Sony Alpha A77 Review from a Sony Alpha Expert – Mike Langner
David’s Note: I’ve been wanting to review Sony products for almost a year now, but unfortunately, the local camera rental outlets don’t offer them until early this year and the Sony PR reps are slow to respond to my request for review units, so instead, I approached an avid Sony Alpha user, Mike Langner, for an up-close-and-personal review of the new Sony Alpha A77 SLT camera.
Mike’s actually a schoolmate of mine back in middle school in Manila and it was a coincidence that I chanced upon his username in one of the local forums here in Singapore and he’s become my go-to resource for all things Sony the past couple of years. Mike will actually write a detailed guide to Sony Alpha system in the near future to help DSP readers understand the advantages of the Sony system.
To know more about Mike, scroll down to the actual review content.
Personally, I’ve been a long-time Minolta user back in college and it’s nice to see how Sony continued the product line and made it their own with top-notch technological advancement that only a big company bring. What’s exciting about the Sony Alpha line is how Sony continues to break traditional norms in camera technology that Canon and Nikon tend to overlook or consider as back-burner features such as the mirrorless, full APS-C sized cameras (NEX) and the new Alpha SLT (Single Lens Translucent) translucent non-moving mirror technology in their cameras.
The new Sony Alpha A77 SLT is the third camera released by Sony using this translucent mirror system. I blogged about this technology in the past when the Sony Alpha A33 and A55 were announced, so you can read about the tech explanation there.
Enough of my side comments, here’s Mike’s review on the Sony Alpha A77 (note that some text and images may be edited or rearranged for readability purposes.
About Mike Langner
I love capturing moments of all sorts, from the morning sunlight shining onto old folks playing chess in a park, to landscapes and scenery as I travel all over the world (The best ever was when I climbed Mt. Kilimajaro – it’s beautiful and the photographic opportunities are endless), to snapping away at the lovely nature around us. However, my main focus and passion lies in ambient-light portrait photography.
I’m very research-obsessed and will study and analyze a new tool like crazy before deciding on it. I fully and wholeheartedly believe that every photographer should make their own decisions on a new tool based on their own experiences.
I regularly uses cameras of all systems and makes, but my own personal collection of tools is based on the Sony Alpha system (after much research…).
I’m perfectly happy to share my experiences with anyone, and just as happily will listen to theirs. Nothing helps maintain the art of photography as much as healthy debate. :)
A Brief History of the Sony Alpha SLT System
Many people are not familiar with brands other than Canon and Nikon, and so may be wondering what is so different about Sony. The answer is: Quite a lot!
Sony has a long history of leadership in the compact camera and professional video camera space, but had a void in the DSLR line-up. Knowing that it would take years to do sufficient research, Sony decided to purchase an early innovator in DSLRs: Minolta.
By purchasing Minolta, Sony gained Minolta’s CCD-shift anti-shake mechanism (so you get VR/IS with ALL lenses, even legacy lenses), Minolta’s AF mount (Minolta was the first maker to release AF DSLR cameras), Minolta’s lens designs as well as compatibility with all existing Minolta AF-mount lenses.
Sony’s strong partnership with Carl Zeiss was expanded, and Sony has an exclusive with the Carl Zeiss ZA lenses: Autofocus!
Sony brought it’s electronics experience into the Alpha range and mixed up the Sony Alpha A300 and Alpha 350 cameras.
These two cameras were ground-breaking, as they were the first DSLR cameras to have a tilting screen, and by using a secondary sensor, were able to provide full-speed phase detection autofocus in Live View at a time when the competition was forcing it’s users to learn how to manual focus when using live view.
Sony took it’s time with implementing video in DSLRs until it “could get it right”. The result were the Sony Alpha SLT-A33 and Alpha SLT-A55 DSLT cameras – immediate successes (the A55 was “Camera of the Year 2010” according to Popular Photography, and was the only camera in Time Magazine’s “50 Best Inventions of 2010” list).
