Sony A77 II Review
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The Sony A77 II is a new interchangeable lens camera that uses Translucent Mirror Technology to offer high-speed shooting and a smaller body size. The 24.3 megapixel A77 II features a class-leading 79-point auto-focus system with 15 cross-sensors, 12fps burst shooting of up to 60 full-resolution frames, BIONZ X processor, NFC/Wi-Fi connectivity, Full HD 50p video with continuous autofocus and full manual control during shooting, 3-way tiltable LCD screen, an XGA OLED electronic viewfinder with 2359k dot resolution, double control dials, top-mounted LCD data display, Sweep Panoramas, Dynamic Range Optimizer and HDR, and an ISO range of 100-25600. The Sony A77 II costs $1200 in the US and £999 in the UK for the body only, and about $1800 / £1550 for the body and Sony DT-16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens.
Ease of Use
Outwardly the Sony A77 II is very similar to the original three-year-old A77 model - if it ain't broke, don't fix it seems to be the approach here. The A77 II dispenses with an optical viewfinder in favour of an electronic version, and uses a fixed semi-translucent mirror instead of the moving non-translucent mirror of a DSLR. The translucency of the A77 II's mirror means that enough light can pass through it to the sensor to allow it to remain fixed in place at all times, with the ability to reflect some of the light onto a phase-detection auto-focus array that sits in the top of the A77 II body. This combination means that the A77 II can offer full-time DSLR-like focusing speeds, even during video recording, plus an excellent Live View system with 100% scene coverage and an amazingly fast continuous shooting rate of 12fps, whilst being physically smaller and lighter than a comparable DSLR.
Measuring 142.6 mm × 104.2 mm × 80.9 mm and weighing 647 grams, the Sony A77 II is identical in size and weight to the older A77. The magnesium-bodied A77 II is intended to be a premium, step-up alternative to the more consumer-targeted Sony interchangeable lens cameras, and in terms of its size and construction it definitely fits the photo enthusiast bill. The A77 II is a very solid bit of kit with build quality that surpasses rival DSLR cameras in the same price range, being made to withstand most conditions thanks to all the ports, doors and controls being weather-sealed.
The Sony A77 II can shoot full-resolution 24.3 megapixel pictures at up to 12fps for up to 53 extrafine JPEG, 60 fine JPEG, 26 RAW, or 25 RAW+JPEG frames whilst maintaining continuous auto focus, an impressively fast rate for such a relatively inexpensive camera. To achieve the full 12fps you need to set the exposure mode dial to the dedicated burst mode, which locks the exposure at the start of the sequence and automatically sets the aperture at either f/3.5 or faster (depending on the lens fitted). The standard Continuous Advance drive mode provides a burst rate of 8fps or a lower speed of 3fps with the ability to change the exposure as required between frames and the aperture to any value, capturing up to 56 extrafine JPEG, 75 fine JPEG, 28 RAW, or 26 RAW+JPEG frames.
The A77 II features an impressively adjustable rear 3-inch LCD with 1,228,800 dot resolution. This is bracketed in two places and can be tilted down and then swivelled to the left and right through 270 degrees, and can also be flipped around to face inward to help protect it from scratches and above the camera facing forwards for selfies. The A77 II also has a clever eye level sensor that switches off the rear screen's info display as you bring your eye close to the excellent optical viewfinder, plus a facility that automatically flips the same display through 90° should you turn the camera on its side to shoot in portrait fashion.
One advantage that the Sony range still maintains over either Canon or Nikon is that the A77 II features built-in sensor shift image stabilization, hence no need to spend extra on specialist lenses to help combat camera shake. On the Sony A77 II light sensitivity stretches from ISO 50 all the way up to ISO 25,600. Sony's long-standing D-Range Optimizer and HDR functions help to even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow.
