Top positive review
Sony Hits a Homerun in the A99II
December 6, 2016
This review might best start with some brief history. Unless you’re inside the Sony A Mount community, it’s hard to appreciate the struggles the community has had with the questions swirling about the future of the Alpha Mount. Alpha Mount (or ‘A-mount’ for short) is the mount system, lens and camera technology that Sony bought from Konica Minolta just 10 short years ago. Members of the A Mount community have been barraged by increasing rumination on the ‘blogosphere’ about the death of Alpha Mount for most of the past two years, and by intermittent trolling to the effect that Sony was going to walk away from A Mount, for much of this entire 10 year period. Sony has frankly done little to squelch this rumor-fest, other than to occasionally state (on record) that they were committed to the future of the Alpha Mount, while at the same time, largely failing to advertise a single A mount camera, including even the well-regarded APS-C flagship model released just over two years ago, the Sony A77ii. Indeed, Sony’s digital camera advertising for interchangeable lens cameras over the last 3 years has been virtually all E-mount, and almost never A-mount, which was simultaneously slowly disappearing out of most retail space. To add to the drama, Sony rebranded both NEX APS-C mirrorless as well as all full frame E-Mount cameras (the successful A7x series) as “Alpha.” This meant that the “Alpha” designation transitioned from referring simply to Sony-Minolta’s A Mount to including both A mount and E mount (two very different mount systems). Confused yet? If so, join the club! All of this rebranding of E Mount as ‘Alpha’ only served to amplify the cycling of rumors and rumination that A-Mount was indeed dead.
In this context, without any advance notice (as is their normal and secretive corporate practice), Sony announced the most advanced camera they’ve ever created in the Sony A99ii, to a stunned Photokina crowd this past September. The release generated not just a collective sigh of relief but also a large “WOW” from the A-Mount community (and a few ‘wows’ from other parts of the digital photography universe as well). There may never have been a Sony product release that was more eagerly anticipated (or more anxiously feared as not coming) as the Sony A99II.
Just how advanced is the camera? And how does it differ from a traditional DSLR with its flipping mirror and optical viewfinder? It combines a diverse array of technologies not seen in any other DSLRs: 1) SLT technology (a fixed semi-transparent mirror replacing the traditional flipping mirror, allowing full time PDAF in both stills and video and a highly responsive full-time live view, easily besting any other mirrored camera), 2) a new improved 5 axis in-body image stabilization system, with ~ 4.5 stops of stabilization (on paper anyway), 3) a backside illuminated (BSI) full frame sensor combining high resolution with good low light ability (debuting in the very successful A7RII and the top-rated sensor in DxO in that body) and not available outside of the A99ii/A7Rii (not sold to Nikon as previous gen chips were), 4) a new LSI (large scale integration) chip allowing extremely high data processing speeds; 5) an unprecedented integration of on-sensor phase detection (OSPDAF) with a more traditional dedicated separate PDAF array – supported by the SLT mirror – to create a ‘hybrid autofocus system’ (more on that later).
Hold on there chief – what about the downsides of the SLT? Good question . . . Purists have always regarded the SLT/EVF concept with suspicion, and until recently, OVF has clearly been superior in relationship to action and sports photography, due to the EVF blackout and delayed ‘slideshow ‘effect in many EVFs, because of EVF lag. However, the EVF in the A99II is highly responsive, and with minimal display lag, and if you shoot at eight frames per seconnd, it gives you a comparable experience to what you would see on a traditional DSLR with OVF. It can also go to 12 frames per second, with full aperture and autofocus control (but now with a modest lag in EVF view). And to boot, with the new LSI chip and high speed data processing, you can immediately view any image right after shooting. In low light conditions, EVF is clearly superior, given the gain supplied by the display system (which allows you to see clearly in quite low light). You also get to see what your final image might look like as you manipulate any number of exposure and image parameters, and additionally, the EVF can readily embed other shooting and composition tools such as ‘zebra’ (visualizing areas of potential overexposure) and ‘focus peaking’ (highlighting areas of decent focus) that are simply not available on optical viewfinders. Although a preference for OVF or EVF may seem largely determined by what you’re used to, once many people have seen the benefits of a properly executed and rapidly refreshing EVF, with enough brightness to deal with sunny conditions, they cannot go back to a traditional optical viewfinder. There is the - widely trumpeted - downside of about one half stop light loss, which again disturbing to the OVF purists, but this increase in noise and decrease in DR cannot be seen, in even large prints, from typical viewing distances (but see CONS for further discussion). But it’s all tradeoffs . . . like all technology design considerations. You can’t optimize everything, as all design parameters are tradeoffs of one virtue against another. While I believe that the SLT advantages outweigh the downside of losing slightly less than ½ stop of light, this approach may not please everyone. As always, “your mileage may vary”. Mirrorless OSPDAF still hasn’t quite caught up with dedicated PDAF arrays . . but it’s getting closer. But it may be an asymptote, rather than an eventual intersection, given the physical advantages of dedicated off-sensor arrays, with their much bigger pixel elements.
