When it comes to cameras, digital SLRs are a breed all their own. Many DSLR owners don't upgrade their bodies often -- if at all -- and even fewer would consider a switch to a competing camera system, especially after investing in a handful of high-end lenses. Manufacturers need to push innovation even further to target this segment of the market -- when some cameras cost thousands of dollars and already offer excellent performance, simply releasing a body with more megapixels and HD shooting options won't prompt photographers to pull out their credit cards. With its massive 24.3 megapixel sensor and high-res OLED electronic viewfinder, however, Sony's $1,399 Alpha A77 may just be the DSLR upgrade you've been waiting for. We spent a few days with a pre-production A77 paired with Sony's brand new 16-50mm f/2.8 lens ($1,999 in an A77 kit), and were very impressed with what will undoubtedly be a worthy successor to the well-received A700. Jump past the break for our initial impressions, along with plenty of still photo and HD video samples.
Sony Alpha A77 (hands-on)
At first glance, the A77 looks like any other DSLR. There don't appear to be any special dials, unique design features, or other markings that may reveal the beast within -- besides the A77 logo to the left of the lens mount. Your perception will change after picking it up, however. The magnesium alloy camera is surprisingly light (even with Sony's new 16-50mm f/2.8 lens), though still solid-feeling and quite durable. Its dual displays -- one tilt- and swivel-enabled 3-inch LCD, and that gorgeous XGA-resolution OLED EVF -- are unassuming at first, but their power and function become immediately apparent once you turn the power dial. We love the 24.3 megapixel sensor, but the camera's OLED viewfinder is the star of the show.
Not only is the EVF bright and vibrant, but its 1024 x 768-pixel resolution means images will appear incredibly sharp, with plenty of room left over to display complex settings. While it won't provide as natural of a look, the tiny eye-level display is otherwise on-par with some optical viewfinders, with the added benefit of adjustable brightness and a heads-up display-like settings readout. The main LCD is adequate as well. We found ourselves splitting our time fairly evenly between the two displays -- focusing on the EVF in bright sunlight, even though the main display was still visible, and using the main display when we needed to shoot at unusual angles, or to capture images without alerting our subjects (the near-silent shutter helps on that front as well). Full articulation provides easy viewing from above, below, to the side -- even from in front of the lens, letting you shoot self-portraits with a DSLR -- while the horizon indicator (also present with the EVF) helps you guarantee that you're holding the camera level. There's also a dedicated LCD data display, located on the top right of the body.
While having an excellent display is key to the overall user experience, image quality is far more critical -- even with the world's most powerful EVF, the A77 would be a dud without a top-notch sensor. The camera's images are among the highest quality we've seen, however. As expected, photos shot in ideal lighting conditions were superb. At the highest quality JPEG setting, images zoomed to 100 percent look very good -- details don't appear as sharp as when zoomed out, but we would have no qualms with cropping an image significantly for web use. Elements are noticeably sharper at the center of the image, and tend to degrade gradually (though not significantly) as you move toward the edge of the frame. Images shot side-by-side with a Canon 5D Mark II at f/5.6 and f/10 are noticeably sharper with the Canon when viewed at 100 percent (see our gallery for an example), but the 5D is a much pricier DSLR with a coveted full-frame sensor -- the Alpha offers excellent performance for an APS-C.
Sony Alpha A77 sample photos
The A77 also offers a wide variety of video shooting modes, including 1080 / 60p AVCHD. We spent more time shooting video at 1080i in MPEG4 format, however, in order to conserve storage space and produce samples for the web. Video appeared sharp and smooth, thanks to the optical image stabilization. In continuous focus mode, the camera adjusted seamlessly and almost instantaneously when panning from incredibly close subjects to those in the distance, as you'll see in the first sample below.
During our test period, we were able to capture 858 photos and more than 30 minutes of HD video on a single charge, despite spending a significant amount of time flipping through camera settings, reviewing images and videos with friends, and shooting with the built-in flash. The A77 uses a standard NP-FM500H InfoLithium 1650 mAh battery, so backups and replacements will be easy to find. The camera also includes a combination SDHC / Memory Stick slot on the right side -- there's no CompactFlash compatibility.
