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Review: Sony A37

by Chris Gampat on 07/05/2012

The Sony A37 is the company’s latest offering to the entry level crowd. Both Peter and I  had hands on time with the unit before it was even announced and in two totally different scenarios. The camera has stylistic differences from the likes of Canon and Nikon: the other two major players in this market segment. The A37 also continues Sony’s dedication to the SLT system; which removes the optical viewfinder for an electronic one and therefore also sticks with a translucent mirror.

Many Sony products are very favorably reviewed on this website. So is the A37 any different?

Tech Specs

Tech specs taken from the B&H Photo Video listing of the camera.

Imaging
Camera Type Digital SLR with Interchangeable lenses
Lens Mount Sony Alpha/ Minolta
Camera Format APS-C / (1.5x Crop Factor)
Resolution Effective Pixels: 16.1 Megapixels
Aspect Ratio 16:9
Sensor Type / Size CMOS, 23.4 x 15.6 mm
File Formats Still Images: JPEG, RAW
Movies: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264, Full HD 3D (MPEG-4 MVC Standard)
Memory Card Type Memory Stick Pro Duo
Memory Stick PRO HG-Duo
SD
SDHC
SDXC
Image Stabilization Mechanical
Focus Control
Focus Type Auto
Focus Mode Single-servo AF (S), Continuous-servo AF (C)
Autofocus Points 15
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type Electronic
Viewfinder Magnification Not Specified By Manufacturer
Diopter Adjustment Not Specified By Manufacturer
Display Screen 3″ Rear Screen Swivel Live Preview LCD (230000)
Screen Coverage 100%
Live View Yes
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity 100-12800 (Extended Mode: 100-16000)
Shutter Type: Electronic
Speed: 30 – 1/4000 sec
Metering Method Spot metering, Center-weighted average metering, Multi-zone metering
Exposure Modes Modes: Aperture Priority, Auto, Manual, Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority
Compensation: -2 EV to +2 EV (in 0.3 EV steps)
White Balance Modes Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Flash, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Kelvin, Manual, Shade
Flash
Built-in Flash Not Specified By Manufacturer
Continuous Shooting Up to 5.5 fps 1
AV Recording
Video Recording Yes
Performance
Self Timer 2 sec, 10 sec
Connectivity HDMI C (Mini), USB 2.0
Software Requirements Windows: XP (SP3), Vista (SP2), 7
Mac: OS X 10.4 or later
Power
Battery Not Specified By Manufacturer
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 4.9 x 3.6 x 3.3″ / 12.45 x 9.14 x 8.38 cm
Weight 14.6 oz / 414  g Camera body only
Kit Lens
Focal Length 18 – 55 mm
Comparable APS-C Focal Length: 27 – 82.5 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/3.5 – 5.6
Minimum: f/22 – 22
Minimum Focus Distance 9.84″ (24.99 cm)
Magnification 0.34x
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 1:2.94
Groups/Elements 7/8
Diaphragm Blades 7
Autofocus Yes
Image Stabilization No
Filter Thread Front: 55 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 2.75 x 2.75″ (6.99 x 6.99 cm)
Weight 7.41 oz (210 g)

Gear Used

Ergonomics

The Sony A37 is in some ways a very standard entry level DSLR in terms of ergonomics, and in others a bit different. For starters, the front the camera is very plain and only really characterized by the lens release, front dial for exposures, and an AF assist lamp.

For the entry level consumer, that means that there is also an emphasis on implied simplicity.

The top right of the camera above the smallish but comfortable grip sports some of the controls. Here is where the user will find the on/off switch, digital zoom functionality, and the option to go from electronic finder to LCD. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work so well. Honestly, you’re better off ignoring it because it will ignore what you’ve told it to do after a while.

Just behind there are some more multi-function buttons. Here you’ll find the movie record button, zoom out/exposure control (for aperture or compensation), and the auto exposure lock button/zoom it during playback. Right by here is also the pop-up flash lock; that only works when the camera is on to begin with.

The top left is where the control dial and menu buttons are. The dial features a slew of different setting modes, and the good thing is that it often stayed in place and provided just enough resistance to ensure that it never was switch out of a setting that I originally wanted it to be in.

Near this is Sony’s proprietary hot shoe which sticks to the old Minolta standards.

