few images here to give an overview again.

Overall, it performs pretty well up to ISO 3200, and occasionally producing usable shots at ISO 6400 with some clever post production. ISO 12,800 and above fall apart pretty quickly, and can’t easily be recovered in post.

It is worth noting however, that in-camera noise reduction cannot be turned off in the A77. It can be set to “low”, but cannot be turned off entirely. This occasionally causes some smudged details in low light, and is something to be aware of when shooting above ISO 1600.

Lenses

I shot with two lenses: the Sony 16–50mm f/2.8 “kit” lens, and the Sony 35mm f/1.4G prime lens.

I put “kit” in quotation marks, because Sony doesn’t like to refer to the 16–50mm f/2.8 as a “kit” lens, but instead a lens bundled with the A77. I understand, because it feels nothing like any kit lens I’ve used before. The build quality is nothing short of fantastic, and the optics are amazing. It’s razor sharp at all focal lengths and all apertures, and the constant aperture of f/2.8 gives you some low light possibilities that you wouldn’t normally get from a kit lens. I found very little distortion at any focal length, and no vignetting at all either. There was slight color fringing at f/2.8, but it disappeared entirely by f/4.

I’ll confess, I fell in love with this lens, and I wish I could find one similar for my Nikon D7000 at this price. It’s so incredibly versatile, and I was never disappointed with the results.

Next, I shot with the 35mm f/1.4G, a high end fast prime from Sony’s “G” line of lenses. I have nothing but good things to report about this lens, and it all starts with the build quality. This is an all metal lens, and it feels incredible in the hand. It’s not light by any means, but it is of such high quality that you won’t mind the weight–it truly feels fantastic.

Optically, this prime lens is great. Wide open at f/1.4, things are sharp and color fringing is well controlled. Bokeh is very smooth, with no jarring edges or busy patterns at all. Stop this lens down, and things get even sharper, and any sense of color fringing or vignetting disappear entirely. This is one of the nicest primes I’ve used in quite some time, and I feel it produces images just as good, or better than the Canon 35mm f/1.4L, which is priced just below it.

Conclusion

It’s not often that sending back a review unit is painful, but this happens to be one of those times. I had a blast shooting with the Sony A77, and it has proven to me that there are other fantastic alternatives to Canon and Nikon in the world of high end DSLRs (or SLTs).

Sony’s unique approach to the market is refreshing, and I really think they’re onto something with their OLED EVF. Since sending back the A77, I find myself longing for that viewfinder. I really think it’s the killer feature of all Sony’s cameras, and is something that no other manufacturer has nailed quite as well as they have.

I’m also really excited to see some truly amazing lenses coming from Sony, and I believe there’s enough choices for the A-mount to allow anyone to build a very complete and optically impressive kit.

I still have my concerns of build quality and overall performance issues with the A77–some of which could be remedied with future firmware updates, but build quality issues cannot. Not to say that the A77 feels like a toy, but in comparison to a camera like the Canon 7D, it certainly has a cheaper feel. It’s not at all a dealbreaker, but something Sony may want to address in future iterations if they’d like to be taken seriously by professionals.

I love the A77, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a pro-level APS-C DSLR.

Sony shouldn’t be overlooked any longer.

Check out the Sony A77 on Amazon or B&H.

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