ALPHA AND OMEGA

Does Sonynew flagship APS - C camera have what it takes to offer a viable and cheaper alternative to Canon and Nikon pro cameras? PAUL CARROLL gets his hands on one to see if the new A77 can convince him to switch The A77, Sony s long-awaited successor to the A700 has finally arrived to take its place as the manufacturerflagship APS - C camera. Boasting the largest resolution of any APS - C camera and a host of features for a relatively cheap price, the A77 is going to be a surefire hit in the enthusiast market, but is it a viable alternative for the working pro? The technical specifications suggest it might be and Sony s marketing campaigns have highlighted its developments to the autofocus system, including continuous autofocus during shooting and burst shooting at 12fps, all of which will appeal to sports and wildlife pros. What s more, being able to pick up a 24.3 - megapixel resolution camera for just over Ј1,000 (body only) also looks an attractive proposition for studio, stock or, frankly, any other photographer in this difficult financial climate. So the A77 promises big things, but can it really deliver on the handling, performance and image quality that pros expect, to make it a serious challenger to the big boys? BUILT FOR THE JOB The magnesium alloy body, combined with the all-weather moisture and dust seals, equips the A77 to handle the conditions and hammer that a pro will encounter. That said, the top - plate is plastic, so perhaps a bit more vulnerable, and, unlike many of its rival pro cameras, the A77 does not include a built-in vertical shooting grip, so overall it feels a little less chunky and robust. However, it costs only another Ј279 to beef up the camera with the vertical grip attachment and, although I was unable to test the camera with one on, it is bound to improve the overall feel. I would definitely want the attachment, but the slightly inferior build quality is a compromise I could accept to benefit from the significantly cheaper body cost. The combination of 15 external mounted control buttons, multi - directional  joystick  and an LCD screen on the top - plate makes the A77 intuitive to handle. ISO, Drive mode and White Balance could all be adjusted easily without having to dip into the menus, which meant I was able to work in my usual way, changing shooting settings quickly. I did have to use the function menu on the main LCD screen on occasions, notably when switching autofocus area, which was slower and a bit annoying, but the menus on the A77 are clear and easy to navigate. The main mode dial includes a Memory Recall mode where you can save three different shooting setting configurations and quickly call them up as necessary when you are out in the field. For flash the A77 features Sony s standard Alpha hot shoe for compatibility with Alpha flashguns and there is also a PC sync socket for wired studio flash, but you need the Ј100 Sony FA - HS1AM hot shoe adapter to make the A77 compatible with flash accessories such as wireless radio triggers. NEW TECHNOLOGY The really big news on the A77 is Sony s continued development of its own Translucent Mirror Technology (TMT), which replaces the standard reflective mirror. The new translucent mirror feeds light simultaneously to the sensor, electronic viewfinder (I ll come on to this) and autofocus system, which means the A77 can continue to focus during capture and, as the mirror does not need to flip up between shots, continuous shooting at 12fps is possible - that s faster than anything now available on Nikon or Canon cameras. However, there are drawbacks: 12fps is available only in an AE (Auto Exposure) mode set on the mode dial and in this mode exposure values set automatically in the same way as the Program mode. While I was shooting sports images this didn t cause too much concern as I still had control over ISO and Exposure Compensation, but if you want to shoot in Manual mode the A77 captures at only 8fps. The major problem of capture at 12fps is the A77 s write times to the SD media storage. Using a Class 10 SDHC memory card after a burst of 12 frames, the A77 s buffer slowed dramatically and took about 13 seconds to write the JPEGs to the card before another full burst was possible. (Though I have recently read another review that the camera performs much better with an SDHC UHS - I card.) These are significantly fewer frames and slower write times than pros using the Canon EOS - 1 D Mark IV or This page: Sony s new Translucent Mirror Technology makes shooting at an incredible 12 frames per second a reality. Opposite page: The A77Object Tracking Focus worked well tracking brightly - coloured subjects moving towards the camera, but didnfare quite as well when panning fast lateral movement. Nikon D3S will expect, so I think it is unlikely the A77 will be a hit for sports photography. Sony also makes a big deal about making improvements to the autofocus system. The A77 features 19 AF targets, 11 of which are the more accurate cross - type sensor, and an Object Tracking Focus mode for keeping track of fast-moving subjects. As expected, this mode worked much