Sony A77 II Field Test Part II

Great performance, but does it hit the mark on continuous AF?

By John Shafer | Posted:

Don't try this at home! Professional mountain biker Lance Canfield, in Moab, Utah. Sequence assembled in Photoshop CC using every other frame from an 8 FPS 12-shot burst.
DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/7.1, 1/2500s, ISO 1600.

©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Click image to see a single frame from the sequence.)

Introduction

When I first saw Sony's Alpha A77 Mark II announcement, I thought it might finally be time to invest in a Sony DSLR system. I've been a big fan of their camera design and features for a long time, but there hadn't really been a camera that was a good fit for me -- until now. The A77 II looked like it was designed just for me -- an original Canon EOS 7D owner looking for better image quality, more speed, better video quality, and unique Sony features like an electronic viewfinder and sensor-shift image stabilization.

Speed, autofocus & Action Performance

With an updated autofocus system and lots of horsepower, the Sony Alpha A77 Mark II looks like an action shooter's dream camera. That's especially true for those of us who don't have a budget for $5000+ cameras like the Canon EOS 1D X and Nikon D4s. We can't all drive Ferraris, though -- the rest of us need something more along the lines of a Subaru WRX -- an affordable, working man's performance car. Like the WRX, the A77 Mark II offers more performance than most of us actually need, in a very affordable, user-friendly package. There's no doubt the A77 II is a heck of a camera, but is it enough to compete with other cameras in the same category?

Fall mountain biking in the La Sal Mountains, near Moab, Utah.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 35mm, f/7.1, 1/1600s, ISO 800
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Although they stopped short of calling it a professional sports camera, Sony made a big deal about the A77 II's action shooting capabilities -- especially its new, "unprecedented focusing system." And the A77 II's spec sheet is impressive -- especially when compared to other comparably-priced DSLRs. With a 79-point phase detect AF system that includes 15 cross-type sensors, the A77 II has more AF points than any other DSLR. The A77 II is also very fast. It can shoot up to 12 frames per second in Continuous Priority AE mode, and 8 frames per second in manual exposure modes. To help manage the sophisticated autofocus system, the A77 II has a competitive array of AF settings, including five focus area options that can be used with or without Lock-on AF tracking. To fine-tune autofocus performance, the AF drive speed can be set to fast or slow, and there's a five-level AF Track Duration setting that controls how long the Lock-on AF tracking "sticks" to a subject.

Professional freeskier Hannah Follender, on a very wet powder day at Alta Ski Area. By the time we finished shooting and got back to the lodge, the camera was completely soaked -- but it worked like a champ! This photo took a lot of post-processing due to the excessively flat light.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 1600
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

To find out how the A77 II's fancy autofocus system performs in the real world, I put it through the wringer. I shot loads of mountain bike trail and dirt jump photos and literally thousands of cyclocross racing photos. I even shot some skiing and snowboarding, once we started getting snow in the mountains. For subjects where I could use single-shot autofocus to pre-focus, the A77 II was excellent. But my initial impressions of the continuous autofocus weren't as good. Although I did get some sharp photos, it wasn't consistent enough to give me the confidence I need when there's money on the line. As a professional outdoor and action sports photographer, continuous autofocus performance is critical -- especially when I'm shooting unpredictable races and freeride events. So last summer, when I shot a couple of world-class mountain bike competitions with paying clients (Colorado Enduro World Series and Red Bull Rampage), I decided I'd better stick with my tried and true Canon gear. I just couldn't afford to take any risks.

The Sony A77 II is too important of a camera to be judged on mere impressions, though. I needed data to back up my experience. I started my controlled testing of the A77 II's continuous autofocus by shooting some mountain bike dirt jumping and the results were promising. With the 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens, shooting with a large aperture and relatively non-distracting backgrounds, I got some very nice photos.

My Sony A77 II dirt jump continuous autofocus test results were promising.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 100mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

I followed up by shooting a cyclocross race -- one of my favorite sports to shoot and an excellent action photography testing laboratory because racers do multiple laps on a relatively short, closed course. Cyclocross is also one of the most difficult subjects I photograph -- focus has to be spot on, depth-of-field is usually pretty shallow, and the motion is often very fast and somewhat erratic. At the first race, I shot 1154 photos and ended up with 531 keepers -- a success rate of just 46%. That confirmed my initial impressions of the A77 II's continuous autofocus performance. It works, but not nearly as well as my own Canon EOS cameras or Nikon DSLRs I've used. I've learned to expect a 70% to 95% keeper rate from those cameras, depending on conditions, the specific camera model, lens choice, etc. Because of those disappointing results, I decided I needed to talk to the Sony camera team to make sure there wasn't anything wrong with the camera, and that I wasn't making any mistakes.