So much for the history behind this release . . . and its variation from traditional DSLRs. How does it actually feel in your hands? It’s a solid pro-build type body with good ‘heft’, a deep and comfortable grip, but still smaller and more compact than any comparable FF camera body – just about the same size as the A77ii. The transition from other SLTs to this feels seamless and easily bridged. In fact, it feels like you are just working with an A77ii but with much more low light ability plus 4k. It’s also highly capable, excelling in three technologically ‘disparate’ applications: 1) 4K video; 2) portraiture and landscapes (where medium format and other higher resolution FF cameras such as the Nikon 810 and Canon 5DS/DSR excel), 3) sports and action shooting (where lower resolution FF models costing $6k+ such as the Nikon D5 and Canon 1DX Mark II excel). In other words, this camera is able to compete with best-in-class, more specialized full frame models across these three types of shooting. And unlike other competing full frame models from CanNikon that do offer 4K video ability, there is no limiting heavy crop (1.4 to 1.8x) that virtually eliminates wide-angle views, and, the 4k is derived from oversampling in Super 35 mode, so it’s a bit sharper than the competition 4k (if you can live with a 1.5 crop – if not, you can shoot from the full sensor view). Thus, the camera is both exceptionally versatile, and relatively compact in size and weight compared to the competition.
From the standpoint of its specifications, despite its relatively svelte dimensions, it’s a heavy hitter:
• Up to 12fps at 42.4MP continuous shooting with AE/AF tracking, 8fps without ‘slide show’ effect or EVF blackout.
• Hybrid PDAF combining 79 cross-point from dedicated off sensor array fed by SLT plus 399 on-sensor phase detection for enhanced AF accuracy, speed and tracking.
• 42.4MP full-frame sensor w/no low-pass filter for medium format level detail and resolution.
• Up to ISO 102,400 for low noise stills and video.
• 4K AND 1080p movie recording via full pixel readout, in full-frame or super 35 (cropped) from 6k oversampling.
• High bitrate codec in XAVC S, with S-log2/3, and 4:2:2 HDMI out.
• 5-axis in-body image stabilization, optimized for full-frame sensor.
• Both slow and quick frame rate video for time lapse or slow motion effects without extra software or hardware
• Wi-Fi/NFC code for easy file transfer and remote control.
• Dust/moisture resistant magnesium alloy body w/ 300k+ cycle shutter.
• Ultra-fast OLED w/EVF benefits and virtually OVF immediacy.
So, how does this thing really work and shoot? Overall, exceptionally well. I’ve had six weeks with it now, and it’s just a gem to operate and shoot with. But again, I’m used to the basic template of the SLT operating system, while those coming from a CanNikon background may find the transition a bit steeper in terms of the learning curve.
1) FF sensor that is Sony’s (and industry’s) best. Combines high resolution and high speed FPS, 4k, and variable frame rate video (allowing either time lapse or slow motion effects). Very good high ISO and excellent detail. Amazing functional ability and versatility in a single package. Not available in any other FF camera and Sony isn’t selling this sensor to anyone else, unlike previous 36MP FF sensor.
2) Excellent 5 axis IBIS worth (on paper – but see discussion) 4+ stops that is functionally invisible (i.e., does not adversely impact IQ), and available on all A Mount lenses. Advertised to be ~2 stops better than previous IBIS system (in A77ii). Decent IS in video as well, in both 1080p and 4k (but see discussion).
