Sony SLT-A77 II Review
By Dan Bracaglia
|The a77 II has the makings of a great sports photography camera. Shot at ISO 3200, f/4, 1/500 sec.|
The a77 II is a sports and action photographers dream. It offers specs, often found in only pro-level bodies at a very attractive price point. The body is weather-sealed and very well-constructed, comprised mainly of magnesium alloy and some plastic. There is no touch screen, but physical buttons and dials are plentiful. The camera body is ergonomically very comfortable to hold and shoot with. For users coming from other DSLR systems, like myself, I found it easy and intuitive to adapt to the a77 II's controls.
The original A77 is a landmark camera in my mind for a couple of reasons. At the time it first came out in 2011, I was shooting NCAA Division 1 college basketball for a New Jersey-based news site. My main camera bodies were a Nikon D300S and a Nikon D700, with burst rates of 6 and 5fps burst rates respectively (8 with the vertical grip I didn't own at the time). All of a sudden, I heard about this crazy new camera from Sony, with no moving mirror, twice the burst rate of either of my cameras and twice the pixel count of my current APS-C body. It was priced, at the time, well below what I had originally paid for my D300S, and it could even utilize my father's Minolta legacy glass.
I never got my hands on the original A77, but my fascination with its impressive specs stuck with me. When the a77 II was announced last summer, I was once again intrigued. Sony kept the fast burst rate (12fps) and impressive APS-C sensor and added a far more robust 79-point AF system (compared to 19 points in the original A77), extra customizable buttons (3 in total), Wi-Fi and an upgraded LCD. The only thing the a77 II lost was GPS.
|The a77 II is not too heavy to tote around on a long hike, and comfortable enough to grip for a long period of time. ISO 4000, f/5.6 1/60 sec.|
Of course, this review has been a long time coming, but lucky for us, and you, Sony put out a major firmware update for the a77 II right before the start of 2015. Not only did this update improve AF performance, but it also added the ability to record in XAVC S, a recording format with even better quality than the AVCHD and MPEG4 format also offered in the a77 II.
How Does it Compare
The a77 II is an underdog camera for sure. Sony's E-mount and FE-mount cameras have been getting a lot of respect and love lately, and rightfully so. A-mount cameras on the other hand, like the a77 II often get overshadowed not only by their mirrorless counterparts but by DSLR competitors too. But then again, what traditional DSLR shooters don't know, won't hurt them. Maybe underdog isn't the right term, because the a77 II can certainly compete, as our chart below proves. Perhaps cult-classic is more accurate.
|Sony a6000||Canon 70D||Canon 7D II||Nikon D7200||Fujifilm
|Sensor||24MP APS-C CMOS||24MP APS-C CMOS||20MP APS-C CMOS||20MP APS-C CMOS||24MP
|16Mp APS-C CMOS||28MP APS-C CMOS||16MP Four Thirds CMOS|
79 phase detect points, 15 cross-type
|179 phase detect points and 25 contrast||19 phase detect points||65 phase detect points, 65 cross-type||51 phase detect points, 15 cross-type||49 contrast detect points||205 phase detect points, 209 contrast||81 phase detect points|
|ISO range (extended)||100-25,600 (50-25,600)||100-25,600||100-12,800 (100-25,600)||100-16,00 (100-51,200)||100-25,600 (100-102,400 B+W only)||200-6,400 (100-51,200)||100-25,600 (100-51,200)||200-25,600 (100-25,600)|
|Image Stabilization||In-body||In-lens only||In-lens only||In-lens only||In-lens only||In-lens only||In-lens only||In-body|
|Continuous phase detect AF during Video capture||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Fully articulating screen||Yes||Tiltable- only||Yes||No||No||Tiltable- only||Tiltable- only||Yes|
|EVF/LCD resolution and size||2,359,000/ 1,229,000 dots, 3"||1,440,000/ 921,600 dots, 3"||N/A / 1,040,000 dots, 3"||N/A / 1,040,000 dots, 3"||N/A / 1,228,800 dots, 3.2"||2,360,000/ 1,040,000 dots, 3"||2,360,000/ 1,036,000 dots, 3"||2,360,000/ 1,037,000 dots, 3"|
|Weight w/ battery||647 g||344 g||755 g||910 g||675 g||440 g||550 g||469 g|
Above, we've compared the a77 II to other flagship and high-end APS-C cameras, as well as the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II. I've also included the Sony a6000 as another Sony camera with exceptional AF performance, despite its much lower pricepoint.
