Another new toy: Sony SLT-A77V

(February 6, 2012)

After six years, it was time for my good old Fujifilm FinePix S9500 bridge camera to be replaced by a more recent model. It served me well during all the years and still works perfectly. However, it’s only equipped with a 1/1.7-inch sensor, which limited its usefulness to the range of ISO 80 to 400. Even my second camera, the compact FinePix F200EXR, fares a bit better in this respect, but that’s just because it’s a little bit newer (2009), not because it has a larger sensor.

During the DSLR boom of the recent years, I occasionally felt tempted to upgrade to a APS-C or at least Four-Thirds model, but I was always kept back because of the miserable handling: Not having an electronic viewfinder means that adjusting any parameter except exposure compensation and ISO requires to move the camera away from my head, look at the rear screen and put it back. Somehow most people don’t seem to mind that this is extremely awkward, but I do.

In 2010, however, Sony fixed that problem with its SLT technology that premiered in the A55. I was close to buying that camera, but then I read about its heat issues, so I wanted to wait for the next generation of SLT cameras instead. This has been introduced in fall 2011, but there has been no direct replacement for the A55. So I decided to go »all in« and buy the top-of-the-line model – the SLT-A77V, especially after its very positive reviews. Here’s what I think is particularly good and bad about that camera.

This is not going to be a full review; if you want that, I recommend to head over to dpreview.com, which is one of the few critical reviews in existence, and certainly the longest and most complete one. I’m not going to replicate that. Instead, I just mention the points I find particularly good or bad. Most of these are only »nice to have« features or minor nitpicks, but there are also some things that make this camera insanely cool – or diminish its usefulness by a noticeable amount.

What’s good

  • The electronic viewfinder: As already mentioned, this is a killer feature. First, having access to all menus and status information with keeping the eye on the viewfinder means a huge gain in usability. Second, there’s a somewhat accurate preview of exposure and white balance, which should reduce the number of trial-and-error situations.
  • The overall feel and handling of the camera is great. There are two control dials and lots of buttons, many of which can be re-assigned to different functions. The buttons are positioned quite well, the only button that’s not reachable with a single hand is the Main Menu button, but this is rarely needed anyway.
  • There’s an internal sensor-shift image stabilizer which does a good job.
  • The camera has a built-in level gauge which can be overlaid on either the EVF or LCD image. Shooting skewed photos purely by accident just can’t happen anymore.
  • Since AF cameras (including all DSLRs) usually don’t have a focussing screen, exact focussing in manual mode used to be almost impossible. However, in the A77, manual focus a useful feature again, thanks to focus peaking: When focussing manually, the camera highlights sharp contours.
  • Panorama shots can be generated in-camera. There are some caveats though (image height is fixed to ~1800 pixels, maximum width is ~12000 pixels, it sounds dangerous because the shutter repeatedly closes and opens), so external tools like Hugin aren’t completely obsolete. But for the occasional »oh, what a nice view, let’s make a panorama shot« situation, it’s more than appropriate, as it doesn’t rely on any post-processing.
  • There’s a built-in HDR mode. Again, this certainly doesn’t cut it against a full-blown post-processing HDR pipeline, but it’s really convenient and the results are quite OK.
  • There’s a »multi-frame noise reduction« mode that combines multiple shots taken in quick succession to a single one. This allows a »virtual« extension of exposure time without introducing too much additional blur.
  • There’s a dedicated video button with which recording can be started immediately from any shooting mode. It’s a bit hard to reach with the index finger, but this is still much, much better than having to use the shooting mode dial first.
  • Speaking of videos, quality is actually OK. I didn’t see any Canon-like artifacts until now, and being able to capture in 1080p/50 with autofocus is pretty cool.
  • The AF assist lamp makes acceptably fast focussing in low-light situations possible.
  • Each white balance preset can be fine-tuned individually and permanently with an option directly in the white balanace UI. No need to go deep into obscure menus just because the WB turns out to be a little bit off.
  • When reviewing images, it is possible to switch between images while zoomed, preserving the current position. This makes it easy to compare details between multiple images.
  • Exposure correction can be mapped to one of the two control dials in Program AE mode. (Though unfortunately the then-obsolete exposure correction button can’t be reassigned to other functions.)
  • The sensitivity ranges from ISO 16000 down to ISO 50 in 1/3-stop intervals. When using automatic ISO, lower and upper limits can be easily set without going deep into menus.
  • The camera offers an option to fine-tune the AF for each lens. This doesn’t work wonders, but it’s a nice option and indeed punched out a tiny bit of additional detail for me.
  • There’s an option to voluntarily create a new DCIM subfolder. This is very useful to segregate events from each other – no more guessing which files need to be copied.
  • The menus are mostly logical and well-arranged. There are no functions which are reachable from multiple menus. The main menu doesn’t need scrolling to see all items. Another very useful option is that menus start at the last used item instead of the first. Also, when entering the shooting options menu with the Fn key, the control dials can be used to change settings very quickly.
  • There’s a »Memory Recall« (MR) mode, which can be used to store up to three sets of shooting settings that can quickly be recalled. I use this for shooting with my external »dumb« (i.e. non-TTL) flash, where some carefully tuned settings in manual exposure mode are required.
  • The video output uses a standard Micro-HDMI (Type D) connector for which cheap adapters and cables exist. Showing images (and videos) directly off the camera is an easy and useful option with this setup.

