Sony Alpha a57 £695

19th Jul 2012 | 11:57

Sony Alpha a57

The sharp-shooting DSLT that clocks up 12fps

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Good build quality; Many controls and shortcuts; Versatile articulated LCD; Decent EVF; Range of exposure modes;

Dislike:

Menu not that clear; Some functions unavailable in some modes; No built-in GPS; High price;

Introduction

Having grabbed our attention with the original mould-breaking Single Lens Translucent cameras (SLTs) the Sony Alpha a55 and Sony Alpha a33, Sony has gone on to produce further high-performance models that are proving to be increasingly capable of taking on the mighty DSLR.

Incorporating Sony's innovative SLT design - which features a semi-transparent mirror in place of the DSLR's traditional mirrorbox arrangement - the new Sony Alpha a57 boasts a number of tweaks and upgrades over its predecessors that certainly look good on paper, and could potentially take Sony's DSLT range one step closer towards knocking its DSLR rivals off their respective pedestals.

Built around a superb 16MP APS-C sized CMOS sensor, the Sony Alpha a57 features a DSLR-esque design similar to that of the enthusiast-level Sony Alpha a65 and sports a raft of high-spec features to boot.

Sony Alpha a57 review

With Full HD 1080p movie recording capability, stereo sound, SteadyShot INSIDE and a class-leading 12fps continuous burst mode, we expect that the DSLR manufacturers of the Sony Alpha a57's closest competitors will certainly be watching closely to see how this new model fares in the real world, and what move Sony will make next.

Features

The Sony Alpha a57's 16.1MP Exmor R CMOS sensor is borrowed from one of Sony's popular compact system cameras (CSCs): the Sony NEX-5N.

While this may seemingly offer no real advantage over the same resolution, older Sony a55, Sony's decision to pair the swapped sensor with its latest generation BIONZ processor looks to be promising in terms of the improved image quality that may be possible. We'll share our verdict on this later.

Sony Alpha a57 at a glance
Price: £699 (UK)/$799 (US)
Sensor: 16.1MP, 23.5 x 15.6mm (APS-C) CMOS
Video: Full HD, 1920 x 1080, 50fps
LCD screen: 3-inch, tilt-angle LCD, 921k-dots
Dimensions: 132.1mm × 97.5mm × 80.7mm, 539g

Sony's Translucent Mirror Technology (TMT) offers a number of benefits, not least fast, full-time Phase Detection AF, which enables SLT cameras to deliver a very responsive performance, plus impressive features such as the Sony Alpha a57's class-leading 12fps continuous burst mode, for instance.

You also get Full HD (1080p) movie recording with stereo sound with the Sony Alpha a57, plus a high-resolution, 921,000-dot, 3-inch LCD screen, which can be flipped out from the back panel and swivelled any way you want, to enable easy composition when shooting subjects at odd angles.

The Sony Alpha a57 retains the Sony Alpha a55's 15-point AF module, although Sony stresses that improvements have been made to the new camera's Object Tracking AF for improved consistency and accuracy.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Sticking with the subject of action photography, the Sony Alpha a57 outguns its predecessor when it comes to sequential image capture, clocking up a standard rate of 8fps at full resolution, 10fps in Continuous Priority AE (full resolution frames, but the aperture remains constant) or a class-leading 12fps in the camera's top-whack continuous burst mode.

The latter employs Sony's Tele-Zoom feature to capture a reduced resolution 1.4x crop of the centre of the frame, enabling (still very good quality) JPEGs of moving subjects to be recorded at high speed.

Sony Alpha 57 review

The Sony Alpha a57 has - for some reason - lost the Sony Alpha a55's GPS module in the upgrade. While this may be a deal-breaker for some globe-trotting photographers, there is some benefit to be noted with the omission of this feature, in as much as the Sony Alpha a57's battery life is extended to around 600 shots per charge when using the LCD.

A handful of new features, including Auto Portrait Framing, Sony's By Pixel Super Resolution Technology and Clear Image Zoom also make their debut with the Sony Alpha a57, priced at £700 in the UK or $800 in the US, with an 18-55mm kit lens. More on how these perform shortly.

Build quality and handling

We've yet to come across a Sony DSLR or DSLT that skimps on build quality, and the Sony Alpha a57 is no different in this respect. Sporting a design that's very similar to that of big brother the Sony Alpha a65, the latest entry-level model feels well-balanced, robust and has a reassuring weight to it.

While it may lack the weather-sealed, metal construction of some of the pricier Sony Alpha cameras, the solid plastic build of the Sony Alpha a57 still feels more than capable of coping with everyday use, and compares favourably to its similarly-priced adversaries.

