Sony Alpha a99

22nd Nov 2012 | 14:20

Sony Alpha a99

Sony gets back in the full-frame game

TechRadar rating:

3.5 stars

Like:

24.3MP; Noise under control; AF Range control; Articulating screen;

Dislike:

AF slower than rivals'; Poor non-cross type AF; Object Tracking mode is limited;

Introduction

After a four-year wait, Sony has brought out a replacement to the full-frame Alpha a900 camera, the 24.3MP Sony Alpha a99.

Unlike the Sony a900, which was a DSLR, the Sony a99 is a DSLT, or Digital Single Lens Translucent camera. This means that instead of having a mirror that flips up to enable the exposure to take place, the Sony Alpha a99 has a fixed translucent (or transmissive) mirror that allows 70% of the light reaching it to pass through and onto the imaging sensor.

It also means that 30% of the light is reflected onto the camera's phase detection AF sensor - enabling fast focusing during live view use and video, recording as well as faster than normal continuous shooting rates.

Sony Alpha a99 review

As a full-frame camera, the 24.3MP Sony Alpha a99 has a sensor that measures 24 x 36mm (0.9 x 1.4 inches) - the same size as a 35mm film frame.

However, it is still compatible with Sony's DT lenses that are designed for use on its APS-C format DSLTs and DSLRs, automatically cropping to the smaller frame.

Sony has reduced the thickness of the sensor construction to reduce shading of the photo diode to boost the image signal and reduce noise levels. This could be important in a camera that only transmits 70% of the light entering the lens to the sensor.

Sony Alpha a99 review

The company has also employed a multi-segment optical low pass filter from its broadcasting cameras to help maintain resolution while reducing moiré patterning.

This sensor is coupled with a new Bionz processing engine for faster processing of 14-bit raw files.

Interestingly, the Sony Alpha a99 actually uses two AF sensors, one in the usual location above the mirror-box with 19 AF points (11-cross type) and the other with 102 points over the image sensor itself.

Sony Alpha a99 review

Only the 19 points on the first sensor are user selectable - the remainder are support AF points that help with tracking moving subjects. It sounds very promising, but with less light reaching either sensor than with a DSLR, it will be interesting to see how the system performs.

Another consequence of using Sony's Translucent Mirror Technology (TMT) is that the viewfinder is electronic, since an optical finder would be very dim. For some this could be a deal-breaker, but the unit inside the Sony Alpha a99 is an OLED Tru-Finder with 2,359,000 dots, and it covers 100% of the frame.

There's no built-in flash, but there's a new Multi Interface Shoe, which has a standardised design rather than Sony's usual proprietary shape, making it compatible with a wide range of flashguns and accessories.

Sony Alpha a99 review

Owners of older Sony and Minolta flashguns will have to buy an adaptor to mount them on the Sony Alpha a99.

Other niceties include built-in GPS technology to tag images with location data as they are shot, and audio in and out ports for sound recording and monitoring during video.

Videos can be recorded at Full HD and can be started from any exposure mode. However, if you want to set particular shutter speed and aperture values, the camera needs to be in Video mode. Serious video shooters will love the peaking feature for manual focus that indicates the areas of sharp focus.

The Sony Alpha a99 has a full retail price of £2,299/AU$2,999/US$2,799.99, so it isn't cheap.

Build and handling

Sony has given the Alpha a99 a magnesium alloy shell to make it light yet durable, and put seals around the control points and joints to keep out dust and moisture so the camera can withstand some exposure to inclement weather.

It feels well constructed and the deep fingergrip is comfortable in the hand, giving a secure hold.

There are lots of direct controls scattered across the camera's body, which speeds up making settings changes. However, there are one or two oddities.

Sony Alpha a99 review

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A button on the back, for example, gives access to the Smart Teleconverter - a type of digital zoom. This seems a very strange use for a button on a camera that is designed for use by serious photographers. Fortunately it is customisable, so we used it to magnify a section of the screen when focusing manually.

There's also a rather unusual button and dial Silent multi-controller on the front of the camera beneath the lens release. This can be customised to access different features when shooting video and still photos, and it is specifically designed to enable you to make near silent camera adjustments during video recording. It delivers on this promise.

The multi-controller on the back of the camera will seem familiar to Sony PlayStation owners. It and the buttons covering the camera have a slightly squidgy feel with no distinct click, but they appear to be well made, and the camera responds promptly to their use.

Sony Alpha a99 review

In addition to the lengthy standard menu, there's a Function menu that is accessed by pressing the Fn button on the back of the camera. This provides access to 14 features including aspects such as drive mode, focus mode, white balance, sensitivity and picture effect.

Image format is an annoying omission, because features such as picture effect and auto portrait framing can't be used when shooting raw files.

