Hands on: Sony Alpha a99 review

There's been a lot of talk about the Sony Alpha a99 for a long time now. The replacement for the full-frame a900 isn't a conventional DSLR, as was expected, which would suggest that Sony is done and dusted with the traditional optical-viewfinder, moving-mirror system.

Instead the a99's translucent mirror technology, as found across the entire current Alpha range, makes its way into a full-frame sensor model for the first time. Pocket-lint has been in Iceland with Sony to experiment with the latest Alpha. Stick a flake in that luv, we're going hands-on.

There's a *lot* of technology crammed into the Sony a99, so much so that it's difficult to know exactly where to start.

As this SLT incorporates an electronic viewfinder as part of its design, that seems the most sensible starting spot. The a99 utilises the very same 2,359k-dot OLED viewfinder panel as found in the NEX-7 and NEX-6 compact system camera models. That means its 0.71x magnification gives a screen measuring 0.5-inches diagonally - that kind of size is roughly the same as you'll find in any optical viewfinder system, including high-end DSLR cameras. But it's the electronic part that might see some traditionalists running for the hills: £2500 for an electronic viewfinder system… are you sold?

It's likely to split the pack; though we have got used to the electronic viewfinder and it works well. But it's not without issue: rapid movement can easily "smear" light sources, though the common lag associated with electronic 'finders is largely absent, even in low light. Failing to meet the viewfinder face-on can also cause the corners and edges to give a Gaussian-blur-like effect to the preview. Then there's the activation side of things: despite an eye-level sensor to pop the viewfinder on automatically as your face approaches, it's still not instant. It's close, but close might not be good enough for serious snappers. Of course, hit the Finder/LCD button and it's possible to keep one or the other permanently on to avoid this issue assuming the menu is set up to honour that setup.

As per any fair assessment, however, it's worth also highlighting the viewfinder's raft of positives too. The 100 per cent field of view is not only large, it's absolutely a "what you see is what you get"  system. From white balance to bokeh and image effects right down to (at least to some degree) image noise all show up in the preview. There's an electronic level, full feedback of autofocus points and bright settings displayed with clarity. Arguably there are more pros than there are cons, and this firmly sits the a99 into a modern-day, technological camera position. To see if this is the right setup for you it's best to go take a look at an NEX-7 in a shop as that will replicate the a99's viewfinder experience almost exactly.

Another major new feature of the a99 is its dual autofocus system. The coupling of a 19-point phase-detection autofocus sensor (that uses reflected light from the translucent mirror) is paired with a new 102-point system on the sensor itself. It's the first time such a combination has appeared in a camera, and it promises a lot in the new AF-D - essentially Sony's brand new 3D tracking mode to keep focus on moving subjects - but it won't always deliver for the simple fact that not all Sony Alpha lenses are fully compatible.

In fact, at present, there are only six: the 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA, 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G, 50mm f/1.4, 28-75mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 300mm f/2.8. All Alpha lenses (and, indeed Minolta glass) will still work, but can't make full use of the AF-D autofocus mode due to what Sony has called "issues with lens analysis".

We've used the 28-75mm f/2.8, the same lens released with the Alpha A77 kit, as well as the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 and both offered a reasonable experience, though it's not comparable to a Nikon D800 or Canon 5D mkIII in speed terms, when we thought it would be. The probably cause is that the final firmware hasn't been tweaked to make the most of the lens and body "chit chat" for quicker images.

But there are other small factors that we'd like to see fixed too. For example, in the selected focus point highlighted in black which, particularly when viewing into a dark background, is near impossible to see. Surely a brighter colour, such a red, would have made more sense? The arrangement of AF points is also very centralised rather than spread across a wide range - a probably shortcoming of the lesser amount of light available to the phase detection sensor's outer edges on account of the translucent mirror technology? We're not sure. All we know is that a wider array would be more versatile.

Think about the a99 as a competitor to the Nikon D800 and Canon EOS 5D mkIII and its autofocus system is very capable however. Of the 19 main focus points, 11 are cross-type for heightened sensitivity in both portrait and landscape orientation and the centre-point is sensitive to f/2.8. Speed-wise it can keep up no problems, but one or two blips with our pre-production model meant that autofocus was missed where contrast lacked (despite not using contrast-detection autofocus), particularly in dark areas.

