There’s never been as big a chunk of the population at the brink of going pro when it comes to photography. You see a lot of people moving beyond basic digicams and picking up what has become an increasingly popular segment of imaging devices, the

“prosumer” cameras. Sony’s latest bet on this segment is branded Sony Alpha 77. It’s been four years since Sony released its predecessor, the Alpha 700. We tried out the Alpha 77 over a couple of weeks and although the camera is being marketed as a device for the prosumer segment, it has all the features, and more, of a professional DSLR.

This 24-megapixel camera comes with a translucent thin mirror and an OLED (Organic liquid Crystalline Display) electronic viewfinder of the highest resolution as on date and a 3-way tiltable LCD screen.

Fitted with a CMOS sensor in the APS-C format and a 19-point auto focus system the camera is capable of achieving a speed of 12 fps in the highest resolution.

Build and features

The main body of the Alpha 77 is definitely one of the most rugged ones you can find in the prosumer segment. The A77 is sturdy on the outside as it uses magnesium alloy as a major component in its construction. Rest of the elements, although, made of plastic and coated with rubber, feel rock solid. The camera is also designed to be weather resistant. The body is constructed with seals on critical points that prevent dust and water from seeping inside the camera.

Staying true to the prosumer tag, Sony has outfitted the camera with manual controls at very easily accessible places. The shutter speed control dial is placed just in front of the shutter release button and the aperture control is well within the thumb’s reach. These dials can be configured for other functions as well. Enthusiasts migrating from other major brands to Sony will find it easy to adapt to these controls.

The inclusion of a joystick also makes accessibility to camera settings and options a breezy affair. Also, an AF/MF (Auto Focus / Manual Focus) switch placed near the thumb gives absolute and instant freedom to switch between the modes.

What sets the A77 apart from the competition is the translucent mirror, which does away with the concept of the mirror flipping over and exposing the shutter. The Translucent Mirror Technology (or TMT, as Sony calls it) also replaces the traditional optical viewfinder with an electronic one, a feature which is slowly becoming very popular with Micro Four-Third cameras.

The electronic view finder serves its best purpose in low lighting conditions, as it makes the framing and viewing of the subject in low light easy, by enhancing the luminosity of the subject. The frame on the EVF looks a little grainy, but serves the purpose well. The 2.4 million dots high resolution EVF helps in reducing the motion blur associated with other regular EVF.

Traditionalists might raise eyebrows over the increased luminosity feature, but the good news is that the LCD shows actual exposure on when the EVF brightness is set on Auto. It is only when the settings are tweaked with, the EVF turns brighter.

The switch from the 2.4 electronic viewfinder to the LCD screen is automatic. As soon as you remove your eye from the viewfinder the LCD screen gets activated and vice versa. The LCD monitor offers the shooter a plethora of options in terms of shooting angles, as the screen is a triple hinged (hinge/tilt/swivel) one.

Calling the shots

If there was one word in which I could describe the camera, it’d be “quick”.

At 12fps, the burst shutter mode offers more frames per second than its closest competitors. The maximum shutter speed offered by the new A77 is 1/8000 sec. and maximum flash sync speed is now 1/250 sec, which are improvements over the previous models in the Sony line-up. Also, a top LCD panel has been included in this model. Shooting on regular Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes, the camera offers a good deal of flexibility in terms of control over the kind of shots you might want to click.

The auto-focus is very fast and accurate, using the 19 points auto-focus, of which 11 points are cross type. The cross type AF points on the A77 offer crisp AF while shooting moving subjects. The fast AF achieves the high speeds by employing the BIONZ processor.

While on manual focus (under any lighting conditions except for extremely bright ones), however, the frame shows yellow dots/regions around the subject or lines or sharp colour difference lines in prime focus. I wonder if it was an additional indicator for manual focus accuracy.

Even while using the Auto WB mode on the A77, the colour reproduction is very accurate. The TMT shows its wonders here too. It helps in minimising camera vibration at slower shutter speeds, as there is no moving mirror to cause the said vibration. Even while using the burst mode, the user can keep the moving subject visible throughout the frame burst. The function (Fn) button on the rear of the camera enables one to change most settings in the shooting mode without having to go to the menu settings.

Although the camera is a delight to use in low lighting conditions, the results produced are not very pleasing. The noise levels are close to negligible up to 400 ISO, but graininess starts seeping in after every ISO stop beyond that. This is a slight disappointment as other cameras in this segment produce noise-free pictures at even up to 1600 ISO. The Colour reproduction, however, even in dull or low light is brilliant and sometimes exaggerated.

The camera offers an in-built HDR (High Dynamic Range) setting, which can be used as Auto or up to 6 levels (Manual) to get the best tonal range.

In the Auto HDR mode, the camera shoots three frames in quick succession at different exposure levels and processes all three to give you one photograph.

This mode can be used even in hand held shooting. The camera is equipped with 3D shooting, sweep panorama and comes with in built GPS. The problem with the sweep modes, however, is that the photo stitching points are clearly visible, sometimes with lack of alignment between the multiple frames. The images on Panorama are also not as crisp as one would expect with a 24-megger prosumer camera. What really might put the user off would be the painstakingly slow processing speeds on burst, panorama or even HDR image modes.

The A77 is also capable of shooting 1080p videos at 60fps.

Overall, the Sony Alpha 77 turned out to be an excellent, feature-loaded camera that will pose a serious threat to the other DSLR giants such as Nikon and Canon.

Rs 69,990 (body only)

Love – Sturdy build, lot of shooting modes offered

Hate – High noise levels, occasional slow processing time

dkrishnan@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 31, 2012)
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