Sharing much of the technology found in the excellent Alpha 77, the Alpha 65 looks like it could be a real bargain. Does it do enough to standout on its own?
Sony Alpha A65 review – Features
The Alpha 65 shares the same 24.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor that’s found in the A77. Combined with the BIONZ image processor that the A65 employs and you have a very broad ISO range from 100-16,000. As well as this, there’s also Multi frame noise reduction, with the camera automatically taking multiple shots, which are then merged into a single file, allowing you to shoot above the ISO 16000 ceiling if required. It’s a JPEG only option however as in-camera processing is required.
Thanks to large amount of pixels available, the A65 features two crop modes – just like the A77 also. The Smart Teleconverter allows you to shoot with either a 1.4x crop at a resolution of 12MP and a 2.0x crop with a resolution of 6MP. This means that as well as the 1.5x crop that’s applied for the APS-C sized sensor, a 200mm lens for instance will provide an equivalent reach of 420mm with the 1.4x crop and 600mm with 2.0x crop, making the A65 very versatile if you need to get up close to your subject.
Just like the A77, the Alpha 65 is based around Sony’s SLT technology. DSLRs traditionally have an internal mirror that allows you to see exactly what the camera is seeing through an optical viewfinder and when a shot is fired, the mirror is raised briefly and AF interrupted. On an SLT, the mirror is semi-translucent, with about two-thirds of the light coming through the mirror to the sensor, with the rest bounced up onto an AF sensor. This means AF is never interrupted and the frame rate improved – the A65 can achieve 10fps (frames per second). This does come at the expense of the optical viewfinder, which is replaced by an electronic equivalent in an SLT.
While optical viewfinders deliver a clear and bright display, electronic viewfinders (EVF) can appear dull, pixelated and unresponsive. The EVF in the A77 is the best we’ve seen so far and the good news is that the A65 features the same XGA OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) TruFinder with a resolution of 2.36 million dots. You’ll also get 100% coverage and a magnification of 1.09x.
The AF system in the A65 has been cut back from the 19-point system on the A77 to an 15-point array, with three of these AF points are cross-type variants, meaning they’re sensitive to both vertical and horizontal (compared to 11 on the A77). Not a match for the A77 then, but that’s to be expected, and compared to the competition, nothing to be sniffed at.
If you want to shoot a burst of images, the A65 is capable of shooting at up to 10fps, though you’ll have to be in the A65’s Continuous Advance Priority mode to achieve this. This does mean that if Continuous AF is selected, both the aperture and shutter speed can’t be adjusted, though focus is continually adjusted. In Single AF mode, both aperture and ISO can be adjusted, but focus is locked down from the point the first frame is captured. If you want more control, there’s also a dedicated continuous drive mode that’ll allow you to shoot at either Hi or Lo rates.
The 3in 921k dot Xtra Fine LCD is hinged at the bottom of the camera so it can be pulled outwards away from the camera by 180 degrees, while it can also be twisted round 270 degrees. It’s not a clever as the hinge system found on the A77, but it does allow a good level of movement and flexibility when shooting. Just like other SLTs in the Sony range, the 15-point phase-detect AF system is available during Live View shooting and video capture, rather than the slower contrast-detect AF system used by other DSLRs during Live View/video recording. The A65 supports full HD video at 1080p (50 or 25p) with stereo sound. There’s also an additional socket to attach a dedicated microphone should you wish. When in Movie Mode, exposure is set by the camera when using autofocus. Switch to manual focusing and you’ll have complete creative control, with options to shoot in M, S, A, P.
As well as the core manual controls of M, S, A, P, there’s a host of auto modes Sony’s Sweep Panorama mode. As the name suggests, you sweep the camera across the seen and as you do so, a series of high-resolution images are captured. These files are then stitched together in-camera to produce a final panoramic image. Because a series of still images are captured, resolution is very good – 8192 x 1856 for a standard horizontal shot or 12,416 x 1856 for wide horizontal, equating to 15MP or 23MP. Vertical sweep panoramas are also possible, though at slightly smaller resolutions. Providing you have a compatible 3D TV, there’s also the option to shoot 3D panoramas as well.
