Cameras

Sony Alpha A77 Review

The Sony Alpha A77 offers just about everything you'd want in a modern system camera.

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Introduction

The Sony Alpha A77 is one of Sony’s so-called “single-lens translucent”, or "SLT" cameras, and it's the top model in the line that includes the A65 and the just-announced A37 and A57. The A77 is a mid-sized, mid-level camera for enthusiasts (and “prosumers,” if you can stomach saying that word out loud). It looks, handles, and acts much like a DSLR, but with a twist.

In a nutshell, the design enables quick, accurate, and (most importantly) full-time autofocus, as well as incredibly fast burst shooting. The A77 packs some serious hardware, including a 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor, a 2.4-million OLED electronic viewfinder, and a 3-inch, 921k-pixel LCD, the latter of which is mounted on a hinge, with an extending arm for extra articulation. Those chops can compete with the division’s heavy hitters, including the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K-5. The Sony Alpha A77 is available now with a 16-50mm kit lens for $1,999, or without a lens for $1,399. Let’s see how it holds up under scrutiny.

Design & Usability

The A77 is a big, sturdy camera, built with high-grade plastics over a magnesium-alloy chassis, resistant to dust and water. Even better, it's a joy to use.

The quality of the OLED viewfinder and articulating LCD can’t be understated; for the first time ever, we felt comfortable using manual focus with a live-view system.

Best of all, the A77 is incredibly fast in every way; really, the speed is the main reason to buy this camera. Alphas previously had a reputation for clunky user interfaces, but the SLT series turned that around. The A77 is simply fun to use. The button layout is comfy and the menus make sense. The quality of the OLED viewfinder and articulating LCD can’t be understated; for the first time ever, we felt comfortable using manual focus with a live-view system.

Notice too that this Sony is moisture and dust resistant. It should be able to withstand some time in light rain or a day at the beach. And it’s a solid, sturdy piece of magnesium alloy and plastic, so it should be able to withstand some bumps that come along with active photography.

Features

The A77’s defining feature is its translucent mirror—sometimes called a pellicle mirror.

If you count speed as a feature, the A77 is far out ahead of the pack. Since the mirror never has to move, the A77 is capable of 12 fps burst shooting—simply the fastest rate you can get on a non-professional DSLR. You see, like a regular DSLR, this camera's mirror reflects the light coming through the lens up into a phase-detection autofocus system (faster and more accurate than contrast-detection in other cameras). But it also lets light pass straight through to the sensor, so unlike a DSLR, the mirror can stay in place even when the camera exposes a photo. Simply put, the A77 can focus quickly and accurately at all times, even while shooting video.

If you can name a video compression codec, the A77 probably supports it.

Speaking of video, if you can name a video compression codec, the A77 probably supports it. It can record up to 1080/60p video under the AVCHD 2.0 standard, as well as 1080/60i and 1080/24p AVCHD clips, each in two different quality options. It can also record 1080/30p and VGA quality in MP4 format.

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Obviously, the A77 is a serious camera for enthusiasts, but it still includes a number of scene presets, digital effects, and special shooting modes for less experienced photographers. Everyone can appreciate the hot shoe accessory port, in case you want to use an external flash, and the built-in GPS unit.

Performance

Solid performance overall, right in line with our expectations.

Image quality scores for the A77 are strong, but there are certainly areas for improvement. Dynamic range performance is particularly excellent, and sharpness and color scores are strong too. Lens-based problems like distortion, vignetting, and aberration pop up occasionally, but in-camera corrections nip them in the bud.

Noise is really the weak link.

Noise is really the weak link, since aggressive noise reduction exacerbates the problems caused by a slightly noisy sensor. By enthusiast DSLR standards, details are pretty sloppy by ISO 1600. Raw files suggest that the sensor is inherently noisy, but the JPEG processing isn’t doing the camera any favors, either. Even at the lowest intensity, noise reduction muddles details to the point that the 24 megapixels seem a bit wasted. At low and mid sensitivities, shots look great, and downscaling helps too. But current standards have led us to expect crisper, cleaner JPEGs than what the A77 produces. We know it can be done; the mirrorless NEX-7 uses the same sensor with better JPEG results. Raw developers have plenty of room to work with.

Conclusion

Sony deserves a high-five for the A77, even before performance is taken into account.

The A77's familiar design is packed with fresh, useful, well-executed technology that enhances the shooting experience without really changing the traditional feel that photographers love. This camera is a love letter to loyal A-mount shooters, and a tempting new direction for competitors to consider.

