Hands-On Sony a99 II Review

Sony A99 II Review

When Sony purchased the renowned Konica-Minolta brand in 2006, they not only acquired all the technology and reputation of a company with photographic roots stretching back to the 1920s, but they instantly established themselves in a digital photography market that had gotten away from the consumer electronics giant.

Building on Minolta’s legendary lens collection and turning to their long-standing partnership with Carl Zeiss, the company suddenly had a platform from which to develop a line of digital SLR cameras as if they had been a player in the digital SLR space from the beginning.

Sony a99 II review - BMX rider

Like their Minolta ancestors, the Sony cameras, at first, were well regarded, but not held with the same esteem as a flagship camera from Nikon or Canon. Minolta had many passionate shooters, but they weren’t dominant in the pro camera space at all.

For a few years, Sony made some pretty standard digital camera advances, with models available for both consumers and professionals, but in 2010 the company took one of its first turns into unexpected territory with their “SLT” line of cameras. Unlike a traditional SLR, which uses a mirror to bounce light to an optical viewfinder and moves out of the way of the sensor plane to capture an image, Sony’s SLT cameras use a “semi-translucent” mirror. This new—and exclusively Sony—technology allows an SLR-style camera to function both like an SLR and like a mirrorless camera.

Sony a99 II review - Rodeo, steer roping

The translucent mirror allows light to enter the sensor for shooting without having to flip a mirror mechanism up and down while also allowing the light to bounce to a dedicated focusing sensor. Because there’s no optical viewfinder, the SLT system includes an electronic viewfinder, like a mirrorless camera, but because of the separate focusing chip, they typically focus faster than a mirrorless camera.

Sony’s more recent mirrorless cameras would borrow quite a bit of technology from this semi-mirrorless design, but it would also steal away some of the company’s focus. For a few years, Sony would release two or three SLT cameras in a year, but once their mirrorless cameras came to market, the new SLT models dwindled. In 2012, Sony released the a99, their top-end SLT system, and it would go without updates until the announcement of the a99 II at the end of 2016. Four years is a long time to go between flagship updates.

Sony a99 II review - barrel riding 2

It was so long, in fact, that many started to think that Sony had given up on the SLT cameras and their A-mount lenses. (We even heard some Sony employees confirm, off the record, that the company’s emphasis was clearly mirrorless, based on the recent product launches.) With the launch of the a99 II, the company seems to be indicating that the SLT camera line isn’t dead.

Thanks to the incredible feature list, they’re also once again showing off their sensor division and giving Nikon and Canon a run for their money. The a99 II has some specifications that rival the new Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, some specifications that surpass them and a body that’s the same dimensions as a typical APS-C camera.

The fact that the a99 II provides top-end DSLR performance at a price of around $3,200 (versus around $5,000 for the Nikon D5 and closer to $6,000 for the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) means that an entire range of photographers that would previously have to settle on less expensive cameras with middle-tier performance can now enjoy the benefits of a pro system at a much lower cost.

Sony a99 II Video Review

Off The Charts

Sony’s recent enormous investments in chip fabrication plants (at least $350 million US in 2015) are designed to yield returns not just in their digital imaging division, but in a whole range of consumer electronics markets. If you’ve owned a smartphone or been recorded on a security camera, your likeness was probably captured with a Sony sensor. Even though the company has broad-reaching goals to conquer any number of imaging markets, the digital imaging group has reaped the most visible rewards.

When Sony released the mirrorless a7R II in 2015, they packed a 42-megapixel full-frame sensor into a body a fraction of the size of the DSLRs that were sporting 20-megapixel sensors. Of course, the a7R II doesn’t perform as well as a pro DSLR, but the a99 II certainly does.

Sony a99 II - more barrel riding

The a99 II has a 42-megapixel sensor and can capture images at 12 fps—the same speed as the Nikon D5 and just two frames a second slower than the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II—even though it’s capturing and processing images from a sensor that’s significantly higher resolution than the company’s offerings. Sony was able to achieve this processing speed through a newly designed sensor that restructures the surface to allow data to be read from the chip much more quickly than conventional chips.

Buffer technology isn’t quite as advanced as sensor technology, and while the a99 II has a relatively large buffer (around 60 JPEG images before it fills), the flagship SLRs from the competitors fill up at around 200 frames.

The a99 II has a few more imaging tricks up its sleeve. With a 42-megapixel sensor and a top ISO sensitivity of 25,600, it performs a stop better than the 36-megapixel Nikon D810 and two stops better than the 50-megapixel Canon EOS 5DS. Generally, higher resolution means less sensitivity, so it would be typical to see a 42-megapixel camera with lower ISO than a 36-megapixel one, but Sony’s Backside Illuminated chip design allows the sensor to gather light more efficiently than other sensors.

Sony a99 II review - steer roping 2

It also can focus in a way literally no other camera can. Because the SLT design uses the translucent mirror to bounce light up to a focusing processor at the same time as light hits the imaging sensor, Sony is able to use both a dedicated AF focusing sensor and the chip at the same time. The result is that the a99 II has a 79-point dedicated AF system and 399 points on the sensor covering nearly the entire frame for an astounding level of AF tracking.

