The Sony Alpha A77 features an impressive spec that puts its rivals in the shade. Just how good is it? Find out in the What Digital Camera Sony Alpha A77 review...
Launched back in 2007, the Alpha A700 was the last time we saw Sony release an high-end enthusiast DSLR. It was the company’s second DSLR since taking over the imaging division of Konica Minolta in 2006, and while it was well received, its main rivals from Canon and Nikon still had a clear edge. Unless you had a stack of existing lenses, then it was hard to make a case for the Alpha 700 over the competition.
Four years on and Sony has gone for a much more aggressive approach with its successor, the Alpha A77. The impressive spec sheet put its rivals in the shade, while its SLT build and, therefore, electronic viewfinder (EVF) make it a less conventional camera than a typical DSLR. Will the A77 be the camera that’ll keep the engineers at Canon and Nikon awake at night and put SLT firmly on the map? Let’s find out…
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Sony Alpha A77 review – Features
One of the headline-grabbing elements of the Alpha A77’s specification has to be the sensor. The 24.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor eclipses anything seen on an APS-C DSLR and most full-frame DSLRs, only beaten by the 24.5MP Nikon D3X and 24.6MP Sony Alpha A900. With the help of the next generation BIONZ image processor, the ISO range runs from 100-16,000, and can be expanded to a low ISO equivalent setting of 50. As well as this, there’s also Multi Frame Noise Reduction where the camera takes multiple shots which are then merged into a single file, allowing you to shoot above the ISO 16,000 ceiling if required. It’s a JPEG-only option however as serious in-camera processing is required.
Because of the vast resolution on offer, the SLT-A77 also supports two crop modes: The Smart Teleconverter allows you to shoot with a 1.4x crop at a resolution of 12MP or 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 – both at good, useable resolutions.
Sony has decided to implement the translucent mirror technology (SLT) that we first saw in the Alpha A55 and A33 last year, and more recently the Alpha A35. Out goes the moving mirror and pentaprism found in a DSLR, replaced by a fixed, semi-transparent mirror, giving the Alpha 77 its Single Lens Translucent (SLT) status.
Here’s how SLT works: About two thirds of the light coming through the lens travels through the mirror to the sensor, with the rest bounced up to the AF sensor. The benefit of this is that autofocus can remain in action even when a shot is fired – on a traditional DSLR, the mirror is raised and AF interrupted very briefly when the shutter is triggered. Therefore an SLT’s burst frame rate can also be improved, often drastically, as the A77’s 12fps continuous shooting proves. The optical viewfinder of a DSLR is sacrificed however, replaced by an electronic one.
The SLT solution hasn’t always been a popular solution, as electronic viewfinders (EVF) haven’t had the same clarity or responsiveness as a traditional optical viewfinder. The XGA OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) TruFinder in the Alpha 77 is the highest spec EVF we’ve seen however, with a resolution of 2.36 million dots that Sony hopes will make you forget you’re using an EVF.
The Alpha A77 also features a 19-point selectable AF system with Quick Tracking AF, while 11 of the 19 AF points are cross-type, being sensitive to both vertical and horizontal orientation. These work at apertures of f/5.6 or wider, rather than f/2.8, which most other systems require, so fast and expensive lenses to get the full benefit of the AF system aren’t essential. Because a portion of the light hitting the semi-transparent mirror is directed to the AF sensor above the mirror, phase-detect AF is possible, rather than the slower contrast-detect method found in most other mirrorless cameras.
The frame rate of the Alpha A77 should keep sports and action shooters happy. With a maximum achievable rate of 12fps (frames per second), it even beats Canon’s pro-spec 10fps EOS-1D MkIV and Nikon’s 9fps D3s. This is achieved via the SLT-A77’s dedicated Continuous Advance Priority mode, as selected on the mode dial. If Continuous AF is selected when in this mode, you won’t be able to adjust the shutter speed or aperture yourself, but the camera will constantly adjust AF and exposure for you throughout shooting, though ISO sensitivity can be user-defined. In Single Shot AF, aperture and ISO can be adjusted, but focus is locked at the first frame. If you want more control, then there’s a more traditional Continuous drive mode, though at a slightly reduced rate of 8fps.
Sony has also taken a different approach with the rear screen: A wide range of positions are possible thanks to the unique 3in tilt and swivel Xtra Fine LCD. Not only can it be pulled outwards and rotated from the base of the camera, but an additional hinge on the back of the camera body allows even more movement. There’s an excellent resolution of 921k-dots and it uses Sony’s TruBlack technology for improved contrast and detail. Thanks to the translucent mirror in place, unrestricted phase-detect AF is available during Live View shooting, which is also the case while shooting video footage.
