RE­VIEW : sony al­pha a99 II

Sony’s put so much ef­fort into its A7 mir­ror­less cam­era range that many might have for­got­ten about the SLR-like Al­pha range. But it’s back…

Professional Photography - - The Business - Rod Law­ton

SLT / £3,000 / $3,200 (body only) / sony.com

These are ex­cit­ing times for Sony fans – and con­fus­ing, too. Just when we all thought the A7 series was the fu­ture, the com­pany drops a bomb­shell. The a99 II is a throw­back to Sony’s early ex­per­i­ments in DSLR al­ter­na­tives. It’s like a mir­ror­less cam­era… but with a mir­ror. In fact, it’s a fixed, translu­cent mir­ror, which passes light through to the sen­sor at the back, but also feeds a ded­i­cated SLR-style phase de­tec­tion aut­o­fo­cus sen­sor in the base of the pen­taprism hous­ing. It doesn’t ac­tu­ally have a pen­taprism, though. In­stead, it uses an elec­tronic viewfinder fed by the main sen­sor. The aim of the SLT (sin­gle lens translu­cent) de­sign is to com­bine the

The a99 II is like a mir­ror­less cam­era… but with a mir­ror. A fixed, translu­cent mir­ror.

aut­o­fo­cus speed of a SLR with the al­ways-on elec­tronic live view of a mir­ror­less. Sony has in­sisted more than once that the Al­pha for­mat is alive and kick­ing, de­spite the devel­op­ment of the A7 series, and here’s the proof. The a99 II has the sec­ond-high­est res­o­lu­tion of any full-frame cam­era at 42.4 megapix­els, and can shoot at this res­o­lu­tion at up to 12fps. So it’s within a whisker of Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X II speeds, but with dou­ble the res­o­lu­tion. There are some caveats. It doesn’t have the buf­fer ca­pac­ity of these cam­eras, though it can still cap­ture around 50 RAW+JPEG im­ages. And AE/AF track­ing in the 12fps H+ modes does need com­pat­i­ble lenses. It’s also pos­si­ble to shoot in live view at 8fps (H mode). So far it sounds as if this should all have been tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble with the Sony A7R II as a plat­form, but the a99 II has a sec­ond ma­jor sell­ing point: a brand new 79-point/399-point hy­brid phase de­tec­tion AF sys­tem that’s only pos­si­ble with the Al­pha SLT de­sign. The 79 points are pro­vided by the ded­i­cated phase de­tec­tion sen­sor above the mir­ror and are ar­ranged in a typ­i­cal SLR dis­tri­bu­tion around the cen­tre of the frame. The fur­ther 399 points are on­sen­sor phase de­tec­tion points ar­ranged in a rec­tan­gu­lar area over a much larger area of the screen. These two sys­tems work to­gether, de­pend­ing on the aut­o­fo­cus mode you se­lect. Fif­teen of the 79 AF points on the ded­i­cated AF sen­sor are cross-type, but the re­main­der over­lay cor­re­spond­ing AF points on the main sen­sor to pro­vide a kind of hy­brid cross-type AF. Be­yond this 79-point area, the on-sen­sor AF points can pick up sub­jects mov­ing quickly and er­rat­i­cally around the frame. They all form part of Sony’s 4D fo­cus sys­tem – lat­eral and ver­ti­cal move­ment, depth and time ( pre­dic­tive aut­o­fo­cus). The 42.4MP sen­sor has no anti-alias­ing fil­ter, and in our lab tests the a99 II equals the res­o­lu­tion of the Canon EOS 5DS. It’s matched up with a BIONZ X pro­ces­sor and front-end LSI that de­liv­ers widely ex­panded sen­si­tiv­ity (up to ISO25,600, or 102,400 in ex­panded mode), ex­tra-low noise (with area-spe­cific noise re­duc­tion) and even dif­frac­tion com­pen­sa­tion at smaller lens aper­tures. The a99 II also in­cor­po­rates in-body 5-axis im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion and im­pres­sive video ca­pa­bil­i­ties, which in­clude full-frame 4K movies or high-res­o­lu­tion over­sam­pled 4K with­out pixel bin­ning in the Su­per 35mm for­mat.

