The Sony A580 was the last mirror flipping camera taking A-mount lenses. And that last true DSLR doesn’t really shine against the older A700 in my opinion. It offers video, a few more pixels, a few more ISO, a few more AF sensor, but I think the A700 is overall a better camera, more robust, with higher shutter speed, excellent pentaprism viewfinder, and better ergonomy. If you really want/need to upgrade your A-mount camera the logical step up in the used market is the Sony A77. That said if you’re ready to lose the excellent optical viewfinder and ergonomy.
What about that A77?
I got mine at MPB for $260 including shipment (225€, 190GBP) with 7k clicks, in so called “well used” condition because of a defect on the LCD corner described as a crack. It actually was just the shitty cheap Sony coating that deteriorated badly (a VERY common issue on Sony cameras) and the screen “plastic glass” peeling. I could have just replaced that “glass”, but the replacement part on ebay was priced the same as a brand new lcd: since the replacement is super easy, I just replaced the LCD for a little more than 10 bucks.
For around $250, that A77 is a good deal. But the usual price that is asked for a “good” A77 is more in the range of $450. I wouldn’t recommend buying it at that price.
Anyways, I’ll spare you the mostly meaningless detailed specs that you can find absolutely everywhere on the internet: the A77 is 24MP APSC DSLR-like with a fixed translucent mirror instead of a flapping mirror. Less light reaches the sensor, but you get supposedly a faster AF than the previous A-mount bodies, a big electronic viewfinder that is not that bad (I actually almost don’t dislike it), 8fps with all the automations working or 12fps with locked aperture.
The camera is light, and with a battery grip it handles pretty well and you can shoot 800/900 photos.
What I don’t like… Better get rid of the bad first.
Handling and ergonomy are NOT minolta.
There is close to zero Minolta DNA in that camera besides the ability to use A-mount lenses. And that is not a good thing when it comes to ergonomy. It seems Sony was so eager to do their thing that they just removed all the good things from Minolta. The buttons are quite poorly placed, and even if you can reconfigure lots of them, they are not as fast, natural and practical as direct dials and selectors.
You have two front and rear dials, a mode dial, AF mode selector, and a plethora of buttons that you can reconfigure to various (limited) settings. Push the button, the corresponding option appears in the viewfinder or LCD, adjust the option with the wheels or joystick, push that button again (or half press the shutter) to validate. I don’t like that you have to look at a screen to change basic settings like metering or AF area. Keeping eyes on the target and turning a knob is so much more practical, natural and efficient.
For options that you can’t or don’t want to assign to a button, there is an ugly “fast” menu. Push the button, navigate in that menu, validate what you want to adjust, adjust it with the wheels or joystick… STOOOOOP! That is insane. Totally unintuitive and slow.
Also, it’s worth noting there is a terrible lag between your inputs through dials and joystick and the setting being changed in camera. It makes changing options slow and frustrating. You can’t really trust the “clicks” of the dials, and you can’t trust what is displayed because you have to wait for the value to correctly update. That is terrible ergonomy.
The camera menu is terrible. All the options seem to have been more or less randomly placed in various sub menus. Doesn’t make much sense.
The fast menu that you can’t change doesn’t make sense either. Why did they leave there the jpeg creative/picture effect when you shoot raw? Or DRO, which is also useless when shooting raw? And why put the ISO option when there is already an ISO button? Wouldn’t the stabilization have been a better idea? There is a really bad impression of unpolished software in that A77, like the guys responsible for the UI and ergonomy didn’t give a damn and actually never used any camera before.
In the end I could set it up more or less to my liking and I actually don’t have to change much when I’m shooting. Still, I really miss a selector for the AF area selection. That fast menu thing is just not great.
Exposure metering mode and AF mode.
At least they kept the selector for continuous/single/manual/and “simulated fly by wire” AF.
That last option is actually nice: on older lenses using the A77 internal motor and screw for AF, after focus is confirmed, the AF is decoupled and you can adjust focus manually. Would be much better if the image was automatically zoomed in… You have to press… an F*ing button.
With all those options in the menu, they could have added something to make that automated.
There is also no switch to enable or disable the stabilisation: you have to go in the menu, and you can’t assign that to a button. And it’s not in the fast menu. Sony: really? WTF were you thinking????
It doesn’t seem to go super well for the A77 for now.
That is why I totally don’t recommend buying it for more than 300 bucks unless you desperately need/want that 24MP APSC A-mount body.
Helas, it’s not the end of the bad things with the A77. I doubt it’s even remotely water resistant, it doesn’t feel very solid, the integrated flash is basically useless, the jpeg rendering is (too put it in one simple word) BAD, and it seems that model of camera suffers a lot of “random” issues: there are a lot of reports of the camera suddenly stopping working, displaying errors, doing weird stuff for no apparent reason. Mine is working perfectly in its parameters range, but all those reports are bothersome when you want an inexpensive camera that is supposed to last a little while. Most people buying used inexpensive gear do it so because they can’t afford that 3 grand camera, and they expect their used camera to NOT fall apart or stop working the next week. To be fair, it isn't only the a77: the A77m2 has the same issues, as do most more recent Sony cameras (cracked stabilisation support anyone?).
