Sony's full-frame A99 has been a long time coming, but has the wait been worth it? The What Digital Camera Sony A99 review finds out
One of these things was a strong focus on video recording, in order to rival other video-enabled pro DSLRs. The decision to build the camera on the SLT concept also always appeared to be an inevitable move, and what results is arguably the most individual DSLR-like camera targeted at the professional user.
Sony A99 – Features
The A99 sports a newly-developed full-frame CMOS sensor, which produces 24.3MP images in the 3:2 aspect ratio. Curiously its resolution is just slightly down on the 24.6MP A900, although Sony is said to have made significant improvements since the A900 to better image quality. The company has, for example, broadened the size of each photodiode for improved sensitivity, and also redesigned the microlenses which sit over the sensor for the same reason.
The sensor provides a sensitivity range of 100-25,600 as standard, with extension settings equivalent to ISO’s 50, 64 and 80 also on hand. There’s even a Multi Frame Noise Reduction mode which captures six frames at once and processes these images together to average out noise, and in addition to the various physical steps Sony has taken to keep the sensor’s signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible, options for reducing noise for at both higher sensitivities and longer exposures are also provided.
The 19-point focusing system may appear underwhelming on such a professionally-targeted camera, but there’s much more to it than may be initially appreciated; 11 of these points are cross-type, making them sensitive to both vertical and horizontal details (as opposed to standard focusing sensors which work in a single orientation), and these are augmented by 102 further points built into the main sensor, which come into play when one of six current lenses is mounted (other lenses are said to be able to take advantage of this in the near future via firmware updates). This system appears to mirror the hybrid AF technologies found in many recent Compact System Cameras, only here both systems work on phase detection rather than one each on phase- and contrast-detection.
The focusing system also works in conjunction with a new AF range feature, which allows two distances to be specified between which the camera is asked to focus. This works much in the same way as a lens-based focus limit switch, although being able to define close and far focusing distances so precisely here makes this a much superior system. The purpose of this is to minimise the time spent hunting at unwanted distances, particularly when the subject is at risk of being obscured by foreground subjects (or if it is so small that the camera may focus past it).
As with all of Sony’s cameras based on the SLT system, the A99 includes an electronic rather than optical viewfinder. It’s the same as that featured in the previous A77 model, namely an OLED display with 2.4million dots, which currently stands as the best example of an electronic viewfinder we’ve seen yet. Sony has even provided the option of adjusting its colour temperature, although quite why you’d need or want to do so is a different matter.
The LCD screen proves to be just as unconventional, for two reasons. First, it deviates from the standard RGB dot construction by adding extra white pixels for improved brightness; as a result its resolution is a lofty 1,228,800 dots. Second, its articulation beats anything seen previously on such a model; it can be pulled some distance away from the camera’s body on a hinge, high enough to sit above the viewfinder, and rotated through a 270° angle around a pivot.
Full HD videos are recorded to a choice of 50p, 50i and 25p, and can be output as uncompressed files through the HDMI port. Mic and headphone sockets are also on board, while a new Silent Multi Controller allows settings to be changed silently during recording. And, of course, as an SLT camera, phase-detect AF is maintained throughout all image and video recording.
In addition to all of the above, the camera also contains a range of more consumer-friendly shooting and processing options, such as Auto and Scene modes, Picture Effects including Toy Camera, HDR Painting and Miniature, and the 3D Sweep Panorama mode. Finally, an on-board GPS system allows images to be geotagged.
Sony A99 review – Design
Together with a feature set strongly influenced by its SLT brethren, Sony has also opted for a design which stays consistent with that set out by the A77. The body itself makes use of a combination of magnesium alloy and engineering plastic, and it’s sealed against dust and moisture. It feels no less hardy than the bodies of its peers, although at 733g without a lens its light weight is very much appreciated after a day’s shooting. Furthermore, the well-rubbered grip and back plate, together with the depressions in the grip for index and middle fingers, combine to provide superb handling.