What’s bad

  • Thoroughly disappointing noise levels: For some weird reason, Sony put the insane amount of 24 megapixels on the APS-C sensor, and the fixed mirror in front of it takes another half EV of light off it. The net result is disturbing noise starting to creep in at ISO 200 already. Above ISO 800, it’s getting almost unbearable.
    To add insult to injury, the camera’s internal noise processing does an extremely bad job at concealing all this mess, transforming the high-frequency noise into much more noticeable low-frequency »noise carpets« and filtering away lots of fine detail while it’s at it. Why Sony couldn’t just use the excellent 16-megapixel IMX071 sensor from the NEX-5N, A35 and Nikon D7000 in this model is beyond me.
  • When shooting, I usually want to use the EVF exclusively and need the rear LCD only in a few specific situations. When reviewing images, it’s the other way round – the LCD is the main display, the EVF is only sometimes useful. This sounds like a very basic setup, yet the A77’s firmware isn’t able to do that.
    You have the choice between two modes: In one mode, it automatically switches between the EVF and the rear LCD based on a proximity sensor near the EVF eyepiece. This is nice for playback mode, but useless for shooting because it always unnecessarily enables the LCD. So, manual switching it is. The good news is that the EVF is still turned off if not used. However, the camera doesn’t maintain a separate EVF/LCD state for record and playback mode: If EVF mode is selected and playback mode is entered, the EVF will still be used and another press on the EVF/LCD button is needed to rectify things. Conversely, when going back to record mode, the button needs to be pressed again to go back to EVF mode. This is extremely cumbersome and I can only hope that Sony eventually fixes this in a firmware update.
  • There’s no fully satisfactory standby mode. When removing the camera from the eye, it keeps fully active for a certain amount of time, wasting energy and keeping the sensor unnecessarily heated up. Turning the camera off and on again (something I’ve always done with my S9500, because it just worked perfectly) isn’t an option either because of the long boot-up time. My current workaround is to set the standby timeout to the lowest value (10 seconds), but this doesn’t really work either: The camera randomly decides whether it will enter standby mode or not.
  • As a direct result from the aforementioned point, there’s the very high battery consumption. A fully charged battery is good for about 200 photos, which is even less than most compact cameras are capable of.
  • Metering accuracy is nothing to write home about. In most cases, auto-exposure is OK, but in some situations, it heavily overexposes – and not just by 1/3 or 2/3 EV like most cameras do, but by up to 2 EV. (see update)
    Automatic white balance is a little bit better, but also far from perfect. The good thing is that if it’s wrong, it’s mostly on the warmer side, which I personally find less unpleasant than if everything is blue.
  • The camera contains an orientation sensor, but it doesn’t rotate images. Instead, it writes the EXIF Orientation tag into files – and somehow the option to disable this braindead feature is missing from the menus.
  • The warm boot time (i.e. time required for the camera to become fully functional after turning it on, but without removing the battery before) is very long, in the region of 2-5 seconds. During that time, no input is possible. It’s also quite strange that the camera takes very long to shut down and does questionable things in this process – for example, it resets the lens’ focus to infinity when in AF mode, which is totally unnecessary and uses up some additional battery power as well.
  • In addition to the lengthy bootup/shutdown process, there’s some general slowness while navigating menus, which is particularly noticeable in the (long) ISO menu and in some unpredictable reactions when using controls too soon after shooting a picture.
  • It’s not possible to start the camera directly in playback mode. The S9500 had a three-way main switch (off/playback/record) for that purpose, but in the A77, I always have to go through record mode. Given that the controls aren’t responsive for a few seconds after powering on and that the EVF/LCD button also needs to be pressed to activate the rear LCD, this a bit bothersome.
  • The video recording options are needlessly crippled. European models can only record in 25 or 50 fps; Americans and Asians can only use 24, 30 or 60. AVCHD recordings can only be 1080i or 1080p, MP4 is either anamorphic 1440×1080 or VGA. Other resolutions, e.g. 720p, are completely absent.
  • For some unfathomable reason, playback mode strictly separates between photos, AVCHD videos and MP4 videos. There’s no way to get a single consistent view of all files produced with the camera. The photo viewer itself is also very limited: It can only show up to four images per screen, a larger overview is not possible.
  • The viewfinder and LCD are positioned in a way which makes it impossible to use the EVF without pushing one’s nose against the rear display, making it greasy.
  • The proprietary flash hot-shoe requires an adapter (not included) to use standard ISO flashes, which sucks a bit.
  • It’s not possible to display all shooting information at the same time – it’s either the level gauge, a full overview of the seetings or the histogram, but not combinations of those.
  • The selection of Exif information presented by the viewer is anything but comprehensive, and some of the few things is does mention are mostly useless: For example, it will indicate DRO-Auto or HDR-Auto literally, i.e. it will just tell me that it was shot in automatic mode instead of indicating the actual level of DRO or HDR applied.
  • The buttons and the main control joystick feel quite cheap. The shutter release button also lacks a distinctive action point for the half-way-pressed state.
  • It’s loud. Not having a movable mirror doesn’t mean that operation is silent. In fact, the A77’s shutter does make much more noise than many Canon and Nikon DSLRs.
  • The EVF flickers a tiny bit. It’s just barely noticeable though.