Speaking of video, the Alpha A77 can shoot Full HD 1080p footage at both 25 or 50fps (24/30/60fps for the NTSC market) utilising the next generation AVCHD 2.0 video format. There’s a built-in stereo microphone and the option to hook-up a dedicated stereo mic should you wish, but there’s no audio monitoring or sound levelling (something we’re still waiting to see (officially) on a DSLR/SLT). Switch to manual focusing and you’ll have complete creative control, with options to shoot in M (Manual), S (Shutter Priority), A (Aperture Priority) and P (Programme Auto).
The Alpha A77 incorporates a GPS unit to automatically geotag images with a host of location information, which should appeal to travel photographers who may be tempted by the large files delivered by the Alpha A77 that photo libraries crave.
For panoramic shots, there’s Sony’s Sweep Panorama mode that takes a series of still images as you sweep across the scene, before stitching them together in camera to produce a final hi-res 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 panoramics as MP0 files too.
If you don’t want to muck around too much in Photoshop, then the A77’s Picture Effect Modes will appeal, allowing you to apply a range of effects to your image at the point of capture. Meanwhile, Handheld Twilight Mode shoots a series of six images that are selectively merged together to create a single image in lowlight, with the aim of combating camera shake and reducing image noise. There’s also Enhanced HDR Auto – three images are taken in quick succession at slightly different exposures to create a single image with a broad dynamic range. For more experienced shooters, there’s shading and aberration compensation, which allow for vignette, lateral chromatic aberration and distortion control for each A-mount lens.
Sony Alpha A77 review – Design
Compared to the original Alpha A700, the Alpha A77 looks a sleeker affair thanks to a more refined, sculptured body. With the absence of a pentaprism, it appears to be much more lower-slung than both the Alpha A700 and its rivals. While it’s a touch squatter than both the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s, it’s larger than the D7000.
The chassis of the Alpha A77 is constructed from tough magnesium, but most of the exterior is coated in a high-impact plastic with a high-end splatter effect. Don’t be put off by the plastic skin of the Alpha A77 – while metal would have been preferred, it still feels very solid in the hand. The handgrip underlines this feeling – its large and nicely sculptured, with a pleasing rubberised coating that runs round to the rear of the camera. Key buttons and controls that are dotted round the body are also protected from dust and moisture.
As you’d expect for a camera aimed more towards the enthusiast, the Alpha A77 is sprinkled with quick access controls, meaning less time spent in the main menu of the camera. On the top-plate, there’s access to ISO, exposure compensation, white balance and drive mode. The top-plate is also home to a LCD display – something all but disappeared from entry-level DSLRs. While all shooting information is either displayed on the rear screen or EVF, it can be quite handy for a quick reference out in the field. The rear of the camera has a multi-directional thumb joystick, along with a host of other controls including dedicated movie and Function buttons. Around the front, and at the bottom of the camera, either side of the lens mount has a Preview button and Focus mode dial, allowing you to toggle between AF modes and manual focus.
Sony Alpha A77 review – Performance
One of the big questions marks hanging over the Alpha A77 is the inclusion of the EVF. However good the rest of the camera may be, if the EVF is not up to scratch, then it’s going to be at a real disadvantage. The A77’s 2.4 million dot – almost double that found in the A35 and A55 – OLED viewfinder delivers a really clear and crisp image. Coverage is 100% and with a magnification of 1.09x, it feels far from tunnel like. It’s the best EVF we’ve seen in any camera to date.
Issue that have plagued EVFs in the past, and that appear to have been partially rectified here, include tearing and ghosting lag. As you move the camera from side to side, such as when you’re tracking a subject, a ‘tearing’ effect can be a probelm with interlaced signals, while ghosting is common with fast moving subjects. Because the Alpha A77 has a progressive refresh, tearing isn’t an issue, though fast movement hasn’t fully eradicated ghosting in all circumstances. Overall, the EVF is a success. It’s not quite a match for an optical one, but it does a very solid job. In day-to-day use you’ll hardly notice you’re using an EVF and only in certain high-contrast lighting conditions do you miss the more traditional optical viewfinder. It won’t be for everyone and is worth trying out before you decide to part with your cash.
The A77’s 19-point AF system is up against excellent AF systems found in both the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s. The AF system may seem overshadowed by the 7D’s 19-point (all cross-type) and the D300s’s 51-point (15 cross-type) AF systems, but in practice, it works very well indeed. There’re four AF area modes to choose from: wide, zone, spot and local, while AF point selection is quick thanks to the multi-directional joystick. In single-shot AF, the A77 locks on to static subjects with ease – paired with the 16-50mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 that we tested it with, AF was fast and precise with no hunting issues to cause concern. Switch to Continuous AF and it’s a similar story. While it may not have the same level of AF fine-tuning and custom functions as its two rivals, it performed very well. Out in the field at a rugby match, and the AF kept focus with fast on-coming subjects without any problems.
Pair this with the ultra-fast 12fps, and you have a very desirable action camera. When shooting Raw, the Alpha A77 will allow you to shoot continuously for 12 frames before the buffer slows up, while 14 JPEGs are possible at the same rate. Quite a feat when you consider the large 6000×4000 pixel files the Alpha A77 has to crunch through.
