No really a DSLR, but thats OK

Mar 23, 2012
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Sharp 24MP images, excellent image stabilization, lens profiles in camera firmware

Cons:Plasticky for a $1000 camera, 1/3 of the light lost to the SLT mirror

The Bottom Line: An enthusiast camera with a unique feature set.  Not an SLR, and all the better for it.

Not really a DSLR

This is a review of the new Sony A65 digital camera.  Sony is very careful not to call the A65 a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and is correct in doing so, because the mirror in the A65 doesn’t flip up when a picture is taken.  The A65 uses a semi-transparent pellicle mirror much like the one Canon used back in the late 1960s in the Pellix camera.  

Then, like now, a mirror that doesn’t move has advantages over one that does.  In the 1960s the advantages were the ability to still use the viewfinder during long exposures and reduced vibration.  Theoretically, this would allow handholding at slower shutter speeds, and it did, however the translucent mirror also reduced the amount of light striking the film plane, causing slower shutter speeds to be needed.  The other primary advantage was that the camera was a lot quieter in use than true SLR cameras of the time, which was great for shooting on the street.

Fast forward 3 1/2 decades and Sony is again using pellicle mirrors with the same benefits and trade-offs.  Just like in the 60s, Sony’s pellicle mirror takes about 30% of the light and sends it to autofocus and exposure sensors instead of the “film plane” (CMOS sensor).  Like on the old Canon Pellix, the A65 mirror doesn’t move, and like the goal for the Pellix (reality was different) the Sony is quieter than a true SLR camera.

A lot has changed since the 1960s, and today there are far more benefits to the pellicle mirror than there were in 1965, mainly related to autofocus, and burst shooting speed, which existed in 1965, but since the Pellix lacked a motordrive accessory, was not used to advantage on that model.

The A65, unlike conventional SLRs, uses an electronic viewfinder as opposed to an optical viewfinder.  Normally electronic viewfinders are full of compromises, such as poor contrast, low resolution, graininess in low light, and sluggish response.  Those disadvantages are combined with very real advantages, including the ability to actually see in low light, knowing what your actual image with look like (you are viewing from the same sensor that the camera uses to record) and the ability to view picture effects prior to taking the picture.  The A65 greatly enhances the benefits with its high XGA resolution and OLED construction while minimizing the weaknesses of electronic viewfinders.  

As a long-time film SLR shooter, I find the EVF on the A65 better in most respects than the optical finder on my old Nikon F3, which was one of the brightest viewfinders of the film era and perfect 100% frame coverage.  The A65 has those same attributes, but also has level indicators that are a great help in complex compositions, full exposure information and of course, live, full-time depth of field preview, which I find essential in the types of photography I enjoy (travel and portraits).

The A65 is a highly complex camera, with features far too numerous and advanced to fully cover in a short review.  I would highly recommend reading many of the professional reviews of this camera to learn more about the fine points of speed, resolution and noise.  Personally, I’ve had my A65 for about 3 weeks and have taken roughly 500 pictures with it.  I consider myself very knowledgable about the basics of photography (exposure, depth of field, composition, lighting), but very out-of-date with regards to the technology some of its fine points (white balance, JPEG algorithms and computer post-processing).  So far, I use the A65 on RAW JPEG mode so that I work with the JPEGs (much easier for me), but have a RAW image in case I take that once-in-a-lifetime shot that I want to optimize and create a poster of.

Handling of the camera is very different from what I am used to, both compared to advanced point-and-shoots (Canon S95, S50, G3, etc) and old film SLRs, specifically my old Nikon F3, FM2, FE, EM and prior to that a Minolta SRT200 and X570.  The A65 looks and feels like a film SLR (to some extent), but in use is more like the point-and-shoot digital in that it is controlled with menus and programmable buttons and dials.

One area where the A65 (and almost any digital SLR) is far better any point-and-shoot is in the creative control over the photographic process that it allows.  I’ll use portraits as an example.  In portraiture, one generally is photographing a person, and needs to decide what to do with the background.  If you are photographing a person in a historic place, you may want that place rendered in sharp focus.  In other situations, you may want the background blurred beyond all recognition to emphasize the person.  The former is easy on most small cameras, while the latter is easier on larger cameras.  This is a direct consequence of lens size (focal length) and aperture (the amount of light let in), with larger imaging sensors (or film sizes) requiring longer focal length lenses to have the same field of view.  Generally the longer the lens, the wider (more light) the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, or the area in front of and behind the point of focus (the person’s face, for example) that are also in focus.

The A65 uses an APS-C sized sensor, which is smaller than 35mm film, but much larger than point-and-shoot digital cameras usually use.  Sensor size and field of view will determine what lens you use to take a particular photograph.  Lets say I want to take a picture of my daughter.  I would decide if I want a full-figure shot or a head-and-shoulder portrait.  Then I would decide if I want the lens to slightly exaggerate perspective (someone with flatter facial features) or slightly compress (someone with a larger nose).  Wide-angle lenses exaggerate and telephoto (magnifying) lenses compress.

