Given that the A77 is targeted primarily at the advanced enthusiast and prosumer market, it’s no surprise to find that overall build quality is very high. The guts of the camera are housed within a magnesium alloy cage, with the outer shell constructed from a toughened plastic finished with a classy mottled effect. While we appreciate that ‘toughened plastic’ might not sound all that impressive on paper in the hand the A77 really does feel quite solid, with a reassuring weightiness to it. Seals around key buttons and dials guard against moisture and dust penetration too, giving the A77 some added all-weather appeal. Those looking for a robust workhorse are unlikely to be disappointed.
The A77 sits quite comfortably in the hand thanks primarily to the ergonomic handgrip. This has a channel cut into it that allows the middle finger to sit more comfortably, while promoting a more secure grip. In addition, the there’s also a raised ridge on the back of the camera just below the thumb wheel, which gives you something to brace your thumb against. Both the finger grip and thumb rest are coated in a tactile rubber that further aids grip. Together they make the A77 a very comfortable camera to hold, although the grip is fairly deep and those with small hands may find it harder to wrap their fingers fully around it. Given the camera weighs around 800g body-only or 1.4kg with a Sony DT 16-50mm f/2.8 lens this is quite an important consideration.
As an advanced camera the A77 sports a fairly large collection of physical buttons and dials, evenly distributed along the top and back of the camera. These allow advanced shooters to quickly access regularly used camera settings like ISO and EV Compensation without having to enter the main in-camera menu. In addition, the Fn button on the back can be used to call up a quick menu that presents you with a good selection of all the main shooting options including access to AF Area, Face Detection settings, Creative Styles and Picture Effects.
Menu navigation is controlled via a small thumb-stick within easy reach of the thumb, which also acts as the ‘select’ button when pressed. The main in-camera menu is all fairly straightforward enough, although we did find that it can be frustratingly easy to make the wrong selection on account of the thumb-stick not offering much in the way of resistance, making it all too easy to inadvertently press while navigating.
There are also two main control wheels, one on the front and one of the back, which makes quicker work of controlling the camera – especially when it’s being used in Manual mode. The A77 also sports a useful LCD display on the right-hand shoulder just behind the shutter release button displays all of the important shooting information and can be illuminated for use in darker conditions via a bulb button just to the right of it.
In terms of general performance the A77 scores very highly. Start-up isn’t quite as instant as a regular DSLR with the A77 taking a fraction under two seconds from the initial flick of the power switch before it’s focused and ready to shoot. This aside, the camera remains impressively speedy in all other areas, with the 19-point (11 cross-type) phase detection autofocus especially quick to lock on, even in less than optimal light. AF points are collected together in a three distinct blocks or ‘zones’, offering relatively good horizontal coverage across the centre of the viewfinder. Autofocus options extend to multi-point AF, single zone (with the user able to select from the left, right or central blocks/zones), centre Spot AF, and a user-controlled Spot AF option that allows you to fix focus using any one of the 19 individual AF points.
Processing speeds are pretty quick with the A77 able to shoot seven full-res JPEG or Raw files within a ten-second period in Single-shot drive mode, and with no upper limit on the number of consecutive shots you can take. Used in one of the Continuous drive modes the number of consecutive shots you’ll be able to take will vary according to the quality setting you’re using. In the 12fps Continuous Advance Priority drive mode (accessed directly via the exposure mode wheel) you can expect to fire off around 14 extra fine JPEGs in a fraction over a second before the memory buffer fills and shooting speed drops closer to 1fps. Shooting in Raw, this drops to 12 consecutive frames, after which the camera slows to 0.5fps.
In addition to the super-fast Continuous Advance Priority mode, the A77 also offers a regular 8fps ‘High’ continuous drive mode along with a ‘Low’ option that shoots at closer to 4fps. With both options, overall performance remains almost identical to the Continuous Advance Priority mode: with the camera set to ‘High’ you can expect to capture around 14 full-res extra fine quality JPEGs in a fraction under 2secs, after which the camera slows to around 0.8fps. With the camera set to record Raw, expect this to drop to 12 images inside 1.8secs, after which the speed will tail off to one frame every two seconds. Either way, the A77 remains impressively fast, making it an ideal choice for those who regularly shoot fast-moving action.
Image quality is generally very impressive. The A77’s 24.3MP sensor is able to resolve plenty of fine detail and produce images that can be safely enlarged without compromising quality. Of course, the extra resolution does come at the expense of large file sizes and you can expect a typical fine-quality full-res JPEG to measure around 14-18MB in size, with Raw files closer to 25MB.
The A77 is well served by the optional DT 16-50mm f/2.8 ‘kit’ zoom that can be supplied with it. Not only is it fairly quick at f/2.8, it also offers good levels of sharpness across the whole frame (especially at f/7.1-f/8) and is capable of producing gorgeous bokeh when opened right up. The A77 offers a number of useful in-camera lens correction options should you require them, including fixes for vignetting, chromatic aberrations and lens distortion. They all work pretty well, although we suspect many Raw shooters will prefer to make their own corrections using Photoshop.
There are six Picture Style options in total: Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape and Black and White. It’s also possible to fine-tune the contrast, saturation and sharpness levels for each Picture Style so as to get them just as you like. Irrespective of which Picture Style you opt for we found that the Automatic and Auto settings tend to produce JPEGs with noticeably more saturation and contrast than any of the PASM modes, so if you’re looking for something more neutral the PASM modes are usually a better option.
Although the A77’s 1200-zone metering module generally performs very well we did notice a tendency for it to slightly underexpose images on the odd occasion, although this can easily be rectified with the /-5EV of exposure compensation on offer. The A77 is able to capture a good dynamic range even with the Dynamic Range Optimiser function switched off. It has to be said that this tool does come in handy when you want to boost highlight and shadow retention without going the whole HDR hog – just so long as you are shooting JPEGs, that is. Those with a penchant for HDR photography will find that the Automatic HDR option produces very good results although the use of a tripod is advisable.
Noise is especially well controlled at lower sensitivity settings of ISO 100-400, although by ISO 800 it is possible to see the softening effects of the A77’s built-in noise reduction, but only if you go looking for it by enlarging the image to 100% or more. While noise does begin to creep into the image more noticeably after ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 it’s still not really an issue unless you are specifically looking for it and both settings can be used to make perfectly acceptable images with. By ISO 6400, however, noise becomes distinctly visible at all image sizes, while the top two settings of 12,800 and 16,000 offer fairly poor image quality and should only really be treated as a last resort.
The Sony Alpha A77 is an excellent addition to Sony’s single lens translucent range. As the flagship model within the range it’s extremely well specified and flexible camera with a generous range of features that will appeal to serious photography enthusiasts. While it’s 12fps continuous shooting speed will certainly appeal to those who regularly shoot fast-moving action, there’s a lot more to like about the A77, not least the speedy AF performance, excellent range of movie recording options and high standard of image quality.