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Sony SLT-A77 Review...Could this be the best APS-C Camera Yet?

Sony Alpha SLT A77Just released in October 2011 and still in short supply the Sony SLT-A77 is already receiving rave reviews and generating a lot of discussion on various camera forums.

The introduction of the SLT-A65 and SLT-A77 mark the second generation of Sony cameras using the translucent mirror technology.

Using a fixed semi-transparent mirror Sony's SLT line of cameras are a departure from the conventional DSLR design. Gone is the hinged mirror that moves out of the way during exposure and in its place is a fixed semi-transparent mirror that passes the majority of the light to the image sensor while reflecting some to auto focus system. This technology allows these Sony cameras to achieve unrivaled burst speeds and maintain full phase detect auto focus when recording video.

Building upon the success of the first generation SLT-A33 and SLT-A55 the new SLT-A65 and SLT-A77 represent exciting advancements in this technology with the introduction of a new OLED viewfinder.

SLT TechnologySLT Technology
The first generation Sony SLT-A55 was named as one of the 50 most innovative inventions of 2010 by Time Magazine and was Popular Photography Magazines Camera of the Year. I suspect that that the new Sony SLT-A77 will be in the running for this year’s Camera of the Year as well. It is a remarkable camera and initial reviews have been very positive. In fact Popular Photography has recently called it the “King of the APS-C Cameras”.
Top of the line performance

At the heart of the Sony SLT-A77 is a new 24.3 megapixel, CMOS, APS-C image sensor and Bionz high speed image processor. This along with the full-time, phase detection auto focus system and the fixed translucent mirror allows this camera to capture an industry best 12 frames per second.

SLT A77 Side ViewInitially priced at $1,400 for the body only or around $2000 with a new Sony DT 16-50mm F2.8 SSM lens make this camera a great value for what it offers. While classified as a “prosumer” camera, the Sony SLT-A77 performance in some areas rivals more expensive “professional” DSLR’s.

Designated as a replacement for Sony’s well respected Sony Alpha A700, the SLT-A77 sets new levels of performance in this class and price range of cameras.

Translucent Mirror Technology

Using the “Translucent Mirror Technology” introduced with the SLT-A55 and coupling that with an “electronic first curtain shutter” allows the Sony SLT-A77 to reduce lag time and allow for the amazing 12 frames per second burst rate at the full 24.3 megapixel resolution. The camera features a dedicated 12 frames per second mode with an automatic exposure. Or you have the choice of either 8 frames per second or 3 frames per second drive settings for shooting in one of the semi-automatic modes such as aperture priority, shutter priority, etc.

While not technically a DSLR, Sony’s SLT line of cameras should be considered in the DSLR category of cameras. Because their fixed translucent mirror does not move during exposure these Sony cameras can use the faster phase detection autofocus even during video mode.

One potential “drawback” of the SLT design is the lack of a true optical viewfinder. However the new high resolution 2.5 megapixel OLED electronic viewfinder on the Sony A77/A65 goes a long way towards narrowing the gap between an optical viewfinder and an electronic one.

Another potential drawback is that the image sensor receives slightly less light, about 70% of light passes through to the image sensor and 30% reflects up to the auto focus sensor. This results in the camera losing about a 1/3 of a stop of effective exposure range.

Extended ISO Range

Sony SLT A77 SensorThe Sony SLT-A77 has an ISO range from 100-16,000. While initial prototypes were criticized for having high digital noise levels at higher ISO settings, samples from production units running the latest firmware show that digital noise levels at higher ISO's are much better than some original comments indicated.

Further tests and reviews reveal that the camera performs very well against other ASP-C cameras up to at least the 3200 ISO range. Many early A77 owners are reporting excellent image quality and acceptable noise levels even at higher ISO’s. While both the Nikon D7000 and Canon 7D retain more detail and perform better at higher ISO’s, the Sony A-77 does a much better job than some critics give it credit for. Still if you shoot a lot of high ISO images the Canon or Nikon would probably be better camera choices for that type of application.

When on auto ISO the camera is limited to ISO’s from 100 to 1,600 but this can be adjusted so you have almost the full range of ISO settings available to the camera during auto ISO settings or you can easily limit your ISO to a narrower range if desired.
Improved Auto Focus System

The translucent mirror technology and a new 19 point auto focus system that features 11 cross sensors and full time continuous auto focus means the A77 can easily track fast moving subjects even during burst mode.

Thanks to its translucent mirror technology which allows for continuous phase auto focus the Sony SLT-A77 has one of the best performing auto focus systems on the market. With its continuous automatic focus mode the SLT-A77 does exceptionally well in tracking moving subjects.

To help even more the camera has the ability to adjust the focus for up to 30 different lenses with its "micro adjust" feature allowing more precise focusing for each individual lens. Sony SLT-A77 Camera

As with other models like the Sony A700 this camera also has Sony’s integrated “eye start” focus system that has the camera start focusing when you eye comes close to your viewfinder. This can be a huge time saver as the camera will start focusing as soon as you start looking through the viewfinder saving precious seconds over waiting for the auto focus to start after you press the shutter button half way down.

While Sony has designed an excellent auto focus system they have also included some good features for those who like to use the manual focus mode.

When in manual focus the photographer can zoom in either 5.9X or 11.7X times to help make sure the image is really in focus. Also the Sony SLT-A77 has a “focus peaking” feature that makes it easier to identify the exact focus point in the image by looking at areas of strong contrast and highlighting those with color. This “focus peaking” can be very helpful in getting the best possible focus under difficult conditions.

Top of Class Video Recording

For those interested in recording video the Sony SLT-A77 is well up to the task. It has built in stereo microphones and can record 1080p HD video.

