SLT-A77, first impressions
November 12th, 2011 - 03:04:29 PM:
On August 24th Sony has released the SLT-A77 camera. It took a while before it became available in Europe, but I recently bought one. Here are my first impressions of the camera.
You will not find 100% crops of highest-ISO shots in this review. This is not my shooting style, and it's not my review style. You will also not find detailed descriptions of all features and menu items. There are many reviews out there where you can read about this. I have linked to some here. What I write about here are my impressions of the camera in real-life use, and other thoughts. Obviously the A77 is compared a lot with its predecessor, the A700, and this review is no exception. You can read what I thought about that camera in my review of the A700. I did not buy the new 16-50/2.8 lens. It's still not available here, and I'm not sure if I will buy it when it is. I already own the 16-80/3.5-4.5, which has served me well as a standard zoom lens.
Obviously the biggest difference between the A700 and the A77 is that the A700 is a traditional DSLR with a flip-up mirror, matte screen and optical viewfinder, and the A77 has a fixed semi-transparent mirror which diverts light to the AF sensors, while the remaining light falls onto the main sensor, which provides both the viewfinder image and the recorded image. The viewfinder itself is an XGA resolution OLED with ocular optics. There is no direct light path between the lens and the photographer's eye.
The system is very similar to what I have described in “The future of digital SLRs”. The main difference is that SLTs do not rely on slow contrast AF, but use the faster phase detect AF.
Having an electronic viewfinder brings a lot of advantages: you can have a bright viewfinder image even when it's dark (or during DOF preview), you can have all kinds of overlays and markings, you can zoom into the image during manual focus, and it's easy to have a large 100% WYSIWYG view. Sony has improved the viewfinder considerably compared to the A33/A55/A35. The resolution is higher, it's brighter, and the image update is faster. There are a few disadvantages, like a slightly higher power consumption, and the dynamic range is not quite as large as with an optical viewfinder. But the resolution and refresh rate is high enough. Overall, I rate the advantages higher than the disadvantages.
The fixed mirror enables something that comparable cameras of other brands can not offer: really fast phase detect AF with live view and especially during movie recording. There also is no mirror flipping up and down, producing a lot of noise. The mirror diverts ⅓ of the incoming light towards the AF sensors. This sounds like a lot, but actually it's only about ½ stop. The mirror sheet itself does not have a negative influence on image quality, or at least I have not seen any.
The camera can not only record still images, but also Full HD (1920×1080) movies with up to 50 (or 60, depending on regional model) frames per second. I have not used this much, yet, but I certainly will. The image is stabilized also in movie mode. This, however, is not accomplished by shifting the sensor, but by shifting the image readout-area on the sensor (electronic stabilization). For this, the image area is slightly cropped during movie recording. The advantage is that overheating the sensor is avoided, which would otherwise limit the maximum recording time per take.
There are many improvements in the focusing area. There are more AF sensors (19), and more of them are cross-type (11). There is also the new AF Zones mode. In this mode, you select one of three groups of AF sensors to be active: the left group, middle group or right group. For example, when you know your subject is in the left part of the frame, you can select the left group, and AF will not be distracted by objects in the center part or right part of the frame. In earlier cameras, you could of course select a single sensor in the left part of the frame. But a single sensor covers only a smaller area, and when you miss the subject with the single sensor, AF may loose the subject completely. This does not happen so easily with the AF Zones mode.
There's also the new Object Tracking (or Tracking AF) mode: When you activate this mode with the joystick center button, you point the camera on the object you want to track, and then the camera will select the AF sensor(s) closest to the object, following the object's movements in the frame. This works quite well in good light, and when the object is sufficiently distinct from to the background. When you move the camera, or when the object itself moves, the camera will select AF sensors that allow to focus on the selected object. In low light, however, the camera looses the object easily. But to deactivate this mode, you just have to press the center button, and you're back to the previous AF mode, so you can recover quickly.
