Extensive Hands-On Field Review of the Sony A99
The Sony Press Excursion Experience
This past week, I had the amazing opportunity to attend Sony’s annual Press Excursion. Set in the lovely city of San Francisco and the beautiful countryside of Carmel, Monterey, and Big Sur, a handful of the top photography journalists and I got a chance to shoot with the Sony A99, RX-1, NEX-6, and the VG900. It was a terrific experience filled with skyline studio shoots on the top of the Fairmont Hotel, exotic car racing, helicopter rides, vineyards, hikes, and even a “bee experience” where we wore bee suits to shoot beehives up close.
Studio Fashion Shoot with the Sony A99 by Joe Gunawan | fotosiamo.com for SLR Lounge
The Sony team was an amazing host to say the least. Not only did they want us to shoot the heck out of their cameras, but they encouraged us to be honest and open with our feedback and criticism. Sony is looking to establish a strong equivalent to the Canon Professional Service, and if they can have the kind of care and attention to detail as they did this weekend, I am very optimistic about their prospect.
Now, out of all the cameras available to us, I just could not pull myself away from the Sony A99. That was my choice of camera for the majority of the excursion. It’s not hard to fall in love with its sexy curves and performance. Yes, it is a real looker in real life. Don’t let the photos fool you. In a way, the A99 reminds me of an Infiniti car – great looking in real life and packed with a lot of performance and features that are either not available in its competitors or are only available as an optional extra.
This review is meant to reflect my extensive hands-on experience with the A99 and not a spec-heavy analysis report. I am happy to say the pros for this camera far outweigh the cons, and that I can definitely recommend this camera.
(Many of image samples will link to the full-size resolution jpegs on my Flickr page)
The Sony A99
If you have read my previous first impression on the Sony A99, you know that I am pretty ecstatic about this full-frame DSLT. At the time of the announcement prior to Photokina, I thought that the A99 has just about every feature that I would want from a pro-spec full-frame stills and video camera. Now that I had almost a week’s worth of putting the A99 through its paces, I believe that this camera is going to be a strong competitor to the Nikon D600, the Nikon D800, the Canon 6D, and the Canon 5D mkIII.
What I Like about the A99
Holding in my hand, the 812 grams (1.79lb) A99 is pretty light for a full-frame camera, even with the Sony VGC99AM battery grip attached. I have had the 760g (1.68lb) Nikon D600 for a day prior to my trip, and I can say that the A99 feels just as light. A lot of this has to do with the absence of the traditional mirror-box and pentaprism found in DSLRs. Instead, the Sony A99 utilizes a fixed semi-translucent mirror that allows most light to hit the sensor and reflects a little bit of the light to a Phase-Detect AF sensor. There is also an electronic view finder (EVF) instead of the traditional optical view finder (OVF).
And considering that I primarily shoot with the smaller Panasonic GH2, I’m surprised how comfortable it was for me to carry the A99 all week with the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA zoom lens and the battery grip. I also had the Sony 50mm f/1.8, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA, and the Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro in my backpack, but the A99 with the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 Z and the Sony VGC99AM battery grip was my go-to combination.
Superb Build Quality & Ergonomic
Unlike the D600, the A99 boasts a full magnesium body and really feels like it’s built like a tank. Sony really did not cut any corners when it comes to the build quality of the A99. Even the flaps covering connectors like the HDMI port feel more secure than those found on the D800 and 5D mkIII. Everything just feels solid. The body is, of course, weather-resistant.
The grip is very comfortable to hold and the buttons feel great to push. There are 7 reprogrammable buttons on the body alone, so customizability and direct access are not a problem. In fact, once I got my settings and customization dialed in, I rarely have to go back into the Menu Settings.
The buttons also vary in feel so that you can differentiate which button you are pressing. Some are concave instead of convex, and some are placed higher off the body then others. The only button that I think is hard to find is the depth-of-field preview button on the 7 o’clock position of the lens mount. That button is a little too small and flush to find quickly. The Nikon buttons in the same position are far easier to find by touch. Luckily, all the lenses that I tried have a large function button that you can program as either a focus hold button or a depth-of-field preview button.
I also like the locking mechanism of the Mode Dial that prevents the Shooting Mode from changing accidentally. I really appreciate this kind of feature and it’s something that I’d like to see more often on other cameras.
The Silent Control wheel also feels great to the touch and is silky smooth. You can change its function on the fly, and is especially useful when you want to change metering mode, ISO, or other functions. If anything, it can be a little bit bigger to make it easier to find, but of course I have the battery grip on so it the wheel is a little farther away from the bottom of the camera.
