on November 3, 2011
The Camera Fairy blessed my porch last Friday and handed me an Amazon box which upon opening, disgorged a familiar black and orange Alpha box with my A77 body inside, safely cushioned in bubble-wrap. In addition to the charger, manuals and ads, software CD, neck strap and USB cable, there was an empty space (sadly) for the kit lens. Since I already own a very nice Minolta 28-75 f/2.8 standard zoom, I passed on ordering the A77 with the new 16-50 f/2.8 SSM "kit" lens. I put quotes around "kit" because the new 16-50 is anything but a standard starter lens. It has a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, solid build and is weather-sealed to match the A77. Though not designated as a "G" or "CZ" lens, in tests it approaches the performance of Sony's excellent 24-70 f/2.8 Zeiss and is actually designed to fill the same effective focal length range on the APS-C cameras that the 24-70 does on full-frame. I planned on replacing my Minolta lens with the Zeiss next year but this new "kit" entry seems to be a serious alternative and since it is designed for the smaller APS-C sensor, manufacturing cost savings make it a heck of a bargain at half the price.
Look and Feel
If you have never handled a pro or semi-pro camera body, the tactile difference between a polycarbonate and magnesium alloy shell is immediately noticeable. Even though the body only weighs a little over 1½ lbs (without lens), it feels solid. It has a rubber grip that extends around the back on the right to cover the thumb rest area. The grip itself is deep and fits my medium-wide hands comfortably with a secure feel when holding it one-handed. The body is a little taller than the A700 but more rounded with a matte finish that gives it a no-nonsense appearance. I wouldn't base a camera purchase on how pretty it was, but I appreciate the look of a well-made tool whether it is a Kitchen-Ad mixer, a drill press or a tripod. The A77 is a well-made tool and that makes it pretty to me!
It's What's Outside That Counts
The control layout is a bit different than the A700 but the main controls are similar enough that I was comfortable with it after only a few minutes of fiddling with them. Sony's Quick-Navi menu system from the A700 is gone but the replacement is not a step backward. All of the main functions except stabilization on/off can be accessed either with a dedicated button or on the LCD with a press of the function button. the The stabilization on/off being relegated to the menu instead of having a dedicated button was surprising at first, but after thinking it over, I decided that I really never switched it off unless it was for one of the rare times I was using a tripod (or by accident) and all too often I forgot to turn It back on. Having it on by default and being able to set the menu to come on in the same position that you left it is a workable alternative to having a dedicated switch. One addition is the movie button. Yes, movie. The A77 is the first DSLR I've owned that can do movies and in addition to a full movie mode on the mode dial, there is a record-it-now movie button that lets you start a recording of that unexpected UFO encounter with your default settings at a moment's notice. Now I just have to remember that my DSLR takes movies!
The LCD screen is the same size as the one on the A700 and has the same extremely high resolution but with improved brightness and contrast making it easier to see in bright light. Unlike the A700 the A77's LCD is articulated. Very articulated! The mechanism is very sturdy and can be tilted or swiveled into almost any forward, rearward or sideward position. It even allows you to flip the screen inward in the collapsed position for protection.
The top of the body includes the aforementioned dedicated function buttons plus a monochrome LCD with it own dedicated backlight button that displays the basic camera settings at a glance. The selection on the mode dial is a little different from the ones on the A700. The multiple scene modes are replaced with a single scene mode position and the various modes are now chosen on the rear screen using the joystick control. The additional scene modes have been replaced with settings for Movie mode, 12 fps shooting mode, Sweep Panorama and 3D Sweep Panorama.
The pop-up flash has a new mechanism that slides the flash forward and up to reduce the chance of the lens/shade blocking it. There is also a button to pop the flash up rather than the manual flip-up on earlier 7-series models. On top of the flash is another new thing for me...there's a microphone on my camera! Maybe I'll have to try this movie thing after all. The autofocus mode switch near the lens hasn't changed but the depth-of-field preview can now be programmed to show either depth of field or a preview of scene settings.
