Sony Alpha A77 £1149

17th Nov 2011 | 15:03

Sony Alpha A77

24Mp and a groundbreaking viewfinder, bring it on!

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Blisteringly fast phase detection AF; Very good overall image quality; Weather sealing and decent build; Plenty of dedicated controls; Comprehensive feature-set;

Dislike:

Reduced battery life; EVF may not suit everyone; Aggressive noise reduction in JPEGs at high ISOs; Slower start-up than an equivalent DSLR; Lag when switching between EVF and LCD;

Overview

Review units for Sony's long-anticipated replacement for the Alpha A700, the Sony Alpha A77, have finally made it to UK shores, although the worst flood disaster to strike Thailand for 50 years has hampered the camera's official release into the market. UK photographers may need to bide their time before they can own one of these formidable new cameras, but in the meantime, we're pleased to be able to deliver our verdict on Sony's latest innovation.

It's been four years since Sony turned its attention to the semi-pro sector of the camera market, but the unique technology and burgeoning feature-set that its latest creation boasts is testament to the hard work that's been going on during that time.

Sony introduced its Alpha A700 in 2007: the company's first foray into the semi-pro DSLR category. While the A700 attracted its fair share of followers, it failed to make much of an impact on the market shares of 'big guns' Nikon and Canon.

Sony alpha a77 review

In response, it seems that Sony has decided to try a different tack: in an ambitious move, the manufacturer is now attempting to take on the powerful prosumer DSLRs that currently set the benchmark for semi-pro cameras, bringing its revolutionary TMT (Translucent Mirror Technology) to the advanced photographer.

Features

Scanning the new Sony Alpha A77's specifications, it's impossible to be unimpressed with what's on offer. The camera is positively overflowing with up-to-the-minute technology that either matches or supersedes the competition.

Boasting a new 24.3MP APS-C format CMOS sensor, 19-point autofocus (AF) system, 12fps continuous shooting, Full HD (1080p) movie recording and the highest resolution electronic viewfinder we've seen to date - to name a select few - it's clear that Sony isn't taking any prisoners in its battle against the traditional DSLR.

Sony alpha a77 review

While it may look similar to its rivals on the outside, internally the Sony Alpha A77 is an entirely different beast. Building on the SLT (Single Lens Translucent) technology that Sony brought to the digital camera market last year, the manufacturer is looking to capitalise on the main benefits that this design affords - namely fast full-time AF and continuous shooting.

For the uninitiated, the Sony Alpha A77's mirror is semi-translucent and splits the light entering through the lens between the imaging sensor and separate phase detection AF sensor. This means that - unlike the mechanism inside a DSLR - the mirror doesn't have to swing out of the way in order for a shot to be recorded, resulting in new breakthroughs in terms of operational speed and performance.

Although the technology itself isn't new (Canon first featured a Pellicle mirror in its analogue Pellix in 1965) Sony's implementation of it in a semi-pro digital camera is, so it should be applauded for what it's achieved.

Sony alpha a77 review

As we've already mentioned, due to the nature of the SLT design, the Sony Alpha A77 features an electronic viewfinder (EVF) in place of the traditional optical version you find on a DSLR. One of the main disadvantages of the SLT system is that less light makes it onto the sensor, resulting in a dimmer view of the scene through the lens (as well as potentially hampering low-light shooting performance).

EVFs have been met with their fair share of criticism over the years, but recent developments mean we've started to see fairly significant improvements in their level of sharpness and clarity. We're pleased to report that the Sony Alpha A77's offering is leaps and bounds ahead of anything we've experienced before, with a very impressive 1.3cm, 2,359,296-dot resolution OLED screen that provides the closest performance to an optical viewfinder that we've had the pleasure of using to date.

In addition to the headline features we've already mentioned, the Sony Alpha A77 provides automatic and scene, as well as a whole raft of manual exposure modes, Sony's superb Sweep Panorama mode and 3D shooting capability.

Built-in GPS, a three-inch, high resolution, 921,000-dot three-way tilting LCD and SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilisation bolster this highly-specified camera's feature set even further. Add an extensive range of customisable features available via the menu system, and the Sony Alpha A77 certainly looks like it's well-equipped to take on its DSLR rivals.

