Thursday, December 29, 2016

Review: Sony A99II

The alpha mount is dead, long live the Alpha mount!

When Sony announced the A99ii, the new Alpha flasgship camera, at Photokina 2016 in September, it sent a powerful message to the photographic world: the Alpha mount is here to stay. With a 42.4 MP full-frame sensor that represents the state of the art of current imaging technology, 79 phase-detection AF points on dedicated sensor plus 399 phase detection AF points on the main sensor, this powerhouse of photographic equipment can shoot continuously at 12 fps with AF and AE tracking. A beast.

I received the A99II at the beginning of November in exchange of 3200$ and immediately put it through its paces in two different fields: an assignment shooting along Lina at an event in extremely low light and my usual landscape work shooting in the Big Sur. In both situations the Sony flagship performed admirably.

The camera is extremely easy to customize, every single button can be assigned to any function and there is plenty of them (both buttons and functions). For portrait work, for example, I assigned the joystick button to perform Eye AF, where the camera looks for the subject eyes to focus on them, and changed the exposure compensation button on top of the camera to flash exposure compensation. By spending some quality time in the menu, I can easily configure the camera to perform the vast majority of the tasks I need without ever having to take my eyes of the viewfinder. A beautifully crisp and bright electronic viewfinder, to be exact.






High ISO performance is top notch, half a stop more noise than the same sensor on the A7RII due to the SLT mirror used to redirect light to the dedicated AF module, but virtually identical for all practical purposes. No black cat will get out of that dark room alive.






We shot the event always above 3200 ISO due to the very low light available, but had to apply only minimal noise reduction in Lightroom to produce more than acceptable results for the clients.





Coupled with the famed Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, the 42.4 MP sensor can push out great IQ with an incredible amount of details.

The AF in low light also performed admirably, basically never missing a shot: in about a thousand frames shot wide open during the event, I counted two or three instances where the camera didn't focus correctly. Practically a non issue.

Even if the battery lasted through the event, another battery was readily available in the battery grip. One of the very few remarks is the battery grip itself, although very well built and pleasurable to use, the grip hosts two batteries but it connects to the camera through the battery slot, not a separate connector like in the original A99, leaving only two batteries usable, against the three batteries in the previous model. I understand that Sony preferred not to design a different battery grip for the A99II, instead use the same model that connects to the A77II, but from a professional tool I would have preferred the vastly superior option provided by the battery grip on the A99. A missed chance.





For my usual landscape work there is also a lot to like: coming from the A99 I had absolutely no problem feeling perfectly at home with the new camera. I tend to work on a tripod and focus manually, using the magnified view to confirm critical focus. The swiveling screen in the back is very useful for either composing in a restricted space or when the camera is very close to the ground and the viewfinder can not be used comfortably. The camera connects to the phone via bluetooth to acquire GPS coordinates, since it doesn't sport a dedicated internal GPS module. It's a minor annoyance but less than I initially thought: as soon as the camera is turned on, the connection is initiated without any manual intervention. Good job there. Controlling the camera through the phone, although potentially being a very cool feature, is basically unusable due to the extremely low frame rate and long lag. As per Sony suggestion, bluetooth can be disabled to improve the frame rate, at the cost of losing GPS coordinates: not a good trade off and I went back to the traditional cable to trigger the shots. Sony can produce fantastic hardware, but the software is as usual pretty sub par. The same thing can be said for transferring images via wifi to the phone: I would love it to be transparent and automatic like the Eye-Fi cards, but the user has to manually trigger the transfer through a cumbersome procedure that will essentially make the feature useless in a professional environment, where I use a standard wi-fi card to push images to an iPad to be viewed by the clients during the shoot. Another missed chance.


Golden Door is the first image I have created on the A99II that I publish and make available for large prints; the absence of a low pass filter on the 42.4 MP sensor makes pixel-peeping this image a visual tour of joy for my eyes: I can clearly distinguish every single water streak in the hole and the amount of details in the rocks is mouth watering. This image is a single exposure thank to the 14 stops of dynamic range available in the sensor at ISO 100: slightly less than the A7RII (again due to the SLT mirror) and on par with the A99 but with twice the resolution. Impressive.
Speaking of the SLT mirror, it's been proven extensively not to introduce any IQ degradation: for a landscape photographer working mostly on a tripod the loss of light is a non-issue, while the little loss in dynamic range could be meaningful in some extremely borderline scenarios where removing the SLT mirror could be an option, even if not a recommended one. I've never encountered such a scenario with the A99 so I don't expect to have any problem apart dust with the A99II.

I quickly tried to shoot videos using the Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 zoom and the quality of the result far exceeded my expectations, but I'm not a videographer so publicly showing the poor result of my effort wouldn't do the A99II video capabilities justice.

Overall I'm extremely pleased with the A99II: it's built like a tank (I always dreamed of writing it), it's waterproof, the dual card slots can be a life safer and I wouldn't shoot any paid event without it, it's a highly customizable professional tool that can spit out incredible images. The raw files, compressed and uncompressed, are very easy to post process with little noise at almost any ISO.
When accompanied with glass like the Zeiss 24-70, 16-35, 85/1.4 or the 135 STF, it can produce world class image quality that could be rivaled only by medium format gear that costs like a medium sized car or more.

Thumbs up:
   - Fantastic image quality and super fast AF
   - Much less expensive than any Canikon comparable offer
   - Highly customizable 

Thumbs down:
  - Accompanying software is not great
  - Battery grip with only two batteries
  - Will Sony release more alpha mount lenses?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Golden Door


Keystone Rock, Pfeifer Beach, Big Sur, California

When the year comes close to the end, the sun reaches the perfect angle to shine at sunset through the Keyhole Arch in Pfeifer Beach, right in the middle of the Big Sur on the beautiful Californian coast. The waves crash rhythmically through the hole in the rock, lighting up in intense orange and red, but you won't feel alone in front of this spectacular view: it's highly likely that you had to elbow your way in through more than thirty tripods, each accompanied by its own photographer, all frantically capturing the scene with the widest range of cameras and lenses I've ever seen in one single place. For more than an hour, I tried different view points, crossing the view of almost every photographer who was on that beach, surely ending up in some of the frames, and being the target of more than one rant squarely directed towards me. It was all worth it when I found the frame I was looking for.



The sky was cloudless and uninteresting, so for this image I was looking for an intimate landscape, to emphasize the beautiful orange waves through the Keyhole Arch. To achieve my vision, I used a long telephoto lens at 135mm, closed at f/7.1 to slightly blur the foreground, so the attention could focus on the arch. At ISO 100 I could achieve a shutter speed of 1/4s, which is within my ideal range when shooting seascapes, to convey just enough motion in the waves to create a dynamic and interesting scene. The composition follows closely the rule of thirds and by not showing the horizon behind the rocks, the viewer is left guessing the real nature of the rock formation.

Golden Door has incredible details in the water spills and the rocks, so it’s best experienced when viewing a large print from the huge 42mpx source. Beautiful acrylic prints are available on FineArtAmerica.

Golden Door is the first piece of the "Golden" series.



SONY SLT-A99II, f/7.1 @ 135mm, 1/4s, ISO 100