Wednesday, October 26, 2011

First Real Sony A77 Review

The A77 is easily the most epic APS-C camera on the market.
DPReview, the lord of all photographic review sites, has posted its review of the Sony A77. There's much to like, but also much to dislike.

First, what makes me happy. The sheer amount of goodies on the camera is stunning. Equally stunning is the elegance with which Sony has put it all together. Sony's interfaces have heretofore been poor-to-terrible. They, in a very Japanese way, focused on the simple addition of features without regard to the final experience. Granted, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and any number of other companies have suffered from the same problem. But Sony has figured it out. The feature set is large but also easy to use.

I also like that Sony appears to be interested in doing more with APS-C lenses. Canon faked us out with the release of the 7D, making it seem like more pro-oriented lenses would be coming to the smaller format, but no. They still expect their customers to simply bolt on their full-format lenses. Since Sony does not have a bustling full-format market that they want to (stupidly) protect, they appear better suited to trying something new. This gives a depth-of-field (DOF) advantage for any given aperture. More of an APS-C shot will be in focus than FF, but that's only if the lens is designed for APS-C.

I still think that Micro 4/3 is the best combination of size and DOF, where its 2X crop gains a full stop worth of DOF for any given aperture. But the very Japanese-market focus of Olympus and Panasonic is disappointing, and Panasonic's sensors are absolute crap compared to Sony's. As such, Sony's recent cameras are tempting. Very tempting.

But back to the A77. The A77 has a feature that I love so much, it is nearly enough to make me sell my whole stock of Micro 4/3 gear and switch: focus peaking. Canon's and Nikon's have had something vaguely similar for some time, where by half-pressing the shutter and manually focusing, the camera will beep when the area within the autofocus zone enters focus. Sony's implementation is even better and works WONDERS when using an electronic viewfinder (EVF). With focus peaking, as you focus, the area of the image that is of highest contrast develops a red highlight. This makes quick focusing with manual lenses so fast as to be almost enough for high intensity environments like parties. It is a revelation in focusing. I love it.

Now about the bad. Ever since the SLT's came out, I've had problems with the basic principle. EVF's have significant issues in comparison to optical viewfinders (OVF), and I, like many photogs, don't think we will ever make the switch. First, in the SLT arrangement, the viewfinder is only ever getting a small amount of light. Even when the EVF sensor gets 100% of the light, as with the NEX cameras or Micro 4/3, the cameras are very poor in low-light situations. They are, conversely, also poor in very high-light situations.

The A77 also has very poor noise characteristics. It is worse even than the Panasonic GH2, and well more than a full stop worse than the Nikon D7000, Pentax K5, Canon 7D, Fuji X100, and Sony A580. It appears comparable to the Olympus E-5, which is quite poor indeed.

What stands out to me, though, is that their comparison with the Sony NEX-7 shows the NEX camera handily winning a noise competition. At high-ISO, the noise difference is apparent even at low-resolution images, such as those suitable for Facebook. The NEX-7 uses an identical sensor, yet is very competitive with the older, lower-resolution cameras. There is only one explanation, the light loss caused by the SLT system. While I complained that the EVF only gets a smattering of light, that light amounts to nearly 1/3 of the light coming from the lens. That means that the sensor is only ever getting 2/3 of the light that a conventional camera's sensor would get. This deficit was somewhat apparent in older cameras, but here, we have a direct comparison, sensor for sensor, and the difference is large.

The sensor almost looks out of place in such a large body.

This further cements my contention that Sony needs to provide a way to move the mirror out of the way, like in a traditional camera. Otherwise, I may be tempted by their NEX cameras, but not their Alpha series. And I really want to be! I want to support Sony since they are at least trying new things. Unfortunately, though, it is the photo that matters in the end. And while the functional changes mean that the camera is more flexible than other cameras in that sense, the significantly retarded sensor performance means that I lose flexibility in that sense. At best, it's a wash.

In the end, I am disappointed. I do not think that the A77 is a suitable replacement for either the Nikon D7000 or Pentax K5. Canon's 7D is long-in-the-tooth, but an updated replacement is likely near, meaning that only a fool who is already invested in Canon's system would ditch now. If you already have an Alpha kit, especially a previous SLT camera, then you may as well upgrade. But aside from that demographic, I can't imagine this camera tempting too many people.

The sensor is intriguing, though. It is better than I was expecting. The rich colors are good, the noise floor is low, and it appears to have excellent dynamic range. Moreover, at low-ISO, the extreme amount of rendered detail makes me all the more interested in the NEX-7. Just so long as Sony produces some decent lenses, that is, else that resolution will just go to waste. And that would be a shame.

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