Preliminary Tests of the Sony a57. A walk through downtown Austin.

I finished up a day that saw all of my will bent toward marketing my services as a photographer.  Wow.  That sounded dedicated and diligent.  Actually, I did a swim practice first, from 8:30 to 9:30.  Then I dropped by Starbucks to drink coffee and check my e-mail.  I worked for a couple of hours doing marketing and thinking about cold calling before I headed out to eat some really good Tex-Mex food for lunch.  After lunch I headed to a medical client's office to make sure my LED panels could be corrected to match their florescent fixtures.  Then I can home and did a bit more marketing and by 6;00pm I was all wound up.  So I grabbed the newbie a57 camera from Sony, wrenched an 85mm 2.8 Sony lens on the front and headed through the random chaos theory of traffic and went for a walk through downtown.

I walked through Whole Foods, tasted some wine and shot all of these food shots with the camera set to ISO 3200.  Click on them.  Look for noise.  It's really wonderful.  When I looked at the rounds of cheese somewhere below I almost cried because the files were so clean.  The lemon tarts are marred by the reflection.  Or,  I intended the diagonal reflections to be there as an indictment of expensive tarts........Can't quite decide on the right manifesto.  So I ate one instead.

Also 3200 ISO.  Jpeg.  Fine.

The three images above are also 3200 ISO, f2.8 with the 85mm.

These are Jpegs I can be proud of.  The colors are great and the sharpness is high.  Very high. The Auto ISO kept the camera around 100.


This is Todd Williams.  He is a very well known fine arts photographer.  And a workshop instructor at the Sante Fe. Workshops, among other places.  He is not homeless.
Like a venal paparazzi I captured him outside the entrance of his tony, downtown gym.
Click on the images and look at the skin tone.  Everything automatic.  Right down to the ISO.

When I started shooting the a57 any reservations I had about the quality of the EVF image or the low noise attributes of the sensor just slinked away and ceased to even be relevant.  This camera is the perfect adjunct to the a77. One is the finest low ISO/Super resolution camera (the a77) and the other is the high ISO camera Sony's been looking for.  And a damn good "all-arounder" for just about any kind of shooting I can think of.  And, oh.  Yes.  The 85mm 2.8 is amazing.  More so when you consider that up until two weeks ago it could be had new for only $249.  I should have bought more.

That's my first full day of shooting with the camera.  I had my doubts.  When I saw the files I was sold.  End of story.


How many ways to rationalize a camera purchase?

Behold !  It's the latest camera from Sony.  It's called the Alpha 57 and it's biggest claim to fame (from my point of view) is that it uses the same sensor that's been making the rounds in the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K5.  Both those cameras are known for two things: Very clean high ISO performance and very wide dynamic ranges.  By extension, using the same sensor, the Sony a57 should do well in both of those areas.  And I think this will be important for Sony going forward because as much as Sony shooters love the dense, detailed and dynamically well disposed digital files they've been getting out of the a77 and a65 cameras the feedback about high ISO is less than sterling.  I've written about the a77's difficulties with noise in previous columns.  I really like that camera and, for 90% of the stuff I shoot, I find the files quite good.  

When I shoot raw (a77) and use DXO Optics Pro or the supplied Sony software to abate noise I am happy with the output with no caveats up to 1600 and, at 3200, it's very workable with a little elbow grease and the right subjects.  At ISO 50 the camera just squirts out beautiful, long tone files with oceans of detail.  A little small detail sharpening and I'm happy.

But I'm also lazy and able to rationalize new purchases at the drop of a hat. I wanted to find an inexpensive addition to my Sony "work" system that would give me drop dead gorgeous high ISO files right out of camera.  Maybe even in Jpeg.  So I've been following the roll out of the Sony a57 and reading all the reviews I can get my hands on.  But nothing is as accurate ( to answer to your own point of view ) as getting a camera and writing your own review.  Amazon.com is backordered on the camera and the website last night indicated a wait of two to four weeks.  That doesn't work for me.  Once I decide on something I want that instant gratification.  I called Precision Camera here in Austin and spoke to one of the owners.  Wonder of wonders!  I had a camera in my hands the next afternoon.  And.... it's a mixed bag. But what it doesn't do as well as its bigger brother is mostly "cosmetic" to me so I think I'll keep the camera because it does what I asked for when I first rationalized its purchase. (Damn, that sentence doesn't make any sense at all but it's exactly true to my thoughts....).

