Serious digital SLR releases were few and far between in 2011. Yes, there were plenty of new consumer level DSLRs—and some very good ones, it should be said—but if you were a pro looking to upgrade your camera, you probably kept your credit card in your wallet this past year.
In an economy that’s in a perpetual sputter, that’s probably just as well. There were a few intriguing non-starters—what really happened to that supposed D700 replacement, Nikon?—and a couple of full-on teases—we seriously have to wait until March 2012 for the Canon 1D X?—but for the most part, it was another off year for pro camera bodies.
Into this gaping void leapt one intriguing new model: the 24.3-megapixel Sony SLT-A77. It may not be a true professional camera—despite the gaudy pixel count, it only uses an APS-C size sensor—but the A77 does boast a boatload of features that have made serious photographers give it a second look. The long-awaited replacement to the Sony A700—a prosumer DSLR that gave Canon and Nikon a run for their money back in 2007—the A77 takes the promise of that model and completely blows the doors off it.
Along with featuring a rounded, more ergonomic design that’s comfortable and elegant looking, the A77 matches speed to its sports-car styling. In case you’ve missed the main headline about this camera, it can fire off 12 frames per second at full resolution. And if you’ve read one of the other headlines about the A77, it accomplishes this with Sony’s second-generation Translucent Mirror Technology, which simultaneously directs light to both the image sensor and the Phase Detection AF sensor.
There’s a lot to say about the Sony A77, not the least of which is that we’ve been so impressed with this camera we’ve named it “Digital SLR of the Year” in our 2011 Photo Gear of the Year awards. But before you check out that story on page 91, read on and find out why we think Sony’s rivals should be very worried about this groundbreaking new camera.
With its slightly sloping shoulders, comfortable rubberized grip and all-black polycarbonate body, you might not mistake the A77 for a heavy-duty pro DSLR body but it certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a wedding or on the sidelines of a sporting event (with a long Sony telephoto zoom attached to it, of course).
While it may not do well in a downpour, the A77 is weatherized and sealed to protect against moisture and dust. It also just feels good in your hand. The camera is hefty but not heavy, thick but balanced, and has a variety of external controls that are easy to access and logically laid out.
Some nice touches include a small joystick on the back that offers good control for changing settings or scrolling through images. I also appreciated the rear one-touch movie button, which, since the A77 uses a translucent (aka “pellicle”) mirror that doesn’t need to flip up like a traditional DSLR, can begin recording video instantaneously. The other benefit of a translucent mirror for video is that it allows the camera to use its superior full-time phase detection autofocus rather than the more dodgy and slow contrast detection focus system employed by most DSLRs and compact cameras. (More about this later.)
The A77’s body is built around a sturdy, magnesium alloy chassis, which gives it a solid feel and makes it easy to hold steady, even with a long zoom attached. One quick word about the lens for this camera: It ships with one of the best “kit” lenses I’ve ever tried, a Sony DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM zoom, which brings the total price to $2,000. Body only, the A77 sells for $1,400.
To EVF or Not to EVF
The rear of the camera is dominated by a 3-inch, 307,200-pixel (921,600-dot) three-way adjustable display. The LCD tilts and pivots in a variety of angles to help you compose overhead or down-low shots, but it takes some getting used to. After a few weeks of testing, I got the hang of its unorthodox twists and turns but still preferred the more common side-swiveling LCDs you’ll find on some Canon, Nikon and Olympus DSLRs.
Because Translucent Mirror Technology doesn’t allow for an optical viewfinder—a major drawback—the A77 uses an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead. While it’s a good EVF—large with 100 percent frame coverage and OLED technology for a clearer playback—it’s still an EVF nonetheless and some pros will find it a turnoff.
I have to say I wasn’t nuts about it myself. With the resolution rated at XGA quality (1024 x 768 pixels), the live feed through the EVF (which Sony calls the TruFinder) is better than much of what I’ve tried before but with some caveats. For one, the motion detection sensor that automatically changes the feed from the rear LCD to the EVF when you move your face to the eyecup isn’t as responsive as I’d hoped, occasionally giving me a split second of blackout time. There can also be a slight lag in the live feed through the EVF, which is annoying. Hopefully these two features can be sped up through a nice firmware upgrade to the A77 (crossing fingers).
The biggest bugaboo with the A77’s TruFinder is how wildly inaccurate it can be, especially when shooting outdoors in bright light. Typically, this is where electronic viewfinders are superior to rear LCDs since they aren’t affected by washout from sunlight. With the EVF on the A77, I found it very difficult to see detail in the highlights or shadows areas on the little screen. But when reviewing images later on the LCD and my computer monitor, they looked fine. So composing your shots on the EVF requires a leap of faith that might be disconcerting to discerning professionals.
On the plus side, I liked the TruFinder’s fighter-jet-like electronic level display which lights up its “wings” in green to tell you when your shot is straight. It’s also nice to be able to visualize live changes on the electronic screen that reflect white balance, exposure and other adjustments.