What I don’t care about

There are also some features which are cool on paper, but are not really relevant for me:

  • The resolution. Seriously, I don’t know what to do with those 24 Megapixels. 16 would have been by far enough.
  • There’s a good old LCD display on the top side of the camera that displays the current exposure values as well as some other settings. I think that’s a bit redundant on a camera with this technology, but maybe Sony added that to underpin the camera’s semi-professional ambitions.
  • An articulated screen is a must-have feature, but the A77’s much-touted rear LCD mount is offering more flexibility than I’ll ever need. The only scenario I can think of where it really comes in handy is self portraits.
  • I’m not quite sure yet whether the built-in GPS is actually useful or just another goody. As it seems, the GPS receiver is disabled when the camera is powered off, meaning that photos taken between turning the camera on and the first GPS fix won’t be geotagged. And if I can’t rely on all images being consistently tagged, I might as well use an external GPS track logger to establish the photo-to-location mapping.
  • The high continuous shooting rate is really cool, but except for a few work-related projects I don’t see me using this much.
  • The EVF might have an extraordinarily high resolution, but seriously, I don’t care much whether it’s QVGA (like in the S9500), SVGA (like in the A55, A33 and A35) or XGA (like in the A77 and A65). I appreciate the amount of detail visible in the viewfinder, but it’s not a decisive feature to me.
  • Speaking about the EVF, another often touted feature is its size: It’s just a tiny bit smaller than the viewfinders of full-frame DSLRs, leaving everything in APS-C format far behind. To me, that’s an un-feature though: I wear glasses, hence I’m looking at the EVF with a 2-centimeter distance from the eyepiece. I really feared that the large viewfinder would make it impossible to see the full image, and indeed it’s very, very close to that edge.
  • Object Tracking is another feature that sounds great on paper, but I honestly don’t remember a situation where this would have been handy. On the other hand, if such a situation should eventually arise, it’s probably good to have it :)
  • Face Recognition and Smile Shutter are nice functions that might actually turn out to be useful at some point, but I certainly wouldn’t have missed them if they were absent.
  • There are some built-in Lens Correction functions that compensate for chromatic aberration, shading and distortion, but these only work with lenses that have profiles stored for them in the firmware, and I doubt that Sony will ever add profiles for third-party lenses.

