Sony A99 II
It’s taken Sony four years to replace the original A99 but it looks like time well spent, find out how the company’s latest full-frame SLT shapes-up in our Sony A99 II review
30 second Sony A99 II review…
The Sony A99 II is the replacement for the Sony A99 which was launched back in September 2012. It’s a full-frame SLT camera with the Sony A-mount and the same 42Mp sensor as the popular Sony A7R II, which means it can capture plenty of detail in its images.
Where the A99 II scores over the A7R ii, however, is with its snappy autofocus system which is capable of operating while the camera shoots at 12fps (frames per second). It means that the A99 II can be used for shooting sport and action and can get subjects sharp in low light.
In many respects the A99 II is an excellent camera with advanced features that will satisfy experienced photographers and videographers, but the extensive menu is badly arranged and takes time to get to know.
|Camera Name||Sony A99 II|
|Price at launch||£2,999/$3,198 (body only)|
|Sensor size||Full-frame (35.9 x 24mm), Exmor R CMOS|
|Effective pixel count||42.4 million|
|Processor||Bionz X supported by front-end LSI|
|Viewfinder||0.5-inch OLED with 2,359,296 dots|
|Sensitivity range||Stills: ISO 100-25600 (expandable to ISO 50-102400), Movies: ISO 100-25600|
|Reflex AF system||N/A|
|Live View AF system||Hybrid Phase Detection using two sensors: dedicated AF sensor: 79 points (15 cross-type points, f/2.8- sensitive at the center point), Image sensor: 399 points (323 selectable points, 79, hybrid-cross auto focus points*)* When Hybrid Phase Detection AF is activated|
|Monitor||Tilt and swivel 3-inch TFT LCD with 1,228,800|
|Max shooting rate||12fps with full AF and metering for 60 Extra fine jpegs, 54 raw and jpeg files, 24 uncompressed raw and jpeg files or 25 uncompressed raw files|
|Max video resolution||4K (3840 x 2160) at 30p, 100M|
|Storage||Dual Slot, slot 1: Memory Stick PRO Duo and SD/SDHC/SDXC, slot 2: SD/SDHC/SDXC|
|Dimensions||142.6 mm x 104.2 x 76.1mm|
|Weight||849g with battery and memory card|
While many people were expecting Sony to announce a high-end camera at Photokina in September 2016, just about everyone thought it would be new compact system camera, either to replace to Sony A7R II, or perhaps introducing a new model rumoured to be called the Sony A9. So it took a little time for it to register that the camera was actually an SLT (single lens translucent) model to replace the Sony A99.
For those unfamiliar with Sony’s single lens translucent camera technology, these cameras have a fixed translucent mirror in place of the flip-up mirror that an SLR has. A key benefit of this design is that a dedicated phase detection autofocus sensor housed near the viewfinder can receive light from the lens at any time, even during an exposure. This means that there’s full-time phase detection focusing when images are composed on the screen or in the viewfinder and during video recording.
Another consequence of the SLT design is that an optical viewfinder would be quite dim so instead Sony uses the live view feed from the image sensor for an electronic viewfinder. This is a 0.5-in OLED unit with 2,359,296 dots in the case of the A99II.
Using a translucent mirror also means that not all the light from the lens reaches the imaging sensor and this could have implications for the level of noise in images. However, Sony has used the same full-frame back-illuminated 42.2-million-pixel sensor in the A99 II as is in the Sony A7R II. This sensor has a stacked construction with a separate layer for the circuitry and a gapless micro lens design, which means that more light can reach the photoreceptors than in a standard sensor. This has given Sony the confidence to enable a standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-25600 with expansion settings taking it to ISO 50-102400.
There’s also no optical low pass filter (OLPF) on the and this should enable the sensor to capture more fine detail than a chip with an OLPF.
Like the Sony A6500 and Sony RX100V, the A99II has a front-end LSI on the sensor to help boost processing power and help the Bionz X processing engine. They combine to enable a maximum continuous shooting rate of 12 frames per second (fps) in Continuous Hi+ mode – that’s with autofocusing and exposure metering. However, to enable this fast focusing capability at 12fps, the selected aperture must be f/9 or larger when Hybrid Phase Detection AF is activated and f/4 or larger when Hybrid Phase Detection AF is not active. The choice to activate and deactivate Hybrid Phase Detection is made via the menu.
If you’re prepared to use a maximum continuous shooting rate of 8fps (ie use Continuous Hi rather than Continuous Hi+) it’s possible to avoid the aperture constraints to continuous autofocusing. In addition, the live view in the viewfinder is continuous, making it easier to following moving subjects.
However, if you want to shoot at 12fps you’ll find that with a fast memory card you’re able to record up to 60 Extra fine quality JPEGs or 25 uncompressed raw files in a single burst.