In case you want to focus manually, the new Focus Peaking mode is a big help: areas of the image with a high edge contrast are highlighted with a selectable color in the viewfinder. When Focus Peaking is enabled in the menu, it activates automatically whenever you are in MF mode. It also is activated when you are in DMF mode and after AF has locked. So when you then touch up focus manually, Focus Peaking will assist you. Furthermore, Focus Peaking also works with adapted lenses (even without electronics), with the STF lens, and when the focus magnifier is activated. Focus Peaking is a great tool that Sony has ported from video cameras, first to the NEX series and now to SLT cameras.
The studio flash socket is now under a larger cover, together with the remote release socket. The studio flash cover of the A700 was quite flimsy and protruding from the body, and I can imagine that it was ripped from a good number of A700s.
The A77 has 6 fully configurable positions of Creative Styles. For each position, you can select one out of 13 effects, together with the image parameters contrast, saturation and sharpness. The A700 had 4 positions with a fixed effect, and 3 configurable positions.
The mechanics of the built-in flash have changed compared to the A700. As with earlier entry-level bodies, the flash now moves forward and up to open. This allows having accessories like an external microphone mounted on the flash shoe while the flash is open. The obvious disadvantage is that the flash does not rise as high above the lens axis as before. In fact, the built-in flash has crept lower and lower from the 7D to the A700 to the A77. But since the flash also has moved forward, the danger of casting a shadow with the lens has not increased much.
The A700 only had rubber on the front of the grip and a small patch on the rear side of the body. On the A77, the entire grip is rubberized, front and back, except for the (smaller) memory card door. This improves the handling of the camera and ensures a form grip. The body also is officially weather sealed, although the sealing of the battery compartment and of the memory card door is nearly non-existent. It doesn't leave the impression of being able to withstand really bad weather. But in the past, I didn't have any problem with the 7D or A700, either, and typically the photographer gives up before the camera.
The button layout on the top plate was improved. While some buttons were hard to reach on the A700 while actually holding the camera, this is not the case with the A77. These buttons were moved towards the front, and the top LCD takes the place at the rear. The On/Off switch is now located around the release button (Nikon style). It doesn't take long to get used to this, and afterwards it's actually more comfortable than the old style.
Finally, the vertical grip, the VG-C77AM, was also improved. While I was hoping that the old grip, the VG-C70AM, may be compatible with the SLT-A77, it is not. The new grip is very similar to the old one. What has changed are the two lower buttons and the design of the joystick. The new grip also has a strap eyelet on the left side of the grip, next to the battery compartment door, just where it was missing on the old grip. This eyelet lets me attach the strap to the left side of the camera.
A few things have been reported as a problem in other reviews, which I either could not reproduce or which I consider non-problems:
- The time to switch from the rear display to the viewfinder has been complained about. While I see that the switchover is not complete when I have the eye at the viewfinder, I always take about ½ second to find the correct eye position to see the entire image, etc. By that time, the switchover is complete. Yes, the switchover could be faster, but no, I don't have a problem with it.
- Some people claimed that the movie crop when pressing the red movie button in still image mode is different from the crop you get when you go to movie mode with the top mode dial. I have tested this, and I can not confirm it. You get the exact same crop. Furthermore, in still image mode there are markers in the viewfinder that indicate the movie area. So even before you press the movie button, you know which crop you will get.
- The manual warns against using the electronic front curtain with Konica Minolta lenses (also see here and here). However, I was yet unable to find any problems with the electronic front curtain. I've tried very old lenses (Minolta 50/1.4) with short exposure times, and I've tried lenses with a shutter that appears to be slow (the Minolta 400/4.5). Either way, images taken with the EFCS are indistinguishable from images with the mechanical front curtain.
I found only one situation where the EFCS caused a problem: With the 3×-1× Macro and the Macro Ring Flash, the images were extremely underexposed, almost black. Obviously, flash sync was off. This can not be caused by a slow aperture, which would have resulted in overexposure. And with ambient light only, exposure was back to normal, with the same lens.
- Steady-shot can now only be turned on and off in the menu. There is no dedicated switch on the camera. However, I already found no problem with SS on the A700. When I forgot to turn it off when I should have, e. g. when using a tripod or when using the 3×-1× Macro, I never saw any ill effect.