Thanks to the electronic viewfinder and the lack of a built-in flash, the top-plate lacks the more defined hump common to models such as Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D800; here, there’s just a smoother mound which flows more naturally down to the sides, with a tactile, rubbered mode dial standing proudly from one side, and a large LCD and collection of controls on the other.
The mode dial is centred by a button which needs to be pressed in order for the dial to rotate, which prevents it from being inadvertently knocked out of position. As with the shutter release button on the other side, this button has a positive spring to it upon its depression. Among the controls on the other side, meanwhile, only the Finder/LCD button is positioned out of comfortable reach of the finger when the camera is held, although given the eye sensor under the viewfinder’s eyepiece which senses when each display is required this control isn’t particularly key.
Sony A99 review – Performance
For the camera’s graphic user interface, Sony has adhered to the same basic structure that has featured on previous Alpha models. As such, there’s no colour co-ordination for the different sections which would make zipping from one to the other more intuitive. As it is, the orange/black palette used throughout easily blurs the definitions between sections.
The camera also maintains a familiar layout for its Fn menu, which sees commonly used options such as metering mode, sensitivity and exposure compensation bordering the camera’s feed of the scene. This set-up brings with it the added benefit of allowing the user to preview the effects of different white balance presets and colour options before they are selected for use, but, considering the high degree of customisation found elsewhere on the camera, it’s bizarre to find no apparent way of changing this menu to include user-specific settings; among the 14 options lie features such as Auto Portrait Framing and Smile Detection – not exactly vital to the target market.
The concentration of AF points in the centre of the frame, together with the fact that 11 of these are cross-type, means that when the subject is centrally located the camera doesn’t hesitate in acquiring focus. The exact speed varies with the lens used, although with the Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA it’s generally as swift as expected for such a camera and optic. The lower sensitivity of the single-orientation points is noticeable; these, for example, failed to lock on to the dark wooden panelling of a dimly-lit bar where the other 11 cross-type points found focus with ease, although this is expected. One less expected issue that did make itself occasionally known, however, is a temporary freezing of the AF points on a previously focused subject when the camera is asked to recompose elsewhere, something which occurred with a number of lenses.
The downside of having the focus points bunched up in the centre of the frame is that peripheral areas are left uncovered. The proves problematic for close-up portraiture, for example, when the subject’s face isn’t centred in the frame. Once the 102 assist points are activated in the AF-D focus option a much larger cube in the middle of the frame is left covered, although this doesn’t help subjects should they fall to the side of this. Still, when focus tracking in this mode the camera does surprisingly well to adhere to a moving subject.
The viewfinder is befitting of such a camera. Having an accurately-exposed preview of the image as it is being composed gives the A99 an immediate advantage over optical viewfinders, and its resolution and clarity cannot be faulted. Indeed, in good light it’s easy to forget that this is actually an electronic display. Only a handful of issues mar its usability, namely the slight delay and subsequent staggering encountered when turning the camera on, as well as the pause when alternating between the rear LCD and the viewfinder.
Thankfully, fewer criticisms can be levelled at the camera’s LCD. In terms of detail, clarity and contrast there are no surprises, and the slight issues with its viewing in brighter conditions are expected and common to many displays. Now and again, however, the camera becomes confused when the display is pulled away from the body, and the scene is mistakenly presented upside down – otherwise, thanks to the ways in which it can be adjusted, it can make framing in even the most awkward conditions simple.
One thing that does let the camera down is a range of delays, such as the brief pause upon start-up and the slight lagging with exposure parameters as they are changed via the command dial. As a professional camera it’s reasonable to expect the A99 to be prompt and rapid in operation – and while some of the times it is (such as with write times), in other key areas its tardiness lets it down.