A cyclocross race photo from my first controlled AF test outing. This one worked pretty well -- especially considering how far apart the riders are, and the poor lighting conditions.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 100mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Unfortunately, most of my photos at this race were not so good. This one is, as they say, "good enough for the Web." But if you look at the full-size JPEG, you’ll see the A77 II’s continuous AF system is focused just behind the rider's rear wheel.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 120mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s, ISO 1600
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

During a conference call with the Sony Alpha crew, we talked about the camera's autofocus settings, action technique, and what kind of results I should expect. I described my action photography technique -- mostly old-school single-point continuous autofocus, where you select a single AF point and keep it on your subject while you shoot -- a method that's worked very well for me and other sports photographers I know, for decades. They basically told me I was doing it all wrong. It turns out the A77 II's autofocus system was designed for best results using the Lock-on AF option, which combines object recognition and tracking with continuous autofocus. They suggested I use the Lock-on AF with focus area set to Wide, and let the camera identify and track the subject. In my experience, object recognition, tracking and any other form of "intelligent" autofocus are a crapshoot at best. But they were so confident I said I'd give it a shot.

So the next weekend I shot a full day of cyclocross racing with the A77 II, using only the Lock-on AF. I started out using the wide-area setting, as suggested, but quickly realized it wasn't going to work for me. If I'm shooting two riders coming toward me, I always choose one to focus on. But with the wide area setting, the camera may or may not choose the rider I want in focus. If I'm shooting a larger group of riders, that's an even bigger problem. Even worse, if I'm shooting a specific racer for a paying client, I can't take a chance on the camera choosing the wrong rider. That's a recipe for disaster.

This is from my first day testing Sony's Lock-on AF system. Although I almost always choose to focus on the riders in the front, the camera chose to focus on the rider in red.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 135mm, f/5, 1/2000s, ISO 1600
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

I continued using the AF tracking and experimented with all the Lock-on focus area options: Wide, Zone, Center, Flexible Spot, and Expanded Flexible Spot. I found I had the best chance of getting usable results when I used the Flexible Spot and Expanded Flexible Spot areas. But all too often, the AF system chose the rider behind the one I wanted, or worse, some unimportant background area. I ended up shooting 1141 photos that day, with just 403 acceptably sharp keepers. That's only a 35% success rate -- not good at all. I can't afford to gamble with those odds.

This should have been a relatively easy continuous autofocus challenge – simply keep the focus point on the rider and you get a sharp photo. However, if you look at the full-size image you'll see it’s focused on the tents in the background and not even close to the rider. That was a very common problem for me with the A77 II's Lock-on AF. I shot a lot of photos of this barrier at this angle and got very few keepers.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 18mm, f/3.5, 1/3200s, ISO 800
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Since the follow-up autofocus test didn't improve my results, I made arrangements to visit the Sony Alpha team at their San Diego headquarters. I wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings or overlooked details. I was really hoping there'd be some epiphany about settings or technique, and I'd start getting perfect results from the A77 II's AF tracking system. We discussed the autofocus system and spent a couple of hours experimenting with settings and taking pictures of cars as they drove by the Sony building. Although we didn't make any big discoveries about my A77 II test camera, the autofocus settings or the way I shoot, I left confident that my testing method was sound. I was also impressed by how the Sony folks addressed my concerns. Instead of blowing me off and assuming my low keeper rate was due to user error, we had what I consider a very productive exchange. The Sony Alpha team has impressed me from the start, and this experience just reinforced my respect for them. When I left, I promised to shoot one more cyclocross race to see if anything we'd talked about during my visit could improve my the A77 II's autofocus performance.

