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PhotoClassic Equipment Review

Sony Alpha SLT-A99V

This review was my initial impressions of the camera. Having now used the camera for 9 months and taken around 12,500 images with it, I have added in red any additions or alterations from extended use.

Sony has been trumpeting for over a year now that single lens translucent cameras with electronic viewfinders are the future of still photography. What began with the Alpha 55 has now moved on to the first professional level camera with this feature. One of the difficulties of the electronic viewfinders to date has been that they are a poor substitute for a normal prism viewfinder in terms of image quality, with lag and image tearing during panning making them often frustrating to use, especially for heavy users like professionals. However, Sony believes this latest incarnation of the technology is good enough to put into their latest high-end camera.

The SLT-A99V is the European spec of the camera, the V suffix denoting that it has GPS functionality included. The camera itself features an impressive array of features and specifications that mark it out as a serious contender for the professional and serious amateur market.

SLT-A99V

Normally when I review a piece of equipment it is after I have beaten the living daylights out of it for months on end and really found its limitations, so this is just a preliminary review rather than a full, long-term evaluation. Instead of listing all the specs and features, like any other reviewer, I would prefer to just talk about how the kit actually works in the field, so to that end I have tried to get a good look at some of the abilities and failings of the SLT-A99. This is by no means an exhaustive test, it is merely my initial observations on the camera.

I ordered the camera with battery grip and two spare batteries: although I'm not a fan of battery grips and this one is no exception, I was aware that the electronic viewfinder was likely to reduce the number of frames the camera would be capable of from one charge and as I regularly shoot up to 1500 images a day when on safari, I wanted to have the option of not having to change batteries too often. With the exception of the image of the camera itself, which was taken with a NEX-7, all the images in this review were taken using the SLT-A99V with a Carl Zeiss 24-70 f2.8 lens (badged as SAL2470Z by Sony)

ERGONOMICS

Straight away you notice the attention to detail in the design of the camera. As well as being a very pretty camera to look at, the SLT-A99V has an array of buttons and controls whose positions and functions have been carefully thought out. Sony has put a lot of effort into making the camera not only user-friendly but easily altered to suit an individual photographer's shooting style and preferences: to this end almost every button's operation can be assigned to numerous functions. In the hand, the camera feels very comfortable and well-balanced. The SLT-A99V has a magnesium-alloy body that is dust and weather-sealed and a fully articulated rear screen. The main control dial has a lock to prevent accidental changes. As is common with other high-end camera bodies, there is no pop-up flash, so a flashgun will be an essential addition to most purchasers' armouries. At first sight it appears that Sony has abandoned the proprietory locking hotshoe inherited from Minolta but upon closer inspection you notice that there are additional features to this hotshoe which mean it not only meets the ISO standard but has additional pins for communication with other accessories Sony has available or planned. The camera also comes with an adaptor for backward compatibility with the Sony/Minolta standard locking hotshoe accessories and flashes. I tried this with my HVL-56AM flashgun and it works perfectly. I also tried the hotshoe with a radio trigger and it synced well with studio lights. Sony has also produced a new combination flashgun to complement the camera, which has a guide number of 60 and an impressive LED video light for those wishing to take advantage of the camera's HD video capabilities.

I have to say that I have been completely won over to the EVF idea by the viewfinder on this camera. We have a Sony Alpha SLT55 and a NEX-7, both of which have electronic viewfinders but in both cases you are very aware that you are using an electronic viewfinder that is inferior to an optical viewfinder to different degrees. With the SLT-A99V I literally didn't think about the viewfinder after a few minutes use; it really is THAT good!

Having used the camera for 9 months now, I really am converted to the EVF. The amount of information available, the quality of the image and the ergonomics of the camera itself make the EVF a delight. I recently had an opportunity to compare the viewfinder directly with the Sony A900, which is generally regarded as having the best optical viewfinder of any DSLR. The fisrt time I saw the A900 viewfinder was just after the camera was released and I described it then as "like looking through a huge window". Having now used both side by side, they offer a very similar view on the world but I definitely prefer the A99 EVF viewfinder, simply because the amount of information available makes shooting effortless.

 

IMAGE QUALITY

I have only had a chance to shoot with the camera for about 3 hours but what I have seen so far has been very impressive. Focusing is fast and accurate and exposures are pretty accurate, with a slight tendency to under-expose a little in challenging conditions (which is infinitely better than over-exposing!) Control of noise at medium to high ISO settings is exceptionally good and I would have no hesitation in making large prints from images taken at ISO 3200. At ISO 6400 the noise does start to become more prominent but it is not till you get above this level that it begins to seriously degrade the image. Colour rendition appears natural; soft colours are faithfully reproduced and strong colours are nice and punchy. So far I am delighted with the results from this camera. All of the images below were taken on Aperture Priority and have been saved from Lightroom with default settings (no noise reduction etc applied). Click on the image to open the full unedited image (warning: large files!).

exhibition centre 1
focal length 35mm, ISO 3200, 1/15th sec, f11, tripod

boat
focal length 60mm, ISO 800, 1/200th sec, f11, hand-held

grave
focal length 60mm, ISO 2500, 1/40th sec, f16, hand-held

museum
focal length 35mm, ISO 6400, 1/1600th sec, f11, hand-held

fittie
focal length 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/640th sec, f11, hand-held

