The Sony Alpha SLT-A77 has been a long time coming — the company’s latest DSLR was announced in August, but production delays have kept it from being widely available even now. Many people have waited eagerly for it, though, and with good reason: the 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor (the same one that does so well in the A77’s smaller cousin, the NEX-7) promises huge, beautiful images, and Sony claims the camera can shoot 12 frames per second.
It also features the same translucent mirror we’ve seen in other Sony DSLRs, which has typically led to a huge improvement in focusing performance. It all sounds great, but at $1,999.99 with a kit lens, the A77 is encroaching on Nikon’s and Canon’s territory — and that’s a hard battle to win against the two camera giants. How does Sony fare? Read on.
Hardware / design
Big, and heavy — but that shouldn't be surprising
There's no two ways about it: the A77 is a big, heavy camera. The body itself weighs a relatively average 1.4 pounds, but the kit lens adds another 1.3; you won't forget you're carrying this camera around. At 5.75 inches wide by 4.13 inches tall and 3.25 inches deep, its footprint is also considerably larger than a camera like the Canon 7D, the A77’s mid-range APS-C competitor. That said, it's still comfortable to hold, partly thanks to the huge rubberized grip for your right hand.
The weather-coated magnesium alloy body is roughly textured on the sides and bottom, and smooth on the top. The camera's very sturdy and solid, though the grip’s rubber covering does wobble ever so slightly underneath your fingers as if it’s not totally attached; I've noticed that with a number of cameras, but it's disconcerting nonetheless. The mode dial sits on top of the camera, to the left of the pentaprism hump that also houses the hotshoe, a gray metallic speaker / microphone grille, and the pop-up flash. The flash is relatively powerful, but it's not as useful as those on some of Sony's other cameras; it points straight ahead by default, and can only be moved to point downward, so you can't really bounce it off the ceiling or use it to fill. The NEX-7's versatile flash can tilt both forward and backward and would be a killer addition here, but the A77’s flash is as good as those on most DSLRs, and in all likelihood you'll want to use external flashes and speedlites whenever possible anyway.
The top of the camera is also home to a monochrome LCD, along with controls for ISO, white balance, exposure, and a viewfinder / LCD toggle. There are scroll wheels at the front and rear for your right index finger and thumb, and the power switch rings the shutter button. On the front are a large AF illuminator, a focus toggle, and a customizable preview button. Around back, there's — you guessed it — more buttons. There's a button for AE lock, one for toggling display options, and several others. (More on those below.) The left side of the camera has a single card slot that accepts either SD or Sony's MemoryStick cards, which is an odd choice for a professional-level camera; we're used to seeing either a single CF, dual SD, or a combination of the two in most pro DSLRs, so to get only one SD slot is odd. It won’t be a problem for everyone, but for those used to having redundant media in case one card fails, it could be a dealbreaker.
The right side's four port flaps hide a microphone input, Mini USB and Mini HDMI ports, a PC Sync socket for connecting external lights, a remote control port, and an AC adapter. Those are all studio-friendly, pro-level features, and indicate the likely audience for this camera: professionals not worried about the weight or size, and just want every feature possible.
Half of choosing a camera is choosing an ecosystem
Normally "kit lens" is something of a pejorative term for the cheapest lens you can buy with your camera, though fortunately kit lenses seem to be improving. The A77’s kit lens, for instance, is awesome. It extends from 16-50mm, and the aperture opens all the way to f/2.8 even at the telephoto end. As I mentioned earlier, it’s heavy and huge, but it feels high-quality, is smooth and sharp, and feels a lot less like a kit lens than most — Sony reps told me they call it "the not-a-kit-lens," and I totally get that.
Speaking of lenses, whenever you’re buying a camera it’s crucial to consider the ecosystem you’re buying into. And for now, Sony’s still behind Canon and Nikon, both in quantity and quality of lenses. Sony has good lenses — I tested the A77 with a 50mm f/1.4 macro lens and a 70-300mm f/4.5 zoom, and liked both — but they’re expensive, and there aren’t nearly as many available as you’d get with Nikon or Canon. Sony's case is even harder for photographers who already own a DSLR — odds are they own a Canon or Nikon camera —and would have to switch into an entirely new ecosystem. Over the life of your camera, you’ll probably spend more money on lenses than on camera bodies, so make sure you choose carefully, and find out if Sony’s offering is enough to cover everything you’d want.
