a57 you bet!
So liking the a57. I read reviews at length, for weeks, before settling on this model and I am so glad both to have made an informed choice and to have that choice proven in reality now that I've had the camera in hand and used it. The a57 is more complicated than a DSLR, with dependent inter-relationships across both common and novel functions and priorities. The a57 is not point & shoot; it's more like a lump of clay, that sees you as a lump of clay as well. If you know what you want from both a visual and a technical perspective and have the right lens for it, the a57 will get you there. If you have blind spots now, but want to learn to be a competent all-around amateur DSLR photographer, then this is your gateway drug. The a57 doubles as an excellent digital photography tutor, and will help you build understanding and skills every step of the way. The Sony way, that is. If you just want a pro-looking DSLR with a big black lens that makes impressive clicky noises on the 50 yd line, but is otherwise a simple point-and-shoot, then look elsewhere. In its' various Auto modes the a57 can serve as the King Tiger tank of point-and-shoot; the issue is that a novice to the camera could select settings or lenses that counter this functionality and then become lost, with mixed end results. The user may not realize dependencies to a setting in some other menu area (where was that, the Menu menu or the Function menu, or wait was I in Movie Mode, or did I hold down the ISO button then roll the knob...?), and one could spend time puzzling over why it's not doing now what it did before, when you're in some manual mode rather than auto. If you haven't done the reading, which I will mention further on, you may find it hard to keep the dependencies straight. When in doubt, reinitialize! In the more manual modes, there are several of these newly arrived Sony tech settings that can throw you off and I'm not talking fstop vs shutter speed, the rabbit hole goes way deeper on this camera. Sony has introduced new concepts and approaches to a pro DSLR while also attempting to maintain "point & shoot ease" and though this camera succeeds at the former two it is initially at least, a fascinating & robust failure at the latter. Works fine though, if one devotes the head space to learning some new feature concepts. Do that, think through your shots and vids first, and this camera will reward you handsomely for the effort. Rolling the dice WITHOUT first reading the manual (THIS manual btw, thanks to TCav of Steve's Digicams forum for the link: [...oops please do a search]), will probably result in some mediocre shots at first.
The 1.4 firmware update is out, you would want to snag that, just because.
One cool, new-to-me feature, is what Sony calls Peaking Level for manual focus. When set to manual focus and with 3 settings, low medium & high, the Live Display (which generally shows the final picture live all of the time, essential) shows a fine pixelated wash across the image, in a plane that IS the actual focal plane of the lens cutting through the 3-dimensional image space, so you move the focus out and this plane of (I choose white) pixelation occurs across the image telling you precisely where the focal plane is hitting! You don't even have to see the fine elements of what you are shooting. Fantastic! For instance, one of my cats is black, so he is a black blob in the viewfinder or display. But with Peaking Level, I can clearly see delineation as to where his nose is, then whiskers, then the surface of his eyeballs, as the Peaking Level effect illustrates the focal plane's position as it moves in - and I take the shot when the white noise is where I want the focus to be. You do need 2 hands, to use this feature. And to be clear, this is not one of the "3-D panorama" features of the camera. I have not used the 3-D panorama or panorama features as yet.
The a57 sports myriad display symbols within multiple configuration menus, all of which you will have to learn in order to interface with it. This camera takes on the bushel of both tool and tutor, and its' abundance of menus does reflect that. Now that the world has not ended, any familiarity with Mayan hieroglyphic script will find new application as one works through understanding the functionality of this camera. Hey I did it, and learned a lot in the process. The tutorial aspect of the camera is somewhat separated from the controls aspect, so you don't have to constantly work through menus full of advice to get where you need to be. It is there if and when you need it. I found it helpful mostly for understanding the new concepts and terminology that Sony labs have come up with, in advancing the field of digital photography. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for other companies to figure it out, when many are after all, buying sensors made by Sony to use in their own "cutting edge" cameras.