What made them so special? As the name implies, they are not traditional DSLR cameras, but DSLT (Single Lens Translucent).
In a traditional DSLR, the camera reflects 70% of the light of to the optical vewfinder, and 30% passes through the mirror, hits a small mirror behind the main mirror, and reflects this light to the AF module at the bottom of the camera.
This mirror assembly has to flip out of the way whenever you want to take a picture. Sony decided to take a whole new direction and gave us DSLT, a vast improvement over the old pellicle mirror design found on the old Canon Pellix from 1965.
In the DSLT design, 1/3 stop of light is reflected upwards to the PDAF sensor array and the rest goes straight through to the sensor – allowing for full-time phase detect autofocus in live view, in videos, and even allows the AF program to keep tracking an object while shooting, as there is no mirror that needs to move away and thus interrupt the AF process, and allows for blisteringly fast frame-per-second (fps) rate (the Alpha SLT-A55 can do 10fps, same as high-end pro bodies costing 8-10x as much!).
Also, by removing the hinged mirror mechanism and the pentamirror/pentaprism array, there were significant space and weight savings.
The downside is that you no longer have a beautiful pentaprism, you now need to use an electronic viewfinder or EVF, which has it’s pros and cons.
Here’s a promo ad of the Sony Alpha A77
Sony Alpha A77 Specifications
The Sony Alpha A77 is the newest salvo of Sony in the extremely competitive DSLR market. While technically not a DSLR but a “DSLT”, the Sony Alpha A77 has a classic DSLR-like design and uses the Sony Alpha A-mount, which means it can accept all Sony A-mount lenses and all Minolta AF-mount lenses (including the third-party ones from Sigma, Tamron, etc).
- 24 megapixel CMOS Sensor
- 12fps continuous shooting with autofocus both EVF and Live View
- In-body anti-shake technology
- 1080p movies with autofocus
- Stereo microphone and external mic socket
- Three-hinged swivel and tilt 920k dot main LCD screen
- 2.4-million dot OLED viewfinder
- 1/8000th maximum shutter speed
- Shutter assembly rated for 150,000 actuations
- ISO 100 – 16,000 (25,600 with multi-image combination. Expands down to ISO 50)
- Auto ISO with user-customizable ISO range limits
- Built-in GPS Tagging
- Auto-Focus Micro Adjust
That’s quite a mouthful of features to take in, but there are some standouts.
For one thing, we now get a 24MP sensor in an APS-C sizes sensor in the Sony Alpha A77 – unimaginable just a few years back. There’s the massive 12fps shooting speed – with autofocus. Full HD movies with full manual controls, and the option for full-speed, phase detection auto-focus (PDAF) as well.
Of course you get Sony’s built-in antishake as well on the Sony Alpha A77, and the new massively articulating screen.
Build and Construction
The Sony Alpha A77 is SOLID!
Much like the Alpha A700 and the full-frame Alpha A850/A900 and Nikon’s D7000, the Sony Alpha A77 is a serious chunk of tough camera.
Magnesium alloy frame, weather sealing, it’s all here! The Sony Alpha A77 feels great in the hand, with a comfy grip and a finger recess that is deeper than that of the A900.
Great for people with slightly bigger hands.
Everything fits great, there are no creaks or unnecessary slack that I can find on the Sony Alpha A77. Even the pop-up flash is perfectly flush with the body when it’s closed. It’s surprisingly light too – definitely heavier than the Sony Alpha A580/Canon 600D/Nikon D5100, but very light compared to the Nikon D7000/Alpha A900.
There was a lot of hype about the new articulating screen on the Sony Alpha A77 and it’s fantastic!
There is basically no layout/orientation that cannot be achieved except sticking the screen out sideways like on the Canons.
But you can have the Sony Alpha A77 screen above the camera facing forward, under the camera (like the A33/55), even sideways for those “around the corner” shots! The hinges are solid and feel like they’ll last ages.
Controls, Ergonomics and Handling
As expected for a semi-pro model, everything but the kitchen sink is in the Sony Alpha A77.
