Sony A65 Review- Alpha Ala TMT
November 2011, Carl Garrard
Sony A65 Best Price Check
Sony A65 Review: When my hand first wrapped around the Sony A65 I knew it was the medium sized bodied camera I had been wanting from Sony for quite some time- at least in it's size and form factor. I won't be shy to say that I favor medium sized DSLR's (or DSLT's/DTMT's) over typically larger Pro and Enthusiast level DSLR's. I find a medium sized body to be more practical for all day holding yet still fully functional and controllable when using larger lenses. Find out the rest of my thoughts on the A65 next.
Sony A65 Best Price Check
Introduction/Features: Sony's Alpha A65 DSLT with TMT (Translucent Mirror Technology, as Sony now calls it) is a 24mp interchangeable lens camera with a 2.4million pixel electronic viewfinder and a fixed mirror that allows full time, uninterrupted phase detection auto focus for both still and video images. It also boasts a high frame rate with fixed aperture at 10 frames per second, or 8 frames per second with full control. Sony has caught up to the competition by introducing several "picture effects" or art filters along with the A65, including Sony's once unique sweep Panorama, Auto HDR, Handheld twilight, and DRO modes. It has a tilt/swivel high resolution 920K LCD screen and full 60fps 1080p video as well. Sounds like a bargain with a kit lens for $999.00, doesn't it? We'll it is, especially when compared to it larger brother the A77.
Handling - Sony A77 shooters might not like me saying this but I actually prefer using the A65 more than the A77 as a daily shooter. I do miss some of the external controls of the A77, but not so much as to tip the scale in it's direction. Nope, I prefered to use the A65 most of the time when I had my time with the A65 and A77 bodies Sony loaned me, and that I used during the big Sony press event in San Diego, CA.
There's just something about medium sized DSLRs (whoops DSLT I mean) that I like most. I find them to accommodate most high end features without the large volume or weight penalty. Typically the prices are near half of cameras a step higher than them, and usually they will perform about 80% or more of the same tasks. In other words, cameras in this class simply offer the best bang for the buck. I find the A65 currently to be that camera for Sony.
Sony A65 Best Price Check
Gripping the A65 is very comfortable. I have what I refer to as medium sized hands and holding the A65 was usually quite a pleasure for me. In fact, I'd go so far to say that of all the Sony cameras I've owned or used the A65 is probably my favorite in this regard. I found it light enough to carry all day, even with a medium sized lens such as the 70-300G or 16-50mm kit lens, and found it more comfortable to use during shooting as well. Could just be a fit thing, but I do feel its form factor will please more photographers than its larger brother.
Controls on the A65 are pretty minimalist but there are the essentials that I use quite often like the ISO and EV buttons, right where I need them. The same held true on the A580, so I'm glad to see them in the right location on the A65. There is plenty of space on the top deck for a small LCD display, something missing I think would have really added even more value to the A65 had Sony included it. If you disagree with the inclusion of an LCD display, certainly a couple more buttons could have been added on the top deck to facilitate faster acquistion of commonly used controls- or better yet, another custom button you could assign yourself. Seems like an awful waste of space (Contact, anyone... anyone.. never mind).
On the backside of the A65 there is a pretty plain and traditional layout almost very similar to many of Sony's point and shoot cameras, especially with the main control pad. The Fn button is in a nice location and that button really gets used a lot. I actually find the rear side of the A65 less cluttered and more organized than the A77- with the trade off of more menu diving. Since the menu system of the A65 is pretty snappy and organized, I find this a pleasant compromise. I do really like the A65's layout of buttons and controls for most shooting situations- less clutter means less stress while shooting for me- your experience of course may vary.
Variable Angle LCD Display- Here is another area I think the A65 trumps the A77, mostly. I do like the more simple design of the A65's LCD screen-both aesthetically and operationally than I do the A77's.