We only had a chance to scratch the surface of Sony's very capable flagship DSLR, and are looking forward to spending more time with the A77, testing out its 12 fps full-resolution continuous shooting, object-tracking autofocus, GPS tagging, automatic distortion correction, and 3D still and video modes. From our initial impressions, we were very impressed -- the camera offers good performance in all situations, and that high-res OLED EVF is a brilliant addition. We're also looking forward to testing Sony's NEX-7, which features the same 24.3 megapixel sensor, 1080p video capture, and OLED viewfinder -- with an only slightly more affordable price tag.
Update: Commenter Steve Jones pointed out the following oversight:
We have found this to be correct, and have updated the gallery images in question. At f/5.6, the A77's 100 percent view is much sharper than at f/10. Still, the image captured with the Canon 5D Mark II is sharper, but the difference is much less profound.You should not be shooting at f10 on a 24.3MP APS-C camera if you want optimal sharpness as it will be diffraction limited. Indeed that's even true at f8 and diffraction will only finally disappear as an issue by f5.6. In comparison, a 24MP FF camera will not be diffraction limited at F10.
α77 and α65 Models Expand Translucent Mirror Technology Line; Deliver 24.3 megapixels with up to 12- and 10- fps AF-enabled continuous shooting
SAN DIEGO, Aug. 24, 2011 – Blazing speed, enhanced image quality, high resolution and incredible performance are just some of the features advanced amateurs and photo enthusiasts will find in Sony's newest alpha cameras, models SLT-A77 (α77) and SLT-A65 (α65).
Sony's latest refinements to its Translucent Mirror Technology make these new cameras the fastest, most responsive interchangeable lens cameras in their class, as well as set new performance benchmarks that even professional DSLRs have yet to achieve. The α77 and α65 both feature a newly developed Exmor™ APS HD CMOS sensor with 24.3 effective megapixel resolution, as well as the world's first XGA OLED Tru-Finder™ viewfinder.
The sensor teams with the next generation of Sony's BIONZ® image processing engine to handle huge amounts of high speed data from the camera sensor, enabling unprecedented response times and flawless image quality with ultra-low noise when shooting still images or Full HD video.
"We feel that these cameras are not only a significant evolution of our breakthrough Translucent Mirror Technology," said Mike Kahn, director of the alpha camera business group for Sony Electronics. "They're also a revolution in terms of redefining how this unique technology can be put to use by enthusiasts."
The much anticipated successor to Sony's acclaimed α700 DSLR, the α77 boasts the world's fastest continuous autofocus (AF) shooting performance (among DSLRs in Aug 2011), capturing a burst of full resolution, 24 megapixel images at 12 frames per second with full-time phase-detection AF. The α65 achieves a similarly impressive 10fps shooting speed.
Precision AF tracking of moving subjects is more precise with the α77 due to a new 19-point autofocus system with 11 cross sensors. The α65 boasts 15-point AF with three cross sensors. Tracking Focus maintains accurate focus lock on a moving subject – even if the target is momentarily obscured. Additionally, a new electronic front shutter curtain achieves a minimum release time lag of approximately 50 milliseconds, comparable to much more expensive professional-class DSLRs.
The α77 and α65 further refine Sony's acclaimed Fast Continuous AF Full HD Movie shooting, already featured on previous Sony Translucent Mirror cameras. Phase Detection maintains accurate focus during video shooting of portrait subjects, even when they're moving at fast speeds.
Unprecedented image quality and creative options
A broad sensitivity range of ISO 100-16000 expands (α77 only) down to ISO 50. At the highest sensitivities, both cameras can freeze fast action or capture atmospheric low-noise shots without flash. Low ISO settings are ideal when used with a long exposure to create expressive shots, such as splashing water.