You have buttons for all sorts of options, from the display layout to Sony’s Fn (function) button for quick setting changes, the 5-way navi-joystick first seen in the Sony Alpha A700, AEL, AF/MF, Teleconverter button, playback, Movie, Finder/LCD, Drive mode, White balance, exposure comp, ISO, top LCD illuminator, flash sync, Remote, Mic, HDMI, DOF preview (customizable to be smart preview) and so forth. Nice.
The only thing that seems odd is that Sony went very newbie-friendly and gave a dedicated “?” help button to explain settings, but did not provide a dedicated SSS on/off switch on the Sony Alpha A77. An odd decision, it would have been preferable for that button to be fully reprogrammable.
Sony Alpha A77 Firmware and Special Features
Sony tossed in the kitchen sink here too… Let’s see now… The Sony Alpha A77 (of course for a Sony) have:
- Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama
- Configurable memory slots for quick access to regularly-used settings
- Video wind noise reduction
- Video SSS on/off
- 50i/50p mode (on this Asian firmware version)
- Changeable multiple grid lines in the viewfinder (Rule of thirds, square grid, diagonal plus square grid)
- PEAKING MODE like on the NEX for precise manual focus too. The smart teleconverter can also be switched to the oh-so-handy 100% focus magnifier option.
There is the ability to turn the “Setting Display” in the Live view display on and off . When Off, the Sony Alpha A77 does NOT auto-adjust the EVF based on the settings, it acts like an OVF – for studio shots.
There are options for automatic lens corrections as well, for shading (vignetting), CA and distortion. You can turn the electronic Front Curtain shutter on and off . When On, you only get the shutter at the end of the exposure.
It’s a LOT quieter, great for macro, but Sony recommends turning this off for long exposures.
Electronic Viewfinder EVF
There is the ever-lasting debate about electronic viewfinder (EVF) vs. optical viewfinder (OVF).
So what’s the EVF like on the Sony Alpha A77?
It’s a huge step up over the A33/35/55, that’s for sure. It’s a lot crisper, a lot sharper, and the OLED screen really gives fantastic contrast and color compared to the LCD on teh A33/35/55 cameras.
The Sony Alpha A77 EVF is HUGE too, giving a similarly-sized image as looking through the full-frame Sony Alpha A900 optical viewfinder.
The pixel pitch is a lot tighter in the Sony Alpha A77, giving a much less pixellated image than the A33/A35/A55. But it’s still an EVF, so there’s still a bit of juddering when you try to do fast panning – this is a limitation of the refresh rate of the screen.
Until we get faster-refreshing screens this will always add fuel to the fire.
However, the benefits of an EVF are considerable – you literally can get “what you see is what you get” immediate preview on aperture changes, white balance settings, effects filters, etc.
You get focus peaking when shooting with manual lenses, and can magnify the image live feed to 100% zoom for precise manual focus before shooting. The Sony Alpha A77 defiitely takes some getting used to if you are a hardcore OVF shooter, but if you are currently using an entry-level APS-C camera from any brand, the Sony Alpha A77 EVF is a huge, beautiful sight.
To me, the flip-mirror SLR design has been with us for decades, and it’s impressive to see that Sony is willing to take a big step in a new direction on the Sony Alpha A77.
Sony Alpha A77 Image Settings
You also have a huge amount of picture effects on the Sony Alpha A77.
Sony stays very newbie-friendly here, giving us a lot of NEX-like features like a portrait mode, night scene, hand held twilight, etc.
In the Fn menu options you also have the familiar NEX-like filters, like selective color, miniature mode, high-contrast monochrome, toy camera, vintage, etc. I’m not sure if adding in all this will really appeal to the hardcore “purists”, but realistically, it’s better to have it in there than not – just don’t use them if you don’t like them.
Sony also includes its Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) option that we first saw on the Sony Alpha A100, which Nikon has also started to introduce as “Active D-Lighting”. Sony goes beyond this though, and also adds an in-camera high-dynamic range (HDR) option with up to 6EV exposure latitude.
