Sony A77 II Review

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A77 II SUMMARY

The Sony A77 II hits most things right on target for a solid, high-performance, enthusiast-level DSLR. The image quality is very good, especially at lower ISOs and at higher ISOs from RAW, burst shooting performance is top-notch, and single-shot AF is blazingly fast. Unfortunately, for one of its biggest selling points — continuous autofocus performance — the camera stumbles somewhat when it comes to capturing fast action and other moving subjects, which is quite unfortunate for a high-framerate, seemingly high-performance flagship APS-C camera.

PROS

Excellent image quality, especially lower ISOs; Improved high ISO performance when using RAW; Very good dynamic range; High-resolution images; Very fast single-shot autofocus; 12fps burst mode with C-AF; Good value for its class.

CONS

Lackluster continuous AF performance; Strong NR processing in high ISO JPEGs; Sluggish buffer clearing; Short battery life compared to most DSLRs; Joystick control easy to press accidentally.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY

Available from June 2014, the Sony A77 II debuted with pricing at US$1,200 body-only, or US$1,800 with a Sony DT 16-50mm F2.8 SSM constant-aperture zoom lens. Current body-only and kit pricing have dropped recently by about US$300.

IMAGING RESOURCE RATING

4.0 out of 5.0

The Sony A77 II provides an upgrade pretty much across the board compared to the original “Mark I” model, especially with regards to the sensor, image processor and autofocus system. The A77 II keeps the same 24-megapixel resolution as the original A77, but the Mark II borrows the updated, well-regarded sensor from the Sony A6000. Coupled with a faster BIONZ X image processor, the newer model has a wider ISO range up to ISO 25,600.

The A77 II gets a substantial upgrade to its autofocus system, going from 19 points to a whopping 79, which cover about 40% of the frame. Couple that with some blazing performance specs, including a special 12fps continuous burst mode with continuous AF, and the A77 II is shaping up to be very well-rounded camera, with a particular nod to sports and action photographers.

So, how does the Sony A77 II perform? We’ve completed our full review of this flagship A-mount APS-C camera, and the results are rather interesting. To get the lay of the land with regard to all of the A77 II’s new features and technological prowess, head over to our Tech Info section first, or you can jump right into John Shafer’s in-depth hands-on Shooter’s Report. Of course, we put the camera through the paces here at IR as well, so check out our Optics, Exposure and Performance test results, as well as our Image Comparisons and Print Quality Analysis. And of course, for our IR verdict, jump over to our Sony A77 II Conclusion for our final thoughts.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Mountain bikers riding through an alpine meadow on the Wasatch Crest Trail, above Salt Lake City, Utah. Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 30mm, f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 400.

Introduction

Let me start this report by disclosing that I’m a long-time Canon SLR owner. I’ve been using Canon EOS SLR cameras since the mid-nineties. However, I’m also a big Sony fan. I love their out-of-the-box approach to camera design — especially the SLT camera family, to which the new A77 Mark II DSLR belongs. I like it so much I was considering buying an A77 II, sight-unseen, to replace my Canon EOS 7D. The second-gen A77 features and specs make it look like an excellent replacement for my aging EOS 7D. The A77 II is a serious threat to non-Canon APS-C DSLR owners as well. With a crazy fast 12 frames per second burst rate, more AF points than any other DSLR (79), and improved continuous autofocus performance, it looks like an excellent choice for amateur sports shooters and professional action sports photographers on a budget. So when Imaging Resource offered me the opportunity to do an A77 II Shooter’s Report, how could I say no? A free test ride before I spend my hard-earned money? Yes, please!

Why I’m Excited About the Sony Alpha A77 Mark II

There are lots of reasons to be excited about the A77 II — especially if you’re an action sports photographer. In many ways the performance — at least on paper — is closer to $5000+ pro bodies like the Canon EOS-1D X and the Nikon D4S than other APS-C prosumer DSLRs. It has a 79-point phase detect autofocus system with 15 cross-type points in the center of the array, a center point that works down to -2 EV (that’s dark!), and an improved algorithm for predicting and tracking subjects in motion. It captures full-resolution RAW files at a blistering 12 frames per second, making it as fast as the most expensive professional DSLRs available now. It records 1920 x 1080 full HD video at 60 frames per second and with the EVF, you don’t have to buy an accessory viewfinder for video recording.

