Sony Alpha SLT-A99 In-Depth Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Very good JPEG output at default settings
- Excellent high ISO output in both JPEG and Raw images
- Wide dynamic range Raw files
- Pleasing metering and white balance results
- Solid build quality, light weight and good ergonomics / handling
- In-body image stabilization system works with all lenses
- High quality OLED EVF with high magnification
- Articulated rear LCD
- Quick Navi menu for fast access to shooting options
- Five customizable buttons with a wide range of functionality
- 'Silent controller' for inaudible operation while recording video
- Continuous AF at 6 fps
- Dual SD card slots
- Built-in GPS
- Impressive Sweep Panorama image quality and stitching
- Smart Teleconverter option for 1.4 and 2x crop factor output
- Fast write times in burst mode shooting
- Auto ISO and exposure comp. available in manual mode
- 1080p60 video specification
- Ability to output uncompressed HD video to an external recorder or monitor
- Manual audio controls
- Stereo mic and headphone inputs
Conclusion - Cons
- Small coverage area of AF array compared to its peers
- Autofocus not compatible with manual exposure control in video mode
- No histogram available in video mode
- Live view not available with continuous shooting above 3 fps (an image review is displayed instead)
- Magnified live view not available in video mode
- AF tracking accuracy lags behind its Nikon and Canon peers
- Tedious navigation through menu system
- Inconvenient separation of still image and video files during playback
The SLT-A99 is a very well-specified camera capable of delivering consistent results in a wide range of shooting scenarios for both still photography and video. Sony has typically maintained a blistering pace of new camera models and the nearly four-year gap between the A900 and A99 is certainly atypical. With such a long gap, its perhaps no surprise that the vast majority of the A99's features and technology have already been introduced in NEX and SLT models during the interim. This is not to say the camera offers no new practical benefits, however, as Sony has shown the ability to continually improve on long-standing features like Sweep Panorama, and refine behavior such as easier engagement of object tracking.
Taken on its own, there is little any A900 user could have reasonably asked for that the A99 doesn't provide. While an EVF may be a hard sell for some DSLR users, the A99 takes significant steps forward in every measurable performance metric. Of course, for Sony that's barely half the battle. Unlike Sony's ground-breaking Cyber-shot RX1, which has literally no peer, the A99 enters a full frame DSLR market that is much more crowded than the one faced by its predecessor, the A900. Canon and Nikon now each offer no fewer than three full frame models, all aimed at distinct segments of the market. This puts Sony in the unenviable position of trying to increase market share while competing against rival models spanning a very wide range of performance, and of course, price.
While Sony can boast of truly first-class Carl Zeiss optics, any DSLR users looking to switch systems are faced with the fact that with the A99, they will not have access to as wide a selection of enthusiast-grade lenses as Nikon and Canon shooters. Sony does counter, however, with in-body stabilization that works with all Alpha-mount lenses regardless of type, age or brand, which means you get stabilization with fast primes, wide zooms and even cheap old secondhand optics.
The A99 gives very good image quality, particularly so at high ISO sensitivities, placing it among the best performing full frame cameras we've seen to date. And with 24MP resolution, only of the class-leading 36MP Nikon D800 resolves more detail. Dynamic range is equally impressive as well, easily on par with its peers. And the camera's multi-shot HDR mode provides JPEG shooters with an easy way to capture both highlight and shadow detail that exceeds single-shot capability.
Default image parameters such as white balance, metering and exposure are well-judged in a variety of both indoor and outdoor shooting scenarios. In-camera JPEGs display a reasonably sensible combination of sharpening, contrast and noise suppression. With this level of camera of course, the majority of users will be keen to explore the capabilities of the A99's raw files. And they will not be disappointed, as even a few basic adjustments can yield superior results, in large part by providing access to relatively noise-free shadow detail that is typically lost in 8-bit JPEGs.
As we've seen before from Sony, video performance of the A99 offers several advantages over its peers and none more apparent than its phase-detection AF system. Focus acquisition in video mode is brisk and object tracking can actually be an effective tool for subjects moving at slow to moderate speeds in a consistent direction. And Sony's well-regarded focus peaking option is among the best options we've seen yet for manual focus. Videographers, while perhaps lamenting the lack of magnified live view and histogram display will be pleased to see an uncompressed video over HDMI option as well as mic and headphone inputs along with an optional XLR mic adapter kit.
For all of the technology features that Sony has packed into the A99, its worth pointing out that many of them have appeared in earlier SLT and NEX series cameras. While this does reduce the 'wow' factor among those looking for ground-breaking advances, this also means that Sony has had time to tweak certain features based on experience with earlier iterations. As such, the A99, despite being the first full frame 'SLR' with an electronic viewfinder is nevertheless a very mature camera in terms of operation and handling.
The A99 provides five customizable buttons that can each be configured for one of 31 separate functions. The magnesium alloy body feels solid in hand and is surprisingly light weight, with the dust and moisture sealing you'd expect in a $2800 SLR-style body. While the main menu system is a bit tedious to navigate - we'd prefer the ability to 'tab' through entire sections - this is mitigated substantially by a Fn menu and the re-emergence of Quick Navi mode, which gives access to every camera adjustment you'd commonly need to make between shots.
The inclusion of an EVF may not be to everyone's taste, but from a practical standpoint makes for equivalent operational experience whether you're shooting with the camera at eye-level or at arm's length using the rear LCD. Indeed, aside from dedicated sports shooters who will likely balk at the lack of live view at high frame rates, the ability to preview exposure and picture styles, as well as navigate menus without lifting the camera from your eye may be enough to entice shooters who've only ever used an optical viewfinder. And the flexibility of Sony's unique multi-hinged rear LCD makes scene composition on the A99 possible in scenarios that no other full frame DSLR can match.
The Final Word
There's a lot to like in the Sony SLT-A99. It's a camera that combines very good image quality with a high degree of camera customization and an ergonomically well-designed control layout. It incorporates all of Sony's recent technology advances in both stills and video performance. A900 users who've patiently waited for an upgrade and are amenable to using an EVF will be hard-pressed to find much fault with the A99, as it represents a significant step forward in just about every respect other than output resolution.
We ourselves, find very little to criticize outside of relatively minor operational concerns and find the A99 well-suited to variety of applications from landscape to studio work. The biggest challenge here for Sony is that its rivals Nikon and Canon have stepped up their already considerable game and now offer lineups of full frame DSLRs targeted specifically at working photojournalists, well-heeled enthusiasts and most recently, budget-conscious shooters. Make no mistake though, Sony does offer features that are entirely unique to the full frame DSLR market such as in-body stabilization that works with all lenses, an articulated screen and superior live view/video AF performance.
We have to applaud Sony's forward-thinking efforts to leverage all of its existing technology - including its high quality OLED EVF - into its flagship model and not be afraid to look beyond the status quo of what a full frame DSLR-style camera should be. Add impressive dynamic range, top-notch low-light performance and impressive video specifications and the Sony A99 comfortably earns our highest honor, the Gold Award.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Sony Alpha a99
Category: Semi-professional Full Frame Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The SLT-A99 is a feature-rich camera that still provides a wealth of easily accessed manual user controls. It stands out as the only full-frame camera to offer in-body stabilization, an EVF, and an articulated rear screen. Budding videographers will enjoy brisk AF performance, as well as the option to output uncompressed video.
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