Sony Alpha 99 II: Big Number Cruncher

 

A whopping 42.4MP at a blazing12fps! And there are more numbers under the hood of the Sony Alpha 99II, as K Madhavan Pillai discovers.

Sony Alpha 99 II

Sony Alpha 99 II

Sony has been known to pull rabbits out of its hat. With the success of its mirrorless fullframe E-mount A7 series, speculations were rife if this signalled the end for Sony’s fullframe A-mount DSLT cameras. Firstly, Sony really does not have a fullframe DSLT  line-up to speak of. There was just the A99, released about four years ago, the predecessor to which was the A900 (Sony’s very first fullframe DSLR). Secondly, it couldn’t be easy to develop and support four lines of lenses— the A and E-mount families for fullframe and APS-C sensor cameras. The launch of the A99II not only comes as a relief for anyone who invested in A-mount lenses, but is also sure to find a whole new set of first time users who are enamoured by its sheer range of features.

Features
At the heart of the A99II is a newly designed 42.4MP back-illuminated CMOS sensor that not only has an improved light gathering capability (ISO 100 to 25,600 by default, and ISO 50 to 1,02,400 with expansion), but also incorporates 399 on-sensor Phase Detect AF (PDAF) points. To maximise pixel level sharpness, this sensor has no optical low pass filter.

The translucent mirror of this DSLT allows the redirection of a small percentage of the total light received (about half a stop worth) from the lens to a separate, dedicated PDAF sensor with an additional 79 points some of which intersect with the points on the main imaging sensor for a Hybrid Cross Type AF system with extreme levels of accuracy. Put together, these AF points cover almost the entire imaging area of the sensor.

Having a fixed mirror means that the dedicated PDAF sensor is active even while the shutter is firing, allowing continuous AF, tracking, and auto exposure at the camera’s maximum of 12 fps of burst shooting with uncompressed RAW. With video, unlike traditional DSLRs where the mirror locks up (thus disabling dedicated PDAF), the A99II allows both speed and precision in AF while shooting.

With only a fraction of the light being reflected by the fixed mirror, the viewfinder needs to be electronic (directly fed by the main imaging sensor) and not optical. In its predecessor, the A99, this gave rise to certain display lag related issues which Sony has corrected. With faster, smarter processing, the A99II is able to provide immediate image review within the viewfinder or on the LCD, even after burst shooting, while the data is still being written to the memory card. Additionally, the minimised lag enables live viewing of the action up to a capture rate of 10 fps (Continuous-Hi). At the fastest frame rates (Continuous-Hi+), the display locks aperture at the first frame and the viewfinder shows a series of split-second, momentary image reviews of the frames captured. This may not affect on-field performance, but EVFs still have some catching up to do with the highly reduced blackouts in the OVFs of Nikon and Canon flagships during high-speed burst shooting.

On a positive note, both EVF and LCD are detailed, and show 100% coverage of the sensor. Brightness is maintained at optimal levels automatically, but can be manually controlled. The optics of the EVF ensure an excellent magnification of 0.78x. The exposed outermost lens of the viewfinder’s eyepiece has a fluorine coating to repel water and oils, and the surfaces of the inner optical elements have the Zeiss T* coating for improved contrast. The LCD is articulated, but not a touchscreen.

The rather large buffer of the A99II is capable of recording about 25 JPEG with uncompressed RAW, or 55 JPEG with compressed RAW (or 55 Extrafine JPEGs), at 12 fps. After this, shooting slows down. It was surprising to find out that the dual SD card slots are UHS-I compatible and do not support the faster UHS-II cards, slowing down buffer clearing. With a Sony UHS-I U3 Class 10 64GB SD card, it takes about 55 seconds to completely clear out 55 JPEG with compressed RAW, or 35 seconds for 55 Extrafine JPEGs. As the buffer clears, the A99II allows further shooting, albeit in shorter bursts, with access to all the essential controls, but does not let you enter the Main Menu until all the data is fully written.

The A99II features sensor-shift based 5-axis image stabilisation (corrections along the horizontal and vertical axis, along with pitch, roll and yaw movements caused by camera shake) while shooting stills and video, ensuring than any lens mounted is stabilised for up to 4.5 stops.

The camera is capable of 4K UHD video (full-pixel readout across the entire sensor’s width, no pixel binning) at bitrates of 100Mbps in-camera, with 8-bit 4:2:2 output over HDMI, promising excellent quality. It can also record in Full HD,  from 1 to 120 fps in Slow and Quick modes (a total of eight capture rates), allowing 50x fast-motion to 4x slow-motion effects. Sony has also included time stamping, zebra-striping and S-Log/S-Log 2/S-Log 3 gamma for control over dynamic range. Picture Profile settings during video lets you fine-tune the look of movies by adjusting gradation, colour and detail, before storing it as a profile for future use. Where the A99II loses out is interesting too! Oddly enough, with AF-C, the only available exposure mode is Program Auto. If you wish to use Shutter or Aperture Priority, or Manual Exposure, the camera needs to be set to Manual Focus.

The other features of the A99II include  a rock-solid magnesium alloy construction, weathersealing against dust and moisture, a more durable shutter (tested for 3,00,000 cycles), and flicker detection while shooting indoors under fluorescent lamps (the camera times the release so that the shutter opens at peak illumination levels). It has a range of in-built connectivity options including WiFi, Bluetooth, and NFC. While there is no in-camera GPS, if you want your images to be geotagged, the A99II can connect with a smartphone’s GPS information via Bluetooth.