3) Ability to use the full range of A-mount glass, with full IS benefits (but see Con #1 and discussion). This gives many options: modern (and expensive) Zeiss and Sony G glass but also high-value legacy Minolta glass options, depending on budget and priorities.
4) 4k is nicely detailed, and competes with best in class (A7RII/A7SII/A6500/GH5), with excellent low light ability. Exceptionally versatile video specs and codecs (but see major Con #2).
5) Compact form factor body, very slightly smaller than A77ii (but feeling like the same camera) and with excellent ergonomics and customizable controls – making this the most compact FF body out there, outside of the A7x series (but without the ergonomic limitations of the A7x group).
6) Hybrid AF system combining 399 on-sensor PD elements, combined with 79 focus points from dedicated PDAF array, fed by SLT mirror (but again see Con #1 and discussion).
7) Much better organized operating system and menu structure, with major degree of potential customization of control architecture to suit end-user preference and style. Additionally, the ‘Fx’ button gives instant access to 12 selectable camera functions of the user’s choice to streamline menu access. Proper configuring of Fx choices obviates most menu diving.
8) Ability for Wi-Fi and NFC to send images to your smartphone.
9) Dramatically improved Wi-Fi remote control app over the A77II – which was appallingly bad. This version of smart phone remote control appears as capable the apps for RX10/100 models, and for E-mount.
10) Multiple point MFA, wide and telephoto ends for zooms, plus separate settings for the four corners and center for lenses that do hybrid AF (but seen con #7)
11) A reasonably deep buffer, with ability to review images immediately, enhancing usability in sports and action photography – 9 seconds roughly of 8 FPS with my card if shooting full sized JPEGs or RAW. Enormous flexibility too – if shooting RAW or JPEG, at 8 FPS, and utilizing crop sensor mode (18MP files), the buffer is almost unlimited (~153 RAW images using my card Samsung Pro SDXC I card - but see Con #8).
12) Best JPEG engine in the DP world, shared with the Sony A7Rii. If you have any questions about this, see the DPR comparometer, and pull up these two cameras, and the Canon 5D IV and Nikon 810.
13) Real functionality for your crop sensor DT lens library – (so don’t reflexively dump your lens library in other words if your coming up from APS-C). If you want smaller files (18MP) or a lighter lens/camera combo, you get increased buffer depth, extra reach on your telephoto lenses, and still plenty of image information. Works brilliantly with the DT 16-50 2.8 as a default Super 35 video or walk-around lens. A major plus of having a high res 42MP sensor.
1) Only Sony lenses (and not quite all of them) allow access to hybrid AF system, although the dedicated PDAF system (upgraded version of system in A77ii) is still quite competent and flexible all by itself.
2) Sony continues to limit AF in movie modes to Program mode only, with fixed aperture (3.5, or widest if lens doesn’t reach 3.5). Reasons for this are unclear, but perhaps to reduce competition with the more video-friendly E Mount?
3) Modest ½ stop light loss from SLT mirror. Much is made of this, but tests have shown that even at higher ISOs, individuals can’t reliably discriminate ½ stop of extra noise, without pixel peeping A/B displays, and never at typical viewing distances. Tradeoff to achieve better AF performance, as OSPDAF hasn’t caught up to the best dedicated PDAF. But it this is still troubling, SLT mirror can be removed for landscape and any other MF shot, if that last bit of ISO is deemed important (a dicey practice and not for the technically inept as semi-transparent mirror is fragile and almost impossible to clean without damaging it).
4) Speaking of ISO, according to initial DxO testing, ISO scale is almost one full stop optimistic (indicated 200 is ~ 110) – and a slightly less than one stop ‘boost’ to indicated ISO continues on up the ISO scale. Not clear if this is simply unusual sample variation (DxO tested a funky sample) or Sony’s thinly veiled attempt to exaggerate the apparent low light performance of the camera. Some ‘fudging’ on ISO is commonplace - almost universal - but typically it’s ~1/4 to 1/3 a stop, not ~ 1 stop.
5) Menu system is still complex (but not excessively so for pro/FF class of camera).
