The Alpha 99 is a model that has been eagerly awaited by many Sony fans for a long time. Its predecessor, the Alpha 900, came out roughly 4 years ago and was a phenomenal camera for the money. At the time, it shared the record for the highest megapixel camera with the Nikon D3x (a model that was widely known for actually getting its sensor from the Sony A900), but cost half the price. So understandably, pro photographers using the Sony system were getting impatient to see what Sony would come up with to top the Alpha 900.
Quite a lot actually. Sony may have decided to stick with the same resolution as the Alpha 900 (24 megapixels), but – like what Canon did with the Canon 5D mk III, after the mk II – they focused on making those 24 megapixels better, instead of going for a higher megapixel count and sacrificing high ISO image quality. One of the biggest changes is with the overall design. The 99 is quite different to the 900. To a large extent it still maintains the same layout that regular Sony users will be familiar with, but it has been modernised to match the new SLT translucent technology that Sony exclusively utilise. The most basic way that I could describe the 99’s controls is that it almost completely mimics that of its older and slightly smaller sister, the Alpha 77. And that is a very good thing, as the 77 has great control design. But thankfully, Sony saw fit to still improve on it slightly. The biggest difference one would notice is the change of the control stick. It has been made bigger and easier to use. It has an extremely positive feel to it, with great feedback. It is close to the best control stick I have yet seen on a camera.
But the biggest difference to the new 99, over the 900, has to do with the fact that Sony have completely discarded the traditional reflex mirror and prism formula of an SLR and gone for the same tried and tested technology that they have developed over the past 2 years with their translucent mirror SLT’s; meaning that the 99 no longer has an optical viewfinder like the 900, but rather a digital one like that of the 77. This was a bold move from Sony as no other pro level full frame SLR has veered away from the traditional optical viewfinder. This has many benefits; some of which include far more responsive and accurate autofocus that is constantly activated, as there is no moving mirror to cut off information to the autofocus sensor during the recording of images (unlike that of an SLR that stops focusing during an exposure). Because Sony have committed fully to using electronic viewfinders in their entire range of SLT’s and even in the NEX-7 and new NEX-6 mirrorless cameras, Sony have arguably put the most effort into making sure that they have been designed properly and work well. And it shows. I am a believer in SLT technology and am glad that Sony didn’t divert from it in their flagship model.
The last major difference when compared with the new 99 is regarding the hotshoe mount. They have ditched the mount developed from the Minolta days of old and replaced it with a more standard ISO hotshoe mount, which has the same fitting as all other camera manufacturers; making it easier to use accessories that are designed to be attached to a standard hotshoe. For compatibility with flashes that use the older mount, Sony has supplied a free adapter with the A99 that completely maintains all of the automatic functionality of the flash.In Use
Overall, the Alpha 99 performs quite flawlessly. In fact, I noticed very little difference between the Alpha 77 (with which it shares a lot of technology) and the 99. In most respects, they are identical. And the A77 was one of the best cameras I shot with last year, so to mimic its design is a good thing. Unfortunately, there are one or two changes that they made that I was not convinced by. One of the major differences is the replacement of the mechanical autofocus switch on the left side of the lens mount, with a stepless electronic dial. It is a great feature for shooting video because – since it is stepless – it makes no “clicking” noises when changing parameters, so you won’t have annoying noises showing up in the video of you changing settings while recording. But I found it very slow to use when shooting images. My style of shooting requires rapid changing between auto and manual focus as it is something that I do often when shooting. And it is something I like to do, without taking the camera away from my eye. I like mechanical autofocus toggle switches as they are quick and simple to use. With the new electronic control dial that has replaced the mechanical one, you have to press the button for a menu to come up on the LCD screen; where you can now toggle between the various modes. I found this method too slow for my shooting style and it became quite annoying after a short time with the camera.
The other issue I had was with the autofocus itself. While it was extremely fast and especially accurate – despite the use of lenses with extremely large apertures and shallow depth of field (the focus point was dead accurate on the focal point much of the time) – my only concern was that, despite having a massive 102 point autofocus system, for some reason Sony decided to arrange all of those points very close to the center of the frame and ignoring the outer extremities by leaving them devoid of any coverage. I would have preferred those 102 points spread more evenly throughout the frame. But to stress again, despite this, the autofocus was still extremely impressive with its accuracy.
Other than those items that I had issues with, the rest of the camera performed pretty much flawlessly. If you read any review on the A77, any positive things that are mentioned can be applied to the 99 as well. They share that much in common. They even have the same fully articulating LCD screen, which makes the A99 the only professional camera – whether it be crop sensor or full frame – to have an articulating screen. As far as image quality is concerned, at lower ISO’s, it is very detailed, which is what you would expect out of a camera with 24 million pixels. At higher ISO’s, it does start showing some loss of detail though. But don’t get me wrong. It is by no means bad. I wouldn’t consider it to be class leading in low light, but it is definitely better than average and – importantly – it is a considerable improvement over the A900 in low light, which was already a very good camera for its time in low light, despite its high pixel count.
Overall, the A99 is a great camera that I enjoyed shooting with fully as it was a well built, feature rich camera; capable of the extremely high quality of images that would be expected of a full frame camera of its price range and caliber. It is a camera that has significant improvements over its predecessor and – despite it being a long wait for its development to be finalised – it has most certainly been worth it.