Sony A77/A65 SLT Hands on Review
A new look, a new design, a new step forward. The most anticipated release of an Alpha camera, the A77 had a lot to live up to. When the A700 was prematurely discontinued, and the A900/850 broke ground with the world’s first full-frame stabilized sensor and at half the price of the competition, a lot of people wondered what the “A7xx” would look like. Would it be full frame? Would it be high megapixel? Then Sony seemed to take a detour into the SLT design of the A33 and A55. The A55 won “camera of the year”, with significant problems. Would the A65 and A77 be a new step forward? Or the rehashing of frustrations? Rumours abounded, some bleak and some fantastic. Then the camera launched, a spec line that was unbelievable and firmware problems that circulated over night. To make matters worse, an environmental catastrophe devastated production, a problem Sony is still recovering from today. In spite of a rocky start, people are still anxious to get a hold of these cameras, and I am pleased to have gotten them as soon as they entered Canada.
I had mixed feelings about these cameras when I first held them. I am a staunch proponent of optical viewfinders, and didn’t like looking at a screen all of the time. My experiences with the A55 led me to expect eye-strain, and when first looking handling the A65, I felt that the screen was over saturated, and I could not forget that it was a screen I was looking at. To make matters worse, I came into these cameras begrudgingly to fill in while my A900 was in for repair. Happily within the first week, my A65 left me speechless and sadly my A77 had the sync port pull out of the camera body. A very mixed first impression.
In almost every respect, these cameras feel like any other SLR camera body. The A65 is a little smaller and lacks the second jog dial on the back of the A77. Controls are at your finger tips and a surprisingly effective adjustment in the heights of the buttons on the top of the body have made it easy to find the right button without looking. One added benefit is the ergonomic improvement Sony has poured into the new bodies, reducing hand strain from repetitive use. Although I dislike the shutter/on – off switch, it is easy to impulsively turn on the camera for those snap opportunities.
Menus and Controls:
As has been documented elsewhere, the camera’s basic functions of adjusting shutter speed and f-stop are dreadfully unresponsive. Fortunately this has been addressed to some success in the new firmware, although they seem to have had more success in the A77 than the A65. It has not been eliminated however and continues to frustrate me.
After using both of these cameras from studio to -25 degree weather, I will have to laud Sony as having accomplished something really special for jpeg shooters. I have seen nothing like their system for accessing creative adjustments to jpeg output. There is not only an incredible list of adjustments available, but they have also managed to make it possible to easily customize just about every aspect of the image. Especially of note is the white balance adjustment and colour filters that move around on an x-y graph for visually adjusting the colours. There are numerous effects like “toy camera” and “retro” effects that compliment the menu for creative styles which give more traditional adjustments like saturation and contrast. Additionally, you’ll find in the menus, lens compensation presets for chromatic aberration, distortion and shading, which for the most part work pretty well. Sadly a distinction I’ve noticed in both cameras is how sluggish the menus are when you select a function. I’ve often had to push the buttons a couple of times to get it to respond. Also of note is that if you turn off the A65, and quickly switch it on again before it shuts down completely (which can take a while), you may need to remove the battery and put it back in again before the camera will turn on again.
For the RAW shooter, your setup check list doesn’t change, but the customization of buttons on the body can significantly improve access to menus adding to the overall enjoyment of capturing the right moment.
Now in the past I’ve been unimpressed with Sony’s build quality when first handling them, but have always been proven wrong. In this case I liked the feel of the light weight A65, but have been proven wrong in a bad way. The A65 feels sturdy but has what I consider to be a terrible design around the grip. When using heavier lenses, I have found that the grip has actually loosened on one side. On further inspection I’ve found that there is only a single screw, installed through a very small tab of plastic, to hold the grip together. The hole in that tab has stretched making the whole grip rock outward almost 1 millimeter from the camera. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for the sturdy construction in the A77. As yet, it has performed admirably, and feels solid in the hand with much rubber around the grip and thumb. Oh and regrettably the sync port is under-built and of unusual tolerance. I’ve not only had the sync port replaced under warranty once already, but when trying 3 different sync cords, all of them felt tight going on, and were troublesome to get off. I could loosen the tip, but then it wouldn’t fire reliably with any other sync port I have, or work with my light meter. Subsequently, I recommend using a hotshoe sync adapter or a wireless system to preserve the body’s sync port as a backup.
I mentioned above that I had no warm feelings toward an electronic viewfinder. While I still have things I don’t like about them, it is hard to ignore the benefits of this one. You can see your adjustments effect the picture you’re about to take. It is much larger than the limiting optics of a crop sensor camera. It is bright, even in a dark room and I’ve even used the level indicator and histogram at times. Most of all, it facilitates the ability to track faces and objects in the viewfinder. I would take an optical viewfinder on a full frame over this one, but it easily outstrips the other Aps-c viewfinders I’ve used.
For those that like to manually focus, electronic viewfinders have been a mixed blessing. They are big and bright, and have had features that zoom in to check focus. In this case Sony introduces the focus peaking feature that I have to admit works really well for tracking moving subjects or for shooting video. The way it works is to put an outline over what is in focus. The colour of the outline can be decided by the user, switching between white, red and yellow. I have found it particularly useful since I tend to use manual focus when shooting sports, and in this case, judging the focus point becomes easy and visually confirmed by the camera.
