Sony Alpha A77 Review
The Sony Alpha A77 offers just about everything you'd want in a modern system camera.
The Sony Alpha A77 is one of Sony’s so-called “single-lens translucent”, or "SLT" cameras, and it's the top model in the line that includes the A65 and the just-announced A37 and A57. The A77 is a mid-sized, mid-level camera for enthusiasts (and “prosumers,” if you can stomach saying that word out loud). It looks, handles, and acts much like a DSLR, but with a twist.
In a nutshell, the design enables quick, accurate, and (most importantly) full-time autofocus, as well as incredibly fast burst shooting. The A77 packs some serious hardware, including a 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor, a 2.4-million OLED electronic viewfinder, and a 3-inch, 921k-pixel LCD, the latter of which is mounted on a hinge, with an extending arm for extra articulation. Those chops can compete with the division’s heavy hitters, including the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K-5. The Sony Alpha A77 is available now with a 16-50mm kit lens for $1,999, or without a lens for $1,399. Let’s see how it holds up under scrutiny.
Design & Usability
The A77 is a big, sturdy camera, built with high-grade plastics over a magnesium-alloy chassis, resistant to dust and water. Even better, it's a joy to use.
Best of all, the A77 is incredibly fast in every way; really, the speed is the main reason to buy this camera. Alphas previously had a reputation for clunky user interfaces, but the SLT series turned that around. The A77 is simply fun to use. The button layout is comfy and the menus make sense. The quality of the OLED viewfinder and articulating LCD can’t be understated; for the first time ever, we felt comfortable using manual focus with a live-view system.
Notice too that this Sony is moisture and dust resistant. It should be able to withstand some time in light rain or a day at the beach. And it’s a solid, sturdy piece of magnesium alloy and plastic, so it should be able to withstand some bumps that come along with active photography.
The A77’s defining feature is its translucent mirror—sometimes called a pellicle mirror.
If you count speed as a feature, the A77 is far out ahead of the pack. Since the mirror never has to move, the A77 is capable of 12 fps burst shooting—simply the fastest rate you can get on a non-professional DSLR. You see, like a regular DSLR, this camera's mirror reflects the light coming through the lens up into a phase-detection autofocus system (faster and more accurate than contrast-detection in other cameras). But it also lets light pass straight through to the sensor, so unlike a DSLR, the mirror can stay in place even when the camera exposes a photo. Simply put, the A77 can focus quickly and accurately at all times, even while shooting video.
Speaking of video, if you can name a video compression codec, the A77 probably supports it. It can record up to 1080/60p video under the AVCHD 2.0 standard, as well as 1080/60i and 1080/24p AVCHD clips, each in two different quality options. It can also record 1080/30p and VGA quality in MP4 format.
Obviously, the A77 is a serious camera for enthusiasts, but it still includes a number of scene presets, digital effects, and special shooting modes for less experienced photographers. Everyone can appreciate the hot shoe accessory port, in case you want to use an external flash, and the built-in GPS unit.
Solid performance overall, right in line with our expectations.
Image quality scores for the A77 are strong, but there are certainly areas for improvement. Dynamic range performance is particularly excellent, and sharpness and color scores are strong too. Lens-based problems like distortion, vignetting, and aberration pop up occasionally, but in-camera corrections nip them in the bud.
Noise is really the weak link, since aggressive noise reduction exacerbates the problems caused by a slightly noisy sensor. By enthusiast DSLR standards, details are pretty sloppy by ISO 1600. Raw files suggest that the sensor is inherently noisy, but the JPEG processing isn’t doing the camera any favors, either. Even at the lowest intensity, noise reduction muddles details to the point that the 24 megapixels seem a bit wasted. At low and mid sensitivities, shots look great, and downscaling helps too. But current standards have led us to expect crisper, cleaner JPEGs than what the A77 produces. We know it can be done; the mirrorless NEX-7 uses the same sensor with better JPEG results. Raw developers have plenty of room to work with.
Sony deserves a high-five for the A77, even before performance is taken into account.
The A77's familiar design is packed with fresh, useful, well-executed technology that enhances the shooting experience without really changing the traditional feel that photographers love. This camera is a love letter to loyal A-mount shooters, and a tempting new direction for competitors to consider.
The chief reason to buy the A77 over any other DSLR is pure speed. The fixed, translucent mirror is a brilliant design. It’s ready to fire at any time in any scenario, and the 12 fps burst shooting is amazing—quickly freezing crisp, in-focus frames. Image quality is strong, too. Dynamic range performance is a highlight, and the 24-megapixel sensor can resolve a heck of a lot of detail—useful for cropping. Colors are mostly accurate right out of the box, and the in-body stabilization is very effective as well.
Moreover, the A77 is a charm to handle. During testing, we could see it was a great device, but we didn’t realize just how well it would rank until we finished filling out its score sheet. It blows away all of the other mid-level DSLRs that we’ve tested, and it holds its own against the pro-level Canon 5D Mk. III. The only place where it really falls short is low-light photography.
It’s exciting to see Sony carve a path for the A-mount rather than just follow in the wake created by Canon and Nikon. There’s room for improvement, but the A77 is nice enough to buy right now. Be sure to also take a look at the A65, which shares many of the same specs, repackaged for less-serious users. We haven’t tested it, but at $999 with a kit lens, it should be a great value for those who don’t mind giving up a chunk of user control. With a full-frame SLT heavily rumored to be in the pipeline, the Alpha system is looking like a great place to be.
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