Launched earlier this year, the Sony A77 is the flagship model in Sony’s Single Lens Translucent (SLT) range. SLT cameras differ from traditional DSLRs in that the internal mirror is fixed in place rather than being hinged. The primary benefit of this approach is speed – in a regular DSLR the mirror has to swing open to allow light through to the sensor which results in a slight delay between frames, whereas in an SLT camera the translucent mirror allows some light to pass through to the sensor while also bouncing some up into the roof of the camera.
Not only does this mean that SLT cameras like the A77 can benefit from the faster phase detection technology used in regular DSLRs, but because the mirror doesn’t need to move continuous shooting speed can be increased. To this end the A77 is able to shoot at a staggering 12fps at full resolution, which makes it the fastest prosumer camera of its type. Indeed, the A77 is even faster than the Nikon D4 (10fps) and only slightly bettered by the Canon EOS 1Dx’s 14fps (when used in High-Speed mode). And at around £5300 each, both of those pro-grade DSLRs will set you back nearly four times as much as the A77.
Of course speed isn’t everything and the A77 has plenty else going for it too. Other notable features include built-in GPS, automatic HDR capture, Sony’s excellent ultra-wideangle Sweep Panorama technology, a vari-angle 3in/921k-dot rear LCD monitor, a class-leading 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder, 1080/50p Full HD movie recording with Quick AF, a built-in 1.4x/2x Smart Teleconverter digital zoom that records images at 12MP/6MP respectively, and Sony’s own SteadyShot image stabilisation technology. Last but not least, the A77 also offers a generous range of image-enhancing features including a number of Creative Style processing options, Picture Effect digital filters along with a dynamic range optimisation tool. Safe to say that the A77 is not lacking in features then.
The A77 is built around an APS-C sized (23.5 x 15.6mm) Sony Exmor CMOS sensor that delivers 24.3MP of effective resolution – currently the highest in its class. Able to record JPEG and lossless Raw image files, maximum output at the full 24.3MP is 6000 x 4000 pixels. This enables the A77 to deliver lots of fine detail, which means it can easily be used to make poster-sized A1 prints with, while also giving you the flexibility to aggressively crop your images post-capture should you need to. If you don’t require quite so much resolution (for example, when shooting purely for web use) then it’s also possible to shoot at either 12MP (medium) or 6MP (small) in the default 3:2 aspect. In addition, it’s also possible to shoot in 16:9 at a choice of 20MP, 10MP or 5.1MP. There’s no provision to shoot in 4:3 or 1:1 though.
The A77 uses Sony’s own optimised BIONZ image processor, which has been optimised for speedy processing and low-noise images. Sensitivity ranges from a standard ISO 100 to 1600, with an extended low setting of ISO 50 also available. Exposure modes include the regular quartet of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual (PASM) modes as seen on regular DSLRs. These are supplemented by a fully Automatic mode, an Auto mode automatic scene recognition mode, eight individual Scene modes, the aforementioned Panorama Sweep mode, and a 3D mode (3D screen required). In addition there are also three Memory Recall user-defined custom settings to call upon.
In addition to its stills abilities the A77 offers a generous selection of movie recording options, including the ability to record in the HDTV-friendly AVCHD format at 1080/50p (28M, PS), 1080/50i (24M, FX) and 1080/25p (24M, FX). Those looking to plug the A77 into their HDTV for direct playback of AVCHD will find a HDMI jack on the side of the camera, although if you want to play AVCHD files back on a computer you may need to use the bundled Picture Motion Browser software to convert the files (or install software such as VLC that supports .MTS file playback).
Those looking to record movies in a more computer-friendly format can record MP4 files at either 1440 x 1080 (12MP) or VGA quality. While serious video enthusiasts will undoubtedly know which AVCHD setting is right for them, we can’t but help think that the A77 would benefit from a simple ‘1920 x 1080 Full HD’ MP4 option too. While in video mode it’s possible to use all of the PASM settings, which adds plenty of creative flexibility. Sound is recorded in stereo by default via a multi-directional microphone just in front of the hotshoe and in addition there’s also a jack to plug external microphones into.
On the back of the A77 is a 3in, 921k-dot LCD monitor with Sony’s TruBlack technology. The screen offers a sharp and detailed image with plenty of colour and contrast although it is prone to fingerprint smudges, which necessitates regular cleaning. The screen itself is attached to the camera via two hinges, which allows it to be pulled right out from the body and liberally adjusted on the vertical axis to make light work of shooting overhead or from the hip. In addition the screen also rotates on the bottom hinge, which allows you to shoot at odd angles, around corners or even with the monitor facing the same direction as the lens for self-portraits. Last but not least you can also fold the screen back into the camera to protect it.
Of course, with this being an SLT camera there’s no optical viewfinder. Instead the A77 employs an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that covers 100% of the scene with a resolution of 2.36m-dots. This is currently the highest resolution of any EVF on any camera and makes shooting with the A77 at eye-level a relatively painless experience with the EVF offering plenty of detail, rich colours and good levels of contrast. It’s not quite perfect though and we did find that in bright sunlight the A77’s EVF is still no match for a traditional optical viewfinder, even with the brightness turned right up. Also, in dark conditions you can expect noise to interfere with the overall quality of the EVF image too. In just about every other situation between these two extremes though there is very little to complain about.