- There also is no longer a dedicated dial to change the metering mode. I already rarely changed the mode with the A700. The multi-segment meter worked really well, and I've never used center-weighted metering. I did use spot metering sometimes, but often it was quicker to use exposure compensation (which I always had on the rear dial and still have). With a live view viewfinder, where you can see the metering result directly, I expect to use spot metering even less and use AEL and exposure compensation instead.
- Some review (I can't remember which) claimed that the control wheel direction on the A77 is reversed compared to the A700. This is not true, they are the same.
… the bad…
One of the biggest problems I found was that many features are unavailable when you select RAW format or RAW+JPEG. This is quite understandable for the features that take multiple frames and produce a single JPEG from them, like HDR, the panorama modes, multi-frame NR, etc. But it's a mystery to me why the Picture Effects are unavailable in RAW+JPEG mode. Sure, they involve considerable image processing, but then why not produce an unprocessed RAW file (with meta-information) as usual, and only apply the effect to the JPEG file? Why, for example, is the Creative Style “Black and White” available in RAW+JPEG mode, but not the similar Picture Effect “High Contrast Mono”? What's the big difference? You can not even select a smaller JPEG image size when you select RAW+JPEG format. This, by the way, was possible with the A700: you got the full-size RAW image and the scaled-down JPEG image.
What makes this even more inconvenient is that you can no longer change the image quality and size with the Fn button. Again, this was possible with the A700. You now have to go to the menu to change them. So when you're in RAW mode and you want to take a HDR shot, you first have to go to the menu, switch to JPEG-only mode, then go back to the main screen, switch to HDR mode with the Fn button, and when you're done, you have to go to the menu again to switch back to RAW mode.
This really should not be necessary. So, Sony, if some feature has an effect only on the JPEG image, please let us still shoot in RAW+JPEG mode and simply produce a RAW file without the image effect. It works with the Creative Styles, white balance, DRO, 16:9 cropping, etc., and there's no reason it can't work with everything else, too. Even better, for the features requiring multiple frames, please produce a RAW file containing at least the first frame. Or yet even better, please invent an ARW format that can contain multiple frames per file, so that we can, for example, reproduce a HDR shot from the original RAW frames.
The next big problem I see is that in movie mode, recording can not be started with the normal release button. This is understandable when the camera is in still image mode. Then you need a second release button to quickly start movie recording as opposed to taking a still image. But when you switch to movie mode with the top mode dial, the release button is simply dead. The red movie button is the only way to start and stop recording. Even worse, you can not start and stop movie recording remotely, neither with the wired remote release, nor with the RMT-DSLR1 wireless remote release. YouTubers must be very disappointed that Sony makes it so hard for them to film themselves. I, too, consider this a big oversight which should be fixed.
The reaction time of the control wheels is too long. While this was presumably improved from firmware 1.02 to 1.03, it's still not good enough. The camera's reaction noticeably lags behind the control wheels.
The advantage of an electronic viewfinder is that you can have a number of different markers and overlays. The camera can display various grids, shooting parameters, a live histogram, and markers for the movie area and AF sensor locations. The problem with these currently is that they are always drawn in black. This makes them quite difficult to see in darker parts of the frame. A better way to draw the markers would be to invert the background pixel instead of drawing a fixed color. Then you'd get white markers on black background, red markers on blue background, etc.
Both the viewfinder and the rear display now have configurable sets of screens. With the DISP button, you can cycle through the enabled screens. What I'm missing is a “display off” option for the rear display. Currently the only way to turn off the rear display is to reverse it. So you only have the choice between draining the battery and wearing out the hinges of the screen, instead of just pressing a button.
There is also a small quirk with the “For Viewfinder” option for the rear screen: When it's active and you press the Fn button, you can not change the settings within this screen. Instead, the camera temporarily switches to the “All info” screen.