Sony Alpha A65 review – Design
The design of the Alpha 65 follows that of the A77, with a sleek, low-slung design that appears squatter than its rivals, thanks in part to the EVF instead of the more traditional optical equivalent. Proportionally, it’s a touch smaller all round when compared to the A77 and is a comparable size to its closest competition – the Canon EOS 600D and Nikon D5100.
While the A77 benefited from a magnesium body, the A65 has an all-plastic body shell. This is in line with its rivals, and with the rubberised grip that coats the sculptured handgrip, it still feels very solid in the hand.
Button placement and controls also differ from the A77. Most notably is the absence of an LCD top plate display, which is typical for a camera of this class. The AF assist lamp is also missing, with the built-in flash taking over those duties. While the A77 also had two command dials – one of the front and at the rear, the A65 makes do with a single one at the front. The multi-directional joystick has also been left off the A65, with a more traditional 4-way D-Pad employed instead. This allows direct access to the drive mode, white balance, the display overlay and the plethora of Picture Effects on offer. There are also dedicated buttons for ISO, exposure compensation, the Smart Teleconverter, movie recording and exposure lock. If you need to alter a broader range of settings, then the Function (Fn) button allows you to alter a host of settings on the rear screen.
Sony Alpha A65 review – Performance
Because the EVF used in the A65 is the same as that found in the A77, there were no nasty surprises in use. The 2.4 million dot resolution of the EVF is the best in the business and is streets ahead of most other EVFs used. Coverage is at 100% too, so you’ll be able to frame up with confidence, while the 1.09x magnification makes it feel a lot less tunnel like than even some optical rivals.
EVFs can be susceptible to both tearing and ghosting – something you don’t experience with an optical viewfinder. When panning with a typical EVF that uses interlaced signals, a ‘tearing’ effect can be a problem, but because the EVF in the Alpha 65 uses a progressive refresh, this is no longer and issue. When shooting fast moving subjects, ghosting can still be a problem however, but overall the EVF used by the A65 is a success. It still can’t quite surpass an optical viewfinder for clarity and responsiveness, but its very close and in day-to-day use, you’ll hardly notice you’re using an EVF. It’s only in high-contrast and dimly light scenes that you’ll really miss an optical viewfinder. Before you make any predetermined judgements, it’s worth testing out the EVF yourself to see how you get on with it as it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The 15-point AF system may not be quite as advanced at the 19-point system in the Alpha 77, but compared to its rivals, it more than sticks up for itself. As we’ve already mentioned, three of these AF points are cross-type variants in the A65, that compares favourably with the single central cross-type point used by both the Canon EOS 600D (9 AF points overall) and Nikon D5100 (11 AF points overall). There are four AF area modes to choose from – wide, zone, spot and local. To select your desired AF point when in the Local AF mode, you have to hit the AF button in the centre of the D-Pad first, which can be a bit of a pain. In general use, the AF performs very well. AF acquirement is fast and precise, only rarely hunting in tricky lighting conditions. When shooting faster moving subjects, it copes pretty well, though the tracking is not faultless however. That said; it performs better than its rivals.
For manual focus, the Smart Teleconverter button on the rear of the camera can be assigned as a Focus Magnifier – hit that, and the display zooms in on the focus area at approx 5.9x magnification, and further should you wish at 11.7x.
One of the really clever things with the SLT technology is that the phase-detect AF system can be used in Live View and video recording, mirroring the experience from the EVF. This system is much quicker and easier to use than the contrast-detect AF system that DSLRs have to reply on when shooting in Live View or video modes. The 3.0in screen at the rear is clear and crisp, while it can be angled for a variety of shooting positions, though its not quite as flexible as the one found on the A77.
The A65 is capable of shooting at up to 10fps (in Continuous Priority mode) that’s good for either 14 Raw files or 18 JPEGs before the buffer needs to be cleared. Very impressive stuff for a camera of this class. In the standard continuous shooting mode, 8fps is possible (19 JPEGs and 12 Raws).
Shooting with the A65 is pretty straightforward and easy to get to grips with. Controls are easy to get to and once you become accustomed to where they are, you can access them without the need to lower the camera from your eye. The Function button is pretty handy should you need to quickly alter a setting without the need to pop into the main menu.
Just like the A77, it’s worth noting that the battery life is not quite as impressive as some of its rivals as the battery is also running the EVF as well as the rear display.
