Saturday, 29 October 2011

A77 Does Street

I had my first proper outing with the A77 to test it as a street camera together with the 16-50mm/2.8 and 35mm/2. I'm still getting to grips with the A77, and the weather was pretty miserable today, lots of damp Glasgwegians. Lighting was gloomy and flat. I just wanted to test the responsiveness of the A77 in rapid and spontaneous street/candid shooting rather than testing noise performance, dynamic range or resolution. Those can come later when I shoot some landscapes and panoramas.

My general impressions (coming from the A700 and A580):
  • The weather sealing of the A77 and the 16-50mm came in handy, no worries about shooting in the rain. The 35mm/2 also withstood the odd shower or two.
  • The A77 autofocus is fast and accurate, especially with the 16-50mm. Much better than the A580 and at least as good as, if not better than the A700. I can quickly point the camera in the direction of the action and squeeze off shots and most of them will be in focus, even at f/2.8 or f/2. Zone AF was very handy, especially when shooting from the hip. It's a nice intermediate between spot AF and wide AF.
  • The AF finetune was invaluable in resurrecting the use of one of my 35mm/2 which horribly front-focusses on both the A700 and A580 (my other 35mm/2 RS if anything backfocuses slightly). This is my "beater" 35mm/2, old style lens which I picked up cheap ages ago. The 16-50mm seems to be very accurate out of the box.
  • I took most of the shots from the hip, no framing at all. The 16mm end of the zoom came in handy, though you have to get close to your subject to fill a reasonable portion of the frame.
  • The exposure is excellent, hardly any blown highlights, conversely not much underexposure due to the sky either. This is much better than the OVF metering from the A700 and A580. The LiveView mode of the A580 gets close. I don't miss the AE pattern switch on the A700.
  • I'll need to get faster SD cards. My Transcend 16GB Class 10 cards work fine, just that review and deletion could do with being faster. I'll be ordering some UHS-I 95MB/s cards soon I think.
  • For waist-level shooting, the A580 LCD hinge design may be better. I'll have to get used to the A77 mechanism. With the LCD in the usual outward facing position, it's more fiddly to get it into a position for waist-level shooting. You have to lift it out and up over the viewfinder cup and flash shoe. It's easier to have the LCD in the closed position (facing the body) and then flip it down for waist-level shooting instead. I do like the ability to protect the LCD by having it face inwards. It also reduces the temptation to "chimp" emoticon - smile.
  • I generally did not find the EVF switching time a problem. It was fast enough for the times I did use it to frame. Priming the camera with a shutter half press as you bring the camera up helps.
  • The large 100% view of the EVF was much better in use than the A580 OVF for exact framing. I'll have to shoot back to back with the A700 to make a definitive conclusion but I suspect the A77 EVF will also prove to be better for composition as well.
  • The EVF brightness is still behind that of the OVF in daylight. It's still perfectly usable though. As light levels fall, the EVF gain makes it easier to see the scene and compose the frame.
  • The shutter is so much quieter than both the A700 and A580. It is so much less noticeable, even at close range. In contrast I could hear my shooting partner's K20 shutter from several metres away even on a busy street. Coupled with the quick AF, it was very easy to take several quick shots even as people passed right by without them noticing.
  • The controls are just what I am used to with the A700. I missed the second wheel on the A580, mainly to set exposure compensation. It makes a welcome return on the A77, however ironically I didn't have to touch it once since the exposure on the A77 is so good.
  • Having the buttons mostly on the right hand side of the body actually makes sense to me as I don't have to take my left hand away from supporting the lens. It's easier to use my right thumb to press the display, play, and delete buttons than it was to have to switch left hand grip. With a big lens like a 70-200mm/2.8 zoom, not having to change left hand position will be a boon.
  • The grip feels solid and comfortable. I have small to medium hands. The A77 was perfectly usable one handed with the 16-50mm attached, great for candid shooting where you want to look as if you are taking photos.
  • The shutter press on A700 to my fingers might just have the edge on the A77. The A700 shutter has slightly more distinction between a half and full press I feel.
  • I'm getting used to the layout. Last night on a short test run, I accidentally activated the movie button several times. Today, I managed to avoid this at all. It would ocassionally happen with the A580 but the added controls on the A77 makes it more likely to hit a wrong button when getting used to it.
  • I hardly ever looked at the top LCD. Perhaps it's because I'm so used to the A700 and A580 but I don't think it makes that much of a difference. Maybe I'll make more use of it when I get used to it
YMMV of course. The A77 has addressed most of the shortcomings of the A580 compared with the A700, mainly in terms of controls and AF responsiveness. There are issues which Sony should aim to address in firmware updates or the next generation:
  • Shutdown time is way too long. This is an issue when changing lenses and cards. The wake-up time from sleep seems to be quick enough that I have no worries setting the sleep timer for 10s to conserve power so this reduces the need to switch the camera on and off. I do hope they can reduce the shutdown time considerably.
  • Responsiveness could be improved. It's by no means unusable, but taking some of the remaining lag when changing settings would greatly improve the experience.
  • Iron out some remaining bugs. Last night, the camera started to refuse to AF unless I used DMF and approximately focused. I had to do a camera reset to get it back to normal.
  • Put an AF/MF indication in the finder like on the A700
  • Allow a setting for autoreview on the LCD only. In normal shooting, the EVF would be uninterupted but you could then check your shots on the LCD automatically. Bring back the zoom into the AF point in autoreview.
  • The ability to shut off the rear LCD LiveView by pressing the Disp button. Sometimes I'd like to turn it off quickly and shoot from the hip. Saves having to flip it around to face the body, or else dive into the menu and change the auto-switching from EVF to LCD.
  • Option to disable the Movie Button. Prevents accidental movies.
  • Add CDAF (at least for SAM/SSM lenses). This could be coupled with the AF finetune function for automatic adjustment of the PDAF system for different lenses.
  • A second card slot. The A580 has two. I find the second slot handy as a backup (even if it is MS).
  • I still miss the SteadyShot switch.
Street shooting with the A77 is fun and quite doable. It's not as inconspicuous as a small rangefinder to be sure, but since everyone seems to have a DSLR these days, it's not too difficult to fit in and take candids.