better when there was a bright or high - contrast target to follow, such as a brightly - coloured bib on a canoe slalom competitor, but even then it struggled to keep up with fast-moving competitors and tended to be a bit erratic. Again this will be a big concern for sports or wildlife pros. The A77 autofocus system cannot compare with the 15 cross - type AF sensors of the Nikon D3S or the 39 of the Canon EOS - 1 D Mark IV. Another downside > is that the A77 s translucent mirror cannot continue the Live View feed to the EVF when shooting at 12fps. Therefore as soon as you fire off a 12fps burst it becomes almost impossible to continue to track your subject; which, again, is not great for doing high-end sports or wildlife photography. IN THE FRAME As a result of the A77 s translucent mirror dividing the light between the viewfinder and sensor there is not enough light for an optical viewfinder. Instead the A77 uses a 2.36m - dot Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). Using EVF in a  pro  camera is going to be a divisive issue among working pros and I expect many will resist it, but it is better than you might think. The massive resolution, combined with OLED technology, produces deeper blacks and higher contrast, making this EVF the best I have ever used. Shooting in decent light there were large parts of the day when I forgot I was using an EVF, with no noticeable ghosting even on fast-moving subjects. In low light, however, the gain applied to preview exposures accurately did make noise visible, which was a little distracting and could strain the eye with prolonged use. Those negatives aside, the advantage of the A77 s EVF is in offering a big and bright view, much more favourable than many APS - C cameras, and in giving 100 per cent coverage. On balance I still prefer using a full - frame optical viewfinder, Above: Raw files display a slight ’noise in colour blocks, even at the base sensitivity ISO 50, and images shot at IS012,800 are unusable, because heavy noise causes fragmentation, saturation loss and a colour shift. but the A77 s EVF is so good I don t think it should deter pros from buying this camera. IMAGE QUALITY With so many pixels on an APS - C sensor, noise is going to be an issue and on images from the A77 some noise is visible in large blocks of colour right through the ISO range. JPEG processing works well in reducing noise and keeping things under control at the lower end of the sensitivity range, but from ISO 1600 onwards image quality deteriorates significantly. The issue is even more apparent on unprocessed Raw files, with edge fragmentation evident from ISO 800, a loss of saturation at ISO 3200 and images shot at ISO 6400 or 12,800 unusable. For studio photographers shooting for stock or fashion with the latest noise reduction tools and careful processing, tackling noise at the base sensitivities should not be too much of a concern. For those working regularly in low light, however, the A77 does not produce smooth enough results for it to be a viable option. Noise aside, the 24.3MP sensor packs loads of detail and makes A2 enlargements possible without blowing up the image in software and the A77 s colour accuracy is also good. 03 VERDICT The fact that you can kit out a decent basic pro kit with the A77 for several thousand pounds less than the Nikon or Canon equivalents (see our cost comparison table on the previous page), should make the A77 an attractive proposition for many pros. It is built well enough to handle the demands pro shooters will put on it and once you have added the vertical shooting grip, the A77 should feel, look and handle like a pro camera. Whatmore, the massive 24.3MP resolution not only stands up to, but significantly trumps much of the competition and those extra pixels are going to be a real bonus for cropping in heavily on pictures or for those looking to sell images through stock libraries. No doubt the use of EVF will put off some pros, but it shouldndo because the resolution and technology make the A77EVF the best I have ever used. I would go as far as to say that in good light it is on a par with an optical viewfinder. The problem of noise, even at low sensitivities, is going to be a concern, however, and as I would be reluctant to shoot over ISO 400 with the A77, i donconsider it suitable for low - light work. Continuous autofocus during capture and rapid 12fps burst shooting also seem attractive highlights, but slow write times to free the buffer, fewer cross - type AF sensors and inconsistent tracking using the Object Tracking Focus function mean the A77 doesnperform as well as pro cameras. We have a gem of an APS - C camera packed with features which is starting to push the boundaries of the enthusiast market. As for pro shooters, I think if you are looking for an affordable studio - based camera to take some initial steps into stock or fashion photography, the A77 will do very well, but for those working in the fast - paced and often low - light environments of sports or press photography there are better, albeit more expensive, options.

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