Build and han­dling

In the flesh, the a99 II is sur­pris­ingly un­re­mark­able. De­spite the many tech­ni­cal ad­vances, the a99 II is ac­tu­ally eight per cent smaller than its pre­de­ces­sor. The bat­tery life ex­pectancy is a re­minder that mir­ror­less cam­eras (even those with a mir­ror!) gob­ble up power much faster than an SLR. The a99 II’s bat­tery is good for just 390 shots in live view and 490 us­ing the EVF. You’re go­ing to need plenty of spares if you go out on an ex­tended shoot, and you’ll need to make sure they’re all charged up first. There’s an op­tional bat­tery grip which will help with the power man­age­ment, and if you like the big­ger, meatier di­men­sions of pro SLRs like the EOS-1D X and Nikon D5, then this might be a good buy. With­out the grip, the a99 II is nicely com­pact. If com­pact is what you want. Fit a pro-spec zoom like the Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8, how­ever, and you might wish the body had a bit more ver­ti­cal height, for a bet­ter grip in the hand to bal­ance out some of these big, pro­fes­sional lenses. The thumb­stick on the back is some­thing of an ac­quired taste, too. It’s used ex­ten­sively for menu nav­i­ga­tion and fo­cus point po­si­tion­ing, but it has a short throw and a heavy, rather im­pre­cise feel. The elec­tronic viewfinder is ter­rific, though. It’s so crisp and re­spon­sive that, given the fact the a99 II al­ready han­dles like a SLR, you could for­get it’s not an op­ti­cal viewfinder. The only thing that gives it away some­times is when shoot­ing

out­doors un­der a bright sky – over­ex­posed ar­eas are clipped in a typ­i­cally dig­i­tal way, whereas with an op­ti­cal viewfinder it’s your eye that’s do­ing the ‘see­ing’. The rear screen is es­pe­cially clever. It has a tilt mech­a­nism with an ad­di­tional can­tilever sec­tion that lets you angle the screen higher and fur­ther for­ward for waist-level shoot­ing. It also hinges at the base for over­head shots, and there’s a cen­tral pivot here, which lets you turn the screen side­ways too. This means ver­ti­cal shots are as straight­for­ward as hor­i­zon­tal ones (some­thing you don’t get with a reg­u­lar tilt­ing screen) and with­out the awk­ward side­ways ex­ten­sion of reg­u­lar var­i­an­gle screens. Nei­ther is the a99 II’s live view mode the clunky, slowed down ex­pe­ri­ence you get on a con­ven­tional SLR – this is a cam­era that’s as ef­fec­tive in live view as it is in viewfinder shoot­ing.

