Sony A99 II Field Test Part II

A99 II continues to impress thanks to excellent autofocus

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 01/24/2017

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 35mm, f/9, 1/60s, ISO 200.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

In Part I, I discussed the Sony A99 Mark II's body design and image sensor's performance. In this second part of my Sony A99 II Field Test, I will be discussing more about the camera's performance, including metering, autofocus and video performance. I will also be discussing how the camera handles high-speed shooting in the context of wildlife photography.

Sony A99 II offers fast, accurate & dependable performance

I have used many Sony cameras, and a sore point for me has always been the camera's menu system. While the A99 II does not feature perfect menus -- if such a thing exists -- its menus are better than previous Sony cameras I've worked with. They have improved organization, which results in slightly faster menu navigation. Further, the camera uses a new font designed for improved legibility.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 II at 280mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 125.
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image.

Alongside its decent, and improved, menus, the A99 II offers an excellent user experience in many regards, including its good in-body image stabilization, impressive electronic viewfinder, dependable metering performance, sophisticated autofocus system and more.

Image Stabilization

The A99 II's body-integrated 5-axis image stabilization system offers correction for X/Y motion, pitch, yaw and roll and provides up to 4.5 stops of correction. During my time with the A99 II, the image stabilization system worked well. When using the A99 II with the 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, I could get consistently sharp images with shutter speeds as slow as 1/5s at 35mm compared to 1/30s without image stabilization enabled. Results depend upon hand-holding technique, so other users may get different results, but the main conclusion is that the I.S. works and works well.

Viewfinder

Unlike traditional SLR cameras, the A99 II uses a translucent mirror, necessitating an electronic viewfinder in lieu of an optical viewfinder. I discussed this briefly in Part I of my Field Test, but it is worth discussing the viewfinder further as an optical viewfinder is often regarded as one of the big differences between an SLR and a mirrorless camera. A translucent mirror camera, in this way, bridges the gap between SLR and mirrorless to some extent, which includes pros and cons.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 16mm, f/8.0, 4s, ISO 50.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

The A99 II's viewfinder is a 0.5-inch 2.4M-dot XGA color OLED and has 0.78x magnification. It also includes a Zeiss T* coating for reduced glare and improved contrast in addition to a fluorine coating on the rearmost viewfinder lens to help keep it clean from fingerprints and smudges. In the field, it looks clear and has nice contrast. It also works quite well in low light and handles moving subjects well.

Metering

The Sony A99 II uses a 1,200-zone metering system. The available metering modes include evaluative multi-segment, center-weighted, spot, entire screen average and highlight (spot). By default, spot metering is not tied to the autofocus point but is rather locked to the center of the frame. However, this can be changed when using flexible spot autofocus by going into the camera's settings and enabling "focus point link." As a note about focus point link, it does not work as you might expect when using "lock-on autofocus flexible spot" mode. The focus point links to the spot metering at first, but when the subject moves, the metering area remains in its initial position, meaning if your subject moves into different light, exposure metering will not likewise adjust.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 20mm, f/11, 5s, ISO 50.
Click for full-size image.

Overall, I found that exposure metering worked well in many cases, although I was not as impressed with white balance metering. Even when using the "ambience" white balance setting, which is designed to produce a warmer tone than "standard" white balance, I often found the white balance to be a bit too blue. This is not a big deal, however, as it is easy enough to adjust (especially if you shoot RAW), and it is a personal taste more than a fault with the camera. There's also a third automatic white balance setting, white, which produces "accurate white reproduction."

Autofocus

The Sony A99 II has a unique, advanced hybrid autofocus system that offers not only a big improvement over its predecessor in terms of technology and available autofocus points, but it is also the first full-frame Sony camera to feature Sony's new 4D Focus AF system. The hybrid system pairs a 79-point dedicated phase-detection AF sensor with 399 on-chip phase detection points, a total of 323 of which can be directly controlled by the user. The 399 focal-plane autofocus points perform vertical detection whereas the line-type dedicated phase-detection AF sensors handle horizontal detection, meaning that the 79 AF points covered by both sensors all act as cross-type points when hybrid AF is active.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 II at 70mm, f/8.0, 1/80s, ISO 320.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

As I mentioned in the first part of my Field Test, the sheer number of selectable autofocus points can at times be overwhelming, particularly when trying to cycle through points using the flexible spot autofocus mode. Fortunately, you can switch the number of selectable autofocus points to 63 (my personal preference) or 15 rather than select from all 323 selectable points.