Finally, the screen tilts up and down, and rotates left and right on the A99. I still don’t understand why Canon and Nikon have yet to introduce a full-frame DSLR that has this, especially considering their increased focus in video. Even for stills, having the ability to tilt the screen really helps when you have to shoot down low or up high.
The A99’s sensor is superb. Enough said.
Ok, so this is the more than likely the same sensor that is in the Nikon D600, and the quality really shines in both cameras. The colors are life-like and are accurate to about ISO8000. If you are shooting people, you won’t be disappointed with the skin-tone rendition. The 2nd day of our excursion, we shot two models and the resulting images are competitive to those of the professional Canon and Nikon offerings, especially when coupled with my favorite lens, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA, which has a lovely bokeh and sharp focus.
Another really sharp lens for shooting people is one of Matthew Jordan Smith’s favorite lenses, the Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro. This lens is even sharper at wide open aperture than the 85mm. I can see why this lens works great for Matthew’s beauty shots. It shows so much detail in the skin and hair!
When it comes to landscape, there are a lot to like about the Sony A99, as well. The camera just loves the color green and does a really good job in recording any lush scenery. We ran into some rain during our visit to a vineyard in Carmel, CA, and that provided a terrific opportunity for some nature photography. The vineyard simply looked gorgeous after the rain with all the vegetation glistening with raindrops! The A99 and the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens, with its beautiful bokeh and color rendering, delivered some of my favorite images from the whole trip. One of them even won the Best Landscape category for our Sony contest.
What helps make the color pop is also the accurate white balance, especially with the Auto WB. There are quite a few times that I just forgot to change my white balance simply because the A99 was doing a great job at handling whatever lighting situation that I was in.
The shots that I took by the rocky cliffs of 17 Mile Drive were equally amazing. The cool, cloudy cover muted the colors a bit, and the Cloudy WB preset added just enough warmth to the rocks without completely changing the mood of the scene. The texture details of the rock are maintained despite the medium-strength AA filter on the A99. It won’t get you the kind of landscape detail as a Nikon D800/800E or medium format cameras, but for most people, the detail available should suffice.
Did I mention that colors look great on the A99? I must have. Well, here’s another example of the vivid, true to life colors that you can get with the A99.
Nice High ISO with Good Noise Characteristic
Another benefit of going up to a full-frame sensor is the improved noise performance. Many people are worried about noise penalty that can occur from using a semi-translucent mirror. The Sony A77 may have had issues with noise when it comes to low light and high ISO situations, but I can happily say that the A99 performed well in those situations. Noise grain is a little bit noticeable starting at ISO400, but it looks natural and it is well-controlled into ISO6400. The noise that is around between ISO1600 and ISO6400 are fine tightly-grained noise that does not really detract from the image quality.
I really think that wedding and event photographers who regularly shoot in high ISO will come to appreciate this camera’s low light performance.
The two Monterey Bay Aquarium images below are shot in very, very dim lighting. You can take a look at the full-size resolution to see how the A99 did in this candlelight lighting condition.
Even at ISO6400, the noise performance is still really good. The colors are still look pretty accurate to me, as well. Moreover, there is almost no evidence of the dreaded chroma noise that plague other cameras at this high of ISO. I think you can get away with ISO8000 before any serious image degradation. Even at that point, web and small prints should still look fine.
Really Good Dynamic Range
Just like the Nikon D800 and the Nikon D600, the A99’s Exmor sensor does a terrific job in not only attaining a wider dynamic range, but also in not breaking apart and introducing chroma noise when you pull up the shadows. The first day that I got the camera, I had some free time to roam around the streets of San Francisco. Given that there are a lot of tall buildings in the area, I knew that it should be pretty easy to test out the dynamic range capabilities of the A99. These two shots were taken at the Grace Cathedral around 3pm. In both cases, the sky and buildings exposed to the sunlight were not blown out, and the shaded area maintained a lot of detail.
As mentioned before, the A99 RAW files are pretty forgiving when it comes to pulling shadows from a shot. It should be pretty close to the D600’s capability and not that far from the D800. The Fairmont Hotel penthouse where Sony held their studio shoot offered us an amazing view of the San Francisco skyline. In the morning, the sun is backlighting the buildings in this shot, and when I meter for the sky, the buildings are all in the shadows. In Lightroom 4, I was able to add +75 on Contrast, +85 on the Shadows, and +90 on the Blacks to brighten the shaded areas of the city without adding bad artifacts.
