The Sony Alpha 77-a (P)review
How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb? 50. One to change the bulb, and forty-nine to say, “I could have done that!” -Anonymous
When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe. “You must have a wonderful camera…It must be the best camera in the world…You must show me your camera.” Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London. When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: “I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter.” –Anonymous
Let’s face it. The camera is the heart of our art.
You will probably be told that it is the 6 inches behind the camera viewfinder which makes all the difference. If you haven’t, you soon will be. While that is true, there is no question that the camera you use will have a powerful effect upon the type of photograph you make and its quality. One-size-fits-all simply does not apply in photography: a large format camera is the perfect tool for certain types of photographs, a medium format camera will suit others, a reflex is superb at certain types of photography while a rangefinder cannot be bettered for others. The trick then is to find the camera which will do most of the things you want well, and require a few compromises for other styles of photography. And developments in camera technology can have a powerful effect on our ability to realise our vision more accurately.
But first, a little history.
My very first “real” camera was a venerable Minolta SRT 101, which I’m convinced was made from recycled tank parts. It certainly felt heavy enough. It simply never broke down. That was back in 1971, and I never thought the day would come when I would use Minolta again.
For many years Minolta, who were the first manufacturer to use full aperture metering, carried on, making great cameras (and a few dogs) and superb lenses. One day they were bought out by Konica, and became known as Konica-Minolta. I’m led to believe that Konica really wanted to absorb the photocopier arm, and got the camera business as well. Minolta were, of course, making lenses for other manufacturers. Sometime later a bigger fish came along and swallowed both of them. Sony, who were already at the forefront of moving image technology, and who probably led the market in point-and-shoots, wanted to begin selling serious cameras. So they bought Konica Minolta, lock stock and barrel, and began developing their digital SLR wing.
Without the philosophical legacy of pure camera production of firms like Nikon and Canon, and because they had an enormous R& D department, they were able to move in new directions, explore new technologies and incorporate these into their cameras. It is interesting to note that the two most progressive camera manufacturers at the moment are Sony and Panasonic, who have a strong consumer electronics background. Remember that the modern digital camera is essentially a computer with a lens on the front and S7P do both really well.
As most of you know, I am a Sony user, so naturally I am biased. Even though the opposition make wonderful cameras as well, it is Sony’s constant development of sensor technology and the user interface which continues to gain my respect and attention.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to use their latest offering, the Alpha 77V, which uses a 24.5 megapixel APS-C sensor. This is the replacement for the venerable A 700, and a lot of people have been waiting for this camera for quite some time. Some were even beginning to give up hope… In releasing this camera, Sony have more or less filled in all the gaps in their model range, using and refining the technologies they incorporated in the game-breaking HX5V, ported to the E-mount NEX 5, then introduced in the Alpha 33 and 55.
The Alpha 77 is another in the series of SLT single lens reflexes, which uses a (translucent) mirror, similar to the pellicle mirror Canon used in the EOS RT cameras. Put simply, the mirror is fixed, and therefore there is no risk of mirror slap introducing vibration and the file. This is especially important in light cameras, where the micro-vibration induced by the mirror movement can cause subtle loss of detail in the photograph. There is huge debate around whether or not light passing through the mirror degrades the image. I have yet to see it.
The model I used was a preproduction model, one of only two in New Zealand, and it was using firmware version 1.0.2. I’m told that final production models will have quite different and upgraded firmware. They will certainly need to: several times, just after I got it, the camera would hang, and only a hard reboot (take out battery, wait for a minute, reinsert battery, power up) would get it going again. The camera came without a charger, software or a manual (presumably they are still printing them!). Fortunately it uses the 500-series InfoLithium battery, the same ones which power the Alpha 900, so I had a charger which would work.
With less than 48 hours to shoot, I opted to shoot in Raw plus Extra Fine JPEG. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find a suitable raw converter, but I wanted the files anyway for later analysis. As it turned out, the free open source raw converter, RawTherapee V126.96.36.199 (which I highly recommend!) has profiles which recognise the Alpha 77 raw files. So too does the latest release candidate of Bibble 5 ( hunt for it in their forum). This has allowed me to work with the files and compare them to the JPEG versions. More about that later.
As I’ve written in other reviews, I am frankly not that interested in the nuts and bolts of the camera, and talking about all the fine details of functionality and design. You can find that elsewhere on the net. I’m interested in whether this camera will fit my photographic needs on the one hand, and delivers files of sufficient quality for exhibition, sale and publishing. I also want the camera to see things my way, to work with me rather than against me.
Ergonomics and functionality
In size the Alpha 77 is similar to a Canon 7D, with about the same weight and size. In fact there are echoes of Canon and the mode control dial in the top left, and the ability to use the back dial to apply exposure compensation on the fly (or you can assign this function to the front dial). If there was one function I missed from my Canon days it was that option. I cannot remember how many times I cursed the on-off switch on my Alpha 900, and wished they would do the same thing as Nikon and put it on a ring around the shutter button. Well, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Any Nikon user will recognise this instantly.
