Sony A99 II Field Test Part I

The A-mount camera Sony shooters have been waiting for

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 12/29/2016

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 30mm, f/11, 5s, ISO 50.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

The Sony A99 Mark II came as something of a surprise. Sony's seemingly steadfast focus on their mirrorless and premium fixed-lens cameras has only recently been interrupted by the A68 this past spring. Otherwise, while 2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the Alpha camera line, new A-mount cameras have been few and far between.

Following up on the original A99 four years later, the A99 II is poised to deliver high-end professional performance and overall top-notch image quality for A-mount users. If anyone thought that the Sony A-mount was dead, the A99 II is Sony's clear and decisive response to those fears. Now the question becomes, is the Sony A99 II simply a statement that the A-mount is still alive, or does it stand on its own as an excellent camera? Read on to find out.

Key Features and Info
  • Professional DSLR camera body
  • Magnesium alloy body
  • Assignable front-facing Multi Controller
  • 42.4-megapixel BSI CMOS full frame sensor
  • ISO 100-25600 native ISO range
  • Hybrid phase detection autofocus system with nearly 400 autofocus points
  • Up to 12 frames per second continuous shooting
  • In-body 5-axis image stabilization
  • 4K UHD video recording
  • US $3,200 price
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 35mm, f/8.0, 30s, ISO 100.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Sony A99 II is a comfortable, well-designed camera body

The Sony A99 Mark II is eight percent smaller than its predecessor, but it retains a professional-quality construction and a wide array of controls. The camera includes a redesigned grip, which I found to be very comfortable to hold, even when using the A99 II with the rather heavy Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM II lens. It has dimensions of 5.6 x 4.1 x 3.0 inches (143 x 104 x 76 millimeters) and weighs 29.9 ounces (849 grams). Relative to its mirrorless siblings, the A99 II is large, but compared to other professional SLR cameras, it is reasonably sized.

Durability is a focus with the A99 II as well. The body is constructed from magnesium alloy and features various weather-sealing measures, particularly around buttons and controls. With that said, Sony won't go so far as to say that the camera is weather-sealed, only that it is dust- and moisture-resistant. Further, the A99 II features a revised shutter design, which compared to its predecessor, is rated for 50% more shutter actuations, offering reliable performance of at least 300,000 shutter actuations.

A positive aspect of its relatively large body is that the A99 II has a lot of space for physical controls. The top deck of the camera is particularly nice and well-suited for serious photography. Within easy reach of your shutter finger are dedicated buttons for ISO, exposure compensation, white balance and drive mode. You can also turn on a backlight for the large top display. There is also a Finder/Monitor button (aka EVF/rear display toggle) -- which I had to make regular use of, but more on that later -- yet I am unable to reach it easily with my index finger; users with longer fingers might find it easier to press. On the other side of the fairly short top of the camera (it has a low profile because it doesn't need the space for the components of an optical viewfinder found in traditional SLRs) is a locking mode dial that includes three custom mode slots.

Despite being an SLR-style camera, the A99 II is not a traditional "SLR" in that it uses a translucent mirror. Like other "SLT" models before it, this allows for interesting autofocus technology, but it also means that an optical viewfinder is not an option for the A99 II. Instead, the camera uses an electronic viewfinder. The EVF utilizes a 0.5-inch (1.3-centimeter) OLED display, which has 2.4 million dots of resolution. The viewfinder is the same size and resolution as the one found in the A99, but the A99 II's viewfinder has 0.78x magnification versus 0.71x found in the original A99. The EVF offers 100% coverage and works well in the field. I will discuss using the EVF in more detail in part II of my Field Test.

What is less impressive is the rear LCD display. The 3-inch display does have tilting capabilities, which worked well, even functioning as a selfie screen. However, despite a robust tilt/swivel mechanism and sharp display, the A99 II ultimately disappoints because like most other Sony cameras, it does not have touchscreen functionality.

Another interesting aspect of the back of the camera is its multi-selector. Rather than a traditional directional pad, the A99 II utilizes a joystick. At first I didn't care for it, but it grew on me with time. I still absolutely prefer a more standard directional pad with a center button, but the A99 II's joystick works well enough. Plus, it takes up very little space, so that leaves a good amount of room for the thumb grip. There is not much to say about the buttons on the camera, they all feel fine, but it is worth pointing out that some of them are concave and others are convex, which lets you differentiate buttons just by touch once you get used to the camera. This is a very nice touch.