The built-in Wi-Fi is a big deal, too. It’s becoming more and more important for working photographers to be able to share on the spot. If I’m on the trail or shooting an event with the A77 II, I can just transfer a photo to my phone via the camera’s Wi-Fi and Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile app, process the photo with Snapseed, and share it with my Instagram and Facebook followers. Between the speed, price, autofocus, sensor, EVF and built-in Wi-Fi, the A77 Mark II has the potential to be one heck of a budget action sports camera. And I am a budget action camera kind of guy. As awesome as $5000-plus pro DSLRs are, I’ve found I can usually get great action photos with APS-C sensor DSLRs — as long as the continuous autofocus is good.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/4.5, 1/1000s, ISO 3200.

The Sony Alpha A77 II also benefits from Sony’s SLT Translucent Mirror design. Technically, the A77 II and other Sony SLT cameras aren’t actually DSLRs since they replace the traditional optical viewfinder with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). For all intents and purposes they behave like a digital SLR, though. When you look through the viewfinder, you see what’s coming through the lens – but with the added benefit of also being able to view the histogram, and anything else you can see on the LCD display, in the eye-level viewfinder. That includes live exposure adjustments, replaying photos, videos, and even using the EVF to record video, which you can’t do with a traditional digital SLR. I’m sure there are a lot of DSLR users who don’t believe me, but I assure you, EVFs have come a long way. I now prefer them to traditional optical viewfinders. The A77 II EVF is one of the best I’ve used, too. Chances are, if you picked up the A77 II and put it to your eye, it would take you a few minutes to even realize you weren’t actually looking through a traditional optical viewfinder. It’s that good.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Other notable features included in the A77 II are built-in sensor-shift image stabilization, 1920 x 1080 60p full-HD video, a 3-inch tilting LCD display, and arguably one of the best in-camera panorama mode in the business. Compare the features and performance to similarly-priced APS-C sensor DSLRs like the Canon EOS 7D and the Nikon D7100 and it’s clear that Sony has a take-no-prisoners attitude about the A77 II.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/7.1, 1/200s, ISO 100, Sweep Panorama mode.

Sony Alpha A77 II Size, Feel & General Usability

I’ve used a lot of DSLRs over the years and the A77 II feels like a serious, professional body to me. It’s on-par with my own Canon EOS 7D, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Sony’s flagship Alpha A99, or the Nikon D800. It’s got a solid magnesium alloy body underneath the grippy exterior, weatherproof seals at all buttons, dials and inputs, and if you use the right lenses, it’s also weather-sealed at the mount. The camera controls are pro-level, as well. There are dual exposure adjustment dials for discreet shutter speed and aperture control — something die-hard manual exposure photographers like myself demand.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

or focusing, there’s a switch to the left of the lens mount that allows you to choose various autofocus options or manual focus. A joystick on the rear of the camera makes AF point selection a quick, one-touch affair. It works really well and I was able to move the focus point around very quickly. The only problem was sometimes I would accidentally press the joystick, therefore re-centering the focus point.

The A77 II give you lots of focus area options including Wide, which uses all the points and determines best focus for you; Zone, which divides the 79-point array into nine selectable areas; Center, which only uses the center point; Flexible Spot, which allows you to manually select one single point from the 79-point array; and Expanded Flexible Spot, which expands to the four points around your selected point and to help with trickier subjects. I mostly used the Flexible Spot and Expanded Flexible Spot settings. I did have problems with it sometimes focusing on something in front of or behind what I actually wanted — always the problem with wider area focus systems. For increased accuracy, I limited the AF system to just the fifteen cross-type points — an option that’s available in the A77 II’s Custom Settings menu.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

here are dedicated controls for critical functions and an Fn button that pulls up a customizable Function Menu that provides quick access to other important functions like Metering Mode, Focus Area, Flash Mode, DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer), etc. You can even access and use the Function Menu while you’re using the viewfinder — something that you would not be able to do if the A77 II didn’t have an electronic viewfinder. Nearly every important function can be reached with no more than two clicks. Actually, that’s a hidden benefit of a DSLR compared to a mirrorless camera. All that extra surface area means more room for dedicated controls.

