Easy, rewarding upgrade from a compact

Jul 1, 2012
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Available affordable super zoom lens.  Powerful auto settings.  Great focusing performance. Built in HDR.

Cons:Not pocketable, plastic (but solid) feel. Some frivolous ineffective extra features.

The Bottom Line: A value DSLR with great performance and useful extra features.  Get the 18-250mm lens (27-375mm equivelant) and enjoy. Super at fast action focusing.


I am not a fan of complicated photography.  If taking pictures is not easy then I take far fewer.  And if the camera is not versatile I can't get many of the pictures I want.  And I want my shots to be good ones.   Without flaws.  Even in tough situations.  And if I have access to non-essential novelty features that can be fun too.  So I'm pretty impressed so far using the a57 with the Sony 18-250mm zoom lens.

 
The good news is that the alpha a57 has excellent capability on all the essential performance factors that allow you to take great photos, and can be paired with an available 14x super-zoom Sony lens ($650 list) with far more flexibility than the kit lenses--flexible enough so that you may never feel the need to have more than just that one lens.  And that really simplifies its use.  It can function like an oversize point & shoot yet you have flexibility to do really sophisticated work with it if you so choose.  Note: Nikon has just announced a 18-300mm zoom for its cameras with the same size sensor (called APS-C) and Sigma has announced a 18-250mm lens for Canon APS-C models.  Both should be available late summer 2012. But both are much more expensive because they must include image stabilization built into the lens whereas stabilization is built into the camera body of the a57.  And the Sony body/lens combo has additional advantages such as in camera wide angle barrel distortion correction.  


Before going through the camera's strong points it may be interesting to note that this model may be the bang-for-the buck champion not only among Sony cameras but the  competition as well.  At least as I write this (7/12).  I have discovered no "one big flaw" that seems to pop up in so many otherwise excellent competitive models.  For example, the Olympus EM-5 is less bulky and seems to slightly outperform the a57 in picture quality.  But its autofocus, even though extremely fast, uses the less reliable contrast detection method and reportedly is less reliable in use.  Failure to get correct focus has ruined many of my attempted great shots, so focus performance was a top priority for me and I'm happy to report the a57 has not let me down.
 
Likewise, the Sony NEX cameras also lack the a57's phase detection focus system, using the less reliable contrast detection method that has more difficulty focusing in low light, low contrast scenes.  And neither the NEX nor the Olympus offer an equivalent super zoom lens.  If you're moving up from a compact you may also appreciate the ability to switch to manual focus in scenes where nearby objects may confuse the auto focus. 

The A57 is second from the bottom in the current SLT series of Sony cameras.  It bests the low end a37 with better video performance and battery life.  The less expensive a37 has an unacceptably low resolution monitor in my opinion and can't track moving objects with constantly adjusting autofocus.  The two higher end models, the a65 and a77, have 24 megapixel sensors rather than 16 megapixels, yet the sensors are the same size.  That means the 24 megapixel sensor must have smaller pixels and be more prone to noise.  Sure enough, published comparisons show this to be true.  For me, the low noise is more important.  So the a57 seems to be the best choice in the SLT line up.


Vs. smaller cameras


My most recent camera is a Fuji 550exr which is a pocketable 16 megapixel compact with a 15x zoom.  (A newer version now features a 24x zoom in the same size.)   Though disappointing in several ways, the Fuji can take great pictures in daylight.  Even in daylight though, the a57 has much less noise in shadow areas, and strong reds don't "bleed" as with the smaller camera.  In low light scenes the a57 is way, way better.  That's something you'd expect since the a57's sensor has over 10x the light gathering surface area.  And that's what you gain in accepting a larger camera's extra bulk.  And, unless you're willing to give up zoom range, the larger sensor requires a similar upsizing of the lens.   I'll be keeping my Fuji for casual use, but for important shots I'll use the a57.  If, like me, you're interested in better picture quality than you get from your compact, definitely consider the a57. 