Overall, the a77 II holds its own. It's one of only two cameras with in-body image stabilization, and one of only three with a fully articulating LCD. It's sensor is on par or better than the completion, in terms of pixel count, excluding the Samsung NX1. It's frame rate is also second to only the NX-1.
Using the a77 II for Sports Photography
|The a77 II was a pleasure to shoot basketball with. Funny looks from the Canon and Nikon slingers aside, I wouldn't hesitate to use the a77 II again at the next game I shoot. Shot at ISO 3200, f/4, 1/500 sec.|
When I was first told I would be reviewing the a77 II, my initial thought was 'Yes! I can finally take it to a basket ball game.' At this point, I had relocated across the country to join DPreview, so I reached out to the University of Washington to see if I could set something up, and they were more than happy to accommodate us.
I went into the game planning to spend one half shooting with lock-on AF, and the second half shooting in my traditional way: in AF-C with a flexible spot, or an expandable flexible spot. The flexible spot is an AF setting that simply lets you pick which of the 79 phase detect AF points you want the camera to use. You can toggle the spots via the four-way control pad on the back of the camera. The expandable flexible spot also gives you a single AF point to work with, as well as an active cluster of points around it. Ultimately, I found the single flexible spot point to be the most effective way to shoot when using AF-C.
College basketball proved to be a bit too hectic to successfully use lock-on AF. Lock on AF, or subject tracking, is a feature that allows users to pick a subject, by depressing the shutter halfway when their subject is within the focus point or area of choice. The camera will then attempt to stay with the subject as they (it) moves across the plane or closer/further from you. Like shooting in AF-C mode, I found the flexible spot to be the best method for successfully getting the a77 II to lock on to my subject. But like I said, basketball was not the time or place to try it, with all the rapidly moving swarms of players.
Shooting in my traditional style, using AF-C and a single point, the a77 II did remarkably. All in all, I had very few missed frames, those that were a miss were more due to user error, than anything else. And for the most part, out of focus frames, like the one below, were so slightly out of focus, that most could passed when cropped to Internet-appropriate sizes.
|Part of an 8fps burst. I shot most of the game at 8fps because the 12fps burst mode doesn't allow users to toggle their shutter speed or aperture. Shot at ISO 3200, f/4, 1/500 sec.|
All of the basketball shots sprinkled throughout this review were shot as JPEGs. Some slight adjustments were made to the contrast and white balance, but what you are looking at is very close to what you would get, right from the camera. Images can get noisy or mushy at high ISOs due to the light loss from the mirror, and the heavy noise reduction that comes with it in Jpegs. The reason, by the way, I shot the game in JPEG-only mode was so that I could fire off as many bursts as my heart desired, without worrying about tons of gigantic files.
Burst rate and AF performance are the hallmarks of this camera. I was blown away by how long it takes for the a77 II to hit its buffer when shooting 12fps with continuous AF (JPEG-only X.Fine). Though, I was equally annoyed by how the camera completely locks up all functionality while the buffer does clear.
The hinge/tilt/swivel screen is another huge plus of the a77 II. It makes getting super low, super high, or incredibly awkward angles a breeze. I shot a whole bunch of images at the game with the camera flat on the ground, something I've never been able to do with my fixed-screen Nikons.
My only real complaints from my experience using the a77 II to shoot basketball were around the four-way joystick-style controller on the back, particularly regarding its sensitivity. I love how easy, in theory, changing AF points is. But in practice it isn't, because the controller isn't great. The real issue is that it has the feel of an 8-way controller, even though it isn't. Also, in general, the controls are very mushy feeling, and it takes a bit of extra force to nudge the joystick the direction you actual want it to go.
And speaking of that joystick - it feels intuitive to me to press it inward to magnify the image after a shot to quickly check focus. Instead, the center joystick button is assigned to 'zoom out', and I have to use the dedicated magnify button (higher up, to the right) to magnify the image in playback. That means I have to move my thumb back and forth between two buttons to magnify and unmagnify the image - never ergonomically desirable. Even worse, the magnify button only magnifies the center of the image, not the area of the image under the focus point that was used. Many competitors offer a one-touch method to quickly check focus at the focus point used, and it's a shame to see that Sony doesn't offer this in any of their cameras yet.
|I loved the tilt-swivel screen, everything looks better when you get low low low. Shot at ISO 3200, f/4, 1/500 sec.|
It's worth noting that I only spent some of the game shooting in the 12fps burst mode, the rest of the time I shot in manual mode, with the drive set to 'Continuous Shooting High,' giving me a burst rate of 8fps. This was because you loose the ability to control your shutter speed and aperture when in this 12fps mode, and neither were exposure values I wanted to give up. And besides, 8fps is still a very fast burst rate.
