We have a confession to make, this camera came into our hands almost right after it was announced. So why the delay in getting the review out? Firstly it came with firmware that was not final. Two days later, just moments after updating to firmware version 1.00, we got a message that there was another update and we have only been able to get that update done in the last few days. So, without further delay, let us dive into the Sony Alpha A77.
Taking a bit of a different approach to the way we normally do reviews, I am going to look at the key features then dive into them in more detail.
- 24.3mp APS-C Exmor HD CMOS Sensor
- 12 frames per second
- Dust and moisture sealed with improved handling
- Faster AF with AF Tracking
- 3-way tilt LCD Screen
- XGA OLED Viewfinder
- 1080/60p and 24p Video
Those in a nut shell are some of the most spoken about and focused on features of Sony’s new Alpha A77, the long awaited replacement for the A700.
Image Quality – 24.3mp APS-C Exmor HD CMOS Sensor
When I first heard that they were cramming 24mp into the APS-C sized sensor of the new A77 I was rather concerned. While I am a regular – though not exclusive – Sony Alpha shooter, I will admit that often Sony have just been marginally behind the competition in terms of noise levels their cameras produce often from a near identical sensor which means the issue has never been in the hardware but rather how the camera processes the image data. While I really enjoyed my Alpha A850 with it’s 24mp Full Frame sensor, I was not oblivious to it’s short comings in the noise department. Granted it was not far from the competition, and for the price I could not complain, however could Sony honestly expect cramming that many pixels on a smaller sensor to make the matter better on the A77?
I am pleased to report that the A77 far exceeds my expectation in regard to image quality. Even in our early tests on the pre-production firmware I was impressed by the noise level versus Canon’s EOS 60D for example.
More recently we have done a few brief comparisons against the Alpha A850 with the latest firmware running on the A77 and when viewing images side by side shot at 1600 ISO we (Greg and I) cannot decide which results are better. In some areas of an image the noise from the A850 is slightly less, yet lacks detail as if the noise level reduction in camera is being a little to heavy handed. Then in other parts of an image the A77 demonstrates lower noise levels and still maintains the detail. It just seems too close to call.
Over all the colours, detail, almost everything about this sensor in general shooting conditions – and most trickier conditions as well – is incredible.
Drive – 12 frames per second
The A77 is the second generation of Translucent Mirror Technology for Sony. Unlike conventional DSLR cameras where the mirror in the camera has to be raised out of the way to create an exposure on the sensor, the A77 allows for light to pass through the mirror as well as reflect just enough up into the camera’s autofocus system that the camera is always able to follow the subject even during the process of taking a photograph. Sony have also enabled on this camera an electronic first curtain in the shutter. While this can be turned off to allow for the normal all mechanical shutter mechanism to work, the electronic first curtain mode is what allows the camera to attain speeds of 12 frames per second and also makes for a quieter camera.
The speed is mind blowing however it is not without it’s limitations. The camera is only capable of shooting at 12fps for 13 frames in RAW and 17 frames for JPEG Standard. That means you wont even be able to capture 2 seconds of action before the camera slows down and if you are not using the fastest SD cards you can buy the wait time for images to write to the card can be a little frustrating.
Faster AF with AF Tracking
Sony claim that the autofocus on the A77 is 30% faster than it was on the A700 and for many die hard Alpha fans that has still been the camera to beat for some time. While we cannot really measure the speed increase we can tell you that the Autofocus is lightning fast and has yet to disappoint.
The big story here is the new AF Tracking functionality of the camera and no not all cameras offer AF Tracking, at least not in the way that Sony define it with this camera. Through use of clever and improved algorithms stemming from technology like Face Detection, the A77 can be pointed at a subject and by pressing in the toggle switch that controls the menu and selection of focus point, you activate the Tracking mode and select your subject. Using the shape, colour and size of the subject, the camera memorises it as the target and as long as it is in front of one of the 19 focusing points, the camera will lock onto it. If the subject is in the frame but not in front of a focus point the camera will keep it’s “eye” on it and as soon as it moves in front of a focus point it will lock on. In fact, as long as the subject does not move out of the viewfinder for more than 2 seconds the camera will keep it’s target memorised.
While our ability to test this heavily in say motor sport conditions etc has been limited, the few occasions we have been able to put it to the test it has not disappointed.
Handling, Dust and Moisture Sealed
Okay, so we haven’t been allowed to spill a glass of water on it or drag it through a sand dune but we can tell you that this is a really well balanced and solidly made machine. In addition to the solid build the buttons have been laid out in such a way that when teamed with the new OLED Viewfinder, you should never have to take your eye away from the camera to change settings etc. Keep in mind that the dust and moisture sealing is not a stand alone feature of this camera. The new grip, recently launched HVL-F43 Flash and new 16-50mm f/2.8 lens are built to match the camera’s durable standards.
I love a screen with movement and this take things to an all new level. It is nearly impossible to put it into words. It can flip around pop up and down… I just dont know how else to describe it. It is just… perfect!?
XGA OLED Viewfinder
This may very well be the most exciting and hardest part of the review to write. The Sony released the A33 and A55 as the first Translucent Mirror cameras, they were also the first SLR like cameras with electronic viewfinders and this caused quite a stir. EVFs (Electronic ViewFinder) have for some time been frowned upon in compact or hybrid cameras and their inclusion in a serious photographic tool seemed like an insult. Honestly the quality in them was not great and I seldom if even use the EVF on my A33. With the A77 things are different.
Sony have increase the resolution in the viewfinder by roughly 1mp which makes for a far crisper view. The OLED screen instead of the LCD in the A33/55 means the A77 has a far wider contrast range (3500:1) and gives you an almost exact preview of what your image will look like when the picture is taken.
I never thought I would see the day when I would say this but I think I am over Optical Viewfinders. The A77 EVF is just that good. I know I am going to get some flack for saying this but until you have actually looked through it you wont know just how good it is. You need to experience it to believe it.
Sony have upped the game with the video on the A77. Although Canon still dominates the DSLR video market, Sony brings the video functionality to everyone. Anyone from someone shooting home movies to a professional videographer will be able to get the results they want. Shooting video is as easy as pressing the record button and the camera will shoot in full auto and give you results similar to a handycam. All the while the picture stays in focus and focuses more like the way you expect a video camera to focus than an SLR. ie no more out of focus portions of video when you move to a new subject or are panning. For the professional you can shoot video in any of the PASM modes and have control over Shutter Speed, Aperture and White Balance. You are also able to select the video format and frame rates, giving you all the control you need.
While I said that you can expect similar results to a handycam when shooting video on the A77 there is one major difference that took me by suprise while shooting in full auto. Using the new 16-50mm f2.8 lens and shooting side by side with an NEX-5 (which I have used since it’s launch for all my video) I noticed that while the NEX 5 had the foreground and background in focus the A77 had the foreground in focus with the background beautifully blurred the way you would expect from a professional video camera and an experienced videographer.
How shall I sum up this camera? In some areas it meets the expectations Sony is creating for it and in others it exceeds them. This may very well be the most exciting camera I have used in ages. When the A33 and A55 were announced I geeked out at the technology of Translucent Mirrors but in use it felt like just another camera to me. The Alpha A77 is different. It feels like an evolution nearing perfection, a tool that can move above and beyond the call of duty. Is it perfect? Of course not, the buffer of only 17 frames for example needs attention and while noise levels are better than expected I still cannot help but wonder if 24mp on this size sensor is really necessary, but for daring to push the envelope this far I think the A77 is a 10/10.