And speaking of “more room,” the A77 II is certainly not a small camera — especially when paired up with Sony’s DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM zoom lens. The body is a bit larger than Nikon’s D7100, but quite comparable to my Canon EOS 7D with Canon’s EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS zoom. You can’t really feel the difference when you’re holding the cameras, but if you check the specs, the A77 Mark II with the 16-50mm f/2.8 lens is actually about half a pound lighter than the Nikon and Canon equivalents. And compared to the Nikon D4S and Canon EOS 1D X, the only other DSLRs that offer the same kind speed as of this writing, it’s much, much smaller and lighter.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

The Sony A77 II with DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens vs. the Canon 7D with EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens.

Backpackers, travelers and others who count each and every gram that goes in their camera bag or backpack will appreciate that weight savings over professional DSLRs such as the 1D X or D4S. I know I do when I take the A77 II out on the mountain bike. It’s still much heavier than a mirrorless camera, though, but the extra performance is worth it when money is on the line and I need a camera that really excels at capturing fast action.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Farmer’s market cherries: Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 35mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 200.

I’m still testing the A77 II’s autofocus and video so you’ll have to wait for part two of this report for my findings on those functions. Continuous autofocus for fast-moving subjects will be the challenge there. There’s no denying the A77 II’s groundbreaking and impressive autofocus specs. But Nikon and Canon really have DSLR autofocus so refined that their cameras are nearly flawless in that respect. I can tell you that the single-shot autofocus performance on the A77 II is excellent. The AF is super quick and predictable in single shot mode and even works really well in very low light and with low-contrast subjects. It remains to be seen whether it can compete with Nikon and Canon with high-speed moving subjects, though. I’ll also explore the benefits of using the A77 II for video in the next part of my report. But right now, let’s dig into the image quality provided by Sony’s 24-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor.

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II Image Quality

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 200.

I currently own two Canon APS-C sensor DSLRs (EOS 7D and 70D) that I’m generally very happy with. Frankly, it’s been frustrating, though, watching other manufacturers’ APS-C image quality improve while Canon has seemingly made fewer strides. So one of the primary things I was hoping for from the A77 II is better image quality than I’m getting from my Canon APS-C cameras — especially at or above ISO 1600.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 22mm, f/3.2, 1/60s, ISO 3200.

I understand everyone reading this isn’t a Canon owner and may not care how the A77 II’s image quality compares to Canon’s DSLRs. So, to put the A77 II in context, we need to take a look at other comparable APS-C sensor cameras, as well: Sony’s original A77, the Nikon D7100, and Fujifilm’s X-T1 mirrorless camera. I’ve used all of these sensors in one form or another, but not all at the same time. So for comparison, I’ll refer to the samples in Imaging-Resource’s Sony Alpha A77 Mark II image quality comparison report, which includes JPEG samples made with the aforementioned Sony, Nikon and Fujifilm cameras, as well as Canon’s most recent APS-C sensor camera, the EOS 70D, and the Pentax K-3. For the complete analysis, please read the report, compare the tests, and judge for yourself.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

For those readers who want my personal opinion, here’s some quick analysis. Original A77 owners who have the urge to upgrade will be pleased to know the A77 Mark II shows noticeable image quality improvement over the original A77. Sony’s new BIONZ X processor delivers much more detail at low sensitivity settings and they claim a 20% improvement in sensitivity. Sony’s claim of a 20% sensitivity increase seems fair when I look closely at the ISO 1600 and 3200 samples. The most obvious improvement is at low sensitivity settings, though. Look closely and you’ll see significantly more detail in the low ISO A77 II samples.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 50mm, f/4, 1/125s, ISO 200.

The A77 II also holds up well against the Nikon D7100, Pentax K-3, Fujifilm X-T1, and the Canon EOS 70D — at ISO 100, anyway. It either matches or exceeds the other cameras’ ability to render fine details — except in dark red areas, where it’s a little rougher and more heavy-handed than all but the Canon. At ISO 1600 and higher the A77 II is about equal to the Canon, better than the Pentax, and not quite as good as the Nikon or Fujifilm. The D7100 and A77 II are actually quite close in terms of noise and detail at ISO 3200. The A77 II has less noise than the Nikon, but trades some detail for a smoother look. The Fujifilm X-T1 has the best high ISO image quality of all the cameras in the Imaging Resource comparison, with good detail rendering and low noise.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 26mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 800.

