The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of the Sony a77 Camera.

Last night I photographed The Laramie Project, for Zachary Scott Theater.  It was a dress rehearsal.  For those of you who don't follow theater the play is about the murder of a gay college student by two home town boys from Laramie, Wyoming.  It's a powerful play.  My job was to document it.  

This was my inaugural break-in of my two Sony a77 cameras and two interesting lenses, the 16-50mm 2.8 and the 70-200mm 2.8.  I had tested the camera around town and in the studio and I was interested to see how it would perform with a dark stage and pools of bright light.

Let's do the good stuff first.  Batteries! I shot approx. 1700 frames between the two cameras and each one showed a remaining battery charge of at least 60% charge at the end of the evening.  I could say I didn't "chimp" much but with an EVF you are doing full time pre-chimping.  I carried an extra battery but was happy not to have to use it.

The method of shooting with an EVF makes shooting theater easier.  You see exactly what you are getting, in advance, with every light change and every color shift.  I kept the aperture relatively constant and just used the front control wheel to shift shutter speeds to match light changes.  When you can see the exposure results of your shift in shutter speed immediately it makes shooting faster and more certain.

Another plus for the EVF is that you can review shots in the viewfinder when you need to stop and review instead of on the screen, so the light doesn't spill out into the dark room and distract people behind you.

The focus was invisible to the process.  Right on the money every time.  I didn't even have to think about it.  In fact, for parts of the show I enabled face detection AF and that worked well too.  Both of the lenses are sharp and work smoothly.  No problems there.  The 70-200 is big but I like the "on barrel" focus locks.  

 Also in the good box: The shutter is much quieter than other cameras I've used recently because there's no moving mirror and I have the electronic shutter enabled for the first curtain.  The camera is very responsive.
I decided to shoot Jpeg, fine, full size, since the client was in a rush to get files to the media and we wouldn't have time to do frame by frame enhancements.  The files generally look good.  I do see a difference between the quality of the jpegs and the work I've done with the raw files.  There is a quality difference.  If I'd chosen Extra fine or Super fine (or whatever Sony's nomenclature for their least compressed Jpeg) I'm presuming that the files would be a bit better as well.

So, all the camera and lens stuff, from a mechanical point of view works fine.  Where's the "Bad" and the "Ugly"?

It happens as soon as you hit the menu and engage.........ISO.......3200.

The files (at least in "fine jpeg") turn to crap.  And not just manageable crap.  Real crap.  I started out the evening shooting at 3200 because I'd heard some anecdotal stuff on the web about being able to shoot there with a little work in noise reduction software.  Not true.  At least not for me.
The details get mushy (I was using the "low" setting for noise reduction) and the noise ramps up a lot from the relatively tame 1600 ISO setting.  

But here's the really ugly part.  If you are shooting against black or dark areas you'll get a speckling of tiny white dots randomly distributed throughout.  And noise reduction capable of eliminating the dots eliminates every bit of detail and turns the file into a plastic mess.  Please remember, I didn't shoot RAW, I was shooting Jpeg fine!  I chimped at 100% very early in the show and saw this. When I shifted the cameras down to ISO 1600 the white dots completely resolved and the images were much improved, technically.

 Now, here's the disconnection.  The camera is shooting enormous files.  They spec out to something like 13.3 by 20 inches @ 300.  When the images are reduced for normal use, say in page sized ad, the white specks don't show.  Crop then blow up and you'll be in a world of aesthetic hurt.

So, how does this affect my romance with the Sony a77's?  It's still too early to tell.  I know that if I use the cameras to shoot live theater rehearsals I'll make a point to keep the ISO at 1600 or under.  At 800 the files are great.  Next time I'll shoot at the highest Jpeg setting and, if there's time I'll try to shoot Raw.  On the other hand the test shots and portraits around the studio shot a ISO 50-800 are great.  The files are incredibly detailed and the dynamic range is what I was hoping for.