    Tuesday, 18 October 2011

    A77 First Thoughts

    I've just received my A77+16-50mm and have been playing around with it to get a feel for its handling and preliminary image quality. So far so good, the focussing seems to be reasonably accurate, especially under the terrible fluorescent lighting in my office which was a cause of considerable back-focus on the A580. I will have to test all my lenses and perhaps take a look at the AF Fine-Tuning.

    The 16-50mm lens is solid, fast focussing, and quite sharp. Comparing it with my well-worn Tamron 17-50mm shows that the Sony lens has better across the frame sharpness, possibly due to better control of curvature of field. It's the first SSM lens I've owned and I am quite impressed with how smoothly it focusses. Whether it is actually faster than the Tamron is something to test.

    The OLED XGA viewfinder is a delight to use. The resolution is such that I do not see any noticeable pixelation. I cannot say that the A580 viewfinder is better. The A77 has a larger, brighter, and much more useful viewfinder, especially in low light where the auto gain means you can actually see what you are taking. One can adjust all the settings on the camera without taking your eye away from it. The refresh rate seems to be pretty fast, even in indoor lighting. Seeing the previewed shot will doubtless be very useful when controlling exposure together with the histogram. I wear glasses and it is not problem to see the whole viewfinder image.

    The controls on the A77 remind me of what I missed from the A700 when I cross-graded to the A580. I was able to customise the wheels and buttons in the menu without having to open the manual. I've been able to set it up just as I did my A77. I still have to fine-tune the extra customisations, such as the cycling of the finder information, peaking sensitivity etc.

    The rear AF/MF button has made a comeback. This is so much more convenient to use than toggling the sliding switch on the A580. Together with the peaking function and the magnified view, using manual focus will be much quicker.

    The joystick is so much nicer to use than the pad on the A580, and similar to the one on the A700.

    The shutter sound is so much quieter than the A580. There is no thunk of the mirror. It is quieter than the A700 as well, though pitched similarly. The reduced shutter sound should help with taking photos in concerts.

    The body feels solid without being overly heavy. The size is similar to the A700 and A580 and the grip is well fitted to my hand. I welcome the return of the red AF illuminator

    Minor gripes

    The camera takes what seems to be an eternity to switch off. Hopefully a further firmware upgrade can reduce this.

    Being left-eyed, my nose gets a bit close to the joystick. This was the same with the A700.

    Lack of dedicated SSS button. I do miss this from the A700. Sometimes it is nice to be able to glance down to check whether SSS is one or off. Also, sometimes I will try shots with and without SSS if I'm not sure if the shot will benefit from it, so a switch certainly increases efficiency here. I also switch SSS on when taking a hand-held nadir shot. I've gotten used to the menu driven SSS control on the A580 so it's only a minor gripe but it would have been nice to see it return.

    Only one card slot. Even the A580 had two slots. It's useful having a spare card in the camera for emergencies. I use the second card in the A580 for taking storing non-critical photos which I don't want in my main archive. Saves having to sort out test shots.

    Things I'll get used to

    The button layout on the lower right hand side will take a bit of practice to get used to. The AF/MF  and AEL buttons are where I am used to them being on the A700. The joystick is similarly placed. However the DISP, Play, Fn and delete keys are situated differently so they will require some adjustment.

    Playback on the EVF. Instead of taking my eyes from the viewfinder, I am trying to review shots on the EVF. This also means I can keep the LCD turned into the body keeping it protected. I'd only bring it out for taking high/low/awkward shots where I need to hold the camera away from my eye.

    Features to try

    Peaking. This looks to be a great feature for MF, and touching up focus using DMF. It makes the STF 135mm very usable.

    AF Fine Tune. I've managed to get my 50mm/1.4 accurately focussed for the first time in 4 DSLRs (KM7D, A700, and A580 previously). I'll have to try it out with my tremendously front focussing 35mm/2.

    Object tracking. Could be good for sports.

    Face tracking. You can set the camera to recognise registered faces.

    Movies. Not really my cup of tea but I might as well see how this functions in case I need to do a spot of video.

    Preliminary Conclusion

    The A77 is a worthwhile successor to the A700. The pellicle PDAF mirror may be at an emotional level not completely satisfactory but in terms of implementation, the A77 has made good use in showing the advantages of the concept in giving a solid, responsive camera capable of serious photographic work.

    The sensor does deliver increased resolution over the A580, and with careful post-processing it should give comparable results in low light at the same output resolution. I'm not looking to blow up ISO6400 shots to A2, if they can print at A4 respectably then that's good enough for me.

    The handling of the body is great, certainly for someone coming from the A700. It's not too large or heavy yet feels solid enough to balance a 70-200mm/2.8 zoom. The return of the second control wheel, extra buttons and the joystick have made the A77 as much a joy to use as the A700.