No doubt the A77's LCD has more available angles than a geometry book, but for most uses I'd rather not be confronted with so many choices. I found myself fiddling with the A77's display much more than the A65, and that is a distraction from shooting I really don't need. The way the A65's screen is oriented will work for most applications the A77's will, and it won't be so much of a distraction.
Auto Focus Performance- I might start to sound like a broken record here- but for the cost, I think the A65 is the better camera of the two for the autofocus performance. I tend to use the center AF point 99.99% of the time and for my money the A65 performs better than the A77- when price is a factor. Why? Simple, I found them to be identical in lock rate, AF speed, and accuracy when using the central AF points that are equipped with cross sensors.
It didn't matter what kind of light I was in either. When using the central AF points (highlighted in fuchsia above) I found no real differences between the two cameras. So, from a bang for the buck perspective the A65 wins this battle.
What I like most about the autofocus system of the A65 mostly though, is that it has all of the performance characteristics that I like in the A580's auto focus system, with none of it's weaknesses. Generally speaking I found the auto focus to be a bit more accurate than the A580's too. This is likely due to the fact that the A65's system is fully active 100% of the time, but it's really hard to say. I just report the results. The A580's autofocus for me wasn't ever really off, but it did miss on occasion whereas the A65 did not.
Battery Life- Although the A65 is rated slightly higher than the A77 in battery life, I found it overall to be quite average if not below average when compared to cameras of its peers. The silver lining here is that Sony decided not to change the battery type that is used in so many other Alpha cameras, so if you have multiple Alphas or a few hold over NP-FM500H batteries, bring them if you plan on shooting all day. I managed to squeeze about 400 shots out of the A65, which is below its rated life and I didn't use flash. I mentioned this in the A77 review too- but this is not typical of Sony to under perform against its rated batter life. Usually I'll get more images out of one charge than its CIPA rating. Still, its a bit better than the A77, once again.
Sony A65 Best Price Check
Image Quality- Image quality is identical to the Alpha A77's. My comments therefore are exactly the same except for one key point- the A65 does not compete with enthusiast level DSLR's and therefore I don't have the same expectations as the A77 for image quality. I don't expect a pick up truck to beat a sports car, and therefore I bring the same fair sort of mentality to comparing cameras. Compared to it's peers, I think the A65 offers more bang for the buck than the a77 does, at least in terms of raw resolution and cropping power. It's peers will out perform it at higher sensitivities but nobody but Sony offers 24 megapixels in an interchangeable lens camera for under $900.00 (body only). Keeping this in mind, I still feel the same way about the Jpeg engine and high ISO performance of the A65.
Both need improvement, and if Sony can figure out how to improve both of these factors by one full stop, the A65 would then be a real game changer in this regard. I'd also like to see a NR off option or at least a chroma only noise NR low setting. This would show off the A65's 24mp sensor on the Jpegs, not just the raw files. Here is an excerpt from the A77 review regarding overall Jpeg image quality.
"As far as the Jpeg engine is concerned, I have many issues with it. First of all I feel way too much noise reduction is being done on the Jpegs at ALL ISO values, which robs detail in every 24mp file you save. Then why have 24 megapixels you ask? Good question. Maybe Sony has the answer to that.
Secondly, the way the images are processed are unlike anything I've seen in past Sony Jpeg. The artifacts showing mainly in shadow detail are some of the weirdest I've ever seen. No, this is not a good thing. More so when you turn on vignetting correction in camera. When the A77 is bringing up shadowed areas to a brighter scale, the artifacts really start to show. And besides the artifacts, detail is mushed over because of noise reduction even at ISO 100.
