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Sony Alpha SLT-A99 In-Depth Review

December 2012 | By Amadou Diallo, Richard Butler
Buy on GearShop$1,998.00


Review based on a production SLT-A99 running firmware 1.0

The Sony SLT-A99 is the Japanese camera maker's flagship model, aimed squarely at DSLR enthusiasts who will settle for nothing less than a full frame sensor in a rugged body with a plethora of external and customizable controls. It arrives almost four years after its predecessor, the A900, the company's first full frame DSLR. You'd certainly expect significant new features given such a long gap between products and Sony has lost no opportunity to equip the A99 with every bit of electronic expertise they've incorporated into their NEX and SLT models in the interim. Whereas the A900 was a defiantly conventional SLR that would have been immediately familiar to Konica Minolta film-camera users, the A99 is something of a technological tour-de-force.

Start with a dual chip AF system, live view focus peaking, tiltable rear LCD, built-in GPS and 1080p60 movie recording plus the ability to output uncompressed video, and the contrast to the stills-only A900 couldn't be more stark aside from the A99's identical 24MP resolution. And then of course, there's the fact that with the A99 Sony has opted for an electronic, versus optical viewfinder. From a features standpoint, it's clear that Sony was out to rethink its approach to the enthusiast market and attempt to lure would-be DSLR shooters with a surfeit of technology while broadening its appeal to videographers.

Like its predecessor, the SLT-A99 enters a full frame DSLR playing field still dominated by the 'big two', so the camera's success will depend not just on its advances over the A900, but how well it competes against the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800. Sony may have chosen not to challenge the 36MP Nikon D800 for pixel count - somewhat of a surprise given that the D800 houses a Sony-made sensor - but has opted instead for a unique dual sensor AF system that promises more precise subject tracking along with a 6fps continuous AF burst rate.

Sony has gone to great lengths to stress the work that has gone into improving the camera's image quality. The latest 24MP sensor has been designed so that more of each photosite is light-sensitive. The electronics in front of this light sensitive region have been slimmed-down to increase the angle from which each site can receive light. These changes, combined with a design that provides a short and high-capacity path between the sensor output and the image processor, and the addition of 14-bit Raw output, should mean improved still image quality.

The rapid adoption of DSLRs by video professionals has made HD recording with manual exposure control a stock feature in even mid-range models. With the A99 though, Sony leverages its considerable video expertise by combining 1080p60 video capture with SLT-enabled phase-detection AF along with the ability to output uncompressed video over HDMI (a feature we first saw in the Nikon D800). Another well-implemented nod to the needs of run-and-gun videographers can be found in the inclusion of a 'silent controller' that allows for adjustments to made while recording without the attendant button clicks.

Sony SLT-A99 key specifications:

  • 24MP full-frame CMOS Sensor with on-chip phase detection AF
  • Fixed-mirror design SLT
  • 2.4M dot OLED electronic viewfinder
  • 14-bit Raw output
  • ISO 100-25,600
  • Up to 6 frame-per-second continuous shooting with AF
  • ISO-compatible flash hotshoe with 'multi interface' expansion connector
  • Pull-out three-hinge tilt/swivel 1.23m dot RGBW LCD screen
  • Top panel LCD
  • Microphone and headphone sockets
  • Built-in GPS
  • AF Micro Adjust

SLT design

The A99 is based around Sony's SLT design - a variant on the DSLR concept that uses an electronic viewfinder (EVF), rather than an optical one. Instead of having a mirror that has to flip out of the way to to take a photo, it uses a fixed semi-transparent mirror that redirects light (with negligible luminance loss) to a DSLR-style phase-detection autofocus sensor. This means live view and autofocus are always active and that the A99 can offer a consistent shooting experience whether you use the flip-out screen or the EVF. It also means the conventional 19-point phase detection focus sensor is always illuminated, along with the 109-point on-sensor array. This puts the A99 in the unique position of having dual phase-detection focus systems available at all times - an unusual feature that Sony has developed several features to exploit, including 'AF-D', its depth-map assist continuous AF feature.

This (Sony supplied) diagram shows very clearly how the SLT-A99's imaging and focussing systems are implemented (the camera shown here is the SLT-A77, but the system is identical). Light coming in through the lens is split by the fixed, semi-transparent mirror - a portion feeds the phase-detection AF sensor, and the majority hits the main imaging sensor for live view and image capture.

The decision to build a full-frame SLT camera will certainly be controversial among enthusiasts who equate a 'serious' camera with an optical, rather than electronic viewfinder. It's worth pointing out though that the A99 sports the same 2.4M dot resolution OLED 'Tru-Finder' EVF whose performance we found so impressive in our NEX-7 review. And the benefits that an EVF provides, including exposure and white balance preview, focus peaking and a customizable information overlay, all without removing the camera from an eye-level shooting position, may be enough to sway those who spends even a little time actually using it.

