Thanks to Sony Spain and especially Javier Agueda, I had a production unit of the new Sony A99 for my last trip to Iceland.
Testing a camera in a studio or around your house, is not always the most convenient, especially if like myself you tend to use your gear in hostile environments.
This winter trip to Iceland was a great opportunity to test the A99. Freezing temperatures, rain, snow and long exposures at high isos for capturing the northern lights have been some of the challenges that the A99 has faced during this trip.
In this article I will analyze the qualities and performance of this camera from the point of view of a landscape photographer who works mostly with video and time-lapse.
One of the greatest strengths of the new Sony A99 is its’ fantastic weather sealed magnesium body. Coming from the Canon 5D Mark II, this is a great advantage. In recent years I have seen several Canon (two of them mine) damaged by rain, splashing waves, or low temperatures. The Sony A99 has survived these harsh conditions in Iceland without problems, and this make me feel very confident when traveling to these kind of locations.
The camera’s strength is impressive despite it being the lightest FF DSLR on the market. For the second time this year,wind knocked my tripod and the A99 with it, falling from a height of almost two meters. After the strong impact, only a few scratches on the body testify what could have been a completely damaged camera.
The articulated screen and the electronic viewfinder are undoubtedly the greatest advantages on the A99 for my type of work, and probably for many of you. No more going to the cold and wet ground to frame or review the picture. The articulated screen of the A99 allows frames that were previously impossible or very difficult, giving new options to your creativity.
From today I am not using any camera that does not have this type of screen, just seems obscene paying 3,000€ for a camera that does not have an articulated screen, which in the other hand we can find in the lower-end models. Do the camera companies think professionals don`t want kind of screens in our cameras?
So far the excuse was that there was not possible to seal the body with an articulated screen, but the Sony A99 has shown that both qualities are possible.
The EVF was something that scared me if I’m honest. After many years looking trough an optical viewfinder, like many of you, I was not 100% sure about the change. But the EVF of the Sony A99 with its high clarity and sharpness has convinced me. Maybe if you only do photography it could be more difficult to adapt, but in my case, doing a lot of video and time-lapse, the optical viewfinder does not make sense any more. When recording video is blocked, and when you make time-lapse, the stroke of the mirror causes trepidation especially in long exposures, so that you always use the camera in live-view, which is the same as not having the viewfinder and mirror. With this EVF, you can still use the camera at eye level while you shoot video, and also have the screen off, saving battery. Also very importantly we have the histogram, level, and other information, which is not available in optical viewfinder.
Perhaps the only difficulty that I have encountered has been framing in total darkness, photographing aurora borealis, in these cases it is quite difficult.
The implementation of the translucent mirror in Sony SLT bodies is a great alternative to the traditional pentaprism and mirror of the SLR. On the one hand it avoids several moving parts in our camera body, decreasing the possibility of malfunctions. And secondly, it eliminates the vibration created by the tilting mirror during shooting. But also thanks to this system we have a phase detection focus system, which allows us an accurate continuous focusing in both photo and video, something that can not be achieved with traditional SLR.
As far as video is concerned, I have to regret that this continuous focus only works in priority mode, but I hope Sony will fix this via firmware, as Canon did in its 5D Mark II at the beginning with similar issues.
Menu and firmware:
While the menu is much better organized than its’ predecessors, I must say I expected something a little more professional in this regard. I understand Sony’s philosophy based on electronics, creating a very complete interface, with tons of features, but a little more order and the advice of a professional photographer is missing on my opinion.
Although I have to say that this is not a big problem in the A99 because most used options, have a dedicated button on the body, and we can customize wheels and other controls.
But it is at this point that I must express my only big problem with the Sony A99, by not including, (just for now I hope), histogram and magnification in video mode, as it´s included in photo mode. This does not make any sense, and I guess it will be implemented in a future firmware update.
Advantages in video:
While other brands barely introduce significant changes in their new camera models, Sony has made a major commitment to technology with its new A99. There are many new features in the the A99, some of them unique in the market. I do not want to extend too much so I will just mention the most significant for me:
-OLED electronic viewfinder
-1080 @ 60p
-Clean HDMI output
-Stabilization in the body
Photographic Image Quality:
The Sony A99 has a full frame sensor and a resolution of 24mpx which provides great picture quality and low noise level. Again, for me the precedent and I think the quality standard today is the Canon 5D Mark II. The question for me was whether the Sony A99 was going to be able to replace my veteran 5DII.
After this two-week trip in which I have performed thousands of shots in all conditions, I can say without doubt that the A99 has everything I need, and it won the right to stay in my backpack as “A-Camera”
In both image sharpness and noise level, two of the most important things in my work, the Sony A99 shows great performance, matching much more expensive cameras. In the color representation Sony did a great job, improving by far predecessor models as A77, which I tested a few months ago.
Image quality in video:
While it looks like there is a little room for major improvements on still image quality, we can say quite the opposite about the video footage of DSLR. Here all brands without exception have much to evolve.
That said, and after numerous camera tests on the field and in more controlled situations, I can say that the Sony A99 has more resolution and less aliasing and moiré that my old Canon 5DII, which seems to give an excessively compressed image compared to the A99 , even though the Sony has a lower bitrate.
Another of the great qualities of the Sony A99 is its wide dynamic range, widely beating the Canon 5D MarkII, to which we were forced to install profiles like Technicolor, which although make a more flat image, also decreased significantly the sharpness of the image, which is quite low already.
The availability of a wide range of quality lenses is often what determines that a photographer change or not to another brand. I tend to be pretty picky about the lenses, for the past two years I have used only Nikon and Zeiss lenses in Canon bodies, always looking for the highest quality and performance.
In my work the most used is the wide angle lense, and more specifically the Nikon 14-24, a superb optical quality even at maximum aperture. Replacing it seemed no easy task, and not being able to adapt this lens to the A99 made me doubt about switching to Sony. But after this trip using mostly the Zeiss 16-35mm f2.8 from Sony, I can say without a doubt that I will not miss the Nikon. The Zeiss has a great definition, both in the center and on the edges, even at maximum aperture, f2.8, a must in my work as I have to shorten the long night exposures as much as possible in my time-lapses. Not forgetting its standard 77mm filter screw, which makes easy to adapt any kind of filter or holder, the opposite of the Nikon 14-24.
Sony also has a large catalog of focal lenses, from extreme wide angles to the longer telephoto, the 70-200mm f2.8 is a great example of a fantastic optical quality inherited from the prestigious Minolta.
After more than two weeks of winter expedition in the south of Iceland, photographing, filming and time-lapsing all kind of landscapes and situations under harsh weather conditions, I can say that the Sony A99 has performed as a truly professional camera, offering all its potential at the highest level without any problem. What more can you ask a camera today?
To be light? No doubt it is much appreciated when you have to walk for hours with a backpack full of equipment. To incorporate features that increase creativity? The articulated screen, the EVF, the 60fps in Full HD or low noise are great examples.