6) Joystick control is sometimes ‘fiddly’, making selection and scrolling processes somewhat unsure. Could Sony just spring for the premium switchgear in its flagship model, instead of something that feels like it cost $.43 cents from a discount parts bin?
7) MFA can be complex, most esp. for H-AF lenses. Top, bottom, left and right corners, plus center (five points) X2 (wide and tele end for any zoom lens). Better for sure than NOT having multiple points of adjustment, but with these many places to check and calibrate, some form of auto setting might be desirable? Or at least a menu setting that allows you to clone center, corner, upper and lower into a single value for wide and in another single value for telephoto. This means you would only have to enter two values instead of the current 10.
8) Buffer clearing is a bit slow (~30 sec if shooting RAW in 42MP, and running out to full buffer depth of ~60 images), even though this is mitigated by ability to review immediately. Unfathomably, Sony doesn’t support SDXC II cards, with their roughly 3x faster read/write times. You can still use a SDXC II, which will speed workflow from camera to your computer (in USB 3.0), but it won’t help with write times to speed up buffer clearing. Just plain weird that Sony didn’t support SDXC II.
I’ve had this for roughly 15 weeks now, so I have now several clear and strong impressions, these after the gloss has worn off. The camera is nicely substantial, slightly heavier than the A77II, but almost exactly the same size. It’s functionally just like a FF A77ii on low light steroids and with 4k. I’m very pleasantly surprised by the Wi-Fi remote control app, as Internet forum chat had suggested that this would be unchanged from the A77II – but it’s actually vastly better, and appears very similar to the excellent versions running on the RX10/100. This is a real plus on tripod shooting, allowing the user to activate the shutter without even a hint of movement in the camera body. Don’t leave home without it! The camera feels great in normal shooting, smooth and responsive both in terms of shooting as well as reviewing/menu scrolling. 4K footage, particularly Super 35 mode, is often spectacular - maybe among the best I’ve seen or close to the best. The best telephoto primes paired with this body will create absolutely stunning wildlife pictures. In relationship to the many complaints about lack of H-AF support for legacy and 3rd party glass, if you shoot in ‘expand flexible spot’ mode, there seems to be little if any difference between the hybrid autofocus functionality with lenses like the Sony 70-400 G2 and older screw drive Minolta legacy glass. I’m sure that if I was shooting more in ‘wide mode’, and using Eye AF combined face recognition options, this would be a potentially bigger issue. In any case, screw drive legacy glass and Sony G and Zeiss lenses focus quickly, and even in low light, focus is quickly locked (unless you’re trying to focus on monochromatic smooth surfaces without texture, which virtually no AF system will handle). On the other hand, the new 5 axis in-body image stabilization clearly does not seem quite as effective as the ~ 5 stop system in the RX10III (my only other benchmark for a system claiming 4-5 stops), and I have done no formal testing, but it seems more like 3-4 stops.
Overall, what’s the bottom line? The camera is very smooth, and responsive in all its operations, from shooting to reviewing images, while color, contrast, detail and DR are all superb, as one would expect in this class of camera. And it’s just a great gift to be able to configure it in a way that is totally ‘simpatico’ with how and what you shoot – kudos to Sony for making the camera so easy to configure your way. With the Fx menu setup properly, one can avoid menu diving almost completely, gaining rapid access to settings that you tend to modify. It’s just a pleasure to shoot with, and then enjoy the spectacular images and video that it can effortlessly generate. It’s nothing less than a screaming home run for A Mount and Sony. It might be the best ‘all arounder’ FF camera anyone has yet made, if you weigh 4k, sports, and landscape equally. It will, I predict, be back-ordered for all of 2017, as demand for this level of excellence, is completely outstripping supply, and even Sony’s most optimistic sales expectations. If you have A mount glass, and want the best possible images, there is simply no other better option.
Now if Sony would just remove the artificial restriction of forced P mode in video if you want AF, so we can have aperture control . . . . are you listening Sony?
