Since I'm not a professional reviewer and don't get paid to grab a camera out of a box and put it through a series of carefully engineered tests my understanding of a camera tends to grow organically. I learn something new about a camera because I need to use a feature on a job. I stumble across an interesting menu item with randomly scrolling through the menu while waiting for a tardy friend to meet me for lunch. And occasionally there's the "Aha!" moment when the interconnection between the flash and the camera suddenly becomes apparent to me.
Some things about the Sony a 77 are a mystery to me right now because I haven't tried them. Like the workings of the off camera flash control. If I had two or more flashes and a need for a portable studio-like set up I'd take the time to read the manual and experiment with the units before I walked out the door.
Keeping all that in mind let me tell you a few of the things I discovered last week and the week before. First, this camera has been labeled a "work in progress" because Sony keeps releasing firmware updates that improve operational speed and seem to improve image quality. People were dissatisfied with a time lag between turning a control on the camera and seeing the change reflected on one of the display panels. That was fixed in 1.05. But along with the speed fix also came (to my eyes) an improvement in Jpeg file quality. When the camera came out onto the market the first adopters were quick to label it a "raw only" camera. That generally means that the sensor is capable of really good image quality but the camera is let down by so-so Jpeg renderings. The conventional wisdom is to always use raw and make your own Jpegs as necessary from the raw files.
Yeah. I get it. But I also get that the raw files are only available at full resolution and they're big. Really big. After I upgraded the firmware in both of my a77's to 1.05 I tested them around the studio and in the back yard and I found the jpegs to be at least as good as the Jpegs I'd gotten from any one of my Canon cameras and better than several of them. So, on the very next job, done in full sunlight, I shot Jpeg and I set the camera for 12 megapixel file sizes at super-fine jpeg. That tripled the number of files I was able to shoot on one card. And when I looked at the images I was satisfied.
On the same job I needed to be able to use the cameras with the flagship flash, the HVL-58, to provide fill light for all the people standing around and chatting in the bright morning sun. The flash works automatically in terms of switching to HSS mode, where necessary. I'd been warned that the camera and flash combination could be a little "hot." (Prone to over exposure). But though it did look a little bit hot in the EVF, back at home on the big monitor it was as to perfect as I could ask for.
Two things I learning on that shoot about the flash: If you tilt the head up, or use it in another other bounce mode, the unit and camera refuse to do high speed sync. The flash has to be in the default position to take advantage of the "sunlight tamer" setting. And secondly, unlike the Nikon and Canon flashes, there is no way to dial in flash exposure compensation on the body of the flash. You have to hit the function menu and set your flash exposure compensation there.
Some wags protested that they would never get used to using a camera with an EVF but it's already transparent to me. I'm happy having a lot more finder "real estate" than any of the other cropped frame, conventional cameras.... I'm already acclimated to the point that I feel more confindent "pre-chimping and then shooting rather than shooting something and stopping, taking the camera from my eye and reviewing it on the back LCD. While most of the settings are integrated into the pre-shot EVF finder image you can push the little preview button on the camera and it will give you preview frame with depth of field and a few other parameters incorporated.
While I consider a ten frame per second burst to be pretty high performance the camera's performance is offset by a smaller buffer than I'm used to. Holding the shutter button down for about 1.5 seconds when the camera is set for 10 fps fills the buffer with 15 shots. If the files are raw, or raw+jpegs, you've got some write time ahead of you.
In full sun I also used several of the camera gimmicks. I set the camera to a mild level of in-camera HDR for shooting a white banner against a so-so sky and was able to put a little more drama in the sky without making the white banner too muddy. In bright sun I used the DRO (dynamic range optimizer) to supply a bit more dynamic range. The result was an opening up of the deep shadows.
The cameras are not at the level that the new Canon 5Dmk3's or Nikon D800's are as far as build quality and ultimate AF performance but they are less than half the price which means a pro just starting out their business can have two. One for a back-up. Or one to shoot a wide-to-normal zoom lens and the other to shoot a normal-to-telephoto zoom lens with.
While the a77 is not the ultimate high ISO camera it's latest firmware upgrade seems to give me better performance at ISO 1600 and, when using the camera in the sweet ranges of 50 to 800 ISO the files are very detailed and easy to post process.
Do I have any really big gripes about the Sony's? Yes. I hate the non-standard flash shoe. All my radio triggers, manual flashes and light panels have standard shoes. I ordered five Sony to normal adapters and they all seem to work well. They even give me an additional PC sync socket for the times when I really want to rock my flash "old school" and use the long, fallible cables but I wish I didn't need to remember to always carry them along---just in case.
I wish the Sony would offer compressed raw files, ala Nikon or Small, Medium and Large raw files, ala Canon (I prefer the Canon approach...) There are many times when I'd like a raw file to work with but the final use for the image is on the web and the humongous files seem like a ponderous impediment.
I would like a really nice wide angle zoom from Sony. Their 11-18 is just like the Tamron lens. I owned it for the Canon 7D and it was no great shakes. Right now I'm resisting buying anything shorter than my 16-50mm lens since it seems like Sony is on the cusp of introducing a full frame SLT camera (EVF enabled) and if they do I'll buy one of those and a 20mm and use it for my wide angle shots.
My final observation in this "rolling review" segment concerns my favorite lenses. Based on quality and specs-on-paper you would think I'd give the nod to the 16-50mm and the 70-200 2.8 but that's not what has me excited right now. Those lenses share the same fault as similar lenses from Nikon and Canon = they are too damn heavy. Instead, the lenses I'm liking are some of the odd ball single focal length lenses and one "sleeper" zoom lens. The groovy SFL lenses are the 30mm f2.8 macro, the 50mm 1.4 and the 85mm 2.8. All are small and lightweight. The 50 and the 85 will both work on full format cameras. All are impressively sharp and focus noisily but quickly and surely. The "sleeper" zoom is the 55-200 DT (cropped frame) lens. It's really, really sharp. Even wide open. And it weighs next to nothing compared to the big, white counterpart.
I know that very few of the readers shoot with Sonys and that's okay. But I did want to make a more general observation about the genre of cameras that Sony calls SLT's. Once you've worked with an electronic viewfinder, both for video and stills, it's hard to go back to the basic OVF. I recommend playing with these if for no other reason than to preview what might be ahead for the rest of the industry.