Sony Alpha 99 review

Build and handling

Those familiar with the Alpha 77 should quickly feel at home with the Alpha 99. Both are constructed to a high standard with a weather-sealed body, magnesium-alloy chassis and front panel made of tough plastic. As the Alpha 99 is the lightest full-frame camera and one of the smallest, a long day's shoot can be comfortable, too. Despite its small dimensions, using heavier and chunkier professional lenses, such as the Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8, does not throw the balance of the camera.

A look at the Alpha 99's rear reveals a button layout very similar to that of the Alpha 77, although the buttons are less ‘clicky' in use and beautifully dampened, as one would expect from a professional camera. Additions include a new AF range button, which accesses the new autofocus limiter function. On the front of the camera is a ‘silent controller'. This is, in effect, a new function dial primarily designed for video users, although controls can be assigned to it separately for still image and video capture. In fact, the functions of most of the buttons on the camera can be changed to control other settings, although there is little point in changing the ISO button to another control other than ISO.

A shooting-mode dial includes the usual PASM settings, as well as three custom settings, auto, scene, panorama, video, plus the tele-zoom high-speed mode. There is a lock button in the centre of the dial, which must be pressed in order to turn the dial. The dial is firm already, but the lock is reassuring.

Sony has changed the accessory shoe to the standard type rather than its own Konica design that is used in all other Alpha cameras. A new flashgun, the HVL-F60M, has therefore been announced alongside the camera, but those with older Sony flash units will need to use an adapter (supplied with the camera) to attach older units to the camera.

On the underside of the camera are the necessary contacts to connect the new ‘chimney-less' battery grip. Even with the grip attached, the in-camera battery can stay in place and there is space for two extra batteries in the battery grip. With three camera batteries in place, Sony claims a battery life of up to 3,200 shots, which is impressive. However, that's without the GPS function activated. When GPS is on, or for those who often shoot AVCHD videos, the battery life is significantly less than the quoted figures.

There are a couple of handling issues that need to be addressed if the Alpha 99 is going to compete fully at this level. For instance, start-up time is slow, with the controls, top LCD, viewfinder and rear-screen displays taking around 3secs to ready themselves. When turning the exposure dial, there is a minor lag in this information on the display, which can be a little frustrating. Most of the camera's navigation is achieved using the joystick on the rear, which is responsive and easy to use. Throughout the test the joystick has been fine, but I do wonder how it will cope with bumps, knocks and extended use.

I would like to see some basic in-camera edits included, such as colour modes and cropping. Currently, rotation is the only possible edit, while in some other camera systems there is even raw file editing. Also, there is no way to rate images in-camera, which is a shame as this is a handy tool when out and about, to make a quick reference rather than scrolling through a large number of images at the end of a day's shooting to find favourite shots.

All in all, though, the Alpha 99 sits well in the hand, is well constructed and its level of customisation makes for speedy navigation.