In total, autofocus area modes include wide, zone, center, flexible spot, expand flexible spot and lock-on AF. The latter of which can be used with any of the focus area modes mentioned above to track a selected subject. All the focus modes work as expected, including the face and eye detection features.

Continuous Autofocus

In addition to a variety of focus modes, the A99 II naturally includes numerous autofocus drive modes as well, including AF-S, AF-C and AF-A in addition to DMF and MF manual focus options. AF-C worked very nicely in my experience, proving to be fast and accurate, even in difficult light or otherwise challenging situations. The camera, even when shooting at f/5.6 with the 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G2 was quick to make autofocus adjustments and often proved capable of keeping up with a moving subject.

Comparing the A99 II to other high-end SLR cameras I've used recently, including the Nikon D5 and D500 DSLRs, the A99 II's continuous autofocus performance felt very comparable. In terms of speed and accuracy, the A99 II felt capable of keeping up with the latest flagship Nikon cameras. I can't comment on how it compares to Canon DSLRs as I didn't have any on hand, but my point is that the A99 II's autofocus, both single-shot and continuous, is very good and certainly up to the tall task of competing with the excellent autofocus system in the latest Nikon DSLRs.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 II at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 500.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Part of the A99 II's excellent continuous autofocus performance is due to its revised autofocus algorithms, which are designed to offer better speed and subject tracking. When using lock-on autofocus, the A99 II proved to be a very capable camera for subject tracking, although if you're confident in your ability to keep a selected focus point, or group of AF points, over your subject, using a regular AF area mode and AF-C works very well too and is more consistent in my experience.

Low-light Autofocus

Low light autofocus is very impressive with the A99 II. The camera is rated to focus in conditions as dim as -4 EV, and I found it to perform excellently in low light. While autofocus speeds can get noticeably slower in dim conditions, of course, the camera didn't hunt very much and typically delivered a focused frame in short order.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 30mm, f/8.0, 2s, ISO 50.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.
AF Performance Summary

With its sophisticated hybrid AF system, the Sony A99 II offers one of the better autofocus systems I've used. It is fast and accurate in a wide variety of shooting situations and offers very good continuous autofocus performance and subject tracking. My biggest issue with the autofocus performance of the A99 II came down to moving and viewing focus points. The joystick is not ideal for making fast, precise movements of the autofocus point, and the gray rectangles that show the focus points are very difficult to see in certain situations. Nonetheless, the A99 II offers very good autofocus performance overall.

It is worth noting that hybrid AF may offer less than 399 focus points or may not even be supported depending on the lens mounted, shooting mode and other settings. For all the nitty-gritty details that are way beyond the scope of this report, please refer to the A99 II Instruction Manual and Sony's A99 II Hybrid Phase Detection AF system support page.

Shooting Modes

With your standard assortment of P, A, S and M shooting modes, the Sony A99 II also includes additional shooting modes such as a panorama mode and various creative modes. The panorama mode shoots images at up to 8192 x 1856 pixels and does a pretty good job. For the best possible panorama results, however, you will want to shoot and stitch your own frames as the A99 II doesn't offer any user control over shooting settings nor does it allow you to shoot a RAW file panorama.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 16mm, f/4.0, 1/60s, ISO 3200.
Click for full-size image.

When recording JPEG images, you can also utilize an array of Picture Effects. The available effects include: Toy Camera, Pop Color, Posterization: Color, Retro, Soft High-Key, Partial Color (red, green, blue, yellow), High Contrast Mono, and Rich-Tone Mono. For a camera like the A99 II, I don't envision many photographers using the Picture Effects, but they're there if you want them.

Wireless Connectivity

When using other Sony cameras, I've regularly been frustrated with their wireless functionality. Some of the same annoyances persist with the Sony A99 II, but the connection process has been improved. With the RX100 IV and A6300 cameras, for example, I had to sign into my Sony account to download the camera remote application, but this was not required with the A99 II, thankfully. With that said, connecting my iPhone to the camera was still a bit frustrating as my phone refused to accept the password provided by the camera until I had used the QR code displayed on the camera to install a certificate to my phone. I've never had this issue before and it might have been a one-off, as I was able to connect again easily enough.

