A while ago I was asked to test drive the soon to be released Sony Alpha99.
Seeing the fact that I use a lot of different cameras ranging from the incredibly Fuji cameras to the Canon DSLRs and Leaf/Mamiya/Phase One Medium Format cameras, I was hoping to be surprised by this interesting new camera.


Now as you know, if you’re reading this blog for a while, I’m not the kind of reviewer that talks a lot about the technical stuff, I really don’t care if a camera has half a stop more or less noise in the final image, I find it much more interesting if the noise is easily removed if necessary or if the noise “looks good”, and some noise just looks good, and some don’t.  So today a very quick look at the new Sony Alpha 99.

Let’s first do the boring stuff.
The Sony Alpha has the following specs :
Sony Exmor sensor with 24.3 MP
6 frames per second
10 frames per second with tele zoom modus
new low noise design algorithm
Translucent mirror design
100% Oled viewfinder with 2.360.000 dots (auto enlarge with crop lenses)
3″ XtraFine LCD screen with 1.229.00 pixels and WhiteMagic technology that “moves”
Dual AF system with 19 focus points plus extra 102 AF points on the sensor
Continues AF during video
Video in a lot of different formats including 1080P60 (yeah baby yeah)
Clean HDMI output for video (rocking)
Special button to operate settings during video
Lightest DSLR ever

 

As you can see a lot of Magic this, Xtrafine that etc. But in reality those kind of remarks you also find in the brochure of a camera you can buy at the local drugstore for 100.00 euro. So how does it translate into real live shooting. Well as promised this is my PERSONAL opinion, take it as it is, don’t flame me for it, and certainly don’t buy the camera blindly because I said so.

Sony delivered the camera to me with two lenses, the 24-70 f2.8 and the 85 1.4.
I have to admit those are some kick ass lenses, I’m in love with the image quality of them, from the first minute I shot the camera the image I saw on the…. well let’s rewind and start at the beginning.

The images you see during this “review” are all shot during the WorldWidePhotoWalk I hosted in Amsterdam this weekend, due the enormous amount of rain I can already start this review by saying that the Sony Alpha 99 is without any doubt weatherproof, if not there must have been water pouring out of the memory slots without any doubt. This was also in fact the first real test I did with this camera so there was a lot to get used to, let me start out buy posting something that I think will be the part that most photographers like me will have “problems” with “at first”.

 

I LOVE a good viewfinder, I’m in love with my Mamiya RZ67ProII, the big bright viewfinder (I use a brightscreen mat glass) is just awesome, the moment something clicks into focus is just amazing, I also very much like the viewfinder in my Canon 5DMKIII, they are all traditional viewfinders like you have seen for many many years (and probably also many years to come), the Sony uses a so called EVF (Electronic View Finder) this means that the image you see is actually NOT through the lens as we are used to it but it’s a “projection” of the sensor (I hope this makes sense), or in short it’s the same you see in for example the Fuji X-pro 1 and X-E2, so I’m used to that. However somehow I never really had to get used to it on the Fuji cameras, it was a new system and there was a lot to get used to and you just take it as it is, the weird thing is that with the Sony my first impression was “HECK NO!!!!, NO WAY”, I have to be honest that the first very quick test I did was in the studio and I’m still convinced that for that kind of work the EVF just is not perfect, the brightness changes constantly (not that it’s annoying but it’s just weird) and there is a lot of noise in the image, strangely enough the display is not “jerky” during pans as I expected.

This all changed however when I went outside with the Sony Alpha 99, things got A LOT more interesting.
Let’s put it this way.
When you are shooting with a DSLR you are always seeing something through the viewfinder and when you press the shutter you can’t really know what will happen EXACTLY, of course experience will tell you what will happen, but it’s not perfect. Enter the EVF, let’s start of by saying that it does take a lot of time to get used to before it becomes second nature but it’s kinda cool that you can see if you nail the exposure yes or no, it will not be 100% perfect (you will need a light meter for that :D) but it’s a very useful tool to be honest and I have started to love it for outside shoots, a lot less chimping involved.

As mentioned at the start of the review the quality of the glass is awesome, I would LOVE to add those lenses to my 5DMKIII and keep the image stabilization, AF and look, oh well…. another thing the Sony Alpha99 has is on board stabilization, in other words it’s not build in the lenses but in the body itself, in the past there were some people that claimed that this could never be as good as build in the lenses, but I have to be honest that it works pretty good to say the least.

Now how does the camera perform?
Well I did not take it on a walk through the park as you can see, the weather was terrible, it was dark and there were a lot of lights and dark spots in the scenes, plus you had to shoot fast (or run very very fast), the Sony Alpha99 performed actually pretty flawless during the evening, actually I started the walk with some reservations towards the camera, not that I was making jokes about it (actually I did but that was just for fun) but I did had some ideas about the EVF and that it would probably fail me during the dark parts of the night…. and all things have to be said so let’s be frank…. it did not.

