Sony Alpha 99 (SLT-A99V) review

The Sony Alpha 99 is a full-featured full-frame D-SLR that can focus as quickly when recording video as it does for still images, but it doesn't have an optical viewfinder.
Photo of Sony Alpha 99 (SLT-A99V)

The Sony Alpha 99 ($2,799.99 direct, body only) is the company’s top-end digital SLR camera. It sports a 24-megapixel full-frame image sensor, and like other Sony SLRs it uses a fixed mirror, which allows for fast autofocus in all shooting modes, and a seamless transition between its eye-level OLED EVF and rear LCD—but it omits the optical viewfinder that many pros expect from a high-end camera. It’s an excellent choice for video, as it blows the competition away on focus speed and audio options, but it isn’t as well-rounded, or inexpensive, as our Editors’ Choice full-frame D-SLR, the Canon EOS 6D.

Design and Features
When it was introduced, the Alpha 99 was the smallest and lightest full-frame D-SLR on the market, but it has since lost that title to the slightly-smaller EOS 6D. The A99 measures 4.5 by 5.9 by 3.1 inches and weighs about 1.8 pounds; the 6D is 4.4 by 5.7 by 2.8 inches and 1.7 pounds. Its image sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame, dwarfing the smaller APS-C sensor that is found in most D-SLRs. This is advantageous when using wide-angle lenses, as a smaller sensor leads to a narrower field of view, and also allows you to capture images with a shallower depth of field, so you can create more separation between subject and background.

Like Sony’s other current D-SLRs, the Alpha 99 uses a fixed, semi-transparent mirror to bounce light to its phase detect autofocus sensors. The mirror doesn’t reflect enough light to feed an optical viewfinder, so Sony installed an OLED EVF. We’ve praised the 2.5-megapixel OLED finder in other Sony cameras, including the Alpha 77, our Editors’ Choice winner for high-end APS-C D-SLRs, because it offers a bigger, crisper view than the optical finders found in that level of camera. Things change when you increase the sensor size—the optical finders in traditional full-frame cameras like the Nikon D4 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III are larger than those in APS-C cameras.

That said, the EVF is one of the best that I’ve used, and there are some inherent advantages to the design. When composing images what you see is exactly what you get—out-of-focus highlights appear as they will in the final image, which is not the case with optical finders. If you’re shooting with a fast lens you’ll see the actual depth of field at maximum aperture, while traditional optical focusing screens can only show you the depth at around f/2.8. Activating the Aperture Preview function shows you exactly how your final image will look, down to the exposure. As the camera is, essentially, always in Live View mode, there’s a seamless transition between using the EVF and the rear LCD. Put your eye up to the viewfinder and the EVF is active, pull it away and the feed automatically switches to the rear LCD. You’ll also be able to magnify a scene to confirm critical focus, while Focus Peaking highlights the in-focus areas of an image.

If you’re moving up to the Alpha 99 from an APS-C Sony camera and would like to continue to use the APS-C lenses you own, you can do so—images are recorded at a reduced 10-megapixel resolution, as the sensor automatically crops to the smaller size, but apart from that, it’s a seamless experience.

The 3-inch rear display features a sharp 1.228-million-dot resolution. It’s sharper than the million-dot LCD found on the Canon EOS 6D, and sets itself apart from the crowd thanks to a hinge mechanism. You can adjust the rear display so it can be viewed from almost any angle, which is helpful when composing shots from low or otherwise difficult angles on a tripod, or shooting above your head at a crowded event.

In dim light, the Live View feed does get a bit choppy, which is not something that you’ll have to deal with when using an optical finder and looking at a real-life image through the lens. Instead, you’ll be looking at an image that is filtered through the image sensor and an electronic go-between, which has its merits. Whether you’re happy with the EVF will come down to a matter of personal preference. For some shooters it will seem like a natural progression, but others will find it difficult to give up the more comfortable feel of a traditional D-SLR. If you let the camera switch automatically between the EVF and rear LCD, there is a slight delay turning on the EVF as you raise the A99 to your meet your eye when getting a quick shot. However, if you set the camera to manually switch between the two via the Finder/LCD button, the EVF will remain on when the camera is powered up—so you won’t miss candid shots.

Every bit of control that you could ever want is easily accessible, without having to dive into menus. You can directly adjust the focus mode, ISO, Exposure Compensation, Drive Mode, White Balance, Exposure Lock, and other settings via buttons and dials. There’s also a Function button on the rear of the camera that brings up an on-screen display with more advanced settings, giving you quick access to Meter settings, Flash Compensation, Object Tracking, the Autofocus Area, and others. One feature that is currently unique to the Alpha 99 is the ability to limit the amount of distance over which the autofocus system searches on the fly. There’s an AF Range button that lets you dial in the distances over which focus will search—this is useful for macro photography, where you’ll only want to try and focus close, or for shooting sports with a telephoto lens, where it’s likely you’ll only be interested in action in the distance.

Sony has included an integrated GPS radio. When enabled, location data is added automatically to photos, so you can later view where they were taken on a map—Lightroom, iPhoto, Aperture, Picasa, and other software applications support this, as do photo sharing sites like Flickr and Smugmug. Using the GPS does put some extra strain on the camera’s battery, however.

