Sony A99 Review

4.5
January 11, 2013 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The Sony A99 is a new full-frame DSLR camera that seemingly offers virtually all of the latest cutting-edge technologies. The A99 is also the only full-frame camera that isn't made by the Big Two, Canon and Nikon, who both now have three full-frame models in their ranges. Can the A99 compete with the well-established competition? Read our in-depth Sony A99 review to find out...

The Sony A99 is a 35mm full-frame camera with a Dual AF system and pro-style video features. The Sony A99 has a newly developed 24.3 megapixel full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor, Dual AF System with 19 sensors (including 11 cross sensors) and 102 AF point system (focal plane), ISO range of 50-25600 and 1200-zone Evaluative Metering. Other key features include Full HD 50p progressive movie shooting with non-stop Continuous AF and pro audio, an XGA OLED Tru-Finder with 100% frame coverage, a three-way tiltable 1229k-dot LCD screen, 6fps burst shooting, built-in GPS, weather-resistant magnesium alloy body, and is tested to 200,000 shutter release cycles. Compared to a conventional DSLR camera, Translucent Mirror Technology has a fixed, translucent mirror that splits the optical pathway between the main image sensor and a separate phase-detection autofocus sensor, and offers a simplified mechanical design that enables the A99 to be smaller and lighter than most of its full-frame rivals. The Sony SLT-A99 is available now priced at around £2299 / $2799.

Ease of Use

Outwardly the Sony A99 is very similar to the cheaper, APS-C sensor A77 camera. As with its sister model, the A99 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 A99'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 A99 body. This combination means that the A99 can offer full-time DSLR-like focusing speeds, even during video recording, plus an excellent Live View system with 100% scene coverage and a fast continuous shooting rate of 6fps, whilst being physically smaller and lighter than a comparable full-frame DSLR.

Measuring 1476 x 111.2 x 78.4mm and weighing 733 grams, the Sony A99 is a little bit bigger and heavier than the A77. The magnesium-bodied A99 is intended to be Sony's flagship camera, and in terms of its size and construction it definitely fits the bill. The A99 is a very solid bit of kit with build quality that equals 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 A99 can shoot full-resolution 24.3 megapixel pictures at up to 6fps whilst maintaining continuous auto focus and auto exposure, an impressively fast rate for a full-frame camera. The Tele Zoom High Speed shooting mode shoots at a slightly faster 8fps but only at 10 megapixel resolution, again maintaining continuous auto focus and auto exposure. The A99 can shoot up to 20 fine JPEGs, 13 raw files, or 11 raw + fine JPEGs in a single 6 frame burst.

The A99 features a 3-way adjustable rear 3-inch LCD, making it the only full-frame digital SLR to offer a tiltable screen. This is cleverly bracketed in two places, at the bottom and the middle, and can be tilted down and up and swivelled to the left and right through 270 degrees. It can also be flipped around to face inward to help protect it from scratches. The A99 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 A99 features built-in sensor shift image stabilization, hence no need to spend extra on specialist lenses to help combat camera shake. On the Sony A99 light sensitivity stretches from ISO 50 all the way up to ISO 25,600, with a quasi top speed of 51,200 achieved by taking and combining six frames at once (JPEG only) in the Multi NR mode. 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.

GPS tracking is turned off by default. The A99 has an integrated GPS receiver which records the location and time of every picture that you take. You can then view your images on a map with the supplied PMB software, or on a BRAVIA TV via the Photo Map function. In practice the A99's GPS works well, not taking too long to fix the signal and then consistently tagging your images, except indoors and in built-up areas with tall buildings. Otherwise it's a well-implemented and appealing feature that adds another way to share your photos, or simply to help you remember when and where they were taken.

The A99 can record 1080p HD 1920 x 1080 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 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 connect the A99 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T90 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T90
Front Rear

As with Live View, continuous phase-detection AF is possible whilst shooting movies on the A99, 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 A99. 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 was first introduced in the NEX-C3. Peaking is a feature that 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, something that the majority of digital cameras have struggled with. It can even be used in the movie mode, again providing a real boon to your creativity.

From the front the Sony A99 looks unthreatening to the experienced DSLR user. 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 four 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, and there's a large AF Assist / Self-timer lamp to the left of the Sony logo.

At the top of this grip, 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. A small Depth-of-field Preview button is located at the bottom-left of the lens mount.

