THE DSLR DITCHING SONY A57

Sony Alpha A57

Sony Alpha A57

Man’s best friend or nothing but a hound dog? WILL ROBERTS spends a weekend dogsitting with the Sony’s new Single Lens Translucent camera — the Alpha A57 Upon arriving home one Friday evening, I am greeted by three. A couple of bottles of beer, one five-year-old Labrador and one little brown box —inside it a Sony Alpha A57. The beer is a "thank you" for looking after the Labrador —AKA Shelton —for the weekend. The A57 is what I hope will keep me entertained for the remainder. There’s a chance though, that both Shelton and A57 could cause me similar problems. I could spend the weekend with unresponsive, lazy companions which generate more problems than enjoyment and leave me frustrated. But, just like a good camera, a friendly dog soon becomes your best friend —something that is always by your side whatever the weather. So off into the County Durham landscape I walk, dog lead in one hand, camera in the other, beer in the fridge. Sony has come on leaps and bounds since it took over the camera arm of Konica Minolta back in March 2006. Since then, combining experience in the video camera market with decades of photographic know-how picked up with Konica Minolta, the Japanese behemoth has slowly been edging its way closer to those cameras, Nikon and Canon. The A57 promises to showcase everything Sony is now bringing to the marketplace via their Single Lens Translucent (SLT) range, with features such as a high-speed burst mode and continuous phase-detection autofocus. The SLT range isn’t particularly new —the A33 first marched on the scene back in 2010 —but the technology keeps on improving. The A57 boasts a high-resolution 16.1 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor complete with full HD video with tracking autofocus and a super-fast 12fps burst mode. BUILD At first glance, one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking the A57 for a compact DSLR —despite the fact its technology may lean more towards CSCs. In fact removing the 1855mm kit lens may push you more towards the conclusion that this is a DSLR. A mirror sits snugly inside, however this one doesn’t move and as Sony brand name suggests, it is translucent, allowing most of the light to hit the sensor, while some is reflected up to a phase-detection autofocus sensor. Rather usefully, the lens mount will accept Sony DSLR lenses as well as A-mount bayonet lenses from Konica Minolta. When clicking the lens back into place and returning to the exterior, DSLR users will find more familiarity, on the top of the unit there are a flash hotshoe, microphone, built-in flash and mode dial. The finder/LCD button lets you switch between the 3in screen or the electronic viewfinder and there is also a command wheel and well-placed buttons to quickly alter ISO and exposure without going into the menu. You find jacks for HDMI, USB, external microphone, DC-in and remote release on one side of the camera, with the SD slot on the other. The large LCD dominates the back of the A57 —it flips down to help with shots in awkward places. On the bottom you find the standard tripod mount and the compartment for the InfoLithium battery. The other buttons are well-placed and the movie button allows you to instantly record HD movie without turning the mode dial, should that YouTube moment present itself at short notice. There is a bit of scope for customising some of the buttons in the menu, should you not like the default set-up. At 539g without the lens attached, the A57 body is light, but it still has a robust feel. Its design isn’t the most groundbreaking, but it certainly has the feel of a quality product. But as I look at Shelton sitting obediently in his bed —all doughy eyes and drooping ears, I am reminded that looks can be deceiving, so the only way to really test the A57 is to start taking pictures.
Happy Labrador