Build quality and handling

Sony alpha a77 review

Sporting a rugged plastic-clad outer shell wrapped around magnesium alloy chassis and with seals around important controls and dials to help guard against water and dust ingress, the Sony Alpha A77 looks and feels every inch the semi-pro camera.

In terms of design and build quality, it's on a par with rival cameras such as the Canon EOS 7D, Nikon D300S and Sony A850.

The Sony Alpha A77 features a generous, ergonomically-shaped front grip, with neatly carved out grooves to comfortably accommodate your digits. A large rubberised area on the back panel also curves outward slightly to give your thumb somewhere to rest too, helping you to keep a firm grasp on the camera.

Sony alpha a77 review

Although at 732g, fully-loaded, the Sony Alpha A77 isn't what we'd call 'lightweight', it does weigh in at roughly 100g less than main rivals, without feeling any 'cheaper' or less robust as a result.

In terms of design, you'd be hard pushed to identify the Sony Alpha A77 as being any different to its DSLR counterparts. Roughly the same size and overall shape as a traditional SLR-based camera, the Sony Alpha A77 features all of the usual controls and dials that you'd expect to find on a camera of this calibre, benefitting from a more organic-looking design than its decidedly-utilitarian-looking predecessor.

The front panel hosts only a few components, namely a small focus-mode dial in the bottom right-hand corner, below the lens mount, along with a bright AF-assist lamp above and to the left (looking at the camera face-on). There's an IR receiver for the optional remote that you can purchase separately, and a depth-of-field preview button below and to the left.

Sony alpha a77 review

The undulating top panel houses a well-stocked mode dial to the left of the camera's hotshoe. Chunky and clad in textured rubber, the dial is tactile and easy to grip and operate.

Exposure modes are clearly marked on top, with options comprising Auto, Auto+ (which analyses the frame and selects the appropriate settings to suit), eight scene modes, Sweep Panorama, 3D mode, high-speed Burst and HD movie modes, as well as Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes.

Finally, there's a user-customisable Memory Recall slot, which enables you to store your own settings 'recipes' for up to three different types of photographic situations.

Sony alpha a77 review

The Sony Alpha A77's business-like built-in pop-up flash sits flush to the top of the viewfinder hump, just forward of the camera's stereo microphones and rapidly springing into life to sit high above the lens as soon as it's activated.

To the right, there's a useful secondary LCD display for keeping tabs on your settings at-a-glance, along with a button for toggling between the EVF and LCD screen, plus dedicated controls providing access to the camera's drive, white balance, exposure compensation and ISO settings.

The responsive shutter release is encircled by a power switch, while a small button adjacent to the LCD enables you to illuminate it in dim lighting conditions.

Sony alpha a77

The back panel is littered with an array of further controls, including a silver one-touch movie button that gives you direct access to the Sony Alpha A77's HD movie mode.

Further dedicated buttons include an AF/MF control that also zooms into playback images for fast focus-checking, in addition to AEL, display, function, playback, Help/delete and Smart Teleconverter controls. Some of these buttons are customisable, should you wish to use them to access alternative settings: a handy feature that brings the Sony Alpha A77's interface into line with its similarly-versatile rivals.

Speaking of versatility, we come to the Sony Alpha A77's articulated LCD. The design is somewhat a novelty, with the screen first tilting forwards and down, then it can be swivelled left or right, as well as being pulled away from the body on a hinged arm-like mechanism that enables it to perform further acrobatics.

Sony alpha a77 review

The screen itself is very clear, crisp and bright, with an effective anti-reflective coating and wide viewing angle, making it incredibly usable under all manner of lighting conditions and at a wide range of odd angles.

If you are faced with a situation where using the LCD is tricky or undesirable, the EVF provides a perfectly viable alternative. It's cheerfully clear, detailed and bright, providing 100% coverage of the frame. An added bonus is the option to display an array of shooting information and/or a digital spirit level, live histogram and navigate the menu system through the EVF - tricks that no optical viewfinder can perform.

There are a few drawbacks to be noted, however: although the refresh rate is good enough in most situations, there is some evidence of ghosting when the ambient light changes in intensity, as well as when panning quickly, although these are minor issues.

Sony alpha a77 review

We also found the lag between raising the EVF to your eye and it activating a little frustrating at times. You can set the EVF to remain on permanently, but this disables the screen, which isn't ideal either.

