The A57 has an all-plastic body but nevertheless feels reasonably solid, with a grip that is made out of a thick rubber material. The body is noticeably larger than its predecessor, the SLT-A55. Yet the camera's essential control points fall easily to hand in the shooting position. And even with the increased size and weight, the A57 remains a comfortable camera to carry on your shoulder for a full day of shooting.
The A57 offers essentially the same interface found on the previous generation of Sonys. It combines the button and dial-based user interface of a traditional DSLR with the beginner-friendly on-screen operation of the 'Fn' quick menu. Changing the most commonly used camera settings is a reasonably quick and simple affair. The ISO and exposure compensation buttons are well-placed for operation while your hand is in the shooting position. And you can re-program both the ISO and the AEL button to trigger any one of 26 different parameters, greatly reducing your trips to the main menu.
The dual-axis rear LCD screen allows for easy composition from high and low angles and means that when shooting handheld you can always find a screen position that shields it from the sun for glare-free composing and image reviewing. It is not as versatile, however, as the variant on the enthusiast-grade SLT-A77 which has an extra hinge.
Overall operation and handling
The A57 is essentially identical in both weight and form factor to the higher-resolution SLT-A65, so it comes as no surprise that the handling experience is virtually the same for both cameras as well. The ability to look through the EVF with a level gauge, grid-lines or histogram overlay called up at will - not to mention a range of shooting parameters - enhances the DSLR shooting experience. And the eye sensor, which switches automatically between EVF and rear LCD views, makes for a seamless transition.
|With its fairly substantial hand grip, the A57 is comfortable to hold. All essential buttons are in easy reach of either your index finger or thumb, allowing for sensible one-handed operation when required.|
The A57 uses Sony's focus peaking aid to make manual focus a quick and accurate proposition, whether shooting stills or video. And of course, it's available via EVF or rear LCD viewing. We've seen no faster, more efficient way to manually achieve focus and are always disappointed when other camera makers fail to adopt this approach. You also have the option of employing a more traditional focus magnification to aid when shooting very low contrast subjects as well.
While we do wish for an OLED EVF of the sort seen on the A65 and other higher end Alpha models, the A57's viewfinder does get a resolution bump over its predecessor, the A55, and a high 1.04x magnification spec allows for critical evaluation of the scene across the frame.
In contrast to the technology advances Sony has introduced in the Alpha line over the years, the main menu system feels curiously dated. Whether using the dial or 4-way controller to navigate, moving between sections of the main menu can be a bit tedious. And frankly, after using the ground-breaking touchscreen implementation of the Canon EOS 650D, we hope that Sony adopts a similar approach in the not too distant future. To be fair, the inclusion of a Fn menu greatly limits the number of trips to the main menu. But in the near term, a customizable 'My menu' tab like that seen on both the EOS 650D and the Nikon D3200, as well as a way to cycle through tabs (versus pages) would be welcome additions.
We must give credit where credit is due, however, and note again that the A57 - like the A65 - offers ISO and AEL buttons whose behavior can be customized independently with a a choice of no fewer than 26 options. In addition, the DOF preview button can more usefully be configured to initiate focus magnification instead. Between this level of customization and the A57's quick menu - accessed by pressing the Fn button - your trips to the main menu system may well be few and far between.
From an ergonomic standpoint, we find little fault with the A57's physical control layout. Buttons are well-sized and sensibly positioned for easy access. Although in the case of the Zoom button, we'd venture to say that access is 'too easy'. We often found that when holding the camera in a one-handed grip - to change the mode dial setting for example - your thumb can easily press the zoom button accidentally. Even if you're in a raw-enabled shooting mode - where Clear Image Zoom is not an option - pressing the zoom button calls up a warning screen that must annoyingly be dismissed before returning to the task at hand.
In manual exposure mode the camera's front dial controls the shutter speed. Because the A57 lacks a secondary dial, however, adjusting aperture means you have to press and hold the AEL button while turning the dial. This, we suspect, will be a source of confusion to any new user. The 'AV' etched in white below the 'zoom out' icon doesn't make the feature any more obvious. Instead of assigning a third function to the AEL button, a more intuitive solution would have been to use the exposure compensation button to achieve this behavior. It's worth nothing that Auto ISO is not an option in manual exposure mode.
|To adjust the A57's aperture value in manual exposure mode, you have to press and hold the 'AEL' button on the camera's rear, while rotating the main control dial. This is far from obvious, and we suspect that some A57 users will find this confusing.|
One long-standing complaint we've had about Sony cameras is the separation between movie and stills playback options. To switch between movie and stills views you either have to select the correct mode from the menu or you have can zoom out to thumbnail view and navigate across to the stills or movie tab on the left-hand side in review mode. There is simply no way to cycle through both still and video captures simultaneously. This feels like an overlooked folder structure limitation rather than a useful separation of content. Rarely, if ever, do we find ourselves wishing to review just movies or stills exclusively. Things are made even more complicated here by the fact that there are now two video review options - one for AVCHD movies and one for MP4s.
We mentioned earlier in this review that the A57 uses an LCD in its EVF as opposed to the OLED units found on current higher end Alpha models. We note this because the sequential-read LCD unit displays a 'tearing' effect when you move your eye rapidly across the screen or, more commonly, blink. In these situations you see brief flashes of individual RGB pixels. In our Seattle office there are those who find this only a mild inconvenience and others who find it drives them to distraction. Your tolerance for this will obviously be personal, but if you find it unnerving, you may prefer composing via the rear LCD instead.