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Can serious enthusiasts love a broad-spectrum DSLR?
The sleekly styled new Sony Alpha A57 is billed as the successor to the Sony A55, the iconic best-selling Sony SLT that put Translucent Mirror Technology on the map. Think a consumer-level DSLR is inadequate for your needs? You're in for a surprse!
Like all current SLT models, the Sony Alpha A57 is functionally a DSLR but it uses a translucent stationary mirror design that provides the speed and accuracy of full-time phase-detection AF while dispensing with the traditional SLR’s flipping mirror. As a result, the 16.1 MP, APS-C-format A57 can shoot full-resolution images at 10 frames per second, and at a blistering 12 fps (at 8 MP resolution) at 1.46X magnification in Tele-zoom Continuous Advance Priority AE mode, as well as Full HD 1080p in AVCHD 2.0 progressive format at 60 fps or cinematic 24 fps—all with continuous AF.
Surprisingly, this competitively priced, broad-spectrum model incorporates many of the key features of the enthusiast-aimed A65 and the more advanced enthusiast/pro A77. The only major omissions are an OLED EVF (the A57 uses an upgraded Tru-Finder EVF) a 24.3 MP sensor, and a fully articulated LCD (the A57’s 921k-dot LCD swings down 180 degrees and swivels 270 degrees). The A57’s composite body, which is similar to that of the A65, is robust, reasonably light, and very comfortably contoured for easy handling.
The Sony Alpha A57’s complement of high tech features includes:
- A commendably swift and precise 15-zone AF system with 3 cross-field sensors that can home in on a wider variety of subjects;
- Built-in sensor-shifting SteadyShot Inside image stabilization providing a 3-4-stop anti-shake advantage in handheld shooting;
- Sweep Panorama mode;
- 3-step Auto HDR;
- Superior Auto mode, which not only provides auto scene selection, but also activates continuous shooting mode and Auto HDR when moving subjects or an excessive brightness range are detected.
In addition, the camera provides two cool new features not available on the previously released higher-end models: Clear Image Zoom and Auto Portrait Framing.
Classic Portrait: Exceptional detail and tonal gradation in this headshot demonstrates the excellent high ISO capability of the Sony Alpha A57. Below 100% detail. Tech data: Sony 18-135mm lens, 45mm at f/5.6, ISO 2500.
As its name suggests, Clear Image Zoom allows users to zoom in on the center of the image digitally, up to 2X, with what Sony claims is “no perceivable image degradation”, using By Pixel Technology, a complex system of algorithms that adds extra pixels using a sophisticated interpolation system. This extends the standard 18-55mm short zoom from an 82.5mm equivalent at the long end, out to a 165mm long telephoto, and the 18-135mm, our primary test lens, from a 202.5mm equivalent to a 405mm super-telephoto at maximum tele position. While Sony's claim of lossless digital magnification may not quite pass the pixel-peeping test, I can report that at ISO settings in the 100-1600 range the system acquits itself remarkably well, delivering digitally magnified images that look nearly the same as optically magnified ones at comparable print sizes.
When activated, Auto Portrait Framing automatically records a second alternative portrait composition in addition to the one you framed in the viewfinder, cropping it on the basis of the rule of thirds and factoring in where your subjects are located in the frame as well as which way they’re facing. I found that many times the Auto Portrait results were quite good, and could be instructive for beginners, but the results could also look strange, especially if your original image was a close-cropped headshot. You can have a lot of fun using Auto Portrait Framing in conjunction with the Face Detection, Smile Shutter, and Face Recognition features built into the camera, and I suppose that’s the point. But it’s nice to know you’re still in control, and can reject the Auto Portrait image or turn off the feature if that's not your thing.
Railway Underpass at Ridgewood, New Jersey: Note excellent AWB performance in harsh fluorescent light mixed with daylight illumination, and excellent sharpness at point of focus (youth with MP3 player) that extends to foreground. Tech data: Sony 18-135mm lens, 24mm at f/4, ISO 400.
In The Hands
I was impressed with the A57’s straightforward and logical setup. The camera’s controls are ergonomically placed, clearly labeled, and intuitive. The mode dial atop the camera’s left-hand shoulder provides the usual PASM modes plus Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, Sweep Panorama, 3D Sweep Panorama, Continuous Priority AE, Scene Selection, Movie, and Flash Off modes and displays a concise verbal readout explaining each function in the finder and on the LCD as you select each mode. The verbal readout disappears as soon you touch the shutter button. While knowledgeable shooters can turn off the explanations, they do provide a useful instructional tool for beginners.
Pressing the MENU button to the left of the eyepiece calls up a very comprehensive set of sub-menus that are easy to scroll through by turning a dial that falls under your right index finger atop the comfortably contoured grip. To open each sub-menu, press the AF button in the center of the toggle ring, scroll to the setting you want, and press the AF button to activate the setting. The Fn (Function) button lets you select and set frequently used settings such as AF mode, AF area, and flash mode using the toggle ring. In addition there are dedicated buttons for setting ISO, Exposure Compensation, AEL (AE Lock), and Digital Zoom (in JPEG mode only).
By pressing the toggle ring icons, you can instantly control the info displayed on the EVF/LCD, Drive Mode, White Balance, Picture Effect modes (in JPEG mode only), or select Spot AF by holding in the AF button while you take the shot—a really great feature when shooting on the fly. Finally, there’s a red button labeled MOVIE that starts shooting a video clip the instant you press it.