Performance and Conclusions
The Alpha 99 starts and shoots in about 0.9-second, records a shutter lag that is less than 0.1-second, and can fire a burst of full-resolution photos at 5.7 frames per second. Its performance is on par with the the Canon 5D Mark III, which starts in 0.7-second, notches a 0.1-second shutter lag, and shoots a little faster at 5.9 frames per second. As there’s no mirror movement during burst shooting, the camera is impressively quiet. In good light it requires about 0.4-second to bring an out of focus into crisp view and fire a shot, but slips to 1.6 seconds to do the same in very dim light. This equals the speed of the Canon EOS 6D—although the 6D’s autofocus is much slower than the Alpha 99 when you switch to Live View mode.

We tested the burst shooting speed with a SanDisk 95MBps memory card. When recording Raw+JPG photos, the Alpha 99 managed to capture 9 photos before slowing down, and required 6 seconds to clear its buffer. Switching to Raw increased the number of shots in the burst to 12, and reduced the write time to 5.6 seconds. If you opt to shoot JPG, you can expect 13 shots with a 4.6-second write time. There’s a low-resolution setting that records 4.3-megapixel JPG photos with a 1.5x sensor crop—you can fire off 30 shots in that mode at just a hair under 10 frames per second.

The Alpha 99 ships as a body only, so there’s no standard lens with which to test sharpness. We did run several of Sony’s top-end optics through Imatest, including the Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens, the 70-200mm f/2.8 Telephoto Zoom Lens, and the 50mm f/1.4 Lens, all of which proved to be quite sharp when paired with the Alpha 99.

In terms of image noise, which can make images appear grainy, the camera keeps it below 1.5 percent through ISO 6400, and a good job at keeping detail crisp at this setting. Though a side-by-side comparison shows that photos captured by the Canon EOS 6D are crisper in both JPG and Raw formats. The 6D also does a bit better than the A99 at ISO 12800, the top setting at which the Canon keeps noise below our 1.5-percent threshold. The Alpha 99 does provide in-body sensor-shift image stabilization, and there should be a less vibration when capturing a photo due to the stationary mirror; Canon shooters need to purchase special lenses in order to take advantage of image stabilization.

Video recording is one of the Alpha 99′s strong points. The camera uses the AVCHD codec and supports 1080p60, 1080i60, and 1080p24 formats. Digital SteadyShot stabilization is supported, as is input from an external microphone. There’s a standard unbalanced mic input, but if you’re really serious about video, you can add the XLR-K1M Balanced Audio Adapter ($799.99) which plugs into the camera’s hot shoe to add two balanced XLR inputs; the adapter includes a shotgun mic. There’s also a headphone jack, so you can monitor audio while rolling footage.

The built-in mic is perfectly fine for more casual video use, although it does pick up the sound of the lens refocusing. The 1080p60 footage is crisp and sharp, and the camera is incredibly quick to refocus when rolling footage. Traditional D-SLRs rely on contrast detect focus when in Live View and when recording video, but the Alpha 99′s fixed-mirror design allows faster phase detect to be active at all times, and it really shows when shooting video.

Interface ports include a mini HDMI output and a mini USB port, as well as a DC power input—great for studio shooters who don’t have to worry about keeping a battery charged. There’s a connector for a wired remote control, as well as a standard PC Sync socket for studio lights or off-camera flash. Sony has moved away from CompactFlash memory, opting for dual SD slots instead. Each slot supports the latest SDXC memory cards, and you can configure the camera to utilize them in numerous ways. You can write the same data to both slots for real time backup, write still images to one card and video to another, use one card for Raw images and the second for JPGs, or simply use the second card as overflow storage—it will only be used if the first card fills up in that mode.

Sony has managed to squeeze a lot of camera into the Alpha 99′s body. Its autofocus system is fast, and runs circles around every other full-frame camera when you use the rear LCD to frame images. It doesn’t do quite as well as our Editors’ Choice Canon EOS 6D at the highest ISOs, but its image quality is still quite impressive, and it offers D-SLR videographers a number of unique features, including 1080p60 footage and balanced audio input, the latter via an adapter. The OLED EVF is likely to be remain a point of contention among photographers; some will embrace it for its advantages, but others won’t give up the feeling that peering through a large, full-frame optical viewfinder provides. If you’re a fan of the EVF experience, the Sony Alpha 99 is sure to tickle your fancy—it’s loaded with features and its image quality is top-notch; but if you prefer an optical finder, consider the Canon EOS 6D or Nikon D600 as a lower-priced full-frame alternative—just be aware that Live View and video autofocus won’t be as quick.

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Specifications
Dimensions 4.5 x 5.9 x 3.1 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI, Mic, Remote, Headphone, PC Sync
Megapixels 24 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.18 seconds
LCD dots 1228800
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type D-SLR
GPS Yes
Boot time 0.9 seconds
Sensor Type CMOS
Weight 1.8 lb
Lens Mount Sony A
Video Resolution 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization In-Body
Shutter Lag 0.07 seconds
Sensor Size 24 x 36 (Full-Frame) mm
EVF Resolution 2359000 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
The Sony Alpha 99 is a full-featured full-frame D-SLR that can focus as quickly when recording video as it does for still images, but it doesn't have an optical viewfinder.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc