It's been 4 years since SONY released the Alpha900. 4 years in digital photography is a good long time, so I feel this new flagship Alpha99 is a completely different camera. Although there's no change in the number of pixels, picture quality has been improved. The optical viewfinder has been replaced with the EVF. AF is faster. It has a movie function. It's dust resistant and splash proof. And, there're still other upgrades. The SONY's flagship camera has evolved drastically in the four years.

( Photography & Text : Y.Moriki )

Drastically improved tonality and resolution power

What I first noticed is "the reality in pictures" as SONY announced. As in the above image, it captured what I saw exactly by depicting fine texture of the wet rocks, each drop of splash, and the massive winding waves. And, all of them were depicted with 3D plasticity. Or, this could be more real than what I saw because it captured the finest possible detail. I use the Alpha900 and I know the Alpha99's basic specs is almost the same, but the image quality is completely different. I sometimes felt some flaws in the Alpha900, but it was only minor and I was just happy with it. But, now I must admit what the 4-year interval has brought to us. They have increased the amount of light that one photodiode can receive and improved noise reduction... to say that in words is easy, but I gather they have overcome many hardships to realize this improvement. Anyway, you know how much I was impressed with the picture quality!

This rich tonality is something I couldn't get from the Alpha900. It nicely dealt with the variety of tones including the gradation of the sky at daybreak, the bright outside scenery, and the dark inside wall and floor.

Let me talk more about the tonality. In short, it's on a different level. I overexposed the original image (JPG) on the left side quite a bit to see what happen. I underexposed when I shot to emphasize the shadow and as you can see the shadow is deep black. I didn't expect to get details in the shadow, but once I overexposed with the software, I found the yellow studded paving blocks, the color of the shop's door, and the standing signboard on the left back. And, they were all depicted with detail. With the Alpha900, I would only get a rough and noisy output in the same condition. I feel the "depth" in Alpha99's output.

This is another shot to show the rich tonality. The melting ice is depicted naturally with the front and back bokeh. It's so realistic that I can almost feel the ice and glass. Shot wide open.

The superb picture quality is evident in the long shot like this. Although I shot through a thick glass in the observatory, it captured distant objects with detail presumably because of the new lowpass filter. It minutely depicted lines and surfaces that were only drawn softly by the predecessor. Furthermore, moiré on lattice pattern on the wall is invisible. It's this fine image tuning that makes me immediately perceive the improvement.

The picture like this cannot be generated unless resolution power, expressiveness, and tonality synchronize. While maintaining clarity, it also shows highlight and shadow detail with rich tonality. I would say this picture quality is like "a nice print." I mean we can get a nice print if we can harmonize the rich tonality of color negative films and the hardness of prints (I don't know until when I can keep using such an expression).

All new AF and comfortable EVF

AF is much faster thanks to the Translucent Mirror Technology, which is a powerful identity of the Alpha series. The AF mechanism is completely different from the Alpha900 and the improved AF sensor enabled faster and more accurate focusing that is proper for the flagship camera. Because of time constraints, I couldn't shoot as many photos as I wanted, but it tracked moving objects with great speed and accuracy. Because of construction, the viewfinder has to be EVF and I think some people would defy the abolition of the bright acute matte that had been inherited from the Minolta period. But, those who are not familiar with the optical viewfinders would just take it for granted. Anyway, this EVF is so well-made and I think it even attracts the nay-sayers of EVF. Just take a look into it if you have a chance and you should understand what I'm talking about. EVF lets you check the results reflecting exposure and color temperature before you shoot. In addition, it lets you to check composition and focus even if you are shooting in the dark or against intense light. I'm sure serious shooters feel grateful to these advantages. In fact, I had no time to think about the advantages and disadvantages of optical viewfinder and EVF before I went out to shoot, but to be honest, everything went smoothly and I never felt any inconvenience.

Improved high ISO performance increases usability

The last image of a night view was shot at ISO3200. I felt ISO25600 was for emergency use, but the quality is still impressive. Of course, there're more noises than ISO100, but I can safely use ISO1600 or ISO3200. The view on the shooter's side including the building, the floor, and the lighting has the 3D "pop." Also, it nicely expresses the distance to the sea surface and the Tokyo Tower. Now, who isn't happy with this improved high ISO performance working with the full-sized sensor?

This full model change shows the future of a SLR camera.

To summarize my impression on the Alpha99, I would say, "At any rate, this camera takes great pictures." I'm sorry for this ordinary statement, but I'm sure the Alpha900 users will feel the evolution that makes them satisfied. Of course, I recommend this camera to new Alpha users (who waited for a full-size sensor) with confidence. I know there're people who are interested but a little skeptical and may be feeling SONY SLRs are avant-garde. But, such novelty is now only presenting a new value realized by the great synchronization of the picture quality, Translucent Mirror, and EVF. Together with the attractive lens lineup including Minolta and Zeiss, the system has become even more appealing. Take it into your hand over the counter. If you intuitively like it, it will become your dependable partner.

A fine scan of a 35mm film surpasses the 24 Megapixels, but it's not grain-free. The picture quality of the Alpha99 is like a film without grain. Just like a film, it captures subjects' shape, texture, colors, and tones, while faithfully depicting the quality of light source. Digital imaging technology has made remarkable progress to the point it pleases film users. This is hard because our eyes are so used to films, but it was made possible by SONY's evolution over the four years.

When Konica Minolta transferred assets to SONY, the Alpha cameras by the SONY brand used to be a little conservative and I would felt that they could be more SONY-ish (innovative). But, this ambitious Alpha99 is questioning what a camera should be like and it makes me excited to think about their future development. Try it out if you have a chance and look forward to our next review!