Sony Alpha SLT-A99 In-Depth Review
Sony has included impressive video specs and performance in its recent NEX and SLT models and with the A99, it continues that trend. While 1080 output has become the norm for even entry-level SLRs, few cameras of any class offer a 60p framerate, as the A99 does. Video enthusiasts will also appreciate stereo mic and headphone inputs and adjustable audio levels as well as full manual exposure control with settings that can be adjusted while recording via a customizeable 'silent controller'. And in what is quickly becoming a standard feature in full frame models, the A99 offers uncompressed video output via HDMI for use either with an external recorder or for monitor playback.
|As with stills, you use the DISP button to cycle through video display options. You can select a graphic shutter speed/aperture view..||...or have shooting data displayed along the sides of the frame.|
|You can choose an image-only view. Here we've also opted to display audio levels, a separately enabled option.||A dual-axis level can be displayed. Unfortunately, and unlike in stills shooting mode, a histogram view is not available.|
Video quality options
The A99 can shoot 1080p movies at 60 or 24 frames per second at bit rates up to 28Mbps. Focus peaking is available in MF mode and in low light scenarios you can record video up to ISO 6400. The camera has built-in stereo microphones and Sony also offers an optional XLR-K1M adapter kit which allows for the connection of two XLR microphones (one of which is included with the kit), with individual audio controls for each channel.
|Sizes|| Frame size/frame rate/bit rate
1920 × 1080; 60p/50p; 28Mbps
1920 × 1080; 60i/50i; 24Mbps
1920 × 1080; 60i/50i; 17Mbps
1920 × 1080; 24p/25p; 24Mbps
1920 × 1080; 24p/25p; 17Mbps
1440 x 1080; 30p; 12Mbps*
640 x 480; 30p; 3Mbps*
|Audio||Stereo internal mics, Dolby Digital|
|Format||AVCHD, MOV* (1440 x 1080 and VGA resolution only)|
|Recordable time||29 min. 59 sec.|
While the ability to shoot uncompressed video at 60 fps may grab more attention, the full-time phase-detection AF of the A99 clearly sets it apart from its peers, producing the most effective AF system we've seen in a DSLR-style camera. And while video professionals are likely to opt for manual focus, enjoying Sony's focus peaking capability, there's little doubt that a fast, accurate AF holds appeal for still photographers wanting to get the most out of their video clips without having to re-train as a video focus puller.
Handling in Video mode
Sony has achieved the laudable goal of making video capture dead simple for those who want to occasionally grab casual clips on the go, while simultaneously providing advanced capabilities for video enthusiasts. A dedicated movie record button sits within thumb's reach on the rear of the camera. While it is well positioned to avoid accidental operation, you do have the option of disabling the record button when the camera is set to a stills shooting mode.
|The A99, like previous Sony NEX and SLT models offers PASM modes when shooting video. To use any mode other than Program Auto, however, requires you to first set the camera to manual focus.
Unlike its DSLR peers, switching between stills and video capture on the A99 can be a single button affair, since the camera always operates in live view. For more direct video control, however, you'll benefit from first setting the mode dial to movie mode. Doing so switches the live view preview to the 16:9 video crop so you can accurately preview composition. Just as importantly though, it is only by setting the shooting dial to movie mode that you can select among Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual exposure modes.
|With 'Focus Peaking' enabled, the outlines of the in-focus regions are highlighted. In this case in red but you can also select white or yellow. Focus peaking is equally available when shooting still images.
This screen shot is taken from the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 but the functionality remains the same on the A99.
As on recent Alpha models, focus peaking is available as a manual focus aid. You can even temporarily engage it in AF mode to confirm focus. Those who seek more precise focus confirmation will be disappointed, however, that magnified live view is not available in video mode.
You can adjust exposure settings while recording, and do so without audible button clicks by using the customizeable 'silent controller'. This control dial has a central confirmation button and can be programmed to adjust audio levels, focus mode, AF area, exposure compensation, metering mode, ISO, shutter speed or aperture. Best of all, re-defining the controller's function is as simple as holding the button for a couple of seconds and rotating the wheel to select among available parameters.