These cameras deserve their own section for auto-focus. What has been a real struggle for Sony users has been in low-light auto-focus, and in fast responsive auto-focus. In both cases, these two cameras step up to the plate. Facial recognition makes portraiture a breeze, and it is fast enough and responsive enough to track that over-anxious 3 year old with ADHD. There is registration that can be programmed to recognize and prioritize those little munchkins you’ve got in your life. There is also an object tracking feature that allows you to assign something in view, and the focus will follow that object or person. I tend to use it to follow musicians and speakers who move around a lot for live events. It works for the most part, but holds promise for improvement. You might expect the object tracking to be useful for sports, but it is too en-cumbersome a system to work. In that case, it is better to rely on the auto-focus system itself, or to do it manually.
The A77 has a few more auto focus points than the A65, and it has an infrared auto-focus illuminator for low-light. I immediately turned the AF illuminator off and haven’t looked back. It has a couple of drawbacks, significantly slowing the AF, and is used long before it is dark enough to justify it. As an added bonus, it sucks batteries dry at almost double the normal rate. I’m sure there is a use for it, I just haven’t been in a dark enough place I guess.
So if you’re wondering what an SLT is, and why it’s different from an SLR, here’s the gist of it, light passes through the mirror, and the mirror never moves. This cuts down roughly a third of the light hitting the sensor and uses the other third to give continuous auto-focus and full time liveview, with the benefits of phase-detection auto-focus. Now what does that mean for a 24 mp crop sensor? It means that this sensor has to be 1/3rd of a stop better than any other sensor out there to get the same result. So our question becomes “is it all that better?”
In a word… no. Of all the specs on both of these cameras, the 24 megapixel sensor is the caveat that hangs like the soiled laundry of a child in an otherwise respectably clean bedroom. By this I mean to say that if these cameras have a major weakness, it is in the sensor. There are 2 inherent difficulties with the sensors in these cameras, which make them good at some things, but appalling at others, and it may depend on your style whether these are appealing or not.
1. Bigger MP means smaller photosites. That means that the little spot on the sensor that will record light as a pixel is so small that we’re talking about micro-millimeters. Now small isn’t necessarily bad, but if it is so small that what a lens sees as a thin line, shows up as being 5 pixels thick, then you’re “out-resolving” the lens. That means that the lens is not capable of generating as fine a line as the sensor. In the A900 for instance, there are several lenses I can use that out perform the 25mp sensor, however in the case of the A65/77, I have none. My CZ 24-70 looks muddy on it, and only looks crisp when resampled down to 18 mp. So really what I have is a 18 mp camera, not a 24 mp camera.
2. Noise. Denser photosites typically means noise and without hesitation this is the noisiest camera I’ve used in years, and I have an A100 and have used a D2X. There is a ton of noise visible at even iso 100. But, and this is important, I readily shoot at 3200 iso with it, because of one strange accomplishment by Sony: There is virtually no chroma-noise. The noise in my files is almost exclusively luminance noise, and at 24 mp files, I have had no hesitation using the files since the luminance noise generates a pleasing and film-like grain and I can get rid of it if I want to by res’ing down to a sharper file size or using noise reducing filters and programs like noise ninja.
So can this sensor stack up against an A900? No, not a chance. Until they make better lenses, the A900’s larger photosites get more out of the lenses I have, and the A900 has a much cleaner file integrity. What I have observed from several tests is that the gradients seem to suffer in the A65 and A77, just a little. This results in a fine grain at low iso that is absent from the sterling performance of the A900.
What are these cameras good at? Available light. The constant live-view, with the ability to real-time see the effects of adjustments and a strong AF system make these cameras ideal for the available light photographer. Children’s portraits are a breeze with the facial recognition (the first one I’ve used that recognizes a baby’s face) and excellent shutter response. Object tracking makes it work well for live events, for these I love shooting manual but have constantly changing light and the live-view makes it easy to keep up.
What are these cameras bad at? The poor file integrity compared to the A900 make it clearly subordinate for commercial work that requires clean and big images. Even with the absence of the ugliest kind of noise, the loss of detail makes this essentially a 18 mp camera when it comes down to getting really good use out of my own lenses. With better lenses in my lineup, I wouldn’t be surprised if I could get better results. These foundational problems carry ramifications over to other aspects of my photography business when dealing with discerning clients, but Sony is clearly not targeting those sectors.
What are the differences between the A65 and A77 besides price?
There are several specs that are different in the cameras, some buried and others that are obvious. the A77 has an extra jog dial, sutdio flash shooters will like the added control with the ability to manually choose the on camera flash power and there is a significant difference in the build of the body. The menus and response of the dials has also improved more in the new firmware on the A77. iso 50 and customizeable options on the A77 also contribute to making it a significantly better tool for working under pressure and in the studio. The memory options are a good example of this, and having something as simple as a “delete” first option on menus saves so much time. Probably the biggest difference in handling the camera is how the autofocus points are selected on the fly. The A65 adds a step by having to press the AF button before choosing the focus point. Also of sad note is that when using an “L” bracket, the screen on the A77 can be used as a bracket viewfinder, but on the A65, it does not rotate the right direction to make it work from above the camera.
The Bottom Line:
The A65 and A77 have a great deal to offer the advanced amateur and make an excellent addition to a Pro’s system. It excels at available light, offering significant improvements in the AF and it adds video and very capable liveview in a practical way. I have felt that the past decade has seen a bit of a plateau in camera innovation. Sure there have been releases of higher spec cameras that do the same job a little better than the last version, but there hasn’t been something that fundamentally changed my work paradigm with a camera. These cameras have shown the potential that with a better sensor and some improvements in the processor, there could be a very different way of taking pictures in the near future as indicated by the packages like the RED Scarlett camera.
Note, the video function is not covered in this review, but I hope to have something put together on it soon.