All of the analysis above is, for JPEG images at default camera settings, though. And I don’t shoot JPEGs. When you shoot in JPEG mode there’s a lot of in-camera adjustment and processing, including color, contrast, saturation, sharpening, and noise reduction. I prefer to shoot RAW and make my images look the way I want, not the way a camera company software engineer decided they should look. Shooting in RAW also means I get all the data the sensor captures. That gives me a lot more dynamic range so I can massage my image file into the work of art I envisioned when I originally took the picture. The photo above would not be possible working from just one JPEG file.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 45mm, f/4.5, 1/2000s, ISO 6400.

The first thing I did when the A77 Mark II arrived was a low light comparison with my own Canon EOS 70D. I set up a studio scene with a classic camera against a dark background and shot it with both cameras in RAW mode at ISO 1600, 3200 and 6400. Looking at the images on the computer at 100%, aside from slight differences in zoom ratio and white balance, the general image quality is very similar, with noise from both cameras looking pretty much the same. But pixel peeping doesn’t take the resolution difference into account. With a higher resolution image, noise becomes less visible when you shrink the images down to a web- or print-sized image. The question is, does the A77 II’s extra resolution make any real difference?

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

To add the Sony’s 20% resolution advantage into the mix, I resized the Sony ISO 6400 photo to the same dimensions as the Canon photo and then set them both up side-by-side on a 13 x 19-inch print. Even then, the two images looked pretty much the same, though. Only after I pushed them about a stop in Photoshop did I start to see a difference — and it was pretty subtle.  However, when pushed hard, the Sony image did hold up better with a bit less noise and slightly better detail.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

To the average photographer, these subtle differences probably won’t make a matter. But for photographers like myself who shoot RAW and do a lot of post-processing, that edge counts. It’s not uncommon for me to make selective adjustments of a stop or more to get the overall exposure balance I want in my outdoor photos. And even though I’m having a hard time quantitatively locking down a dramatic difference between my Canon cameras and the A77 II, I have a general impression of better high ISO performance and better detail from the Sony. I certainly have more confidence using it at ISO 1600 and 3200. Case-in-point — this photo below of my wife mountain biking in Park City was shot in very low light at ISO 3200, and it’s been pushed really hard in Lightroom and Photoshop. It still looks great though, if I do say so myself. Just to be sure, I made a 13 x 19-inch print. Noise was visible if I looked for it, and I noticed that I pushed the area around my wife a bit too much. But overall, I was very impressed — especially considering it was shot at ISO 3200 and pushed about a full stop. That’s not something I ever would have considered doing with either of my Canon APS-C cameras.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 3200.

Of course, if image quality was all that mattered, I’d just use a full-frame camera. But it’s important to remember the A77 II was built for action. You won’t get the 12 frames per second in RAW format from comparably-priced full-frame cameras. And you can’t find that kind of speed at all in competing APS-C cameras. So if you’re a serious action photographer on a budget, the A77 II really is the best bang for the buck — at least if your criteria are image quality and speed. The next question is autofocus — can the Sony Alpha A77 II keep with Canon and Nikon when it comes to continuous autofocus? For me, that’s the most critical test for any action camera — does the continuous autofocus work for high-speed moving subjects?

Introduction

When I first saw Sony’s Alpha A77 Mark II announcement, I thought it might finally be time to invest in a Sony DSLR system. I’ve been a big fan of their camera design and features for a long time, but there hadn’t really been a camera that was a good fit for me — until now. The A77 II looked like it was designed just for me — an original Canon EOS 7D owner looking for better image quality, more speed, better video quality, and unique Sony features like an electronic viewfinder and sensor-shift image stabilization.

Speed, autofocus & Action Performance

With an updated autofocus system and lots of horsepower, the Sony Alpha A77 Mark II looks like an action shooter’s dream camera. That’s especially true for those of us who don’t have a budget for $5000+ cameras like the Canon EOS 1D X and Nikon D4s. We can’t all drive Ferraris, though — the rest of us need something more along the lines of a Subaru WRX — an affordable, working man’s performance car. Like the WRX, the A77 Mark II offers more performance than most of us actually need, in a very affordable, user-friendly package. There’s no doubt the A77 II is a heck of a camera, but is it enough to compete with other cameras in the same category?