As per other Alpha models the inclusion of a tele-zoom button on the rear allows for 1.4x and 2x digital zoom, but at limited cost to quality thanks to the sensor's huge 24.3-megapixel resolution. Morphing a 300mm lens into a 600mm equivalent at 12-megapixels has significant benefit too, and it's hard to spot any dip in quality. It's quick and easy to press the button, even if you're using the viewfinder.

Another cool new feature is the "AF Range" button which limits the focus range to a user-defined distance between the closest and furthest points. Let's say you're shooting an ice hockey match - or other similar sport - through protective glass that's not totally clear. The camera may get "confused" from time to time and try and focus on the closest point, even if that's not the desired subject. With the a99's AF Range one click of a button on the rear loads up a front-to-rear available focus and it's possible to then "close down" this distance using the front and rear thumbwheels. Should you choose to focus at 10-15m away, ignoring the 15-25mm background interference, than this camera can do that. It sticks to it rigidly too; we tested it through rain-smattered windows out on the Icelandic waters and all the prominent, contrasting spots of water were ignored in favour of the landscape behind. Undoubtedly a very useful feature to have.

Then there's image quality. Unfortunately Sony hasn't granted permission for us to use images in full - there are some illustrative examples in this piece at a small scale which is all we've been permitted to use - but from what we've already seen it's an impressive performer.

Any 24-megapixel sensor is going to have a dip at higher ISO levels, but the a99's full-frame status and new technologies means that shots between ISO 3200-6400 were still turning out plenty of detail. Glance on the LCD screen and it's clear to see that this camera isn't mucking around - the large sensor makes shallow depth of field easy to achieve, shadows are shown as rich blacks and shots just have that quality look and "feel" to them.

Speaking of the LCD screen, the a99 has adopted a vari-angle bracket that means the screen can be positioned to almost any angle. It's a two-part bracket that extends from the rear, and our only quibble with it is that some rotations are possible only in one direction rather than both. Also the 921k-dot resolution, while perfectly fine for a viewing experience, doesn't utilise Sony's latest "WhiteMagic" technology which includes a white pixel in addition to red, green and blue ones. Not so for the a99 though.

The camera's design isn't necessarily breaking any boundaries, but its a functional beast that feels right in the hand. There are a couple of small oversights, such as the position of the rear toggle (or "nipple" if you'd prefer) being too close to the thumb rest, which resulted in some accidental knocks that unwittingly moved to focus point.

Setting up bracketing, too, can be a bit of a trick: this requires the press of the continuous shooting button alongside the rotation of the front (and rear, depending on what's being adjusted within the mode) thumbwheel - something that's not possible with one hand. It's proper Twister-fingers to get that sorted, and then the top display screen won't show the aperture and shutter speed unless the shutter is half depressed.

Build quality is top notch though. The magnesium alloy body is not only light - the lightest full-frame camera out there in fact - but it's also tough and benefits from weather sealing. And we should know after a thorough soaking at sea off the coast of Iceland.

The choice to opt for a dual SD card slot (or MS+) is also a little unusual. The a900 used CompactFlash, so upgrade users will need a whole new set of cards to use in the a99. But perhaps the biggest surprise is Sony's omission of the XQD format. It's a Sony-made format, after all, but one that's only been picked up by the Nikon D4 so far.

But that's not all. The a99 has put just as much focus on its movie-capture abilities as it has with stills. The 1920x1080 Full HD AVCHD files can be shot at 50p or 25p (60/30p in the US as NTSC standard) at 28Mbps maximum. The quality is decent, and the autofocus system is generally good but, and just in the same way as stills capture, can occasionally falter and over- or under-focus prior to attaining sharp subject focus.

Our favourite movie-related feature is the silent mode dial though. Pictured below the rotational wheel and button glide like silk and are silent in operation. The button raises a menu that the toggle on the back of the camera (which is also very quiet) can then also select through while recording. Add audio levels and manual control and there's a lot of high-spec stuff here that'll grab the attention of video makers.

Just like we said, there's a lot of tech in this camera and a lot to think about. Overall the a99's got a whole lot right, but we can't help but feel that if a number of the minor blips outlined in this first review were to be ironed out this camera would be even more of a significant contender in the full-frame market.

It's bold, it's brave, it's got bags of new technology and, from what we've seen, it's one fine image and movie-making machine too.