Sony has put a lot of work into the autofocus systems in its cameras over the last couple of years and the A99 II is the first full-frame Alpha model to feature the company’s 4D FOCUS technology. As mentioned earlier, the SLT design enables a dedicated AF sensor to be used and this is coupled with 399 phase detection points on the imaging sensor to create a Hybrid Phase Detection AF system. Around the centre of the image frame, where the 79 points (15 cross-type) of the dedicated AF sensor overlie the points on the image sensor, the A99 II has hybrid cross points, making its focusing system more sensitive.
Follow this link to learn more about the Sony A99 II’s autofocus system’s specification and performance.
As mentioned earlier, the A99 II has an electronic viewfinder. With 2,359,296 dots this is capable of showing enough detail to focus manually but a faint grid pattern is visible and occasionally the image shimmers to remind you that it’s an electronic finder rather than optical. Neither are major issues and more importantly the colour, contrast and exposure of the viewfinder image is a good match for the captured picture.
Like the original A99, the A99 II’s 3-inch 1,228,800-dot screen has a tilt-and-swivel bracket that enables it to be tilted up through 134 degrees and down through 180 degrees. It can also be rotated through 180 degrees clockwise and 90 degrees counterclockwise. These movements can take a little getting used to but they mean that you can use the screen for composing landscape and portrait images at high or low angles.
The screen also provides a good view, with the Sunny Weather setting enabling the image to be seen even in bright sunlight.
Sony A99 II Stabilisation
Sony first introduced 5-axis image stabilisation to a full-frame camera with the Sony A7II in November 2014 and it subsequently appeared in the Sony A7R II and A7S II. However, the A99 II is the first A-mount camera to feature it.
I found that when I was shooting with Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II at the 70mm end I was able to get about 50% of my shots perfectly sharp when using a shutter speed of 1/5sec, proving Sony’s claim of a 4.5 EV extension in the safe hand-holdable shutter speed.
Sony A99 II Video
Sony has been quick to embrace 4K video technology and although it’s possible to shoot 4K movies with several of Sony’s compact and interchangeable lens cameras, the A99 II is the first A-mount camera to be 4K (3840×2160) enabled.
To boost image quality, the A99 II shoots 4K in Super 35mm format (approximately APS-C size) with full pixel readout and no pixel binning or line skipping. This means that approximately 1.8x the data that’s required for 4K video is collected before being down sampled. It uses the XAVC S codec with bit rates up to 100Mbps
Full HD footage (1920×1080) can also be recorded with the A99II’s Slow and Quick modes allowing rates from 1 to 120fps for slow motion down to 5x and fast motion up to 60x.
Sony’s Picture Profiles are available along with the dynamic range expanding S-Log2 and S-Log3 gamma settings. As these settings produce very flat footage it’s also possible to use the Gamma Display Assist feature to give an indication of how the movie would look with a contrast curve applied.
Those who want to view or record footage to an external device will be pleased to learn that there’s a clean HDMI output.
Sony A99 II Build and Handling
Sony is aiming the A99II at experienced photographers and it has the solid build and extensive collection of direct controls that these users demand. The body is made from magnesium alloy and there are dust and moisture seals around the controls and ports.
According to Sony the new camera is 8% smaller than the model it replaces, but it still feels comfortable in your hand, with a chunky grip on the front and a good thumb-ridge on the back. A rubber-like coating also makes the camera feel safe when you’re carrying it without a strap.
Sony has a habit of making a meal of autofocus point selection and by default it’s a bit of a performance with the A99 II. The first step is to press the FN button to access the Function menu, then you need to scroll to Focus Area, press the Multi-selector control to select the option, press to confirm the Focus Area mode (if the Focus Area Mode you want to use isn’t selected you’ll have to scroll over to that first) and then you can use the controller to select the AF point you need to use.
Thankfully there are a couple of customisation options that make the process much quicker. The first of these is to set the Centre Button (of the Multi-selector) to ‘AF-On’ so you can set the AF point and start focusing with a central press. However, I find setting the Center Button to ‘Focus Area’ works better for me as this enables you to select the focus point directly using the four-way controller and access the Focus Area selection options with a central press.
If you reach around the front left corner of the A99 II with your thumb as you hold it for shooting you’ll find a Multi-controller dial with a button at its centre. Pressing and holding the button reveals features that are available for adjustment: Focus Mode, Focus Area, Select Focus Area, Shutter Speed, Aperture, Exposure Compensation, sensitivity (ISO), Metering Mode, White Balance, Creative Style, Picture Effect and (in video mode) Audio Recording Level. You just rotate the dial to the option you want. Then all you need to do is press the central button and use the dial to adjust the setting. I found it convenient to use the Multi-controller dial to adjust exposure compensation and white balance when the camera was held to my eye.
