The SLT-A77's built-in flash is pretty standard fare for a camera of this type and at this level. With a guide number of 12m (at ISO 100) It is powerful enough for close-quarters shots and occasional service as a 'fill in' unit but for more serious work you will have to invest in one of Sony's (excellent) external flash guns. If you do so, you might be pleased to learn that the A77's built-in flash can act as a wireless trigger, making it possible to easily create off-camera flash shots which would traditionally have required a cable.
JPEG Sharpness settings
Naturally, whether or not the A77's default sharpness settings are too soft for you depends primarily on what you need your camera to do. If you don't need to make large prints, and you're not inclined to look at your images critically at 100% on screen there is no need to meddle with the A77's parameters. If, however, you want crisper results straight from the camera, a little time experimenting with the A77's JPEG sharpening parameters may prove to be time well spent (even if it's no substitute for careful raw processing).
The A77 has seven sharpness parameters, from -3 to +3, with the default being '0'. Of all the settings, we keep coming back to +1. This setting lends JPEGs a pleasant crispness, but avoids the 'crunchiness' characteristic of oversharpening which is apparent in images shot at the +2 setting. If you'd prefer to manage your own sharpening post-capture though, experiment with shooting at sharpness level -2. This is a good starting point for applying your preferred sharpening settings, and images shot at this setting contain no less detail than images taken at any of the A77's other sharpness settings (the detail is simply softer).
And here's the same scene shot in raw mode and carefully processed 'to taste' in Adobe Camera RAW. As you can see, much more detail can be extracted from the scene, compared to the in-camera JPEGs. For more examples of the benefits of shooting in raw mode, head over to this page.
|raw file processed 'to taste' in Adobe Camera RAW 6.6 (beta)|
Overall image quality
If you're interested in the A77 because you want excellent critical image quality, and you want to get the absolute most resolution possible out of its 24 million pixels, you already know that you're going to have to shoot in raw mode. If you know what you're doing, and you're prepared to spend a little time doing it, you can get results out of the A77's raw files which at least rival the resolution we'd expect to get out of cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and the venerable Sony Alpha 900. At least up to ISO 1600. Beyond this point it becomes progressively more difficult to 'rescue' the A77's raw output due to elevated chroma noise levels.
Likewise in JPEG mode, noise is unlikely to bother you until you hit ISO 800-1600. It is present in images shot at lower sensitivities, and you can see it on close inspection in areas of plain tone (especially blue skies) but it really isn't obtrusive, thanks in part to the smoothing effect of in-camera noise reduction. What might bother you, depending on how critically you like to look at your photographs, is the A77's mushy JPEG rendition, which really doesn't show off the sensor's abilities.
|ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/40sec, built-in flash||100%|
|ISO 6400, f/8, 1/40sec, +1 exposure comp||100%|
The images above are indicative of the A77's JPEG performance in different conditions. In good light, like the flash-lit portrait (shot in Night Portrait mode) the A77's 24MP sensor provides bags of detail, although as you can see, noise reduction is starting to introduce smudging in areas of plain tone even in this ISO 400 shot. In poor light, like the sort we found in the air museum in which we took the second shot, the A77 struggles rather more. This image of a P51 Mustang was taken at ISO 6400, with high ISO noise reduction set to default, and as you can see, when viewed critically, detail is smudged and colors are blurred. Naturally this is only a problem when viewed at 100% on screen.
Obviously 100% on screen is not necessarily the most sensible way to assess overall image quality from a camera with such a large pixel count. Ultimately, the A77's image quality will keep most people perfectly happy most of the time. It is a disappointing, nonetheless, to see just how much more detail can be drawn out of the A77's raw files compared to its JPEGs, and to see high ISO raw files so bady degraded by noise.
GhostingThere was a lot of discussion when the A55 was released of an issue known as 'ghosting'. This was evident in early SLT cameras, and took the form of faint 'ghost' images of bright highlights in some images. Most of the time ghosting was completely invisible, but we did find a few examples amongst our thousands of test shots which exhibited the phenomenon - caused by internal reflections inside the SLT mirror.
|ISO 100, f/8, 8 sec, +1EV exposure compensation (tripod mounted)||100% crop|
We're pleased to report that the SLT-A77's images are free from ghosting. Even in situations like the scene above - a nighttime street scene, overexposed from the metered exposure to ensure that the bright highlights are clipped - there is no ghosting to be seen at all. Sony's claims to have improved the SLT technology in its newest generation cameras are borne out in our testing.