Once connected, I was greeted with a message that I should turn my phone's Bluetooth off for a better live view experience. Begrudgingly, I turned off Bluetooth (thereby disconnecting my smartwatch), and the live view did become smoother. In fact, with Bluetooth disabled, live view was very good. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of functionality with the default PlayMemories Mobile application. You can transfer images and remotely control the camera, but you can't use your mobile device's touchscreen to adjust autofocus, and you can't adjust settings such as file quality or exposure mode. Fortunately, you can change exposure mode, drive mode and more on the camera itself and these changes will be reflected in the mobile application, but it would be nice to be able to make those changes remotely. Further, for autofocus, you need to press the shutter release to focus, meaning you need to capture an image to trigger autofocus.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Wireless Application

It is also worth noting that unlike the original A99, there is no built-in GPS, but rather GPS information can be linked via Bluetooth using a compatible smartphone with PlayMemories Mobile. Once your phone has been paired to the camera over Bluetooth, you can link location information to the A99 II and captured images. This somewhat elegant solution works very well in lieu of built-in GPS.

Overall, the wireless functionality is fine, but it is certainly limited compared to various competition. The lack of autofocus using the touchscreen is a big disappointment, but I am glad to see that Sony no longer forces consumers to sign up/sign in to a Sony account to download the functional remote application, at least not with the A99 II.

Sony A99 II Video: Excellent 4K quality, frustrating AF limitations

Capable of recording video at up to 4K UHD resolution, the Sony A99 II is a powerful camera for videographers. However, it does have a few quirks that make it a bit less user-friendly than other video-capable cameras I've shot with.

Let's discuss the positives first. The Sony A99 II can record 4K UHD video at up to 30 frames per second with a bitrate up to 100Mbps (with a compatible SD card), which is excellent. By default, the camera records in Super 35mm format and records a total 6K-worth of pixels before downsampling the video to 4K UHD. This means that while there is no pixel binning, you also cannot record the full frame in 4K UHD, but rather can only record a cropped frame. However, this can be disabled so that you can record a full-frame 4K UHD video. You can see comparison frames below.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Still frame
Full 4K frame

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Full HD video frame
Super 35mm 4K Frame

Further, the A99 II offers additional videographer-friendly features such as S-Gamut and S-Log shooting, including 14 stops of latitude in the S-Log3 gamma setting. The camera also offers Clean HDMI output, zebra mode and has headphone and mic inputs.

Sony A99 II 4K UHD Video Sample #1
3840 x 2160, 24fps, 16-35mm, Super 35 Format, ISO 100.
Download Original (222.3 MB .MP4 File)

On the other hand, the A99 II has a few quirks. You cannot record video using AF-S, and yet if the camera is set to AF-S before you put it into video mode, the camera does not automatically switch it to AF-C, but rather just prevents you from recording video altogether. Further, you can only record in program auto mode with AF-C, otherwise you need to use manual focus. Suppose you want to record video with Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority (or full Manual mode), then you need to also use manual focus.

Sony A99 II 4K UHD Video Sample: Autofocus
3840 x 2160, 24fps, 16-35mm at 35mm, Program Auto.
Download Original (192.9 MB .MP4 File)

With that said, the continuous autofocus performance is quite good. It's not as good as it is when shooting stills, proving to be a bit slower, but it is still impressive. There is some hunting when shooting video of low-contrast subjects, as you can see as the camera fails to focus on the background in the video above, but focus is generally smooth and remains quite steady. This is an area of some weakness in other SLR cameras when recording video using continuous autofocus, as other cameras I have used tend to make very small adjustments to focus, even when locked onto a subject, which can be distracting.

Sony A99 II High ISO video sample
3840 x 2160, 24fps, ISO 3200.
Download Original (50.3 MB .MP4 File)

Similarly impressive is the camera's high ISO video performance. You can record video from ISO 100 to 25,600 -- the camera's native ISO range -- and it performs well across much of the range. Video files are still quite sharp and relatively noise-free up through ISO 1600, although some noise starts to creep in past 1600. At ISO 3200, noise, particularly in shadow areas, is quite high. I would feel comfortable recording 4K UHD video at up to ISO 6400 for non-critical purposes, but beyond that, the noise is excessive. Further, dynamic range performance starts to decrease around ISO 800 and colors get muted at higher ISOs.

Sony A99 II 4K UHD Video Sample #2
3840 x 2160, 30fps, 16-35mm lens at 35mm, Super 35mm format.
Download Original (121.6 MB .MP4 File)

For users who don't need autofocus with manual video modes but are content with either fully-automatic video shooting or fully-manual shooting, the A99 II has a lot to offer. Its 4K video quality is very good, and it is packed with an array of high-end, videographer-friendly features.