Because the Alpha A77 uses full-time phase-detect autofocus, autofocus during Live View is excellent, and is a mirror of what you experience while shooting with the EVF. The design of the hinged-screen allows for a plethora of positions that suit both portrait and landscape format shooting, while the screen itself is crisp and sharp, allowing you to easily assess images on location.
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.
The camera itself is very easy to pick-up and start shooting with. Most controls are easily accessed, while the Function button allows you to tinker with a host of other commonly used controls. The menu system is split up into seven sub-sections – Record, Movie, Custom, Playback, Memory, Date and Time, and Setup. It’s clear and easy to navigate via the joystick, and once you’ve got the camera set-up how you want, there’s probably only very few occasions when you’ll need to dive in to make any changes.
If there are any complaints, it’s the start-up time and battery life. Switch the Alpha A77 on and it’s not as immediate as its rivals, taking a shade longer to be primed and ready to shoot with. Because the battery is being kept busy with the EVF as well as the rear display, we found the battery drained quicker than its rivals. There is the option of the additional vertical grip (VG-C77AM) that’ll accommodate two batteries for those not wanting to run out of juice on a busy day’s shoot.
Sony Alpha A77 review – Image Quality
A77: Tone and Exposure
The Alpha A77 uses a 1200-zone evaluative metering system, with a choice of either Multi segment, Centre-weighted or spot metering modes on offer. Even in high contrast scenes, the Multi segment metering of the A77 performed very well, delivering well exposed images. It was only every now and again that a minor increase in exposure compensation was needed to counteract slightly underexposed 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. However, it’s worth mentioning that this is a JPEG-only shooting option.
A77: White Balance and Colour
The A77’s Auto White Balance performed consistently well, delivering pleasing results with a minor warm tint to them, which was not undesirable. On top of that, you’ve got the choice of 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.
There’re also a choice of Creative Styles to alter the intensity of the colours – as well as Standard, there are Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape and Black & White options. These can all be fine-tuned, with adjustments for contrast, saturation and sharpness.
A77: Sharpness and Detail
The Alpha A77 uses a completely new sensor. The 24.3MP APS-C type CMOS sensor delivers files that can be around 10MB in size (or 68MB when opened in Photoshop), while Raw files take up 25MB. While this may not sound a lot, shooting a stack of Raw files will soon chew up a far amount of space on a card. The large resolution 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.
Detail and sharpness are both excellent, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you won’t see a massive leap in resolving power compared to results from a 16MP or 18MP chip.
A77: ISO Quality
The Alpha A77 has a native ISO range from ISO 100-16,000, which can be expanded to shoot at an equivalent ISO of 50 – handy when long exposures are desired or there’s an abundance of light.
With this kind of pixel count, there’s a worry that image noise will become more pronounced as more photodiodes are crammed onto a sensor of the same size. Taking that into consideration, and the Alpha A77 performs very well. 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 – ISO 12,800 and 16,000 should only really be used as a last resort.
The Alpha A77’s Raw files are compatible with Adobe Camera Raw 6.5 (and Lightroom 3.5), with an update downloadable from Adobe’s website. The Alpha A77 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 a mild level of sharpening.
A77: Movie Mode
The AVCHD movie footage shot on the Alpha A77 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 great though – with a rate of around 28Mbits/sec at 50p and 24Mbits/sec at 24p. The sound quality is pretty g
ood for an onboard stereo mic, but an external microphone attached via the 3.5mm jack is recommended for those wanting a crisper sound.
Value & Verdict
Sony Alpha A77 review – Value
At £1149 body only, the A77 is by no means a cheap piece of kit, but compared to its closest rivals, it works out at a similar price. When you look at what you get for your cash though, you’re not missing out – the A77 offers a wealth of features and, in most cases, either matches or betters both the excellent Canon EOS 7D and the ageing Nikon D300s. In that respect, the Alpha 77 is great value for money.
Sony Alpha A77 review – Verdict
The Alpha A77 is a fantastic piece of kit that’s dripping with a host of features to keep the serious photographer happy.
The OLED EVF is the best example we’ve ever seen, allowing you to just get on and shoot and not be irritated by it. There’ll be times when you’ll miss an optical viewfinder, but this is only rarely and we’d urge you to try it out before making any negative assumptions. After extensive use with the A77’s OLED EVF it’ll become second nature, and only then going back to an optical viewfinder pronounces the difference.
The image quality delivered by the A77’s 24.3MP APS-C type CMOS sensor is excellent. It probably can’t quite match the Nikon D7000 or Canon EOS 7D at the higher end of the ISO spectrum, but it’s fairly close, and excels when it comes to detail and tonal range over its rivals.
Sony’s uncompromising approach to the Alpha A77 has produced a camera that not only matches some excellent competition, but beats them in a number of areas too.