Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sony Alpha A77 hands-on preview (video)

When it comes to cameras, digital SLRs are a breed all their own. Many DSLR owners don't upgrade their bodies often -- if at all -- and even fewer would consider a switch to a competing camera system, especially after investing in a handful of high-end lenses. Manufacturers need to push innovation even further to target this segment of the market -- when some cameras cost thousands of dollars and already offer excellent performance, simply releasing a body with more megapixels and HD shooting options won't prompt photographers to pull out their credit cards. With its excellent 24.3 megapixel sensor and high-res OLED electronic viewfinder, however, Sony's $1,399 Alpha A77 may just be the DSLR upgrade you've been waiting for. We spent a few days with a pre-production A77 paired with Sony's brand new 16-50mm f/2.8 lens ($1,999 in an A77 kit), and were very impressed with what will undoubtedly be a worthy successor to the well-received A700. Jump past the break for our initial impressions, along with plenty of still photo and HD video samples.

At first glance, the A77 looks like any other DSLR. There don't appear to be any special dials, unique design features, or other markings that may reveal the beast within -- besides the A77 logo to the left of the lens mount. Your perception will change after picking it up, however. The magnesium alloy camera is surprisingly light (even with Sony's new 16-50mm f/2.8 lens), though still solid-feeling and quite durable. Its dual displays -- one tilt- and swivel-enabled 3-inch LCD, and that gorgeous XGA-resolution OLED EVF -- are unassuming at first, but their power and function become immediately apparent once you turn the power dial. We love the 24.3 megapixel sensor, but the camera's OLED viewfinder is the star of the show.

Not only is the EVF bright and vibrant, but its 1024 x 768-pixel resolution means images will appear incredibly sharp, with plenty of room left over to display complex settings. While it won't provide as natural of a look, the tiny eye-level display is otherwise on-par with some optical viewfinders, with the added benefit of adjustable brightness and a heads-up display-like settings readout. The main LCD is adequate as well. We found ourselves splitting our time fairly evenly between the two displays -- focusing on the EVF in bright sunlight, even though the main display was still visible, and using the main display when we needed to shoot at unusual angles, or to capture images without alerting our subjects (the near-silent shutter helps on that front as well). Full articulation provides easy viewing from above, below, to the side -- even from in front of the lens, letting you shoot self-portraits with a DSLR -- while the horizon indicator (also present with the EVF) helps you guarantee that you're holding the camera level. There's also a dedicated LCD data display, located on the top right of the body.

While having an excellent display is key to the overall user experience, image quality is far more critical -- even with the world's most powerful EVF, the A77 would be a dud without a top-notch sensor. The camera's images are among the highest quality we've seen, however. As expected, photos shot in ideal lighting conditions were superb. At the highest quality JPEG setting, images zoomed to 100 percent look very good -- details don't appear as sharp as when zoomed out, but we would have no qualms with cropping an image significantly for web use. Elements are noticeably sharper at the center of the image, and tend to degrade gradually (though not significantly) as you move toward the edge of the frame. Images shot side-by-side at f/10 with a Canon 5D Mark II are noticeably sharper with the Canon when viewed at 100 percent (see our gallery for an example), but the 5D is a much pricier DSLR with a coveted full-frame sensor -- the Alpha offers excellent performance for an APS-C.

The A77 also offers a wide variety of video shooting modes, including 1080 / 60p AVCHD. We spent more time shooting video at 1080i in MPEG4 format, however, in order to conserve storage space and produce samples for the web. Video appeared sharp and smooth, thanks to the optical image stabilization. In continuous focus mode, the camera adjusted seamlessly and almost instantaneously when panning from incredibly close subjects to those in the distance, as you'll see in the first sample below.

During our test period, we were able to capture 858 photos and more than 30 minutes of HD video on a single charge, despite spending a significant amount of time flipping through camera settings, reviewing images and videos with friends, and shooting with the built-in flash. The A77 uses a standard NP-FM500H InfoLithium 1650 mAh battery, so backups and replacements will be easy to find. The camera also includes a combination SDHC / Memory Stick slot on the right side -- there's no CompactFlash compatibility.

We only had a chance to scratch the surface of Sony's very capable flagship DSLR, and are looking forward to spending more time with the A77, testing out its 12 fps full-resolution continuous shooting, object-tracking autofocus, GPS tagging, automatic distortion correction, and 3D still and video modes. From our initial impressions, we were very impressed -- the camera offers good performance in all situations, and that high-res OLED EVF is a brilliant addition. We're also looking forward to testing Sony's NEX-7, which features the same 24.3 megapixel sensor, 1080p video capture, and OLED viewfinder -- with an only slightly more affordable price tag.

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