Sony is introducing a new entry level camera to its SLT (single lens translucent) Alpha line, packing many of the bells and whistles of its beefier cameras into a lighter shell. The Sony Alpha SLT-A37 packs a 16.1 megapixel APS-C sensor, a 15-point AF system and the same Bionz processor as its bigger sibling, the Sony Alpha A77. We had an opportunity to take the camera for a spin recently, testing it with a new 18-135mm zoom lens.
The A37 is relatively light, weighing about a pound (sans lens, of course). That telephoto zoom lens adds a bit of heft, but it never felt unwieldy or cumbersome. The body feels sturdy, albeit a bit small for larger hands — it measures in at 4.9 inches wide by 3.6 inches tall and 3.3 inches deep. Rubberized grips on the right side of the camera give your fingers and thumb a steady resting place, and made the entire shooting experience rather comfortable.
The control layout is near identical to the Alpha A35 that preceded it, and shares much in common with the A77. There's a directional pad with menu options on the back of the camera, along with a few readily accessible buttons arrayed along the right edge in easy reach of your thumb and index finger. A scroll wheel sits on the front of the camera, directly underneath the power switch. If you're unfamiliar with the layout of Sony cameras (or are cursed with large fingers), the two might be a bit too close — we managed to shut the camera off with alarming regularity while fiddling with that scroll wheel.
The 2.7-inch LCD screen tilts out away from the camera. It can be angled to face downwards, or tilted back to lie horizontally. The extremely limited range of motion is disappointing when compared to higher-end shooters like the A77 or even the Canon Rebel T3i, but any flexibility is better than none. You're paying for that tilt, though: the 230k dot resolution display on the LCD is a far cry from the 921k dot resolution display on the A35's LCD, which was affixed to the rear of the camera but measured in at 3 inches across.
If you've been weaned on traditional optical viewfinders or point-and-shoot cameras, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) can take a bit of getting used to. Its half-inch LCD is larger than many entry-level optical viewfinders, and offers 100 percent frame coverage, giving you a general idea of a shot's composition and appearance letting you tweak settings while peeking through the viewfinder. A nice thought, and novices may appreciate being able to see the effects of futzing with the manual controls while they're lining up an image. The EVF can also display a histogram and exposure meter, which can prove useful while you're pulling shots together.
That said, there was some ghosting while peering through the EVF and trying to follow fast-moving objects on that bright, sunny day — that display can only refresh so quickly. Not a deal breaker, but it did cause us to botch a few shots. It's ultimately the difference between looking through a window and looking at a television screen; we're still partial to traditional optical viewfinders. That said, photos look great: colors are accurate, and details like shadows and reflections turned up clearly. The A37's ISO range climbs up to 16,000, but we saw significant noise by ISO 2500. Alas, during our limited hands-on time we weren't really able to get an extensive take on the camera's low-light performance.
The A37 offers 11 different shooting modes. Of note is Superior Auto Mode, which attempts to cycle through different modes intelligently. It works well enough: get close up to a flower and the camera slides into macro mode, while pointing the lens at a wider vista triggers a landscape mode. It isn't foolproof — the camera would often switch to portrait mode for particular landscape shots, when people were in the foreground of our shots. All told, it's great way for folks who are new to DSLRs to get a feel for how the camera handles.
Another notable shooting option is the Auto Portrait Framing mode, which follows the rule of thirds to crops the edges out of your shot. Sony's By Pixel Super Resolution technology sidles in here, analyzing pixels and their neighbors to create a full, 16 megapixel version of the cropped image. It's a functional shooting mode, if not a very impressive one. The camera keeps a copy of both the original and cropped image, so you'll risk little by trying it out. Sony's "clear image zoom" also takes advantage of By Pixel Super Resolution, offering a clearer zoom with the same pixel-filling technology. Sony representatives made absolutely clear that this isn't a replacement for optical zoom lenses, but could come in handy in a pinch.
The A37 can record video in AVHCD and MP4 formats at 1080/60i or 1080/24p, shooting 7 frames per second at 8 megapixels — full resolution shooting occurs at 5.5 frames per second. Video takes advantage of the camera AF's tracking autofocus, which differentiates between faces and objects and attempts to keep smooth, continuous focus on moving targets.
The Sony Alpha SLT-A37 will be arriving in June; $599 gets you the camera and an 18-55mm kit lens. The 18-135mm lens we tested will be available in a kit for $799, or $500 as a stand-alone lens.