I'm not sure if Sony were scared to show some image noise on their new mega-sensor on the Jpegs or not, perhaps that's why they are so heavy handed on the noise reduction? Only Sony knows that. As is this is a camera that I'd only rely on Jpegs when using the special stacking modes- Auto-HDR and MFNR, where lower noise and higher detail are retained than a standard one exposure Jpeg. That is, anytime I plan on retaining all finite detail. Otherwise the A77 is a raw only camera to me. Which segue's into my next segment, Raw quality. "
As far as raw image quality is concerned, there is a huge improvement. But for the A65 I do think Jpegs are even more important for the target audience. I don't know many people that buy $500-$900 DSLRS that tend to shoot in Raw only. At least I don't know many people that I meet in person that do anyways. I find that to be true with more advanced shooters than beginners or growing enthusiasts. Anyways, here is an excerpt from the A77 review on Raw image quality, since the two are identical.
"Raw image quality is a massive improvement over a single exposure Jpeg. Yet compared to its peers the Raw image quality is about average, better than some 14mp sensors I've seen, but not as good as some 16mp sensors I've seen. In my opinion, the A77's sensor is good to about ISO 2,500 -3,200 in a pinch perfectly exposed. Clearly low light shooting has been sacrificed for yet even more megapixels. Yet I don't recall any of our readers or readers on other forums screaming up and down for more megapixels- perhaps the surveys that were sent out to the public that helped sway this decision were given too much weight? Perhaps. Only Sony knows.
If you are going to shoot Raw only and don't mind shooting at ISO 1,600 and under (or just normally don't) then the A77 is a fine photographic instrument able to reach resolution levels no other APS-C DSLR or DSLT has been able to reach yet. For gigantic color rich prints with lots of dynamic range, the A77 is a fantastic tool. Shooting an ISO 50 image on a sharp lens and viewing it on screen is something else, print it large though and you'll really know the full potential of this sensor.
Although DXOMark give the A77 a pretty high score, it is fundamentally necessary to pay special attention to the ISO scrore. That, and the DXOMark score is based off of Raw only, not the combined Jpeg and Raw images I've done on my evaluation. Add that the A77 gets high marks for resolution, color depth, and dynamic range (all which I agree with DXOMark) and our conclusions are actually quite similar. "
Viewfinder- Again, the viewfinder is shared with the A77/65/NEX7/5N (with add on unit) so my thoughts are the same on them all. Best EVF to date (of the date of this article), but doesn't replace the inherent advantages of an Optical Viewfinder, it just gets closer to replacing them. Some of the major advantages of the EVF are for manual focusing (via focusing peaking and magnification), real time exposure via full time histogram, live shooting data and menu switching, 100% composition, and low light scene amplification (when it's twilight for example you can see the scene better through the EVF than with your eyes).
Some of the disadvantages of the EVF are power consumption, no framing composing unless the camera is turned on, highlights/shadows clipping, wysiNOTwyg, better indoors than outdoors, and tracking fast objects with any AF setting other than speed priority. Likely most of the cons won't be noticed by consumers, so the payoff in this class of camera for a viewing experience this size is excellent.
In this section of the review I provide samples on how I think Sony's Jpeg engine should look at the higher ISO values. These samples were shot in low natural light (especially ISO 16,000) and converted using Adobe ACR. Only chroma noise was removed (slider at 50%).
The first image is shot at ISO 6,400 near sunset, and the second shot at ISO 16,000 about 20 minutes later (almost completely dark). Light was almost non-present, and both of these shots were hand held as well. Meaning that I used the A65 at near dark conditions and could get sharp images hand held at high ISO's using raw. I wouldn't dare using the Jpegs out of camera for these two shots.
|ISO 6,400 ACR Converted Jpeg (Chroma Noise Removal Only)|
|Out of camera Jpeg- A65|
Note, the chroma noise removal and very low light contributed to the reduced amount of color saturation that is evident in the ISO 16,000 shot, both in my processed image and the OOC Jpeg above.
If I can process images using a standard raw converter like this, surely Sony can change the firmware to make Jpegs look this good (or better) from the processor/firmware in camera. Later I processed these images using a careful hand in Neat Image.