Speaking of nice touches, the multi-controller on the front of the camera is very useful. By default, pressing it brings up AF drive mode. But if you hold down the button, you can cycle through a variety of settings, including focus area, shutter speed (if the shooting mode allows), aperture (if the shooting mode allows), exposure compensation, ISO, metering mode, white balance, creative style and picture effect. Further, you can change between the rotating dial clicking or offering smooth rotation by moving a switch around the dial. It's an awesome, functional button to have on the front of the camera.

In general, the A99 II is very customizable, and you can assign up to 65 different functions to the AEL, ISO, AF/MF, custom key and preview buttons.

Overall, the Sony A99 II is a very good camera body. The redesigned grip feels excellent, and the camera has ample physical controls that offer fast, customizable access to critical camera settings. The lack of a touchscreen is a disappointment, but other than that, I can't ask for much more in terms of design and ergonomics.

Sony A99 II's 42.4MP sensor excels across many situations

Using the same full-frame 42-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor as the A7R II, the Sony A99 Mark II produces superbly sharp, highly detailed images. Another reason for this excellent resolving capability is the lack of an optical low-pass filter (OLPF). While this does increase the risk of moiré artifacts, it also allows the camera to capture finer details. Further, the camera employs a BIONZ X image processing engine and a new front-end LSI, which allows for improved diffraction reduction, area-specific noise reduction and has been tuned specifically for the 42-megapixel sensor. The result is very sharp images at low ISOs and surprisingly pleasing images at high ISO settings, especially when downsampled.

Looking at a JPEG image straight from the camera, the camera produces very sharp images at default settings. Fortunately, the A99 II does not excessively sharpen JPEG images, resulting in clean files without nasty artifacts, even around high-contrast fine details.

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 17mm, f/8.0, 1.6s, ISO 50.
This image is a focus stacked composite. Click for the full-size image. Additionally, click on the links to view the foreground and background images used in the composite.

100% crop of the above image.

However, I don't care for the A99 II's in-camera JPEG processing regarding other aspects of image quality. For starters, with Picture Style set to 'Standard,' the camera has slightly too much contrast for my tastes (this is certainly a personal preference, however). That's okay, but what is not is how the camera attempts to recover highlights in JPEG images. In the image below, you can see how the camera introduced false color in the highlights. The bright blobs of cyan are very distracting and this was a somewhat regular occurrence with JPEG files. (Editor's Note: This shot was taken at expanded ISO 50, which is essentially the camera's base ISO of 100 overexposed by a stop with brightness adjusted down a stop during processing. This leads to reduced headroom and often causes bright highlights to be harshly clipped in JPEGs, sometimes with odd coloration when one color channel clips before the others. With more sophisticated processing such as using Adobe Camera Raw to convert the matching RAW file, partially clipped highlights like these can usually be recovered without false colors.)

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 35mm, f/13, 1.6s, ISO 50.
Click for full-size image.

100% crop of the above image.

As good as the JPEG images look, the A99 II really shines when you process its RAW files. With precise, fine-tuned sharpening, you can bring out an incredible amount of detail in RAW files from the A99 II. Not only are the images very sharp, but with 42 megapixels of data to work with, it is a breeze to print large, detailed prints. If you want the sharpest Sony A-mount camera, you need not look further than the A99 Mark II.

As frustrating as default JPEGs can be in challenging situations -- and it is worth noting that in many situations, the A99 II produces excellent JPEG images -- the camera's sensor still captures a lot of detail, and its dynamic range is superb. I could process the RAW files of many images that had produced unsatisfactory JPEG images, into very pleasing final images, including nice highlight and shadow recovery. This is absolutely a camera which, while capable of capturing very nice JPEG files, is meant to be shot in RAW.

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 17mm, f/8.0, 4s, ISO 50.
Re-sized JPEG straight from the camera with Picture Style set to Default. Click for full-size image.

Modified RAW image, converted to black and white. Notice how much better the highlights look. Click for full-size image.

An interesting feature of the Sony A99 II is that its sensor is said to have a special coating to prevent dust and dirt from settling on the image sensor's surface. Further, the camera has built-in sensor cleaning that gives the A99 II one of the more violent shakes I've ever felt in a camera. Nonetheless, my experience with the special surface and built-in cleaning was not very good. After having changed the lens only a couple of times, the sensor was somehow very dirty -- which you can see on some of the earlier images in the gallery, including this one for example -- and I had to clean it manually. Interestingly, there's no way to lock the translucent mirror in the camera's settings, instead there is a physical switch on the mirror that you press to make the mirror flip up. The sensor is quite hard to reach, and it is not easy to clean. Obviously other users' experiences with the sensor may be different from mine, but I thought it was worth mentioning that the special sensor coating doesn't seem to be effective.