Other strong performance points


The purist brands like Nikon and Canon seem to be reluctant to incorporate non-traditional methods to produce solutions to typical photo problems.  Not so, Sony. So Sony uses a unique semi-transparent fixed mirror (i.e. no moving parts) that allows  superior phase detection auto focusing to be used.  As a result the A57 can adjust focus constantly on a moving subject while taking 10 shots per second at full resolution. So far, no other camera I know of less than 8 times the cost can do this.  That fast focus also works with video.  My video results have been excellent even with fast zooming and panning.  Sometimes I'll lose focus if a closer object moves into the field of view even with focus area set to the "spot" mode, but that's a minor issue. 


Dynamite dynamic range


Another not yet popular feature not found in other brands is the a57's in-camera HDR processing. HDR (High Dynamic Range) saves the day in high contrast scenes  when the difference between bright areas and shadow areas in a scene is more than the camera's sensor can capture.   Without HDR the camera will expose according to the average light in the scene but this causes the out-of-range brightest areas to turn all white and/or the deepest shadow areas to turn all black.  Even the best sensors today capture a range up to about 9 f stops (each f stop is a doubling of the amount of light).  But your eye can capture up to 13 f stops, or about 64x the range of a good sensor.  So how can you capture such a scene and make it look like what your eye sees?  There are two methods. 


When using my pocket camera, I reduce the exposure by up to 2 f stops. Then I use computer post processing to lighten the shadow areas until shadow detail appears.  iPhoto does this very easily and Adobe software can as well.  But with the pocket camera's sensor being only about 1/10 the size of that in the a57, I often get mottling (noise) if I try to lighten the shadows very much. It's also worth noting that shadow detail visibility is highly dependent on the method you're using to view your photos. When I replaced my older Vizio LCD  HDTV with a newer LG LED HDTV with local dimming, the shadow detail visibility increased dramatically and I had to readjust hundreds of iPhoto settings to take advantage of the LG's better picture quality. My retina iPad is even better: the best photo viewer I've seen.  The retina MacBook Pro's should be even better.

 
The a57 has a setting ("DRO" for dynamic range optimization) that does this automatically, and a similar feature has appeared on Nikon D 5100.  But even with the larger sensors you will eventually get shadow noise. So for extreme contrast scenes Sony has another method.

 
Set HDR to auto or any one of the six selectable levels and the camera takes 3 exposures in quick succession: one under exposed, one average, and one over exposed.  It then combines that information into one photo that retains detail throughout the full range and records it (processing takes about 2 seconds) along with the average setting photo.  The results are sensational.  In extreme situations the additional detail is amazing. Even more amazing, the a57 with help from its in-camera stabilization takes these 3 shots so fast that you don't need a tripod, even at extended zoom settings.  Just don't try to capture moving objects or you'll see grayed out areas where the object moved from on the first exposure.  (A note: using RAW capture disables this or any other feature that uses in camera processing.  The 3 shot HDR still captures more dynamic range than using single RAW files with post processing.  With other cameras you could perform HDR with RAW files by bracketing your exposure at +1, 0, -1 f stops and post processing in Photomatix Pro or some other specialized HDR software--too complicated for me).    For me, this in camera HDR may be the most compelling reason to choose the Sony over its competition.


Hand held panoramic shots


I've tried this with my pocket camera, and it takes many tries to get an error free result.  It's almost not worth the effort. But with the a57, as you sweep left to right, the Sony is taking exposures at full speed.  It almost sounds like a machine gun. It then stitches the photos together and the stitching is invisible in every panoramic I've taken so far. Resolution is reduced, however, no doubt to leave a few extra pixels for compensating for any vertical frame mismatch as you sweep.  Impressive.


There is also a setting to capture panoramas in 3D.  I always thought you needed a stereo image to get 3D.  So how does this camera do it with a single lens?  Turns out it can't.  I connected the camera's HDMI output  to my LG 3D tv's HDMI input.  And yes, there is a little bit of a 3d effect, but not enough to satisfy someone who just watched the movie  Avatar in 3D.  I suggest you ignore this feature on this camera. 