The gap between the LCD turning off and the EVF on is minimal, but it's still there, and as such highlights its limitations in comparison to an optical viewfinder. Nonetheless, it's still streets ahead of any other EVF on the market. The notion of using an EVF might not be everyone's preference, but we urge you to visit a store and try this one out: minor niggles aside, you're unlikely to be disappointed.

The main menu system sticks with the tried-and-tested Sony format, with white text on black and orange highlighting the option you've selected. Options are split across tabs for easier navigation and - although there is quite an extensive range of options and settings to explore - the menus remain simple to navigate.

Performance

Sony alpha a77 review

Featuring an upgraded 19-point phase detection AF sensor that betters its predecessor's 11-point offering; the Sony Alpha A77's new version incorporates 11 cross-type sensors and is designed to really flaunt the capabilities afforded by the SLT design.

Thanks to the latter, the camera's real forte is speed. The AF system is unbelievably quick to establish a lock, with near-instant focusing under most lighting conditions. The bright AF-assist lamp on the front of the camera prevents it from becoming sluggish in low light too: a welcome feature that enhances this swift camera's capabilities even further.

Continuing the theme, the Sony Alpha A77's class-leading 12fps Burst mode is a joy to use, keeping up with fast-moving action with ease. The compromise you have to make here, however, is the loss of any manual control over settings.

Sony alpha a77 review

If you want to maintain power over aspects such as your aperture and shutter speed, you'll need to switch to the camera's regular 8fps continuous shooting mode, which is on a par with its main rivals, such as the Canon EOS 7D, Nikon D300s and Sony A850.

Full-time AF with live view activated, as well as when shooting movies, is another benefit of the SLT system. This results in a slick performance with no screen blackout between frames (when shooting stills) - including when you're using the camera's excellent Subject Tracking feature.

The Sony Alpha A77's beautifully detailed HD movies benefit from this feature too, as well as offering full manual control over settings if you switch to manual focus.

Sony alpha a77 review

Overall, image quality from the Sony Alpha A77's class-leading (in terms of resolution) 24.3MP sensor is impressive. The camera's 1200-zone metering system performs admirably, producing consistently accurate exposures that rarely needed much in the way of manual correction.

Dynamic range is good by default, but can be expanded further using Sony's proprietary D-Range Optimiser feature to pull additional detail from extreme highlights and shadows when shooting JPEGs.

Leaving the Sony Alpha set to Auto, white balance generally produced slightly warm - but nonetheless pleasing - images across a range of different lighting situations.

Sony alpha a77 review

Sharpness and detail are both very good in JPEGs taken straight out of the camera, while raw files provide huge scope for manipulating everything from the tonal balance and dynamic range to the colours and level of sharpness, thanks to the volume of information they contain.

As is often the case when a sensor packs as many pixels as the Sony Alpha A77's, there's a price to be paid when it comes to noise performance at high ISOs. That's not to say that this camera produces bad results - quite the contrary - but it just doesn't quite manage to match its DSLR rivals when it comes to noise control, colour fidelity and detail retention at the top end of the sensitivity scale.

Viewed alone, the results from the Sony Alpha A77 still impress, with the camera producing perfectly usable images right up to around ISO 3200. Beyond this point, noise increases rapidly, and some overly aggressive noise reduction robs shots of fine detail. As a result, we'd only recommend pushing things up to ISO 12800 (or beyond) if it meant avoiding losing out on an unmissable shot.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing fo the Sony Alpha 77, 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 77 is capable of resolving up to around 28 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files. Although the resolution lines are clearly distinguishable there is, however, some disruption from about 24 LW/PH x100 onwards.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please take a look at the resolution charts article.

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

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 100

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 50

ISO 50, score: 28 (see full image)

JPEG Images

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 100

ISO 100, score: 28 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 28 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 20 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 16000

ISO 16000, score: 20 (see full image)

Raw images

Sony alpha 77 review: raw resolution iso 50

ISO 50, score: 28 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 100

ISO 100, score: 28 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 200

ISO 200, score: 28 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 400

ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 800

ISO 800, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 1600

ISO 1600, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 3200

ISO 3200, score: 24 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 6400

ISO 6400, score: 22 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 12800

ISO 12800, score: 20 (see full image)

Sony alpha 77 review: resolution iso 16000

ISO 16000, score: 20 (see full 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.