Like Sony’s mirrorless offerings, the Sony a99 II has built-in five-axis stabilization (something that none of the major DSLRs has), which gives it about 4.5 stops of stabilization, allowing the camera to be handheld in longer exposure situations than would be possible otherwise.

Sony a99 II review - and more barrel riding

In a final coup de grâce, the Sony a99 II outdoes the competition in 4K video performance, as well. The camera can capture either full-frame or “Super 35mm” cropped video with no pixel binning and no line skipping. The cropped 4K mode can record 100 Mbps to the internal SD card, and the a99 II can output clean 10-bit, 4:2:2 4K via HDMI to an external reorder, and Sony’s two LOG formats allow for better dynamic range and color grading in video.

But can it shoot?

All the specifications in the world won’t matter if the camera isn’t actually good at capturing images, nor if the images don’t look good. Luckily, the a99 II is an extremely camera both for stills and video, though for the veteran DSLR shooter, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock.

That’s because, traditionally, pro DSLR shooters have mainly relied on dropping a focusing point (or a group of focusing points) onto a subject and panning with the action. Most sports shooters configure their cameras for “back-button focus,” meaning the shutter release only triggers image capture, but a button on the back of the camera needs to be pressed to focus. In tricky situations, this allows a photographer to disable focusing quickly when a subject is obscured from the camera, rather than having the AF lock onto the obstruction. While today’s DSLRs have excellent wide-area focusing systems that predictively pick the subject, and some now have face detection, many pros stick with moving their smaller groups of focus points.

Sony a99 II review - Lacrosse 1

By contrast, the Sony performs more like a mirrorless camera, thanks to the 399-point on-chip AF system. The typical Sony shooter leaves the camera in one of the wider focus zones, and relies on the camera’s excellent predictive subject tracking, face detection and even eye-detection systems to nail the shot. The result is that some pro DSLR shooters will feel uncomfortable when shooting with the a99 II, at first—as many feel when shooting mirrorless—as if something were missing. It takes a while for trust in the AF system to kick in.

Aside from this issue of mindset, the a99 II is a powerful tool for any photographer, but specifically for sports, news and wildlife shooters. The AF system detects and predicts more subjects, more accurately than anything else on the market.

During one of our shoots with Sony, we were taken to a skate park in Austin—a massive structure that lends itself to fast-moving BMX tricks and high-altitude flips. Photographers were able to stand on the lip of the bowl and shoot riders doing tricks just above our heads. As a traditional DSLR sports shooter, I would have gotten down on the ground and laid down on my back to be able to lay the focus points on the subject as the action unfolded just above me, but with the a99 II I took a different approach. Trusting the AF, I held the camera down at the lip of the bowl with face-detect focus on, and as the riders crested the bowl’s edge, I started triggering the shutter. Since I wasn’t laying on the ground, I could also then raise the camera above my head quickly to shoot different angles as they dropped back to the ground.

Sony a99 II review - Barrel riding

Images were spot-on—a higher success rate of in-focus faces than most other systems. Even though the BMX tires were much closer than the faces, the camera still locked onto the correct part of the frame with incredible accuracy.

Later, at a rodeo, the camera simply did what I wanted—picking out the faces of the riders at very wide apertures despite galloping horses, sprinting calves and twirling lassos. It, frankly, would have been difficult not to get the shot, even when shooting bursts at 12 fps.

Sony a99 II review - Tennis

The final judge of a camera’s performance is image quality, and the Sony a99 II gets high marks in this area, as well. With the high resolution of the sensor, images aren’t lacking in detail. We’ve previously reviewed the Sony a7R II, which has a similar resolution sensor, and noted that the images were some of the best on the market. The detail visible in some images from the a99 II is exceptional—this is a great portrait camera—and certainly on par with anything from the competition.

Conclusion

I’ve said before that there are no bad cameras on the market today, only different shades of good. The features and image quality of the new Sony a99 II don’t diminish the performance of superstar cameras like the Nikon D5 or Canon EOS-1D X Mark II I used as comparisons, it just brings a higher level of performance to a wider customer base.

There are things missing in the Sony a99 II that are found in those pro flagship bodies, as well. There’s no built-in vertical grip, the battery is good, but not as long-lasting as some systems, the camera doesn’t have the level of durability and weather sealing as the pro Nikon and Canon bodies, and it doesn’t quite have the “never let you down” feeling of the flagship Nikon and Canon systems. A few times in our tests, we had to remove the battery to restart the camera after the card-writing lamp failed to go off or the menus froze.

Again, though, the Sony a99 II is priced thousands of dollars below the pro systems against which it performs well in regard to image quality, capture speed and AF performance, so there are some natural trade-offs.

We’re not sure if the a99 II marks a renewed interest on Sony’s part to continue to evolve the A-mount SLT camera line, or if this marks one of the last big releases in the product line. The company is clearly focusing on mirrorless technology, and at a certain point, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have both an SLT-based system with one lens mount and a mirrorless system with the E-mount competing for essentially the same market.

For the time being, though, the a99 II shows that Sony’s purchase of Minolta’s historic system lives on in the a99 II, and will continue to live for years to come.

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