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A77 is an enthusiasts delight

Pros Fast, high-image quality, versatile
Cons A lot more money than the equally capable A65
Recommended it? Yes
The Bottom Line:  An outstanding enthusiast camera, but very different from a conventional DSLR.  If you are on a budget, consider the equally excellent A65
A few weeks ago I reviewed my then-new Sony A65 camera.  I really liked the balance of light weight, advanced features and high picture quality.  In fact, my only complaint at the time was that it felt a bit plasticky for a $1000 camera.  Well, the day before my 30 day return period was up, I took it back and bought a different camera. 

No, its not what you think.  My opinion of the A65 didn’t deteriorate at all, in fact quite the opposite.  The more I used it, the more I liked it, enough so that I traded UP to the slightly more advanced (and considerably more expensive) A77.  This review will be structured as a comparison of the A65 and the A77, and focus on the particular features of the A77 that may (or may not) make it worth spending five hundred more of a your dollars.

First off, far more is the same between these two cameras than different.  They both use the same sensor, the same processor and (almost) the same interface.  In fact, the firmware updates (software for the camera’s internal computer) is a single file that works on both cameras.  Both the A65 and A77 use the same outstanding XGA OLED electronic viewfinder and have the same display options both in the viewfinder and on the LCD.  Both have exactly the same modes and even the same in-camera correction for optical distortion of specific Sony lenses.

With all of those similarities it is very hard to justify spending the extra money on the A77, and in fact it was just that reason that I initially bought the A65.  I will now describe the features that that A77 adds to the A65 and explain why they are, or aren’t important to me.  As always, your mileage may vary.

The big features Sony advertises are a faster 12 frame per second burst mode (compared to 10 fps on the A65), dual control dials (compared to one), a 19 point auto focus system with 3 cross-type sensors (compared to 15 point and 3 cross), a top panel LCD display of camera settings (none on A65) and a magnesium-alloy body with dust and moisture seals (compared to a plastic, non-sealed body on the A65).

Individually, those features just didn’t impress me, and in fact if it wasn’t for some specs and features that Sony considers minor and doesn’t really advertise, I would not have upgraded.  Here is a look at the features that actually swayed me to spend more money.

Adjustable auto-ISO range.  On the A65, the ISO is either manually selected or is set automatically between 100 and 16000.  The A77 allows the photographer to define the range of automatic adjustment.  I keep it set at 100 for the low range and 800 at the high range.  This feature is nice, but ultimately not a big deal as the A65 (and A77) has a dedicated ISO button that makes it easy to adjust ISO on the fly.  On my A65, I just tended to shoot at ISO 100 and adjusted it upward manually when needed.  On the A77, I leave it on automatic within my defined range, or manually set it at 50 (there is no ISO 50 on the A65) when lighting permits.

Another seemingly minor feature, but that actually had the largest impact on my desire to upgrade was an additional JPEG compression setting in the A77.  I tend to shoot JPEG more than RAW, which is not the way to go for ultimate image quality, but I just don’t have the time to spend in computer post-processing.  Furthermore, both the A65 and A77 have a firmware feature that allows the JPEG engine in camera to compensate for optical distortion of specific Sony lenses, but only in JPEG.  With the A65, you can shoot in standard or fine detail, whereas the A77 has a lower compression (higher quality) Extra-Fine JPEG mode.  I wasn’t aware that the A65 lacked the highest-quality JPEG mode, and given the A65’s enthusiast market position, wish that model had the Extra-Fine setting.  If it did, I would likely not have upgraded.  This was the most significant feature upgrade for me.

Now I did not pay an additional $500 strictly for the better JPEG mode, as the other A77 enhancements are each significant, just not $500 significant to me.  The body definitely is built to take more abuse and the extra dial and joystick controller do make operation more intuitive.  There is more control over the autofocus system including a dedicated dial rather than an on/off switch and menu options and the ability to make fine corrections for each lens and store them in memory.  The A77 also has a faster card slot, meaning it can write to the memory faster as well as be read faster when connected to a computer or for preview in the camera.

Finally, the camera is physically larger and heavier.  It is, of course, less pleasant to carry all day, but more comfortable to hold with my large hands.  People with smaller hands will have no trouble with the A77, but will likely prefer the feel of the A65.

The most important consideration with any camera are the images that come out of it, and by extension, the photographer’s creative control of the camera, which I believe is a function of ergonomics and interface (how responsive and intuitive the camera is in operation).  I learned photography at age 14 on an old Minolta SRT-200, a very basic, all mechanical 35mm camera that had a built-in light meter, but nothing else.  In the beginning I had only the standard lens (a 45mm f2), then added a 135mm telephoto, with wideangles and later zooms coming as I gained experience. 

Then, as now, I enjoyed travel photography and portraits, and using a basic camera, while slow, became very intuitive.  A dial on the front of the lens for focus, another at the rear of the lens for aperture, and a dial on the top of the camera for shutter speed.  A button for shutter release, a lever for film advance and a crank for rewind completed the controls on this very basic camera.  There were no menus to drill into, not icons or symbols to interpret, just the basic controls for focus, exposure and film transport.