Viewfinder and display
The LCD matters more on the A77 than most cameras
Technically speaking, the A77 isn't a DSLR — it's an SLT, a Single-Lens Translucent camera. (I'm going to keep calling it a DSLR, though, since that's its class and competition.) Rather than flipping up when you click the shutter, the A77’s mirror is transparent, reflecting light to the image sensor and autofocus sensor simultaneously. That's a great feature, particularly given its effect on autofocus performance (more on that below), but it has a big consequence: there’s no way to use an optical viewfinder. So the A77 uses an OLED electronic viewfinder, and it's as good as any EVF I've ever used, equalled only by the NEX-7 (which, incidentally, has the same viewfinder). The big half-inch display is filled with 2.4 million dots, offers 100 percent frame coverage, and is really sharp and clear. It also displays all kinds of added information — histograms, menus, playback, horizon levels, and more can all be overlayed on the EVF. You actually don't ever need to use the rear external LCD on the A77, if you don't want to.
That's the good stuff. There's only one negative, and for me it's fatal: no EVF is as good as an optical viewfinder. The A77's viewfinder doesn't always represent colors accurately, often showing things too dark and too contrasted — I'd only figure out for sure if I'd gotten the right shot when I saw it on my computer. The OLED's refresh rate is also only so fast, so if you're moving the camera around a lot you get some definite ghosting. It's largely a matter of personal preference, and the A77's EVF is certainly among the best in its class, but I never really enjoyed using it.
I also didn't find the viewfinder very comfortable to use. The LCD below it sticks out so far that I had to turn my face way off to the side just to be able to press my eye up to the viewfinder, and the rubber piece around the display is hard and uncomfortable. You can pull off the rubber, but that looks ugly, and only fixes the second problem — it’s still hard to get your eye close enough without removing your nose from your face.
Fortunately, the 3-inch TFT LCD on the back of the A77 is also an excellent display, so I just gave up on the EVF altogether. The LCD is filled by 921,600 dots, and like most devices we’ve seen with Sony's TruBlack technology, its blacks are really, really black — it looks great, though again it does so at the expense of some accuracy since photos sometimes look a bit too contrasted on the LCD. It's viewable in sunlight, except for when it's coated in oils from your fingers and face — and it's really oleophilic, so every time you put your eye to the viewfinder it'll pick up oils from your face and get greasy.
The LCD also tilts and rotates, so you can hold the camera at literally any angle and still see the display. You can flip the screen around so it's facing inward, preventing it from scratching while you carry it around. You can shoot around corners, above your head, whatever — it'll even peek over the hotshoe and point straight at your subject, so you can shoot the highest-res self-portraits ever. It's a really nice feature, and I got some great shots because of it. The only thing you can’t do? Flip it out of the way to make the viewfinder more accessible — as soon as you rotate the larger display out, it stays on until you fold it back into its original spot.
Even a good EVF doesn't measure up to an OVF
A proximity sensor determines which screen you want to be using, but it's not a very good system. First of all, it switches to the EVF when your face is about six inches away — presumably so it'll already be turned on when you first look into it — which means if you're looking closely at a photo or a detail on the LCD, you'll trigger the switch. Second, it takes up to a few seconds to switch each time, so you'll spend too much time staring at blank screens waiting for something to happen. It also means that if you're carrying the camera around, and it's turned on, the big LCD is going to be on all the time except when your eye is pressed to the viewfinder. That's quite the battery suck. There's a button next to the viewfinder that lets you switch manually between displays, and I wound up just turning off the sensor and using that.
Controls and interface
All the controls you could ever need
One of the biggest advantages of buying the A77 over a camera like the NEX-7 is the sheer number of buttons, dials, switches and levers. There's virtually no button missing on the A77, and most settings are only a touch or a spin away. One I love is the AF/MF button, which lets you switch focusing modes and activate focus peaking while you're pressing the button down, so you can see an outline of exactly what's in focus; it's great for manually focusing one difficult shot before switching back to auto.
There's a joystick for navigating through menus and options, which works well but is slightly too sensitive — it occasionally went down when I tried to navigate left, and vice versa.
I don't particularly care for the default layout of a few of the controls, though, because it seems like the most important ones are a bit hidden. There's a big button for launching straight into video recording, but it's a long stretch for your thumb, while the AF/MF button — a button I personally use far less — is in a much more accessible spot. The Menu button is clear on the other side of the camera, alone in the top left corner where you might not even notice it.
