DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Alpha A99 Review: One Exceptional Camera
by Chris Gampat -  10/11/2012

Sony's A99 is a formidable entry into the full frame game, and it proves to many that the company will be as aggressive as it needs to be to get to the #1 spot in the camera market over Canon and Nikon. The camera has features that will appeal widely to enthusiasts and professional alike such as AF-D, GPS tracking, an excellent swivel-tilt LCD screen for video, a bright EVF, and relatively simple controls with the exception of the caves of menus.

Overview

The Sony A99 is the latest DSLR from Sony, and in many ways it is one of their most aggressively marketed to date. The camera features a full frame sensor and an EVF that has to be one of the best we've seen on the market. Targeted at the professional and high end enthusiast, the camera features many diversions away from typical Sony DSLRs. For example, the camera features a new hot shoe designed for a new type of flash and accessories. This means that PocketWizards and other third party flashes can be used easily.

Additionally, it is also possibly the smallest and most lightweight DSLR out there; and part of this is due to the lack of a moving prism and viewfinder.

The A99 features a 24.3Mp Full Frame sensor, a Dual AF system with two phase detection sensors, a 1,266K dot XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, 1,440K dot 3 inch LCD, 6fps shooting, 1080p HD video, sensor based image stabilization, and loads of other controls including GPS built in. The camera has an ISO range of 100 to 25,600. However, it can go lower with extended range if needed.



To boot, there's also a hefty $2,798 price tag attached.

Build and Design

The Sony A99 is really a DSLR that has some of the most unconventional looks we've ever seen. With most DSLRs, the prism area rises far above the rest of the body; but that isn't the case with the A99. The reason for this is because of the translucent mirror technology. When you actually grip the camera though, long term use shows that it is perhaps one of the most ergonomically comfortable DSLRs to hold.

Coming in at 5.8 x 4.5 x 3.1" / 14.7 x 11.4 x 7.9 cm and weighing just 1.8 lbs with battery and memory card, it is also extremely light to hold for long periods of time when on a shoot, when taking a photowalk, or shooting video. The button layout though is something that anyone coming from Canon and Nikon DSLRs will need to get used to though. One of the nicest touches is the silent control dial; which we programmed to quickly change the autofocus type.

Otherwise, potential buyers should know that the majority of the camera's controls are on the right hand side of the camera. That means that once you develop the muscle memory, you'll just need to slide your thumb down to change a control or use your index finger to hit something on top of the camera (like the ISO button). In practice, that translates to you almost never needing to remove your eye from the viewfinder.

Ergonomics and Controls

Sony's A99 will take a little bit of learning to master nearly everything that this camera is capable of doing and even then users will perhaps not use every single feature. When one holds the camera in their hands, they know that Sony meant to target this at the higher end of the photography spectrum; and that they meant serious business when they created it. While the camera is capable of doing some amazing work and is clearly intended for the higher end, Sony still decided to put an Auto mode on the mode dial; which we're truly baffled by, especially at this price point.

The mode dial though is placed conveniently on the top left of the camera and requires the user to depress the middle button in order to change the settings. That means that if your camera gets thrown in your bag, you can whip it out and shoot without having the settings changed (for example, you won't be on Program mode when you last shot it in Manual.)

Sony has also taken the new method of changing their hot shoe. And for the types of people this is aimed towards, this was an extremely smart decision. The new shoe can accept nearly any flash accessory out there including PocketWizards and flashes from other camera systems. The new shoe looks much more like the older and more standard types of hot shoes vs the Minolta Maxxum shoes. Never fear though, Sony Veterans: all of your old accessories will still work with a small converter that comes standard with newer accessories like Sony's HVL-F60M flash.

On the top right is where one would find other controls such as the drive mode, white balance setting, exposure compensation, ISO, and the shutter release (which also houses the on/off switch.)

But what about manual control? Well, both Canon and Nikon users will both find happiness. While these controls still feel very Nikon-like, they are placed in such a way that a Canon user won't be moving their thumb down to access the multi-control dial (which controls the aperture on higher end Canon DSLRs).

The back of the camera has a plethora of controls on the right-hand side. These include one touch movie record, AF/MF switch, custom function control, display settings, playback, and more. The only button on the top left-back is the menu button.