 These boys, who had just formed their own percussions band a few days before, were yet to decide on a name for themselves. Continuous-Mid (8 fps) just about managed to keep up with them! Exposure: 1/400sec at f/8 (ISO 400)

These boys, who had just formed their own percussions band a few days before, were yet to decide on a name for themselves. Continuous-Mid (8 fps) just about managed to keep up with them! Exposure: 1/400sec at f/8 (ISO 400), Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Handling
The A99II is about 8% smaller than its predecessor. Despite this, the camera is robust, reassuringly heavy and comfortable to hold. Sony has clearly put in considerable effort to ensure that the A99II has improved significantly in both handling and response.

The rather large number of buttons and dials (including a third input dial at the front) may take some getting used to and is systemically quite different in use from any of the other camera brands. But many of these buttons can also be customised in both function and behaviour, reducing the need to trawl through the exhaustive menu system. The menu system has been redesigned with colour coding to make things simpler. It still remains somewhat daunting, primarily because there are no options to customise the menu itself, or to place frequently accessed options into another ‘My Menu’ tab.

There are a few quirks though, some of which have continued to exist from the previous version of the camera. For instance, you still can’t use Picture Effects along with RAW. Once you turn a Picture Effect on while shooting JPEGs, and later switch from JPEG to RAW, every time you turn the camera off and then on again, the LCD and EVF both show the Picture Effect for a second, and then the correct colour settings.

On turning on, there is also a rather long lag of about a second before you can jam the shutter down for a shot, and about two seconds before all the info is displayed in the top LCD. And in playback, a quick check for sharpness involves two separate buttons.

Fishing nets, like cameras, often capture all sorts of things. 42.4MP is perfect for rendering textures and details on prints of 30 x 40 inches. Exposure: 1/20sec at f/6.3 (ISO 400), Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Fishing nets, like cameras, often capture all sorts of things. 42.4MP is perfect for rendering textures and details on prints of 30 x 40 inches.
Exposure: 1/20sec at f/6.3 (ISO 400), Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Performance
For professionals, the questions related to performance are rather simple, and so are the answers. How fast is it really, in actual use? The A99II is capable of shooting twice as fast as any DSLR with a similar resolution. Considering how large the files get, the buffer size is perfectly adequate. The only serious issue is the slow buffer clearing which will can prove bothersome in certain conditions like wildlife or sports photography.

Second question. Does the AF really keep up? At 10fps, AF performance is exceptionally good for subjects with linear movements, with very few dropped frames. Erratic motion and busy backgrounds tend to get the camera confused, though, with about a 60 percent success rate. While the A99II falls short of achieving the level of sheer brilliance of a Nikon D5 or D500, it does superbly well in comparison to the other megapixel monsters out there. You do need to get used to how the EVF behaves at high frame rates though.

Third question. How about image quality? Images show superb detail coupled with excellent dynamic range, very good mid ISO performance and perfectly acceptable high ISOs. The only camera that I thought equalled, or perhaps marginally bettered the A99II in high ISO image quality was Sony’s own fullframe mirrorless, the Alpha 7RII. The only DSLR to provide a more detailed image is the Pentax K-1 with its pixel shift resolution mode, which necessitates using a tripod, and works well with static subjects. By default, the A99II produces colours that are slightly oversaturated. While this is not unpleasant, it can be dialled back for more accuracy. With video, the A99II does 4k very well, including at relatively low light levels. The various Slow and Quick modes and Picture Effects are  a lot of fun to use. While many professionals prefer working with manual focus lenses, the nonavailability of exposure controls while AF is enabled is certainly a lacuna.

Evening at the Worli fishing vilage... the brightly painted houses and vivid colours work quite well for Sony cameras in general and the A99II in particular. Exposure: 1/80sec at f/8 (ISO 800), Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Evening at the Worli fishing vilage… the brightly painted houses and vivid colours work quite well for Sony cameras in general and the A99II in particular. Exposure: 1/80sec at f/8 (ISO 800), Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Conclusion
The final question. Is it worth its price of Rs. 2,49,990? The Sony Alpha 99II has its quirks and there are aspects that need refining. But there is no denying the megapixel count combined with speed, AF versatility, sensor quality and advanced features. These make the A99II quite alluring because it opens up the exploration of several genres that would otherwise have not been considered at this resolution. For those with fullframe A-mount lenses, the A99II is the obvious choice.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
42.4MP sensor, 11 fps, pro 4K video in-camera 5-axis IS, Hybrid Cross PDAF, no UHS-II
14/15
Performance
Superb sensor, speedy, video functionality
41/45
Build Quality
Robust magnesium alloy construction
18/20
Ergonomics
Very customisable, some handling quirks
11/15
Warranty & Support
Two-year warranty, wide service network
4/5
MRP Rs. 2,49,990
OVERALL 88%
VALUE FOR MONEY 3.5/5
Who should buy it? Professional and enthusiast sports, wildlife, fashion, wedding and street photographers, who can also use the high-end 4K video capabilities, will easily find the Sony Alpha 99II quite fascinating.
Why? Along with good image quality, the fast framerates, effective AF, and the plethora of features is a deal clincher.
Tags: better photography, Camera, Camera review, K Madhavan Pillai, May 2017, Review, Sony, Sony Alpha 99 II