The camera sits beautifully in your left hand, and the grip is just about the right size for my large bloke hands. Amongst all the other buttons is the joystick, a Sony tradition, and it works beautifully. All the buttons are logically placed and fall naturally under your thumb-except one. I gave up counting the number of times I reached for the function button and began recording video. While the button is easy to see when your eye is away from the camera, it becomes invisible when you’re using the viewfinder, and my files are packed with little 10 second video clips I never wanted. I’m hoping there is some control in the menus which allows me to disengage it. If not, perhaps Sony will do so in a future firmware update. I particularly enjoy the depth of field preview button, which gives you a very accurate representation of how your shot will appear without dimming it! The rest of it is Sony legacy, and any Sony user will find it takes next to no time to get familiar with the camera.
The viewfinder, however, is a revelation. The 2.4 million pixel OLED viewfinder, which delivers 100% of the frame, is astonishing. Traditionalists will still favour an optical viewfinder, and the Alpha 900′s is still regarded as one of the best ever made (Minolta legacy). The Alpha 77’s viewfinder doesn’t quite stand toe to toe with the 900 in this regard, but the advantages of an EVF (electronic viewfinder), to my mind, clearly outweigh and overrule the clarity of an OVF (optical viewfinder). By playing with the display button (and selecting options in the menu), it is possible to extensively customise your viewfinder to work the way you do. The viewfinder has things I really like, for example, the ability to impose gridlines (or not), a live histogram which takes the guesswork out of exposure ( or not), and a viewfinder horizon level thingy, which makes you feel as if you are taking the Starship Enterprise where no man has ever gone before (or not). You can further customise what functions you see in the viewfinder, eliminating or adding as you see fit. I also have mine set so that when I shoot a file, I get instant feedback without having to take my eye away from it, including seeing basic EXIF data and an RGB histogram.
The camera also has a really cute foldout LCD, with more moves than a pole dancer. I really only had time for a cursory play with that, and even less time to think about when I might use all of the possible permutations, so time and experience will tell. The LCD allows you, of course, to use your camera rather like a medium format waist level camera such as the iconic Rolleiflex. This can come in very handy when you don’t want people to realise you’re photographing them or you want to avoid making eye contact (really useful when photographing Hells Angels).
As previously mentioned, Sony began introducing a lot of new technologies in their point-and-shoots, which they have carried across to their serious SLR’s. There are all the usual scene modes (Handheld Twilight, etc), Stitch Panorama and 3-D Panorama, along with all the usual modes (P, A, S, M) and a function for storing favourite settings. But there are more than this. When you dig into the menu, you will find the option to apply lens corrections (distortion, CA, vignetting, etc). I wasn’t sure what these meant, so I tried them anyway. Remembering that a raw file is pure data, I suspected any corrections would be made to the JPEG. So it proved. The photograph of the lake was shot in RAW plus JPEG, and while the raw file had considerable chromatic aberration (the DT 16-80 f3.5-4.5 is known for this), the JPEG was completely clean and avoid of any optical problems. It would seem that the camera applies in-built corrections when writing the JPEG. It is almost enough to make you want to shoot JPEG…
The DRO function (Dynamic Range Optimiser) analyses the scene contrast and applies gain in the shadows to open them up, while holding back the highlights to avoid them blowing out. You can choose the degree of expansion or leave it up to the camera. I chose the latter and there were no files which were unrecoverable.
But wait, there’s more.
Because the mirror is fixed, the shutter is remarkably quiet, and the release time (around 20 ms I believe) is astonishingly quick. The shutter release travel is very short, which makes it perfect when you’re responding to the moment. I do believe that this may be the most intuitive and fastest shutter release I have ever used.
The whole camera is strongly and robustly built, with a magnesium chassis and a very pleasant textured finish. It has a considerable degree of weather sealing, which makes it perfect for using outdoors in bad weather. Apparently the shutter is good for 100,000 cycles, more than enough for most pros. Remember that digital cameras have short technological shelf lives compared to film cameras, and 100,000 cycles is probably enough for most people before they replace the camera.
At 24.5 M P, there is about as much space on the APS-C sensor as a Tokyo tram in the rush hour, and I was worried that there were too many pixels. I was also worried about the camera’s ability to write sufficiently quickly to the card. Fortunately Sony have done away with the Memory Stick on this model, and the camera uses standard SD cards. As an aside I note the number of camera manufacturers who have moved to this card standard, and I suspect that the way things are going, it won’t be long before CompactFlash is a fading memory. Using a class 10 SDHC card, a SanDisk Extreme III, I found the camera could write a raw file in about two seconds. It seems to have a large buffer and the burst mode (12 frames/sec), had no trouble in writing to the card in real time.
The focusing was very quick, even for the legacy lenses I used. As well as the Carl Zeiss 16-80, I shot with a Sony 35/1.4 G, which is not the fastest tool in Sony’s shed. Nevertheless they focused as fast as anything I have used.