It looks like I’m painting a terrible image of the A77 but honestly, I kinda like this camera (much more than the a77m2).
First and foremost because it takes my Minolta glass and has 24MP, but not only. There is lots to love despite the things I don't like.
Image quality when shooting raw is good, but honestly, it’s really hard to find a camera with really bad image quality. Good image quality is expected and delivered. Yes, the translucent mirror takes some light from the sensor. Noise is a non issue with modern post processing, and dynamic range is a non issue if you expose properly in the first place.
One of my favorite features is autofocus micro adjust. All these old minolta lenses are often great, but the mechanic aged, and they were not built with modern standards. Most if not all of them have slight issues with front\/back focusing. On previous A-mount cameras it was possible to adjust that with screws, but it was a tedious process, and you had to make compromises when using lots of lenses. No more of that with the A77: after a couple hours, all my Minolta glass was adjusted and focus is perfect or near perfect depending on the focusing mode you’re using.
It’s fast. I mean: shooting and acquiring focus in good light is fast. Adjusting any setting isn’t.
Focusing is really good and consistent in single shot focus mode, whatever AF area you’re using, the best being center spot area.
Continuous AF is less consistent but still quite fast.
Tracking is totally inconsistent and I’m definitely better off tracking anything myself.
AF works very well with motorized lenses, but it’s also surprisingly good and fast with screw driven lenses. You can choose two motor speeds, the slow one being perfect for low light. Af is really surprisingly fast and accurate with Minolta glass. Much better than any other older A-mount camera.
I never really liked electronic viewfinders. This one is no exception, but it’s less bad than the other I tried (including some very recent cameras). Definition is ok, colors are ok and there is minimal viewfinder lag in normal shooting situations. When shooting in bright daylight, things get more complicated with contrast, but a better eyecup helps a little. When shooting fast bursts the refresh rate doesn’t match the 8 or 12FPS the camera is capable of. Following any fast moving subject is hard, not impossible with some training, but not a pleasant experience.
Framerate: 8 or 12fps… That thing is killing my older D3/D3s. The buffer is smaller, you can only shoot 13/14 photos, but still: 8/12fps at 24MP for $250??? That is good. With AF priority, you will not reach those figures, but you’ll get more keepers and save the buffer. 8fps is totally usable, but since AF tracking is not great, and the EVF refresh rate is not matching, it’s not easy to track a fast moving subject. It can be done, but requires discipline and training. I actually prefer the way it works with a slow refresh rate but no noticeable lag compared to the opposite. 12fps is also perfectly usable, with ONE limitation: it will shoot at F/3.5 or the smallest aperture of the lens. It’s a shame it can’t take advantage of my 70-200 f/2.8 or my other fast glass.It isn’t really a big deal tough: those fast lenses are sharper at F/3.5, and the light loss is quite insignificant. And it’s F*ing 12fps in an $250 body!
Contrary to what some people said, I didn't find the metering to be inconsistent. It's ok.
The rear LCD is also a strong selling point: the articulated read LCD is good, and the mechanism is better. It’s simply the best thing ever for macro.
The top LCD is the kind of thing that should be mandatory on any camera.
It has a GPS! And I love that. I use GPS data a lot when documenting wildlife. It locks fast, it is accurate, and it doesn’t seem to kill the battery.
The internal stabilisation works. Nothing spectacular.
The A77 is light and quiet. I love that.
At least, it may not be everyone's criteria, but it’s a pretty camera. Less pretty than the Minolta 7D, but prettier than the newer mirrorless Sony brick-looking cameras. You’re of course totally free to disagree and think I’m a tasteless moron.
The A77 came out at the time Sony was experimenting a lot, innovating, trying things, trying to get rid of the past. At the time, it didn’t inspire me. The prices were ok, but for anyone already invested in another system, it wasn’t really relevant.
Today, with the used market, good used prices, and resellers like KEH, Adorama, MPB (I love these guys by the way), it’s a different story.
Is the latest 28 times more expensive SONY A1 better than this A77? For sure, definitely, no question. The A1 is a beast of a camera. Is it 28 times better? Well, definitely not.
What can you get on the used market today for less than $300? If you can find an A77 at that price, it definitely is a good option if you already have some A-mount glass and want to use it. I wouldn’t pay more simply because better options become available.
If you don’t have any Minolta glass, the A-mount bodies aren’t an obvious choice. For the same price, you would be better off buying a Canon or a Nikon. The lens choice is HUGE in comparison, and the bodies are more durable. I wouldn’t be afraid to buy a $300 Canon 1DS m2 or Nikon D2Xs: I’m pretty sure they would outlive any Sony.