Review: Sony Alpha 77

Our score: 5/5
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November 27, 2011 2:14 PM
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Published: September 19, 2011 11:00 PM
By Franck Mée
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
Four years after releasing the Alpha 700, Sony has made a welcome return to the expert SLR market ... except that the Alpha 77 isn't really an SLR—it's an SLT (Single Lens Translucent) camera like the Alpha 55. Sony has pulled out all the stops with this camera, with tech specs including a 12 fps burst mode and 24 Megapixels, but will the electronic viewfinder be a good enough substitute for fans of traditional SLR systems?

Handling

Back in the day, the Alpha 700 still looked rather similar to its predecessor, which was none other than the Minolta Dynax 7D. Over the last four years though, Sony has developed its own distinct style, and so the Alpha 77 has a more fluid design than the long-serving Alpha 700, notably with a viewfinder and flash that are integrated into the upper part of the camera with more finesse. The controls have changed a fair bit too—the stabilisation switch and the exposure zone selector have been ditched completely, for example, the on/off control is now located around the shutter-release button, and the thumb wheel on the front has moved down. All in all, this new design makes the Alpha 77 an altogether more inviting camera.

That said, some rather Minolta-style features are still hanging on in there, like the grip handle that dips in right around where your middle finger rests, a large bump that makes a handy thumb-rest, and the depth-of-field preview control (now called image preview) ideally located at ring-finger level. Similarly, the Alpha 77 has an optional vertical control grip with a handle that lines up perfectly with the lens mount—a particularly handy accessory for portrait photography.

The camera body is very well made, with seals around the main buttons and dials to help keep out moisture. However, we felt that the body didn't quite have the same indestructible feel as the Nikon D300 or the Pentax K-5.

On the whole, the Alpha 77 is a pleasant camera to handle with clear controls that are easy to get the hang of, in spite of a few slightly confusing details and a rather dense Fn menu arranged in two columns. Some of the controls can be customised (the thumb wheels, for example), but you can't choose which options are available in the Fn menu, which is a bit of a shame as not everyone has the same priorities.

A77 Sony Alpha 77 review test A77

If there's one field in which the Alpha 77 will really have to prove itself it's in the electronic viewfinder and screen. Detailed information about the viewfinder can be found in the inset box to the right of the review but, in the end, we didn't find it any less pleasant or practical to use than a regular SLR mirror-based viewfinder—in fact, it even has several advantages over traditional systems.

The screen has both vertical tilt and swivel options. It pulls out from the camera and can be angled up or down on its vertical axis, which means you can line up shots at waist height or holding the camera above your head, for example. On top of that, the screen has a swivel function for horizontal rotation. You can even pull the screen up onto the top of the camera and angle it facing forwards for perfect self-portraits, a bit like in the Sony R1.

The display is pretty good, with a perfect gamma (accuracy of the grey scale), a white balance that gives just a very slight blue tinge in brighter, lighter areas, and colour fidelity that's acceptable with an average deltaE of 4.4. All this means that the image you see onscreen is actually pretty reliable.

One advantage of this entirely electronic viewfinder system is Sony's digital teleconverter function. This allows you to crop a picture as you shoot, while still enjoying a large, comfortable preview. One advantage this function has over an optical teleconverter is that you don't lose lens speed: for example, an f/4 lens with a lens doubler would have an overall aperture of f/8, which would in turn make you lose two speed stops and which could be problematic for autofocus systems.

Responsiveness

The Alpha 77 breezed its way to a five-star score in this field as it's the fastest camera we've ever tested. Like most SLRs these days, it starts up in under a second (some models are faster, however) and it takes around half a second to save a photo and get ready to take the next.

Above all though, the Alpha 77 autofocus is excellent, focusing in under a quarter of a second in good light and half a second in low light. There's therefore no doubt that this new autofocus module is a real success for Sony. Similarly, the 12 frames per second burst mode (in 24-Megapixel resolution!) is quite simply unrivalled on the market right now—even in professional SLRs!

The delay between pressing the shutter-release button (full press) and the shutter opening has been noticeably reduced too. We measured a lag of between three and six 100ths of a second, which is slightly faster than in regular SLRs as there's no mirror to move in Sony's SLT. For most users, this difference in lag won't be noticeable at all, but for some specific users it could prove very handy indeed (in animal photography with laser barriers, for example).

Picture Quality

The new sensor in the Alpha 77 packs in the most pixels currently available on an APS sensor. It takes pictures in the same resolution as the Nikon D3x and the Sony Alpha 900, which have a 24 x 36 mm sensor that's twice the size of this APS model! As a result, it's almost as dense (6.5 Mpx/cm²) as the micro four-thirds sensors used in the Panasonic G3 and GH2—the current record holders in the field with 16 Megapixels packed onto a 4/3" sensor (7 Mpx/cm²).

In spite of clear progress, these cameras still can't quite match the quality of the 16-Megapixel APS sensor seen in the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000. Worse news for the Alpha 77 is that unlike the G3 and GH2, the fixed-mirror design means that some light entering the camera is lost, as it's redirected to the autofocus system (see our explanation of Sony's SLT autofocus system). But in spite of that, Sony is still announcing sensitivity settings of up to 16000 ISO!

