My Sony Alpha A99 (officially Sony SLT-A99V) arrived about 3 weeks ago. After a period of acclimatization, I began to use the camera in earnest and wrote down a few notes on what I found. This article is a result of those notes and is the first in a rolling review of Sony’s flagship SLT offering.
In the last three weeks, this camera has been my constant companion and I honestly tried to shoot in as many conditions as possible while simultaneously trying out the many, many functions of camera. This is still going on, but I decided to report on what I had before Sony introduces its successor.
As Sony’s flagship camera, the A99, is targeted at professional photographers. Pro photographers treat their cameras as tools and the camera had better be rugged enough to survive such treatment. I’m not saying that we hammer nails with them, but we tend to ride them harder than the average user and we expect durability and a long service life. So far, Sony has a very good track record with the A900 (the A99’s predecessor) in this respect. The A99 is right up there with its older sibling. Magnesium chassis, weather sealing, plenty of controls are just a few of the features pros look for. Oddly enough the camera feels light and balanced in the hand.
I took the A99 on a weekend trip to Orlando, FL. While we were up there, we attended a “show” called ICE that was hosted by the Gaylord Palms Hotel. It was actually a walk-through display of ice sculptures that recreated scenes from the Dreamworks “Merry Madagascar” special. The whole thing was kept in a giant refrigerator that maintained a constant temperature of 9F (-13C). I am happy to report that the A99 operated flawlessly though out the whole experience. About the only indication of the cold affecting the camera was a small increase in the discharge rate of the battery. Nothing more.
The A99’s body design includes a highly sculpted hand grip. I have large hands and all of my fingers fell into the right places whine I first picked up the camera. The camera’s back plays host to a plethora of controls, and while there are no classic style knobs/dials, there are dedicated buttons for all of the functions any pro would need to control.
Adding the VG-99M Vertical Grip adds two more batteries (sold separately, bringing the total up to three) and replicates the major rear controls so that you can continue to operate the camera in the vertical (portrait) position. I find the VG-99M a worthy addition for increased battery life, replicated controls, and it helps balance the camera with larger lenses.
Bits I like about the A99
Here is a list of the features that persuaded me to jump ship from Nikon in favor of Sony:
- Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) – Sony’s decision to forgo an optical viewfinder in favor of an electronic one has kept many pros from deciding to go with them as their camera of choice. I immediately saw the benefits once I put my eye up to the camera. This is a game-changer folks. The features that an EVF brings to the table far outweigh any limits they currently have. And the technology is constantly improving. Heads-up display including shot histograms, white balance preview, actually seeing what exposure compensation does to the shot, artificial horizon and focus peaking are but a few of the benefits.
- Low Light Shooting – the A99’s full-frame sensor improves the low light capabilities of the camera exponentially. Prior to the A99, I was shooting with a Nikon D700 and I find the files to be much cleaner out of the A99. Granted, I shoot RAW almost exclusively.
- Dynamic Range – the A99’s dynamic range (the ability to retain details in bright/dark areas of a photo simultaneously) is quite possibly the best I have ever seen in a 35mm sensor. The files produced by the A99 are very malleable and data can be easily recovered from bright/dark areas with any competent RAW converter.
- Usable Camera Functions – most pro cameras users turn their noses up at features that are added to “consumer grade” cameras to allow novices to achieve clever photo effects or deal with difficult lighting situations. “They should learn to do it the right way!” is the usual chorus. I am of the opinion that if it makes my life a little easier and still allows me creative freedom, then bring it on. Some of my favorites are:
Rich Mono mode
- Tracking Focus that works – The A99 not only has a standard-style 19-point phase detection autofocus sensor (11 cross-type), but also packs an additional 102 phase detect cells in the image sensor itself. This allows the camera to accurately track subjects while in motion and you can even apply an electronic depth limiter to any lens with an updated firmware. Currently only six lenses support this, but Sony will be updating them all very shortly.
- (Almost) ISO Standard Hotshoe – Sony finally got the message to lose the effing Minolta-style reverse hotshoe. Sure it was cool and unique, but it gave everyone fits and wasn’t as secure as the ISO Hotshoe + screw-down clamp everybody else in the photographic universe was using. Please make the pinouts available to 3rd party OEMs so that their cool gadgets will interface as well as yours.
- Multiple card slots – The A99 allows for two cards to be inserted into the body (like the big boy cameras do). Simultaneous writes are supported as well as JPEGs on one and RAWs on the other. Stills and movies can be recorded that way as well.
- Silent Controller Knob – When DSLRs started shooting video all of those controls that moved with a satisfying “click” suddenly became a major faux pas as the click noises were being recorded by the camera via an effect similar to bone conduction (the reason why your voice sounds different to you when you hear a recording of yourself). Sony added a programmable control on the front of the camera that makes no sound. I have mine programmed for Exposure Compensation in Stills mode and Audio Levels in Movie mode.
Bits of the A99 that need improving
- Bracketing – Sony needs to improve the bracketing function on the A99, allowing for more flexibility in setting up number of shots, EV steps and EV range. The current method of preset configurations is too restrictive. Also please open up the EV range to ±5 EV.
- No spillover between media cards – This one has me scratching my head. Sony adds a second card slot (which is awesome – see above) but fails to provide a setting that would allow the camera to automatically switch cards when one is full. SONY PLEASE FIX THIS!
Bits of Sony that need improving
- Dedicated Support Services for Pro Photographers – Canon and Nikon have it. Pro photographers expect it. Sony is planning on it but they need to get this deployed yesterday.
- More lenses and accessories – Sony needs to help promote a thriving ecosystem around its products. Their “buck stops here” attitude may be nice for the average consumer, but professionals want choices and they have their own styles. By promoting OEMs to develop for the Sony platform, you help shore up your reputation as a maker of quality professional products. Living off of old Minolta glass will carry you in the short run (which is ending, by the way) but new lens formulations are needed to get the most out of sensors that now exceed film in image capturing ability.
- INNOVATE – Sony has started a paradigm shift in photography. Get on that wave and surf it! Do not rest on your laurels! Invest in R&D, do not be afraid to bring new ideas to the table. There will always be those that resist change. Most of all, LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE WHO USE YOUR PRODUCTS!
END OF PART ONE