Sony A77 II Field Test Part I

A tough, solid, pro-like DSLR with image quality and features to rival the competition.

By John Shafer | Posted:

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test

Mountain bikers riding through an alpine meadow on the Wasatch Crest Trail, above Salt Lake City, Utah. Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 30mm, f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 400.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Introduction

Let me start this report by disclosing that I'm a long-time Canon SLR owner. I've been using Canon EOS SLR cameras since the mid-nineties. However, I'm also a big Sony fan. I love their out-of-the-box approach to camera design -- especially the SLT camera family, to which the new A77 Mark II DSLR belongs. I like it so much I was considering buying an A77 II, sight-unseen, to replace my Canon EOS 7D. The second-gen A77 features and specs make it look like an excellent replacement for my aging EOS 7D. The A77 II is a serious threat to non-Canon APS-C DSLR owners as well. With a crazy fast 12 frames per second burst rate, more AF points than any other DSLR (79), and improved continuous autofocus performance, it looks like an excellent choice for amateur sports shooters and professional action sports photographers on a budget. So when Imaging Resource offered me the opportunity to do an A77 II Field Test, how could I say no? A free test ride before I spend my hard-earned money? Yes, please!

Why I'm Excited About the Sony Alpha A77 Mark II

There are lots of reasons to be excited about the A77 II -- especially if you're an action sports photographer. In many ways the performance -- at least on paper -- is closer to $5000+ pro bodies like the Canon EOS-1D X and the Nikon D4S than other APS-C prosumer DSLRs. It has a 79-point phase detect autofocus system with 15 cross-type points in the center of the array, a center point that works down to -2 EV (that's dark!), and an improved algorithm for predicting and tracking subjects in motion. It captures full-resolution RAW files at a blistering 12 frames per second, making it as fast as the most expensive professional DSLRs available now. It records 1920 x 1080 full HD video at 60 frames per second and with the EVF, you don't have to buy an accessory viewfinder for video recording.

The built-in Wi-Fi is a big deal, too. It's becoming more and more important for working photographers to be able to share on the spot. If I'm on the trail or shooting an event with the A77 II, I can just transfer a photo to my phone via the camera's Wi-Fi and Sony's PlayMemories Mobile app, process the photo with Snapseed, and share it with my Instagram and Facebook followers. Between the speed, price, autofocus, sensor, EVF and built-in Wi-Fi, the A77 Mark II has the potential to be one heck of a budget action sports camera. And I am a budget action camera kind of guy. As awesome as $5000-plus pro DSLRs are, I've found I can usually get great action photos with APS-C sensor DSLRs -- as long as the continuous autofocus is good.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/4.5, 1/1000s, ISO 3200.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

The Sony Alpha A77 II also benefits from Sony's SLT Translucent Mirror design. Technically, the A77 II and other Sony SLT cameras aren't actually DSLRs since they replace the traditional optical viewfinder with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). For all intents and purposes they behave like a digital SLR, though. When you look through the viewfinder, you see what's coming through the lens - but with the added benefit of also being able to view the histogram, and anything else you can see on the LCD display, in the eye-level viewfinder. That includes live exposure adjustments, replaying photos, videos, and even using the EVF to record video, which you can't do with a traditional digital SLR. I'm sure there are a lot of DSLR users who don't believe me, but I assure you, EVFs have come a long way. I now prefer them to traditional optical viewfinders. The A77 II EVF is one of the best I've used, too. Chances are, if you picked up the A77 II and put it to your eye, it would take you a few minutes to even realize you weren't actually looking through a traditional optical viewfinder. It's that good.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test

Other notable features included in the A77 II are built-in sensor-shift image stabilization, 1920 x 1080 60p full-HD video, a 3-inch tilting LCD display, and arguably one of the best in-camera panorama mode in the business. Compare the features and performance to similarly-priced APS-C sensor DSLRs like the Canon EOS 7D and the Nikon D7100 and it's clear that Sony has a take-no-prisoners attitude about the A77 II.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/7.1, 1/200s, ISO 100, Sweep Panorama mode.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Sony Alpha A77 II Size, Feel & General Usability

I've used a lot of DSLRs over the years and the A77 II feels like a serious, professional body to me. It's on-par with my own Canon EOS 7D, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Sony's flagship Alpha A99, or the Nikon D800. It's got a solid magnesium alloy body underneath the grippy exterior, weatherproof seals at all buttons, dials and inputs, and if you use the right lenses, it's also weather-sealed at the mount. The camera controls are pro-level, as well. There are dual exposure adjustment dials for discreet shutter speed and aperture control -- something die-hard manual exposure photographers like myself demand.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test

For focusing, there's a switch to the left of the lens mount that allows you to choose various autofocus options or manual focus. A joystick on the rear of the camera makes AF point selection a quick, one-touch affair. It works really well and I was able to move the focus point around very quickly. The only problem was sometimes I would accidentally press the joystick, therefore re-centering the focus point.