There is even an unlabeled 'mystery button' on the camera. Now, any cold-blooded, dyed-in-the-wool amateur photographer would have immediately asked what the little button on the bottom of the a57 is for. I did, and it is the Preview button. If you push this near-unnoticeable button while in Auto Aperture, it will display for you the full depth of field effect of the shot, with the blurred fore-and background to either side of the focal plane. I am still testing this, as I can already clearly see depth of field in the WYSIWYG display/viewfinder.
There are lots of APS-C sensors out there. The a57's APS-C sensor has comparatively good sized individual sensors, which is just one small part of all of the tech working together in the a57 to result in great video and picture quality. I know of no camera that works harder to get at what you want, if you know what it is that you want to get to in the first place, that is...
The a57 records in AVCHD 60P, and is about the only DSLR under a grand that can do that, apart from the other Sony's, like the a65, a77 & a99. And that is what I needed, and it works. I can rewrap and convert footage on my Macs w/no issue between Free MTS M2TS Converter, JES Deinterlacer & MPEG Streamclip, and get 50% frame rate reduction that way for good HD slow motion, though I can't watch the AVCHD natively on my Macs (no need to yet). I can watch a57 footage via VLC player, but with a stream rate of 26Mbps, my Macs are better at editing than AVCHD playback anyhow, and what I do is use Toast 11 with the Blu Ray plugin to burn to Blu Ray disc if I'm not going to a lesser stream rate. Toast 11 is stable and provides the option of crude Blu Ray menus if you need that for weddings and such, and it's not expensive. The a57 has a separate button for recording video, not the shutter button; it took me all of 2 tries to set that difference to memory. You can disable the button, if your fingers are in a constant and unknowledgeable flail. I've never had a problem with it and even if I did, I wouldn't call that a problem as I have actual real problems in life to deal with. As with any camera new to you, there will be subtle and not-so-much subtle differences.
Low light performance is all there with the kit lens. I find that the kit lens has a little stiction in the zoom but there is an element of my own inexperience involved here; hand muscle memory for stylish manual video zooms is something that has to be worked at anyhow.
The a57 is only dust sealed, not weather so one should have a rain sleeve in their bag just in case.
Battery life is long with the camera. Though it doesn't have GPS, I happen to have a Pentax WG-2 GPS for that. The Sony a65 at about $200 more than the a57, has GPS that I believe tags every video key frame with GPS data, if you need that. Double-check first before picking one up, it's just what I read. If I thought the a65 were a better camera overall, I would have bought one of them, but 24mp is a lot of video color data and though I wasn't certain it would be a factor in post processing I'm happy to have avoided that possibility. The a77 though weather sealed, is a lot of money and some users have noted sloppy knobs after significant use cycles; I can't attest to that but since I can't afford an a77 anyhow, I am indifferent to the issue.
The a57 is dust sealed however the sensor cleaning is accomplished through vibration cycles. I find that a bit unnerving and so I try to carefully prep when swapping out lenses; if swapping where you can ground out static electricity with a wrist ground strap that might be worth the bother; setting down a lens on a surface with a pre-existing static charge and dust, could cause a static attraction with dust lifted to the lens that could then become pulled in to the camera sensor if the camera were differently charged than the lens, and we don't want that. The sensor can do 16X9 or 4X3; in 16X9 you are not using the whole sensor, but since full HD is only 2.1Mp or so anyhow the subset of this 16MP sensor is sufficient. I have been running in 16X9 but then I mostly shoot video with it. The low light capability, short focal length of the 18X55 lens, huge sensor (comparative to camcorder) and enormous fun of playing with depth of field in video, and smooth realtime video autofocus make the a57 just hugely fun to plan and shoot video with, and there is a uniqueness to DSLR video shot with this feature set. It's a frontier camera, but sans weather sealing, not perhaps a camera FOR the frontier.
Getting to know the a57 & subsequently arriving at good results with the camera is a function of study over time. It is not "just another DSLR-type camera." I don't care who you are, even a seasoned pro, makes no difference, you will get mediocre results if you don't put in the time to learn the detail. Sadly I expect that most do not, and assuming that you get it, is not gonna cut it. Perhaps that is true of most DSLR's; it's certainly the case with the a57.
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