Some of my opinion is certainly due to the fact that I've used a Nikon D7000 for a while and am used to how it operates, but it seems like Sony could've laid the controls out a little more intuitively. Fortunately, you can customize a number of them, you'll just have to get used to ignoring the buttons’ labels if you’ve changed their functions.
The A77’s on-screen interface is really simple, with every setting accessible via a single menu system that you navigate with the joystick. Most of the basic settings appear around the edges of the screen, and you access them by hitting the Fn button and then scrolling around. More complicated features and settings take you into the gray-and-black text-based menu.
It’s a relatively straightforward interface, though it’s weirdly laggy — it takes a second to open the menu when you first press the button, and then the menu is always a beat behind the joystick, to the point where I’d occasionally hit it again, thinking nothing had happened, and then it would jump forward twice.
Most of the gimmicky features on a lot of cameras would feel a little out of place on a camera like the A77. Filters and effects usually make a decent photo look better by making it more artistic, but a $2,000 camera is typically able to capture great-looking images without any funky post-processing. In addition to the usual cadre of scene modes — Portrait, Twilight, Snow, and the like — there are a few effects on the A77, like HDR, Toy Camera and Miniature, plus a few filters like Vivid and Monochrome. It's a fairly muted set of options, and this is definitely not the camera for taking Instagram-style pictures. All the filters live in the on-screen menu that you access with the Fn button, and are pretty easy to ignore if you so choose.
Smile Shutter is another thing I can't imagine most A77 owners ever using — it waits until your subject is smiling to shoot the photo, but that feature's always a little finicky. The Sweep Panorama mode we loved in the NEX-7 is here as well, but otherwise there's not a whole lot to do with your photos other than just shoot them. There is a neat focus peaking mode, which will show you the part of your photo that’s currently in focus, by outlining it in red or yellow. It’s really useful for super-fine focusing points, which you can’t always discern just by looking.
Perhaps the most unique shooting feature (at least among DSLRs) of the A77 is its GPS chip, which lets you geotag your photos and then plot them on a map using iPhoto, Picasa, and the like. It works well, too, and after an excruciatingly long initial setup (it took more than five minutes to find a signal the first time), it locked on and found a signal quickly every subsequent time. It's a huge battery drain, though, so use it sparingly.
Sony's too cool for faux-retro filters
Quality and performance
Gorgeous images — but we expect that from a $2,000 DSLR
The A77 uses the exact same 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor as the NEX-7, and to similar effect: its photos look fantastic. Photos are sharp and clean, though they do get a little softer as you move to the corners and edges. Colors are accurate and clear (even though they don't always look it in the viewfinder), and details are remarkably well-produced — even shadows and reflections in windows came out crystal clear. Dynamic range isn’t perfect, and I got a lot of blown-out blue skies, but fortunately the HDR mode works well in those situations and it’s not a huge problem anyway. White balance was occasionally slightly off, especially indoors — the A77 tends to assign everything a slightly warmer color temperature than I’m used to, though it’s fine outdoors. I expect near-perfection from a $2,000 DSLR, and the A77 definitely lived up to my expectations in terms of image quality. The in-camera image stabilization is a particular strength, letting me shoot at the telephoto end of a 70-300mm lens in a relatively dark room and still get clear shots.
Low-light performance is solid, but not overwhelmingly impressive. The A77's native ISO range goes up to ISO 16,000, and though I wouldn't recommend pushing it that high, photos are still decent even at that level. Photos are basically noise-free through about ISO 800, and only the slightest bit soft through about ISO 4000. After that you're definitely dealing with significant noise and softness — the latter due in part to the aggressive noise reduction in the A77 — but it's really not a problem until you're over about 8000. If you're shooting photos to upload to the web, you're probably safe even at ISO 8000; just don't try and print photos beyond about ISO 4000. Those aren't nearly the see-in-the-dark numbers you'd get from a recent full-frame DSLR or even some of the A77's direct competitors like the Nikon D7000, but they're in range of most APS-C shooters. You can also customize the range of the Auto ISO setting, which every camera company ought to allow. By default the A77 will only go up to ISO 1600 in Auto mode, but you can set it to go as high as ISO 12,800 — I set it to ISO 3200 and it worked out really well.
24.3 megapixels is insanely high-res, and while it's overkill for some users I can't imagine anyone for whom it won't be enough — you’ll be able to crop and zoom to your heart’s content as you process your photos. Photos are 6000 x 4000 pixels by default, which comes in at a pretty large 8MB per photo, and upward of 25MB each if you're shooting in RAW.