This is therefore another field in which the Alpha 77 has a lot to prove and a lot at stake!

A77 Sony Alpha 77 review test - ISO test, picture quality A77

As usual, the ISO shots above are full-sized crops from the original Jpeg images. You can see that a slight smoothing effect starts to show up from 1600 ISO, becoming much stronger at 3200 ISO. In fact, at this setting, the 16-Megapixel sensor does a better job than this 24-Megapixel monster!

However, in day-to-day situations, a 24 Megapixels resolution is very rarely used. In fact, at 300 dpi—the maximum resolution used for photo-quality prints—a 24-Megapixel image (6000 x 4000 pixels) would end up measuring 13" x 20" (34 x 51 cm). And, in practice, a much lower dpi is usually used for printing poster-sized images!

Once resized to a more common print size, the image is much less grainy. In other words, the Alpha 77 actually takes very good-quality pictures, and an 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) print taken at 3200 ISO still comes out well. However, a comparison with the NEX-5N shows a slight advantage for the interchangeable-lens compact, particularly at 6400 ISO, where the 16-Megapixel sensor gives a visible but very fine grain while the 24-Megapixel Alpha starts to show blocks of pixels.

Our Alpha 77 came with the new 16-50 mm f/2.8 lens, which we think is a better, more well-rounded option than the unimpressive 18-55 mm lens supplied with other Alpha cameras.


Even if this lens is pretty fast, doing justice to a sensor with such a high resolution will still be no mean feat! The lens does struggle slightly at wide-aperture settings at all focal lengths, giving pictures that look a bit blurred when viewed at 100% size. It's at f/5.6 that things really start to get better and that fine detail is visible over the whole of the frame. As is always the case, the very high resolution inevitably shows up the slightest default: thus an 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) print is perfectly fine at f/2.8. All in all, the 16-50 mm f/2.8 lens seems like a much more interesting choice than the 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 that we fear may also come bundled with this camera.

Video

The video mode is clearly a strong point for the Alpha 77. That said, choosing the right mode can require a certain amount of technical knowledge, as this camera can film HD video at up to 1080p/50 but also has an interlaced mode, a 25 fps mode and a 720p mode. These notably make it easier to transfer and edit videos on a computer as the files aren't quite as big.

From photo mode, you can simply press the video-record button to start shooting video in automatic mode. Video quality is excellent and the continuous autofocus works like a dream.

Otherwise, you can switch to the advanced video mode on the mode-selection dial, which offers access to a range of manual settings that can even be adjusted while filming. That means you can play around with the depth of field (according to our tests, video is captured over an area of 10.9 x 19.4 mm, which is very similar to the 11.3 x 21 mm size used in 1.85:1-format 35 mm cinema images) and change the shutter speed to capture an impression of movement or stillness in a scene. What is rather surprising, however, is that you have no choice but to use manual focusing. That's a shame too, because we don't see any technical reasons why the excellent autofocus wouldn't work in the camera's manual video modes (the sensors actually work too—the AF focusing point turns green when the image is sharp!).

The sound is slightly less convincing, although the Alpha 77 still does a better job than the built-in microphones in most 'genuine' SLRs, which usually make do with mediocre mono sound. The main problem is that, in spite of the noise-reduction filter, the mics still pick up noises from the camera body—from thumb wheels and buttons to the autofocus motor in some lenses. In this particular field, the Panasonic GH2 is still one step ahead of the game. Thankfully though, the Alpha 77 has a socket for connecting an external mic to help get around this problem.

We also have to wonder why the video mode only uses 10.9 x 19.4 mm of a sensor that measures 15.7 x 23.7 mm, as with the 16-50 mm lens, the 24 mm wide angle in photo mode ends up as 31 mm in video mode.
5/5 Sony Alpha 77 DigitalVersus 2011-09-20 00:00:00

Pros

  • Very high performances (12 fps burst, subject tracking, autofocus etc.)
  • Splash-proof body, advanced and customisable controls
  • Video Full HD at up to 50 fps with manual mode, stereo sound and mic socket
  • Vertical tilt and swivel screen
  • Electronic viewfinder: integrated zoom, accurate preview, doesn't go dark in low light

Cons

  • No major progress in image quality, even a slight regression in sensitivity
  • Interface can sometimes be confusing
  • Buffer memory can be a bit tight (at full speed the bust mode is limited to under 2 seconds)
  • Battery life isn't as good as SLRs with optical viewfinders (approx. 400 photos)
  • Electronic viewfinder: still not quite as sharp as a 24 x 36 mm SLR viewfinder, slight display lag, dynamic range could be better

Conclusion

The Sony Alpha 77 is a success on all fronts: its electronic viewfinder is good enough to silence critics (including us) as it avoids most of the usual pitfalls; the camera's performances are at least excellent and sometimes outstanding; and on top of that it has a high-quality build and finish. That said, the 24 Megapixels aren't really all that useful, there's been a slight drop in sensitivity, and some design and handling features could still be improved.

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