Plus there is that beautiful LCD screen, which can be a godsend for video recording. Just hold the camera in close to your body and look right down; then you've got yourself some very stable video when combined with Sony's steadishot technology built into the sensor.

Beyond this though, a user can also hold the camera up to their eye and use the viewfinder. The A99's electronic viewfinder has to be one of the best we've ever tested. Upon putting it in the hands of photographers who swear only by optical viewfinders, they even thought that it was nice and a drastic improvement over previous EVFs.

Menus and Modes

The menus for the A99 are numerous. First off, there are some that can be accessed by pressing the Fn button. These menus give you direct control for shooting settings and is another way to control the drive mode, white balance, ISO, autofocus type, tracking, and lots more. Indeed, there are a ton of options; but Sony presents them in a way that won't be intimidating for experienced users as they use very standard symbols and vernacular.

Pressing the menu button will put you into a jungle of menus with load of submenus. Indeed, working with these can be the most painful part of working with the otherwise excellent camera. Need to format the card? Get ready to feel like you're going to have to run a race to the finish line. Want to turn off the Live View Preview setting? It will take a little bit of memorization to remember where it is. Unfortunately, this is the least intuitive part of the camera; but it controls so much extra power that can be unlocked.

Movie: Full HD at 1920x1080 and HD at 1280x720, both at 24 frames per second (fps) or 60 frame per second.

Display/Viewfinder

The A99's viewfinder is a 1,266K dot XGA OLED electronic viewfinder while the LCD is a 3 inch 1,440K dot screen. What helps to contribute to the fact that the screens are so good are the fast frame rates that are delivered. Indeed, everything looks just as it would through an optical viewfinder without any lag. Of course, this only applies to whether or not you turn off the Live View effect setting. If this setting is activated, the viewfinder will darken and lighten accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, those who love shooting in the studio may want to turn off the Live View effect.

For videographers or those who get frustrated with the autofocusing in certain situations, you may want to consider using Sony's options for manual focusing. The company has taken their focus peaking mode from their camcorders and implemented them into the A99 (and other cameras of theirs). While using the viewfinder, you'll be able to see exactly what is focus with no clarity issues at all.

Using the camera's LCD screen is also quite a joy to do for filmmakers more than composing stills unless the camera is on a tripod. In some of the camera's control menus, one would almost think that this LCD is a touchscreen, but indeed it is not. The LCD is designed to tilt-swivel, and can be very useful in various situations. Indeed, the A99 has come a long way from the A900; which never had Live View to begin with.

Performance

The Sony A99's overall performance is really quite excellent; especially with the AF-D focusing setting if you're using a compatible lens. In other AF settings, manually selecting the AF point (and especially trying to work with the outer points) will show you that the best focusing point is the center. Other than this, the camera is very straightforward with having all of the critical controls placed quite literally at your fingertips.

Shooting Performance

One really can't go wrong with using the A99 for many reasons. The metering is top notch for one: and that not only goes for ambient usage but also when it comes to using studio strobes and flashes. To this day, we haven't seen a full frame sensor that performs so closely to film until the A99 launched. But that doesn't mean that this is an antiquated camera. The autofocus is generally very good until the lights start to dim and/or you switch the focusing point manually to the outer focusing points. One of the A99's saving graces though is the AF-D focusing system. For those that love using the center focusing point and recomposing, you'll love this feature when combined with the AF tracking mode. It will also heavily appeal to sports photographers; and we tested this feature out on a racetrack with solid results.

For photographers who had a late night of editing and rushed into a shoot the next day wired on too much Starbucks, you'll be happy to know that the image stabilization in the A99 is excellent. That's quite a feat for a full frame sensor camera as it is overall a larger sensor to keep steady. Combine this with the stunning image quality that can be output, and you've got yourself a winner--providing your battery doesn't die. Due to the fact that this camera has an EVF, the battery life will deplete quicker. Even when using battery saving measures like sleep mode and dimming the LCD and EVF, the battery still couldn't last us an entire day. In that case, make sure you stock up.

Lens Performance

Sony provided us with their 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.4, and 135mm f/1.8 lenses to test with the A99. Of the three lenses we tested, the 50mm f/1.4 is the only one that can utilize Sony's AF-D feature; which is a three-dimensional tracking system that is one of the best we've ever seen. At another point, we also tested the company's 24-70mm f/2.8; which also works with AF-D. Of all the lenses we tested, that one works the best.