Excellent high ISO performance from the Sony A99 II

Excellent imaging performance continues even when increasing the ISO. When considering JPEG images with default settings and default noise reduction, the camera does an excellent job of balancing sharpness with noise reduction. Even up through ISO 1600, images are very sharp when viewed at full-size. Noise is well-suppressed, although there are some issues with artifacts around finer details. At ISO 3200, JPEG images become a fair bit noisier, but are still very good. ISO 6400 is what I consider to be the limit for using the files at their full size, but downsampling them -- and there are plenty of pixels to work with -- makes a big difference. The same can be said at ISO 12800, albeit to a lesser degree. At ISO 25600 -- the A99 Mark II's highest native ISO setting -- and beyond, images are too soft for me to recommend using them.

Sony A99 II ISO Comparison (JPEG)
100% center crops from JPEG images captured using default settings and 'Standard' Picture Style.
(Click for full-size images.)
ISO 100 Full Scene
ISO 50 (extended)
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600
ISO 51200 (extended)
ISO 102400 (extended)

The situation remains excellent with RAW images, perhaps more so because of the ample flexibility of the RAW files. You can produce a clean file through ISO 6400 with relatively minimal noise reduction effort. With a precise approach, I could achieve acceptable results at ISO 12800 as well. At ISO 25600, it will take quite a bit more work to make a nice image because the files are so noisy and there's a significant loss of detail, contrast and saturation to contend with too.

Sony A99 II ISO Comparison (RAW)
100% center crops from RAW images processed with Adobe Camera RAW default settings.
(Click to access the .ARW RAW files.)
ISO 50 (extended)
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600
ISO 51200 (extended)
ISO 102400 (extended)

Considering its megapixel count, the A99 II is a very impressive camera at high ISOs. Not only does it perform well when considering images in their full 42-megapixel glory, the high pixel count of the full-frame sensor also means that you can downsample files and achieve excellent results at higher ISOs, granted with smaller image files.

You will have to wait for full lab tests to know how the A99 II stacks up to the competition, but as someone who regularly shoots a similarly high-megapixel full-frame camera, a Nikon D800E, the A99 II stacks up very favorably against my Nikon.

Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6G II at 280mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 6400.
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image.

Overall: The A99 II offers superb image quality

While the Sony A99 Mark II has many excellent features, one of the biggest is its 42-megapixel full-frame sensor. That is a lot of pixels to pack onto a sensor, and it would not be surprising to find that the resolving power comes with a cost to high ISO performance, but that is not the case with the A99 II. Not only does it excel at low ISOs, offering incredible clarity, color and dynamic range, but it also performs exceedingly well at high ISOs.

Sony A99 Mark II Performance: Fast shooting, slow buffer clearing

It is important to preface the discussion on the Sony A99 II's performance by reminding ourselves that the camera records 42-megapixel images, which is a ton of data. With that said, the camera still manages to capture full-resolution uncompressed RAW images with full autofocus and auto exposure adjustments between images at over 11 frames per second, according to our testing. Yes, the camera is rated for 12 fps, but the fact that a camera can record 42-megapixel RAW images at 11.1 fps is highly impressive.

What is less impressive is the A99 II's time to clear its buffer. The camera does not offer UHS-II support, which is a big disappointment given how long it takes to clear the buffer after a long burst. Per our testing results with one of the fastest UHS-I cards available (a SanDisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/sec UHS-I SDHC card rated for 90MB/s writes), if you capture a Continuous Hi+ burst of "Extra Fine" JPEG images, you can capture up to 61 frames at 10.5 fps before it slows down to about one fps, which is certainly impressive, but it takes nearly a minute (56 seconds) to clear the buffer. The situation is slightly different when recording only uncompressed RAW images with the buffer filling after only 25 frames but clearing in 34 seconds while also capturing images slightly faster at 11.1 fps. If you are okay with shooting compressed RAW images, the buffer depth increases to 59 frames while maintaining a relatively similar buffer clearing time of 40 seconds. You can capture RAW+JPEG at the same high speeds, but it is worth noting that if you want to capture RAW and JPEG images simultaneously, you cannot record Extra Fine JPEG files, being instead are forced to record JPEG images at the second-best quality setting (but this is consistent with other Sony cameras that offer Extra Fine JPEGs). I will further discuss my real-world experience with the A99 II and continuous shooting in part II of my Field Test.

