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.