Video


Even though my pocket camera claimed to do 1080p video, it produced terrible quality overly contrasty video.  Focusing was slow too. It was unusable. I got far better results with my iPhone 4s.  I am happy to report that the Sony produces excellent video.  The big drawback is that if you want 16:9 video, you have to record in AVCHD format which produces huge files. I found the 1080i setting had more manageable file size and still looked great.

 
Overwhelming options


There are literally hundreds of different settings available.  When you read about all the options one-by-one, you don't realize that many are mutually exclusive.  Yet sometimes similar settings can be achieved multiple ways.  For example, if you want to take rapid fire exposures you can use either the mode wheel or one of the scene selections.  It will take me a long time to learn which settings can be used with each other and which can not.  The camera lets you know if you try a forbidden setting combination.
 
There are three automatic point and shoot settings on the mode wheel.   Called "intelligent auto" the first takes care of all settings automatically, including firing the flash if necessary (something which it likes to do quite often).  By the way, the a57 does have a built in flash, unlike many choices in this category.  Second there is intelligent auto with flash off which is one I use often.  Finally, there is "intelligent auto plus" which will also use extra features like "DRO auto" when appropriate.  In the latter, you can also turn the flash off manually in the "function" menu.  Using these auto settings has given me excellent results except I sometimes still get blown highlights in very small areas.  If I'm shooting moving objects such as at a parade and can't use HDR, then I go into the program mode where I can adjust the exposure downward and use post processing later to bring up shadow areas.  You can check for blown highlights in the monitor or viewfinder by hitting the display button. 


There are other modes on the mode wheel, including partially manual modes that let you adjust your depth of field, as well as a totally manual mode.   Turning to the scene mode brings up a menu of available scenes on the monitor. When you select one it then provides user tips (like in portrait mode it tells you to focus on the eyes).


There are many dedicated buttons on the camera which give you quick access to functions without having to go into one of the menus.  There is a "movie" position on the mode wheel but you can start/stop a movie while in other modes by pressing the dedicated movie button.    Some buttons are programmable.  I programmed the front button next to the bottom of the handgrip to engage focus magnification for when I'm using the manual focus.

 
Handling


Such a large camera (compared to my compact) has taken me some getting used to.  Despite the inconvenience of the larger size, there are some real advantages that make it easier to get good shots.  Because you're holding more mass and often using two hands, it's easier to hold steady, especially when shooting video.  I find that manual zooming is much more controllable than the motorized zoom used in most compacts.  And being able to quickly switch to manual focus has come in handy too.  Best of all, I really like having a viewfinder.  The a57's viewfinder has great resolution even if it's  not very bright or colorful compared to the OLEDs used on the higher end models. And I don't have to put on my reading glasses to see it as I would the monitor.  There is an adjustment wheel that works well if you need to adjust something while using the viewfinder.  If you're using the monitor you can use the scrolling buttons next to it instead.  Very convenient.  The monitor hinges down for taking shots held above your head and pivots around as well so you can store it with the delicate side in. 
It will take me a while to figure out the best way to hold the camera for engaging some of the buttons.  But for the most part I find the handling quite easy.

     
Recently I took photos at a parade and made extensive use of the fast action multiple shot feature.  Often I found one of the several shots was far better than the others what with all the twirling batons and bouncing balloons zigzagging every which way so many shots had something in the way of my intended subject.  In one case I even caught a subject with his eyelids closed, but open in the following exposures.  I was able to select the best and delete the rest.  The focusing ability worked as claimed, and all the shots were well focused.  I'm really starting to value this feature more and more.  I noticed Nikon and Canon have announced some models with "hybrid" sensors which are designed to improve focusing over standard contrast detection methods, but early reports are that they still don't match Sony's translucent fixed mirror phase detection. 


Conclusion


If you're using a compact and have ever wished your results could be a little better, moving up to this Sony will surprise and delight you.  If you're a photo purist and shoot only RAW files, then you might not value this camera so much unless you do fast action photography.

  
If you're a die hard purist, you'll still want to plunk out a few extra grand for a Canon EOS 5D or Nikon D800E.   But for a fraction of the price this Sony isn't all that far behind and offers ease of use for the less expert photographer.


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