The autofocus was incredibly snappy and quick (also probably due to the not so cheap glass) but the EVF was actually a delight to work with, seeing what you get especially at night is a luxe that is not hard getting used to, although I have to be honest I would LOVE to be able to switch between the normal kind of viewfinder and the EVF because the EVF does have some major drawbacks that costs me some (not a lot) shots. With my Canon DSLR I’m used to just leaving the camera on during a day of shooting, the batteries are lasting you a LONG time and even with a lot of LCD use I still am not able to empty them even during a heavy shooting day (not filming). The Alpha 99 is a different story… and I have to make a note here. Sony forgot to send me a battery and charger so I had to borrow a battery and charger from someone and I really don’t know the state of that battery pack so maybe I’m talking rubbish here but during the Photowalk I almost emptied the battery while also switching between the Canon and the Sony, so I would probably not advise to go out for a full day and evening shooting without at LEAST 2 extra batteries.


Now the shot you see here I actually got because I just shot something else, these ladies did not do this for a long time and the biggest problem I now have with the Alpha 99 is start up time, the Canon 5DMKIII I put to my eye, press the shutter and the image is there, with the Alpha 99 it’s a matter of putting it to your eye, a SLIGHT delay for the EVF to pop on, a SLIGHT delay to nail the focus and there is the shot, in total it’s not that much longer than with a normal DSLR but sometimes it just felt like way too long, those are the moments where you need a VERY quick startup time and the Alpha 99 doesn’t score good in that department, again it’s not like 21,22,23,24 ah there it is, but it’s just that fraction of time difference that sometimes in street shooting makes a huge difference.

As you can see in these images the lens quality is amazing, I loved both lenses a lot and I just felt like a kid in the candystore while shooting with them.
Which brings us to the next part…. noise.
As you can see a lot of the images shot were done at night, so there wasn’t a lot of light available, and I have to admit I’m a kind of high-iso junky, it’s not that I will destroy a camera because it’s 1/3rd stop less “sensitive” than the other but I will loose interest pretty fast in a camera that does not perform well at higher ISOs. This is also one of the reasons I hardly use my medium format cameras at ISOs above 400, it just doesn’t look right, and why I love the 5DMKIII it looks pretty amazing at ISO6400 and even up (after some DxO cleaning).

So how did I like the noise of the Sony?
Let’s put it this way, I was not running back for my 5DMKIII, actually I think they are about equal, do remember I did not do a side by side test and I could be 100% wrong, but I just like the way the noise looks on the Sony Alpha 99, it’s not that bad actually and it cleans up nicely with NIK Dfine if needed or even lightroom. Highest ISOs are usable if you convert to B&W and make it nice and gritty, but ISOs that are in the 16000 range are pretty nice, and even some 12800 shots were very impressive. I know I promised to not show 100% crops but with noise I think that tells a bit more than just talking/writing about it. The following is a 100% crop without noise reduction (even got some slight sharpening) shot on ISO6400.

As you can see it’s a fine grainy quality and there is still plenty of sharpness in the image, although some sharpness is lost of course, remember this is a 100% crop, on print this will look perfectly fine.

 So let’s go to the part that I found pretty cool, dynamic range.
However you turn it, that’s something that’s important, you can have the best camera in the world but if the dynamic range is not good, well the images will give you some problems during post. The Exmor sensors are highly praised for their shadow recovery and I have to say I was almost blown away, the Alpha 99 has some pretty amazing dynamic range hidden in the files. When importing them into Lightroom it already looks very nice, but some playing with sliders gives you a look that even my beloved Canon 5DMKIII can never reach, this is especially at high-ISOs a dream of a sensor.

Especially with the images you see above this text I was very happy, they are shot while it was very dark outside and when you see the recovery in the highlights of the very bright billboards and the reflections in the dark stones and railtracks you can imagine this put a big fat smile on my face.

 For the coming weeks I will be playing a bit more with the Sony Alpha 99, shooting some studio work with it and some more outside material and I will try to put some action into the mix although I don’t have a long lens with it, so I will keep you updated on the blog about the camera. Also this week you will see some natural light shots I took with Esther and Manon outside during the photowalk with the Alpha 99.

I have to be 100% honest, I think it’s a pretty expensive camera, if I buy it with the lenses I have now it’s an awesome kit but it will set me back more cash than I’m willing to spend on a camera system seeing the fact that I also use a 5DMKIII and already have a nice collection of Canon glass, also I miss the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 for the Sony mount as I can see now and that lens I LOVE.
However when the 24-70, 85 and 70-200 are your ranges and you still have a lot of glass that will fit the Sony I really think that the Alpha 99 will be an awesome upgrade from whatever you’re using now.

As mentioned before I would love to see a bit more speed with starting up the cameras EVF, but the dynamic range, the glass and the handling of the camera MORE than makes up for it.

 

Filming
As you can imaging I did not have time (and will not have the time) to really test the filming capabilities of the Sony which I highly regret because I think this is an area where the camera will excel, having a clean HDMI output is very important for people using external recorders (although I always shoot on the card to be honest and I use a SmallHD monitor connected to the 5DMKIII output (which I like a lot more than the 5DMKII’s output)) and AF during filming is a nice feature for the quick video snaps. Add to this the many options for resolutions and framerates and the Sony seems like an incredibly video camera also.