Although an error message explains this if either of the options are selected when shooting raw images, you have to delve into the main menu to change to JPEG only shooting. Surely it should be possible to have the option to change the file format via the error message?

Sony Alpha a99 review

It's also a little disappointing that Sony hasn't given the Sony Alpha a99 a 'my menu' screen to assign your favourite or most commonly used features to.

It seems odd that the Function menu isn't customisable like it is on the Sony NEX-6. However, there are lots of customisation options available for the buttons.

When the LCD screen's brightness is turned up, or it's set to its Sunny Weather setting, it provides a clear view even in direct (UK November) sunlight.

Sony Alpha a99 review

The viewfinder is also very detailed, but it could do with a better eye-cup in bright weather to shield you from glare from the sun. It also has the tendency to make the scene look warmer and more contrasty than the captured image - even when that image is viewed in the finder.

A sensor next to the EVF detects when the camera is held to the eye and automatically turns it on while switching off the LCD screen.

With the Eye-Start AF option enabled via the menu, the camera also starts to focus the lens as soon as the camera is held to the eye, which we find useful in most situations.

Sony Alpha a99 review

In another first for a full-frame camera, the Sony Alpha a99's 3-inch 1,228,000-dot LCD screen is mounted on a tilting/articulating hinge to make it easier to see from a range of angles.

It's useful, but the hinge is an odd one, and while it works well when shooting horizontal images, it can take a while to get it in a convenient position for upright images.

At first it may seem that the camera is slow to power up, but we found that although the top LCD takes a couple of seconds to come to life, the EVF starts up smartly and the camera is ready for use pretty quickly.

Performance

Having a full-frame sensor gives the 24.3 million pixels a bit more room, and this enables the Sony Alpha a99 to capture high quality images with lots of detail - especially in raw files.

Noise is well controlled up to around ISO 3200, but at ISO 6400 there's a sharp jump, which in JPEGs manifests itself as a loss of detail and in raw files as an increase in coloured speckling if you process the files to reveal more detail.

Nevertheless, the Sony Alpha a99 can hold its own against the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D600 and Nikon D800. It compares especially well at the lowest sensitivity settings (ISO 50 and 100).

Sony Alpha a99 review

What is less impressive, however, is the Sony a99's autofocus system. In good light and with a high quality lens such as the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8, it is pretty quick, but the light level only needs to drop a little for it to slow and become less decisive.

Even with a high-quality lens mounted, the linear AF points (ie non-cross-type) often lack the sensitivity required to get the subject sharp quickly.

It's also frustrating that the selectable AF points are grouped near the centre of the frame so you often have to use the focus and recompose technique.

Sony Alpha a99 review

And, although the Object Tracking mode works pretty well, the start point is restricted to the centre of the frame and it can't be selected when shooting raw files.

The extent of any lens hunting can be reduced by using the AF Range option, which has a dedicated button on the back of the camera.

This enables you to restrict the focusing distance of the lens between the closest focusing point and infinity. Intermediate distances are indicated in the AF Range scale, depending upon the lens mounted.

Sony Alpha a99 review

This is an especially useful feature for macro photographers who prefer to let the camera focus the lens, and for sports photographers who want to avoid the lens focusing on objects that pass between the camera and the subject.

That said, the Alpha 99 isn't the full-frame camera that we would recommend for sports photography.

Better news is that the general purpose Multi Segment metering system performs well, as does the automatic white balance system. The camera generally turns out correctly exposed images with nicely saturated colours.

Sony Alpha a99 review

The Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) system is also on hand and effective at brightening shadows in very high contrast situations.

In addition, the in-camera HDR system is very effective, producing subtle effects at the lower settings and overtly HDR results when set to its 6EV maximum. However, HDR is a JPEG-only option, and only the final merged image is saved to the memory card.

On the subject of memory cards, like other full-frame cameras the Sony Alpha a99 has two slots, one for SD variants and the other for MemoryStick Pro Duo type cards.

Sony Alpha a99 review

With a Class 10 San Disk Extreme SDHC card installed, the Sony Alpha a99 was able to maintain full resolution shooting at 6fps for around 10 images. This is sufficient for most uses, especially bearing in mind the size of the files that a 24.3MP camera generates.

Video footage is also high quality, and in many cases the continuous AF system works well, bringing the subject smoothly into focus. However, more serious videographers are likely to opt to focus manually, using the focus peaking indicators to guide them.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony Alpha a99, we've shot our resolution chart.

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 50 the Sony Alpha a99 is capable of resolving up to around 28 (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:

JPEG

Sony Alpha a99 review

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 50, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 100, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 200, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 400, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 800, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 1600, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 3200, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 6400, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 12800, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 25600, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 50, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 100, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 200, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 400, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 800, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 1600, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 3200, score: 28 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 6400, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 12800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony Alpha a99 review

ISO 25600, score: 20 (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.