The lens

I use a Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM as the primary (and currently only) lens on the camera. Sure, it’s a superzoom lens, not worthy of being even considered by any serious photographer. But you know what? I don’t care. I hate changing lenses – it’s awkward, time-intensive, and it always feels like open-heart surgery. If I have to sacrifice some image quality for the comfort of having a single lens for all purposes, so be it.

Having said that, I must say that the lens is quite acceptable, image-quality-wise. There’s the usual chromatic aberrations and blurriness at the edges of the image, but that was to be expected. The only unequivocally bad point is that at the sharpness is totally unacceptable around the 135mm focal range setting.

The thing that I find most awkward is that the optical image stabilizer is always active when the camera is turned on, even if no image is being taken. In my opinion, this is an unnecessary waste of energy; in fact, I turned the OS off completely and instead rely on the in-camera stabilizer, which yields similar results.

Conclusion

The camera is a mixed bag: While it has numerous very good points going for it, most importantly the good overall handling and wealth of features, it also falls short on other very important ones. In particular, the sub-par low light performance makes the hefty price tag highly questionable, given that the older, half as expensive SLT-A55 fares much better in this respect while still having most of the outstanding features of this model. Most of the other quirks I mentioned could be fixed with a firmware update, so here’s hope that this is eventually going to happen.

Appendix: Technical details

Being an image and video compression geek, I’m naturally interested in the technical details of the files produced by this camera. So here it goes:

The JPEG encoder offers three settings, named Standard (STD), Fine (FINE) and Extrafine (X.FINE). In FINE mode, the quantizers range from 1 to 14 for luminance and 2 to 15 (but with almost half of the matrix set to 15) for chrominance, which is similar to the »Fine« mode found in compact cameras from Canon. STD uses the exact double values and thus approaches the limit where artifacts become visible without zooming in. On the other end of the scale, there’s X.FINE, with an all-ones luminance quantization matrix, and the chroma matrix consisting of roughly half 1’s and half 2’s. If it wasn’t for the fixed 4:2:2 chroma subsampling which is common for all three settings, this would mean really ultimate JPEG quality. I’d wish there was a setting between FINE and X.FINE, like the »fine« mode in Canon DSLRs (or »superfine« in Canon compacts).

The video encoder used in the SLT-A77 is a totally different beast as in the Canon EOS 550D. While the latter one did little more than produce a syntactically correct stream, failing almost completely when it comes to motion estimation, Sony’s encoder is clearly a much more serious effort. The motion vector fields actually make sense, though they vary heavily between consecutive frames, as if the encoder uses two independent cores for that task, alternating between them on a frame-by-frame basis. Other noticable findings include that

  • CABAC is always used (good)
  • that the lower 8 pixel rows (which are invisible, but may nevertheless have a slight impact on coding efficiency) are filled with zeros instead of padding downwards (bad)
  • max_num_ref_frames is always set to 2, even though only one reference frame is used in I/P mode
  • audio is always stereo with a sample rate of 48 kHz.
  • interlaced encoding signals the intent to use of MBAFF in the sequence parameter set, but effectively, it only uses field coding

All other details vary a bit with the selected coding mode, as can be seen in this table:

MP4 AVCHD 25p AVCHD 50i AVCHD 50p
Container ISO Media (.MP4) MPEG-2 TS for Random Access Media (.MTS)
Audio AAC, 128 kbps AC3, 256 kbps
Resolution 1440×1080 1920×1080
Frame Rate 25 fps 50 fps
Profile Main High
Level 4.0 4.2
Frame types IPPPP… IBPBP… IPPPP…
IDR Interval 12 frames 24 frames
Slices per picture 1 4 1 4
8×8 n/a no yes no

