The Sony A99- a first test-drive
I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.
The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
I am excited. No. I am overjoyed.
There you are. Now you know what I think. Canon and Nikon users can stop now if they want. Sony users will definitely want to read on.
in 2009, after an unhappy relationship with Canon equipment, brought to a head by the failure of my Canon 1DS Mk III (the first one died after a month, and the second lasted less than a year before the shutter failed at 30,000 frames), I was over equipment failure, non-performing lenses and the constant need to recalibrate them to fit my cameras, and so I switched to Sony Alpha all. I was travelling to South Africa at the time, and I wanted a full-frame camera which would deliver the highest quality, along with lenses which were up to the task. I literally repacked my camera case hours before leaving for Johannesburg. I took two Alpha 900 DSLRs, along with a number of Zeiss lenses. I remember standing on the streets of Cape Town, in the wonderful Bo Kaap area, figuring out how the camera worked, while referring from time to time to the instruction manual.
It was a move I never regretted.
However that was three years ago, and the venerable Alpha 900 has served me brilliantly, delivering files of supremely high quality like this one, well able to be printed as A0 exhibition prints. Its Minolta genes were very apparent, including the interface, the unique hot shoe and the Humvee styling aesthetic. Remember that Sony acquired Minolta technology when they bought Konica Minolta, apparently as a basis for their push into serious still photography. I have never ceased to be amazed by what is possibly one of the largest and clearest 100% viewfinders I have ever used, so enormous that makes you want to get inside and go for a walk.
As a camera for landscape photography, the Alpha 900 has sat at the top of the tree, delivering at least 1 stop more dynamic range than its Canon and Nikon competitors, while offering the option to expand it by using the DRO (dynamic range optimisation) function, along with the ability to capture a remarkable amounts of very fine detail. Add in the fact that it was built like the proverbial brick outhouse, it had great battery life, and all the controls were intuitive and quickly accessed (mirror lock-up, a must-use for landscape photographers, was literally a two-button push on the Sony Alpha 900).
Its only downside was that over ISO 640, files became noisy and largely unusable. This was not really a problem for a landscape photographer, since we tend to work at lower ISOs, using a heavy tripod and remote release.
Sony might have continued following the Minolta Piper, but they had other ideas, and new technologies to bring on board. As the last couple of years have shown, all the cutting edge technologies being built into cameras have emerged not from the Big Two (Canon and Nikon), but from the more consumer electronics-oriented companies like Fuji, Panasonic and Sony themselves. Before I really get into this review, it is worth pointing out that Sony have been world leaders in video cameras and video technology for many years, and much of that expertise has been built into the new Alpha 99.
After three tough years of being treated shamefully, my Alpha 900 now has more than a few scratches and scars to show what it has had to put up with. As I said, it is never let me down once.
But that was then, and this is now.
For the last year or two, while Sony have been rolling out their E-mount system and mirrorless cameras, along with lower end DSLRs like the A55/A 65/a 77, the clamour has steadily been growing for a replacement for the Alpha 900, for a new full-frame DSLR. It has been rather a long wait, with we Sony owners waiting somewhat impatiently at the bus stop, while Nikon brought out the D 800, with its massive 36 megapixel sensor, made by Sony, and the new D600, also with a Sony sensor.
However the wait is over.
The Alpha 99 has arrived.
While production models will not reach shop shelves until the end of this month, there is a preproduction model being passed around reviewers in New Zealand, for us to test and write about. Last weekend I was allowed to have a test drive for three days, to see what I thought of the camera and to share my observations with you. Sadly, in spite of my best attempts to convince Sony that I had somehow lost it in the Waiau River, nobody would believe me, and I have had to return it. The model supplied, being preproduction, had non-finalised firmware, and as a consequence I was unable to use my zoom lenses, instead relying upon 35/1.4 G, 50/1.4 and 135/1.8 Zeiss prime lenses to tell me what I wanted to know.
With only three days to use it, I limited myself to exploring an answer to the question of whether it would add anything to my landscape aesthetic, which revolves around the idea of near/far, and large/small. I want to be able to produce prints up to A0, where a viewer can enjoy a single blade of grass in a field or stand back and take in the full sweep of the grand landscape. This aesthetic means that I have invested a lot of time and energy into my capture and postproduction technique, relying on camera and shooting methodology to deliver the best possible file. To achieve this requires a superior sensor and high quality optics.
So, with the Alpha 99 in my hands, I headed out to find some high places in the area where I live, with grand landscape and lots of micro-detail. Would the camera deliver me files that were any improvement on what I was already able to get with my Alpha 900? With so little time to explore the camera, I restricted myself to answering this question.
The camera itself.