The A77 (and A65) is far more complex, but Sony has done an excellent job in making what is essentially a powerful computer look and feel not so foreign to this lover of traditional cameras.  There is a mode dial on the top left, where the rewind crank used to be in the film days.  This has the same modes that auto-exposure cameras had back in the 1980s including two fully automatic modes and the usual PASM (program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual).  There are also scene modes, the special 12 fps high-speed mode and a special movie mode that allows manual exposure control (there is also a movie button that goes directly to recording, but without full manual control).  These controls are exactly the same on the A77 and A65.  Both also have a dial in front of the shutter-release to adjust either aperture or shutter speed. 

The A77 goes one better with a second dial on the camera back and the ability to program both dials to the photographer’s preference.  I have my front dial set to aperture and rear to exposure compensation.  In manual mode the rear dial is shutter speed instead of exposure compensation, while the front dial is always aperture except in shutter-priority mode, where it becomes shutter speed.  I shoot almost exclusively in A mode for creative photography or one of the auto modes for casual photography, so the front, for me, is always aperture and the rear is always exposure compensation.

What attracted me to the A65 and A77 compared to the equivalent models from Canon and Nikon was the electronic viewfinder (EVF).  As a traditionalist, I didn’t expect to like the EVF, but in use it is a revelation compared to the small, dim optical viewfinders (OVF) of competing Canon and Nikon cameras.  Now the big, expensive full-frame cameras had big, bright optical viewfinders that were better than those of old-time film cameras, including professional models like my last film SLR, the highly regarded Nikon F3HP.  I wasn’t looking at full-frame cameras, which start at over $2000 for just the body, but rather at crop-factor (APS-C) cameras that range in price from $500 at the bottom to $2000 at the very top, WITH LENS.

In fact, I had narrowed my choice down to two Canon models, the 60D with kit lens (comparably priced with the A65) and the 7D with a better kit lens (comparably priced with the A77).  The problem was that both of the Canons and the equivalent Nikons) had small, dim viewfinders that made even the dim viewfinder I remember from my old SRT-200 seem impressive.  The two Sony cameras (A65 and A77 use the same EVF), on the other hand were brighter and larger than the old F3, and about the same size and brightness (under normal lighting) as the full-frame professional SLRs.

Now EVFs and OVFs have very different sets of strengths and weaknesses, and are both compromises.  With an OVF you are looking at your subject in real time, through whatever filters you apply.  Information can be projected in some models (heads up display), but you cannot see the effects of adjustments to exposure, white balance or scene modes on the final image.  In very low light, you also may not be able to see your subject. 

EVFs, in contrast, can preview exposure, scene settings and white balance.  For instance, I can set the camera to black and white and I will see my subject in black and white.  You can also see your subject even in very low light, though the EVF will “gain up” and show a lot of noise.  These are very powerful features that really help the photographer to take exactly the image he or she wants to take, though the sacrifice of direct connection to your subject that you get when looking directly at it through an OVF.  You can even display a live histogram superimposed over you subject (lower right corner) or a level/inclinometer, which really helps with complex compositions.  You can display (or hide) gridlines as well, and of course move and track autofocus points.  EVFs can be slow to respond to fast-moving subjects in low lighting, which makes sports photography difficult.  Finally, there is a feature called focus-peaking that highlights in a user-selectable color parts of your image that are in focus, making manual focusing easy and opening up use of older, manual lenses.  As I said, EVFs and OVFs each have strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve come to prefer the EVF, at least the excellent model built into the A65 and A77.

Almost everything I said about the A65 applies equally to the A77, with the exception of the A77-exclusive features, the same is true in revers.  In my opinion, the A65 is the more important camera in the marketplace today, and deserves the bulk of the sales numbers.  I can’t stress enough that in the vast majority of situations the images that come out of the two cameras will be absolutely identical.  I didn’t “need” anything in the A77 and almost kept the A65, which I would not have been unhappy owning and using for years to come.  In my opinion, the A77 just offered those few little extras that made the decision difficult.  In the end, you really can’t go wrong with either.

***Update 1-12-13***
I sold my A77 at the end of 2012, after about 9 months of ownership.  No, nothing was wrong with it, in fact, quite the contrary.  For such a complex and sophisticated camera, I was actually surprised that I had not a single issue.  Not one freeze, no glitches, nothing except fast and reliable operation over some 15,000 or so pictures I took with it.

I sold it not because of any flaw, but rather because I enjoyed the A77 so much that I became far more serious about creative photography and explored what I enjoy creating as a photographer.  The exploration led me to realize that I wanted narrower depth of field and more control over perspective with prime (non-zoom) lenses.  

So, my A77 was sold on eBay (for only about $100 less than current retail) and should go on to give its new owner the same perfectly reliable operation and incredible image quality it gave me, while I explore the newfound control I have with the older-tech, but full-frame Sony A850.

I remain very enthusiastic about the A77 and give it my highest recommendation as a camera for serious enthusiasts. 

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