Non-review of the Sony A65, with special reference to the Sony A580

This is not a review of the Sony A65. There are reviews a-plenty on the Internet already. I just want to share a couple of my impressions of the camera, on a few key points and a few minor points. I used one for a couple days recently. For the most part I am comparing the Sony A65 to my older Sony A580, although I will occasionally mention a couple other cameras I’m familiar with and have been thinking about (the Sony A77 and the Nikon D7000).

Before we get started, might be useful to give a quick overview of the three big contrasts between these cameras. First, the Sony A580, released in late 2010, has an optical viewfinder, while the A65 has an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Second, the A580 has a top-quality 16MP sensor, while the A65 has a huge new 24MP sensor. Third and last, the A580 is a conventional digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, while the A65 is a novelty called by Sony a digital single-lens translucent (DSLT).

For the benefit of anybody thinking about the A65’s big brother, the A77, I might add that, while the A65’s body build is very similar to the A580’s, the A77’s body is bigger, sturdier, weather-sealed and has both front and rear control dials.

A65 box, shot with A65 and kit lens.


EVF

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is the the most distinctive feature of the Sony DSLT line that started a year ago with the A55 and A35 and continues now with the A77 and A65. EVFs aren’t an innovative concept. Compact cameras have used them for a long time. What’s distinctive is an EVF good enough to be used on these bigger, more serious DSLR-like cameras.

The A65’s EVF seems much larger than the A580’s OVF. Generally the A65’s EVF also seems much brighter. These are strong plusses for the EVF. The EVF on the A65 (and A77) is actually larger than the outstanding OVF (optical viewfinder) on the Nikon D7000. The EVF is 100%, so you see everything that’s going to end up in the image. Coming from the A580, when I raised the A65 to my eye and looked through the EVF, I admit my first thought was, Wow!

I also like the A65’s Focus Magnifier feature. The A580 has Focus Check Live View, and the Nikon D7000 has something similar, but on both of these cameras it only works in Live View, on the camera’s rear LCD display. The A65’s Focus Magnifier on the other hand works in the finder (EVF) as well as on the rear display. For those who aren’t familiar with this feature: it allows you to hit a button and magnify a part of the image that you’re shooting, so you can fine tune the focus manually. I use manual focus most of the time when shooting portraits and, well, I find this feature tremendously useful.

I might add that, on both the Sony A65 and the A580, the button you press to magnify the image lies conveniently under your right thumb, while for some odd reason on the Nikon D7000 the button is on the left side of the display screen, where it’s awkward to get to, since you’re holding the camera with your right hand and focusing with your left. Either Nikon expects you to use your nose or they don’t really expect you to use this button this way. Probably the latter, because the use of the button in live view isn’t mentioned in the D7000 user manual. (The button’s use is discussed only in the playback section and its placement makes sense for playback, since the review button is also on the left side of the camera.) To be fair to Nikon, the placement of the live view/OVF toggle switch is much better than the placement of the switch that does the same thing on the A580.

The A65’s EVF also can display a level and some other info that I find less helpful.

And what about the EVF’s image quality? This is a trickier thing to talk about. For many scenes, the EVF seems great, almost as sharp as an OVF, indeed, close enough to what you would see in an OVF that you can forget the difference. This seems to be the case when the light is decent and the dynamic range isn’t a challenge. But in other scenes, the image quality of the EVF is, well, pretty bad. I had read that the EVF is challenged by high-contrast scenes, and now I see for myself that it’s true. Taking a picture of my dog outside sitting on a sunlit pavement, the pavement was basically blown out in the EVF, so I couldn’t make out the texture in it. This wasn’t the case looking through the A580’s OVF. Each camera’s photo was good. But with the A65, I was quite aware that I was composing and focusing using an electronically generated image.

Sony A65 @ ISO 800. Looking through the EVF I saw even less detail outside through the door at the left than you can see here: the door was largely blown out. But the photo is as decent as the accompanying photo taken with the A580.

Sony A580. Same lens as the shot taken with the A65. By accident, this photo taken with the A580 gives an idea what I saw through the EVF of the A65: the door on the left is blown out. Looking through the A580’s OVF, on the other hand, I actually could see the detail outside. The reason the photo is blown out is that the aperture for this shot (f/4.0) was a third of a stop slower than the shot taken with the A65 (f/4.5).

Panning the camera from side to side, I did notice some pixel “smearing”, where the EVF doesn’t seem able to keep up with the input, quite. I saw it because I had read about it and I looked for it. I don’t personally consider it a big problem.

Now the truth is, the A580 has a terrible viewfinder; it’s one of the cameras’s few serious weak points. So the A65 shines by comparison. After buying the A580 in late 2010, I found myself using the viewfinder less and less as I learned to use Live View instead. This was partly because Live View on Sony cameras is so very good — the best, I think, on any APS-C DSLR-class cameras — but also because the A580’s finder is so bad. I bet, if I shot with the A65, I would probably go back to using the EVF more.

In short, notwithstanding its occasional quirks, the EVF on the A65 is not only useful, but better than a bad OVF like the one on the A580.

But is it better than a good OVF? That’s a harder question to answer. If the view you get of the scene you’re shooting were the only consideration, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the excellent 100% OVF in the Nikon D7000 is much nicer than the Sony A65’s EVF, at least in decent light. The reason the comparison is difficult is, the EVF brings with it other significant advantages in addition to letting you see what you’re shooting. Those advantages include: the focus magnification feature right in the finder; the EVF’s ability to brighten dark scenes in a way that helps you see what you’re shooting better; the level; and more. In short, the EVF has all the advantages of live view on the back of the camera, with the added advantage that you can now get that direct connection with the camera that you only get looking through the viewfinder. These are not insignificant advantages. So while a really good OVF (like the one on the D7000 or the Sony A850 and A900) shows you your scene clear and large, the really good EVF on the A65 (and A77) shows you the scene maybe not quite so clearly but even larger, and it does all those other things as well.