Inside counts too
The first "inside" part that I checked out was the viewfinder. After reading all of the doomsaying from the fear, uncertainty and doubt threads on the forums followed by nearly unanimous praise from people who had actually used the camera, I had to see for myself. I have had cameras with EVFs that were considered good. My Minolta D7i was hopelessly outclassed by the full VGA EVF on my Minolta A2 (yes, full VGA on a digicam bridge camera back in 2004!) and I was impressed by the A55 that I tried at a local store. About the new OLED viewfinder on the A77, all I can say is....wow! I imagine if you had 20-10 vision and were college-trained to pick flyspecks out of ground pepper, you might be able to see pixels in the image. I certainly can't. It's like looking at a good 17" XVGA monitor from about 2'-3' away. The image is sharp and contrasty with nicely saturated color. The only clear reminder that it is an electronic image is in areas of very bright highlights or deep shadows where the dynamic range of the display cuts off before you eye would through an OVF. If you pan quickly, there is a faint fuzzing of vertical edges, but no serious degradation and no color tearing at all. Following a moving object is no more difficult than it was with my A700. As light gets lower the image grains up and gives you video noise sparkle which worsens as available light decreases. but still lets you see to compose down past where it would be practical or even possible with an OVF. Those are the basics. The initial plusses and minuses, so to speak. Now for the cool stuff! The list of add-ons in the menu includes options for showing all info (OCD mode), no info (just basic shooting info at the top and bottom), graphic mode (like the NEX LCD info display), Histogram overlay and electronic level. On top of any of these you can add a grid with a choice of a 4x6 square grid, rule of thirds or diagonal lines. The real value is something I missed when I went from my Minolta A2 to the 7D DSLR, namely that the viewfinder can be set to display exactly what the sensor is set to capture. This is really helpful when you are working in mixed light or mixed shade where auto white balance will often fail. Too blue? You see it. A little green from fluorescents? You see it. You can tweak settings until it is corrected and check the results in real-time. Another plus is that you can review the image for critical focus or exposure directly in the viewfinder in the brightest light and see it perfectly. Speaking of critical focus... Most of the better DSLRs can magnify the live-view image for critical focus, but in the field it is often difficult to see clearly. Being able to look through the viewfinder and see a magnified image centered on any point in the frame is a real winner. Another great tool is focus peaking. This is a tool used in videography to highlight the parts of the frame that have the highest contrast (sharpest focus) so the cameraman can quickly determine where the focal point is while filming. What it does is create a colored halo (choice of red, yellow or white) on the edges of objects in the in-focus area that is very easy to see even if you are looking at a washed out LCD with the camera at an angle that makes using the viewfinder difficult or impossible. My bottom line? The A77 EVF exceeded my expectations. It offers a razor-sharp image that displays a larger, brighter view than any APS-C camera (the A700 is one of the best) and nearly as good as the full frame cameras. It also has some technological tricks up its sleeve that are more than marketing gimmicks and offer real functional value.
Really deep inside is a somewhat controversial Exmor sensor. It is 24MP which is far and away the highest pixel count of any APS-C camera on the market today. Why controversial? If you have been following the build-up to the release of the A77 and the initial reviews, you have surely seen endless threads on whether Sony should have put so many pixels on an APS-C sensor or spent their efforts on making a lower pixel-count sensor with stellar high-ISO performance. There are also thousands of images with accompanying text declaring its image quality is anywhere from better than medium-format to worse than a cheap compact. In truth, it is neither. Rather it is an advancement in sensor technology that trades some high-ISO performance for some pretty remarkable low-ISO resolution. It also makes a couple of steps ahead in color accuracy and dynamic range.
I am not one to snap a photo and peer endlessly at each pixel blown up to 100% on my monitor, searching for something to b1tch about. I prefer to look at the images as I expect to display them and determine if they will look good. So far, the A77 looks good. Real good.
Tools to Get Those Images
In the past, having "special" modes on a DSLR other than P-A-S-M (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual) was pooh-poohed as a sure indicator of an entry-level camera that catered to photographers without a clear understanding of basic settings. Though this sounds a little snotty, it was generally true with helper modes like "Sunsets", "Sports" and "Landscapes" to preset the beginner's camera for best-bet shutter and aperture combinations for those subjects. I always thought that some of the more advanced cameras might benefit from some presets that would quickly get you near the optimal settings or add functionality that would be hard to set up manually. As I mentioned earlier, the A700 had a selection "special" settings on the mode dial for just that purpose and after checking them out when I got it, I never actually used any of them. That may change with the A77. While diving into the scene mode menu on the A77, it earned guaranteed return visits when it revealed a hidden gem in the Hand-Held Twilight mode. This first appeared on the higher end Sony compacts and is quite a useful feature. It fires off a series of shots in rapid succession then matches and stacks them to reduce noise and enhance detail in low-light situations. Image stacking has been available in Photoshop and other dedicated programs for years, but having it done for you in-camera is pretty cool. Some of the other features that have migrated from the compacts to the NEX and now to the DSLRs are Auto HDR and Sweep Panorama. The Auto HDR is similar to the Auto Bracket feature found on many DSLRs to trigger a series of exposures with ascending values to be used to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image. Auto HDR goes one step farther by actually combining and processing the images in the camera. Maybe not as "pro" as sitting in front of a computer and processing/tweaking the files in expensive software for an hour to get a natural-looking dynamic range enhancement, but Easy and Good trumps Hard and A Tiny Bit Better any day. If you want to do more than natural and create HDR art, the auto-bracketing covers up to a 6 EV span and there is always manual. The list goes on...
Quite simply...I like it!
It is solid, well-balanced, easy to grip and has a control set that grows familiar very quickly. I originally chose the A700 for its control ergonomics and the A77 may end up being a bit better! There's the huge, bright viewfinder and an acrobatic LCD that makes low, high and odd angle shots easier than ever before.
The fastest autofocus I have ever had the pleasure to use and it is accurate too. If one of my lenses back- or front-focuses, there is a menu to compensate with micro adjustments that registers and saves the adjustments for up to 30 lenses. Technological assist for critical manual focusing is very useful.
Fully metered, focus tracking continuous shooting at up to 8 fps is probably more than I will ever need and if it isn't, the more restricted 12 fps mode should cover it.
Image quality is pretty amazing. I haven't tried out the RAW files yet but the JPEGs are quite good. If they improve the JPEG engine with firmware like they did with the A700, I may never use RAW.
And then there is the movie mode...up to 28mbs 1080p60 recording with full-time autofocus or manual focus assisted with peaking...
The features and combination of features fills a 240 page manual and rather than plod through them here ad nauseum, I'm going to go enjoy the rush of photographic inspiration that always comes with a shiny new tool!
Down The Rabbit Hole...?
Is the SLT design with a high-quality electronic viewfinder the wave of the future? Maybe, maybe not. There is personal preference and user inertia involved as with any major change. Remember, it wasn't until digital capture surpassed the film in working quality the it was widely accepted by working photographers and it took years after that to pry film out of some of those cold, dead cameras. The usability of the A77 viewfinder certainly has captured my interest and the interest of a lot of people that would have (and did) scoff at the idea.
Is 24MP too much for APS-C? Some would say yes and I might have been one of them. Certainly the high-ISO performance would have been improved with fewer and larger pixels but for print sizes up to 12x18, the ISO 6400 images are pretty darn good and that places it at least two stops better than the A700 even with double the pixels. At ISO 100 to 400 in good light (which covers portraits and most landscapes) the level of detail is truly amazing and rivals the current crop of full-frame cameras. If you add the improved dynamic range and better color fidelity I might still say that 24MP is too much, but with a lot less conviction than before.
I hope this answered a few questions, I will add more images and perhaps some comments as I get more familiar with my new friend.