Sony Alpha A77 review – Image Quality
Tone and Exposure
The Alpha 65 uses a 1200-zone evaluative metering system, providing you with a choice of either Multi segment, Centre-weighted or spot metering modes depending on the subject matter. The Multi segment metering performed very well, producing well-exposed shots in most conditions. There will be times when you will need to dial in a touch of exposure compensation to lift slightly under-exposed images.
Images display a smooth tonal range, while there’s the D-Range Optimiser to rescue detail in the highlights and shadows of high-contrast, backlit scenes. There are five levels to choose from, as well an Auto mode. It’s worth mentioning though that this is a JPEG only option.
White Balance and Colour
If you’re going to rely on the Auto White Balance of the Alpha 65, you’ll find it performs pretty consistently, delivering pleasing results. They can display a very minor warm tint. There’s a host of preset white balance options as well:
Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent (four variations), Flash and Kelvin white balance modes. There’s also a Custom option too, with the ability to store three presets.
If you want to play around with the intensity and look of your images,
there are a choice of Picture Effects to experiment with. These include Toy Camera, Retro Photo, High Contrast Mono and Miniature. You’ll only be able to apply these effects if you’re shooting solely in JPEG mode – even in Raw + JPEG combined shooting, it won’t allow you to use these effects.
Sharpness and Detail
The 24.3MP APS-C type CMOS sensor in the Alpha 65 delivers excellent detail and sharpness. Files are 68MB once opened in Photoshop, while Raw files take up 25MB in memory, and Extra Fine JPEGs about 5MB. The large resolution offered will allow you to print images at A2 at 240dpi without the need to upscale the image should you wish, so A3+ prints are easily achievable at 300dpi. This also allows you more flexibility when it comes to cropping should you need to do so.
The Alpha 65 has a native ISO range from ISO 100-16,000. While this is just a little behind the extended 25,600 ISO equivalent of the competition, it’s still very good – especially with this pixel count.
From the base ISO to 3200, results display very minimal levels of image noise. As you’d expect, above that, and image noise creeps in and becomes more prominent. At this level, it’s not quite a match for the D5100 or EOS 600D, but this is negligible. ISO 12,800 and 16,000 should only really be used as a last resort.
The Alpha 65’s Raw files are compatible with Adobe Camera Raw 6.5 (and Lightroom 3.5). The Alpha 65 is also bundled with Image Data Converter (Ver 4.0), allowing you to process Raw files directly if you don’t have an alternative image-editing program. JPEG files have obviously have had some processing applied to them – colours are more saturated, with also a mild level of sharpening.
The AVCHD movie footage shot on the Alpha 65 requires you to process the majority of its footage via the supplied PMB software before the footage can be viewed/edited. Depending on your machine and the length of your footage, this can take a while.
Video footage is good though – with a rate of around 28Mbits/sec at 50p and 24Mbits/sec at 24p. The sound quality is pretty good for an onboard stereo mic, but an external microphone is recommended for those wanting a crisper sound.
Value & Verdict
Sony Alpha A65 review – Value
With an asking price of £789 with an 18-55mm kit lens, it’s quite a bit more affordable than the A77 with a similar, but not identical headline specification. There’s no doubt that the A77 has more to offer the enthusiast photographer, but those looking for a well-spec’d camera at a reasonable price will feel far from short changed.
Looking at the competition, and both the Canon EOS 600D and Nikon D5100 are the A65’s closest rivals. They are the more affordable, but the A65 has only just hit the streets, so you can expect to see the price fall more into line with the competition over the coming months. and of the three, it’s the A65 that has the highest specification and goodies on offer.
Sony Alpha A65 review – Verdict
The Alpha 65 is a great mid-price DSLR that provides high levels of performance, particularly when it comes to AF and frame advance that hasn’t really been seen in a camera of this class before. The image quality is excellent, delivering excellent detail, though it can’t quite compete at the higher regions of the ISO range with the competition.
As we’ve said before, the EVF is not for everyone, but it’s the best example we’ve seen to date and it does have it’s own advantages over an optical equivalent. Our advice is to try it out yourself before you make up your mind.
There’s no doubt that the A65 faces some stiff, established competition, but it’s the A65 that delivers the best all-round blend of features, performance and image quality. It’s a great camera that deserves real consideration.