Weighing in at 733 g, the Alpha 99 is substantially lighter than its predecessor. When you first pick it up, it is clearly obvious that it is a logical evolution from its baby brothers and sisters. It shape is much more organic and somehow ‘sexy’ than the Alpha 900, with smooth curves and a softer feel. An Alpha 55/65/77 user will feel immediately at home with the Alpha 99. The control system is very similar, and it only takes a matter of minutes to get familiar with its ergonomics. The on-off switch is a collar around the shutter release, while the familiar joystick on the back panel does much the same as the Alpha 77. Interestingly, when I placed the two side by side, there didn’t seem to be much difference in size, curious when you remember that the APS-C sensor of the Alpha 77 has been replaced by a 24 megapixel full frame sensor(A99 @ 147 × 111.2 × 78.4 mm vs. A77 @142.6 x 104.0 x 80.9mm). However the full frame camera is clearly built to a more heavy-duty specification, being nearly 100 g heavier than the alpha 77.
All three cameras ( A900/77/99) share the same NP-FM500H battery , and the new battery grip for the Alpha 99 is called a plus 2 grip, meaning that when you screw it into the base of the camera, as well is supplying duplicated functions for vertical shooting, it will add 2 batteries, giving a total of three. What’s not to like?
The menu system is typical Alpha, and finding your way around the 99 is relatively straightforward. It is only when you get to the custom functions that you began to realise that Sony have put new technologies into this camera.
But there are differences and some new buttons. On the bottom right is a button labelled AF range, which allows you to limit the focus range for a particular lens. I can imagine that this would be of great use to bird and sports photographers using long focal lengths.
Gone is the proprietary Minolta hotshoe, replaced in favour of a standard hotshoe. The camera will ship with a converter block to allow owners of older Minolta or Sony flashguns the ability to continue using them. However all new flashguns for the Sony will use the ubiquitous mounts common to all other cameras. But wait, there is more. The hotshoe has been engineered to allow sound to be recorded directly through the hotshoe when shooting video.
Having obviously listen to user requests, Sony have provided dual card slots, which can be used for redundancy, when shooting video or stills, or to record one type of file to one card and another to the second card. Interestingly, Sony appears to have standardised on SD cards, and my eight CF cards are becoming increasingly redundant. The camera will take Memory Stick Pro Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo, SD Memory card, SDHC Memory card, and SDXC memory cards.
Wanted: nice home for well-used and loved CF cards. 8@ 8Gb. Would suit Canon user. All offers considered…
On the bottom left is a round dial which has no markings. When I enquired about what it did (no manual was supplied with the demonstrator), I was told that it is a silent multifunction control, to prevent noise or unwonted clicking sounds when shooting video.
In line with what is happening in the rest of the Sony DSLR range, there is inbuilt GPS.
ISO is from 100 to 51200.
The autofocus uses a dual system, with a number of the focus points built directly into the sensor, to optimise the speed and accuracy of the autofocus system. Another first. My experience in the brief time I had the camera was that it was shockingly accurate and phenomenally quick. Shutter lag, while marginally slower than the Alpha 77, was still very fast indeed, a result of the fact that this is one of the current SLT cameras, with a fixed mirror, which allows faster frame rate and no blackout when making an exposure. I wondered if the presence of a mirror in the light path would have an effect upon the image quality from the camera, whether it would subtly degrade it. I found no evidence whatsoever of that happening.
The camera comes with an expanded range of creative styles, including Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Clear, Deep, Light, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Night Scene, Autumn leaves, Black & White, and Sepia. (Don’t ask me: I didn’t have time to explore them!).
Of course there are many other new features, which I alsodidn’t have time to explore. To get a better idea, you might want to look here.
But one thing is clear: while this is a camera optimised for shooting stills, Sony have also clearly pitched it as a very high end camera for shooting moving image, as a working tool for the professional who is required to shoot both video and stills. With decades of experience in designing and building professional-grade video cameras, Sony appear to have left no stone unturned in their attempts to provide everything a working videographer might need. There are inputs and outputs for video, an HDMI jack, and a whole range of accessories for shooting video. Sony have developed external monitors, powered microphones and a whole bunch of other video stuff, which is sure to be of interest to people shooting moving image.
The viewfinder still has that same large let’s-get-in-there-and-throw-a-party feel to it. However, it is an EVF, unlike the Alpha 900, which uses a purely optical system. This preference for viewfinders tends to polarise people, with some like Michael Reichmann bewailing the lack of an optical viewfinder system. In his review of the Alpha 99, he goes to quite some lengths to argue that Sony should have included an optical viewfinder, and clearly states his opposition to the electronic viewfinder, enlisting the help of some of his mates to lend support.
Sorry Michael, but I’m not with you on this one.
Not at all.
I live in the 21st century, and am more than happy to take all the advantages of 21st-century technology. The viewfinder is large, expansive and of very high resolution, and while there may be some slight disadvantages in low light or when tracking moving objects, my own experience has been that you get over that quickly and adapt. There are all the advantages of being able to use an artificial horizon (really useful when you have astigmatism like me), have a live histogram in the viewfinder to ensure optimal exposure, gridlines for composition, and instant review upon shooting, to name but a few. For me this has meant being able to more accurately previsualise the finished result. It is of even more value when shooting for black and white, because you can set the camera to raw plus jpeg, set the jpeg to black and white, and thus view your scene as if you are seeing it in black-and-white. This is a very good way to learn to see tonally, especially if you are coming from colour photography.