Preview video

This video, shot at the Photokina trade show earlier this year is taken from our previously published preview of the Sony SLT-A99.

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Comments

Total comments: 13
fotokram

I just don't understand the point, that the A99 empties its buffer twice as fast as Canon's EOS 5D III at Continuous Hi? Both cameras allow 6 fps, but the 5D III can shoot JPEG Large/Fine until the card is full while the Sony stops after 20 frames. When shooting RAW the 5D III can take 17 frames (like the Sony), before the frame rate switches to 2.7 fps (A99: "only" 1.7 fps). The 5D III then needs 4 seconds to empty the buffer, while the A99 needs 7.5 seconds. From my point of view, the 5D III is the faster camera. Or did I get something wrong?

0 upvotes
Gangstar

I have owned previously the a55 a77 and for the last 12 months the A99 I paid £1750 new inc tax the a99 paired with the Zeiss 24-70 it a fantastic combo in fact the sony 28-75 2.8 produced stunning results but I would tell lies if i said it was on parr with the Zeiss which really pops the subject although has softness at corner edges @ 24mm is evident...Low light for my use has been great never has any problems...The flash/system shoe is the only annoyance and slight over exposure easily fixed in light room. what would I change upgrade faster AF..sensor 24mp ff is more than ample.In all I am a very happy with my a99 well done sony engineers...

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 3 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Lassoni

There's really no way around it. This is hands down sony's best camera to date. They really should revisit this, maybe give it a sensor and/or mount of their A7s , aim to make it better @ low light than Canon 5d3 (much more cleaner than 5d3, almost 1DX spec), and get rid of the translucent mirror maybe. Keep the body as is, make it mirrorless with around 15-18 megapixel and give it FPS of 8-11.

0 upvotes
Scottelly

Something that amazes me about the A99 is the fact that it handles high ISO better than the new Nikon D600 and D610 cameras. I just found this out by looking at the ISO 6400 samples here on DPreveiw in their studio shot comparison tool: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/studio-compare#baseDir=%2Freviews_data&cameraDataSubdir=boxshot&indexFileName=boxshotindex.xml&presetsFileName=boxshotpresets.xml&showDescriptions=false&headerTitle=Studio%20scene&headerSubTitle=Standard%20studio%20scene%20comparison&masterCamera=nikon_d600&masterSample=dsc_4526_03&slotsCount=4&slot0Camera=nikon_d600&slot0Sample=dsc_4526_03&slot0DisableCameraSelection=true&slot0DisableSampleSelection=true&slot0LinkWithMaster=true&slot1Camera=sony_slta99&slot1Sample=dsc00049&x=-0.378464142966364&y=0.34409159041539195

Make sure you look at the playing card, after you pick which cameras you want to compare and set the ISO selection box to ISO 6400 (or whatever ISO you want to compare).

1 upvote
HowaboutRAW

It doesn't handle high ISOs better than the Nikon D600.

Though one way to help with high ISOs is to use good Zeiss lenses and those are more readily available for this Sony.

0 upvotes
J Shen

Continued post: During burst shooting, SLT cameras can see a live image preview or can not see ? Thanks for advice !

0 upvotes
J Shen

About SLT & SLR cameras, If following two comments (from dpreview) are conflicting each other ? During bursts shooting SLT cameras can see the frames or can not see ? maybe I'm misunderstood. Thanks !
1, Unlike ordinary DSLR cameras, SLT cameras by Sony use Translucent Mirror technology that directs light onto the main image sensor as well as a separate autofocus sensor. This means that subjects stay sharply focused at all times as you compose scenes with the tilt-angle LCD or through the high-resolution, high-contrast OLED Tru-Finder. And with no moving mirror to slow you down, you’ll enjoy non-stop live image preview during speedy burst shooting or while you’re recording Full HD video.
2, One distinct disadvantage to current EVF technology is that when shooting bursts at higher frame rates, you are not seeing a live preview, rather the frames you have just captured. This can make camera panning (to follow a fast moving subject) virtually impossible to do with any accuracy.

0 upvotes
Scottelly

Well, my A55 worked just fine for following fast-moving subjects, while shooting at 10 fps, and I believe the A99 is an improvement over the A55. (also can shoot at 10 fps)

0 upvotes
Thomas Karlmann

It may be only the a99 RAW for ISO 25600 that is broken. Thanks.

0 upvotes
Thomas Karlmann

beomagi: Thanks, I overlooked it.

0 upvotes
Thomas Karlmann

DPR Raw Link for a99 Studio Scene appears to be broken. Please fix.

0 upvotes
beomagi

Connectors under flaps here
http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/sony-alpha-slt-a99/18

0 upvotes
Thomas Karlmann

This review fails to show the I/O connectors! What is under those flaps? Most importantly where is the PC-sync terminal???? If there isn't one, I'll keep looking for a different camera. Please clarify.

1 upvote
Total comments: 13