Sony A68 Review
The Sony A68 is a new interchangeable lens camera that uses Translucent Mirror Technology to offer high-speed shooting and a smaller body size. The 24.2 megapixel A68 features up to 8fps burst shooting, 1080p Full HD Movies in the XAVC Sv format, 79-point auto-focus system including 15 cross points and a dedicated F2.8 AF sensor point, in-body image stabilisation, a 2.7-inch tilting LCD, an XGA OLED electronic viewfinder with 2359k dot resolution, backlit top LCD display, Dynamic Range Optimizer and HDR, and an ISO range of 100-25600. 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 camera to be smaller. The Sony A68 costs $599 in the US and £480 in the UK for the body only.
Ease of Use
Outwardly the Sony A68 looks very similar to the range-topping A77 II model. The A68 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 A68'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 A68 body. This combination means that the A68 can offer full-time DSLR-like focusing speeds, even during video recording, plus an excellent Live View system with 100% scene coverage and a respectably fast continuous shooting rate of 8fps, whilst being physically smaller and lighter than a comparable DSLR.
Measuring 142.6 x 104.2 x 82.8mm and weighing 596grams, the Sony A68 is similar in size and weight to the A77 II. The plastic-bodied A68 is a solid enough bit of kit, although it lacks the weather-sealing of the more expensive A77 II.
The Sony A68 can shoot at up to 8fps, an impressively fast rate for such a relatively inexpensive camera. To achieve the full 8fps you need to set the exposure mode dial to the dedicated burst mode, which locks the exposure at the start of the sequence and crops into the centre of the frame to produce a 6 megapixel Fine JPEG image. If you want to shoot a sequence of full-size JPEG or RAW images, the standard Continuous Advance drive mode provides a burst rate of 5fps or a lower speed of 2.5fps with the ability to change the exposure as required between frames.
The A68 features a tilting rear 2.7-inch LCD with 406,800 dot resolution, which is rather behind the times in terms of its size and resolution. This is bracketed at the bottom and can be tilted up to 135 degrees upwards or 55 degrees downwards. The A68 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 has over either Canon or Nikon is that the A68 features built-in sensor shift image stabilization, hence no need to spend extra on specialist lenses to help combat camera shake. On the Sony A68 light sensitivity stretches from ISO 100 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.
|Front of the Sony A68|
The A68 can record 1080p HD 1920 x 1280 pixel movies at either 50fps or 25fps (PAL), or 60fps and 24fps (NTSC) in the high bit-rate 50Mbps XAVC S format, and it also supports the AVCHD and MP4 formats. 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 A68 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
Continuous phase-detection AF is possible whilst shooting movies on the A68, a distinct advantage over most DSLR cameras and fast enough to rival compact system cameras. 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-A68. 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 A68 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 A68 does not have a dedicated autofocus assist / self-timer lamp, instead relying on the pop-up flash to provide a burst of assist flash.
|Rear of the Sony A68|
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 control ring 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, 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 A68's top plate features the aforementioned shutter release button encircled by an on/off switch. 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 A68 has a class-leading choice of 79 AF points covering 40% of the frame, with 15 cross sensors to maximize precision for both vertical and horizontal subjects and an F/2.8 centre point to support fast lenses.
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 A68 instead of the cheaper A58 model 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 A68 are buttons for the self timer/bracketing and white balance options.
|Top of the Sony A68|
Next we come to the Finder/Monitor button alongside the pop-up flashgun and a 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 A68'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 A68's top plate is a shooting mode dial that's slightly sunk into the bodywork and 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 8fps 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 A68 we find the tilting 2.7-inch LCD screen, which has a rather average resolution of 460,800-dots, 16:9 wideangle ratio and can be adjusted for brightness. While the ability to tilt 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 A68's video capabilities.
Instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Sony A68 has a smaller electronic viewfinder. It has 0.88x magnification, 100% field of view, and a 1,440,000 dot equivalent resolution. 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 A68'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.
|Tilting LCD Screen|
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 the C1 button 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. Underneath this button is the A68's circular control wheel, which in combination with the fore-finger operated one makes it easy to operate the camera in full manual mode.
The next control on the rear of the A68 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 Playback button and the trash can button for deleting images on the fly, which also doubles up as the new customisable C2 button.
On the left of the A68 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 Multi Interface port and the Mic port, all protected by the same rubber flap, and a seperate DC In port. On the right is a dedicated memory card slot with a choice of either SD or Memory Stick to save images to. 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 life-span of up to 580 images, plus a metal tripod socket that's in-line with the centre of the lens mount.