The laggy performance I discovered in the menu system is made all the stranger by the fact that the A77 does everything else impressively quickly. The camera can turn on and capture a photo in a little under two seconds, and it only needs a fraction of a second between photos — in single capture mode, I shot 78 photos in 45 seconds. The continuous shooting mode, though, is what’s most impressive: the A77 can shoot 12 full-resolution frames per second, and captured about 25 frames in two seconds onto my Class 10 SanDisk SD card before the buffer caught up and it slowed down a bit. The shutter lag is so low that I actually had trouble only capturing one frame if I was in a continuous shooting mode — by the time I’d pressed and released the shutter, I’d taken more like three or four frames.
What’s really crazy about those speeds, though, is that I took those pictures shooting in Live View, with every shot perfectly in focus. That’s the awesome advantage of an SLT camera: since it’s reflecting light to the autofocus sensor at all times, even while capturing a photo, the continuous autofocus is insanely fast. The A77 always uses phase-detect autofocus, which is far better than the contrast-detect autofocus that other manufacturers use in Live View; it measures light rather than contrast, and can automatically jump to focus rather than having to test and check until it finds a sharp point like contrast-detect autofocus. The A77 has 19 autofocus points, 11 of which are crosstype sensors — it adds up to a really fantastic autofocus system, and I found myself switching to manual focus far less often than I typically do. Focusing stumbles a bit in low light — it hunts a lot, more than I expected — but it’s fantastic in good lighting and certainly usable in poor light.
Like the NEX-7, the A77 offers a variety of different video recording modes. You can shoot 1080p video at 60 frames per second in AVCHD 2.0, or a strange 1440 x 1080 in MPEG4, plus a variety of lower resolutions and frame rates. You can shoot in a variety of manual and priority modes, but unfortunately the continuous autofocus only works if you’re in the automatic mode. When it is activated, though, the continuous AF works pretty well, changing focus quickly but smoothly and rarely locking onto the wrong subject. The image stabilization doesn’t translate as well, though: I have pretty steady hands, and my video was still surprisingly shaky.
Video looks great, clear and richly detailed. At 1080p the A77 has a tendency to oversaturate blacks a bit, so shots feel a little more heavily contrasted than they should, but that problem is neither unique to Sony nor a dealbreaker. There is one possible dealbreaker, though: a couple of times during my testing, I'd see ripples of color throughout the frame in footage I shot (you can see it in the sample video above, at about the 35-second mark). It didn't happen often, but it's a really ugly effect and could potentially ruin a shot.
Being able to shoot at 60 frames per second is also great, and makes action and motion really smooth — you'll get a lot of moire, though. The built-in microphone does a nice job of capturing sound, and is impressively loud and sensitive, but it also picks up every tiny background noise and a ton of whooshing from wind, so you'll want to use an external mic whenever you can.
Video clips are capped at 30 minutes, but I shot full clips without the camera overheating or running into any problems. When cameras like the 7D can only shoot 12-minute clips, and frequently overheat, Sony’s ability to keep the A77 cool under pressure is a nice feature. 1080p60 files come in at about 170MB per minute — you’re going to need a big, fast SD card with the A77.
Battery life on the A77 is wildly dependent on how you use the camera. With GPS on, and the camera automatically switching to the LCD whenever it was away from my eye, it only lasted me a hundred or so shots plus a few minutes of video. But with a little more caution — manually switching between displays, GPS off — I got about 450 shots out of the A77, plus about ten minutes of video, before I had to recharge the camera. That’s not as good as the D7000, which lasts for a thousand shots or more, but it’s decent.
Ever since I got my hands on Sony’s NEX-7, I’ve had high expectations for the company’s digital cameras. For the most part, the A77 lives up to them: it’s exceptionally fast, takes sharp, detailed pictures, and offers just about every feature I’d want from a mid-range DSLR. Its full-time Live View capabilities and phase-detect autofocus are superior to almost every mid-range DSLR I’ve used, and make the A77 a really great choice for a first-time DSLR buyer, since the camera can do so much of the work for you. But the A77 has its fair share of limitations, too: from the laggy menus to the slightly odd default button layout, not everything about the A77 feels properly thought out, and the lens ecosystem is a level below Nikon and Canon. It also shoots photos that are noticeably noisier than some of its competition. The A77 is an excellent camera that will serve most people very well, but it’s hard to recommend it over the Nikon D7000, the Canon EOS 60D, or even Sony’s own NEX-7, which takes equally fantastic pictures and videos in a body far smaller and at a price far lower.