When you press the Fn button and select a setting to change, or when you select the setting directly with a dedicated button, you can cycle through the main options with the front wheel and the sub-options with the rear wheel. The icons that the camera displays for these options are quite small, and especially the Picture Effect icons are difficult to distinguish. There is plenty of screen area, so Sony should have used larger icons. As it is now you're often forced to press the joystick to get to the detailed option screen and see larger icons and help text.
The A77 allows to customize the AF/MF, ISO, AEL and WB buttons. You can select from a long list of functions to be activated with these buttons. This is all nice. But an advanced user, the intended target market for this camera, will likely use the ISO button to change ISO, the WB button to change white balance, etc., so this customizability is mostly wasted. On the other hand, the ? button is completely unused in normal shooting mode (help is available only in the menu), and advanced users likely will not need it, anyway. It would be nice to be able to customize this button instead of the others. There also no longer is a C button with no fixed function, as there was on the A700. It would be nice to have one. The lens button can be customized, but only with two options (AF stop and DOF preview). It would be nice to have the full list of functions for this button, too.
The rear display attachment is very flexible. A little quirk is that the automatic switchover to the viewfinder is disabled when the rear display is not flat against the camera back. This is obviously to avoid switching to the viewfinder when you flip the screen up and cover the viewfinder sensor with it. But this feature may surprise you when you have the display flipped down, look into the viewfinder, and nothing happens. Luckily, there is a button on the camera to override the automatic switchover.
The camera's built-in lens correction feature only works with a few select lenses. At least Sony has promised to add more supported lenses with future firmware updates.
A number of features were removed compared to the A700:
- With the A700, you could zoom into an image, and then press the joystick to quickly switch back and forth between the full image and the zoomed image. This is no longer possible. When you press the joystick in zoom mode with the A77, zoom mode is terminated.
- You can no longer delete an entire folder from the folder overview. You have to go to the menu to delete folders (and then, it deletes the “current” folder, and you're never quite sure which one that is).
It is also no longer possible to go directly to a specific folder from the overview. You can only scroll through all pictures and check the status line to see which folder you are in.
- Tethered shooting via USB is no longer supported, even though this would be even more useful with a Live View camera. This is big one, and Sony should definitely provide this with a firmware update.
… and the ugly.
And then there are some things that can only be called bugs:
- When I turned off the camera for the first time, it hung up. This could be seen from the back-light of the rear display, which did not turn off. I could only fix this by removing the camera battery. Luckily, the camera has not crashed ever since. I've heard about this problem earlier, so this doesn't seem to be an isolated case.
- I once got the camera into a state where I could no longer activate Object Tracking, even though it was enabled. Pressing the joystick had no effect, otherwise the camera was behaving normally. Turning the camera off and on again did not help. Again, I had to remove the battery to fix this, without changing any other setting.
- Shutting down the camera takes extraordinarily long. The displays turn off immediately. But after that, there is a pause of several seconds, and only then does the camera retract the lens to infinity focus. I have no idea what the camera is doing in this time, but this can't be right.
- When you have auto-review enabled, you can press the Zoom button to zoom into the reviewed image. When you then use the control wheel to go to the previous image, you only get an error message. You have to first zoom out again and then zoom back in to be able to go to the previous images.
- When you have an adapted lens (w/o electronics) mounted, and you release the camera with the RMT-DSLR1, the camera notifies you that the lens was not recognized and that releasing can be enabled in the menu. However, this happens even when this is already enabled, and in fact the camera does release and record an image. This does not happen when you use the release with 2 second delay on the RMT-DSLR1.
And then there's the mysterious Demo Mode: the manual is very vague about this menu option, and in fact, it seems to be always disabled. With or without a card inserted, with or without HDMI connected, in AUTO mode or any other mode, this item is never enabled. To this day, I don't know what it does.
The A77 is a worthy successor of the A700. Its improvements, the addition of movie recording, and the innovative SLT technology are very welcome. The camera has a solid hardware base, but the software still needs significant bug-fixing and polishing. Let's hope that Sony does not drag their feet with this.
These images were taken end of October/beginning of November near Nuremberg/Germany and at the Leipzig Zoo.
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