So I decide to a head-and-shoulder portrait of my daughter and elect for very slight compression, so I want a lens of moderate telephoto focal length.  On a 35mm film camera, I would reach for my 100mm portrait lens.  If shooting my wife, who’s facial features are flatter, I would reach for my 50mm standard lens and position the camera closer.  The 100mm lens will blur the background far more than the 50mm lens will at the same aperture.  On an APS-C camera like the A65, a 35mm lens has the same field of view (but more depth of field) a a 50mm lens on a 35mm SLR.  Ideally, I would want a 70mm lens to photograph my daughter with the same visual effects (though slightly more depth of field) as the 100mm lens on my old film SLR.

The point of all of that technical explanation of focus depth and lens focal length is that with a point and shoot and its tiny sensor, your lenses area all of very short focal length, even the telephotos.  One point-and-shoot camera I have (Sony 530) has an 18.8mm lens that is equivalent to 104mm on 35mm film or 70mm on APS-C.  An 18.8mm lens has abundant depth-of-field, such that even though I take a head-and-shoulder portrait of my daughter with it, the background, even with the lens wide open (f 4.5 on that camera) will result in the background only slightly blurred.  With my 85mm f 2.8 prime lens mounted on the A65 the background in that same photograph would be totally blurred wide open (f 2.8), but can be sharpened quite a bit by stopping down to f 22, though will never be as sharp as it is on the18.8mm lens on the small p&s camera (at least in terms of focus).

Simply put, the smaller the sensor, the the shorter the focal length of the lens, the harder it is to blur the background in a photograph.  Conversely, the larger the sensor (or film), the longer the lens and the harder it is to put both foreground and background into sharp focus.  Small cameras use small sensors.  35mm film (and full-frame DSLR cameras) make it easy to have control over focus and depth of field, while point and shoots with their tiny sensors make it nearly impossible.  APS-C is a decent compromise, as is the slightly smaller Micro 4/3.

Okay, photo lesson over, lets get back to the A65.  The A65 is an excellent camera for creative photographers for use in many types of photography.  For travel work the difficulty lies in getting a wide enough angle of view.  My camera came with an 18-55mm “kit” lens of adequate quality.  These cheap kit zooms are just that, CHEAP, but optical quality is a lot better than was possible with cheap zoom lenses back in the film days.  35mm film shooters will think that 18mm wideangle is quite quite, but APS-C cameras have a “crop factor” of 1.5, meaning take the focal length of the lens, multiply by 1.5, and that is the equivalent on a 35mm camera.  18mm X 1.5 results in a 27mm equivalent, which is only a moderate wideangle.  To get the shorter 24mm equivalent that I used to use for travel would require a 16mm lens on APS-C.  I will likely sell the 18-55mm in the future when I can afford the excellent 16-50mm that Sony just introduced (a much more expensive lens).

While getting real wideangle lenses for an APS-C camera is very expensive, getting long telephoto is quite cheap, and cheap, high-quality portrait lenses are easier still.  That crop-factor that makes getting wide difficult, makes going long easy.  Sony’s cheap 55-200 zoom is actually equivalent to an 82-300mm lens on a film camera, and for portraits the ideal is 80~135mm, which is easily handled by the super cheap 50mm f1.8, Sony’s cheapest lens, and one its best.

My outfit currently has four lenses, a pair of zooms that cover everything from 27 to 300mm equivalent (18-200) and a pair of primes that cover standard (35mm f1.8 equivalent to 52.5mm) and portrait telephoto (85mm f2.8 equivalent to 127.5mm).  For casual trips, I just bring the camera with either the 18-55 or just the 35mm if I anticipate shooting indoors or at night.  For vacation I’ll take the whole bag, using the zooms most of the time.  The 85mm is my favorite lens in the bag, but really only comes out for portraits where I want to blue the background and get in tight with the subject.  I only bother with the 55-200 when trying to get a tight shot of something very far away, which isn’t particularly often.  Indoors, its almost always the 35mm f1.8, which makes it easy to take excellent pictures without needing flash.

These lenses are all from Sony’s low-cost “Easy Choice” series, which have plastic casings and even plastic lens mounts.  This is not professional gear, and no doubt these inexpensive lenses have optical issues like distortion, chromatic aberrations and the like.  I say most likely, because of another very special feature of the A65 camera which is lens profiles stored in the camera’s firmware for a wide variety of Sony lenses, including all of the lenses I own.  This means that if there is a flaw, such as the common pincushion distortion of telephoto lenses, the camera compensates for it digitally in its processing of the image.  The results I’ve seen in my photography make it extremely difficult to tell which lens was used for a given photograph except for things like depth of field.  The 55-200 zoom set at 85mm is slightly less sharp and slightly duller in contrast than the 85mm prime, but no real distortion is visible as I would expect on a cheap zoom lens.  Ditto the 18-55 set at 35mm compared to the 35mm prime.

More importantly, whether done electronically (possible, I’m not sure) or through high optical quality (Kurt Munger reviews suggests this), the pictures that come off of the A65’s 24 MP sensor with these low-cost Sony lenses are every bit as good as the best image quality I’ve seen from other similar cameras from Nikon and Sony, and perhaps as good as what I used to get from my Nikon F3 and Nikon prime lenses.  That is VERY strong praise, because the images from the A65 and even the low cost Sony lenses are of truly outstanding quality, most of the time.