The A77 II can record 1080p HD 1920 x 1280 pixel movies at either 50fps or 25fps (PAL), or 60fps and 24fps (NTSC) in the AVCHD format, or 1440 x 1080 pixels at 30fps/25fps in the MPEG-4 format, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. There's also a 640 x 480 VGA mode at 25fps, but no 720p mode. There's a limitation of up to 29 minutes, or 9 minutes if SteadyShot is turned on, for the AVCHD format, and a 2Gb file size for MP4 video. Stereo sound with 16 steps is recorded during video capture, and you can fit an optional external stereo microphone to further improve the quality. The HDMI port allows you to output uncompressed footage to an external device or to connect the A77 II to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
The Sony A77 II offers both built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity. This gives you a number of options. With the free Play Memories Mobile app, you can control the camera remotely from your smartphone via Wi-Fi, although in our experience the control options are quite limited for the time being. You can see the camera's live view feed on your phone's screen, set exposure compensation and take a picture remotely but that's it basically – and communication between camera and phone can be quite slow too. It's also possible to hook the camera up to an existing Wi-Fi network. The A77 II also features NFC (Near Field Communication) technology (the same technology that's used for mobile payments), which allows you to connect it to a compatible internet enabled device or another NFC-enabled camera by simply tapping them together.
As with Live View, continuous phase-detection AF is possible whilst shooting movies on the A77 II, a distinct advantage over most DSLR cameras and fast enough to rival Compact System Cameras like the Panasonic Lumix GH series. It allows you to track fast-moving subjects without having to resort to manual focusing, ideal for users who are used to compacts that can auto-focus for both still and moving images. There are a few caveats - the focusing can be heard on the soundtrack, although using an external microphone gets around this, it sometimes struggles to keep up with the subject, and more notably the shallow depth of field that's inherent to a large-sensor camera produces noticeable and often unwanted "jumps" as the AF system locks onto different subjects in the frame.
In addition to continuous AF and manual, the selected AF Area can be changed within the frame to easily create the professional "rack focus" effect, where the focus moves between the background and foreground subjects. Also pleasing is the ability to change the shutter speed or aperture during recording with Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and fully Manual recording modes all on offer. Exposure compensation, creative styles, picture effects, white balance, AF area, tracking auto-focus and metering mode all apply equally to stills and moving images too.
As you'd expect, it's also possible to focus manually with the Sony SLT-A77 II. When focusing manually, Sony offers two Focus Magnifier zoom levels to aid in determining the precise point of focus, either 5.9x or 11.7x. Also included is the "focus peaking" display which provides a level of hand-holding for manual focus users. When turned on to one of the three levels (low, mid, high), this essentially draws a coloured line (red, white or yellow) around the areas of highest contrast in the image when you're manually focusing the camera. Used in conjunction with the magnified focus assist, this makes it a cinch to focus accurately on a specific part of the subject. It can also be used in the movie mode, again providing a real boon to your creativity.
From the front the Sony A77 II looks unthreatening to the experienced DSLR user. Apart from a familiar ridge housing the pop up flash above the Alpha lens mount, its most distinguishing feature is the traditional handgrip complete with leather-look rubberized covering that extends around the side of the camera. It's easy to fit three fingers around the handgrip and makes it straight-forward to hold the camera steady for shooting handheld. Built into the grip itself is a narrow sliver of a window for the remote sensor, should use of one be required as an optional extra. Note that the A77 II no longer has a dedicated autofocus assist / self-timer lamp, instead relying on the pop-up flash to provide a burst of assist flash.
At the top of the handgrip, but still at the front, is the camera's first control/command dial, situated beneath the main shutter release button and on/off switch, where it falls readily under the forefinger. Users can twist this to rapidly scroll through screen menu options and folders, a task also achieved by tabbing through the same using the multi-selector at the rear, as well as adjust apertures and shutter speeds. The small Depth-of-field Preview button is located at the bottom-left of the lens mount.
|Front||Tilting LCD Screen|
Over at the other side of the lens mount we find a comfortably large button to release the lens, adjacent to which is a very useful switch for alternating between manual and the three types of auto-focus. Sony has subtly incorporated instances of its Alpha trademark 'cinnibar' (orange to the rest of us) colour on the camera, here only visible in the thin line encircling the lens surround. The Alpha mount also offers compatibility with A mount lenses from the legacy Minolta and Konica Minolta range.
