Holy moly, what a specification the Sony A99 II offers: a 42.4-million-pixel BSI (back illuminated) full-frame CMOS sensor, a 399-point hybrid autofocus system, 12-frames per second shooting with continuous tracking autofocus, 4K movie capture, and 5-axis image stabilisation.
The company’s flagship Single Lens Translucent (SLT) interchangeable lens camera represents a huge step-up in technology from its four-year-old predecessor, the original Alpha 99. It’s got the muscle to lay down a challenge for the likes of other high-end offerings, too, such as Canon’s EOS 1D X II and EOS-5D Mk IV, Nikon’s D5 and D810, and the Pentax K-1.
Retailing at £3,000 body-only, however, the A99 Mark II is far from cheap – although considering the specification it’s arguably rather good value. Spec is one thing, of course, but how it handles in the real world is what we care about. Indeed, can the Sony A99 II up the SLT ante and deliver a flawless high-end shooting experience?
Sony Alpha A99 II review: Design
- Single Lens Translucent (SLT) technology
- Multi-controller with click/smooth control
- Customisable function buttons
- 104.2 x 142.6 76.1mm; 849g
The SLT concept is an interesting one. By using a translucent mirror the A99 II removes the necessity for this mechanism to move in order to get light to the sensor when taking a shot. This means continuous autofocus while burst shooting is possible without interruption, as mechanical movement is restricted to the shutter only. In short: it’s fast, super fast.
That doesn’t really change the A99 II’s style, however, which is fashioned much the same as a DSLR camera. However, viewfinder is less pronounced than a DSLR equivalent, which means Sony’s camera sits slightly shorter. The reason for this is because there’s no need for a pentaprism unit for the electronic viewfinder (it’s not optical).
When the (fractionally bigger) original A99 was released four years ago, it was the smallest full-frame digital camera going on account of this unique design (Sony is the only manufacturer actively developing SLT). But a lot has changed in four years, not least of which is Sony’s own Alpha 7 range of compact system cameras – which are significantly smaller again. So if size is your key concern for a full-frame camera then the Alpha 99 II does not holds the reigns.
Plus we’d anticipate most users to pair the A99 II with decent (and heavy) glass, such as the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens – which was the main lens used for this test; we also had the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA lens – adding to the scale and weight overall.
In the hand the A99 II feels much like a DSLR. A pronounced hand grip enables a firm hold and many key controls are within reach. Some controls can be found easily even without looking away from the viewfinder, such as exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity.
Central to the navigation of the menu systems and AF point selection is a joystick (although the front and rear dials also perform some of these functions). We found the joystick too easily moved in the Alpha 99, but in our Alpha 99 II test model the joystick was almost too sticky, especially the downwards motion.
Once in the revamped menu system, there is almost an overwhelming number of pages to navigate – testament to what the Sony Alpha 99 II offers. The new menu is an improvement from before – being colour coded and the five multi-page sections can now be skipped through, but it’s still a lot to take in.
Button customisation is well worth the time in order to assign frequently used controls to the physical function buttons on the camera body. Furthermore there’s a multi controller dial to the side of the lens which can be assigned to any one of a number of functions, including AF areas and aperture. This dial can be switched between clicked and smooth rotation, clearly with videographers in mind, just as it was in the original A99.
Sony Alpha 99 II review: Screen and finder
- 3-inch, vari-angle LCD screen (1,228k-dots resolution)
- 0.5-inch electronic OLED viewfinder (2,359k-dots resolution)
Sony has opted for the same tilt-angle LCD screen as found in the Alpha 99. The theory is great – an articulated screen positioned away from the body on a tilt mechanism – but in practice there are times when the screen is actually a little fiddly.
For instance, when positioned low to the ground and tilting the screen upwards – like we did shooting bluebells in the woods – the eyecup gets in the way of tilting, especially in landscape format. Ultimately, in such situations the screen can feel counter-intuitive. That being said, most cameras at this level feature fixed screens that offer no tilt or articulation at all.
