It appears Sony's A-mount camera system is not, as some had feared, going the way of the Dodo. The firm used Photokina to reveal a new flagship camera in the form of the Alpha A99 II, and it looks like quite the beast. We recently went hands-on with one to see if it's as powerful and fast as Sony claims.
It has been four long years since Sony released a flagship full-frame A-mount camera with the A99. In that time we've seen the release of a number of high-end E-mount cameras, like the A7S II and A7R II, leading some to believe the A-mount had run its course. Even the launch of the APS-C A77 II could't alleviate those fears.
As such, when Sony recently announced its A99 II (or ɑ99 II), there was a collective sigh of relief from photographers who have stayed faithful to the A-mount. Indeed, it looks like their patience and steadfastness could finally be about to pay off, as Sony has thrown most of its new tech at the camera.
In our hands the Sony A99 II felt small for such a capable full frame DSLR, much like the Pentax K-1 did when we had a play with it earlier in the year. While we all expect svelte full frame mirrorless cameras, it's nice to see full frame DSLRs slimming down a bit too. However, though the camera is eight percent smaller than its predecessor, this hasn't compromised its handling, with a newly-designed grip making sure the A99 II is comfortable to hold.
The camera's magnesium alloy body and overall build oozes flagship quality, and all the major buttons and dials dotted around the camera are sealed to provide dust and moisture resistance. It rocks dual SD card slots, with one slot also able to take a Sony Memory Stick … though we're not sure anyone still has those knocking around. We were slightly surprised not to see XQD memory card compatibility, but maybe there just wasn't room in the downsized body.
In terms of controls, it appears Sony has been listening to the professional photographers it is so eager to court. The tweaked, and now color-coded, menu system seems a tad more intuitive than before, and there are also more physical controls than previous Sony DSLR-like cameras. A major addition here being the new multi-controller dial on the front, which can rotate freely or with click stops, and can be customized to control key settings.
Around back there's a 2.95-inch LCD monitor, which has good and bad points. With 1,228,800 dots the monitor is nice and sharp, it also tilts and rotates, 134 degrees upward and 180 degrees downward, and 180 degrees clockwise or 90 degrees counterclockwise, which is great for different shooting angles. However, Sony is still denying the existence of touch-screens when it comes to high end cameras. This seems strange at a time when even firms like Canon and Nikon are finally embracing the tech across their ranges.
There are too many upgrades in the A99 II to cover all of them in a quick hands-on test, so we decided to focus on the speed claims Sony has made. Key to this is a new hybrid autofocus system which uses a precision 79-point dedicated phase detection AF sensor with 399 focal plane phase detection AF points. One quick look in the viewfinder also confirmed these focal points now cover much more of the frame.
These AF numbers are a significant step up from the original A99, and so is the focusing speed of the new camera. It's fast. Much faster than we were expecting. Shooting away at the martial arts display Sony had put on for us to test the camera, we were taken aback by just how quickly the A99 II nailed its subject, and was able to track the action.
The burst speed of the A99 II also comes in very handy for capturing quick action, and makes the A99 look even more dated than the 2012 year shown on its birth certificate. The jump from 6 fps to 12 fps with AF/AE tracking is immense. For Canon or Nikon users it's the sort of difference you get when upgrading between camera lines, like from a 5D IV to a 1D-X Mark II, or from a D810 to a D5, not a generational update.
What's particularly impressive is that this sort of machine gun action, which leaves DSLRs shooters drooling, is done alongside a resolution bump to 42.4-megapixels. Another nice feature is that, like the A6300, the electronic viewfinder of the A99 II is able to keep up with the action up to 8 fps. This lack of lag makes using an EVF less of a compromise for the wildlife and sports shooters the A99 II is aimed at.
Looking on the back of the camera at images we'd shot, the image quality is what you'd expect for a high-end full frame DSLR with tiptop glass attached. While a more in-depth analysis will have to wait until we can get longer with the camera, and keep our shots, initial impressions are very encouraging. Even high ISO images looked good, and go to show why so many other manufacturers are now using Sony sensors in their cameras.
In-body 5-axis image stabilization is also new for A-mount cameras and, from what little time we had to test it, it seemed to perform as advertised, offering several stops' worth of stabilization, and will work when shooting stills or video. Unfortunately we didn't get the opportunity to test the 4K video capabilities of the camera during our hands-on. Indeed, there are lots of other things we look forward to testing in a full review, such as whether the new wireless connectivity will cut it for the professionals the A99 II is aimed at.
From our all-too-quick time with the A99 II, we'd say it looks like it could be a great professional quality camera. If you're a current A99 user, or have an array of A-mount glass you want to use, it looks like your patience with Sony has paid off.
However, the big question is, has it come too late for the A-mount? Many A-mount shooters have since moved on to Sony's E-mount cameras, and we're not sure we'd recommend new photographers invest in a system which, until this release, seemed so perilously close to disappearing.
The Sony A99 II is due to start shipping in November for US$3,199, body only.
Product page: Sony A99 II
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