Happy Labrador

FEATURES Making my way around the mode dial, there are plenty of standard settings: aperture and shutter priority modes, full manual mode and programmed auto, as well as no flash and movie modes. The two, easy access, point and shoot options have been given authoritative-sounding names — Auto’ and Auto’. The latter gives the photographer a bit more flexibility and no doubt looks down its nose at the other, less ’auto settings. There are a Panoramic mode and a 3D panoramic mode to produce images worthy of 3D televisions. And, rather excitingly, there is the high-speed burst mode, which promises up to 12 frames per second, a little trick which makes SLT cameras all the more appealing. For a closer look at how the highspeed burst mode faired, see the boxed text. ISO ranges from 100 to 16,000 and in S and M modes you can open the shutter for up to 30 seconds, with a Bulb option available too. Exposure bracketing is also made pretty simple with 1/3EV or 2/3EV increments over three frames. Provided you aren’t shooting in Raw or Raw+JPEG mode, there are an array of art filters to play around with on the A57. As well as run-of-the-mill settings to enhance contrast, tonal contrast and colour, there are a handful which will give your pictures a new look — the Camera softens focus and gives your image a vignette while the ’option introduces sepia tones and reduces contrast. Then there are those which nestle in the gimmicky but nevertheless fun’ category —a Colour’ setting that retains one colour but turns the rest of the image black and white and a ’mode which uses focus and blurring to fool the eye into thinking the vast city landscape you have just captured, is, in fact, a model train set. Anyone confused with any setting or option on the camera can get a helping hand with a quick push of the large question mark button, which generally gives clear and concise explanations. HANDLING There are a couple of things anyone moving from a DSLR will have to get over if they are to learn to love the Sony A57. The first is entirely shallow, I warn you. The A57shutter release sound isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as that ’of a trusty DSLR —there, I said it. Lets move on. The second SLT-shaped obstacle you find when you look through the eyepiece and don’t see a perfect optical reflection of what the camera is pointing at, but an electronic viewfinder. It feels odd at first, but Sony has a bit of know-how when it comes to viewfinders and there are plenty of positives to be had from it. A lot more information is available to you while looking through the viewfinder. You can get phase detection auto focus regardless of whether the viewfinder of the LCD screen is used, plus there is the option to reflect settings such as exposure compensation or art filters in the display —handy indeed, especially for those who are still getting to grips with technical aspects of photography. There is a useful depth-of-field display which lurks around the bottom of your image if you want, as well as a particularly useful spirit level to keep horizons, well, horizontal. The function menu is a little cluttered and dated, but I soon got used to it and it was particularly helpful to have ISO, exposure and exposure lock buttons so close at hand. The command wheel is well placed, tilting up slightly to allow for easy rotation. The camera grip is beautifully designed, allowing three fingers to wrap around it, the fourth resting on the shutter release and the thumb allowed to move freely around the buttons back of the camera. With so many buttons sharing a compact space on the back of the camera there were occasions, while shooting in portrait, that the ball of my thumb would hit the white balance button, sending my image wheeling away towards a deep magenta hue. PERFORMANCE Once you get to grips with the A57, it quickly becomes a pleasure to use. Every time it was dog walk time, the camera came with me. In all weathers and lights it responded well, which I can, unfortunately, say about the young Shelton. The autofocus system (we back on the camera now) is fantastic to use, achieving focus quickly, even in low light. It comes into its own with moving subjects —tracking Shelton as he pounded across the frame. Shooting in Raw, there is a little delay while the file was being written to the memory card, especially when shooting in quick bursts, but in general the images were worth the wait. The kit lens works well too, with enough scope to achieve wide-angle shots and close-up photography. A special mention should also go to the impressive Face Recognition, and in particular the Smile Recognition technology, which was ultra responsive. On some occasions, it was actually too quick though, and the merest flash of teeth set the shutter release off. The battery life too, cannot be knocked. I definitely took well over 450 images, with plenty of time reviewing them in-camera, and still had about 16 per cent battery left. IMAGE QUALITY The images produced by the A57 were, in general, fantastically sharp, with punchy colours and excellent contrast. The camera was tested in all lights with subjects ranging from extremely excited Labradors to minute droplets of rain and invariably the images were sharp and easy on the eye. The 16.1 MP sensor can produce a 4912 x 3264 pixel file, easily large enough to allow for the images to be blown up to a large size or cropped into. There are nine ISO stops, ranging from 100 to 16,000 and in low light, shooting on a Raw file, the image stayed pretty clean right up until about ISO 3200, when some noise began to creep into the image. VERDICT Lets get the bad bit out of the way first. For an entry-level camera, the A57 doesn’t come particularly cheap —you wont get too much change from ?600 if you plump for the body and the kit lens. But, boy, it could be money well spent. The camera has everything a hobbyist photographer wants, a range of features and art filters combined with good old fashioned, well designed, practical elements which make the A57 great fun to use. The focusing technology packed inside this Sony camera is fantastic and helps achieve effortless, good quality images. There is enough guidance in the camera to help a newbie find their photographic feet, even if they are unsteady at first, while also allowing them to learn general technical aspects. The electronic viewfinder and all those little benefits that come along with it, quickly made me forget about my trusty DSLR, banished to the cupboard for the weekend.

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