So, does one camera have to be the jack of all trades? Or is it okay to own cameras that do some things really well and a few other things less well?  For now I'm firmly on the side of the cameras that can make really nice images in my studio and in most locations.  Theater is pretty much my worse case scenario.

Truth be told I'll probably press the micro four thirds cameras into service for my theater stuff because I've assembled some fast and very high quality lenses that are a good match.  The 45mm 1.8 and the 25mm 1.4 are particularly good choices.
Once I figured out the safe spot for ISO I sat back and enjoyed shooting.  In my mind it's a trade-off.  I really like shooting with the EVF in these situations.  I like the responsiveness of the  cameras.  And I think the files are good at 1600.  As good as we need them to be.  Would I like them to be better? You bet.  This is an instance where both DPReview and Pop Photo called the limitations of this camera just right.

I'll spend some time figuring out how to suck the best high ISO performance out of this camera but for now I'm mystified as to why they even bothered to stick ISO 6400 in the menu.  I guess it's there for those times when you absolutely have to have something.  But don't bet on it.

If you live in Austin and you like serious theater you might want to see The Laramie Project. It's well directed, wonderfully acted and profound.  Each performance is in three acts with two intermissions.

If you are thinking of buying a Sony a77 for wonderful low ISO performance and great dynamic range, then welcome to the club.  If you want one because you love shooting low light and high ISO then STOP !!!  Get a Nikon D3s or a Canon 1Dx and you'll be happier.

I know there's a trade off in here somewhere.  I'm off on my search to find it.

More to come as I experience it.


  1. The OM-D may be the one that you use in the theater environment. I wish Olympus would hurry up and ship them. At these ISO limits the Olympus E-5 may do as well.

  2. I think the Olympus will beat the Sony by at least a stop. With luck, maybe two. Still need to own both systems....sniff.

  3. I've noticed the same limitation with the Nex-7. I'm glad I kept the Nex-5N, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to give up on the 7. As you say, the files at lower ISOs is breathtaking. A clear improvement from the 5N. Starting at even ISO 800 it's easy to see the difference. It does make me wonder if the E-M5 will be the best of both worlds when it comes out. Bah need to get that out of my mind and concentrate on enjoying and shooting with the 5N and 7. Wonderful theater pics Kirk!

    1. I think it's totally valid to assess a camera at the kinds of ISO's one normally shoots. For me so much stuff is in studio or on a location where we control the lighting. Having a detailed and wide dynamic range shot means more in my world than the nosebleed performance. And yes, that E-M5 is looking better all the time.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Apparently the new Fuji X-pro1 slays all-comers as a low light/high ISO camera. (But maybe doesn't focus so well in low conditions.)

    1. shojin, I just watched Kai's review of the three lenses for the Fuji X-pro1 (at digitalrev on YouTube) and I must say that he didn't find them to be easy to use, sharp wide or nearly wide open, etc. He also found the focusing to be a bit kludgy. I currently have no interest in that camera except that it's beautifully physically designed. But unless I'm wearing it as bling that secondary to how it shoots.

  6. Maybe I've missed something in your recent posts, but why do you feel you need the Sony system in addition to your Micro Four Thirds stuff? What did you want from the Sony that you didn't think the MFT system delivered? Is Sony living up to expectations in that regard?

    Personally, I think they put ISO 6400 on the menu just because the marketing people wanted it there so they could say they have it. I think every digital camera I've owned has at least one, often two completely unusable ISO settings.

  7. I wanted something EVF that sync'd at 1/250th, had fast zooms and would placate those few clients for whom appearances are.....important. Besides, Sony is a system I've never tried before. It's a massive downsize from the sheer quantity of stuff I had in Canon. Two bodies, a couple of lenses and a flash. And so far it is fun.

    If I weren't doing it for a living I'd just do the photography thing with the Panasonic Gh2 or the Olympus EP3. They are both capable cameras.

    1. Thanks. I understand about the need to keep clients happy even when they're being a little irrational.

      I think I'm finally going to take the plunge into Micro Four Thirds myself. I'm waiting for the OM-D...