Sony A99 review – Image Quality
Colour and White Balance
The A99 contains an unusually broad range of colour options; indeed, it’s debatable whether so many are actually necessary. Colours are generally lifelike at default settings, so certain situations – such as landscapes – benefit from the selection of a more vibrant Creative Style. The Auto White Balance is reliable in natural conditions, and still very good when tasked with capturing images under artificial sources, although fluorescent sources do sometimes fox it.
It’s rare for a metering system to be deemed “inaccurate”, and most of the time the camera gets things right, regardless of whether it’s being used in balanced lighting conditions, or more challenging set-ups with a more uneven distribution of shadow, midtone and highlight areas. As with most metering systems, extended time with the camera does reveal a tendency one way or the other, and here it’s decidedly towards underexposure, particularly when faced with backlighting.
The Alpha 99 does well to maintain resolution across the sensitivity range. Its performance is similar to that of Nikon’s D600, which also has a 24.3MP sensor, although it maintains resolution considerably better than Canon’s 18.1MP EOS-1D X model at higher settings.
It’s slightly disappointing that chroma noise exists in images captured in fair conditions even at sensitivities as low as ISO 200, although at higher sensitivities there appears to be a fine trade-off struck between noise reduction and detail retention. Lettering which is obscured by a sea of chroma noise in high-sensitivity Raw images remains legible in JPEGs which have been treated by the camera’s Low or Normal noise reduction settings. Admittedly, some coloured blotchiness remains, but the target market is likely to rely less on JPEG noise reduction and more on their own post-processing prowess.
Raw and JPEG
Raw images tend to be a touch sharper than JPEGs, most likely due to noise reduction. the boost in contrast which JPEGs typically receive over Raw images is lower than expected, although this is down to the immediate usability of Raw images rather than any deficiencies in JPEGs.
The A99 records detailed HD videos with decent sound quality, and the effectiveness of the Super SteadyShot system is visible. The camera focuses quickly (and accurately) between different subjects, but not so rapidly that it disrupts the viewing experience. Only when there is no ambient noise can the lens be heard focusing (this varies between lenses), but even here it’s quiet. The Silent Multi Controller could do with being larger, but it offers precise control over audio levels which allows smooth fade-in/out effects to be made with ease.
Value and Verdict
Sony A99 review – Value
A comparison with its two most immediate rivals, Nikon’s D800 and Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III models, shows it to be currently priced a little higher than the latter and significantly higher than the former, although this is largely due to how long each has spent on the market. Purely from the perspective of specification, the D800 offers a higher pixel count as well as a faster start-up time, although it cannot match the A99’s burst rate, nor can it equal the LCD’s handy articulation. The EOS 5D Mark III, meanwhile, has a similar pixel count and burst rate (at least in its standard burst setting), but a marginally larger (fixed) LCD and an AF pattern with a wider spread.
Sony A99 review – Verdict
The A99 is a decidedly different proposition for the professional user than what we’ve seen previously. It clearly feels like a camera which has evolved from models beneath it in its range, rather than one designed specifically to satisfy a professional audience. Regardless of whether the SLT system is as relevant here as it is on cheaper Alpha models, it’s strange to find a full complement of professional options awkwardly blended with a range of semi-manual and novelty features; much of the camera’s functionality simply appears to be misplaced.
The limited spread of the focusing system will perhaps discourage a few, while the numerous delays which plague the camera’s operation are unlikely to please those who, at this end of the market, rightly expect negligible start-up time and minimal overall delays.
Still, certain factors which separate the A99 from the herd work very much to its advantage. The Silent Multi Controller and AF Range controls are clever and well-implemented additions, while the benefits of having an electronic viewfinder in darker environments shouldn’t be underestimated (the inclusion of which also translates to a reduction in overall weight). Video quality is also excellent, as is the implementation of the video functionality as a whole.
All of these issues mean the A99 ends up being a camera likely to be as embraced as it is disliked. Should the camera’s operational speed be remedied by a firmware update it will no doubt hold more appeal. As it is, it stands as a camera which delivers in some areas with aplomb, but falls down elsewhere where it matters.