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Although they stopped short of calling it a professional sports camera, Sony made a big deal about the A77 II’s action shooting capabilities — especially its new, “unprecedented focusing system.” And the A77 II’s spec sheet is impressive — especially when compared to other comparably-priced DSLRs. With a 79-point phase detect AF system that includes 15 cross-type sensors, the A77 II has more AF points than any other DSLR. The A77 II is also very fast. It can shoot up to 12 frames per second in Continuous Priority AE mode, and 8 frames per second in manual exposure modes. To help manage the sophisticated autofocus system, the A77 II has a competitive array of AF settings, including five focus area options that can be used with or without Lock-on AF tracking. To fine-tune autofocus performance, the AF drive speed can be set to fast or slow, and there’s a five-level AF Track Duration setting that controls how long the Lock-on AF tracking “sticks” to a subject.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Professional freeskier Hannah Follender, on a very wet powder day at Alta Ski Area. By the time we finished shooting and got back to the lodge, the camera was completely soaked — but it worked like a champ! This photo took a lot of post-processing due to the excessively flat light.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 16mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 1600

To find out how the A77 II’s fancy autofocus system performs in the real world, I put it through the wringer. I shot loads of mountain bike trail and dirt jump photos and literally thousands of cyclocross racing photos. I even shot some skiing and snowboarding, once we started getting snow in the mountains. For subjects where I could use single-shot autofocus to pre-focus, the A77 II was excellent. But my initial impressions of the continuous autofocus weren’t as good. Although I did get some sharp photos, it wasn’t consistent enough to give me the confidence I need when there’s money on the line. As a professional outdoor and action sports photographer, continuous autofocus performance is critical — especially when I’m shooting unpredictable races and freeride events. So last summer, when I shot a couple of world-class mountain bike competitions with paying clients (Colorado Enduro World Series and Red Bull Rampage), I decided I’d better stick with my tried and true Canon gear. I just couldn’t afford to take any risks.

The Sony A77 II is too important of a camera to be judged on mere impressions, though. I needed data to back up my experience. I started my controlled testing of the A77 II’s continuous autofocus by shooting some mountain bike dirt jumping and the results were promising. With the 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens, shooting with a large aperture and relatively non-distracting backgrounds, I got some very nice photos.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

My Sony A77 II dirt jump continuous autofocus test results were promising.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 100mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800

I followed up by shooting a cyclocross race — one of my favorite sports to shoot and an excellent action photography testing laboratory because racers do multiple laps on a relatively short, closed course. Cyclocross is also one of the most difficult subjects I photograph — focus has to be spot on, depth-of-field is usually pretty shallow, and the motion is often very fast and somewhat erratic. At the first race, I shot 1154 photos and ended up with 531 keepers — a success rate of just 46%. That confirmed my initial impressions of the A77 II’s continuous autofocus performance. It works, but not nearly as well as my own Canon EOS cameras or Nikon DSLRs I’ve used. I’ve learned to expect a 70% to 95% keeper rate from those cameras, depending on conditions, the specific camera model, lens choice, etc. Because of those disappointing results, I decided I needed to talk to the Sony camera team to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with the camera, and that I wasn’t making any mistakes.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

A cyclocross race photo from my first controlled AF test outing. This one worked pretty well — especially considering how far apart the riders are, and the poor lighting conditions.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 100mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800

During a conference call with the Sony Alpha crew, we talked about the camera’s autofocus settings, action technique, and what kind of results I should expect. I described my action photography technique — mostly old-school single-point continuous autofocus, where you select a single AF point and keep it on your subject while you shoot — a method that’s worked very well for me and other sports photographers I know, for decades. They basically told me I was doing it all wrong. It turns out the A77 II’s autofocus system was designed for best results using the Lock-on AF option, which combines object recognition and tracking with continuous autofocus. They suggested I use the Lock-on AF with focus area set to Wide, and let the camera identify and track the subject. In my experience, object recognition, tracking and any other form of “intelligent” autofocus are a crapshoot at best. But they were so confident I said I’d give it a shot.

