13 October 2011
Sony is coming from a long way behind in the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera race - even after morphing with Minolta's legacy. Canon and Nikon have assembled a massive historical fan base (not to mention mountains of legacy glass). Yet even fanboys would have to admit Sony is at least catching up (it just overtook Nikon in UK DSLR sales) - and to its credit, most of its innovative new features (its articulated, actually useable live view LCDs being the standout amongst other DSLRs) aren't just gimmicks.
The Sony Alpha A65 is its new intermediate DSLR. More accurately, it's an SLT or Single Lens Translucent camera, because it uses a beam splitter rather than a mirror. This technology - first seen on the preceding A33/35/55 models - allows for autofocus during video recording and eliminates vibration from a physical mirror. The trade off is typically slightly grainier viewfinder and lower battery life as the viewfinder is electronic - although this has been tidied up a lot with the A65 (and its more expensive A77 brother).
The A65's stand out feature is its SLT-A65's "electronic first curtain" mode which supposedly reduces prefocus shutter lag, and certainly is a lot quieter than most SLR shutters. We're sure this quality will be loved by anyone who regularly films in social events where silence is golden - closeups of animals or children, photos during speeches and more civilised events.
It's certainly a heftier camera than the A33/35/55, which were the lightest DSLRs (or DSLTs) we'd seen in years. While you'll miss their portability, the grip is beautifully sculpted and ergonomic. It retains earlier models' handy articulating LCD (we simply can't understand how the A35 could revert back to a fixed LCD), which ends up below the camera for self portraits (rather than to the side as other brands do) and is largely obscured by a tripod - though it's more of an annoyance than a show stopper for group self-timer snaps. There's plenty of shortcut buttons to crucial features such as ISO - although the Smart Teleconverter button is one of the first you'll reassign (and thankfully you can).
The A65's video mode has also sorted out the heat issues which severely restricted the maximum length of its predecessors' recording time with SteadyShot on. It adds Full HD, along with an external stereo microphone jack - very useful for dampening the noise of autofocus during recording (Sony's trump card over almost every video-capable DSLR). Thankfully, there is now a dedicated video mode so you can preview depth of field and exposure etc. before recording (previously it was only when you hit the red button that you could see what you were going to get). It's arguably the best video implementation on the market in terms of features (although quality wise may not match full frame units such as the Canon 5D Mk II).
Another improved component is the electronic viewfinder (EVF). We found it was decent on the A33/35/55, but on the A65, it's as good as any optical viewfinder out there. Sure, it's not the same - but that's the trade off for the SLT design that allows an effortless 10 frames per second shooting as well as the abovementioned advantages. The EVF does gobble up battery life a bit faster than using the LCD, although thankfully the A65's overall battery life is far better than its predecessors (especially the A33).
Sony have always provided plenty of consumer friendly features that we've found to be quite useful, such as bracket modes for modes such as HDR, Panorama and ISO that combine frames to output some handy pictures (though purists would grind their teeth). We can't see the harm of GPS mode (although we wish there was a toggle to save power), and Face Detect is handy when shooting in Party, er, Program mode.
We're less enthusiastic with some features which seem to add more clutter for little benefit, such as DRO (Dynamic Range Optimisation) and the 3D Panorama mode. Any knowledgeable photographer at this price range will be underwhelmed by the 24.3 megapixel sensor as that quantity of dots unnecessarily burdens the sensor and bloats file sizes, simply to snare less savvy amateurs. Picture Effect - adding special effects to your originals - is strictly for the very amateur crowd and so we're baffled as to why it's given its own shortcut on the 4 way controller at the back of a high end product.
Images looked good to us, though we think at this level of consumer, the features will be far more relevant than pixel peeping photos. The ISO 16000 mode seems a bit gimmicky, and the reality is that the likes of Nikon have been at that game a bit longer - but only a few number of eyes would notice the difference outside a side-by-side comparison. Image quality wise, the A65 does the job with perfect adequacy.
In summary, we think the A65 is an excellent addition to the Sony range. It fixes up some of the shortcomings of its predecessors, and while heavier, certainly is much cheaper and lighter than the high end A77 without conceding too much. If trends continue, Sony models like this will continue to eat into Canon and Nikon customers, especially at the entry-to-mid level range.
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