Sony 70-200mm f/4-5.6G II at 400mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 1000.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

The A99 II has four continuous shooting modes: Hi+, Hi, Mid and Low. Hi+ offers the fastest continuous burst rate, however, while Hi+ mode doesn't offer any sort of live view through the viewfinder or on the rear display, Hi does. The tradeoff is a four frames per second reduction in continuous shooting speed, but that might be worth it for certain situations, such as when you want to more easily keep a moving subject in frame. Mid and low modes offer shooting speeds of 6 fps and 4 fps, respectively, but offer no distinct advantages.

An improvement compared to some Sony cameras I have used in the past is that while the A99 II buffer is clearing, you can view the most recently-shot image as well as change (some) settings. Not all menus are accessible while the camera is writing to the card. For example, you cannot access the 'Function' menu while the camera is writing images. Considering how large files are and how frequently the A99 II is writing images while shooting, I like that the camera has a large card access LED on the back to let you know what's going on.

While there are aspects of the A99 II's performance that are very impressive, such as its shooting speeds, other characteristics are disappointing. Powering on the camera to first shot is a somewhat slow 1.2 seconds, which is behind the average DSLR. Further, battery life is less than 400 shots (390) when using the electronic viewfinder and 490 when using the LCD, far behind a typical professional DSLR.

Overall, the biggest issue with the A99 II's performance is its buffer clearing performance. The occasional slowdowns in the field, such as when the camera is writing files, can be frustrating as well. It is puzzling why Sony opted not to include UHS-II support in the A99 II as it would have surely helped accelerate buffer clearing. With all that said, the A99 II still offers very impressive overall performance. Being able to capture 42-megapixel uncompressed RAW images at over 11 fps, while just shy of the advertised burst rate, is excellent. I also appreciate the inclusion of the Hi shooting mode, offering live view in the EVF or monitor and a still speedy 8 fps capture speed.

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 35mm, f/8, 1s, ISO 100.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.
In the Field: Landscapes in Acadia

I took the Sony A99 II out to Acadia National Park, and it impressed me greatly in the field. It was a frigid morning, and I needed to wear gloves. This is usually an issue when capturing photos, as I'm sure many cold-weather climate readers know, but the A99 II performed well while wearing gloves. Not a single time did I have to remove a glove to change a setting on the camera. This might be a small detail, but it matters a lot if you are regularly shooting in freezing temperatures.

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 at 20mm, f/8.0, 0.8s, ISO 100.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. This image is focus stacked. Click on the links to see the two images used in the composite: Foreground and background.

A less positive realization when working with the A99 II in the cold, dim morning light was that the eye sensor for the electronic viewfinder can be finicky. I was attempting to compose my images using the rear display, but the shady conditions kept tricking the camera into thinking I was looking through the finder, turning off the rear display. Eventually I had to turn the eye sensor off and manually switch between the EVF and display using the top-deck toggle button.

I will be discussing the A99 II's autofocus performance in detail in part II of my Field Test, but a frustration arose very quickly when shooting in dim conditions or trying to focus on an area of the image in shade. Unless the scene is quite bright or light colored, it is difficult to see the selected AF point on the display (both on the rear monitor and the EVF). When using Flexible Spot AF, which offers up to 323 selectable AF points, there are a lot to cycle through. Unfortunately, the lines surrounding the selected point are only marginally thicker than the lines surrounding non-selected AF points and do not illuminate until you trigger autofocus, making the process of finding and shifting the selected AF point a frustrating process. The AF points are a medium-dark shade of gray, making them blend in with many of the scenes I found myself shooting. Eventually I had to set the A99 II to only utilize 63 AF points so I could cycle through the points quicker and also be able to find the selected point more easily.

Sony A99 II Field Test Part I Summary
The Sony A99 II makes a strong first impression with its excellent image quality

What I like:

  • Redesigned grip
  • Excellent physical controls
  • Fantastic RAW images from the 42.4-megapixel sensor
  • Easy to use while wearing gloves

What I dislike:

  • Joystick is not as reliable of an input method as a directional pad
  • JPEG images don't look great with default settings
  • AF points are difficult to see
  • Buffer clearing is slow
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 Sony A99 Mark II is a great camera, and it has impressed me thoroughly thus far. Its sensor is fantastic, even at high ISOs, and it offers a ton of dynamic range. It has also proven to be very easy to use, and its ample physical controls make changing critical settings a fast process. It handled the cold weather of the Maine coast very well too, being one of the few cameras I could easily use with gloves on.

In my upcoming Field Test Part II, I will be discussing the camera's metering, autofocus and video performance, among other things. So far so good with the Sony A99 Mark II. This is looking to be the camera A-mount users have been waiting for.


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