Sony Alpha a99 SLT-A99V review: This camera is a jack-of-all-trades

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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

5 stars 1 user review

The Good The Sony Alpha a99 SLT-A99V has a lot going for it, including excellent photos and very good video, a well-constructed and well-designed body, solid performance, and a great feature set.

The Bad For some folks, things like the lack of CompactFlash, poor battery life, and compromises on video autofocus may not be reasonable trade-offs.

The Bottom Line The Sony Alpha SLT-A99V is a generally great camera that's equally adept at both stills and video, but with a few caveats.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Image quality 8.0

I admit, I really didn't like Sony's first full-frame cameras, the DSLR-A900 and its stripped-down sibling, the DSLR-A850. I used to use them as examples of poor noise reduction and for before-and-after examples for the virtues of third-party raw-processing software. But that was almost four years ago, and just before Sony had its "aha!" moment and started churning out excellent sensors, like the one in the Alpha SLT-A99V. The company's flagship (and at least for now, only) full-frame model delivers excellent photos and very good video, and has a well-constructed and intelligently designed body, solid performance, and a great feature set. Despite all the excellence, though, there are some caveats to consider before shelling out the not-inconsiderable amount of dough it costs.

Image quality
The photo quality is great -- pretty much what you'd expect from a full-frame camera -- with well-resolved detail, accurate color (as long as you use the Neutral Creative Style setting), and a broad tonal range with very good latitude in the highlights. Though it doesn't have an antialiasing-filter-free model, the sensor in the A99V incorporates a new selectively applied low-pass filter as a compromise for increased ability to resolve detail.

According to Sony, the sensor also has new noise-reduction algorithms designed to reduce noise only where you need it, but I still find that (oddly) the Nikon D800 outperforms the A99V in this respect, especially around ISO 1600 and above. For JPEGs, photos are extremely clean through ISO 400, and you can start to see some slight edge artifacts appearing at ISO 800. There's a noticeable jump in noise suppression between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200, regardless of how bright the scene is. But I couldn't gain any better noise reduction below ISO 3200 by processing the raw; at ISO 3200 and above I did manage to get some better results, enough to gain about a stop of latitude. Overall, though, while the SLT-A99V is extremely good at ISO 1600 and below, if you need the cleanest-possible high-sensitivity results, the Nikon D800 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III are probably a bit better.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

The camera also does an excellent job of preserving highlights in seemingly blown-out areas. I was less impressed with recovering clipped shadow detail, in part because it inevitably introduces a lot of color noise, significantly more so than with the D800.

I was especially impressed with the auto white balance. For one, it handled cloudy shooting conditions properly; a lot of cameras I've tested recently have not. Same goes for balance under our tungsten studio lights. Normally I don't comment on the tungsten results because every camera handles it miserably. On the flip side, though, Sony's default Standard Creative Style pushes hues slightly, throwing off color accuracy. Switching to the Neutral setting delivers the kind of results I expect from a pro camera, though some people might want to tweak the sharpness (like most manufacturers, Sony assumes if you want neutral colors you want no processing at all).

The video quality is very good as well, though here I admit I'm still partial to the warmer tonality delivered by the Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 and the sharper, less noisy low-light video of 5D Mark III.

Performance
Most of the time, the A99V feels responsive and fluid to shoot with. Yes, there's the occasional bout of reluctant autofocus lock and battery death -- for decent battery life you really need the multibattery grip, though that kind of defeats the purpose of making the camera lighter -- and the menus take just a hair longer to come up than I'd like while the camera's processing images. But overall I was happy with the camera's speed.

By the numbers, the A99V offers performance competitive with other full-frame cameras. (Our benchmarks for the 5D Mark III and D800 used different methodology, but our numbers for the Nikon D600 and Canon EOS 6D are comparable.) It powers on and shoots in just under a second -- a little on the slow side. In good light, it takes about 0.4 second to focus, expose, and shoot, which rises to 0.5 second in dimmer conditions; that's relatively good, and partly held back by the somewhat slow-driving but optically excellent lens we used for performance testing, the Zeiss 24-70mm f2.8. Two sequential shots run about 0.3 second for either raw or JPEG, also decent times.

The camera excels at continuous shooting. Sony seems to have rated it pretty conservatively; as long as you stay below the buffer threshold, 20 JPEG shots or 17 raw shots, it can maintain a clip of roughly 6.2 frames per second (at least with a 95MBps SD card). Once you've exceeded the buffer, it slows considerably and erratically, below 3fps. In practice, shooting raw+JPEG, the buffer was less than 10 shots but overall adequate for small bursts.

Despite the tons of technological R&D it sounds like Sony put into the autofocus system, I didn't feel always feel the magic. It has a dual phase-detection AF system, which the company claims improves tracking AF considerably, and a new AF Range control that lets you specify near and far distance limiters for the focus range. I really like the tracking AF interface, with the big green box that follows your subject around the screen, but found that the focus lock just didn't keep up with the promise during continuous shooting, and even with the range limiter enabled I found that tracking box a little too fickle, willing to hightail off after any bigger object that enters the scene. Nonetheless, I had no issues with the AF system that I haven't had with other cameras.

In fact, I think the camera has too many autofocus options, making figuring out which settings you should use a bit too complicated. There are four AF mode choices: single, continuous, auto (which selects between single and continuous), and dynamic (Depth Map Assist Continuous AF), which seems to fine-tune the continuous AF phase-detection focus lock by expanding to the assist the areas. Then there are four AF area options: wide, zone, spot, and local. But the options or combinations that automatically choose the focus areas never seem to choose the correct ones, making it difficult to select the option with any confidence. This isn't a Sony- or A99V-specific issue; it's a problem with most AF systems that still remains despite all the effort.

I'm not sure if I've complained about this elsewhere, but every time you stick a card in, Sony cameras check it for an "Image Database" (a Sony-compatible file-system structure). But if it doesn't find the database, it pops up a message asking if you want to create one. Now, I don't know about you, but every time I stick a card in the first thing I do is format it and Sony's, um, helpfulness gets between me and the format operation, requiring an extra few button presses before I can start working. So no, Sony, I never want to create an image database. Get out of my way! I can sort of understand this on point-and-shoots where people might not realize the need to format, or if they never remove the cards, but on a pro camera it's intrusive and unnecessary.

Both the viewfinder and back display work very well, with no visibility issues in direct sunlight or refresh issues while shooting action, and though I still think that OLED displays are a little too cool and contrasty for cameras -- photos never look better than on those displays, and that's not necessarily a good thing -- Sony lets you adjust the color temperature of the viewfinder.

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