Shoot like a professional with a Sony DSLR

- August 7th, 2012
Sony Alpha SLT a57 DSLR with a 18-55 mm lens.

Sony Alpha SLT a57 DSLR with a 18-55 mm lens.

 

Years ago when I was buying a single-lens reflex camera for a photography class, I was told to go with either Nikon or Pentax as they were the best value and had the greatest variety of lenses. Later, when digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) started to become popular, Canon kicked Pentax into obscurity. Sony, on the other hand, wasn’t on the radar.

Sure, Sony made digital cameras like everyone else. But the company was much better known for its video camera selection in both the consumer and professional markets where, once again, Canon stood as its main competitor. But now that high-end DSLRs can record HD video too, Sony makes a strong showing with its Alpha series, for example, the Sony Alpha SLT a57 DSLR which I recently had the chance to test out.

The current market is still dominated by Canon and Nikon, at least in perception. The general consensus seems to be if you want to take photographs, then you should go with a Nikon (preferably the D7000, if you have the cash). But if you’re looking to mainly shoot video, you should go with the Canon EOS 60D  (or the Digital Rebel T-Series, if you want to save some dough).

With a 18-55 mm lens, the a57 is listed at $749.99 at the Sony Store and other retailers, making it around the same price of the Digital Rebel T3i. But in specs it offers much more.

Granted, the T3i is an 18 MP camera and the a57 is only a 16.1 MP one but you’re likely never going to run into a situation where those 2 MP are going to make a difference. Being able to take a 5,184 x 3,456 pixel picture on the T3i over a 4,912 x 2,760 pixel one on the a57, only matters if you’re planning on printing something poster-sized. And the size discrepancy of the print-outs would only amount to an inch or two.

The shutter speed variance on the two cameras are the same. They both go from 1/4000 of a second to 30 seconds. And they each have a bulb setting for long exposures.

But with the a57, you have more control over the digital “film” speed. When taking photos on auto ISO, the film speed will fluctuate between 100 and 3,200. But if you have it on manual, you can set it as high as 16,000 (and even higher still to 25,600 if you use the Multiframe NR setting which blurs some of the video noise). Alternatively, the T3i only goes to 12,800.

That being said, I wouldn’t suggest using the higher ISO speeds unless you’re forced to, as unlike true high-speed film, the “film grain” maked the image look like a television transmission full of static. For low-light settings, I would suggest using either the built-in flash or an external one. The built-in flash syncs up to a shutter speed of 1/160, so it should be good enough for most situations, assuming your subjects are close enough to be bathed in the light.

When you have sufficient lighting, the pictures look amazing – on par with that of the more expensive Canon 60D (though that camera has a shutter speed of up to 1/8000). The camera uses a 3.0-inch swivel LCD display which you can tilt under the camera to take self-portraits. But you can switch to the viewfinder with the click of a button or by a  sensor that activates it automatically as your eye moves towards it.

The camera also comes equipped with a bunch of pre-sets, such as toy camera and high contrast. But of most interest is high-dynamic range imaging (HDR) which takes pictures at different exposures and melds them together to create a more vibrant image. If you’re familiar with Photoshop or other photo editing software, this is something you can do this yourself after the fact, but the advantage is the HDR setting does it automatically.

In addition to standard photography, there’s a sweep panorama setting that allows you to take landscape images with a resolution of 12,416 x 1,856 pixels and portraits of 2,160 x 5,536 pixels. You can even shoot horizontal images in 3-D (with a resolution of 7,152 x 1,080 pixels) which, it should be pointed out, that not even the high-end Nikon D7000 can do.

Admittedly, I didn’t really get much of a chance to play around with this option. Shooting in 3-D isn’t of much use to me as I don’t own any monitors that can display the image. And it is a little difficult to manoeuvre the a57 in sweep panorama mode. The camera kept telling me I was moving it too fast and stopped recording the images. Still, when the setting works, the photos can be quite beautiful.

When it comes to video, the camera is equally impressive. It can shoot at full in HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) at 60p, 60i and 24p (for a film look). You can also shoot MP4 videos (1,440 x 1,080 pixels) and VGA videos (640 x 480 pixels), both at 30 fps. But other than to save space on your SD card, I’m not sure why you would do that.

Like with photography, as long as you have good lighting, the video quality is good. It’s hard to say whether it’s a better video image than the Canon 60D but they’re certainly close. And the sound is better than I expected. Obviously, if you using this camera to make a film, you would probably want to use an external mic, but in a pinch, using it on its own works quite well. The mic is quite sensitive and the sound is clean.

DT 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM Zoom Lens

DT 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM Zoom Lens.

However, to take full advantage of the camera, you may wish to purchase an additional lens. The a57 ships with a 18-55 mm lens which is fine for landscape photography, or long shots but 55 mm is only slightly more zoomed in than an old school standard 5o mm lens, so if you wish to do closeups, you’ll have a difficult time. That is, unless you jam the camera right in your subject’s face – which might be a little too cozy if you don’t know the person very well.

One you might consider buying is the DT 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM Zoom Lens. The quality of the lens appears to comparable to the lens that ships with the camera. They both have maximum apertures of f/3.5-5.6 and minimum apertures of f/22-36. But 135 mm is much more useful if your subject is further away.

This lens is available at the Sony Store for $549.95. This, of course, raises the price of your overall purchase considerably. Buying the camera body without a lens is $649.99, making it $1,199.98 before taxes, which puts it about $50 less than the cost of the Canon 60D with a similar kit lens.

However, Sony’s American site offers the camera with the lens in a kit for $999.99 US and at least one Canadian dealer is offering the kit for pre-order at a similar price.

All told, the Sony SLT a57 is a solid option for the semi-professional photographer or videographer.

Subscribe to the post

3 comments

  1. Elaine Uskoski | August 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Fantastic critique of the Sony a57 SLR camera. I recently upgraded from the Sony a100 to the a57, and am still playing around with it. I’d consider myself still a bit of an amateur photographer; have made a few bucks but definitely not in the professional range at this time. I loved the HDR factor this camera offered as I do like to work in photo software, as well. I have several different lenses, and find using the macro in my gardens my favorite at this time of year. I’ve been so busy taking photos and editing that I haven’t upgraded my website in months – too busy having fun! I do find this body far more user friendly than the original a100, and love that it has the added ability of taking HD movies, too! Thanks for putting in a good word for Sony! They’ve made a nice transition with digital after purchasing Minolta.

  2. Bobby C | August 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    I bought an A55 last year to replace my A100 which was stolen. I love this camera and the fact it offers soooo much at about the same price point I paid for the A100.

  3. wes v | August 12, 2012 at 8:42 am

    A small correction the cdn site spec on the 18-135 sam lens is wrong. Confusing worded also, as it seems like they are saying the 35mm equivalent of this lens is 27-135mm. I suppose anything is possible but all the lens I have ever read about for aps-c sensor cameras, the fov has to be applied to both ends of the focal length not just the shortest. Looking at the US site, it says that it’s equivalent 35 mm focal lens is 27-202mm. Which makes more sense. This zoom focal length spread is the perfect single travel lens.

Leave a comment

 characters available