Sony dropped a bit of a bombshell at Photokina by introducing a camera that wasn’t a new mirrorless model. Instead, it was a full-frame camera in the shape of the A99 II.
The A99 II does have a mirror, but it’s translucent and doesn’t move – this is unlike the conventional design you’ll find in most DSLR cameras. Sony is very squarely aiming the camera at professional users, especially sports and action photographers. However, at a price point that’s a few grand short of the top-end pro models from Canon and Nikon, it’s arguably something that may appeal to serious enthusiast amateurs as well.
It includes a 42.4-megapixel full-frame sensor, 12fps shooting, an electronic viewfinder, 4K video recording, and a host of other interesting features.
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The A99 II is a chunky camera, but, despite cramming it full of new features, Sony has in fact managed to shrink it by 8% compared with the original A99.
It has a large, moulded grip with a textured coating, which although heavy makes it feel pretty comfortable in the hand. We tried it with the 24-70mm lens and it’s certainly something you’re going to know you’re carrying - but that can be said of every other full-frame camera of this type.
On the top of the camera you’ll see a window that displays certain key settings, handy for quickly knowing how you’ve set up the camera. This is particularly useful in darker conditions, as you can illuminate the window via a button also found on the top of the camera.
A number of other direct-access buttons can also be found across the top plate, including those to change ISO, drive mode, exposure compensation and white balance. It’s clear from the number of buttons and dials on this camera that it’s intended for a top-end audience.
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On the rear of the camera you’ll find even more controls; one that’s particularly useful is the joystick, which you can use to set the AF point. There’s a decent wide spread of AF points across the frame this time, with 79 hybrid Cross-Type AF points available, along with 399 supporting points. A total of 323 are actually selectable, and there’s good coverage, so you shouldn’t have to spend too much time focusing and recomposing with this camera.
This is a camera that, because of its translucent mirror design, is essentially always shooting in live view. That means that you can see what you’re photographing on the screen at all times.
Sadly, Sony – for unknown reasons – remains reticent to include touchscreen technology on its camera models. It would have been very useful here for quickly setting autofocus point, or perhaps if you’re holding the camera in an awkward position and can’t quite reach the joystick with ease. That said, using the joystick in conjunction with the viewfinder is a good experience. It’s placed within easy reach of your thumb and since it protrudes from the body, it’s easy to locate and use.
Speaking of the screen, it’s a slightly odd-looking beast, but that works well to provide flexibility of viewing angles. Unlike most full-frame cameras currently on the market, Sony acknowledges that having a fixed screen can sometimes prove awkward when you’re photographing from a less straightforward positions. The one on the A99 II can move to the side, down, and even face completely forward - ideal in many situations, including the selfie. Videographers are also likely to find this useful.
On the front of the camera, near the lens mount, is a button and dial setup that you can use to change certain functions of the camera. It’s customisable, and is therefore again something that videographers will appreciate; it can be setup to work completely silently and therefore not disturb any video footage you may be recording. By contrast, the scrolling dial on the top of the camera that you may traditionally use to set aperture makes a clicking noise when you move it.
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Using an electronic viewfinder simply isn’t to everybody’s tastes - and you’ll find many pros shudder at the thought. But the large, bright, high-resolution viewfinder on the A99 II provides a great view of the scene – and thanks to improvements in the technology, it displays hardly any shutter lag. You can even shoot at up to 8fps and maintain continuous live view.
Sony has reworked its menu system to be more sensibly arranged, grouping together features and functions to save you having to figure out where to find the particular setting you want to use. This makes for a much more enjoyable experience, and is certainly less frustrating that previous implementations of Sony’s menu system.
We haven’t yet had the opportunity to give the A99 II a full spin, but early indications are promising. Image quality looks great – and crucially that AF performance, along with the high continuous frame rates, seem to work well. It’s something we’ll be keen to put through its paces later in the year, when production samples become available.
It looks likely that the A99 II could be a camera that competes very strongly with Nikon’s D5 and the Canon 1DX Mark II for sports and action - and it may even convince some people to make the switch.
On the downside, Sony cameras – with their constant live view – don’t tend to fare well for battery life. We’re looking at less than 400 shots per charge - and only a single battery is supplied in the box. Compare this to the battery life of something from Canon or Nikon, and the A99 II simply can’t match up. The Nikon D5 has an incredible battery life of 3,780 shots per charge, while the Canon 1DX Mark II stands at 1,210 shots.
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The pro world is very much dominated by Canon or Nikon - especially when it comes to sports, action and wildlife. It’s interesting to see a camera that, on paper at least, seems to offer serious competition.
There are a few niggles here – namely, the lack of a touchscreen and a battery life that’s a fraction of what Canon and Nikon can offer at the Pro end of the market. The first we can live without; the second is more limiting.
It will be interesting to see how the A99 II shapes up in reality when full working samples become available. Keep an eye out.