My Lock-on AF results did improve a bit after I met with Sony. The A77II’s autofocus did exactly what I wanted in this photo of the pro men’s start at the final race of the Utah cyclocross season.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 120mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 1600
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Here’s another example of the Lock-on AF working well.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/4, 1/800s, ISO 400
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

I did shoot another race when I got back home to Utah, but with just a 50% keeper rate (out of over 1700 photos), I didn't see any significant improvement. Ultimately, the A77 II's continuous autofocus didn't perform well enough for me with the sports I shoot. It might be better for slower subjects or motor sports, where the subject is larger and more isolated from the background (we did have pretty good results shooting cars at the Sony office). But the tracking system just isn't reliable enough for action sports, and I got way too many photos that were focused on the rider behind the one I wanted, some background detail, or nothing at all. Even when it did work, I usually only got one or two sharp images from a burst of five or more. With that kind of performance, you're better off just pre-focusing.

One more example of how good the Sony Alpha A77 II’s Lock-on AF can be. I had a lot of problems with the system getting stuck on that sage brush next to the rider. But in this photo, everything worked perfectly.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 140mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800.
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Although the A77 II's continuous AF performance isn't as good as I've come to expect from Canon and Nikon DSLRs, it is an improvement over what I've experienced with previous Sony DSLRs. And even though it didn't work as well as I'd hoped for my cycling photos, Sony's Lock-on AF tracking is pretty cool. When it works right, you see the highlighted AF points in the viewfinder follow the subject around the frame. Although it's not yet reliable enough for professional-level action photography, I'm looking forward to seeing what they're able to do with the next generation of this technology. I think it's right on the edge of being awesome, and I'd really love to have a camera where it works well.

The A77 II's Lock-on AF really came through for me in this shot. This skier was going *really* fast but the system still managed to lock on and deliver this razor-sharp image. The A77 II's wide dynamic range also helped me recover tons of snow detail from the RAW file in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 200mm, f/5.6, 1/2500s, ISO 400

©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Video Quality & Performance

The Sony Alpha SLT DSLRs have always been a good choice for video. The A77 II records 1920 x 1080 full-HD video at 60 FPS in the AVCHD format, and a recent firmware update also adds Sony's new proprietary high bit rate XAVC S video format for even better quality. Audio specs are very good, with adjustable audio levels, a stereo mic input, and a built-in stereo mic. To record, you can select the video icon on the mode dial or just press the dedicated video button on the back of the camera. For serious videographers, video-specific PASM manual modes are available within movie mode. And if the 50 Mbps XAVC S quality isn't enough, you can also record uncompressed video to an external recorder via the camera's HDMI port.

A few features that set them apart from the competition are the built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), sensor-shift image stabilization, and their transparent mirror design. The EVF means you can actually use the eye-level viewfinder while recording video. With other digital SLRs, you'd need to add an expensive accessory viewfinder/loupe on the LCD display if you want to hold it up to your eye. This isn't just a convenience feature, either. Using an eye-level viewfinder adds a third point-of-contact with the body and that means smoother, steadier video -- with or without image stabilization. And with the A77 II's built-in Steadyshot image stabilization, you get camera shake correction with any lens you use. You don't have to buy image-stabilized lenses like you do with some other camera brands.

Sony A77 II Sample Video (EDITED MONTAGE)
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps, MP4
Download Original (86.6MB MP4)
Download unedited, straight-from-camera .MTS videos below:
Skiing #1
(66MB .MTS)
Skiing #2
(87.2MB .MTS)
Biking #1
(34.8MB .MTS)
Biking #2
(44.6MB .MTS)
Landscape
(119MB .MTS)

Sony's transparent mirror design is one of the main things that sets their SLT DSLRs apart from other manufacturers. Because the mirror is transparent, it doesn't have to move out of the way when you're shooting photos or recording video. That's given Sony's SLT cameras a real autofocus edge for video. It means the A77 II can use its full 79-point phase detect AF system for movies. Other camera makers are catching up, but I was very impressed with the A77 II's tracking abilities in movie mode. Watch the clip of my dad skiing in the sample video (above) to judge the tracking for yourself.

How Does It Compare to the Competition?

Overall, the Sony Alpha A77 II compares very well to the competition (qualification: I have not had a chance to use the new Canon EOS 7D Mk II yet). In terms of price, features and performance, it competes with cameras like the Canon EOS 7D, EOS 70D, EOS 7D Mk II, the Nikon D7100 and D5300, and flagship mirrorless cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and Fujifilm. It also competes with its own sibling, the Sony Alpha A6000 mirrorless camera, which packages the same sensor and similar features in a much smaller package. The size, build and controls are comparable to Nikon and Canon's best prosumer cameras and general performance is as good or better. Sony's 24-megapixel APS-C sensor has more resolution and better dynamic range than Canon's pre- EOS 7D Mk II APS-C sensor cameras. I do think Nikon and Fujifilm's APS-C sensor cameras have a bit of an image quality edge over the A77 II. But it's not enough of a difference for me to really care -- especially not when you factor in the Sony's price and all the other benefits of the A77 II. Price-wise, it really doesn't have any competition.