In the Field: Wildlife Photography with the Sony A99 II

I was able to use the Sony A99 II with the Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G2 lens, which allowed me to do a lot of wildlife photography. This time of year, there aren't many large mammals to photograph around here, so birds were my primary subject. Birds are challenging for several reasons. They are small, so they really test a camera's autofocus accuracy, but they also tend to be quick and fidgety, which can pose a challenge for continuous autofocus performance.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 II at 300mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 1250.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Regarding autofocus, as mentioned earlier, worked really well. The A99 II captured sharp images, even when the birds were twitchy and filling a small portion of the frame. Ideally, the sharpest part of the image is the nearest eye, which is often very small. With so many AF points to choose from, the A99 II could regularly focus on the eyes. Unfortunately, as I've previously mentioned, moving the autofocus point around the frame using the joystick can be slow, and it is not easy to see which autofocus point is selected when using the flexible spot autofocus area.

Continuous autofocus worked very well, proving to be quick, accurate and very capable of maintaining focus, even in dim lighting conditions. However, the slow buffer clearing was particularly problematic when doing wildlife photography. I touched on the camera's slow buffer clearing in Part I, but I regularly had to wait upwards of a minute or two for the buffer to clear, which means that I am missing potential shooting opportunities. There is nothing more frustrating than shooting a burst of images and then pressing the shutter release and the camera isn't ready, especially after you've already waited 30 or more seconds. I should mention that I happened to be using a rather slow Sony SD card, with a read speed rated at 22MB/s and a write speed of only 10MB/s. A faster card would definitely improve the buffer situation with the A99 I, however, our lab tests -- which uses a SanDisk Extreme Pro card with 90MB/s write speed -- showed curiously slow buffer clearing speeds.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 II at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 500.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

The Sony A99 II has all the makings of a great camera for action, sports and wildlife, except for when it comes to buffer clearing performance. The continuous autofocus performance is excellent, shooting speeds are very fast, image quality is superb and high ISO performance is impressive. However, ultimately, I spent a lot of time while photographing wildlife wishing the camera would get out of its own way. If you can accept the camera's buffer clearing sluggishness -- a fast memory card definitely helps, though -- then the A99 II has a lot to offer.

Sony A99 II Field Test Part II Summary

Very good shooting experience led by fantastic autofocus

What I like:

  • Good electronic viewfinder
  • Excellent, sophisticated autofocus system
  • Fast, dependable continuous autofocus
  • Impressive 4K UHD video quality

What I dislike:

  • Inconsistent metering performance
  • Lack of autofocus in video exposure modes other than Program Auto
  • Slow buffer clearing proved problematic in the field
Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 22mm, f/9.0, 3.2s, ISO 50.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

In this part of my Field Test for the Sony A99 II, I have covered a lot of ground, including autofocus and video performance. As was the case in the first part of my Field Test, the A99 II performed very well with only a few shortcomings. The 4D Focus AF System is the star of the show here, as the A99 II's autofocus performance is superb. Fast, accurate and dependable in a variety of situations, it is well-suited for demanding photographers. The technology inside the camera is impressive to read about, but ultimately, it's what it does in the field that counts, and fortunately it delivers in most respects.

On the other hand, the video recording capabilities of the A99 II aren't all positive. The camera records very good 4K UHD video, and its autofocus continues to do well when recording motion pictures. However, the A99 II continues the frustrating tradition of not allowing you to record video with continuous autofocus in any mode other than Program Auto that's been present on previous A-mount SLTs. With that said, the A99 II includes a lot of videographer-friendly features, including s-Log recording, 100Mbps bitrates, Clean HDMI out and mic/headphone inputs.

Sony A99 II Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 18mm, f/9.0, 6s, ISO 50.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Considering both parts of my Field Test, the Sony A99 II is a very impressive camera. Not only is its image quality excellent from its 42.4-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, but it offers very fast continuous shooting performance, excellent autofocus and solid 4K UHD video recording. This professional camera body has few weaknesses, and what troubled me might not bother someone else, such as the lack of a touchscreen and the gray autofocus points on the displays.

This pro camera delivers high-end results in its most important areas: image quality, speed and autofocus. Sure, it comes up short in terms of buffer clearing times, usability and arguably with regard to its video features, but ultimately the Sony A99 II is a clear declaration from Sony that not only is the A-mount not dead, but it's thriving.

 



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