So the next weekend I shot a full day of cyclocross racing with the A77 II, using only the Lock-on AF. I started out using the wide-area setting, as suggested, but quickly realized it wasn’t going to work for me. If I’m shooting two riders coming toward me, I always choose one to focus on. But with the wide area setting, the camera may or may not choose the rider I want in focus. If I’m shooting a larger group of riders, that’s an even bigger problem. Even worse, if I’m shooting a specific racer for a paying client, I can’t take a chance on the camera choosing the wrong rider. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

This is from my first day testing Sony’s Lock-on AF system. Although I almost always choose to focus on the riders in the front, the camera chose to focus on the rider in red.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 135mm, f/5, 1/2000s, ISO 1600

Since the follow-up autofocus test didn’t improve my results, I made arrangements to visit the Sony Alpha team at their San Diego headquarters. I wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings or overlooked details. I was really hoping there’d be some epiphany about settings or technique, and I’d start getting perfect results from the A77 II’s AF tracking system. We discussed the autofocus system and spent a couple of hours experimenting with settings and taking pictures of cars as they drove by the Sony building. Although we didn’t make any big discoveries about my A77 II test camera, the autofocus settings or the way I shoot, I left confident that my testing method was sound. I was also impressed by how the Sony folks addressed my concerns. Instead of blowing me off and assuming my low keeper rate was due to user error, we had what I consider a very productive exchange. The Sony Alpha team has impressed me from the start, and this experience just reinforced my respect for them. When I left, I promised to shoot one more cyclocross race to see if anything we’d talked about during my visit could improve my the A77 II’s autofocus performance.I continued using the AF tracking and experimented with all the Lock-on focus area options: Wide, Zone, Center, Flexible Spot, and Expanded Flexible Spot. I found I had the best chance of getting usable results when I used the Flexible Spot and Expanded Flexible Spot areas. But all too often, the AF system chose the rider behind the one I wanted, or worse, some unimportant background area. I ended up shooting 1141 photos that day, with just 403 acceptably sharp keepers. That’s only a 35% success rate — not good at all. I can’t afford to gamble with those odds.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

This should have been a relatively easy continuous autofocus challenge – simply keep the focus point on the rider and you get a sharp photo. However, if you look at the full-size image you’ll see it’s focused on the tents in the background and not even close to the rider. That was a very common problem for me with the A77 II’s Lock-on AF. I shot a lot of photos of this barrier at this angle and got very few keepers.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 18mm, f/3.5, 1/3200s, ISO 800

Since the follow-up autofocus test didn’t improve my results, I made arrangements to visit the Sony Alpha team at their San Diego headquarters. I wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings or overlooked details. I was really hoping there’d be some epiphany about settings or technique, and I’d start getting perfect results from the A77 II’s AF tracking system. We discussed the autofocus system and spent a couple of hours experimenting with settings and taking pictures of cars as they drove by the Sony building. Although we didn’t make any big discoveries about my A77 II test camera, the autofocus settings or the way I shoot, I left confident that my testing method was sound. I was also impressed by how the Sony folks addressed my concerns. Instead of blowing me off and assuming my low keeper rate was due to user error, we had what I consider a very productive exchange. The Sony Alpha team has impressed me from the start, and this experience just reinforced my respect for them. When I left, I promised to shoot one more cyclocross race to see if anything we’d talked about during my visit could improve my the A77 II’s autofocus performance.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

My Lock-on AF results did improve a bit after I met with Sony. The A77II’s autofocus did exactly what I wanted in this photo of the pro men’s start at the final race of the Utah cyclocross season.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 120mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 1600

I did shoot another race when I got back home to Utah, but with just a 50% keeper rate (out of over 1700 photos), I didn’t see any significant improvement. Ultimately, the A77 II’s continuous autofocus didn’t perform well enough for me with the sports I shoot. It might be better for slower subjects or motor sports, where the subject is larger and more isolated from the background (we did have pretty good results shooting cars at the Sony office). But the tracking system just isn’t reliable enough for action sports, and I got way too many photos that were focused on the rider behind the one I wanted, some background detail, or nothing at all. Even when it did work, I usually only got one or two sharp images from a burst of five or more. With that kind of performance, you’re better off just pre-focusing.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

One more example of how good the Sony Alpha A77 II’s Lock-on AF can be. I had a lot of problems with the system getting stuck on that sage brush next to the rider. But in this photo, everything worked perfectly.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 140mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 800.