Tracked powder on a bluebird day is easy work for the A77 II. Just plan your shot, pre-focus, shoot a high-speed burst, and pick the frame with the best body position.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 18mm, f/8, 1/3200s, ISO 800

©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

What are the special benefits of using a Sony SLT DSLR? For me, the built-in electronic viewfinder and sensor-shift image stabilization are huge. There are definitely photographers who don't like EVFs. However, I can't help but wonder if they've put in any serious time using one. I've been using them on and off for years now, and I absolutely prefer a good EVF to an optical viewfinder. Once you get used to making menu changes, reviewing photos and videos, and using the eye-level viewfinder to record video, it's really hard to go back. The built-in Wi-Fi is also very important to me. Of course, Wi-Fi is available in most competing cameras now. But in my opinion, Sony's Wi-Fi system is one of the easiest to set up and use.

The main reason for a fast burst rate is so you can pick the best moment from a trick or play in the action. Faster is generally better with a sports camera. But I've found that 8 FPS -- the fastest the A77 II can do in manual exposure modes – is almost always all I need.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 160mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s, ISO 800
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

Although the A77 II is capable of shooting at 12 FPS (in Continuous Advance Priority Auto-Exposure mode), if you're a manual exposure shooter like me, it slows down to 8 FPS (Continuous HI) -- see more info here. That's still plenty fast, though. It's faster than any other APS-C sensor DSLR, except for the Canon EOS 7D (also 8 FPS) and 7D Mk II (10 FPS). Although faster is nice for a sports camera, I never felt like the A77 II lacked speed.

The only real issue I have with the A77 II is the continuous autofocus performance. Although it's not as good as Nikon and Canon DSLRs, it's still better than any mirrorless camera I've used. And if you don't depend on continuous autofocus, then the A77 II delivers a hell of a lot of camera for the money. The Nikon D7100 has a considerably slower burst rate and tiny buffer; and the original Canon EOS 7D image quality doesn't compare. For the price, I think the only camera that compares is the Canon EOS 70D. But the 70D's sensor isn't as good,  it's one frame slower in manual modes, and you also give up the EVF and built-in image stabilization. Ultimately, I really think the value of the A77 II comes down to how important continuous autofocus performance is for you.

Conclusion

Before Imaging Resource sent me an A77 II to test, I was seriously considering buying one, sight-unseen. There are a lot of things I love about Sony's approach to camera design, and my Canon APS-C DSLRs have been giving me a serious case of sensor envy. The real question for me was whether the A77 II's continuous autofocus performance would be up to snuff. Although the A77 II's action performance looks great on paper, and it's an upgrade compared to previous Sony cameras, it's still not up to the same standard as Canon and Nikon. That doesn't mean it's a bad camera, though -- not at all. The truth is, I have to explain continuous autofocus to most people because they don't actually use it. And photographers who don't depend on continuous autofocus to pay the bills shouldn't worry about it. The only reason I put so much energy into testing the camera's tracking AF performance is Sony advertised the A77 II as "a perfect choice for fast-action photography." As a fast-action photographer and camera reviewer, it's my job to put that claim to the test. And unfortunately, it fell a little short.

In every other way, the Sony A77 II is an excellent DSLR body, and I preferred it to my own cameras. In fact, with few exceptions, I loved using it. For an APS-C sensor camera, the image quality is great, as is video performance. And there's no arguing with the speed. Even at 8 FPS in manual exposure modes, it's plenty fast. The A77 II is built great with a solid feel, good ergonomics and well laid-out, intuitive controls.

If you're an original A77 owner looking for an upgrade, the A77 II is an obvious and smart move. If you're a Canon or Nikon owner, it's a tougher call. If you're like me and you've been waiting to make the move to Sony, it might be smart to wait just a little bit longer -- at least if you're a sports photographer.

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm: 16mm, f/4.5, 1/400s, ISO 1600
©2014 John Shafer - all rights reserved. (Photo has been edited; click image to see the original)

 



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