Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sony SLT-A99 Review

The SLT-A99 was launched at Photokina 2012, and were it not for the Nikon D600 and it's industry leading pricing, the Sony would be a camera that we would be buzzing about today. Unfortunately, the SLT-A99 also got upstaged by the RX1. People like specs, and theylike talking about specs... but in the wake of this year's Photokina show, I don't think there is any better example that there is more to product buzz than just specs.

This is an "out-there" kind of a camera. Any Nikon resembles any other Nikon, but the SLT-A77 and now the A99 are making a break from the traditional Minolta-looking cameras of yesteryear... these cameras are even a bit more smoothed-out than the A65. What the online reviews so far don't convey is that this feels like a big camera. It's not quite as heavy as the D700 or D800 , and though it's wider than the D600, it's actually shorter and  narrower than that camera. The camera grip feels great in your right hand, but over all, the way the D600 is shaped and the lighter weight just make it seem like a less ostentatious camera. And a little bit ostentatious is the way I would describe the A99. Nikon's of all sorts look like traditional cameras, through and through. The A99 loses the stodginess of the A900 in favor of a more melted-blob shape. It feels like a Canon in some ways, but more gadgety.  If I were to compare the two, the Nikon D600 would be the like the Honda Accord; the A99 is little more in the stylistic vein of the Hyundai Sonata.

Two small likes to single out: I like the flip out LCD, and especially the top mounting of the microphone, where it is moved away from the noise of the lens motors. No pop-up flash, but I'd like to make a case for pop-up microphones; if you are going to shoot serious video, you are not going to use the on-bard microphone, but if you are going to have an on-board microphone, it has to be usable. I think Nikon falls down in this regards, and still hasn't addressed this since the introduction of video in the D90.

Operationally, it's a lot of camera. There's a lot of functionality, and it's not too unintuitive to use. If you are coming from another camera system, it's not to big of a leap. However, even if it is my bias, I just don't find the layout as intuitive as with Nikon. The controls that matter the most to still photography are still the most intuitive on a Nikon, but I'll be honest: this is entirely personal preference.  To be honest, I didn't notice the lack of the articulated mirror, but that was because I was concentrating on stills. It's there, but it's unobtrusive technology. There's no mirror slap, but there's still the sound of the blade shutters opening and closing, so it's operation is surprisingly not that different from a regular dSLR.  Overall, everything about the operation of the camera was good, from the way that it focuses, to the now familiar the pellicle mirror technology,and so on down the line. I think this is a good thing; you should be able to step into a camera without noticing that it's there, that's good ergonomics to me.

Also a word about the OLED viewfinder. I had to constantly remind myself that I wasn't looking through an optical finder; it's pretty good, and another point in favor of unobtrusive technology.  It's there, it works, you don't notice it working for you. The in-viewfinder virtual horizon is nice and functional, and as somebody who can have some pretty lazy shot discipline, it's a feature that I like.

My sample had a  24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss T* lens strapped to it. Like the Nikon equivalent, it's a big chunk of glass, though not as long, but even heavier. Photozone reports decent but not class-leading numbers for this lens; it's very good for what it does, but it's expensive, and the Nikon equivalent is optically better. From my brief time with it, I couldn't pick out anything other than the fact that it was a very competent normal zoom lens. Since the assortment of Sony-mount lenses isn't as wide as on Nikon or Canon, I doubt the objective tests will be much of an issue for Sony shooters: this will be the normal-zoom lens to get. Theoretically, you have more of a hand-holding advantage with the Sony combination because of the the camera body's built in image stabilization, but the pellicle mirror takes away 1/3 a stop, and traditionally, Nikon has been able to get just a bit more quality out of it's files as the ISO climbs through the range. It remains to be seen if that is the case with the full frame 24mp sensor, but the output in the crop sensor NEX-7 and SLT-A77 cameras show a distinct advantage to RAW over jpeg. Usually with Nikon, the difference isn't as big, and it remains to be seen if that is also true of the full frame 24mp cameras. However, Sony's in-body image stabilization is old hat now. I really wish that Nikon had something similar, especially considering Nikon's emphasis on continuity with legacy lenses.

In the end, I just can't get over the A99's price. Body only is $2,800 and add in the requisite 24-70 f/2.8 zoom, the total comes out to $4,800. To get the equivalent Nikon D600 and 24-70, the price would come in just under $4,000, and that's with a lens that is optically better. There's the argument that these are two different segments of the dSLR market, with the Sony shooting a little bit upstream. Here's the problem with that: for $100 more, you hit the price point for the D800.

What it comes down to is a very traditional Sony quirk. Sony has always been a premium product company, but sometimes they make the product without a clear definition of why the product exists as it does. Sometimes you get out of Sony a product that seemingly exists to be expensive because it's the best. The PS2 was miles ahead of anything of it's time and did gangbusters. The PS3 tried to amp up this formula even more, but in doing so, Sony lost the business of people who just wanted to have fun rather than to have the best: those folks bought a Wii. Fast forward to 2012 and you have the same situation with the impressively spec'd Sony Vita looking hard over its shoulder at the 7-inch tablet market. The problem with being the best is that it's a philosophy, not a business plan. Sony has never really exceeded 10-15% in market share in dSLR's. The only way to gain ground in this business is either at Nikon or Canon's expensive. If you are the underdog and better at a more expensive price, then you'll get attention, but it will be hard to gain ground.If you are better at the same price, it becomes easier, but you are still fighting the resources of a larger competitor. However, if you are better at a lower price, then the product sells itself. I'm not really sure the A99 does that. It is very clearly the Sony flagship camera, and things like in-camera image stabilization and really fast video auto-focusing are huge pluses that Nikon and Canon that don't give you... but put it on a shelf next to a D600 and all of it's advantageous seem to evaporate away.

I'm pretty sure that I can't do the A99 justice, as I'm not fully familiar with the Sony system; but what I can describe is how much of a lure it is to a somebody who has equipment in another system. The RX1 is interesting because Nikon has nothing like it; the distinction becomes less clear once you move back into dSLR bodies. For all of the technological extras that Sony gives you, it's still a hard fight with the traditonal camera makers out there. The other camera to consider is of course, the A77, and with that, I suspect that any Sony shooter interested in upgrading would be facing a similar situation that the proverbial D7000 shooter faces looking up to the D600.


Twice now during a full frame camera launch, I have had the same experience with Sony salesmen regarding lenses. I didn't think much of it until after the fact, but I do recall that the same thing happened three years ago. When talking about Sony, inevitably, the lens selection becomes and issue. Both times, in the past when I was looking at the A900, and now in the present with the A99, the sales rep also suggested mounting Sony's crop frame lenses on the camera. Both times I was the one who pointed out to the sales rep that the lens that they were recommending was crop; that's me pointing that out, not the salesperson. This isn't a representative sample, but I just can't see this happening at a store that sells high end Nikon equipment. In a traditional camera store, the staff will know what a full frame user wants, and the conversation would never steer towards crop lenses on expensive full frame cameras, except in passing. I'll admit, this is a very nitpicky thing, but it's one of those little things that seem to come up now and again to remind you that Sony is still very much a consumer electronics company more than a camera company.

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