The LCD screen is not touch-sensitive, which is a shame. There are other high-end cameras now with touchscreens – it’s not a gimmick reserved for consumer friendly cameras and smartphones.
We won’t go into a whole electronic (EVF) versus optical viewfinder (OVF) debate here, but suffice to say the EVF in the Alpha 99 II is very good as far as EVFs go. The magnification is improved over its predecessor which is welcome, although the resolution remains at 2.36-million-dots.
Sony Alpha 99 II review: New autofocus system
- Hybrid phase-detection autofocus system
- 399-point focal-plane AF sensor plus dedicated 79-point sensor
The A99’s hybrid AF system – which consists a revamped 79-point AF sensor and a 399-point focal plane AF sensor which covers the majority of the frame – is key to the SLT design as constant exposure to the AF sensor allows full-time autofocus.
Above: ISO 5,000
When using this in combination with the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens for this review, the A99 II quickly locks on to focus, even in low light conditions. The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA lens we also used does not focus quite as quickly, so what you’ll get from the camera is very much lens dependent (just as it would be in any camera).
Moving the camera’s active AF point over subjects near and far sees the A99 II respond quickly. When making portraits, face detection and eye recognition AF ensures for the majority of the time that focusing is spot on, with eyes pinpoint sharp. Kudos to Sony for that.
We tested the responsiveness of tracking AF when shooting pictures of people (and the occasional dog or duck) running in the late evening sun. In the continuous high 8fps mode, the hit rate of sharp shots is impressive. The camera lagged a fraction in the continuous high+ 12fps mode, however, with the hit rate compromised.
Above: ISO 100
There were also slight variances in performance depending on the AF area selected – flexible spot taken from the centre of the frame was up there with the most effective AF area options, with the outer edges not performing as strongly, likely related to the dual AF sensors.
Sony Alpha 99 II review: Performance and battery
- 5-axis image stabilisation
- 12-frames-per second with continuous autofocus
- 50 shots per burst (approx)
- 500 shots per charge (approx)
Like the Pentax K-1 and Sony’s own Alpha 7 range, the Alpha 99 II features built-in image stabilisation – called SteadyShot. It’s a key selling point that few others can offer – to date, no Nikon or Canon full-frame cameras offer this.
Taking handheld photos when using the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA lens at its wide and telephoto settings, we judge that SteadyShot offers around 2.5 stops (EV) of effective stabilisation.
For the best part, with a steady hand, you could expect a sharp picture at 70mm with a shutter speed as slow as 1/15sec. Increasing a camera’s light intake, especially in low contrast light, helps to improve image quality.
Then there’s speed. Given the huge 42MP resolution the A99 II’s 12fps with continuous AF is massively impressive. When using a UHS-I SDXC U3 card (which is the fastest card available for the camera), a burst would end after approximately 50 images – covering four seconds. The buffer then takes around 30 seconds to fully clear, during which time it’s possible to shoot more but not possible to access the menus.
For those who like to shoot long exposures, it is well worth deactivating the long exposure noise reduction. If not, noise reduction application takes the equivalent of the shutter speed time of the image just recorded. That means a 30-second wait to use the camera again after a single 30-second exposure!
Battery life is respectable, but at this level it’s near the bottom of the pile. Using the same FM500H battery as found in the Alpha 99, the Alpha 99 II is capable of approximately 500 shots from a full charge. This number of shots is almost twice that of the Alpha 7R II, but less than half that of similar cameras such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. It’s not a surprise given the electronic viewfinder approach, but something to be aware – and you might want to consider buying the optional handgrip and extra batteries which can fill it.
Sony Alpha 99 II review: Image quality
- 42.4-million-pixel BSI CMOS full-frame sensor (7952 x 5304 output)
- ISO 100 – 25,600 (50 – 102,400 extended)
After using the A99 II in a variety of scenarios and lighting conditions, we checked the raw and JPEG files to see how they compare. The JPEG quality is so impressive that, for most situations, raw capture is an unnecessary luxury. Of course, raw capture enables more tonal detail to be recovered when the exposure is incorrect, but if exposure is spot on, then JPEGs are the business.