It is interesting to compare evolution in electronic viewfinders. I still have my venerable Sony DSC –R1, which had one of the first EVF’s. Now, when I use it, after getting used to the smoothness of a current-generation, high-resolution electronic viewfinder, it is rather like looking through a pixelated sandstorm. As one who came up through film and darkroom, the joy of being able to make all those decisions in-viewfinder more than overcomes any perceived disadvantages.
This is a great viewfinder.
With a relatively limited amount of time to go out and make photographs, I concentrated on shooting what landscape I could reach in the time available. The light was not optimal, but I was there, and keen to see what the sensor would deliver.
I deliberately opted for scenes with difficult contrast, and the almost contrast less light of the middle of the day. The murmurings had been that the sensor had at least one more stop dynamic range than any of its predecessors, and was a very high quality.
The first pictures I made were taken very early in the day, as the sun was rising, looking across the where I live. As I said previously, part of my aesthetic is the resolution of very fine detail, often detail I cannot perceive with my naked eye. Because I cannot see it at the time, it provides a surprise for me, an opportunity to come back and explore the scene and all its details.
The header image for this post was made from the top of the Ben Lomond range, on the east side of the Amuri Basin in North Canterbury, New Zealand as part of a long-term project, photographing the glorious area where I live. Getting to this place required care and some quite technical off-road driving and it was the middle of the day by the time we got there. I used the 135/1.8 Zeiss lens, and when I processed the file, I was extremely interested in how it would resolve the detail in the fields, paddocks and shelter belts far below us. I was also interested in how it would cope with high contrast situations. Because I have used the Alpha 900 for some years, I am used to predicting its response in particular lighting situations.
I deliberately turned off the DRO in the A99, to see how the camera would handle the brightness range in the scene. Would the camera be able to hold open shadows while preserving highlights, or would it blow out and require highlight correction in Lightroom (at the moment, Lightroom 4.2 is the only raw converter I have available to me, not my preference, but one which will have to do for the moment)? I also set the Creative Style to Portrait, with Contrast set to -1, since this gives a better approximation of the dynamic range of the sensor. The sensor seems to hold detail in the shadows and highlights for at least 1 to 2 stops more than my Alpha 900, before applying any form of dynamic range optimisation.
The sensor’s ability to render very fine detail is extraordinary, and I have regularly found myself analysing files at 200%, rejecting anything at 100% where I cannot perceive fine detail. These are early days, so I have yet to resolve a file, to completely work it through postproduction and final sharpening for output, to really see what is possible. But while the two sensors are theoretically the same, the Alpha 99 is clearly a more modern, superior sensor capable of delivering at a higher level. In addition, it renders midtones much more smoothly and with less noise than the Alpha 900. The files are long-scaled, transitioning smoothly, and require much less postproduction than I have had to apply in the past.
So who is this camera for?
At an RRP (recommended retail price) of$NZ3999, it is over $1000 cheaper than the Canon 5D Mk III, its logical rival, and somewhere between the Nikon D 600 and D 800. So it represents a lot of camera for the money.
It became quite clear to me, that like so many high-end cameras, the Alpha 99 is capable of astonishing results, but to get them, you have to be utterly pedantic about your capture technique. Quite simply, if you are a sloppy shooter, this camera, like all the others in its class, will punish you severely. To get the best possible landscapes, you will need a quality (read: heavy) tripod with a sturdy head and remote release. Remember you don’t have to worry about mirror lock-up anymore!
We have seen stills and video converging ever more in the last couple of years, as manufacturers attempt to create a one-size-fits-all solution for the working professional, who is often required to shoot both stills and video as part of his/her job. Sony, with the huge experience of supplying moving image equipment to the industry, have clearly spent a lot of time thinking about this point of convergence, and the Alpha 99 is the latest incarnation of those ideas, which began when they purchased Konica Minolta. The Alpha 99 is engineered to be a fully workable professional video camera, with all the necessary inputs and accessories to make this possible.
On the other hand, it has technologies on board to satisfy even the most demanding of still photographers, with a leading edge sensor, high ISO which is almost noiseless, and a raft of technologies to make shooting easier and more efficient.
Commercial photographers will be able to use it for architecture, still life, and food and product photography. Wedding and portrait photographers will enjoy its responsiveness and superb tonal scale when photographing brides in white gowns, standing next to grooms in dark suits, while sports and wildlife photographers will find its functions extremely useful in the field. Fine art, nature and landscape photographers will find its incredibly accurate focusing and articulated LCD of huge benefit. No longer will you need to lie on a plastic bag to photograph some microscopic fungi on the forest floor. In short, the Alpha 99 is a camera which, it seems to me, will meet the needs of almost every type of photographer.
It’ has been a long time between drinks, waiting for the Alpha 99, but the wait has been worth it. Barman, another round if you please.
So often, cameras almost get there, but there is always some annoying feature you wish they have included. When you weigh in the fact that you get two cameras in one (video and still), all the technologies Sony have been weaving into their cameras since the HX-5V, plus new ones which are truly useful, perhaps you can understand why I am so excited.
© Tony Bridge October 10, 2012. All rights reserved.