JPEG Signal to noise ratio

Sony alpha 77 review: signal to noise ratio

JPEG images from the Sony Alpha 77 show signal to noise ratio results that are on par with the Canon EOS 7D and Pentax K-5. These results show that noise is well controlled up to a sensitivity of ISO 3200, above this sensitivity value noise starts to become more apparent, but images still have lots of detail.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Sony alpha 77 review: tiff signal to noise ratio

Raw images (after conversion to TIFF) from the Sony Alpha 77 have a better signal to noise ratio than the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s. Although the Pentax K-5 has a slightly better score, the difference is marginal.

JPEG dynamic range

Sony alpha 77 review: dynamic range

This chart shows that the Sony Alpha 77's JPEGs capture a wide tonal range up to a sensitivity of ISO 3200, at ISO 6400 the amount of tonal detail captured in the shadows and highlights deteriorates. This graph shows that from a sensitivity of ISO 100 to 1600 the Sony Alpha 77 JPEGS capture a greater tonal range than the Canon EOS 7D and the Nikon D300s, which is impressive given its higher pixel count.

Raw dynamic range

Sony alpha 77 review: tiff dynamic range

This chart shows that the Sony Alpha 77's raw images (after conversion to TIFF) capture a wide tonal range up to a sensitivity of ISO 6400, beating the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300s by as much as 2Ev. At the higher end of the sensitivity range the Pentax K-5 just has the edge.

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

Sample images

Sony alpha a77 review

PANORAMA:As ever, Sony's Sweep Panorama mode proves itself to be excellent: easy to use and capable of producing some very pleasing results.

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Sony alpha a77 review

LOW LIGHT:Low-light performance from the Sony Alpha A77 is pretty good when images are reviewed alone, only falling a little short when comparing them to the competition.

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Sony alpha a77 review

SUNSET:The gorgeous colours in this sunset image demonstrate the Sony Alpha A77's ability to record faithful hues with just enough saturation.

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Sony alpha a77 review

SHARP: Detail and sharpness in JPEGs taken straight out of the camera are both very pleasing.

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Sony alpha a77 review

MANUAL: The Sony Alpha A77's manual controls allow plenty of scope for creativity.

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Sensitivity and noise

Sony alpha a77 review

Full ISO 50 image. See the cropped (zoomed to 100%) versions below.

Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 50

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Sony alpha a77

ISO 100

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 200

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 400

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 800

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 1600

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 3200

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 6400

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 12800

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Sony alpha a77 review

ISO 16,000

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Verdict

Sony alpha a77

The top spots in the semi-pro DSLR sector of the camera market have long been occupied by industry giants Canon and Nikon. While we wouldn't go so far as to say that Sony has produced a DSLR killer with the Sony Alpha A77, the manufacturer has succeeded in throwing something unique into the fray that certainly paves the way for future developments.

Aspects including the camera's 12fps Burst mode, Sweep Panorama feature, 3D shooting capability and the inclusion of a built-in GPS unit in the Sony Alpha A77's feature-set are what set it apart from rivals, albeit at the expense of battery life in the case of the latter.

In many respects the Sony Alpha A77 matches or betters its main rivals' specifications, although some of these models - such as the Nikon D300s - are overdue an upgrade, so the balance may shift once again if/when this happens.

We liked

The AF system is blisteringly quick and accurate, with the excellent Subject Tracking and 12fps continuous shooting modes enhancing the Sony Alpha A77's credentials when it comes to speed. Great build quality and handling, as well as superb image quality, are further aspects that score extra points.

We disliked

In spite of its speed of operation, the Sony Alpha A77 is a little slow to start up initially, plus there's a bit of a lag when switching between shooting with the camera's EVF and LCD. The impact of permanently shooting with one or the other activated also means that battery life is noticeably shorter than that of its rivals.

Verdict

Overall, there are only a few minor niggles to comment on with the Sony Alpha A77 - namely a bit of a sluggish start-up time, slight delay when switching between using the EVF and LCD for shooting and high ISO noise performance that, while still very good, doesn't quite match that of its major rivals.

That said, when weighing these up against a superb level of image quality when shooting in most conditions, great handling, good build quality, industry-leading EVF, quick full-time phase detection AF system and a comprehensive set of exposure modes, we have little trouble with recommending this excellent camera.

Sony SLT cameras
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