Electronic View Finder (EVF)
Since I shoot primarily with the Panasonic GH2, which is a Micro Four Thirds camera with a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), I am very comfortable with using the A99’s wonderful EVF. Am I one of those unabashed optical viewfinder (OVF) hater? Of course not! I also shoot with the Canon 5D mkII, mkIII, and the Nikon D800 from time to time. A full-frame and medium format OVF, especially on the D800, D600, and the Pentax 645D are bright and crisp. What you see through those OVFs is exactly what you would see with your own eyes without the camera.
But here is the real question: do you want to see what your eyes sees or what your camera sees? That is the real advantage of a high-performing EVF like the A99’s, the fact that you can see in real time what the camera is going to record into its sensor. This means that the exposure, color rendition, real-time WB, and picture effects that the camera sees will be shown to you in real time. There is no tearing, no false colors, and no perceptible lag.
Additionally, when you’re using the depth-of-field preview, the EVF will not get dark and unusable like it does with OVFs. This means that you can also compose and set focus while viewing the true depth-of-field at any given aperture.
And here is something else that I do frequently on an EVF that is impossible to do on an OVF – review your images and videos through the viewfinder when it is bright and sunny outside. The LCD screens on the back of most enthusiasts and pro cameras are great until you have to view the images outside in broad daylight. With an EVF, you can review your images all day long.
Simply put, this is one of the best EVFs out there.
Direct Manual Focus (DMF), AF-D Mode, and Focus Peaking
Although practically every DSLR have AF-S (Single Shot AF) and AF-C (Continuous AF), the A99 has two additional AF modes that prove to be highly useful. The Direct Manual Focus (DMF) works like AF-S with manual override, but with the added benefit of allowing you to use focus peaking. Focus peaking is a way to visually verify what part of the image is in focus by adding colored outlines to those areas in focus. This is a great way to focus check, especially when manual focusing in both still and video. It is available in both DMF Mode and regular Manual Focus Mode.
As you can see from the image below, I have the background picture frames in focus and highlighted by focus peaking.
The AF Depth Map (AF-D) mode uses the secondary Phase-Detect AF on the imaging sensor itself to assist the primary Phase-Detect AF. There are 102 points available and once you lock on to the target, it does a very good job in keeping track of a moving object in 3-dimensional space. While out hiking at a seaside cliff trail, I spotted a hawk flying overhead, and I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to test out the AF-D. Out of over a dozen shots that I took of the hawk, only one photo was slightly out of focus. This kind of continuous AF performance should really help sports photographers and wildlife photographers keep track of their subjects.
AF Range Limit
The AF Range Limit control gives you the ability to limit the range in which your lens will search for focus. This works on all Alpha mount lenses old and new because this is controlled within the body. All you do is press the AF Range Limit button located at the bottom right corner of the back of the A99. The AF Range slider appears at the bottom the screen and you use the rear dial to limit the focus on the near side and the front dial to limit the focus on the far side. It’s easy to access and to use.
I used the AF Range Limit feature while shooting kite surfers on the beach, as well as while shooting macro photos of honey bees. Both the Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G and the Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro lenses do have focus-limiters, and the A99’s AF Range Limit works just as well as those lenses’ focus limiters.
What I Don’t Like about the A99
By now, you may think that the A99 just crushes the competition. Well, it is still not the perfect camera, of course. As I mentioned before, part of this whole trip is for us journalists to be open and honest with Sony. So here are several things about the Sony A99 that I did not like.
There is one clear drawback with using an EVF versus an OVF, and that is the increased battery drain. Unlike the Canon and Nikon full-frame DSLRs, which can shoot for over 800 images before exhausting their batteries, I found that the A99’s battery only lasted between 300-400 shots when I use the EVF extensively. I have the battery grip which holds two additional batteries for a total of three batteries and I typically end up using 1 ½ to almost 2 batteries each day. If you are in the market for the A99, extra batteries are essential.
Buttons on Battery Grip Doesn’t Match the Body’s Buttons
Because I use the EVF extensively, I rely on touch to operate the buttons on the A99. As I mentioned before, the layout and variations on the body makes it relatively easy for me to change settings on the fly without looking at the buttons, but with the battery grip, the spatial arrangement of the buttons is different. This is especially noticeable between the thumb dial, the AEL, and the AF/MF button. On the grip, the +/- EV and the AF/MF button arrangement mimics the AEL and AF/MF button arrangement on the body, so I found myself accidentally pressing the +/- EV button on the grip, thinking it was the AF/MF button. Furthermore, the buttons on the grip are all concave and are all set on the same level on the body. I suppose that I can get used to it the more I use the grip alongside the body, but until then, I have caught myself pulling away from the EVF to double check what button I’m pressing on the grip.
What can help here is if the A99 allows separate customization of the battery grip’s buttons.
