Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The new Sony A77 - a personal review

The new Sony A77 - a personal review

Looking at home now on the shelf among a forest of lenses is my new Sony Alpha 77, the camera I'd been eagerly awaiting for over a year. The A700 which it replaces looks somewhat old-fashioned next to it, though the new creation also has a similarly robust magnesium alloy body with oodles of buttons at your fingertips, making it easy to change settings while still following your subject through the viewfinder. The first thing you notice different about the A77 is the gold sticker on top of the flash that advertises its "Full HD Movie" capability. The top display panel  makes seasoned Sony users think "top of the line", and the fold-out rear display reminds some of us of our earlier models. The former is found only on the A850 and A900, but the latter could be found on every Alpha from the 300 on up to the 580. But there is a new twist to the display, adding a new dimension to live-view and thus self-portrait photography.

The first week I used the camera, I was slightly disappointed. I liked the smooth-looking video quality but wasn't blown away by the high ISO picture quality. I puzzled several friends with my luke-warm response to Sony's newest camera coup. Even though I very quickly became acclimated to the positioning of the buttons and learned how to avoid the lag of the electronic viewfinder, I just didn't see any difference in the picture quality. The files were twice as large as those of the A700 but I didn't seem to be getting my money's worth.

Since buying the camera on October 21, I've taken 3500 "keepers" and learned to love many of the camera's new advantages. On the other hand, I've also deleted over 1000 pictures, a ratio that I never had with the A700 but I'll attribute the high number to the learning curve and my not wanting to overtax my hard drives.

The new camera uses the same battery pack, can use the same A-mount lenses (though some Sigma HSM lenses may need a *free* update of the chip), and is also rigged to record data to the Sony Memory Sticks. However, A700 users who invested in Compact Flash cards will have to trade them in for the industry standard SD/SDHC/SDXC cards or the Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo/Pro-HG Duo medio. You can also use Eye-Fi cards in the A77, which allow you to upload the files directly to your computer or website. The size, weight and build of the cameras are very similar, so it won't take long to get used to the feel of the new camera.

So what's new? Read on. I had worked with my (three!) A700s for years and was very pleased with the cameras' performance. Ever since the Nikon D90 came out with video capability, I had considering switching brands on account of the ability to take movies with a DSLR. Then the accolades that Canon's 5D Mark IV had received for its video performance made me more curious than ever to try it out, even though two good friends with the Canon had rarely used the function. Well, the A77 has the best video capability of any digital camera currently on the market. It can take full HD movies using the AVCHD format at 1080 60i (NTSC) or 1080 50i (PAL), which means that the camera utilizes 1,080 scanning lines and the interlace system. An HD specification using 720 scanning lines and the progressive system is also available, as is the MPEG-4 format at either 1440x1080 (12M) or VGA (3M) resolution.

The A77 sports front and rear adjustment dials (as do the A700, A850 and A900), which come in very handy when shooting in manual mode at a concert, for example. This flexibility, along with the dedicated buttons on the back, let you concentrate on the world around you rather than on the menus in the camera. Furthermore, the EVF is predestined to allow the photographer to shoot in manual mode without ever taking his or her eye of the action. You see how much light is reaching the sensor because, as with the most user-friendly computer programs, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). In addition, the 100% coverage of the viewfinder is on par with the top-of-the-line cameras from the competition.

The A700 lacked the live-view function that my A300 and A550 had, but I got used to not having that capability. However, with a 19-month-old child, I find it is a real back, neck and knee saver: just pop out the screen and drop the camera to her level. And with all the political demonstrations going on where I live, the screen makes it easy to shoot over others' heads.

The tilt screen is good for getting down low
Getting the right shot when holding the camera over your head is made easier with the tilt screen.
With the A700 I rarely shot above ISO 1600, usually keeping it down around a maximum of ISO 1000 for indoor work. ISO 2000 was simply unusable in most cases. Outdoors on the street during the day I would, however, shoot in aperture priority at ISO 800 to assure a fast shutter speed and never had qualms with the resulting picture quality. The new camera, I hoped, would give me the ability to use ISO 1600-3200 like a Nikon D3s user; in other words, I was hoping for low noise in the high ISO range.
Confession: One problem I was having with high-ISO photos taken with the A700 was due to my faulty settings. I would shoot at ISO 1000 and underexpose the photo by -0.7 to allow for a faster shutter speed. To compensate for the dark picture, I would let the Dynamic Range Optimization to Level 3. If you want noise in a picture, this is the way to get it! I've since learned that I should have done just the opposite: Shoot at 1600 or 3200, turn off the DRO and over-expose the photo +0.3, thus effectively illuminating dark areas.

ISO 3200 is no problem for the A77 if you do not under-expose your shots.
I take a mixture of available-light pictures and flash portraits. Sony's wireless flash capabilities are not as advanced as those of the Nikons or Canons, but my HVL 58 can control my two HVL 42 flashes and my new radio transmitter helps me out with wireless flashing on sunny days or when a flash is positioned behind an umbrella. The external flashes can also be triggered by the pop-up flash on the camera.

Now for a bit of bad news (and how to learn to live with it): What I still don't like about the camera is that it takes a second or two to re-activate after awaking from the power save mode. I find this annoying when shooting brief bursts with pauses, be it at a concert or in my living room. Whereas a camera outfitted with an optical viewfinder (OVF) is always ready to click away, cameras with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) - including bridge cameras - take a little while to wake up. Solution: turn out the energy save mode in such situations! The battery will drain quickly if you keep the live view screen turned on, so beware and (always) carry a second battery with you.
I also miss the ability to change picture quality in the screen (function) menu, and I miss cRAW (a smaller, compressed - lossless - RAW format), especially since the 24.3MP RAW files on the A77 are approximately 24MB in size. You can, of course, shoot in the extra fine jpeg mode, but the downsides there are that you cannot as flexibly post-process the images as you can with RAW files and the camera does some of the processing (white balance, noise reduction, creative style, etc.) in-camera for you.
Unfortunately, the A77 does not include a remote control, so you'll have to keep yours from the A700 if you want to shoot remote, which is easy with the flip-and-swivel screen. The most recent firmware release (v. 1.03) does not allow tethering in LR, but this and some of the other little problems may well be solved by an update soon. Users are also hoping a few other slight nuisances will be corrected by the new firmware: the boot and shut-down times are too long; the menus and controls lag when you want to manipulate them with the control dials; the camera clicks back into auto focus mode if you don't take a picture for about ten seconds. The internet forums are full of lists of firmware wishes for the camera now - as they were, ironically, even before the camera was for sale!

Other camera makers offer a GPS attachment which you can put on the hot shoe. A Nikon unit will cost you $189. And both Nikon and Canon have put a GPS in a few of their new point-and-shoot digital cameras. Sony has integrated GPS units in both the new A65 and A77 cameras and even had one in last year's SLT A55 model. Now you'll never have to wonder where you were when you took certain pictures. I've read that if you have the GPS turned on, it may drain the battery more quickly, which makes sense because the camera is constantly contacting three orbiting satellites. Around town I have the GPS turned off.

It is time now to bundle some real-life pictures for you readers and post them as I used to. I hope you have learned something from this review and from the past couple of posts with the picture comparisons. For me the decision is clear: A77.

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