  8. Kirk:
    For high ISO using the a77, suggest a review of Chapter 14 of Gary Friedman's book on the A77. Here is the link: http://friedmanarchives.com/alpha77/index.htm
    Basically, when high ISO is required, he suggests shooting raw and then post processing with one of several good noise reduction programs. Not the least time consuming, but he swears by it.

  9. Thanks, it looks like Gary's book is great. May have to download and check it out.

  10. Excellent pictures. (The compression noise on picture #81 looks a little strange, but considering it was resized and compressed...)

    I find myself up past ISO1600 from time to time, because I am using fast shutter speeds to combat motion blur. Remember that most people don't have your feel for how (and when) to freeze the action.

    Also, most of us will only carry around one camera, and use it for everything. We might switch lenses from time to time, but we have one camera per Presidential administration. If I replace the old D70 with an NEX or an OMD, that will be my portrait camera, sports camera, wedding camera and so on.

  11. Kirk:

    Your observations are inline with mine, using the Alpha 900, in regard to high ISO performance. To me, it's seldom an issue and I love the rich files the camera produces. For static subjects and hand held hustle, we gain a good bit of operability by virture of IS sytem. Anyway, I try to stay at or below ISO 1000, and if I shoot at 1600, I process the raw in LR3. A little luminance cleanup and they are fine for most uses. Lightroom 2 does a horrid job in comparison, so the raw conversion choice will make a big difference. I shoot everyhing raw now and save on edit as a preset in LR and apply to all and I'm done.

    Glad you are making money with the new toys..I mean capitol expenditures.

    Here is link, hope it's ok.. of a recent shot with the Zeiss 85 1.4 on the 900.

  12. I am wondering if the new A-57 at 16MP would have better noise characteristics? I understand the NEX-5n is much better in this regard to the NEX-7.

    I also like the relative silence of mirrorless cameras for theater, weddings and general event candids. I am puzzled as to why this isn't commented on more. In the "olden days" of film every new camera review in the enthusiast mags commented on the noise made by the SLRs as they were so much noisier than the rangefinders most were used to.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Kirk: For all Sony's strengths they still seem to have a problem with high ISO performance (it is funny how the threshold of "high" keeps changing). My experience with the A900 is that above ISO 800 the noise is quite obvious and not very pretty. Based upon your experience it seems Sony have improved this about a stop with the A77.

      Considering how poorly written most camera manufacturers user manuals are, Gary Friedman's books are definitely worth the money. They are clearly and exhaustively written. I too recommend them.

  14. Kirk,

    I do not pretend to know what your clients need, but you've frequently written about clients wanting images destined for the web. Given the higher pixel count on the A-77 vs. the Panasonic or Olympus MFT cameras, have you considered shooting the A-77 at 12MP?

    I shot two indoor basketball games (a friend's daughter) recently with my A-77 I purchased in December.

    The first one I attempted shooting some Raw at up to ISO 3200 and some JPG Extra Fine at 24MP resolution using the same ISO settings. The raw pics turned out okay, but I found it too much post-processing for the favor I was performing for my friend. The Extra Fine JPGs were about as good as you found them to be.

    Before the second game the following week, I remembered that Michael Reichmann compared the results from the 16MP APS-C Sony vs. the 24MP APS-C Sony (I think it was the Alpha DSLRs). I'm paraphrasing now, but I believe that at first he was slightly disappointed in the increased noise, but then decided to down-res the 24MP files to 16MP and found they were virtually identical in quality.

    So, in the spirit of what Reichmann did in Raw, I set a customer white balance with my Lastolite gray card, set the file size at 12MP and the JPG setting at Extra Fine and cranked up my ISO (I set the Auto ISO range to shoot from 1600-3200). I was absolutely tickled with the quality of the files coming out of the A-77 on my second outing to middle school basketball.

    At 12MP I can still print up to at least 12"x18" and it was sure nice tweaking JPGs vs. post-processing Raw files.