The ergonomically-shaped, rubberised front grip is very comfortable and pairs nicely with the neatly curved, rubber-clad rear thumb pad to provide a firm purchase. The body is adorned with quite an array of controls that - although numerous - are all sensibly proportioned and clearly labelled, making the Sony Alpha a57's interface pretty self-explanatory to get to grips with from the outset.

Sony a57 review

Dedicated buttons provide fast access to key settings such as exposure compensation, ISO and the camera's HD movie mode, while access to the display, white balance, Picture Effect and drive mode options are offered via the four-way pad on the back of the camera.

Anything else important that's not directly accessible is stashed in the quick graphical on-screen menu that's activated by pressing the Fn button above the four-way pad.

Once you've mastered operating the Sony Alpha a57, there's scope to assign your choice of functions and settings to a number of the controls, so you can customise the interface to suit your preferred style of shooting.

There's also a handy button labelled '?', which calls up a built-in on-screen guide that 's designed to help beginners master both basic and more advanced techniques, helping new owners to get the most out of the camera.

The Sony Alpha a57's 3-inch LCD screen boasts a high resolution of 921,000-dots and offers a clear, sharp view of the scene in front of the lens. Thanks to Sony's integration of its TMT design, full-time Live View is readily available, with no black-outs between frames as the mirror remains fixed in place.

Sony Alpha a57 review

The fact that the screen is articulated adds another level of versatility to this camera's design, helping users to maximise the benefits of the Sony Alpha a57's excellent Live View system as well as its movie mode, particularly when you need to shoot subjects from awkward perspectives.

When sitting in its native position on the back of the camera, the screen also provides a wide viewing angle in all directions, plus a very effective anti-reflective coating helps to maintain visibility under a range of lighting conditions.

Although the SLT design means that there's no scope for the optical viewfinder found in the traditional DSLR design, the Sony Alpha a57 does offer a (rather excellent) electronic viewfinder, complemented by infrared proximity detection sensors that automatically disable the screen and activate the EVF when the camera is lifted to your eye.

Sony Alpha a57 review

If you're one of many photographers who have had a bad experience with EVFs in the past, then we urge you not to let this put you off from at least trying Sony's most recent innovation.

When we picked up our first SLT camera featuring the manufacturer's latest development in viewfinder technology, we were sceptical as to just how good an EVF could really be. We needn't have been concerned, the 1.44k-dot EVF featured on the Sony Alpha a57 - which sees a resolution boost in comparison to its predecessor's - is very good.

Although it's not quite up to the even higher level of detail, dynamic range and clarity offered by its pricier siblings (or indeed that of an optical viewfinder), the Sony Alpha a57's offering is still a far cry from the small, low-resolution, slow-to-refresh EVFs we've suffered in the past, with this camera's bright, detailed version being pleasurable to use by comparison.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Of further benefit is the EVF's ability to display full shooting information, plus extras such as a live histogram, for instance - a feat that an optical viewfinder can't achieve.

Although the Sony Alpha a57 delivers a favourable handling experience overall, there are some issues that have the potential to cause some confusion. For example, some of the camera's features - such as its Auto HDR, Multi-Frame Noise Reduction and Smart Zoom modes - aren't available while you're shooting raw+JPEG. The camera displays a message telling you the feature isn't available in your current mode, but fails to offer a solution.

Unless you've not experienced this common quirk with Alpha cameras before, you're likely to end up scratching your head and fiddling about with settings until you figure out the answer to the problem for yourself. For a camera aimed at newcomers to more advanced photography, this seems unnecessarily complex.

Similarly, while the menu system is generally easy to navigate, it could do with a bit of a revamp to bring it into line with its rivals' inherently simpler, colour-coded offerings that tend to make the process of quickly finding the settings you need much slicker.

Performance

The Sony Alpha a57's full-time Phase Detection AF system is excellent, being quick to find a positive lock with a good level of accuracy under decent lighting conditions. The 15-point system - borrowed from the higher-end Sony Alpha a65 - features three cross-type sensors.

You also benefit from the previously mentioned, newly-honed Object Tracking AF feature. This performs well, successfully maintaining a lock on human faces or other subjects moving across the frame, even if they happen to briefly exit the shot or become momentarily obscured by something in the foreground. As the light levels drop, however, the camera does struggle, even with its AF-assist lamp enabled to help it along.

The fast AF system is also of huge benefit when shooting Full HD movies with the Sony Alpha a57. With the option of accessing this feature via the mode dial or a dedicated button on the back of the camera, this easily accessible feature - shot at 50p (progressive) - yields relatively smooth and highly detailed movies, with fairly good sound being recorded by the camera's built-in stereo microphones.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Serious video enthusiasts have the option of plugging in an external mic to improve sound quality further, although a lack of manually-controllable options over this aspect of the video mode may prove to be a little less impressive to some.