The EVF is the tradeoff for using a pellicle mirror system in the Sony A77 but is it worth the benefit? If you feel the need for sheer speed in a digital SLR but don’t have $7,000 to spend and/or don’t want to wait until March for the 12fps-shooting Canon 1D X, then yes it is.
Not only can the A77 capture 24-megapixel photos at 12fps with full-time, phase-detection-based autofocus, it does it in a way that sounds and feels unique. Instead of the angry clatter of a mirror banging up and down inside a traditional DSLR, the A77’s 12-frame bursts are quieter and more machine-like. Some may prefer the more soulful “analog” clacking of, say, the Nikon D3S, but the stealthy and purposeful A77 seemed to attract less attention during several basketball games I shot.
The results were also quite impressive while shooting with the 16-50mm f/2.8 kit lens. The percentage of usable “sharp” shots was on par with 10fps bursts I captured with the Canon 1D Mark IV and a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. While that camera is several years old now, it’s also cost several grand more.
The A77’s translucent mirror also makes it an excellent video camera for shooting fast action. The benefits of having full-time autofocus while recording full 1080p HD at smooth 60p, standard 60i or cinema-like 24p, cannot be overstated. Fast action sequences captured in HD looked tack sharp and absolutely iridescent.
Movie clips can be recorded in AVCHD or the slightly smaller, and easy-to-upload, MP4 codec. Best of all for movie buffs, you have full manual control over your video clips and there’s a built-in stereo mic, though without any manual adjustments.
Dark and Lovely
Images captured with the A77 were noticeably darker than those from the Mark IV, which is an issue seemingly inherent to pellicle-mirror-based cameras. This tendency came to light back when the Sony A35 and A55, with their first-generation versions of the Translucent Mirror Technology, came out last year.
Because some of the light is blocked by the translucent mirror—about 30 percent according to some estimates—before it hits the sensor, it’s understandable images would be slightly darker. And, to tell you the truth, I didn’t mind this so much. An image that is slightly underexposed and has more detail than an overexposed shot with blown-out areas is always preferable. You may spend a little more time in Photoshop correcting your RAW images from the A77 but at least they’re correctable. When detail is gone, it’s gone.
And there’s tons of gorgeous detail in the A77’s images, putting them nearly on par with Sony’s only true “pro” DSLR, the full-frame, 24.6-megapixel A900 from 2008. The A900’s headed for termination though and who knows if it’ll ever be replaced. (The full-frame pro DSLR market ain’t what it used to be.) Meanwhile, the A77’s 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor does a darn good job, at least for shooting sports and fast action (try it for motocross!) where it’s 1.5x magnification (aka “crop”) factor will get you close to the action without getting dirt in your eye.
The massive resolution makes this camera well suited for the studio, and it especially excels in controlled lighting situations. In low light without a flash at ISO 3200 and above (full range is 50-16000), images from the Sony A77 were noisier than some of its competitors, such as the 24.5-megapixel Nikon D3X. However, that camera uses a full-frame sensor and costs more than twice as much as the A77.
In an APS-C to APS-C comparison, the A77 produced slightly noisier images in low light at ISO 1600-3200 than both the 16.2-megapixel Nikon D7000 and the 18.1-megapixel D60. In good outdoor light though, the A77 blew those two models away in terms of detail, dynamic range and realistic color.
The A77 also comes fully loaded with a suite of Sony in-camera technology including Sweep Panorama, Smile Shutter, Handheld Twilight and Auto HDR modes. While these might sound gimmicky to pros, I found them all to be highly effective and useful in a pinch. And here’s a bonus point: The A77 has built-in GPS if geo-tagging your images is your thing.
The Bottom Line
Just as in 2010 when our favorite DSLR of the year didn’t hit the streets until December, the Sony SLT-A77 proves once again that good things come to those who wait. Admittedly, because of the disastrous year in Japan and the terrible flooding in Thailand, which sank many imaging factories, there wasn’t exactly a bevy of high-end DSLR options released in 2011. But even in a more competitive year, the attractively and logically designed 24.3-megapixel A77 and its impressive technology that allows it to shoot 12-frame full-resolution bursts like no other (current) DSLR on the market would probably have been our favorite. Throw in its remarkable ability to capture tack-sharp fast-action HD video and more surprising bells and whistles than an amusement park, and you have a Sony DSLR that should make Canon and Nikon users jealous. When was the last time you could say that?
Pros: Blazing 12fps shooting speed at full 24.3-megapixel resolution with full-time autofocus is nothing to sneeze at; attractive, elegant camera design that feels professional (at a non-pro price); gorgeous 1080p HD video at 60i with full-time autofocus; fully loaded with more useful photo features in one model than most camera companies offer across their entire line.
Cons: No optical viewfinder; Sony’s “TruFinder” Electronic Viewfinder is an improvement over previous EVFs but hard to use in bright light; images tend to be slightly underexposed; below average performer in low light at high ISOs.
Price: $1,399 (body only); $2,000 with Sony DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM kit lens; www.sony.com
Read all of our camera reviews at www.pdnonline.com/cameras.