I paid right at $700 and I headed straight home with the box, excavated the camera, tossed in a battery from my stash of "500" series Sony batteries, carefully inserted a 32 gig card and got to experimenting.  Here's what I found:

First issue.  Only one dial (on the front of the camera ) to control both shutter speed and aperture.  Yikes.  I know there's a way to switch between them.  Oh yes.  Hit the AEL button on the back. Disaster averted.

Second issue.  A bit thornier.  I started with the OLED finders of the a77 and find them quite good. Nearly as convincing as a big ass optical finder even if they get a bit noisy in low light.  But the finder in the a57 is not as good.  It's as big it's just not as crisp and clean.  It almost seems to have a little flare in the system.  Usable out of the box but not great.  I've played with it extensively now and have one tip for new users:  Set the EVF screen to the "minus one" setting.  The contrast on the screen looks better and it seems to be a good match for most situations.

The body is smaller and lighter than the a77 and the battery is supposed to give maybe 100 more exposures per charge than the bigger cameras.  The handling is great and the focusing is equally snappy and assured.

That leaves me with the pressing question:  How is the high ISO performance of the camera?  We'll have to do more extensive shooting but I spent all evening yesterday walking around the house shooting at 6400 ISO and I found it to be much cleaner than the untreated (jpeg default settings) of the a77 at 1600.  I would guess that it's on par with the Nikon D7000 or perhaps just a smidge worse, given the light loss at the mirror.  But, it's a big improvement and adds what I needed to the system for those times when I'm sitting in the front row at Zach Scott Theater trying to line up a shot of moving actors under dramatic, low light and I'm already at f2.8 on my big zoom and wishing for 1/60th of a second.  That makes up for a little loss of "EVF happiness" and banality of only one dial.

I've had the camera now for only a day.  Less than 24 hours.  I'll carry it with me all week long and shoot everything from the parades in San Antonio to Eeyore's (countercultural) Birthday Party here in Austin.  And every shred of life in between.  In a week or so I expect I'll have a fleshed out report on the camera.  Right now it feels like Sony needed sorely to get a camera into the SLT system that could go toe-to-toe with other brand APS-C cameras at ISO 3200 and 6400 and my preliminary tests show that they've largely succeeded.

Now, the process of rationalization.  Here we go:  As you know, if you read the blog regularly,  I dumped a two and a half year accumulation of Canon EOS equipment after using it for two and a half years because I like the whole idea of the EVF's (electronic viewfinders) and I find Sony's implementation works well for me.  I assessed the system and decided it would be a good fit for most of what I do:  Portraits and set up (lit) advertising images.  I also shoot video and find the Sony video to be very good. 

The disconnect in the whole house of cards is this:  I shoot theatrical dress rehearsals once or twice a month and I needed a bit more low light performance.  I'd also like to shoot more evening work without lights and better ISO performance would help that as well.  For only $700 I get to plug a hole in the system.

The camera has a nearly identical menu and overall operational workflow as the a77 so there was no learning curve when it came to picking up the camera and engaging directly.

The camera is smaller and lighter which makes it a nice "carry around" camera to have with me.  I put the 50mm 1.4 Sony lens on it yesterday and can't think of a good reason to take it off...

I could also write a long review about the camera, post it on my blog and then link the product to its product page on Amazon.com and hope that legions of readers, seduced by my clever words, would rush there and buy the camera thereby helping to claw back some of my purchase price through referral fees (which have no impact on the final price of the product to you, the customer).
The fly in the ointment is obvious, though.  Here I am writing about the one product  that is currently out of stock for maybe the next full month.  By the time it's back in stock this missive will long since be forgotten and relegated to the bottom of the blog pile.

Final rationalization:  Well, at least I'm running a photo business and will be able to depreciate my camera purchase at tax time.....

Say, that's a good rationalization.  I wonder if they have any other expensive lenses I might need to "review."