Motorcycle Mechanic: Close-up of Tim wrenching a classic 1963 Honda Dream 300 shows excellent sharpness, vibrant color, and very low noise at an elevated ISO setting. Tech data: Sony 18-135mm lens, 55mm at f/5.0, ISO 1600.
One of the nicest features of the A57 is the immediate display of the captured image in the Tru-Finder EVF. Given the camera’s extremely short shutter lag time (a claimed 0.05 sec) and ultra-fast AF, seeing the captured image on the screen the instant you press the shutter release gives you the impression of snatching images right out of the air. The image remains visible for the display time you set (I chose 2 sec) or until you partially depress the shutter release again.
The action of the shutter release itself is excellent—smooth, light, and predictable—and the viewing image (we chose maximum magnification, or 0.97X instead of Standard) is crisp and detailed, and of course, displays the effects of exposure and AWB adjustments. In general the viewfinder provides a very satisfying viewing experience that rivals that of a traditional optical viewfinder, but doesn't quite have the richness and color saturation of the OLED EVFs in the A65 and A77. It is, however, definitely superior to the EVF in the previous A55 and A33, partially due to the A57’s second generation Translucent Mirror.
Ice Skater: Superb sharpness and detail at point of focus (model’s right eye and lips) showcase A57’s outstanding performance at low ISOs. Color accuracy is excellent in this challenging mixed light environment, a tribute to the camera’s AWB system. Tech data: Sony 18-135mm lens, 18mm at f/4.0, ISO 125.
The A57’s shutter is noticeably quieter than that of the average DSLR, although that is at least partially due to the lack of a flipping mirror, which also enhances steadiness when shooting at slow shutter speeds. The camera’s commendably low vibration level combined with its low noise and effective SteadyShot Inside image stabilization enabled us to shoot discreet close-ups in low light without the subjects being aware their pictures were being taken—a pretty neat trick with a DSLR.
Portrait of the Author: Informal portrait of Jason Schneider demonstrates excellent performance of A57’s auto-exposure system with a severely backlit subject. Sharpness is very good at point of focus (subject’s left-hand eyeglass and cheek) with moderate noise despite very high ISO setting. Below: 100% detail. Tech data: Sony 18-135mm lens, 60mm at f/5.6, ISO 3200. Photo taken by Jim Di Perna.
The Sony A57 is a very pleasant camera to shoot with. It feels very solid, performs very well overall, and inspires confidence. Its signature features are its speed and responsiveness, which give it a leg up on its competitors, and its full array of enthusiast-aimed features including Auto DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) which works in RAW capture and RAW + JPEG mode, and 3-step Auto HDR, which works only in JPEG mode, but is very effective in capturing shadow and highlight detail in scenes with an extended brightness range.
Lab test scores courtesy DxOMark; Used by Permission
Overall RAW image quality: 75
Color Depth: Excellent (23.4 bits)
Dynamic Range: Excellent (13 stops)
Low Light ISO: Very Good (ISO 800)
The camera provides a very wide range of sensitivity settings for its class—ISO 100-16,000—as well as ISO Auto (the camera chooses the ISO based on shooting conditions), and ISO Auto Multi Frame Noise Reduction. The latter setting combines 6 images shot in rapid succession and out-puts a lower-noise composite image, but it only works in JPEG capture mode, and is not suitable for rapidly moving subjects. Image quality at ISO 100-800 is outstanding, with excellent color and tonal differentiation and extremely low noise, and very good at ISO with slight noise and very slight loss of definition in edge details. At ISO 3200, noise is still moderate and detail holds quite well, but this is the highest ISO I would recommend for critical shooting. However, even at ISO 16000, the A57 can deliver useable images at moderate magnifications, a performance at least as good as its leading competitors.
Fire Eater: Exceptional responsiveness of the A57 helped in capturing this sideshow performer at the decisive moment. Note saturated, accurate color and absence of noise at a moderate ISO setting. Tech data: Sony 18-135mm lens, 105mm at f/4.5, ISO 320.
I also shot a handful of video clips and can report that video shooters will be delighted with the camera’s performance. When I viewed my movie vignettes on a 52-inch TV screen they looked spectacular, both at 60 fps and at 24 fps, which gives a film-like feel. The sound quality provided by the built-in mike was also impressive. Action photographers and will be delighted by the camera’s class-leading 10 fps full-res burst rate, and its commendably low noise level and freedom from vibration when shooting rapid action sequences handheld. Sports fans who want to add a touch of speed (12 fps) and a little tele (1.46X) to their action sequences will not be disappointed with the camera’s performance at 8 MP, and the Clear Image Zoom feature provides a bonus for those who shoot from the bleachers.
The Sony SLT-A57 is a heck of a lot of camera for $748 with 18-55mm lens. It has to be when going head to head with cameras like Canon’s formidable T3i or the sizzling new Nikon D5200. However, anyone thinking of purchasing the A57 should definitely consider getting the upgraded kit that includes the Sony DT 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM lens, the primary lens I used for this review. Its performance is absolutely superb over the entire focal-length range, and though it’s somewhat larger than the 18-55, it balances perfectly on the camera, provides more than twice as much reach, and it’s beautifully made and finished to boot.
With Clear Image Zoom you can get out to a 405mm equivalent, making it a perfect all in one zoom for travel, wildlife, sports, and family shooting. However, whichever lens you choose, the A57 is definitely a camera that provides a great introduction to DSLR photography, a fulfilling experience for more experienced shooters, and an excellent value in terms of features and performance per dollar.