As time passes, Sony's Alpha family of cameras have evolved from slightly chunky offshoots of the remnants of the Konica Minolta legacy - still seen in the A7 models - into something all the more conventional.
The Sony A99 II is the replacement for, you guessed it, the Sony A99 and even evolves that design slightly, to make it rather more conventional. The Sony A99 II might look closer to some of the high-end Canon or Nikon models it rivals, but this is still a unique camera, offering some features you won't find elsewhere from other manufacturers' DSLRs.
Despite carrying the A99 name, there's a lot to this camera that's new and a lot that loads it with potential.
Sony A99 II preview: Design and build
Pitched at the enthusiast and pro photographer, the Sony A99 II offers a substantial build. It's water and dust resistant with seals on all the buttons and openings and a magnesium alloy body, designed to stand up to the rigours of daily use.
As we've just mentioned, the design looks a little sharper, we think, than the model it replaces. Sony tells us its 8 per cent smaller, but this a body that weighs 849g before you add the lens. As a full-frame camera that's to be expected, but there's also plenty of space to grip and manipulate the A99 II.
High points on the design include easy access to the controls with those front and rear dials making it really easy to adjust aperture and shutter speed without taking the camera from your eye, and the top ISO button brings the same advantage for making changes on the fly.
The layout of controls is broadly the same as the previous model, as is the design of the vari-angle display, pulling out from the body with a swivel point at the bottom. This adds a great deal of flexibility for composition, especially for tight spaces where using the viewfinder might be awkward, but in terms of mechanism design, it doesn't feel quite as accessible as some of the displays you'll find on some mid-range cameras.
There's still an electronic viewfinder, with a 2.4 million dot OLED display inside. This is sharp and bright and looks great, although we've not had the chance to use it in a wide range of conditions yet.
There's also that front controller that was so revolutionary on the A99. This in the right sort of location so that your supporting left hand can operate it. There's a silent mode for video or a clicking mode for still shooters, which is a new adaptation. It can be assigned to change a number of functions, such as ISO, aperture, shutter speed or AF area. After a brief familiarisation, this controller is easy to tweak with your thumb, giving yet more seamless control.
Naturally there's an A mount on the front, with a wide range of Sony lenses available, as well as adapters for common formats.
Sony A99 II preview: Full-frame, full blast
- 42.4-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor, 34.9 x 24mm
- 12fps shooting at full resolution
- 4K video at 100Mbps
The thing that stands the A99 II aside from many other full-frame cameras is what you can do with it. For straight still shooting, it's a given that you have a potent 42.4-megapixel CMOS sensor at 35mm size with no low-pass filter. But it's Sony's translucent mirror system that makes this different from a DSLR.
Using a translucent mirror technology has enabled Sony to bring speed and flexibility to its models that makes them unique, avoiding the mechanical intervention that other DSLR cameras rely on. You can shoot at 12 frames per second with full focus and exposure tracking at full resolution. This is a big advancement over the 6fps offered by the predecessor: while that model was an interesting step forward - pairing a full-frame sensor with the translucent mirror system - it's really in the A99 II that it gets super-charged with the potency you'd expect.
New on this camera is Bionz X image processing engine and front-end LSI. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Sony has also added this powerful hardware to the recent A6500 and Cyber-shot RX100 V. It's all about giving the camera the power it needs to process all that data and let you grab those action sequences with blistering pace.
The buffer is large enough for 60 images and switching to the Hi+ mode that enables this pace, you can squeeze off a mass of shots with a press of the shutter button. As with those other two models we've just mentioned, you also get an indicator to display that these images are being processed and saved to the card.
The A99 II will also capture 4K video and it does so without pixel binning, so you're getting the full readout from the sensor. The A99 II will give you 100Mbps 4K footage, but also offers a full range of high speed and other video options. The A99 II offers an HMDI connection, so you can rig-up an external monitor, as well connections for mic and headphones, all of which will appeal to those with a more serious eye on video capture.
Sony A99 II preview: Sharp shooting
- 5-axis SteadyShot image stabilisation
- 79 Hybrid cross phase points, 399 focal-plane phase points
Sony's SteadyShot image stabilisation has been deployed across a wide range of devices from smartphones to its cameras and video equipment. Looking to aid you in handholding those slightly longer exposures, the 5-axis image stabilisation (in body) claims to give you as much as 4.5 steps advantage, removing hand tremors so you can get the shot you want.
That should aid those shooting in low light or murky conditions, or anyone wanting to avoid boosting the ISO too high, although you should also get high ISO shots that are nice and clean, partly through the new power on offer from the new image processing hardware.
Sony is also making great claims about the focusing system. This is where the unique nature of this camera plays its part, with the new AF sensor offering 79 phase points and a further 399 focal-plane PDAF points on the sensor. Because of the translucent mirror, it's a hybrid system, something that we weren't totally sold on in the original A99, but the new system is now a lot more all-encompassing.
The promise is for speed of focusing, ensuring that those constantly captured images remain sharp, with subject tracking. Using both sets of points it should be able to more accurately track moving images, which Sony is calling 4D Focus.
We've not had the chance to test much of the potential that this camera offers from a very brief session on a dull wet day, but we've already enjoyed the speed of shooting, even if, sometimes, that focusing system seems to adopt and track something you weren't actually looking at, like an obvious leading edge of an object, rather than the centre of its body.
On paper, at least, the new Sony A99 II looks like the camera we wanted the 2013 model to be. A lot has changed over those years, with a number of Sony's cameras delivering outstanding performance in a number of areas.
The Sony A99 II looks to boost the focusing, it boosts the speed of capture and it offers a serious collection of capture tools for those interested in video too.