Here we compare the Sony Alpha a99 with the Nikon D600, Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Sony Alpha a99 review

These results show that the Sony Alpha a99's JPEG files have a similar signal to noise ratio to those from the Nikon D600, Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 throughout the sensitivity range. The Sony achieved a slightly stronger ratio than the D800, but falls a little way beneath the other two, with the Canon coming out top.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Sony Alpha a99 review

The signal to noise ratios of the TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Sony Alpha a99 show a bit more of a difference than the JPEG images did, with the Sony again falling below the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and above the Nikon D800. It achieves very similar results to the Nikon D600, which marginally beats it at the lower ISO settings.

JPEG dynamic range

Sony Alpha a99 review

JPEG results for dynamic range are a bit more spread out than those for signal to noise ratio, with the Sony Alpha a99 this time producing a stronger dynamic range than the Canon EOS 5D Mark III at the low-to-mid range, before falling behind after ISO 3200. Conversely, the Nikon D600 and Nikon D800beat it at lower sensitivities, but the Sony performs better at ISO 6400 and above.

Raw dynamic range

Sony Alpha a99 review

This chart indicates that TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Sony Alpha a99 produce very similar dynamic range results to the Nikon D600, Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800. It performs slightly better than the D800, but more or less the same as the other two cameras, overall.

Sample images

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

This shot was taken at ISO 12,800 using the JPEG-only Multi frame noise reduction mode, chroma noise has been controlled well with just slight loss of detail in some areas.

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Straight from the camera images have lots of detail and vibrant, but not excessively saturated, colours. This ISO 100 image was shot using the auto white balance and the exposure settings suggested by Multi Segment metering.

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

We like the results from using the Black & White Creative Style, especially when the contrast is pushed to its maximum setting. You can use the Creative Styles when shooting raw and JPEG files to produce a colour and a monochrome version.

Sony Alpha a99 review

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Using the Daylight white balance setting produced a pleasantly warm, but very natural result with this scene shot under a canopy on a bright sunny day.

Sony Alpha a99 review

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The tilting screen is especially useful when shooting still life scenes, because you can set up the subject and check composition and so on, without having to stoop to peep through the viewfinder.

Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony's Sweep Panorama mode can be very good, but a few that we made had a band like the one visible on the far left of this image.

Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sony Alpha a99 review

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Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Sony Alpha a99 review

Full ISO 50 JPEG image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 50

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 100

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 200

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 400

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 800

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 1600

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

Sony Alpha a99 review

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ISO 25600

Raw

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 50

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 100

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 12800

Sony Alpha a99 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 25600

Verdict

After a long spell when it seemed to have forgotten enthusiast photographers, Sony appears to have woken up to the needs of these users over the last 18 months, with the arrival of cameras such as the Sony Alpha a77, Sony NEX-7 and Sony NEX-6.

As an SLT with a full-frame sensor, the Sony Alpha a99 is faced with strong competition from the Canon EOS 6D, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Nikon D600 and Nikon D800.

Priced at around £2,299/AU$2,999/US$2,799.99 (body only), the Sony Alpha a99 seems rather expensive, especially considering that Sony has to prove its commitment to full-frame photographers and that photographers are currently skeptical of electronic viewfinders.

We liked

Thanks to its 24.3 million pixel sensor, the Sony Alpha a99 can resolve lots of detail, and noise is well controlled.

Features such as the AF Range control, focus peaking and the articulating screen are also great additions that will be appreciated by experienced stills photographers and video shooters.

We disliked

Although the AF system can focus quickly, it can't be relied upon to do so quite so much as the competition's. The performance of the non-cross type AF points is woeful in anything less than good light. When shooting indoors you can expect the lens to hunt a little (even a high-quality optic such as Sony's 24-70mm f/2.8) when the competition snaps the subject straight into focus.

Although there are plenty of direct controls, a couple of them - such as the AF Range and Smart Teleconverter buttons - could be assigned by default to controls that are more likely to appeal to the camera's target market.

While it is possible to follow a moving subject in the EVF of the Sony Alpha a99 (with the image review turned off), the AF system doesn't inspire confidence and the Object Tracking mode is a bit limiting.

Final verdict

There's no question that video is becoming an increasingly important feature for DSLR-style cameras. Sony's DSLT design makes the new Alpha cameras more suited to video shooting than more traditional cameras with a reflex mirror.

With a tilting screen, audio in and out ports, the Silent Multi-controller and its collection of video options, the Sony Alpha a99 is particularly well suited for creating movies.

It is also a very capable stills camera that can produce great images with natural colours and good exposure.

Although it's not perfect, the electronic viewfinder is very good, and we would urge skeptics to take a look at it to see what the future holds. Optical viewfinders aren't perfect either, we've just got used to accepting their shortcomings - not showing the impact of exposure settings adjustments, white balance changes or enough detail for very precise manual focusing.

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