The A77 II give you lots of focus area options including Wide, which uses all the points and determines best focus for you; Zone, which divides the 79-point array into nine selectable areas; Center, which only uses the center point; Flexible Spot, which allows you to manually select one single point from the 79-point array; and Expanded Flexible Spot, which expands to the four points around your selected point and to help with trickier subjects. I mostly used the Flexible Spot and Expanded Flexible Spot settings. I did have problems with it sometimes focusing on something in front of or behind what I actually wanted -- always the problem with wider area focus systems. For increased accuracy, I limited the AF system to just the fifteen cross-type points -- an option that's available in the A77 II's Custom Settings menu.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test

There are dedicated controls for critical functions and an Fn button that pulls up a customizable Function Menu that provides quick access to other important functions like Metering Mode, Focus Area, Flash Mode, DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer), etc. You can even access and use the Function Menu while you're using the viewfinder -- something that you would not be able to do if the A77 II didn't have an electronic viewfinder. Nearly every important function can be reached with no more than two clicks. Actually, that's a hidden benefit of a DSLR compared to a mirrorless camera. All that extra surface area means more room for dedicated controls.

And speaking of "more room," the A77 II is certainly not a small camera -- especially when paired up with Sony's DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM zoom lens. The body is a bit larger than Nikon's D7100, but quite comparable to my Canon EOS 7D with Canon's EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS zoom. You can't really feel the difference when you're holding the cameras, but if you check the specs, the A77 Mark II with the 16-50mm f/2.8 lens is actually about half a pound lighter than the Nikon and Canon equivalents. And compared to the Nikon D4S and Canon EOS 1D X, the only other DSLRs that offer the same kind speed as of this writing, it's much, much smaller and lighter.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
The Sony A77 II with DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens vs. the Canon 7D with EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens.

Backpackers, travelers and others who count each and every gram that goes in their camera bag or backpack will appreciate that weight savings over professional DSLRs such as the 1D X or D4S. I know I do when I take the A77 II out on the mountain bike. It's still much heavier than a mirrorless camera, though, but the extra performance is worth it when money is on the line and I need a camera that really excels at capturing fast action.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Farmer's market cherries: Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 35mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 200.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

I'm still testing the A77 II's autofocus and video so you'll have to wait for part two of this report for my findings on those functions. Continuous autofocus for fast-moving subjects will be the challenge there. There's no denying the A77 II's groundbreaking and impressive autofocus specs. But Nikon and Canon really have DSLR autofocus so refined that their cameras are nearly flawless in that respect. I can tell you that the single-shot autofocus performance on the A77 II is excellent. The AF is super quick and predictable in single shot mode and even works really well in very low light and with low-contrast subjects. It remains to be seen whether it can compete with Nikon and Canon with high-speed moving subjects, though. I'll also explore the benefits of using the A77 II for video in the next part of my report. But right now, let's dig into the image quality provided by Sony's 24-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor.

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II Image Quality

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 200.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

I currently own two Canon APS-C sensor DSLRs (EOS 7D and 70D) that I'm generally very happy with. Frankly, it's been frustrating, though, watching other manufacturers' APS-C image quality improve while Canon has seemingly made fewer strides. So one of the primary things I was hoping for from the A77 II is better image quality than I'm getting from my Canon APS-C cameras -- especially at or above ISO 1600.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 22mm, f/3.2, 1/60s, ISO 3200.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

I understand everyone reading this isn't a Canon owner and may not care how the A77 II's image quality compares to Canon's DSLRs. So, to put the A77 II in context, we need to take a look at other comparable APS-C sensor cameras, as well: Sony's original A77, the Nikon D7100, and Fujifilm's X-T1 mirrorless camera. I've used all of these sensors in one form or another, but not all at the same time. So for comparison, I'll refer to the samples in Imaging-Resource's Sony Alpha A77 Mark II image quality comparison report, which includes JPEG samples made with the aforementioned Sony, Nikon and Fujifilm cameras, as well as Canon's most recent APS-C sensor camera, the EOS 70D, and the Pentax K-3. For the complete analysis, please read the report, compare the tests, and judge for yourself.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test