AF vs. exposure controls
The A99 uses the same AF system (minus AF-D mode) when filming video as when shooting stills, for a seamless transition between the two formats, with one very significant exception. The camera's AF system can only be used in Program mode, where - if you've also selected Auto ISO - your exposure control is limited to exposure compensation of +/-2 EV. You can only take direct manual exposure control with the A99 set to manual focus mode. While it may seem arbitrary, this limitation reflects the fact that the AF system will stop working properly if the aperture is set smaller than f/5.6. In Program mode then, the camera will not select an aperture smaller than the lens's maximum (or f/3.5, in lenses with a maximum aperture of greater than f/4).
The image quality of the A99's video output is very good, though as with any DSLR you'll need to keep an eye out for subjects that induce aliasing artifacts like moiré patterning. Colors are rendered in a natural-looking manner with auto exposure and white balance settings producing pleasing output overall. High ISO low-light video looks very good as well. Noise and artifacts are visible upon close inspection but the results are still quite usable for documentary style projects. Audio from the built-in stereo mics is clear and crisp, though the mics are fairly sensitive to wind noise and sounds emanating from behind the camera. Video enthusiasts will, of course take advantage of the camera's external mic inputs, for more professional audio results.
Dpreview is partnering with Vimeo to bring you high-quality embedded video in our test pages, but as always, the original files are available for download from the links beneath the thumbnails. We've turned HD playback on by default for our embedded videos, but depending on the speed of your internet connection, you may get better performance by turning it off.
This video sample demonstrates the audio recording capabilities of the A99's built-in stereo microphones. With audio settings at their defaults, the mics do a good job of balancing the low brass of the pep band with the sharp handclaps of the cheering squad. The 'boomy' nature of the audio actually reflects the sound inside the sparsely populated arena fairly well. At its default shooting settings, the A99 handles these tough, relatively low-light indoor conditions well, producing very usable video at a moderately high ISO sensitivity. This clip was shot handheld and the A99's in-body stabilization produces video without overly distracting camera movement.
|1920x1080 60p, MTS, 27 sec, 94 MB Click here to download original file|
This low light video sample was shot using the Sony 16-35mm F2.8 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* at F/2.8. The camera's Auto WB setting was used, and while the scene does have a slightly warm cast, the result is not bad at all, considering the variety of light sources. Viewed at full resolution, noise artifacts and aliasing are visible, but this is very good high ISO performance. The lens was set to manual focus and at the end of the clip the lens is purposely set to the minimum focus distance to demonstrate bokeh rendition at its widest aperture.
|1920x1080 60p, MTS, 31 sec, 100 MB Click here to download original file|
This video was shot on a tripod and shows a long pan across a field of tall grass in a high contrast daylight scene. At the very start of this clip, you can see a demonstration of manual exposure compensation control in Program AE mode initiated via the A99's silent multi-controller. The exposure changes are impressively smooth and exhibit little noticeable lag between the rotation of the dial and the change in exposure. The multi-controller obviously eliminates the risk of audible button presses in your video. You can also hear just how sensitive the camera's built-in mics are at their default audio levels. Wind noise is audible before the low rumbling of the plane passing overhead. Yet you can still distinguish the higher-pitched chirping of birds throughout the video.
|1920x1080 60p, MTS, 46 sec, 187 MB Click here to download original file|
This very short video clip demonstrates the A99's AE exposure adjustment as the camera pans across a backlit scene. The change in brightness is pleasingly gradual and is most obvious in the foreground grass.
Note that this clip was trimmed and converted from the original MTS file. It is intended to illustrate the camera's AE adjustment only, not video quality.
|1920x1080 60p, MOV, 7 sec, 10 MB Click here to download original file|
This handheld clip shot indoors in MF mode highlights the image stabilization capabilities of the A99. The advantage the A99 offers over its competition is that stabilization is handled in-camera and thus will work with any lens you put on the camera. In this scene, the portions when I attempted to hold the camera steady are rendered without overly distracting movement, easily suitable for all but professional uses. Ambient sounds emanating from behind the camera in this busy, low-ceilinged hall are quite prominent, easily drowning out the electric hum of the trains.
|1920x1080 60p, MTS, 27 sec, 87 MB Click here to download original file|
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