Auto Portrait Framing

Auto Portrait Framing is a new feature which Sony claims to be the first of its kind. Face Detection and the tried-and-trusted Rule of Thirds are employed to analyse your portraits, before automatically cropping the frame to perfect the composition.

It could prove useful to those who have trouble achieving balanced compositions when photographing people.

As the name suggest, once you've taken your shot, the camera analyses its composition and applies the Rule of Thirds to automatically correct for any dodgy framing. Once it's finished doing this, the image is then cropped (note that you may end up with the final shot in the opposite orientation to your original, depending on what the camera deems to be the most pleasing).

Sony Alpha a57 review

Next, Sony's other new innovation – By Pixel Super Resolution technology – steps in and resamples the image to recreate a full-resolution, perfectly-framed portrait. Results are generally very good, although the fact that the camera simultaneously saves your untouched, original shots alongside the edited versions provides insurance if you find you're not keen on the A57's artistic interpretation of your photograph.

Clear Image Zoom

The grandly named By Pixel Super Resolution Technology is also employed when using the Sony Alpha a57's 2x Clear Image Zoom, an enhanced alternative to the notoriously destructive digital zoom feature that we've often criticised in the past.

This system differs in that the apparent 'magnification' offered (by cropping into the original shot to give the effect of doubling the longest focal length of the lens) isn't simply left in its low-res state, but rather reconstructed in its newly composed state to create a full resolution image once more.

When it comes to in-camera image customisation features, the Sony Alpha a57 has plenty to offer. As well as useful features such as the previously mentioned Auto HDR, plus DRO (Dynamic Range Optimiser) modes, there's a good range of opportunities to hone the colours and style of your images without having to go near a computer.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Accessed via a shortcut key on the four-way pad or the onscreen Fn menu, a range of Picture Effects - comprising Toy Camera, Pop Color, Posterization, Retro Photo, Soft High Key, Partial Color, High Contrast Mono, Soft Focus, HDR Painting, Rich Tone Mono and Miniature - are available.

Each effect applies a distinctive look to your images, with some providing further options that enable you to dictate how strongly the effect is applied, or to toggle between black and white and colour options, for example.

Some produce more pleasing results than others, but exploring the options and experimenting with settings is a fun way to boost the creative potential of your shots.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Additional control over the appearance of colours, in addition to the overall contrast, saturation and sharpness of JPEGs, can be tweaked in the Creative Style menu (via the Fn button). Here, you can choose from Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset or Black and White, with the option to adjust each of the above aspects to perfect the look of your images in-camera.

In Standard mode, by default JPEGs are faithfully coloured and display a pleasing level of sharpness, although shots will take a little extra post-shoot sharpening if you feel the need to boost the detail a little further. Raw files offer further scope for advanced image processing, packing in plenty of detail.

On the whole, the Sony Alpha a57 produces even exposures, but high contrast conditions can trigger a tendency towards under or over-exposure. These issues can be overcome by applying exposure compensation or by experimenting with the aforementioned dynamic range-expanding HDR and DRO modes.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony Alpha 57, we've shot our resolution chart with a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens mounted.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Sony Alpha 57 is capable of resolving up to around 24 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 100

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 100

ISO 100, score: 24 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 200

ISO 200, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 400

ISO 400, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 800

ISO 800, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 1600

ISO 1600, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 3200

ISO 3200, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 6400

ISO 6400, score: 20 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 12800

ISO 12800, score: 18 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 16000

ISO 16000, score: 18 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw images

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 100

ISO 100, score: 24 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 200

ISO 200, score: 24 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 400

ISO 400, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 800

ISO 800, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 1600

ISO 1600, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 3200

ISO 3200, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 6400

ISO 6400, score: 22 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 12800

ISO 12800, score: 18 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha 57 review: resolution ISO 16000

ISO 16000, score: 18 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Sony Alpha 57 review: Signal to noise ratio

JPEG images from the Sony Alpha 57 shows good signal to noise ratio results across the sensitivity range. At all sensitivities the results between the cameras are close with the Nikon D5100 and Canon 600D just beating the a57 at ISO 100, however at all other sensitivities the a57 has the edge.

Raw images

Sony Alpha 57 review: TIFF signal to noise ratio

TIFF images (After conversion from raw) show that whilst the Nikon D5100 beats the at a sensitivity of ISO 100 at all other sensitivities the show better signal to noise ratio results. This chart shows that noise only becomes really apparent in images from ISO 12800.

