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

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.

Design and features
For the most part, the camera body is very well designed and built, with a great grip -- one of the most comfortable I've used -- and an intelligent control layout. It's weather-sealed, though keep in mind that as far as I know Sony only offers two full-frame weather-sealed lenses to match. Yes, the body is also lighter than the competition, but I find once you stick a good lens on it that roughly 6-ounce advantage becomes moot.

All the controls are easily accessible and distinguishable by feel, the mode dial has a central lock button (not my favorite place for it), and everything is as configurable as you'd expect from a camera in its class. I don't think it's the snazziest design -- I'm not crazy about the bulbous look of the buttons boiling up from the surface on the back -- but it's effective and that's more important.

There's only one control I really dislike, and that's the navigation joystick. It simply feels mushy and imprecise.

While I think competitors produce better video quality than the A99V, this is my favorite camera for shooting video. It's one respect in which the fixed-mirror SLT technology gains a huge advantage over SLR. The articulated OLED display, great EVF, and manual-focus peaking make it extremely easy and comfortable to shoot without having to Frankenstein the camera out with a rig, loupe, and other accoutrements. The one, somewhat huge, exception to the love: you can't adjust shutter speed or aperture for video while autofocus is enabled. A lot of videographers use manual focus exclusively, so it won't faze them, but it irks me to no end. And if you don't know this up front, you can spend hours trying to figure out why the camera won't let you adjust those settings.

Sony brings its Silent Controller from its prosumer camcorders for better video control.

While the Silent Controller is intended to allow you to avoid introducing noise while changing settings during video shooting, it's also really nice for simply changing settings without having to drop the camera from your eye. It offers a lot of the same settings as the function menu, but it has a different interface that takes up far less space in the viewfinder.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Nikon D800/ D800E Sony Alpha SLT-A99V
Sensor (effective resolution) 22.3MP CMOS
8-channel readout
14-bit
36.3MP CMOS
n/a
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS
14-bit
36mm x 24mm 35.9mm x 24mm 35.8mm x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x
Sensitivity range ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 25600/102400 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25,600 (exp) ISO 50 (expanded) / ISO 100 - ISO 51200 / ISO 102400 (exp, via multishot NR)
Continuous shooting 6fps
13 raw/65 JPEG
4fps
n/a
(5fps with battery grip)
6fps
13 raw/14 JPEG

Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optical
100% coverage
0.71x/0.71x
Optical
100% coverage
0.70x/0.70x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x/0.71x
Autofocus 61-pt High Density Reticular AF
21 center diagonal to f5.6
5 center to f2.8
20 outer to f4
51-pt
15 cross type; 11 cross type to f8
dual phase -detection system
19pt
11 cross type;
102pt focal plane
AF exposure range -2 - 20 EV -2 - 19 EV -1 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 200,000 cycles 200,000 cycles
Metering 63-area iFCL 91,000-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering III 1,200 zones
Metering exposure range 0 - 20 EV (est) 0 - 20 EV -2 - 17 EV
Image stabilization Optical Optical Sensor shift
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p/ 25p/24p
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/30p @ 12Mbps
Rated estimated max HD video length at best quality 29 minutes, 59 seconds 20 minutes n/a
Audio Mono; mic input; headphone jack Mono; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack
LCD size 3.2 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3.2 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7), 1 x SDXC 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7), 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC
Wireless flash No Yes No
Battery life
viewfinder/Live View (CIPA rating)
950/200 shots
(1,800mAh)
900/
n/a shots
(1,800mAh)
410 shots
(1,650mAh)
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 6.1 x 4.6 x 3.0 5.7 x 4.8 x 3.2 5.9 x 4.5 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 33.5 35.1 29.2
Mfr. price $3,499 (body only) $2,999.95/ $3,299.95 (body only) $2,799.99 (body only)
$4,299 (with 24-105mm lens) n/a n/a
Ship date March 2012 March 2012/ April 2012 October 2012

In addition to the complete set of essential features for a pro camera, the A99V has a couple of unique features for this class, including built-in GPS (which strains the already lackluster battery life a bit), in-camera image stabilization (both Canon and Nikon use lens-based IS), and a built-in stereo microphone (which is nice to have in a pinch). On the downside, some folks may quibble with the decision to incorporate two SD card slots instead of an SD and a CompactFlash; while it would likely make little difference during shooting, CF is still the faster technology for moving files to your computer in a time-sensitive workflow.

If you're a Sony A series shooter disgruntled by the company's lack of tethering support for most of its modern models, the company has updated its Remote Camera Control software to support the A99V. And one note about accessories: the A99V uses the new Multi Interface Shoe, but ships with an adapter if you want to use your old accessories.

For a complete account of the A99V's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Conclusion
The A99V is a powerful, complicated camera that may simply exceed the needs (or budget) of most photographers, and since Sony doesn't offer a cheaper full-frame model a la the Nikon D600 or Canon EOS 6D, the company's missing out on an opportunity. If you need a single model that can handle both stills and video with equal aplomb, and are willing to make some trade-offs -- sacrificing a little on the video and high-ISO quality as well as video AF -- it's a great choice.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
JPEG shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim light)
Shutter lag (typical)
Nikon D600
0.3
0.2
0.2
0.6
0.5
Canon EOS 6D
0.6
0.3
0.3
1.3
0.4
Sony Alpha SLT-A99V
0.9
0.4
0.3
0.5
0.4

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sony Alpha SLT-A99V
6.2

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Digital camera type SLR
  • Optical Sensor Type Exmor CMOS
  • Sensor Resolution 24.3 Megapixel
  • Image Stabilizer optical (SteadyShot INSIDE)
  • Optical Sensor Size 23.9 x 35.8mm