After the announcement of the full-frame E-mount Sony A7, A7R and A7S compact system cameras and the demise of the Nex brand, you could be forgiven for thinking that Sony may not continue with its A-attach SLT (single lens translucent) cameras. However, the Sony Alpha 77 II proves this not to be the case.
As you might guess, the Alpha 77 Mark II replaces the Alpha 77, which is now discontinued, and it has an almost identical shape and design. The new camera is aimed at enthusiast photographers who want a step up from an entry-level model.
Like the Alpha 77, the A77 Mark II has a 24 million-pixel sensor, but this is a new device that benefits from the progress that has been made with sensor design in the two-and-half-plus years since the A77 first arrived.
For the first time in an A-mount camera, the signal from the Exmor sensor is processed by a Bionz X processor. This should mean that the A77 Mark II is capable of resolving a high level of detail and controlling noise at high sensitivity settings.
Sensitivity may be set in the native range ISO 100-25,600 for still images, with a low expansion setting of ISO 50 being available. The movie sensitivity range, however, is a bit narrower, going from ISO 100 to 12,800.
As the SLT design has a fixed translucent mirror, the A77 Mark II has an electronic rather than optical viewfinder. Sony has used the same 2.359 million-dot OLED Tru-Finder as is found in the A7 and 7R, which is good news since this provides a clear, detailed view.
This viewfinder also allows enlargement to assist with manual focusing and can display focus peaking and zebras to indicate areas of highest contrast (sharpness).
One of the benefits of the SLT design is that there can be full-time phase-detection autofocus during movie shooting and when composing images on the rear screen. Sony has used a newly developed phase recognition sensor in the Alpha 77 Mark II. This has 79 AF points, 15 of which are the more sensitive cross-type. In comparison, the original A77 has 19 AF points of which 11 are cross-type.
The new camera can also shoot a maximum rate of 12 frames per second (fps) with AF tracking and the buffer has the capacity to allow up to 25 raw and JPEG images to be captured in a single burst. The original Alpha 77 could only cope with 11 pictures in a burst at 12fps. If raw file recording is deactivated, the A77 Mark II can record around 53 Extra Fine JPEGs in one blast.
Although autofocusing and auto-exposure continue when shooting at 12fps, the aperture is locked at the start of the sequence. If exposure needs to change during the burst it is done via shutter speed or sensitivity.
Sony currently has a strong reputation for sensor design and image processing and the Alpha 77 II does nothing to diminish that. Even at the highest selectable sensitivity setting, ISO 25,600, noise is controlled well in raw files, having a fine texture with no banding or clumping visible at 100% on-screen. With careful processing it is possible to conceal most of the coloured speckling in raw files to produce an image with just luminance noise, giving some grain.
Simultaneously captured JPEG files look softer than their raw counterparts, and close examination reveals a painterly texture with some smudging of detail and slightly sharpened edges. They generally look acceptable when viewed at A3 size, but I prefer the somewhat sharper, grainer look of the natural files.
As you’d hope with a 24Mp sensor, the A77 II is capable of recording a high level of detail at the lower sensitivity settings. My first impressions of the Alpha 77 II’s autofocus system were good so I used it the camera to photograph a gig in very low, flat light. For comparison, I took along the Canon 5D Mark III. Both cameras had a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens mounted, although the focal length magnification factor of the A77 II meant it wasn’t necessary to zoom so far in as with the Canon digital camera.
The flat light proved a challenge for both cameras, but the Canon was able to cope just a little bit better. Nevertheless, the Alpha 77 II managed to get the moving subjects sharp most of the time and weren’t too far behind the much more expensive full-frame Canon.
As I was shooting continuously in short bursts I found it best to turn the image review off, as this gave me a full-time view of the subject through the lens. The downside of this is that you don’t see the image after it’s captured and the gain that is applied to the viewfinder’s picture when its brightness is set to ‘Automatic’ can make the image look brighter than it is. Consequently, in low or changing light it’s best to set the EVF’s brightness to ‘Manual’.
While the A77 II’s AF system struggled a little in the low, flat light of the unilluminated gig, there were no such problems with a fast-moving subject in a good light. It was positive, fast and accurate. In continuous AF mode with AF selection set to Expanded Flexible Spot, it got fast-moving rowers sharp in a flash and could keep them sharp using the surrounding points as I panned with their movement. When Af selection was arranged to Lock-on AF: Flexible Place or Lock-on AF: Expanded Flexible Spot it also tracked them around the frame if I failed to keep the original AF point in the correct location.
As usual, AF performance varies depending upon the lens that’s mounted and a good optic is required to get the best from the Alpha 77 II. It performs very well with the 70-200mm f/2.8 for example but is a little more hesitant in low light with the 85mm f/2.8 – which also has a much noisier focus mechanism.
Throughout my testing of the Alpha 77 II, I used the Multi-segment metering system and, despite shooting in a wide range of conditions, there were only a few where I had to dial in a little exposure compensation. The system isn’t easily thrown by large bright or dark areas within the scene.
Colours are also good straight from the camera, and the white balance system generally does a good job when set to the Automatic setting.
Check Out: Best Sony Alpha A77 II Lenses
The Alpha 77 II delivers the promise of Sony’s SLT design with fast autofocusing and accuracy when composing images on the LCD or shooting video. It also overcomes the issues caused by the reduction in light levels reaching the sensor as a result of the translucent mirror. The fact that the camera’s AF system can nearly match the performance of a professional level camera that costs twice as much is very impressive. This and the A77 II’s ability to control noise at high sensitivity levels makes it a very versatile camera that will be attractive to enthusiast photographers who want to shoot a wide range of subjects, everything from landscape to sport and macro to portraits, in a variety of conditions.
In addition, the camera’s white balance, metering and processing systems work well and deliver generally well-exposed images with pleasantly vibrant colours in a range of situations.