  15. I was very interested when the A77 was announced. I wanted fast AF and the famed Sony sensor high ISO performance (all compared to micro 4/3). And, just like you, fast sync speed, Zeiss lenses and all would have been nice. But when the actual reviews came in it turned out that AF didn't seem all that fast while micro 4/3 kept improving AF speeds. High ISO didn't seem better (rather, worse) than a GH2, and JPEGS were described as abysmal at high ISO. So I shrugged.
    I shot kids' theater once with a combo of G1, GH2, 25/1.4 and 45/1.8. I managed to keep the ISO below 3200 with no problem and often at 1600. The G1 is so-so of course but the GH2 has very decent noise performance at ISO3200. The colors do degrade somewhat though and on occasion I ran out of buffer with the GH2 (shooting just 1-2 frames per second but for 10 frames or so). Otherwise she did a fine job.

  16. Did you shoot RAW+JPEG, or just JPEG? Just curious, and it's not clear to me from the post.

    It would make sense to me to have the RAW files just in case, but maybe the write times slow down, or you just didn't want the extra data cluttering your system up.

  17. Scott. Jpeg. because of the time, the speed and the bandwidth of the process. If the photos don't work the next morning all the potential of the raw will just take up space on some hard drive. And, I just re-read the piece. I thought I was very clear that I shot in Jpeg Fine. No mention of raw anywhere.

  18. That's cool, thx for the reply.

  19. Kirk, given how much you love the lenses you use on m4/3, together with your liking of EVF, the OM-D EM5 looks like it could end up being your theater camera of choice, given the early samples showing outstanding high ISO performance.

    1. Does look like we're circling the m4:3rds cameras looking for a landing zone. I've been shooting them since the EP2 and I get more impressed with every generation. Now that the lenses have truly arrived it is a viable alternative to all the other stuff that's out there.

  20. Kirk:

    When I first read this, I was on the road and viewing on Iphone. After looking again on a real screen; I'm blown away with the timing of your shots, expressiveness of the characters, and the "feel" of being a part of the scene.

    Thank you, as always, for taking the time to share.



  21. Sounds like you're running into Sony's limitation as far as their JPEG engine is concerned - it's just not that good when examined closely. I own the A77, 2 flashes and 3 lenses and while I really like the camera, I'm not afraid to say the noise isn't that great but doesn't bother me at least up to 1600, 3200 if I downsize.

    Sony's JPEG engine, though, is just not very good, even at lower ISOs. It's such a shame, too, because i love using their in-camera JPEGs (I'm a fan of high-contrast B&W mode and Pop Color). When it comes to needing smooth bokeh backgrounds at medium ISOs, their JPEG processing just doesn't do the job.

    In reading your ISO 1600 vs 3200 comments, I went and tested my camera using Fine vs Extra Fine, 1600 vs 3200, and Low vs Normal High ISO NR - I see no huge difference between Fine and Xfine, though perhaps it was my subject matter.

    Also, chroma noise still disappointingly present even in ISO 1600 shots and Normal NR - Chroma is trivial to remove in most software, so the fact the A77 still retains it at ISO 1600 is more of a limitation of the JPEG engine. Maybe they should pay Olympus for their algorithms :)

  22. So I am curious to read here that White Specs that I found with images from my Olympus E-510 and E-3 under similar shooting scenarios to yours - - - are also present in your new Sony (I only presume it is the same).

    I reported on this problem with my Oly gear, at Four Thirds Forum several years ago. Even though initially I noticed the issue at higher ISOs, when testing I found the same problem at Low ISO settings with lens cap on.

    Being that I had to make use of some of the images that contained the white specs - I came up with a solution that worked on many of them and reported it here - http://fourthirds-user.com/forum/showpost.php?p=19370&postcount=6

    Don't know if it will work with the Sony images or not - or if it degrades the image too much, It worked for what I needed anyway. After contacting Olympus Canada and trying endless resolutions, I still have no idea WHY.



Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!