The back of the camera sports a couple of other goodies. The screen, first off, will tilt up and down for the user. Additionally, there is a multi-control area/button hub, a custom function button, playback button, and info/trash button. The recessed area for gripping feels really quite nice in practice.

Here is where the electronic viewfinder is also housed.

Autofocus

I’ve developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the focusing system on this camera. Firstly, I used the very excellent Sony 50mm f1.8 almost exclusive for this review. The reasons for this are the excellent image quality, compact size, and if you’re going to get serious about your photography, this is the lens you’ll have to get if you’re tied to the Sony camera system.

We’ve given it high marks on our best budget lens list and in our list of great Sony lenses.

With this all said, the A37 is a speedy performer in terms of autofocusing and it utilizes the points available very well. My problem though is that the points are too much in the middle area of the image. Sony could have spread them out a bit more.

Additionally, the selection of a single focus point is a bit tedious. In order to do this, you’ll need to access the quick/function menu and choose the AF area selection. Then you’ll need to scroll through to the area you want, and fine tune it to what you actually want. Say you want to use the center point on the right area of the focusing points, that’s a bit time consuming and a photo opportunity can be gone.

Thankfully, I’m mostly a portrait shooter, and in that case this worked totally fine and I was able to keep my subjects very content while I fiddled a bit (unless I set it up beforehand.)

For consumers who want to move up and utilize all the functions of the camera, you may tire of this after a while. But for consumers that want to leave the focusing on full auto, the system has a fairly good and fairly smart focusing algorithm working for it. However, I still feel that the NEX system’s is better.

Image Quality

I used both the 18-135mm zoom lens that comes with the camera in a bundled package, but as stated earlier, far preferred using their 50mm f1.8. And to be honest with you, this lens really allows the camera to take the fullest advantage of what the sensor can do. The image quality right out of the camera is really pretty dark, good, and only requires slight tweaks to really improve upon the RAW files in post. However, I’d stress that for the best results that one should over-expose around 1/7th of a stop in order to get the fullest potential out of the files. Then you’ll need to work with them a tiny bit in post to get the best results you can.

Originally, all of my images were coming out super warm, and I didn’t figure out how to change this until my second day of use with the combination. It is a setting hidden in the menu, but once it is unlocked, you’ll see your images start to become much better. In fact, the sensor output seems to resemble Kodak Porta VC, and for this photog, I’m ecstatic about that!

Here are some more images shot with the A37 and other lenses:

High ISOs

Here’s where the review starts to get a tiny bit hairy. The High ISO performance on the A37 could be better, even with the faster prime lenses attached. I saw a bit too much smudging of noise and quite a bit of loss of detail. In fact, I would purposely only use prime lenses just to keep the ISO levels out of the nuclear area. Quite honestly, I even saw it start to degrade at ISO 800.

The Sony A37 was taken with me to performance art piece, and the focusing seemed to go in and out, but when it nailed it, it did so quickly. Like the Canon 5D Mk II, it is often best the focus on a contrasting area/point.

Ease of Use

To make the most use of the Sony A37, you’ll need to sit down and spend some time digging through the menus and getting everything set up just the way you like it before you even go out to shoot.

Once this is done, the only issue I really had was manual focusing point selection. Otherwise, I also recommend that this camera only shoot in aperture mode because pressing the EV button on the back can be a bit of a pain in manual mode due to ergonomic placement.

Something else that pissed me off a bit: even though it did wirelessly set off my other slave flashes, it didn’t sync with the shutter. That’s probably because of something going on with the camera because the flashes have synced with Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax with no problems at all.

Metering

A Sunny 16 test showed us that the system tends to underexpose by 1/3rd of a stop. In real life use, we found it best to overexposed your images by 1/7th of a stop.

Conclusions

In the end, I overall have found the image quality of the A37 to be good enough for most users, but at the higher ISOs you’ll start to encounter some problems. The ergonomics could also have been designed a bit better, as they are behind a bit from Canon and Nikon and honestly very far behind Pentax’s K30 in terms of ergonomics. To take the best advantage of the camera, you’ll need to use primes and fast lenses in combination with keeping the ISO levels down.

Further, Sony’s higher end DSLRs are still probably a much more viable option and I’d recommend this camera to someone like my mom who very little technical knowledge and will set it to auto with the belief that every image she gets is wondrous. The experienced eye should look elsewhere.

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