Battery life, while good, is not outstanding, but that is understandable. Remember that the battery has to power the viewfinder as well as doing everything else. I would recommend carrying at least one other battery on a Big Day Out.
These days the thought of carrying 16.5 kg of camera equipment around the world at a time when the airlines are resistant to anything over 20 kg (unless you fly business), has had me searching for a camera which could deliver at the very top level, for exhibition publishing or stock, while still being able to be taken that on board as carry-on baggage, which would enable me to travel overseas with three lenses at most in an unobtrusive backpack. The Sony Alpha 77 seems to me to fit in a wonderful space between consumer and professional and yet be perfect for both. An amateur photographer will find it an astonishingly capable and effective picture making machine, while there is enough durability, functional flexibility and quality of result for it to be taken very seriously indeed. Somebody wishing to travel light will take the camera body with a couple of DT lenses, while a working professional will probably want to use the fast zooms or primes in the Sony range. It seems to me that the days where we spent $12,000 on a camera body which would last 4 to 5 years (and quickly become obsolete) are gone. You can buy six Sony Alpha 77s for the cost of one Canon 1DS Mk III, and given the speed with which camera technologies are changing, a camera which does everything a top end pro machine does for a mere fraction of the price makes better business sense.
I got home with my card full of images, and I was dead keen to see if the Alpha 77 was able to deliver on its promise. As previously mentioned, it was important to be able to process a raw file if possible. A little bit of Googling quickly established that the two raw converters I previously mentioned would be able to handle the file. RawTherapee was able to recognise the files and produce some very fine results. For reasons I have yet to understand, alpha 77 raw files (technically the same as Alpha 900) are about 10 MB smaller, at 25.6 MB. However, when opened, they produce a 16-bit TIFF of around 135 MB, approximately the same size as their full frame cousins. That suggests that there is a degree of compression in the Alpha 77 files.
As I mentioned before, the camera was a preproduction model, with preproduction firmware. Files I shot showed slight evidence of noise at 400 ISO, and at 1600 ISO, there was luminance noise, which while evident, was not unobjectionable. RawTherapee, which has some fabulous noise reduction technologies, was easily able to get rid of it. I would imagine that the final firmware release will sort out a lot of those issues.
Portraits I shot showed remarkably clean and accurate skin tones, a thing of vital importance to portrait and wedding photographers. Even using auto white balance, there was very little evidence of bias in any direction, with Caucasian skin tones being exceptionally well controlled. There was little of the reddish tan so commonly seen in portrait shots on Canon cameras, which tend to lean towards the red.
The Coffee House in Montréal Street in Central Christchurch is something of an icon and a mecca for caffeine addicts. Anyone who has ever gone there for coffee and/or food will know what I mean. To my astonishment it is one of the few wooden heritage buildings which escaped the Christchurch earthquakes. On Friday night we were passing, on the way back to our hotel, and I saw it, a small island of lights, joy and gaiety in the now-darkened heart of central Christchurch. For a brief moment I felt like Weegee, prowling the night-time streets. I wanted to capture the feeling and flavour of the night, and since I hadn’t brought my tripod, it would have to be handheld.
I used my Sony 35/1.4 G (FF equivalent= 50 mm) and made a photograph across the street, shooting in raw plus JPEG. Shot details can be seen underneath the header image. Steady shot has always been a core Sony technology, and at the time I didn’t really look at the exposure data. I was listening to the old rule: F8 and be there. Using a combination of RawTherapee, CS5, Nik Define 2.0 and Perfect Resize, i was able to produce a finished print of 600 mm X 600 mm, output on my Canon IPF 6300. With a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second and handhold, the likelihood of a razor-sharp print is minimal, yet somehow the print has held together remarkably well. It more than compares with the quality of a medium-format film camera, the aesthetic area in which it is working and is testament to how good theSony in-body stabilisation really is.
The graphic graffiti photograph was made in another area of Christchurch. The raw file exhibits chromatic aberration and significant barrel distortion, yet the JPEG has none of this, a clear indication of the direction being done in-camera. Any photographer who regularly works with JPEG will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that. Time is, after all money,.
So who is this camera for? You’ve probably got the impression from the comments I have made that I see this as a camera for a professional. And that is true. Any working photographer, be he/she in weddings, portrait or sports, will find an awful lot to like in this camera. The flexibility of setup and the ability to customise different options and combinations of them make it clear that Sony have produced this camera with a professional in mind. It is also clear that Sony are expanding their target market. For all of that Alpha 77 is sufficiently easy to use that a beginning photographer will have little trouble getting to know it. Amateur/club photographers will likewise find a whole lot to like (and to brag about). Travel and stock photographers would do well to look at this camera, which offers huge horsepower and output for not a lot of money. And lastly the quality is such that documentary and/or or fine art photographers can find an awful lot to like about it.
Put another way, this is a camera for every photographer, regardless of their expertise or experience. Sony have taken a long time getting the successor to the mighty A 700 out to the market, but to my mind, the wait has been well worth it.