Review: Sony Alpha SLT-A77

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It’s not magic, it’s electronics

The elimination of the moving mirror provides the A77 with several performance benefits, including a maximum burst rate of 12 frames per second, which is crazy fast, or a more rational but still-impressive 8 fps. Unfortunately, you can’t shoot at those speeds for long before the camera’s buffer gets full. I tried using high-speed shooting at a rodeo, thinking I’d maximize my chance of getting just the right frame when the rider landed on his face. As often as not, the rider stayed on the bronco half a second too long, and I missed the shot entirely. Generally keep the shutter set to a dignified 3-fps continuous shooting, and I seldom miss a shot.

The A77's speedy exposure rate makes possible certain other features in which the camera takes many shots almost at once, including multiframe noise reduction (MFNR) and a special in-camera HDR feature. MFNR, the more useful of the two, is a setting in the ISO menu that prompts the camera to take multiple images, almost simultaneously, and then meld them into a single, less noisy image. I’m not yet convinced that this approach is better than making a single raw capture and applying noise reduction judiciously on the computer; doing it yourself with a raw file lets you strike your own best compromise between reducing noise and preserving fine detail. But using the MFNR feature is a lot easier than playing with sliders in Aperture or Lightroom.

The A77, like most other Sony cameras now, includes a sweep-panorama feature that relies heavily on the powerful Bionz processor but also benefits from the camera’s ultrahigh-speed shutter.

Video

The A77 provides a competitive set of video features, notably the ability to use continuous phase-detect autofocus while recording. Alternatively you maintain full control over other exposure settings such as aperture, but in this case you’ll have to focus manually. Difficult trade-offs!

The A77 offers two basic video formats (AVCHD and MP4), a wide variety of capture resolutions and speeds (including true 60-fps 1920 by 1080 in AVCHD), a stereo mic (mono speaker), and more. I stick with the slower and lower-res MP4 because the files work on the Mac OS with a minimum of fuss, and for the family videos that I take, the quality is excellent.

As good as the A77’s video is, it can’t do something the Sony RX100 compact camera can: capture a high-res still image while shooting video.

The TechHive Test Center shot two test videos, one in normal light and the other in low light.

Lenses and metering

Sony sells the A77 body only and in a couple of body-plus-lens packages. I recommend buying the body with the DT 16-50 f/2.8 SSM lens (totaling about $1899). This is not the usual so-so kit lens. It is a superior-quality lens that retails for $800 by itself; buy the camera with the lens, and you’ll save a couple hundred dollars. The 16-50 lens is an outstanding complement to the A77 for two reasons. First, the A77’s 24-megapixel sensor is wasted on a mediocre lens. Second, the A77 is (as of October 2012) Sony’s only weather-resistant body, and the 16-50 f/2.8 was until very recently the company's only weather-resistant lens. The A77 has excellent in-body image stabilization, so you have no need for costly lens-based stabilization.

As you’d expect from a camera this expensive, you can fine-tune autofocus on your lenses if you determine that a given lens has front or back focus issues with your camera. With the 16-50 and now about a dozen other lenses, the A77’s Bionz processor can correct for various optical foibles as you shoot, but only if you are writing JPEGs. I’m still shooting raw—and, when necessary, fixing such problems by hand in Lightroom—but here again, I’m starting to wonder if I’m not working too hard.

 

The raw file accurately reflects slight barrel distortion and outside-edge vignetting (Sony calls it shading).
The in-camera JPEG automatically corrects both issues. Such corrections aren’t always needed and aren’t hard to do on the computer, but the camera makes the extra work unnecessary.

In general the camera’s auto-exposure system works very well, with a tendency (as on many other cameras) to underexpose to avoid blowing highlights.

Ergonomics

Like most cameras in this price range, the A77 puts as many controls as possible on the outside of the body rather than burying them in the menu. And it has a lot of these external controls, with nine pushable buttons (including the joystick and the movie button) on the right rear of the body alone. Since I don’t use the Display button often, I wish that it were back in the upper-left corner, where it is on the A580. And, although a top LCD has long been de rigueur on high-end cameras, it seems a waste of space on the A77, since the EVF and the rear LCD provide so much info.

 

Under my thumb: The A77 puts nine buttons—not counting the rear control dial—on the right rear side of the camera.

But those are minor gripes. Overall, the A77 handles very well. Manual-mode photographers will particularly appreciate the presence of both front and rear control dials. When you do have to get into the menus, you'll find that they're single-paged, logically organized, and easy to navigate. But this is where you’ll want to pull out the user manual: The menus have lots of options.

The biggest of my few serious complaints about the A77 is the lack of control you have in instant review. For instance, when I want to check to see whether a subject blinked, I find it annoying that I can’t control the initial magnification of an image I'm reviewing or the steps by which magnification increases or decreases.

With the outstanding Sony DT 16-50 f/2.8 lens attached, the Sony A77 is a handful, even for a big guy like me, but the solid build of the body and lens plus the generally excellent placement of controls make it a pleasure to use.

Battery life and more

Battery life for the A77 is about 500 still photos taken during “normal” shooting; that's okay for casual photographers, but if you’re shooting a wedding, you’ll want to pack a couple of spares. The A77 has built-in GPS for geotagging your photos. Using GPS reduces battery life, but I love this feature and keep it on most of the time.

The A77 has a built-in flash. It’s decent, as built-in flashes go; what I like most about it is that it can serve as a triggering device for an off-camera Sony flash such as the HVL-F42AM unit.

One caveat for Mac users: If you need to upgrade the firmware on your A77 (as I did), you won’t be able to do it from a computer running Mountain Lion, because the Sony firmware updater is 32-bit only, and Mountain Lion can’t boot into 32-bit mode as older versions of the Mac OS can. I used my daughter’s MacBook, which is still running OS X 10.5. Sony should do what Pentax does, and allow you to download the firmware, copy it to an SD Card, and perform the firmware update right in the camera.

 

While the A77‘s higher-ISO JPEGs sometimes suffer from too much noise reduction, lower-ISO (here ISO 100) JPEGs are top-notch. (Detail from Mission San Jose in San Antonio, Texas. Black-and-white conversion in Lightroom 4.)

Bottom line

With an OLED electronic viewfinder of unprecedented size and clarity, plus a variety of other advanced features, the Sony Alpha SLT-A77 brings the technical promise of the earlier Sony SLTs to fulfillment. With its arsenal of novel whiz-bang features, the A77 is a lot of fun to shoot with. But make no mistake—this is a camera for serious photographers. I’ll add a warning, too, and note that the A77 can be a bit unforgiving: Perhaps it’s the high resolution, but with the A77, I’ve felt that I had to step up my game.

For more information, see the TechHive Test Center normal and low-light videos and test stills.

Original photos by William Porter. All rights reserved.

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At a Glance
  • Read the full review

    Pros

    • High-res OLED EVF provides ultrasharp view with WYSIWYG exposure feedback
    • Superfast 12-fps shooting; excellent range of options for video capture
    • Focus magnification and/or focus peaking for manual focus

    Cons

    • EVF struggles a bit in very high-contrast scenes
    • Noisier images than some competing cameras when shooting in low light at higher ISOs
    • Default magnification for instant review not user-configurable
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