Dynamic range

Sony Alpha 57 review: JPEG dynamic range

This chart shows the Alpha 57 has consistent dynamic range results between sensitivities of ISO 100-1600 beating the Canon 600D, Nikon D5100 and improving on the performance of the Alpha 65.

Sony Alpha 57 review: TIFF dynamic range

This chart shows that the Sony Alpha 57's TIFF files (After conversion from raw) have a high dynamic range between sensitivities of ISO 100 and 1600, and across the rest of the sensitivity range beat the comparison cameras. This show that at all sensitivities the a57 is able to capture a good tonal graduation in both the shadows and highlights.

Sample images

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Sony's high-speed 12fps Tele-zoom Continuous Advance Priority AE - coupled with subject tracking - makes light work of freezing action.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

In Standard colour mode, JPEGs straight out of the camera are imbued with faithful hues and a pleasing level of saturation.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The ability to fine-tune the AF point prioritised by the responsive 15-point system allows for more precise focusing.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The Sony Alpha a57's metering system generally copes well - even with trickier lighting situations such as this.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

JPEGs taken straight out of the camera display a pleasing level of detail and sharpness, with scope to improve performance further by investing in additional high-quality lenses.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The Sony Alpha a57 is capable of capturing highly detailed landscapes with a wide dynamic range.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Sony's superb Sweep Panorama mode makes a welcome addition to the Sony Alpha a57's feature set, and is capable of producing excellent results.

Sony Alpha a57 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The Sony Alpha a57's easy-to-use HDR Auto mode takes several shots in quick succession and automatically combines them to produce a final shot with an expanded dynamic range.

Sony a57 sample image

See high res image.

Even when shooting with the kit lens, an impressive amount of background blur can be achieved.

Sony a57 sample image

See high res image.

A good level of detail is captured by the camera, even in mixed lighting situations.

Sony a57 sample image

See high res image.

This image was captured just as sun was about to set - at around 7.50pm. You can see that the camera has coped well in the low light situation, but it has been slightly underexposed.

Sony a57 sample image

See high res image.

This is the same image as the above shot, but we have made some simple edits in Photoshop Elements to show you what can be achieved with the images taken from the camera. We have adjusted Levels and increased Saturation.

Verdict

Costing £700 in the UK or $800 in the US, with a kit lens, the launch price of the Sony Alpha a57 seems a little steep, particularly given that you can pick up the 24.3MP, GPS-enabled Sony Alpha SLT-a65 for roughly the same price, or even less if you shop around online.

That said, once the newcomer has been on the market a short while, the street price will no doubt settle at a more realistic point, bringing it more into line with its DSLR rivals such as the Nikon D5100 and Canon EOS 600D.

When it comes to features, however, we don't feel at all short changed. The Sony Alpha a57 boasts a number of upgrades - as well as a few impressive new additions - that elevate it above the older Sony a55 that it replaces, while maintaining the same ethos for making the shooting process as streamlined and simple as possible.

We liked

Generally, the Sony Alpha a57 is simple to operate, with a decent array of dedicated controls and shortcuts spread across the camera body. The versatile swivelling LCD screen encourages creativity when it comes to framing stills and videos, the EVF is great and image quality is very pleasing - particularly when it comes to noise control.

We disliked

A menu system that's in need of a face lift and some potentially confusing operational quirks keep this camera from scoring top marks for ease of use. The loss of the GPS module found in the Sony Alpha a57's predecessor may also be a point of contention for some potential purchasers.

Final verdict

In spite of a few handling quirks and an ageing menu system that could do with ironing out, the Sony Alpha a57 delivers an overall very favourable impression. With a strong feature set and the ability to deliver high quality images, this camera can certainly hold its own when put up against its equivalent DSLR rivals.

With unique features such as its 12fps burst mode and the new interpolation-based technologies, the Sony Alpha a57 has a number of interesting features that elevate it above rivals.

There's also plenty of diverse exposure and scene modes, Picture Effects, 3D shooting capability and manual exposure control to be explored, meaning that beginners can start with the automatic functions and naturally progress into the more hands-on modes as their skills advance.

This makes the Sony Alpha a57 into a longer-term investment that has the potential to grow with you as your confidence develops.

There's a lot to like about this responsive camera. The Sony Alpha a57 boasts a robust body, an accessible control layout, versatile and high-resolution articulated LCD, plus a respectable range of automatic and manual exposure modes - including 3D and Sweep Panorama options.

Throw in a fast, highly-accurate full-time Phase Detection AF system and great image quality, and it's not difficult to see why we have plenty of praise for Sony's latest innovation.

Sony Sony Alpha SLT
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