For those readers who want my personal opinion, here's some quick analysis. Original A77 owners who have the urge to upgrade will be pleased to know the A77 Mark II shows noticeable image quality improvement over the original A77. Sony's new BIONZ X processor delivers much more detail at low sensitivity settings and they claim a 20% improvement in sensitivity. Sony's claim of a 20% sensitivity increase seems fair when I look closely at the ISO 1600 and 3200 samples. The most obvious improvement is at low sensitivity settings, though. Look closely and you'll see significantly more detail in the low ISO A77 II samples.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 50mm, f/4, 1/125s, ISO 200.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

The A77 II also holds up well against the Nikon D7100, Pentax K-3, Fujifilm X-T1, and the Canon EOS 70D -- at ISO 100, anyway. It either matches or exceeds the other cameras' ability to render fine details -- except in dark red areas, where it's a little rougher and more heavy-handed than all but the Canon. At ISO 1600 and higher the A77 II is about equal to the Canon, better than the Pentax, and not quite as good as the Nikon or Fujifilm. The D7100 and A77 II are actually quite close in terms of noise and detail at ISO 3200. The A77 II has less noise than the Nikon, but trades some detail for a smoother look. The Fujifilm X-T1 has the best high ISO image quality of all the cameras in the Imaging Resource comparison, with good detail rendering and low noise.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 26mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 800.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

All of the analysis above is, for JPEG images at default camera settings, though. And I don't shoot JPEGs. When you shoot in JPEG mode there's a lot of in-camera adjustment and processing, including color, contrast, saturation, sharpening, and noise reduction. I prefer to shoot RAW and make my images look the way I want, not the way a camera company software engineer decided they should look. Shooting in RAW also means I get all the data the sensor captures. That gives me a lot more dynamic range so I can massage my image file into the work of art I envisioned when I originally took the picture. The photo above would not be possible working from just one JPEG file.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 45mm, f/4.5, 1/2000s, ISO 6400.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

The first thing I did when the A77 Mark II arrived was a low light comparison with my own Canon EOS 70D. I set up a studio scene with a classic camera against a dark background and shot it with both cameras in RAW mode at ISO 1600, 3200 and 6400. Looking at the images on the computer at 100%, aside from slight differences in zoom ratio and white balance, the general image quality is very similar, with noise from both cameras looking pretty much the same. But pixel peeping doesn't take the resolution difference into account. With a higher resolution image, noise becomes less visible when you shrink the images down to a web- or print-sized image. The question is, does the A77 II's extra resolution make any real difference?

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test

To add the Sony's 20% resolution advantage into the mix, I resized the Sony ISO 6400 photo to the same dimensions as the Canon photo and then set them both up side-by-side on a 13 x 19-inch print. Even then, the two images looked pretty much the same, though. Only after I pushed them about a stop in Photoshop did I start to see a difference -- and it was pretty subtle.  However, when pushed hard, the Sony image did hold up better with a bit less noise and slightly better detail. 

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Click image to see a larger size.

To the average photographer, these subtle differences probably won't make a matter. But for photographers like myself who shoot RAW and do a lot of post-processing, that edge counts. It's not uncommon for me to make selective adjustments of a stop or more to get the overall exposure balance I want in my outdoor photos. And even though I'm having a hard time quantitatively locking down a dramatic difference between my Canon cameras and the A77 II, I have a general impression of better high ISO performance and better detail from the Sony. I certainly have more confidence using it at ISO 1600 and 3200. Case-in-point -- this photo below of my wife mountain biking in Park City was shot in very low light at ISO 3200, and it's been pushed really hard in Lightroom and Photoshop. It still looks great though, if I do say so myself. Just to be sure, I made a 13 x 19-inch print. Noise was visible if I looked for it, and I noticed that I pushed the area around my wife a bit too much. But overall, I was very impressed -- especially considering it was shot at ISO 3200 and pushed about a full stop. That's not something I ever would have considered doing with either of my Canon APS-C cameras.

Sony A77 II Review -- Field Test
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 3200.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Of course, if image quality was all that mattered, I'd just use a full-frame camera. But it's important to remember the A77 II was built for action. You won't get the 12 frames per second in RAW format from comparably-priced full-frame cameras. And you can't find that kind of speed at all in competing APS-C cameras. So if you're a serious action photographer on a budget, the A77 II really is the best bang for the buck -- at least if your criteria are image quality and speed. The next question is autofocus -- can the Sony Alpha A77 II keep with Canon and Nikon when it comes to continuous autofocus? For me, that's the most critical test for any action camera -- does the continuous autofocus work for high-speed moving subjects? We'll explore that and video performance in the next part of this A77 Mark II Field Test.

 



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