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Sony A77II - first impressions of a different kind

If you had gripes about the A77 - you'll be happy to find most of the shortcomings have been addressed!

 

 

 

For the last 3 years, my main camera has been a Sony A77 24MP APS-C SLT. Yes it's an odd choice for many, but as soon as Sony unveiled the SLT tech using a fixed mirror and high quality EVF it was obvious to me that this was the future and a whole other level in photogaphy-taking comfort and flexibility. DSLR speeds and quality, but with compact/bridge convenience with a full-time Live view that shows exactly the result you'll get whether on the screen or in the viewfinder, plus great aids like focus peaking for manual focus. That flexibility along with the tilting screen has more than once helped me get a shot I simply wouldn't have even had an opportunity to get without it.

I initially found the 24MP sensor a little too much due to the stringent needs in terms of glass quality, focusing, camera shake etc (small pixels obviously reveal every imperfection), but it quickly grew on me and when used right it can be tremendously good. A bit noisy, but with my typical subjects (aviation and landscapes) I never really need sensitivities above ISO 200 or 400, where it isn't much of a problem.

During the Air 14 airshow (gallery) I had the chance of testing a friend's gear set that is in a completely other league as a comparison: A Nikon D4, 400mm F2.8 and 2x teleconverter. Quite obviously, there is no doubt that the $20k combo that gives a 800mm F5 on full frame is clearly above my $3k A77 + 70-400G. But it is also incredibly bulky and heavy at 7kg+, needs at least a monopod, doesn't zoom out leading to many missed shots due to simply not managing to find the moving subject in time with such a narrow FOV... so in the end while it did give me a few amazing shots I probably wouldn't have caught without, the A77 wasn't so far overall due to the significantly bigger versatility. So in the end, I probably have as many good shots from both.

I'll definitely never be able to afford the loaner combo, and the area where my A77 seemed to lack most in comparison being focus accuracy and reliability, I decided to continue investing in my beloved Sony system and pick up an A77II in the week between the 2 airshow weekends to see how the improved focus system and lower noise reviews were talking about would work for me. As a further excuse, since I use an SLT I have pretty much abandoned my secondary body which was an "old style DSLR" A580 simply duw to the crummy and outdated experience, and had always contemplated getting a 2nd A77. So, enter the A77II or ILCA-77M2 as they call it, in an apparent attempt at blurring the line between the actual technologies used in their different camera lines.

Now here's where I'll go original, and NOT actually talk about anything photographic yet except for the photos at the end of this post. Indeed, firstly there are already several "first fimpressions" reviews online that talk about that, and secondly I can't say I have enough experience with it yet to talk about percievable differences. BUT, what struck me from the first power on and menu browsing (I never read manuals...) was what I have never seen mentioned anywhere yet, namely the myriad of subtle differences in the software that cover handling, customisation and comfort, most of them fixing defects that people had been moaning about as shortcomings on the A77. Actually, I think the A77II fixes pretty much everything the A77 was lacking in terms of software-only points, so for now I will concentrate on that:

  • Auto-ISO is available in manual mode, with the same customisable range as in other modes. Those remembering the A77's launch and subsequent firmware upgrades remember the numerous uproars about this, most people losing hope Sony cameras would ever offer this.
  • One can configure whether exposure should be locked when the shutter button is half-pressed.
  • Steadyshot can be activated when the shutter button is half-pressed, giving the convenient stabilised VF/LCD view that Sony users were the only ones not to be able to experience in previous models, and with all lenses of course.
  • Customisation possibilities are in a whole other league. The A77 allowed full customisation of only 3 buttons (3 more had only 2 choices each), which you usually wouldn't want to customise in the first place as their default functions were the basics that were "right" for most cases... Yet you could not customise the dreaded "?" button that had no function in shooting mode, the Exposure compensation button you had no more use for if you used rear dial exp. comp. like me, the WB button that is useless when you shoot RAW like me... The A77II thankfully gives full control of 11 buttons, and lets you assign pretty much anything the camera is capable of to any of them.
  • The Fn menu is also completely customisable.
  • The mode dial now has separate positions for all 3 memory slots. Might not seem like much, but for me it translated from "never using memories due to too much manipulation" to "completely relying on them" in fast action scenarios.
  • A live Zebra striping with configurable threshold is available both in photo and video modes.
  • IR remote mode is now independent from the Drive menu, i.e. you CAN now use burst and timer modes with an IR remote.
  • The awkward method of using slow sync flash (hit AEL before shooting) is no more, there's now a proper Slow sync setting in the flash modes.
  • The A77II supports tethered shooting! Good news for those studio guys who were complaining about the loss of this feature the A700 offered. For now one needs to use the Sony Remote Camera control app, hopefully other programs like Lightroom will support it in the future.
  • The playback menu allows setting autorotation ON or OFF. No more seeing a portrait shot rotated 90° and tiny on the landscape screen when you're actually holding the camera in portrait mode.
  • Video can be recorded in both PAL and NTSC! That's pretty much a first in consumer-level Sony equipment.
  • Audio level can be set manually in video mode, and meters displayed on screen.

Of course some of the software features have been "borrowed" from the A99, and of course software-only differences are always a bit frustrating when they appear on a new model, because on most cases they could have been added to the old one just with a firmware update. As an open-source software advocate and contributor who hates marketing-driven software limitations and always tries to listen to users' requests as closely as possible and respond to them timely it sure does hurt... but at the same time I do understand how marketing works and how much you typically want to avoid ever making a "perfect product" that users might just keep without upgrading, you want to leave yourself some margin for improvement. And from this point of view, I'm actually impressed at how much Sony have been listening and have delivered with the A77II. The A77 had definite shortcomings, but which we could live with i.e. a rather good balance from a marketing point of view. With the A77II, after 2 weeks with it I haven't yet found anything I could wish for that it doesn't do, apart from a very minor point, namely that while adjusting ISO the front and rear dial work the opposite way from the A77. Having carried all features from the A99 to an "advanced amateur" price point, The A77II is definitely a heck of a deal even without considering "what the others talk about" i.e. focus system and sensor improvements.

As a very short summary on these from my short observations at Air 14:

The focus tracking system that the A77 lacked is very close to what I could witness from the 6-times more expensive Nikon body.

The bigger number of AF points sure helped, and reduced the number of focus hunting periods I had on the A77 due to the subject falling between the few AF points. When it hunted, the properly configured limiter would make reacquisition much faster, and most importantly the lens would stay within a range where the subject could be seen instead of occasionally getting stuck at the near end making it impossible to find the subject again without refocusing to infinity first and losing precious seconds.

The reduced sensor noise (finer grain, and more detail preserved from RAW after NR in Lightroom) allowed me to shoot at ISO 320-400 instead of the max of 200 I would choose in similar situations with the A77.

So, all in all, absolutely no regrets. I now want to upgrade my 70-400G to the 70-400G II... if the difference is that big, it's gonna be awesome.

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