Sony Alpha A99 Review Part II - A99 at Work

a99 Aug 12, 2013

IMG_20121220_5133_DxO_edited.jpgAfter a lot of time in the studio I am now ready to provide you with Part Two of my Sony A99 review – A99 at Work. To recap, the SLT-A99V is Sony’s flagship SLT camera. SLT stands for Single Lens Translucent which describes the pellicle like mirror used in the camera. Don’t let this fool you. For all intents and purposes, this is a mirror less camera. The fixed, mostly transparent mirror only serves to redirect a small portion of the light to a 19-point PDAF sensor. The main image sensor is what feeds data to the electronic viewfinder and there are 102 additional PDAF sensor points in it as well.

Before I begin, I would like to thank several folks for their contributions to this article:

  • The Mac Group for lending me three PocketWizard III’s;
  • Lensbaby for sending me a Composer Pro in A-mount along with a Sweet 35 & Edge 80 optical insert;
  • Joby for sending me a GorillaPod Focus and and UltraFit Sling Strap
  • FlashZebra for their PocketWizard to Sony/Minolta hotshoe adapter cable
  • Mr. Mikal Grass for lending me his Sony 70-200mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter.
  • Local dealers Pitman Photo and Electric Avenue for their support

All of the rest of the equipment used in this review has been purchased by me.

In general, my professional work falls into three categories: Portraiture (both indoor and out); Stagecraft (mostly ballet and dance); and Commercial Product photography (producing print-ready images for use in catalogs and sales brochures). In this review I have used the following gear:

  • Sony SLT-A99V
  • Sony HVL-F60M Speedlight
  • Sony VG-C99AM Vertical Grip
  • Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM
  • Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G SAL70200G
  • Sony 1.4x Teleconverter SAL14TC
  • Lensbaby Composer Pro + Sweet 35 & Edge 80 optics
  • PocketWizard III (x3)
  • Interfit 200W Studio Strobes
  • Various soft boxes and other light modifiers

 

Sony in the Studio

When Sony acquired Minolta, they also inherited Minolta’s quirky reverse hot shoe (read non-standard). People have been moaning and groaning about this non-ISO shoe for ages. And then, just as third-party accessory makers were getting on the bandwagon with this weirdo hot shoe, Sony goes and switches to an ISO hot shoe.

Almost.

The “ISO compatible” hot shoe that the A99 sports includes a series of pin connectors just inside the lip of the back end of the shoe. This allows for a lot of data to be passed between the camera and any compatible accessory (like the HVL-F60M flash) but makes things difficult for third party accessory makers (who have once again jumped back on the fence waiting to see if this new shoe pans out or dies out). For now most shoe mounted accessories for Sony have to be mounted with an adapter (which Sony wisely provides with the camera) or if they are ISO mounted directly to the camera (sans the pin outs). One note, due to the extra little bit of depth in the Sony ISO hot shoe, it is possible to push standard ISO shoe mounted accessories just a hair too far forward which can break the connection between the device and the central shoe terminal.

Another bone of contention is the max usable sync speed for the A99. While the PocketWizard III’s are rated at up to 1/250s sync speeds with focal plane shutters, the Sony A99 can only manage 1/160s without introducing black bars in the image. Oddly enough, using the HVL-F60M speedlight, the A99 can achieve high speed sync of up to 1/8000 of a sec. The HVL-F60M can be used to drive other speedlights in the family, but the link is via IR and is line-of-site without obstructions.

Armed with this knowledge, I sallied forth to grapple with my annual portrait shoots for a local dance academy.

The following image was taken using three lights: 2x Interfit 200W strobes with soft boxes (one triggered by PocketWizard, one slaved optically) and the HVL-F60M triggered via a FlashZebra adapter cable + Minolta-to-New-Sony shoe adapter + PocketWizard III #2. The HVL-F60M was fitted with a Rogue Grid and colored gels to add a splash of matching color as a highlight.

IMG_20130508_3132-L.jpg

As you can see, the flashes and shutter speed was more than enough to freeze the action without blurring. The blue gel acted as a hairlight and added to the tone of the shot. I found the sync speed a little disappointing with the PocketWizards as they stand, but then again this isn’t a leaf shutter camera that excels in this sort of thing. One other tip shooting in the studio: set the LIVE SETTING PREVIEW to OFF or else you won’t see a thing in the EVF.

Sony Outdoors

Next, I decided to shoot some outdoor portraits using the HVL-F60M as a fill light. The HSS feature of the HVL-F60M came in handy here as I was shooting in varying lighting conditions, from full sunlight to partial shade to full shade. Even with ISO dialed all the way down, I was seeing shutter speeds well above the normal sync limit.

So here’s the initial shot with flash fill-in (the image was given a “300” color scheme in Lightroom):

IMG 20130225 1933

One of the members of the team was not present for the group shot, so I shot a separate photo of him and added him in Photoshop. One of the team members is an award winning 3D visual modeler and he added the finishing touches to my composite photo of the Spartan team:

FinalSpartanPoster

Sony Doing the Hard Stuff

About the most challenging work I do photographically is shooting live dance performances. This requires long, fast (i.e.: expensive) lenses, great high ISO performance, lightning fast AF, and crackerjack timing on the part of the photographer. During a live performance the one thing you have zero control over is the lighting (unless you slipped the lighting tech a fifty or the lighting director a bottle of Crown Royal). Brightness will rise and fall, colors will change constantly, costumes will range from purest white to the deepest black and everything in between, but there is a constant: tungsten. Almost all professional stage lighting is incandescent (tungsten), so set your white balance to that. As far as the rest of that stuff is concerned: set the camera on manual and the Auto-ISO to range up to what you feel comfortable shooting.

That said, the Sony A99 handled very well. I let the ISO range up to 6400 which is the highest I’ve found that cleans up well in post.

IMG 20130615 6479 X2

Some shots, like the one above, make the cut as a black and white image which adds a bit of noir to the Cellblock Tango. The EVF performed surprsingly well and I was able to bag a lot more keepers than I usually manage. Be aware that the high speed continuous setting on the Sony A99 is very fast and smallest burst I could manage was three shots. With my old Nikon D700 I could still click off single frames in high speed continuous mode.

IMG 20130615 7886 X2

Conclusion

The Sony SLT-A99V has the chops to take on the toughest photo assignments and deliver the money shots just as well, if not better, than Canon or Nikon. Is it perfect? No, it has issues as well, but if you do your homework, you can take shots like the one’s I did above. What can be improved? The dual card slots for one thing. You can set the camera to write to both cards (mirrored), RAW on one JPG on the other, even stills on one and video on the other. You just can’t get it to switch cards automatically when the one card is full. What’s up with that? Even though I had two cards in the camera, I had to manually switch between them.

Epic fail.

Other than that, the camera is absolutely brilliant. I just hope that Sony elects to fix these little issues in firmware instead of springing a whole new camera on us.

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