The Y noise channel was the only channel reduced giving the images a much lower noise look (what the A100 could do at ISO 400 in these conditions). The down side here is that each image took careful processing and took a bit of time, as well some minor detail was removed.
A better looking Jpeg would be instant and out of the camera. It would not require the knowledge, skill, or time to process. I would venture that most shooters who purchase the A65 would prefer to rely on the out of camera Jpegs and know they are getting as much detail and color as possible out of the sensor throughout the ISO range. Hopefully Sony release a new firmware update addressing the Jpeg engine of the A65 and A77 both (throw in the NEX7 too while you are at it).
Sony A65 Best Price Check
This conclusion is brief. I like the A65, and overall liked it more than the A77 both in use and for the price. For more demanding needs, the A77 surely is a better camera but I think overall the A65 is definitely the better camera for the dollar. From it's comfortable form factor to it's wonderful EVF the A65 DSLT is my favorite of all the "TMT" cameras to date. Price and features wise the A65 is a pretty darn good value, even when compared to its peers.
Had it more user customization options, a better Jpeg engine, and better overall high sensitivity image quality, the A65 would probably be the leader of its peers. But as is, the A65 is just an alternative- being pretty equal when all things are considered (it is at the higher price range than its peers), but no better as an all round camera than what Canon or Pentax have to offer in this class of camera. The only exception to the rule in this class is Nikon's D5100 which I think takes the back seat to the A65 even with better high sensitivity image quality.
The A65 has a solid laundry list of core features that make it a good DSLR (I mean DSLT, whatever). It has wireless flash capabilities, a built in auto-focus motor for legacy lenses, built in image stabilization, and an excellent autofocusing system that blows away most of its peers at this price range (the Pentax Kr is pretty snappy as well). Add that the EVF is nearly the magnification/viewing size of a full frame DSLR, that it has a host of unique image stacking/aligning features, and even a set of art filters to have fun with, and the A65 makes an interesting proposition for those that don't mind giving up an optical view. At this price range, I think more would be willing than most.
Compared to the A55 and A33, the A65 is simply in another class in most respects- especially when it comes to the viewfinder and handling characteristics. While I prefer the A55's image output overall to the A65's it doesn't have enough features otherwise that impress me. Therefore when I compare the A65 to every other SLT Sony has made, I conclude it to be the best value for the buck- and a camera that A-Mount shooters ought to really have a look at if they are considering an SLT model.
As always, be safe, and happy shooting.
*Update- 3-30-2012: Sony Japan has begun releasing new firmware for the A77 and A65 that finally addresses *some* of the issues I've found with the A77 during the review process. Sony has not annouced the firmware update for the US or UK (or for that matter any other territories in the world except Japan), but will soon do so.
I would love to update this review with an A77 that has the latest firmware but a loaner unit will need to be sent to me in order to do the evaluation. If the loaner unit is not sent to me, I've no choice but to leave the review in it's current state and cannot reflect the changes that have been made with the new 1.05 firmware update.
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Sony A65 Best Price Check
- Good sized body and comfortable reassuring handling
- Large viewing experience with EVF
- Lots of resolution to work with
- Fast and Accurate Autofocus
- Very Good Raw Image Quality (to ISO 2,500)
- Excellent manual focus camera (focus peaking and magnifying tools are wonderful)
- Good Dynamic Range
- Good metering
- Good color
- Controls are well located
- Decent build quality (internal alloy chassis)
- Wireless flash capable
- Image stabilization built into body
- Jpegs aren't pretty- some awful artifacts, soft, mushy like oatmeal (waste of 24mp)
- Image quality (noise) suffers in low light or shadow regions (entire ISO range)
- No control for Jpeg out put (3 settings for NR are all way too much, might as well be none)
- Battery life is average to below average
- Cannot compose shots unless camera is powered on
- More expensive than its peers
- Auto White balance still too warm
- Top plate seems wasted (mostly)
Sony A65 Best Price Check