Unlike some of the “radioactive landscape” HDR shots we see online, the Sony HDR processing is more subtle and quite natural-looking.
Auto Focus Features
The focus area can also be configured into 3 zones, which is very handy too. And yes, the auto-focus is extremely fast, extremely accurate, even when tracking, all thanks to the 11 cross-sensors (19 total) auto-focus system.
While it doesn’t have as many focus points as the Nikon D7000 (39 points, 9 cross-type), for example, the AF points are well spread out and cooperate well for tracking, and it’s very easy to change the focus point you want to use just by using the joystick.
There’s also an interesting “Face Registration” option, where the camera will automatically track focus and exposure based on up to 8 registered faces that it remembers.
This can be VERY handy for journalist/event photographers as well as wedding photographers, as the Sony Alpha A77 can be told to prioritize focus on the faces of the bride and groom, for example.
Speaking of tracking, there is a “Tracking Mode” option as well where you select an object and the Sony Alpha A77 will do everything it can to track that object, like the targeting box on a fighter plane. Great for sports, even street photography, birding, and other fast-moving subjects.
Sony Alpha A77 Results and Sample Photos
Things I like:
– This camera is fast. Very fast.
– 24MP. Stunning detail, especially when paired with Sony Carl Zeiss lenses.
– Solid, comfortable feel that’s not too heavy
– The picture effects, while at first a “WTH?” addition, are actually quite fun – I like the high-contrast monochrome, and the selective color mode is handy too.
– The EVF is impressive with it’s “what you see is what you get” ability.
– The autofocus system is incredibly fast and accurate. The Tracking Focus feature is deadly.
– The screen. It articulates in so many ways that using it with LiveView really gives you very easy ways to get creative shots.
– Customizable – many of the buttons can be freely re-assigned to a whole number of features.
– Battery life – While official CIPA rating is 500-600, I get about 1000 shots per charge. This will change depending on your usage of course.
What I don’t like:
– The TINY buffer – 12 shots! So they offer you 12 fps, then only a 12 shot buffer. It’s like a Ferrari with 1 liter of gas.
– The single card slot – it accepts either MS Duo or SD card, but there is no second slot for the fast CF cards.
– High ISO is ok, but not stunning. It would have been good to offer a pixel-binning solution.
The review sample of the Sony Alpha A77 I had is still on pre-production firmware, so I can’t share too many images as they’re improving by the day. What I can say is that the results are incredibly impressive.
The detail level is on par with the A900 (which shares the same sensor as the Nikon D3X), with acceptably “clean” shots up to ISO 3200 – after that, noise becomes more and more visible, but is not a real issue until you hit ISO 12800 and 16000.
But personally, I never shoot above ISO 1600 anyway.
Here is why I feel that the Sony Alpha A77 will be perfect for telephoto shooters like birders, etc. – 24MP of detail with a 1.5x crop. A simple, handheld moonshot at 400mm gives you a 100% crop like this:
The Sony Alpha A77’s metering and white balance was equally accurate. The dynamic range and tonality is in line with the excellent A900/D3X sensor.
A centre 33% crop:
Thanks to the fast and accurate AF in live view and the tilting LCD, this guy was not scared away since I wasn’t looking at him (centre 24% crop):
It’s very clear now where Sony is seeing the DSLR future – that’s DSLT.
When the Alpha SLT-A33 and A55 first came out, the EVF was already praised, as were the incredible features and benefits Sony crammed into those tiny bodies.
The Sony Alpha A77 is a huge step forward, especially on the EVF front. If this is what Sony can do in 1 year, it will be interesting to see what the full frame cameras coming in 2012 will offer to pro photogs.
I must admit I’m spoiled by the A900 OVF which is one of the best out there, but if I was still shooting with an APS-C camera the Sony Alpha A77 EVF will seem huge. A700 users have been waiting 4 years for a worthy replacement – and the Sony Alpha A77 is definitely worth it.