With its slightly sloping shoulders, comfortable rubberized grip and all-black polycarbonate body, you
might not mistake the A77 for a heavy-duty pro DSLR
body but it certainly wouldn’t look out of place at a
wedding or on the sidelines of a sporting event (with
a long Sony telephoto zoom attached to it, of course).
While it may not do well in a downpour, the A77 is
weatherized and sealed to protect against moisture
and dust. It also just feels good in your hand. The camera is hefty but not heavy, thick but balanced, and has
a variety of external controls that are easy to access
and logically laid out.
Some nice touches include a small joystick on the
back that offers good control for changing settings or
scrolling through images. I also appreciated the rear
one-touch movie button, which, since the A77 uses a
translucent (aka “pellicle”) mirror that doesn’t need
to flip up like a traditional DSLR, can begin recording
video instantaneously. The other benefit of a translucent mirror for video is that it allows the camera to use
its superior full-time phase detection autofocus rather than the more dodgy and slow contrast detection
focus system employed by most DSLRs and compact
cameras. (More about this later.)
The A77’s body is built around a sturdy, magnesium
alloy chassis, which gives it a solid feel and makes it
easy to hold steady, even with a long zoom attached.
One quick word about the lens for this camera: It ships
with one of the best “kit” lenses I’ve ever tried, a Sony
DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM zoom, which brings the total
price to $2,000. Body only, the A77 sells for $1,400.
TO EVF OR NOT TO EVF
The rear of the camera is dominated by a 3-inch,
307,200-pixel (921,600-dot) three-way adjustable display. The LCD tilts and pivots in a variety of angles to help
you compose overhead or down-low shots, but it takes
some getting used to. After a few weeks of testing, I got
the hang of its unorthodox twists and turns but still preferred the more common side-swiveling LCDs you’ll find
on some Canon, Nikon and Olympus DSLRs.
Because Translucent Mirror Technology doesn’t allow
for an optical viewfinder—a major drawback—the A77
uses an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead. While it’s a
good EVF—large with 100 percent frame coverage and
OLED technology for a clearer playback—it’s still an EVF
nonetheless and some pros will find it a turnoff.
I have to say I wasn’t nuts about it myself. With the
resolution rated at XGA quality (1024 x 768 pixels),
the live feed through the EVF (which Sony calls the
TruFinder) is better than much of what I’ve tried before
but with some caveats. For one, the motion detection
sensor that automatically changes the feed from the
rear LCD to the EVF when you move your face to the
eyecup isn’t as responsive as I’d hoped, occasionally
giving me a split second of blackout time. There can
also be a slight lag in the live feed through the EVF,
which is annoying. Hopefully these two features can
be sped up through a nice firmware upgrade to the A77
The EVF is the tradeoff for using a pellicle mirror system in the Sony A77 but is it worth the benefit? If you
feel the need for sheer speed in a digital SLR but don’t
have $7,000 to spend and/or don’t want to wait until
March for the 12fps-shooting Canon 1D X, then yes it is.
Not only can the A77 capture 24-megapixel photos at
12fps with full-time, phase-detection-based autofocus,
it does it in a way that sounds and feels unique. Instead
of the angry clatter of a mirror banging up and down
inside a traditional DSLR, the A77’s 12-frame bursts are
quieter and more machine-like. Some may prefer the
more soulful “analog” clacking of, say, the Nikon D3S,
but the stealthy and purposeful A77 seemed to attract
less attention during several basketball games I shot.
The results were also quite impressive while shooting with the 16-50mm f/2.8 kit lens. The percentage
of usable “sharp” shots was on par with 10fps bursts
I captured with the Canon 1D Mark IV and a 24-70mm
f/2.8 lens. While that camera is several years old now,
it’s also cost several grand more.
The A77’s translucent mirror also makes it an excellent video camera for shooting fast action. The benefits of having full-time autofocus while recording full
1080p HD at smooth 60p, standard 60i or cinema-like
24p, cannot be overstated. Fast action sequences captured in HD looked tack sharp and absolutely iridescent.
Movie clips can be recorded in AVCHD or the slightly
smaller, and easy-to-upload, MP4 codec. Best of all for
movie buffs, you have full manual control over your
video clips and there’s a built-in stereo mic, though
without any manual adjustments.
DARK AND LOVELY
Images captured with the A77 were noticeably darker
than those from the Mark IV, which is an issue seem-
ingly inherent to pellicle-mirror-based cameras. This
tendency came to light back when the Sony A35
and A55, with their first-generation versions of the
Translucent Mirror Technology, came out last year.
THE BOT TOM LINE
Just as in 2010 when our favorite DSLR of the year
didn’t hit the streets until December, the Sony SLT-A77
proves once again that good things come to those who
wait. Admittedly, because of the disastrous year in
Japan and the terrible flooding in Thailand, which sank
many imaging factories, there wasn’t exactly a bevy
of high-end DSLR options released in 2011. But even
in a more competitive year, the attractively and logically designed 24.3-megapixel A77 and its impressive
technology that allows it to shoot 12-frame full-reso-lution bursts like no other (current) DSLR on the market would probably have been our favorite. Throw in
its remarkable ability to capture tack-sharp fast-action
HD video and more surprising bells and whistles than