UPDATE DECEMBER 27, 2016
Successful wildlife outing in Venice Florida two weeks ago, with many spectacular shots, and which brought cameras strengths and weaknesses into a little bit clearer focus (pun intended). The biggest problem was that in 4K, both full frame, and in the Super 35 mode in APS-C, the image stabilization was borderline for smooth-enough video with just handholding. You may really need to shoot on a tripod if you’re going to do video and expect even semi-professional looking results. This is a bit of a disappointment, as I had high hopes that the image stabilization would be a little bit better in video. It’s not bad, it’s just not great, and frankly, this is consistent with the IBIS in stills being a bit underperforming relative to its highly touted specs. Perhaps I have just been badly spoiled by the phenomenal image stabilization modes in the RX10III, where if you shoot in 1080p you can have amazing degrees of stabilization (with a progressive crop factor . . . not unexpectedly). Haven’t had a chance to see much beyond a few short clips in Super 35 video (APS-C) – subjectively it looks like it might be just trace sharper than the full frame 4K. Both look great, and both the DR and color are fantastic.
The remote control from smart phone app is slightly disappointing in that it appears I am not able to elect to shoot movie clips from the interface itself, unless I first throw the camera into movie mode via the mode dial (admittedly a small inconvenience). The remote app still allows excellent remote shooting on a tripod, displaying what mode I’m in, in the lower right corner with either a stills or movie icon, and control over shutter speed, exposure value, and ISO. It’s pretty responsive (not a lot of lag), and does give you a nice remote viewing screen. I suspect with a good-sized android tablet it might really be something, particularly useful in relationship to so-called slow and quick movie settings, where you’re either doing time lapse or slow motion. Such a remote control app running on a tablet facilitates work review on a much more discerning and revealing viewscreen.
I continue to be impressed with the enormous subtlety – if any difference at all – between regular PDAF(for any A-Mount lens, 3rd party and Minolta legacy glass) and the hybrid autofocus (for Sony lenses), particularly if you’re shooting with expand flexible spot. I can’t really tell any difference in AF speed or accuracy, but I have shot no action scenes that might challenge the AF system, and potentially reveal an advantage to the H-AF. While this lack of obvious boost to AF speed in H-AF may be disappointing to some, it suggests that if you shoot with third-party lenses in flexible spot mode (or particularly center point AF mode), you’re not really missing out on much of anything. If you’re going into wide autofocus modes, AF functionality differences become much more visible, because now you’re getting outside the dedicated PDAF array area. But that’s just not how I shoot. Informal testing suggests that the tracking is a bit better than the A77ii, and competitive with the Nikon D5 and Canon 1DXII. That’s impressive company. I have yet to run out of buffer depth, even in FF RAW, and in crop mode (18MP), buffer depth is just ridiculous.
What about Lenses? . . . and you thought you spent a lot of money on the body! Hah!! There has been a lot of focus on the relative neglect of A mount lens ecology by Sony in their single minded focus on E mount lenses – but I still just don’t see the lens library deficit that some are complaining about. While Sony does need to update the A Mount lens ecology (particularly the ultra wide angle primes, their aging 35mm prime and their telephoto primes), don’t believe the talk about how there “aren’t any A-mount lenses good enough for the sensor” – that’s just untrue. The lens ecology may be third behind Canon and Nikon, but it’s hardly impoverished. As great options, there are the CZ 24-70 2.8 I/II, Tamron 24-70 and 70-200 USD, Zeiss (24/50/85/135) and Sigma Art (35/50) primes and the remarkable Sony G2 70-400 and Sigma 24-105 f4, the Minolta legacy tele-primes, and several newer options as well such as the Sigma 500 4.5. All offer good to excellent performance . . . even if CZ lenses aren’t cheap. My two most valuable lenses are 1) the Sigma Art 24-105 f4 and 2) the Sony 70-400 G2 – and they both deliver consistently great images on that sensor. A Sigma 24-105 f4 recently replaced the CZ 24-70 f2.8 as a basic walk-around zoom, due to its extra reach and lighter weight. With just those two lenses, I can cover an enormous range of shooting situations. And I can always generate extra reach, using the ‘smart teleconverter’ function or the APS-C modes, as the 42MP image size gives me a lot of extra room for cropping. In the APS-C crop mode, I still get 18MP images, which is competitive with the sports FF models from Canikon, and a nearly unlimited buffer.