The chief reason to buy the A77 over any other DSLR is pure speed. The fixed, translucent mirror is a brilliant design. It’s ready to fire at any time in any scenario, and the 12 fps burst shooting is amazing—quickly freezing crisp, in-focus frames. Image quality is strong, too. Dynamic range performance is a highlight, and the 24-megapixel sensor can resolve a heck of a lot of detail—useful for cropping. Colors are mostly accurate right out of the box, and the in-body stabilization is very effective as well.

The only place where it really falls short is low-light photography.

Moreover, the A77 is a charm to handle. During testing, we could see it was a great device, but we didn’t realize just how well it would rank until we finished filling out its score sheet. It blows away all of the other mid-level DSLRs that we’ve tested, and it holds its own against the pro-level Canon 5D Mk. III. The only place where it really falls short is low-light photography.

It’s exciting to see Sony carve a path for the A-mount rather than just follow in the wake created by Canon and Nikon. There’s room for improvement, but the A77 is nice enough to buy right now. Be sure to also take a look at the A65, which shares many of the same specs, repackaged for less-serious users. We haven’t tested it, but at $999 with a kit lens, it should be a great value for those who don’t mind giving up a chunk of user control. With a full-frame SLT heavily rumored to be in the pipeline, the Alpha system is looking like a great place to be.

Science Introduction

The Sony Alpha A77 (MSRP $1,999) has just about everything we like to see in a modern system camera—and on top of its great hardware and features, its performance shines through with (mostly) flying colors. The science page is here to break down the areas we test and to give an in-depth overview of this "prosumer"-targeting DSLR.

Sharpness & Stabilization

Solid sharpness, particularly when paired with the excellent 16-50mm f/2.8 kit lens

Overall, the A77’s sharpness results were very satisfactory. We measured an average of about 1580 lw/ph at MTF50 across all focal lengths, apertures, and areas of the frame. At 24.3 megapixels, the sensor can resolve a heck of a lot of detail, though the 16-50mm f/2.8 kit lens obviously has a big part in the overall score.

With that in mind, we noted wide variations in sharpness, which dragged down the final score. At the widest, brightest setting, (16mm f/2.8) we measured both the sharpest and the softest results in our resolution test. That setting produced over 2300 lw/ph at MTF50 at the center of the frame, which is fantastic, but as little as 560 lw/ph midway between the edge and the center. That’s an incredible dropoff, but something we were able to reproduce it in other shots, too.

Color Performance

Realistic colors and effective white balance

The A77 captures reasonably accurate JPEG colors by default. In the most realistic color mode ("Standard"), we measured a minimum average color error of 2.6—a solid number, by system-camera standards—with 106.5 percent saturation. Oversaturation is pretty typical of Sony, but saturation levels can be adjusted within the camera's individual color modes if you so desire. Greens, blues, and yellows are all pretty much spot-on by default, though reds are pushed a bit for extra intensity.

Aside from Standard, the A77 has five other color modes. Vivid intensifies and oversaturates. Neutral mutes and undersaturates. Portrait pushes yellows and reds, ostensibly for more radiant skin tones. Landscape pushes reds, blues, and greens. A black and white profile rounds out the options.

Auto white balance works very well in daylight and in other medium color temperatures. The AWB struggles in warm, incandescent lighting, which is a common failing among most digital cameras, but also in cooler fluorescent lighting, which is unusual. A manual white balance reading should work well in just about any lighting, though, as it balanced out daylight, fluorescent light, and incandescent light quite well in our tests. It isn’t perfect, but it's close enough for quick work.

Noise Reduction

Noisy output and heavy noise reduction hurt high-ISO shots.

Noise performance is a weak point for the A77. The overall score is fine, but the sensor gets pretty noisy at higher ISOs and aggressive noise reduction starts to degrade fine detail as early as ISO 800.

Three levels of noise reduction are available (low, normal, and high), but this function can’t be turned off completely. The signal-to-noise ratio is basically the same at all three NR levels at ISOs 100 (0.58%) and 200 (0.64%), indicating not much processing is being done at these settings. The results diverge starting at ISO 400; at the highest NR setting, the ratio actually drops compared to ISO 200. Overall, shots look great at these lower ISOs, with crisp detail and a clean look.

As we mentioned, noise reduction starts to soften details at ISO 800. It kicks in significantly at ISO 1600. ISO 3200 is the highest setting that we'd use, because even at the lowest noise reduction level, details start to get very muddy. Everything is a sloppy, spotty mess up at the top setting of ISO 16000, so suffice it to say, high ISO shooting is not the A77's strong suit.

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