NEW FEATURES

Sony has introduced several innovations with this camera. The first really interesting new feature is a second on-sensor phase-detect autofocus sensor, which is claimed to greatly improve focus tracking of fast-moving objects or moving objects against complex backgrounds. I will test this as soon as possible and add the results here but in the meantime, I have had a chance to test another of the new features; in-camera focus range limiting. In effect this gives you the chance to use a feature on any lens that is normally only included in top-of-the-range lenses. Just as Minolta gave in-camera image stabilisation to any lens, so Sony have continued that with this new feature. The image below was taken to test that feature out, with an aperture of f2.8 to narrow the depth of field, the focus range limiter was used to prevent the camera focusing on the metal railings in front of the lifeboat. You can see the effect in the full-sized cropped portion in the second image. No sharpening or noise reduction has been applied to the RAW image but the bright back-lighting did fool the metering system into under-exposing, so the image has had a stop increase in Lightroom. Settings: ISO 50, 70mm, 1/500th sec at f2.8, aperture priority, Steady-Shot on, auto white balance.

Focus limiter test

result

I have now used the focus range limiter quite a lot and find it very useful when shooting wildlife with the Sigma 120-400mm APO DG OS. This is not the fastest focusing lens but limiting its range definitely speeds it up quite a bit when trying to lock onto a fast-moving animal or bird. The scale is not accurate when using Sigma lenses, probably because they reverse-engineer, rather than purchasing Sony specs, so they are not accurately recognised by the Sony A99. However, with a bit of experimenting, you can get the focus range limiter working very effectively with any lens.

Issues

This camera has surprised me in many ways, with beautiful ergonomics, innovative features and a truly remarkable electronic viewfinder. However, there is one issue that concerns me and that is battery life. I charged the battery fully before testing the camera and as is customary with a new camera, spent some time fiddling with menus and settings as you do and turned the GPS tagging on but having only taken 110 images, the battery level was indicating just 24% remaining. I have found in the past with the Sony SLT-A55 that switching off GPS tagging reduced the battery drain greatly (I increased the frames per charge from around 450 to around 630 on that camera by turning the GPS off) so I have turned the GPS off on the SLT-A99V. It may be just an isue with this being the new battery's first charge, or it may be a faulty battery, or it may be that the camera is extremely power-hungry. I won't know until I have used it for a while but once I have a good figure for the number of frames per charge, I will update the review.

Update: The issue appears to have just been a case of "New Battery Syndrome". Sometimes a new battery needs to be charged and discharged a few times before it performs to its full potential. After exhausting the new battery, I inserted an older battery that had been used for around 18 months in a Sony A550 that had taken over 70,000 shots in that time. I left the GPS switched off but took no other precautions to protect battery life. After a couple of portrait shoots, several long exposures during a fireworks display, photographing garden birds with a Sigma 120-400 APO DG OS attached and some landscapes in freezing weather in the Highlands of Scotland, the battery still reads 51%.

Further update: Once the camera and batteries are "worn in", there is no problem with battery life. I recently spent a day at a medieval re-enactment with jousting, archery and other weapons displays. Using a combination of the 24-70 f2.8 and a Sigma 120-400 APO DG OS I took a total of 1685 images on one battery, so no issues there to worry about in long-term use.

Initial Conclusions

Positives

  • In-body focus-range limiter makes every lens capable of this feature.
  • Noise levels at high ISO are very impressive.
  • The EVF really is stunning and gives 100% coverage with all the shoot information to hand.
  • Magnesium Alloy body with full weather/dust sealing.
  • Autofocus is fast and accurate.
  • ISO standard hotshoe makes using third-party accessories and things like radio-triggers much easier.
  • Fully customiseable controls.
  • Fully articulated screen is clear and bright and easy to see in even strong sunlight.
  • Button layout and general ergonomics very well designed.
  • Twin memory card slots can act as instant backup or be used for stills/video or RAW/Jpeg etc..
  • Battery life is excellent once the camera and batteries are "worn in".

Negatives

  • Battery power consumption may need monitoring, although turning off GPS tagging will greatly increase battery life.
  • The included hotshoe adapter will be easy to lose, rendering some accessories redundant. (yes I know that is a lame attempt to find a negative but so far I can only really find positive things to say about this camera - Sony has come up with a real winner here!)
  • After-market or third-party batteries cannot be used. Unless you want to have strange things happening to your camera, you will need to use only genuine Sony batteries with the A99.

Further Thoughts

So far, nothing has happened to alter my initial impressions that this is a superb camera. I have been thoroughly delighted with the camera so far. The only issue I have encountered that does need noted is that after-market or third-party (however you want to describe them) batteries should NOT be used with this camera. We've all done it: they are a quarter the price of OEM batteries. I had a few lying around that I have used successfully in the A550 and A77 but the A99 is a very different beast and they cause issues like features suddenly becoming unavailable because the camera thinks you are in a different shooting/exposure mode and you don't want that cropping up at the wrong time! I suspect this is probably due to minute voltage fluctuations or discrepancies.

In August 2013, I will be taking the A99 for its first serious beating: it will be rattling around in a Land Rover on safari in Kenya for three weeks. Exposure to heat, dust and possibly high humidity will give it additional challenges on top of the estimated 20-30,000 images I will take. Watch this space for a further update...

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