Although the A77 II’s continuous AF performance isn’t as good as I’ve come to expect from Canon and Nikon DSLRs, it is an improvement over what I’ve experienced with previous Sony DSLRs. And even though it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped for my cycling photos, Sony’s Lock-on AF tracking is pretty cool. When it works right, you see the highlighted AF points in the viewfinder follow the subject around the frame. Although it’s not yet reliable enough for professional-level action photography, I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re able to do with the next generation of this technology. I think it’s right on the edge of being awesome, and I’d really love to have a camera where it works well.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

The A77 II’s Lock-on AF really came through for me in this shot. This skier was going *really* fast but the system still managed to lock on and deliver this razor-sharp image. The A77 II’s wide dynamic range also helped me recover tons of snow detail from the RAW file in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 200mm, f/5.6, 1/2500s, ISO 400

Video Quality & Performance

The Sony Alpha SLT DSLRs have always been a good choice for video. The A77 II records 1920 x 1080 full-HD video at 60 FPS in the AVCHD format, and a recent firmware update also adds Sony’s new proprietary high bit rate XAVC S video format for even better quality. Audio specs are very good, with adjustable audio levels, a stereo mic input, and a built-in stereo mic. To record, you can select the video icon on the mode dial or just press the dedicated video button on the back of the camera. For serious videographers, video-specific PASM manual modes are available within movie mode. And if the 50 Mbps XAVC S quality isn’t enough, you can also record uncompressed video to an external recorder via the camera’s HDMI port.

A few features that set them apart from the competition are the built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), sensor-shift image stabilization, and their transparent mirror design. The EVF means you can actually use the eye-level viewfinder while recording video. With other digital SLRs, you’d need to add an expensive accessory viewfinder/loupe on the LCD display if you want to hold it up to your eye. This isn’t just a convenience feature, either. Using an eye-level viewfinder adds a third point-of-contact with the body and that means smoother, steadier video — with or without image stabilization. And with the A77 II’s built-in Steadyshot image stabilization, you get camera shake correction with any lens you use. You don’t have to buy image-stabilized lenses like you do with some other camera brands.

Sony A77 II Sample Video (EDITED MONTAGE)
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps, MP4
Download Original (86.6MB MP4)
Download unedited, straight-from-camera .MTS videos below:
Skiing #1
(66MB .MTS)
Skiing #2
(87.2MB .MTS)
Biking #1
(34.8MB .MTS)
Biking #2
(44.6MB .MTS)
Landscape
(119MB .MTS)

How Does It Compare to the Competition?Sony’s transparent mirror design is one of the main things that sets their SLT DSLRs apart from other manufacturers. Because the mirror is transparent, it doesn’t have to move out of the way when you’re shooting photos or recording video. That’s given Sony’s SLT cameras a real autofocus edge for video. It means the A77 II can use its full 79-point phase detect AF system for movies. Other camera makers are catching up, but I was very impressed with the A77 II’s tracking abilities in movie mode. Watch the clip of my dad skiing in the sample video (above) to judge the tracking for yourself.

How Does It Compare to the Competition?

Overall, the Sony Alpha A77 II compares very well to the competition (qualification: I have not had a chance to use the new Canon EOS 7D Mk II yet). In terms of price, features and performance, it competes with cameras like the Canon EOS 7D, EOS 70D, EOS 7D Mk II, the Nikon D7100 and D5300, and flagship mirrorless cameras from Olympus, Panasonic and Fujifilm. It also competes with its own sibling, the Sony Alpha A6000 mirrorless camera, which packages the same sensor and similar features in a much smaller package. The size, build and controls are comparable to Nikon and Canon’s best prosumer cameras and general performance is as good or better. Sony’s 24-megapixel APS-C sensor has more resolution and better dynamic range than Canon’s pre- EOS 7D Mk II APS-C sensor cameras. I do think Nikon and Fujifilm’s APS-C sensor cameras have a bit of an image quality edge over the A77 II. But it’s not enough of a difference for me to really care — especially not when you factor in the Sony’s price and all the other benefits of the A77 II. Price-wise, it really doesn’t have any competition.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