While many newer DSLR's are also able to record video, what sets the Sony Alpha A77 apart from the crowd in this department is the full time phase detection focus that is available when shooting video. Again this is possible because of the unique translucent mirror design.

Another feature some cameras lack when it comes to video is the ability to have full control over exposure. The A77 will allow you to film video when in Program, Aperture, Shutter or Manual modes. You can even apply some of the special “picture effects” and “creative styles” when shooting video.

High Resolution Articulating LCD Display

Sony has incorporated many great features into this camera to make it more user friendly and versatile. One of those is the great 3” articulated LCD display.

While articulated displays are not new, the Sony SLT-A77/A65 display is hinged in a way that gives a wide range of movement and allows you to shoot from angles some other displays do not. Of course another big plus is the that the LCD display is a very high resolution one with 921K of resolution so the user has a high quality image either in live view mode or during playback. You can also fold the display in towards the camera for protection or for those who do not use the display for live view.

The A77 also features a top mounted LCD display to show camera settings and with the available information in the electronic viewfinder the back LCD display can be left off (turned in to camera body) if desired.
All the camera modes and settings anyone should need

Both the new user just moving up from a point and shoot or super zoom camera and a seasoned DSLR user will find that the Sony SLT-A77 has all the camera modes and specialty features to unleash their creative genius.

All the camera modes and settings anyone should need

In addition to the standard array of automatic and semi-automatic modes found on the typical DSLR the Sony SLTA-77 also has several specialty modes. One of those is an “Auto HDR” mode where the camera will take a quick series of three bracketed shots with different exposures and combine them together into an HDR image. The result is a photo with a greater dynamic range. You also have the option of applying different tone-mapping to the HDR image to control the overall HDR effect.

Another nice mode is the Multi Frame Noise Reduction mode. In this mode the camera will take multiple back to back images and process them so that the end result is a low light image with less digital noise. This feature works very well on other Sony Cameras and is a good addition to the already fully equipped Sony SLT-A77.

Other specialty modes include a sweep panorama mode as well as a 3D panorama mode. The A77 also features face detection and face recognition modes as well as several other specialty modes.

Sony A77 Panoramic PhotoAbove is a single exposure "HDR-LIke" Image taken with a Sony SLT-A77 and processed using ACDSee Pro 5 and Topaz Adjust 4.

Smart Teleconverter

For those of us who take photos of wildlife or sports another feature that initial reviews indicate works very well is the "Smart Teleconverter" feature. Activated by a dedicated button on the back of the camera this feature allows you to digitally crop the image to either a 1.4X or 2.0X crop factor. This essentially gives you much the same effect as you would have if you added a tele-converter to your lens.

While I don’t normally recommend using digital zoom based upon my limited testing so far this feature seems to work remarkably well and from initial appearances could be very beneficial for those cases where you need to zoom in more but are at the end of the lenses focal range. Of course you could get a similar result by cropping the photo later but it is nice to be able to effectively crop in camera.

One reason why this feature works well is because of the 24 megapixel image sensor. One advantage of more megapixels is the ability to crop pictures more and still have enough resolution for a usable photo.

SteadyShot Image Stabilization

As with other Sony DSLR and SLT cameras the A77 uses Sony’s SteadyShot, in body, sensor shift image stabilization. This allows all lenses to benefit from the cameras image stabilization system including even older Minolta and third party lenses. Tests have shown that Sony’s system works very well and one can gain between 2.5-4.5 stops. This type of image stabilization allows the user to use a slower shutter speed for a given lens focal length than a non-stabilized lens or camera does.

Bottom Line:

The Sony SLT-A77 certainly raises the bar on the competition. The amazing OLED viewfinder removes many of the issues the original SLT models had.

While many people still prefer an optical viewfinder initial responses from users and reviewers are seeing many positive comments about the quality and advantages of the new OLED viewfinder technology on the Sony. It allows instant feedback on changes in exposure compensation, white balance and other important camera settings so you can see what changes will have on the image in the viewfinder display before taking the picture. There is also an amazing amount of information available on the electronic viewfinder including a “level” view that helps you make sure your horizons are level.

The result is that the high quality OLED electronic viewfinder on the A77 is seen more as a positive than a drawback as earlier models were. Again in my limited testing I am very impressed with the OLED viewfinder and love the feedback it gives and the information it displays.

The Sony SLT-A77 can use either Memory Stick Duo or SD memory cards. Because of its fast burst rate and relatively small internal buffer, the faster the memory card the better.

Another early criticism by some reviewers is that the camera’s internal memory buffer fills up fairly quickly so you are limited to only around 1-1.5 seconds of shooting at 12 fps before the camera starts slowing down to write images to the memory card. Having a faster memory card will help this issue but only so much.

I actually prefer the faster burst speed of the 12 frames per second even if it is for a shorter time rather than a much slower burst speed for a longer period of time. Having a sustained burst rate for an extended period of time is not a big issue to me because I tend to shoot short bursts of photos when shooting in the high speed burst mode. Having 12 frames per second will drastically increase the chances of getting the “magic” bat on ball photo when photographing baseball or softball. I don’t need several seconds of high speed burst mode to capture a batters swing, but the more frames I can catch in that short time frame the better odds I will end up in getting that “perfect” photo.

Priced at $1,400 for the body only or around $2000 with a new 16-50mm f2.8 Sony lens the SLT-A77 raises the bar for performance in this price range of cameras. In the short time it has been out it is already receiving very high review marks and high accolades from a variety of reviewers and magazines.

The Sony SLT-A77 is a very impressive camera and one well worth looking at. Time will tell as to if it is really “the king of the APS-C cameras” but it certainly has plenty to offer and sets a high bar for other cameras to compete against.

Sony SLT-A77 Videos

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Tags: Camera Review Sony