RAW Preview on LCD Screen Shows the Mushy Noise Reduction
For some reason, the RAW preview thumbnails on the LCD and EVF shows the mushy noise reduction typical to that of Jpeg noise reduction. What this means is that if you are shooting in higher ISO and you need to check the image on the screen for critical detail, you may just end up seeing smeary textures at 100% magnification. On Lightroom, however, the noise reduction is not transferred over and the textures are retained. I mentioned this to one of the Sony reps and I hope that this is something that can be fixed in a firmware update.
Weather-Resistance on G and Carl Zeiss Lenses Unknown
Looking at the website for Sony Digital Imaging, one specification that is not mentioned for any of the Sony and Carl Zeiss lenses is weather sealing. This is one question that I forgot to ask during the excursion, so after a little bit of Googling, I found out that only the Sony 300mm f/2.8 G mkII (SAL300F28GII), 500mm f/4 G SSM, and the APS-C only DT 16-50mm f/2.8 are officially weather-sealed. Does it mean that the other lenses can’t be used in the rain or dusty environment? I’m not sure, actually. So if you, our reader, can chime in, let us know.
Slow AF on Non-SSM lenses
The Sony reps assured me that there is a plan in place to update more of their top lenses with SSM (Super Sonic wave Motor) AF. This is a good thing, because the non-SSM lenses like the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA and the 100mm f/2.8 takes considerably longer to focus compared to the SSM lenses like the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA. On top of that, the non-SSM lenses utilize a screw drive that physically attaches to the body, which mean that you can’t just use the manual focus ring without first disengaging the screw drive. To do this, you’d have to be in Manual Focus Mode. You can also decouple the screw drive in DMF Mode, but only after you autofocus with your AF or shutter button. If you try to turn the focus ring before engaging autofocus, you will encounter stiff resistance that feels like there is a lot of sand under the focus ring.
Only 6 Lenses are Compatible with AF-D and the On-Sensor Phase Detect AF at Time of Launch
I mentioned earlier about the benefits of the AF-D Mode to accurately keep track of moving objects. The caveat to this AF Mode is that only 6 lenses at the time of this review are able to use AF-D and the On-Sensor PD-AF. Future firmware updates for other lenses should help alleviate this problem. In the meantime, here are the six lenses:
• Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T*24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM (SAL2470Z)
• Sony 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM (SAL2875)
• Sony 50mm f/1.4 (SAL50F14)
• Sony 300mm f/2.8 G mkII (SAL300F28GII)
• Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM (SAL70400G)
• Sony 500mm f/4 G (SAL50050F4G)
I like forward-thinking companies, and in the camera world, Sony is the company that is clearly on the offensive with its high-end camera offerings. The A99 is not only superb, but I can consider it to be avant-garde and full of technology. The sensor itself can go pound-for-pound against Canon’s and Nikon’s full-frame sensors in regards to dynamic range, color rendition, and resolving power. But what really set the A99 apart are all of the other features like the EVF, focus peaking, 1080p 60p movie mode, Dual Phase-Detect AF, tiltable screen, and so on.
Lens selection does favor Canon and Nikon, but this is where you have to ask yourself, what lenses do you really need? Just because Canon and Nikon have 3-5x more lens choices, doesn’t mean that you will be purchasing 3-5x more lenses compared to the Sony Alpha system. For me, the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 Z” title=”Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA” target=”_blank”>Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 ZA, and the Sony 100mm f/2.8 Macro pretty much cover all the lenses that I need. I would probably rent the Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA if I ever need to shoot wide angle.
In encourage you to visit Sony Digital Imaging Lenses Page to see if Sony has the right lens offering for the kind of photography that you shoot.
I have high hopes with the A99 and after using it for almost a week I can honestly say that despite some of its drawbacks, the Sony A99 is a true winner in my book. For someone like me who is looking to move from a smaller format camera system to a full-frame system, the A99 is a very strong competitor to the other full-frame DSLRs. People may complain that the price is not $2100 like the Nikon D600 and the Canon 6D, but it shouldn’t be. Those are what I consider a basic full-frame camera, stripped of many (but not all) of the advanced features that are found in the A99 and the more expensive Canon and Nikon models.
The A99 deserves 5-stars in my review. Whether you are an enthusiast or a professional photographer, if you are looking for a full-frame camera and system, I highly recommend that you give a serious consideration to the A99.
Here are some more photos samples that I took from my trip. They are all available in full-resolution on my Flickr page. Hope you enjoy all my photos!
These are two panoramas that I stitched from individual A99 shots and treated with the HDR Light Preset from the SLR Lounge Lightroom 4 Preset System.