Above: ISO 640, with fill-in flash
Looking at highlight and shadow areas, the amount of detail retained in JPEGs is particularly impressive. For example, in bright skies the detail in white clouds is maintained without blown-out highlights. The dynamic range of the Alpha 99 II is clearly impressive.
With Auto White Balance (AWB) in play, colours can be a tad off. We’ve seen generally warm shots with lots of saturation. Of course, manual adjustments can be made to the Creative Style and to AWB colour reproduction as needed.
Viewing the same scenes taken at all of the available ISO sensitivities, we would not hesitate to use ISO 100 to ISO 1600. Luminance and chroma noise is not apparent one bit, even in low-light conditions. Image noise becomes apparent with faint detail smudging at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400, and then image quality begins to suffer at ISO 12,800 and above.
However, as the files are 42-megapixels they’re huge enough to often hide the presence of image noise if the output size isn’t too large. You’ll need to look in detail at 100 per cent to get the fuller picture.
Above: ISO 51,200
A final note for those with an eye for detail – yes, you landscape photographers – the translucent mirror of the Sony Alpha 99 II is fixed. During exposure there is no mirror movement, which in DSLRs can introduce camera shake. So with SteadyShot turned off and the camera mounted to a tripod, the images are pin sharp. Ideal if you’re looking to make large prints.
Sony Alpha 99 II review: 4K video
- 4K at 100Mbps, 8-bit 4:2:2
- 1080p and slow-motion also available
- 3.5mm headphones out and mic in ports
- HDMI out (clean output for off-camera recording)
- Dual SD card slots
We can’t review the Alpha 99 II without commenting on its video recording capability – because it’s excellent.
Offering 4K capture at 100Mbps, plus with built-in stabilisation and hybrid AF, the Alpha 99 II is well capable of serving videographers.
In addition to 4K, the A99 II can shoot in an APS-C ‘Super 35mm’ crop mode (downsampling 5k footage to 4k). Plus slow-motion Full HD videos is possible at 100fps.
However, there is a severe exposure mode limitation when using autofocus for video. With autofocus, the camera is set to Program Auto (P) shooting mode and automatically selects an aperture of f/3.5. If autofocus is necessary, then the P shooting mode works really well, with smooth and quick focus transitions. If exposure control is necessary, then manual focus it is, with a full choice of exposure modes.
The Alpha 99 II records images onto SD memory card and has dual slots, one of which is also micro SD compatible. Given the 4K video recording and high-speed drive modes, it is somewhat surprising that the card compatibility is limited to UHS-I, not the latest UHS-II.
On paper, the Sony Alpha 99 II sounds massively impressive. So is it good enough to cater for both professionals who want to print big and those who want to never miss a shot from its speed-focused setup?
Well, the answer is an almost, but not quite.
When it comes to landscape and portrait photography, the Sony Alpha 99 II shines. With massive file sizes, excellent colour rendition and sharp lenses available, viewing pictures on screen is almost as satisfying as going out in the landscapes to create them. Image stabilisation and no moving mirror work well for the high resolution pictures where softness caused by movement would otherwise be all the more obvious.
As for action photography, the Alpha 99 II is generally slower than those cameras designed for such a purpose – despite what the impressive figures suggest. The processor performance for buffering images and slight autofocus limitations in continuous high+ mode are where the Alpha 99 II can’t quite match the best in our experience.
Overall the Alpha 99 II is a marked improvement over its predecessor and a brilliant all-rounder. And when it comes to 4K video capture, well, there are few that can compete at this level.
The A99 II is a triumph for translucent.
Alternatives to consider…
- £1,600/$2,400 (body-only)
The Pentax K-1 isn’t a patch on the Sony for video, but if you’re looking for full-frame photography and built-in image stabilisation at a cut of the price then it’s a clear contender to consider.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- £3,630/$5,445 (body only)
The daddy of do-it-all, the 5D MkIV is hard to beat. A deft balance between resolution and ability, this Canon might be expensive and lack the vari-angle LCD screen, but it makes up for that in knock-out image quality.