The A77 II's top plate features the aforementioned shutter release button encircled by an on/off switch that visually apes the zoom levers found on some compact cameras. The shutter-release has a definite half-way point, with the focus points rapidly illuminating green in the viewfinder and a confirmation bleep signaling that focus and exposure has been determined and the user is free to go on and take the shot. The A77 II has a class-leading choice of 79 AF points covering 40% of the frame, with with 15 cross sensors to maximize precision for both vertical and horizontal subjects and an F/2.8 centre point to support fast lenses.
In addition to greatly improving the number and type of AF points, Sony have also expanded the A77 II's auto-focus capabilities in several other significant ways. The new Eye AF function automatically recognizes and focuses on the main subject's eyes. The distance range within which the AF system will operate can be configured to suit your particular subject, and the speed with which the A77 II will react to changes in focus distance can be tweaked. The camera can be configured to automatically use eight adjacent focus points if the subject moves too quickly, or choose one of four Lock-on AF modes (Wide, Zone, Flexible Spot or Expanded Flexible Spot). The camera will also choose between focus-priority and release-priority shooting automatically if required.
With an imperceptible shutter delay, a full resolution JPEG is committed to memory in just over a second in single shot mode, a RAW file in two. The Exposure Compensation and ISO buttons are very handily positioned to provide quick access to two features that you will use all the time, although you can change their default settings to one of other key options if you so desire.
One of the reasons for choosing the A77 II instead of the cheaper models is the display panel, an LCD status screen that shows most of the important camera settings. In conjunction with the information displayed on the LCD screen and through the viewfinder, this panel makes it very easy to quickly see exactly how the camera is setup. There's a small button alongside to illuminate the panel. Joining the display panel on top of the A77 II are buttons for the self timer/bracketing and white balance options.
|Top||Tilting LCD Screen|
Next we come to the Finder/LCD button alongside the pop-up flashgun and a large curved grille for the built-in stereo microphone. If choosing 'Finder' with the camera set to auto-focus, bringing your eye level with the viewfinder and sensor below will neatly prompt the camera to automatically focus on whatever it's aiming at (you can turn this feature off by disabling the Eye-Start AF menu option). Pressing the same button again switches to the LCD, automatically blanking out the viewfinder with the rear screen bursting into life instead. The A77 II's top plate also features Sony's proprietary Multi-Interface shoe for an optional flash or accessory situated just above the electronic viewfinder, with a dedicated button to manually release the pop up flash situated just in front. The built-in flash can also trigger an optional wireless accessory flash.
Over at the far left of the A77 II's top plate is a shooting mode dial that's slightly sunk into the bodywork and now has a lockable button, thus helping to prevent the dial accidentally slipping from one setting to another when placing into or retrieving the camera from a bag. Arranged around this are 12 selectable options, running from full Auto to the creative quartet of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter priority and Manual, plus dedicated modes for the 12fps continuous shooting, Panorama and a Scene option which includes pre-optimised scene modes for common subjects such as portraits, landscapes, close ups (macro), sports, sunset, night, night portraits and handheld twilight. Three Custom modes make it easy to quickly switch between pre-configured camera setups, very useful for setting up the camera to suit different environments and uses.
At the rear of the A77 II we find the free-angle 3-inch LCD screen, which has an impressively high resolution of 1,228,800-dots, 16:9 wideangle ratio and can be adjusted for brightness. While the ability to both tilt and rotate the screen is very welcome, placing the bracket at the bottom does make it impossible to attain the video-friendly side-on position that some other rival models offer, a real shame considering the A77 II's video capabilities.
Instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Sony A77 II has a smaller electronic viewfinder. The OLED electronic viewfinder on the A77 II is even better than the A77's already excellent EVF. It has a large 1.09x magnification, 100% field of view, and a staggeringly high 2,359,000 dot equivalent resolution, resulting in a display that's virtually indistinguishable from a more traditional optical viewfinder. Improvements to the A77 II's EVF include increased contrast, more customisable brightness levels, and color temperature adjustment.
As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information, with a choice of five display modes. For example, you can view and operate the A77 II's Function Menu, giving a true preview of the scene in front of you and quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible. The icing on the viewing cake is the clever built-in eye sensor, which automatically switches on the viewfinder when you look into it, then switches it off and turns on the LCD monitor when you look away.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The A77 II's EVF system also performs very well indoors in low light, typically the scourge of most EVFs which have to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. The A77 II doesn't suffer from this unwanted effect at all, making the A77 II's electronic viewfinder the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder, particularly those found on entry-level models which are typically dim and offer limited scene coverage. The truest testament to the A77 II is that we almost exclusively used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that we wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.
To the left of the viewfinder is a button marked Menu. Press this and a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with white text on a black background aiding visibility. To the right of the viewfinder is a small wheel for dioptric adjustment that isn't too stiff and rigid. Just below and to the right of this is a welcome dedicated button for one-touch movie recording. A second marked AEL locks the exposure, while a third toggles between manual focus and the current auto-focus mode and also doubles up as a means of zooming into images and magnifying detail when in playback mode. To the right of this button is the A77 II's second control dial, which in combination with the fore-finger operated one makes it a cinch to operate the camera in full manual mode. Underneath is the aforementioned thumb-operated multi-selector. We found it to be a little unresponsive and "sticky" in operation, but it undoubtedly makes it quicker to scroll through and choose settings than a more traditional navigation pad.
The next control on the rear of the A77 II is a Function ('Fn') button. In this view, you can check all of the camera's important shooting settings at a glance via the Quick Navi Pro menu, and modify 12 custoimisable settings by moving about the screen using the navigation pad. By using this screen you can mostly save yourself from having to delve into the main menu.
Creative Styles are pre-optimised user selectable settings which run from the default of 'standard' through the self-explanatory vivid, portrait, landscape, sunset and black and white. For each of these creative options, contrast, saturation and sharpness can be individually adjusted. Picture Effects are a range of 13 creative effects that can be previewed on the LCD screen or electronic viewfinder and applied to both JPEG stills and movies.
Completing the rear controls are the Disp button for switching on or off the on-screen display, the rather pointless smart teleconverter function, which is essentially a 1.4x and 2x digital zoom for 12 megapixel JPEG images only (thankfully you can more usefully re-assign this button to focus magnification), a self-explanatory Playback button and a self-evident trash can button for deleting images on the fly, which also doubles up as the new Custom button. The A77 II offers 11 customizable buttons in total, with 51 functions available.
On the left of the A77 II is a HDMI output in order to hook the camera up to an HD TV (the cable is once again an additional purchase) alongside the expected USB connection, both protected by the same rubber flap, and a DC In port. Above are ports for a remote control, flash sync socket for studio work and an external microphone, the latter potentially allowing better sound quality to be recorded than via the camera's built-in stereo microphones. There's also a Wi-Fi logo to indicate that this camera has built-in Wi-Fi. On the right is a dedicated memory card slot with a choice of either SD or Memory Stick to save images to. Two partially recessed metal eyelets on either side of the body allow the supplied camera strap to be attached. On the bottom of the camera is a compartment for the lithium-ion battery that supplies a life-span of 410 images with the viewfinder or 480 images in Live View mode (slightly less than the bolder A77), plus a metal tripod socket that's in-line with the centre of the lens mount.