Over at the other side of the lens mount we find a comfortably large button to release the lens, above which is the C button. As its name suggests, this can be customised to access one of 31 different functions. Below the lens release button is another customisable button and dial combination. When shooting stills, this accesses the Focus area options by default, but can be changed to one of 5 other options, again adding to the A99's customisability. During movie recording it acts as a silent multi-controller for the adjustment of exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity, metering, shutter speed, aperture and audio record levels during recording.

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Front Top

The A99'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 A99 has a brand new Dual AF system, with the conventional 19-point AF system with 11 cross sensors complemented by a multi-point focal plane phase-detection AF sensor with 102 AF points which overlays the image sensor. This produces noticeably faster and more reliable auto-focusing than previous Sony SLT cameras. Dual AF is further complemented by the AF-D Continuous AF mode, which takes advantage of the cutting-edge focusing system to accurately focus on the subject whether its moving in depth or plane direction. Note that AF-D only works with a limited number of lenses - the SAL2470Z, SAL2875, SAL50F14, SAL300F28G2, SAL70400G and SAL500F4G - with more lenses to be supported via future firmware updates.

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 31 other options if you so desire.

The A99 has a monochrome 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 A99 are buttons for the self timer/bracketing and white balance options.

Next we come to the Finder/LCD button 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. As expected the Sony's top plate also features a shoe for an optional accessory flash situated just above the electronic viewfinder. There's no built-in flash on the Sony A99.

Over at the far left of the A99's top plate is a shooting mode dial that's slightly sunk into the bodywork, which in conjunction with the new lock helps 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 10fps continuous shooting, Movies, Panorama (normal or 3D) 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.

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Tilting LCD Screen Tilting LCD Screen

The Superior Auto mode automatically recognizes the correct scene mode and then takes advantage of the camera's high-speed shooting capabilities to shoot and combine up to six shots to produce images with greater dynamic range and lower image noise. The 1/2/3 custom modes allow you to call up one of three pre-registered settings, very useful for setting up the camera to suit different environments and uses.

At the rear of the A99 we find the cleverly designed free-angle 3-inch LCD screen, which has an impressively high resolution of 1229K-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 A99's video capabilities.

Instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Sony A99 has a smaller electronic viewfinder. The A99's OLED electronic viewfinder on the A99 is borrowed from the NEX-7 and NEX-6 compact system cameras and is simply excellent. It has a large 0.71x 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.

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 A99'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.

The A99'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 A99 doesn't suffer from this unwanted effect at all, making the A99's electronic viewfinder the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder. The truest testament to the A99 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. The four shooting folders allow users to select image size, ratio and quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too, plus features like SteadyShot, long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact activated as a default, as is the likes of the eye start feature. The Movie folder contains the video quality and audio options, while the six Customise folders allow you to tweak the A99 to your way of working. Playback, Memory Card, Time and two further Setup folders allow the likes of the LCD brightness to be adjusted, the help guide to be turned on or off, plus user languages, folders and file numbering to be specified.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

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 A99'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, which effectively replaces a more compact-camera-like navigation pad. 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 navigation pad.

The next control on the rear of the A99 is a Function ('Fn') button for those details that we'd expected to find amidst the menus but didn't. Here for example we find the Drive modes, Flash modes, along with Autofocus modes (a choice of single shot, auto or continuous), AF area (wide, spot or local), Object Tracking, Face Detection, Smile Shutter, ISO speed, Metering (multi segment, centre weighted or spot), Flash compensation, White Balance (including a custom setting), DRO/Auto HDR, plus Creative Styles and Picture Effects. Creative Styles are pre-optimised user selectable settings, now totalling 13 different ones. For each of these creative options, contrast, saturation and sharpness can be individually adjusted. Picture Effects are a range of 11 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 10 and 4.6 megapixel JPEG images respectively (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 brand new AF Range button. This allows you to set the range of distance in which subjects can be focused on the AF system. By limiting the AF range, you can effectively prevent the camera from focusing on unwanted foreground and background objects.

On the left of the A99 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 ports for headphones 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 GPS logo to indicate that this camera has built-in GPS.

On the right are dual memory card slot, the first with a choice of either SD or Memory Stick to save images to, and the second SD only. Two 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 fairly impressive life-span of 410 images with the viewfinder or 500 images in Live View mode, plus a metal tripod socket that's in-line with the centre of the lens mount. Finally there's a connection for the optional vertical battery grip, which as you'd expect usefully doubles the battery life.

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hd video, hd, 3 inch LCD, review, 1080p, hdmi, sony, DSLR, tilting, GPS, full frame, EVF, alpha, 24 megapixel, full-frame, slt, 6fps, OLED, slt-a99, a99, Sony A99

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