It’s been three years since Sony released its last APS-C D-SLT (Single Lens Translucent) camera – the A77. In that time the company’s been busy releasing a flurry of smaller cameras such as the world’s first full-frame compact, (the RX1) and a range of well received CSCs featuring either full-frame or APS-C sensors. This hiatus led some to wonder whether Sony was finished with the A-mount, focusing more on the blossoming compact market. But Sony is back with what it calls the ‘king of the APS-C’, the A77 Mark II. The suggestion is it’s superior to close competitors like Nikon’s D7100 and Canon’s EOS 7D, so we took one for a spin to find out how good it really is.
Features & Build
The stand-out feature of the A77 II is its advanced AF system. It boasts 79 phase detection AF points (15 of which are cross-type), giving it the most in the world and four times as many as the Mk I. The new AF system is deployed over twice the area covered in the A77 too, and the Expanded Flexible focusing option means you can still keep track of a moving subject even if the main AF point loses it. That’s not all this impressive AF system is billed to do. It’s also capable of continuous focusing and tracking during a rapid burst at 12fps.
The maximum burst speed of 12fps is exceptionally fast, putting it on a par with the fastest pro-level D-SLR on the market; Canon’s flagship EOS 1D X. This is because the Mk II uses a fixed, semi-translucent mirror instead of a conventional one which flips out of the way when shooting. It’s thus branded as a D-SLT (Single Lens Translucent) rather than a D-SLR. The semi-translucent mirror means that 70% of the light passes through onto the 24.3Mp APS-C Exmor sensor, with the remaining 30% reflected onto the AF sensors. It also means there’s an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) instead of a traditional, optical viewfinder.
On the rear you’ll find the 1228k-dot, 3-way tilt-able LCD display. The ability to flip and twist the monitor away from the body is designed to allow for more creative compositions and awkward shooting angles.
The brains behind the Mk II is the BIONZ X image processor, which is the same powerful engine found in the full-frame Sony A7R and features advanced tools such as Area-specific Noise reduction. This applies different levels of Noise reduction to different parts of the image depending on the tones and texture identified by the camera.
The Noise reduction controls will come in handy as the A77 II has an ISO range of 100-25,600, and this can be expanded to a low setting of 50 for long exposures or very bright conditions.
Interestingly, GPS has been dropped from the spec sheet, though overall its connectivity has been improved. It includes both Wi-Fi and NFC, two new features for transferring images or shooting remotely through the free Sony PlayMemories App.
Performance & Handling
A good purchase is given by the A77’s textured, rubberised grip and this makes it comfortable to operate. The magnesium alloy body is also sealed around the main buttons and dials, so you can shoot safe in the knowledge that it’s water resistant if the heavens open. The 726g weight (body only) is carefully balanced and the body finish gives the impression of a solid bit of kit. The buttons and controls are intuitively laid out across the rear and top-plate; so you don’t need to divert your attention from the viewfinder to make adjustments.
The bundled 16-50mm SSM lens is quite special; it’s handy for fast shooting with a constant aperture of f/2.8 throughout. This makes it two-thirds of a stop brighter at the wide end and two stops brighter at the long end compared to a standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The build of the lens is good – in a similar vein to the camera body. The focusing and zoom rings are well-sized and smooth in operation.
Paired with the 16-50mm lens, the AF system was fast and accurate, in both low light and when tracking fast-moving subjects. It’s easy to set up, too. Switching between the different modes is accessed by pressing the Function button to open the Quick Navi Pro menu.
The main on-screen menus and general navigation takes a little getting used to if you’re not familiar with Sony cameras – but like with most things new – after you’ve surmounted the learning curve it’s easily mastered.
While electronic viewfinders may divide opinion, the EVF on the A77 II is superb. It’s clear, bright and has the advantage of showing exactly how your image will appear as you make exposure adjustments. This means you know you’ve got it right when you press the shutter. The other key advantage of an EVF over a traditional viewfinder is that there’s no mirror blackout when taking panning shots or shooting at a high frame rate. And the latter is likely with the machine-gun rate of 12fps at your fingertips.
The speed isn’t limited to the frame rate either, as the BIONZ X processor has vastly improved the imaging buffer. When set to shoot continuously at the top speed of 12fps, the Mk II was capable of rattling off 34 RAW files with a write speed of 10.5secs, using a 95MB/s PNY SDHC card. When set to Single shot, a RAW took 3.1secs to be saved to our test card.
Switched over to capture Extra Fine JPEGs, we managed to fire off a high speed burst of 65 images before the buffer forced a pause, and these files took 23secs to be saved to the card. A single Extra Fine JPEG took 3.1secs to save.
Value for Money
The A77 II comes bundled with the 16-50mm f/2.8 lens and has a launch price of £1549, or it can be purchased for £979 (body only). This puts it at the top end of the enthusiast APS-C D-SLR market, but it does have the spec sheet to match this price.
For the money you get a world leading AF system, a super-fast frame rate, top-notch EVF and a host of advanced features. When compared to its rivals – it’s certainly fairly priced.
If you’re looking for an alternative the Nikon D7100 is a 24.1Mp APS-C D-SLR and has an ISO range to match the A77 II. It costs £809 (body only) but only shoots at 6fps – half that of the Sony – and has 51 AF points. The Canon 7D may also be a tempting option at £799: it has an 18Mp sensor, a frame rate of 8fps but only 19 AF points (all cross-type).
The A77 II should certainly be a serious contender for anyone looking to purchase a first-rate enthusiast APS-C D-SLR.
Sony launched the A77 II claiming it would be ‘King of the APS-C’, and when you put the specs to the test it’s difficult to argue otherwise. It certainly does trump its main rivals on AF points and frame rate, and when you consider the impressively fast, f/2.8 kit lens in the bundle deal, it surely deserves its metaphorical crown. Competition’s tough in this sector of the market, but those who do opt for the A77 II certainly won’t be disappointed.
- Street price: £764 (Body only as of July 2016)
- Resolution: 24.3Mp (6000x4000px)
- Format: RAW & JPEG
- Sensor: APS-C Exmor CMOS (23.5x15.6mm)
- ISO: 100-25,600 expandable to 50
- Shutter: 30-1/8000sec
- AF system: Phase detection
- Focusing modes: Single shot AF, Continuous AF, Automatic AF and Manual focus
- Metering: Multi segment, Center-Weighted and Spot
- Burst rate: 12fps
- Monitor: 3in, tilt-able 1228k-dot TFT LCD
- Viewfinder: 2,359k-dot EVF
- Pop-up flash: Yes Hotshoe: Yes
- Video: Full HD 1080p @60fps
- Write speeds: 3.1secs RAW, 3.1secs Extra Fine JPEG
- Storage: SD, SDHC and SDXC
- Weight: 726g (body only)
- Dimensions: (WxHxD) 142.6x110404.2x80.9mm
- Visit: www.sony.co.uk
This review was first published in the November 2014 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.