By default, when the camera is set to 12fps, the aperture locks to f/3.5. This makes sense, because the lens needs to remain open enough for the phase detect AF sensors to work. What doesn't make sense is the fact that you can't open it up any more than f/3.5, even if you have a faster lens. With lenses slower than f/3.5, the a77 II will instead default to whatever the fastest aperture it can achieve is. Additionally, you can not choose your shutter speed when shooting in 12fps burst mode. If you are shooting in Auto ISO, the camera will opt for a shutter speed of either 1/500 sec or 1/1000 sec. You can however still use exposure compensation to adjust brightness. And ISO is still set by the user.
Using the a77 II as an Everyday Camera
Outside of the a77 II's obvious advantages in the action, sports and wildlife arena, it's also a darn good camera to just walk around with. Of course, if weight is an issue, you can get a similar sensor, and also very good AF performance in the lighter, cheaper a6000. I toted the a77 II around on a six hour hike and barely notice the weight. In fact, much of my time was spent gripping the camera in one hand. It is very comfortable.
Controls like ISO, Drive Mode, White Balance and Exposure Compensation all have their own dedicated button on top of the camera, between the shutter and display LCD. The rest of the go-to settings can be found within a single click via the Fn button on the back of the camera, below the control stick. This brings up the Sony quick menu. Depending on whether you're shooting in still capture or video mode, there is dedicated quick menu for each.
The a77 II also has three custom keys, just enough for my liking. Those custom keys, coupled with the quick menu and dedicated buttons make customizing this camera to anyone's liking a breeze.
|Yes, the a77 II is touted as a sports/wildlife/action photographers' camera, but it is also a darn good everyday camera too. Little features like face detect work well. Shot at ISO 250, f/2.8, 1/80 sec using face detect.|
From time-to-time, the eye-sensor that decides between the LCD and EVF display can get confused, this an issue I've encountered on just about every camera with an EVF and LCD. To cut down on the confusion, Sony engineered the a77 II to never switch to the EVF if the LCD is flipped out in any manner, brilliant! Likewise, if the LCD is flipped inward, facing the camera body only the EVF will work. More importantly, the display in EVF only shows up when your eye gets close to it, so as to save battery.
Face detect is a feature that i found to be particularly effective, especially when shooting with wide to normal lenses. Even in fairly dark scenarios, the a77 II does a good job of tracking, and focusing on faces. For the most part, the largest face (closest), is the one the camera will pick to focus on.
Eye AF is another useful feature, unfortunately is is somewhat poorly implemented. To use it, you must first assign one of the custom keys to activate it when pressed. I assigned the bottom, right-most button (the trash can) to activate eye AF. Once the assign key is hit, the a77 II will focus in on the closest set of eyes. If its too dark to focus on eyes, it will instead try to focus on a face. The problem is, eye AF only works in AF-S mode. So if your subject moves after you've acquired focus, the eyes may no longer be in focus.
I'm a sucker for cameras that excel in low light. Maybe it's because I am a slave to the desk, so much of my shooting time comes after hours. Or maybe it's because live music photography has always been my passion. Overall the a77 II does satisfactory in low light conditions. But it wouldn't be my first choice to bring to a concert.
College basketball arenas are notorious for having disgusting light, in terms of quality and temperature. The a77 II did remarkably inside the stadium, at ISO 3200. However, very low light conditions are one area the a77 II does not excel at, in part due to the light loss from the mirror in the optical path. JPEGs especially, beyond ISO 6400, start to look pretty funky from heavy-handed noise reduction (which you can mitigate by switching noise reduction from its default 'Normal' to 'Low'). Raw files are a bit more forgiving, but Sony's Raw compression can, in certain instances, somewhat limit their malleability.
But then again, this camera isn't slated a king of the low light. In the vast majority of shooting scenarios, it handles itself very well. The only real place I had issues getting something usable was shooting available light in a very dark concert venue; not really the place for the a77 II and its 12fps bursts. Though I will say, Sony touts the a77 II as being able to focus down to EV-2, and from my field testing, this is absolutely the case. Using AF-S and the center point to focus, the a77 II did very well.
|I did quite a bit of noise reduction to this image using Adobe Lightroom 5.4. Shot at ISO 6400, f/2.8, 1/200 sec.|
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