Most of time, because unlike competing DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, the A65 suffers when ISO sensitivity is cranked up past 1600, while cameras like the Canon 60D do well to 3200 or even 6400.  The A65 can do 6400, but it is noisy, which is expected when you cram 40% more pixels into the same sized APS-C sensor.  At ISO 800 and below, there really is no noise to speak of in RAW images and often not in JPEGs either, depending on your settings.  At ISO 100 the A65 will match full-frame 24MP cameras and just simply blow away any of the 16-18MP competition.  I try to keep my ISO at or below 800, hence my preference for the fast f1.8 35mm and f2.8 85mm lenses indoors.

The high-ISO noise is further reduced in its importance by the A65’s excellent image stabilization system, which makes it easier to handhold longer shutter speeds without needing flash.  The A65’s system is inside the camera, rather than the lens, which is part of why Sony is able to sell such excellent lenses for such low prices and also guarantees that image stabilization will work, regardless of the lens you attach.  I can handhold the 85mm lens down to 1/30th of a second (having no moving mirror also helps) and the 35mm lens down to 1/15th without any noticeable blur.  I believe that the fixed mirror and image stabilization are probably worth two more stops compared to a moving mirror and a camera/lens combination that lacks stabilization.

Another claim to fame for the A65 is its advanced video modes, including full HD.  Honestly, I haven’t shot any video with my A65 yet and just cannot comment, though the professional reviewers all claim that video quality is outstanding, but that there are many restrictions to exposure and focus control while recording video in some modes.  Likewise the camera’s advertising prominently features its fast 10 frame per second capture rate, and professional reviewers easily match that rate, but with significant restrictions on the camera’s controls in that mode.   Personally, I shoot on single frame, and again cannot comment on the ultimate burst speed.

The speed that I can comment on is the shutter lag, which is always a problem on point-and-shoot digital cameras, and is simply nonexistent on the A65.  Sometimes there is a fraction of a second while the camera focuses, but with pre-focus (partial press of the release before taking the picture) the response is instantaneous.  In fact, I find far fewer missed shots with the A65 than I ever had with any other camera, digital or otherwise.  It is just that fast in its autofocus and shutter release.  With my old manual gear I could pre-focus as well, but when not pre-focused, it was a lot slower.  With pre-focusing, there is no difference in speed between the A65 and my old Nikon gear.

The A65 has a full compliment of exposure modes, ranging from fully automatic everything down to manual control of all parameters.  So far, I’ve just left the camera on aperture priority (I set the aperture, camera sets the shutter speed), evaluative metering and automatic white balance.  The white balance only affects JPEGs, so if I get an image with strange color temperature I can go to the RAW file and process it in the computer, though thus far, my JPEGS have mostly been perfect, far better than my Canon S95’s auto white balance.

Sony released a higher end model, the A77 at the same time, and the A65 is more of a junior version of that camera.  For $550 more than the A65, you get a magnesium alloy body that is weather sealed, three control dials instead of one, a slightly more advanced autofocus system, a top-plate LCD that displays camera settings, a more articulated rear LCD (I use the viewfinder exclusively) and a slightly faster burst rate (12 instead of 10 frames per second).  Honestly, I had a VERY difficult time choosing between the two, and went with the A65 because of its lower price and lighter weight, though I would like the more flexible manual controls and better build quality.  That said, build quality of the A65 is still quite good, at least as good as the competing Canon T3i and ever so slightly less than the slightly more expensive Canon 60D.  The A77, in contrast, makes all of them feel cheap and compares favorably to Canon’s 7D.

For the price, it is hard to complain about anything with the A65.  In good light its picture quality rivals full-frame gear that costs 5X or more the price.  It has more versatile video and photo previewing and live shooting as its viewfinder doesn’t black out, and of course you have 24 megapixels to work with if you must enhance or crop your images.  The camera’s electronics do a great job of automating the process when you just want to point and shoot, but its creative controls allow the photographer to anything he or she can imagine.  

For me, this is the ideal travel and portrait camera due to its light weight, fairly low price and outstanding image quality, especially when combined with the low-cost, high quality Sony prime lenses.  Yes, purists will prefer an optical viewfinder, but unless you go full-frame (real money), the optical viewfinders on APS-C SLRs are small and dim when compared to Sony’s excellent OLED electronic viewfinder.  Don’t even think about saving a few bucks with the slightly cheaper A57, which will take equally good pictures in most circumstances, but uses a much less satisfying conventional LCD electronic viewfinder and a far lower resolution.  The viewfinder alone is reason enough to want the A65, it is THAT good (and the same unit used in the more expensive Nex7 and A77).

In conclusion, I didn’t expect to choose Sony over Canon or Nikon when moving up to a serious digital camera, but the A65 turned out to be the best camera for my needs and budget.  Of course, now owning 4 lenses, I am somewhat locked into the Sony system, but with the equipment they are releasing (and the stellar reviews they are receiving), I don’t think I will regret the move.

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