Sony's 50mm f/1.4 stayed glued to our camera for most of the time due to the more normal focal length. Given the fact that this is a full frame camera, the lens's full imaging circle was also used. This lens delivers its best performance when stopped down to around f/4 to f/5.6. Though it can be shot wide open, there are sharper options out there such as those from Zeiss, Rokinon and Sigma.

All of the prime lenses we used proved to have extremely sharp and yielded highly detailed images; especially when specular highlights were added in studio style shots. These three lenses are highly regarded in the Sony community, and the images that they can deliver are well worth their weight in gold. The 135mm f1.8 is the fastest 135mm lens to date; and the image quality for headshots is really quite out of this world.

For subjects that prefer to work a bit closer to their subjects, the 85mm f1.4 might be a better option. The sharpness, bokeh quality, and build quality make up for the loud focusing motor and the fact that it is not an AF-D lens.

Video Quality

The A99's video quality is quite good in many situations. For the best results, we would recommend shooting in manual mode at 1/50th for 24p and 1/125 for 60p. Additionally, shooting at wider focal lengths will often yield you the best results when coupled with the camera's already very good stabilization on the sensor.

With a camera this powerful though, we also would highly recommend pulling your footage into an editing program and working with the files as well. When shooting 60p video and slowing it down to 24p, we saw some really jaw dropping footage when properly exposed.

The video files themselves though don't have much editing versatility in terms of color and dynamic range; so you'll need to try your best to get it perfectly right in camera. As a note, we did not try shooting video with the camera in the uncompressed setting.

Image Quality

Image quality from the A99 is overall really quite excellent. The images look very film-like; but for the best results right out of the camera we would recommend using the Vivid picture style and shooting in RAW. From ISO 100-1600, we saw very excellent results in terms of detail capture.


ISO 100                                                                     ISO 400

ISO 1600

To get the most out of this camera's sensor, we highly recommend that you spring for the more costly glass. The 135mm f/1.8 proved to be the best lens that we tested on the camera. Sony is promising an update to their 50mm f1.4; and so the update may take more advantage of the new 24.3MP sensor.

Upon testing Sony's 500m f/4 lens a while back at a media excursion, the lens's newer design was able to take better advantage of the sensor. Additionally, the fact that the focusing worked perfectly with the AF-D system meant that we were able to achieve sharper images when capturing fast moving objects. That will be critical for sports photographers.

High ISO results between 3200 and 6400 kept noise down quite well, but we saw some detail loss  and some smudging. Interestingly, at 25,600 we saw more detail captured but at the risk of lots of image noise. Indeed, there was even lots of color noise.

ISO 6400                                                                   ISO 25,600


RAW file versatility proved to be extremely good when using Lightroom 4. Editing the images almost felt like dealing with negative film in the darkroom. In terms of color depth, the A99's sensor performs excellently and the range for color correction is one of the widest we've seen. When it comes to shooting landscapes, the high dynamic range scores right up there with color depth.

Additional Sample Images 

By all means, this is a camera that can hold its own with the 5D Mk III and D800. Though its standard autofocus may not be as good as its competitors, where it excels is in tracking focusing. Many photographers still like using the center focusing point and recomposing; and this camera seems to have been designed to do that partially with AF-D. 

Beyond the autofocusing, the image quality is really very spectacular with skin tones being some of the best we've seen and white balancing also being very true to life. Part of this has to come from its excellent metering performance; which we rated as perfect when doing an old school Sunny 16 test and when using a handheld light meter.

High ISO results are a mixed bag with there being some loss of detail between 3200 and 6400 while beyond 6400 contained lots of detail but showed unacceptable levels of color noise.

Ergonomically speaking, this is one of the most comfortable DSLRs we've handled for a long period of time. The light weight will mean less trips to the massage therapist after shooting many weddings over and over in a row.

The camera has a lot going for it, but it can come at a cost. For example, the battery life only really lasted us around six hours when out shooting around NYC. Additionally, when shooting video one must switch the camera's AF to manual in order to have manual control over the exposure settings. Plus, the camera can be slow to start up and navigating the menus can be a bit intimidating.

Overall, the A99 is still a very solid choice if you're willing to give it a chance. We highly suggest renting it first though.