Update (early May 2012)

After using the camera for a few months (including two holiday trips), here are some additional or revised points I’ve noticed:

  • With firmware 1.05, the startup times and general responsiveness have improved to the point where I can’t complain any longer. Sure, the S9500 still beats it by a small margin, but the delay between turning the camera on and being able to use it is now negligible. Only very occasionally, the camera takes its 5 seconds to boot up (that happens like one in 50-100 times).
    Standby mode is still broken, but since turning the camera off and on again is now a viable option, I don’t see a problem with that any longer.
  • Battery consumption varies largely – across batteries! With the battery that came with the camera, performance is slightly disappointing, with a third-party battery I bought (already a quite expensive model that costs half that of the Sony originals, which received quite acceptable reviews on Amazon) it’s unacceptable (the fully charged battery reports a capacity of less than 50%). In the end, I bit the bullet and bought another original Sony battery, and from that one I finally receive the performance I expected, which is a solid 500-700 shots – enough for a full day of an eventful holiday trip.
  • Initially, I assumed that DRO-Auto mode works like Fujifilm’s DR-Auto mode as implemented in the F200EXR. In that camera, it detected when a scene had too much contrast, and if so, it subtly increased the dynamic range to prevent excessive highlight clipping. As such, it was a »just enable it and never look back« kind of option.
    Not so on the Sony cameras – DRO is a totally different thing here. It doesn’t prevent hightlight clipping at all, instead it just reduces contrast to make darker parts of the image brighter. Not knowing this, I had DRO-Auto enabled all the time, with the result that some images came out totally different than I thought. My criticism about the unpresice auto exposure is also largely void because of this.
    The way I use the camera now is with DRO disabled for most shoots. I enable it only in situations that definitely have too much contrast.
  • Even though my criticism on the automatic exposure is largely nullified by the last bullet point, I have to say that it still doesn’t match the accuracy of the F200EXR. The same goes for color neutrality: Even with all the (really useful and much appreciated) white balance fine tuning options, I didn’t manage to create colors as well-balanced as with my Fujifilm cameras yet. Mind you, this is not at all saying that the color reproduction of the A77 is bad, it’s just that I think my previous cameras fared a little bit better in this respect.
  • The contrast curves of both the EVF and the rear LCD aren’t very precise – they tend to exaggerate contrast, making details in light and dark parts of the image almost indiscernible. The result is that I frequently over-estimate how much contrast there is in an image. Often I think that a photo is too harsh (and sometimes even re-take it with DRO enabled) but when viewed on a halfway decent sRGB-like display, it turns out to be just fine.
  • Contrary to what I said in the initial version of this review, I must admit that the top LCD turned out to be very useful. It’s the ideal way to adjust ISO, exposure compensation and white balance before and after a shot, when looking through the viewfinder is not required. It’s a bit unfortunate that it stays blank in most menus, though – for example, for adjusting DRO or HDR, using the EVF or rear LCD is still required, even though it would be no problem to display these settings in the top LCD (»dro« and »hdr« can be perfectly represented with a 7-segment display).
  • Being able to select ISO sensitivity in 1/3 EV steps is cool, but it turned out that I don’t use that after all: I still only switch between 50, 100, 200, 400 and so on. Thanks to the really well-executed ISO controls (the front dial changes ISO in 1 EV steps, the rear dial in 1/3 EV steps – perfect!) it’s really easy to change between these settings, also when not looking at the camera at all.
  • The shooting styles (Standard, Vivid, Neutral, B/W, …) can be fine-tuned in contrast, saturation and sharpness, but the steps for these options turn out to be a little too large: Standard +1 contrast +1 saturation is already pretty close to Vivid, but I’d very much like to have something like +0.5 contrast +0.5 saturation.

In conclusion, the camera turned out just fine – there are still some not-so-bright spots here and there and it’s still lacking some functions the competition has (like the D7000’s time-lapse shooting mode), but overall I like it very much. The firmware update solved the responsiveness issues, and the noise levels … well, that was complaining on a high level. Unless you have a full-frame DSLR, you have to think twice before using ISO 1600 anyway.

(last updated 2012-05-05)

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