On the other hand I’m really disappointed that Sony decided to delete the multi-frame noise reduction mode, probably because they believed it was not needed with a FF sensor. I’m not sure I agree with that, as it does give an extra stop or two of effective noise reduction if you’re shooting static subjects and you don’t want to process RAW files and mess around with NR in post. Speaking of which, finally, there is Optics Pro 11 support for the RAW files . . .DxO was however once again ‘late to the party’.
So how do I feel about my pricey purchase, 15+ weeks in? Definitely no regrets, and the camera is worth every penny compared to what the competition offers for similar or even more $. The A99ii opens up options that just did not exist in A-Mount, both in terms of low light shooting, high resolution landscapes, 4K video, and for a kind of luminous image quality that you just have to see to believe.
UPDATE FEBRUARY 19th, 2017
The big news is the rather mixed review of the A99ii from DPR, particularly critical of the A99ii for its relatively poor AF and tracking, while begrudgingly admitting it may have a large and perhaps unmatched envelope of abilities. The evidence base for their conclusion seems thin to me, and is at odds with better action and sports shooting performance reported by numerous professionals using this body, and at odds with other professional reviews, and last and probably least, my own testing of the AF system on moving targets (which doesn’t show perfect tack sharp performance on every shot, but better than DPR’s results). The whole back-and-forth debate is available at DPR Sony A-Mount Forum, if you are really a glutton for punishment. I believe that the AF and tracking settings that DPR used were poor selections (for example, shooting in ‘balanced emphasis’ vs. ‘AF priority’ which ensures that AF is always locked before the shutter would fire), and, their data has not been replicated. Time will tell whether they have it right and everyone else has missed the boat in thinking that its AF and tracking in high speed shooting were decent (if behind a Nikon D5), or whether this was an instance of extracting poorer performance using poorer choices. Meantime, if you want near-perfect tracking and AF, and that’s more important than anything else, get a Nikon D5. If you value a real balance of typically disparate, even somewhat conflicting, functional abilities, including 4k without a huge crop factor, landscape and portraiture with high resolution, and ability to shoot action (if with slightly lower hit rates than a D5), this camera is clearly a far better choice. What makes this camera remarkable is that even if it is not ‘best in class’ at any of those typically separate types of shooting, it is close enough. No other FF body achieves this level of ‘decathletic’ performance.
UPDATE MARCH 24th, 2017
The Imaging Resource review just was finished, and, as expected, it is better balanced and I believe more representative of the camera’s real strengths and weaknesses than the DPR review, which still – in between the lines – betrays an anti-SLT bias. I recommend the IR review as the first really comprehensive professional and balanced review of this remarkable Sony FF body.
UPDATE - December 7, 2017
I've had the camera for well over a year, and have had lots of opportunity to shoot with it in different contexts, including a lot of 4K but also an enormous amount of portraiture where it really excels, some action shooting, where I have not found the level of dysfunction in autofocus adamantly insisted on in the DPR review, and a lot of landscape photography – it's been excellent in all of these. What's my overall impression, after the gloss of new ownership has long worn off? It's the best camera I've ever used or owned. Although the Nikon 850 now surpasses it in resolution and is close to it in shooting speed, and may have somewhat better autofocus, while finally reducing the punitive 4K crop factor issues that have plagued Nikon's 4K implementation, it's a solid alternative to that newer camera and all the CanNikon full frame bodies.
UPDATE June 26th, 2018
I've had this now for roughly 20 months. It's been just a phenomenal camera. Recent trip to Italy yielded 1000+ pictures, including many inside dimly-lit churches & museums where a smaller sensor would have struggled. My only disappointments are: 1) some loss of wide angle video ability with modest cropping while in 4k video and using IBIS w/ FF lenses, but with Sigma 8-16 shooting in super 35, I can get very nice super wide angle video views, very sharp also; 2) absence of any great super wide angle primes (the one real hole in the lens ecology), but will be getting the Tamron 15-30 2.8; 3) that Sigma is not going to release their library of Art lenses in A mount. Just the three that I have (35 1.4, 50 1.4 and 24-105 f4.
Not surprisingly, questions about the future of Alpha Mount continue to swirl about, and appear to have ramped up within months after the camera's release, in the context of Sony's complete non-marketing of A Mount. All the attention is on FF E Mount, where Sony is devoting their development money. What else is new? The more things change, the more they stay the same.