Both cameras showcase a remarkably crisp OLED Tru-Finder™ viewfinder, the world's first of its kind. With a 2359k dot (XGA) resolution, this precision electronic viewfinder offers a bright, highly detailed, high contrast image with 100 percent frame coverage and a wide field of view comparable to the most advanced class optical viewfinders.
However, unlike optical viewfinders, users have expansive customization capabilities through the XGA OLED Tru-Finder™ viewfinder and can preview the effects of adjusting exposure, white balance and other settings in real-time. Photographers can also make fine focus adjustments via a zoomed-in portion of the image.
The Smart Teleconverter displays an enlarged central portion of the image sensor, allowing compositions to be displayed clearly on the OLED viewfinder and captured as 12 megapixel images with a digital zoom factor of 1.4x or 2x.
In another first for DSLR cameras, both new models can capture Full HD video at 60p (progressive) frame rates – incorporating the recently introduced AVCHD™ Progressive (Ver. 2.0) format. Also, 24p shooting is available for capturing beautiful cinematic video footage. Manual focusing and P/A/S/M exposure modes, familiar to creative filmmakers, also can provide enhanced control during video shooting.
Shooters can compose and review stills and video on the adjustable-angle three-inch Xtra Fine LCD™ display that offers high resolution (921k dot) and TruBlack™ technology for superb detail and contrast. As an extra refinement, the α77 introduces the world's first three-way adjustable screen that tilts and pivots freely for effortless framing at any angle (α65: two-way adjust LCD).
Revised ergonomics on both cameras include a comfortably contoured new grip design and tactile new button layout for 'eyes off' operation while viewing via the high-resolution XGA OLED Tru-Finder™ viewfinder.
The α77 adds front and rear control dials for intuitive fingertip operation and a separate top-mounted LCD data display. The durable body features magnesium alloy panels for strength and lightness. Key controls are sealed against the effects of dust and moisture, complementing similar levels of protection offered by the new SAL1650 lens, VG-C77AM Vertical Grip for α77 and HVL-F43AM flash unit.
A new shutter unit on the α77 is tested up to 150,000 cycles and supports an ultra-fast minimum 1/8000 sec shutter speed (1/250 sec flash sync). On-board GPS allows automatic geo-tagging of photos and video clips with location data.
New DT 16-50mm F2.8 SSM zoom lens and accessories
The growing range of compatible A-mount lenses for both cameras now includes the quiet, bright DT 16-50mm F2.8 SSM standard zoom with 16mm wide angle coverage that's ideal for both portrait and everyday shooting.
The high-performance lens features a dust- and moisture-resistant design, and offers a zoom range of approximately 3x range at constant wide F2.8 aperture. Optical performance is assured by aspherical glass and three ED (Extra Low Dispersion) lens elements to minimize aberration at all focal lengths. An internal Super Sonic wave Motor (SSM) drive enables fast, quiet autofocus.
An optional dust- and moisture-resistant VG-C77AM Vertical Grip for α77 assures comfortable handling in vertical shooting positions. It can house up to two NP-FM500H InfoLITHIUM® batteries, doubling shooting stamina up to approximately 1060 shots (via LCD monitor)/940 shots (via Tru-Finder™ viewfinder) when using Memory Stick PRO Duo™ media. Other new A-mount system accessories include a back pack (LCS-BP2), soft carrying cases (LCS-SC21 and LCS-SC8), LCD protectors and eyepiece cups.
Pricing and Availability
The new α77 Translucent Mirror interchangeable lens camera will be available in a kit with the new SAL1650 f2.8 lens for about $2000, and offered as body-only for about $1400. The SAL1650 lens will also be sold separately for about $700.
The new VG-C77AM vertical grip, designed for the α77 camera, will be available in October for about $300.
The new α65 Translucent Mirror interchangeable lens camera will be available in a kit with a standard 18-55mm lens (SAL1855) for about $1000, and offered as body-only for about $900.
Both the α77 and α65 cameras kits and the new SAL1650 lens will be available this October at Sony retail stores (www.store.sony.com) as well as other authorized retailers throughout the Sony dealer network.
For "sneak peak" videos of the new products, please visit www.sony.com/cameravideos.