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.