A nice touch with this control is that the dial can be set to operate with or without clicks with the flick of the switch underneath. The clicks give you the sensation that something is being adjusted but they’re not ideal when you’re shooting video, so it’s helpful to be able to ‘declick’ the control.
While the A99 II’s control layout is logical and the plentiful customisation options allow you to access the key features you need quickly, the main menu is frustrating to use. I would expect it to be extensive, but it’s poorly laid out and with 32 pages arranged across 4 tabs, it takes a while to find some features. I’d like to see features being grouped together with a hierarchy system to reduce the number of pages to scroll through. With time you get used to the menu, but it’s a pain at the outset.
As usual with recent Sony cameras, the Function menu accessed by pressing the Fn button is customisable so it can make accessing some features a bit quicker. As I’ve said before elsewhere, it would be nice if there could be two Function menus, one for stills and one for videos.
Also, a touch-screen would make it quicker and easier to make setting selections, with swipes allowing faster screen navigation.
Sony A99 II Performance
I covered the performance of the Sony A99 II’s autofocus system in a separate post, but to summarise, it’s very good. I found it’s capable of getting subjects sharp in low light and low contrast conditions and it can keep fast moving subjects sharp. And while the tracking can keep up with an isolated subject as it moves across the frame and towards or away from the camera, it’s easily distracted by other objects so it’s best to narrow down the target area and use Flexible Spot or Expand Flexible Spot mode. The downside to this is that you need to keep the active autofocus area over the subject but it usually ensures a sharp result with only the odd error.
As the A99 II is an SLT camera rather than an SLR, the focusing system in video mode is the same as the one used for shooting stills. This means that the focusing is snappy, but there are times when this looks too fast and it would be nice to have a slower option. Consequently many experienced video shooters are likely to stick with manual focusing.
Thanks to its pixel count of 42 million the A99 II can resolve a lot of detail at the low to mid sensitivity settings. Even when viewing images at 100% on-screen, noise doesn’t become visible until the sensitivity is pushed to ISO 3200 – there’s just a slight texture in some areas. Naturally this becomes more visible as sensitivity rises and by ISO 6400 it’s just visible at normal viewing sizes.
I’d keep to a maximum of around ISO 12,800 if you can as going beyond this has a marked impact with the in-camera noise reduction reducing the amount of detail that’s visible in jpegs and raw files having more speckling. Raw files taken at ISO 25,600, the native maximum look more natural than the jpegs with grain being preferable to detail softening.
There are expansion settings go up to ISO 102,400 but they are best avoided unless getting an image is more important than its quality. A lot of detail is lost the upper values and the noise is clumped together rather than fine-grained.
A key advantage of an electric viewfinder is that you can preview the impact of cameras settings before the image is captured. Consequently I quickly spotted that in the default Multi Metering mode the A99II has a tendency to over expose images shot in bright conditions. When shooting a lake in sunshine, with pale reeds around it, for example, I expected the camera to underexposure, but several of the shots actually look too bright. Reducing the exposure by 0.3 or 0.7EV produced more accurate and attractive results with more saturated colour. I had a similar experience when shooting scenes with more varied brightness in sunny conditions.
Provided that the exposure is correct, the Standard Creative Style, which is the default setting and the automatic white balance system usually combine to produce images that look good. Occasionally, however, the Vivid or Landscape Creative Styles are useful for boosting contrast. Meanwhile the Black and White Creative Style is capable of producing quite attractive results in-camera but raw file conversions are usually still preferable.
Sony states a life of 390 shots for the supplied NP-FM500H battery when the viewfinder is used to compose images, or 490 images when the screen is used. However, I found I was able to shoot over 870 images with one battery over the course of an 80 minute rugby match. These images were mainly shot in short bursts at 8fps and there were UHS-II speed class I SDHC cards in the card slots to keep writing times down.
Sony A99 II Verdict
The Sony A99 II is the best SLT camera that Sony has ever produced and it has the best autofocusing system of any Sony camera to date. With the right lens and with some understanding of the focusing controls, it can be relied upon to produce sharp images of fast moving subjects even in low light and low contrast situations.
It also produces images with plenty of detail, pleasant colours and noise that is controlled well up to around ISO 12,800. Video quality is also high.
Sony has given A99II photographers plenty of control over their stills and video, but while the physical controls and generally arranged well, the menu is a chore to use. With time you get used to it and will know where to find the features you want, but it could do with redesigning to make it more logical.
The only other question mark about the A99II is whether Sony has done too little over the last few years to maintain interest in the SLT system. Sony’s A7-series cameras have won lots of fans and many people thought that the manufacturer would retire the A-mount and focus entirely upon compact system cameras.