Tracked powder on a bluebird day is easy work for the A77 II. Just plan your shot, pre-focus, shoot a high-speed burst, and pick the frame with the best body position.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + DT 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM lens: 18mm, f/8, 1/3200s, ISO 800

What are the special benefits of using a Sony SLT DSLR? For me, the built-in electronic viewfinder and sensor-shift image stabilization are huge. There are definitely photographers who don’t like EVFs. However, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve put in any serious time using one. I’ve been using them on and off for years now, and I absolutely prefer a good EVF to an optical viewfinder. Once you get used to making menu changes, reviewing photos and videos, and using the eye-level viewfinder to record video, it’s really hard to go back. The built-in Wi-Fi is also very important to me. Of course, Wi-Fi is available in most competing cameras now. But in my opinion, Sony’s Wi-Fi system is one of the easiest to set up and use.

Sony A77 II Review -- Shooter's Report

The main reason for a fast burst rate is so you can pick the best moment from a trick or play in the action. Faster is generally better with a sports camera. But I’ve found that 8 FPS — the fastest the A77 II can do in manual exposure modes – is almost always all I need.
Sony Alpha A77 Mark II + 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens: 160mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s, ISO 800

Although the A77 II is capable of shooting at 12 FPS (in Continuous Advance Priority Auto-Exposure mode), if you’re a manual exposure shooter like me, it slows down to 8 FPS (Continuous HI) — see more info here. That’s still plenty fast, though. It’s faster than any other APS-C sensor DSLR, except for the Canon EOS 7D (also 8 FPS) and 7D Mk II (10 FPS). Although faster is nice for a sports camera, I never felt like the A77 II lacked speed.

The only real issue I have with the A77 II is the continuous autofocus performance. Although it’s not as good as Nikon and Canon DSLRs, it’s still better than any mirrorless camera I’ve used. And if you don’t depend on continuous autofocus, then the A77 II delivers a hell of a lot of camera for the money. The Nikon D7100 has a considerably slower burst rate and tiny buffer; and the original Canon EOS 7D image quality doesn’t compare. For the price, I think the only camera that compares is the Canon EOS 70D. But the 70D’s sensor isn’t as good,  it’s one frame slower in manual modes, and you also give up the EVF and built-in image stabilization. Ultimately, I really think the value of the A77 II comes down to how important continuous autofocus performance is for you.

Conclusion

Before Imaging Resource sent me an A77 II to test, I was seriously considering buying one, sight-unseen. There are a lot of things I love about Sony’s approach to camera design, and my Canon APS-C DSLRs have been giving me a serious case of sensor envy. The real question for me was whether the A77 II’s continuous autofocus performance would be up to snuff. Although the A77 II’s action performance looks great on paper, and it’s an upgrade compared to previous Sony cameras, it’s still not up to the same standard as Canon and Nikon. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad camera, though — not at all. The truth is, I have to explain continuous autofocus to most people because they don’t actually use it. And photographers who don’t depend on continuous autofocus to pay the bills shouldn’t worry about it. The only reason I put so much energy into testing the camera’s tracking AF performance is Sony advertised the A77 II as “a perfect choice for fast-action photography.” As a fast-action photographer and camera reviewer, it’s my job to put that claim to the test. And unfortunately, it fell a little short.

In every other way, the Sony A77 II is an excellent DSLR body, and I preferred it to my own cameras. In fact, with few exceptions, I loved using it. For an APS-C sensor camera, the image quality is great, as is video performance. And there’s no arguing with the speed. Even at 8 FPS in manual exposure modes, it’s plenty fast. The A77 II is built great with a solid feel, good ergonomics and well laid-out, intuitive controls.

If you’re an original A77 owner looking for an upgrade, the A77 II is an obvious and smart move. If you’re a Canon or Nikon owner, it’s a tougher call. If you’re like me and you’ve been waiting to make the move to Sony, it might be smart to wait just a little bit longer — at least if you’re a sports photographer.

(imaging-resource.com)

 

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