Per­for­mance

Our real-world tests con­firm the re­sults we got in the lab – the a99 II’s 42.4MP sen­sor can de­liver ex­tremely sharp re­sults. How­ever, you do have to work that lit­tle bit harder to get the best from it, be­cause its res­o­lu­tion shows up the slight­est fo­cus­ing er­rors or cam­era shake. With a cam­era like this, it’s tempt­ing to zoom in on every im­age to revel in the de­tail or, worse, to find fault ei­ther with your equip­ment or your tech­nique. This means the 5-axis sta­bil­i­sa­tion is es­pe­cially wel­come. Even so, if you’re shoot­ing hand­held, you might want to keep the shut­ter speeds just a stop or so higher than you would with a lower-res model. The colour ren­di­tion, dy­namic range and ex­po­sure ac­cu­racy are hard to fault. Any ex­po­sure vari­a­tions were en­tirely pre­dictable and due to the scene light­ing, not any fail­ings on the part of the Sony’s me­ter­ing sys­tem. The a99 II de­liv­ers great-look­ing JPEGs, though most pros will be shoot­ing RAW and will make their own de­ci­sions about white bal­ance, colours and tonal ren­der­ing. It’s one thing com­bin­ing high frame rates with high res­o­lu­tion, but pho­tog­ra­phers also need good high ISO per­for­mance, and this is a stum­bling block for high-res sen­sors. There comes a point where a com­bi­na­tion of de­tail loss, noise and smear­ing makes an im­age un­us­able. The a99 II does pretty well in this re­spect too, de­liv­er­ing im­ages with lit­tle real degra­da­tion right up to ISO3,200. Be­yond this, the noise stays well con­trolled but de­tail loss and smear­ing starts to creep in. There’s a clear dif­fer­ence be­tween ISO3,200 and 6,400, and at ISO12,800, finer de­tail starts to get dis­tinctly mushy. The im­age qual­ity isn’t in­tol­er­a­ble even at the max­i­mum ex­panded ISO102,400 set­ting, but you’d only use it in an emer­gency, and with the aware­ness that you came with the wrong kind of cam­era. The aut­o­fo­cus sys­tem is highly ef­fec­tive, though com­pli­cated by the fact you need a com­pat­i­ble lens to get the ben­e­fit of the Hy­brid Phase De­tec­tion AF sys­tem with wide fo­cus area, 399 AF points and Hy­brid Cross AF. Many are com­pat­i­ble, though, and there’s a list on the Sony web­site. If your lens isn’t on that list, you’re restricted to the reg­u­lar 79-point AF sen­sor above the mir­ror. As­sum­ing your lens meets those cri­te­ria, you have a choice be­tween Wide (ef­fec­tively, au­to­matic AF point se­lec­tion), Zone (ef­fec­tively, se­lect­ing a smaller area for auto AF point se­lec­tion), Cen­ter, Flex­i­ble Spot (you choose your AF point man­u­ally) and Ex­panded Flex­i­ble Spot (use this for larger sub­jects or to al­low for some sub­ject move­ment) modes. When Lock-On AF is used – when you half-press the shut­ter re­lease in con­tin­u­ous AF mode – the cam­era will au­to­mat­i­cally track mov­ing sub­jects within the zone you’ve spec­i­fied. Once you un­der­stand the prin­ci­ple, it’s per­fectly log­i­cal, and ef­fec­tive too. Fo­cus ac­qui­si­tion ap­pears rapid, though this will de­pend on the lens you’re us­ing – some have faster AF ac­tu­a­tors than oth­ers – and the fo­cus-track­ing worked well in our tests. Com­plex AF sys­tems take time to learn and test prop­erly, how­ever, re­quir­ing the op­por­tu­nity to try them out in a wide range of sce­nar­ios. The signs look good for Sony’s Hy­brid Phase De­tec­tion AF sys­tem, but so far we’ve only been able to try it out in a rel­a­tively un­de­mand­ing mo­tor­sport sce­nario with fast but pre­dictable sub­ject move­ment. The Sony Al­pha a99 II is cer­tainly an ex­cit­ing cam­era. Phys­i­cally, it lacks the bulk and grip­pa­bil­ity of the Nikon D5 and EOS-1D X, but its com­bi­na­tion of frame rate, res­o­lu­tion and aut­o­fo­cus so­phis­ti­ca­tion is highly com­pelling.

The a99 II sports a reg­u­lar mode dial but a lock­ing but­ton pre­vents it from be­ing moved ac­ci­den­tally. The con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing modes don’t get a ded­i­cated ex­ter­nal dial, how­ever. The ISO but­ton be­hind the shut­ter re­lease has a con­cave pro­file to make it eas­ier to dis­tin­guish by touch from the raised EV com­pen­sa­tion but­ton to its left. The a99 II takes reg­u­lar A-mount lenses, but not all are com­pat­i­ble with its Hy­brid Phase De­tec­tion AF sys­tem.

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