And for what it’s worth, I want to mention the opinion of some with more experience. I’ve read posts on Sony forums from a number of photographers who bought the A77, which has the same EVF as the A65. Just about every one of them said that, after a while, they got used to the EVF and wouldn’t want to go back now. I am pretty sure I, too, could get used to the EVF.

Now, the EVF in the A65 and A77 is the best yet, but there is room for improvement and improvement is likely to come sooner rather than later. Rumor has it that Sony is hard at work at full-frame (larger sensor) DSLT models, perhaps to be released as early as late 2012. These will be much more expensive cameras aimed at pros and very serious and well-heeled enthusiasts. The EVF in the A65 is impressive, good enough for the camera to be worth its price. But if the EVF in the full-frame DSLTs isn’t considerably better, I wonder whether anybody will pay another couple thousand dollars to buy them, no matter how good the sensor might be.

On a more positive note, if you use the LED display screen instead of the finder, the good news is that the A65’s articulating display is a big improvement over the A580’s. The A65’s screen handles so easily the A580’s seems really clunky by comparison. The A65’s screen can be turned around and closed against the body of the camera for protection, which might be nice. And it can be opened and turned just about every which way, so you can frame a picture while pointing the camera to your side, which might be useful for street photographers. You could even turn the display all the way around so you can compose while taking a self-portrait. The A65’s display also seems sharper although I don’t know why that would be. They’re the same resolution.

One last positive note about the A65 and how the EVF works with live view. On the A65 (and A77) you activate the EVF simply by putting your eye up to it. No need to move a switch as with the A580 or most other cameras (like the Nikon D7000). This is amazingly useful. As you get used to working with Live View, you may find that you want to switch between finder and LCD frequently; at least I did. With the new Sony cameras, this move is effortless.

DSLT

What makes a DSLT a DSLT rather than a DSLT, is the way the mirror works. It’s complicated and frankly not too important to me, so I’ll let you look up the details for yourself. (As a reward you’ll learn a delightful new word: “pellicle”.) I’ll note that on a traditional DSLR, the mirror moves, while on a Sony DSLT, it does not move. And let’s leave it at that.

Now, because the mirror does not move, the DSLT lacks the satisfying mirror-slapping ker-chunk that a traditional DSLR or SLR makes when you take a picture. By comparison, the A65’s shutter sounds like a duckling sneezing. Or, if you have no experience with ducklings, it sounds like the shutter on a cheap point and shoot, and I feel slightly anxious that a client might get the wrong idea. I suppose I could get used to the A65’s little noise. Taking wedding ceremony photos in church, the quieter camera might be less distracting to others.

Sensor

Sony makes the best, or at least some of the best, sensors in the world. Nikon DSLRs use Sony sensors. The sensor in the A580 got top marks from DxO and made us A580 owners very happy. The most impressive thing you can say about the sensor in the A65 is that it’s almost as good as the A580’s. This is an impressive feat of engineering, because larger sensors are supposed to bring with them more digital noise. Nevertheless, what you cannot say for the A65, in my opinion at least, is that its output is better than that of the A580. Because it’s not.

DxO’s tests seem to show that the A65 and A77 are slightly noisier than the A580. The difference seems to me to be pretty small.

A65 with kit lens (18-55) at ISO 6400. No noise reduction applied in Lightroom 3.5. On a computer screen you can see the noise in the background, but that’s pretty easy to fix, and there’s little or no significant noise in Kiki’s cute little face. This file would make a very decent print, certainly up to 5×7 and perhaps larger.

A more significant drawback of the A65 is that its raw files are a good bit larger than the A580’s. This doesn’t just mean your hard disk will fill up faster. At least on my iMac, it meant that editing files in Lightroom 3 became a bit slower, because there is more data to resolve. If you use terrific lenses and if you wish to crop your photos dramatically, the extra resolution may sometimes be a plus. But the rest of the time, it’s probably a minus. The extra megapixels make a negligible impact on the quality of my printed or digital output. And considering that the sony A65 is clearly aimed at enthusiasts and ordinary amateurs rather than professional photographers, well, I cannot honestly see how going to 24MP makes any sense at all. I guess it helps with marketing, at least to the unsophisticated who think more is always more. I notice with approval that Nikon seems to be resisting the temptation to add megapixels for the hell of it. The new D4 — which is probably the best DSLR in the world as of this writing — has “just” 16MP. This really should be adequate for just about any purpose outside advertising and magazine covers. On the A77, the 24MP resolution might make more sense, but I regard the 24MP resolution of the A65 as a drawback or at least a very mixed blessing.

To get the most from the A65’s sensor, I suspect you will want to shoot raw (good idea anyway) and use the best lenses you can afford (also a good idea). The kit lens sold with the A65 may not be worth having. Better to get the much better new 16-50 f/2.8 lens sold with the A77.

Sony A65 + Sony/Zeiss 16-80 lens.

With all that resolution on the sensor, you will want to use the best lenses you can buy.

Not to mention…

The A65 has many strong points that don’t matter to me: frame rate, video, and others. So I’m just not mentioning those. There are also a number of features in the A65 already found in the A580 that the A65 shares, like sweep panorama, DRO+, and others.

Et cetera

The A65 is a little smaller than my A580. I like the larger size, personally. In fact, I always use the A580 with the Sony grip. There is no Sony vertical grip available for the A65. This for me is almost a decisive disadvantage of the A65 and one of the several reasons that I returned the A65 and placed an order with Sony for the A77.

I gather also that the A65 cannot control take advantage of ratio control while triggering remote Sony flashes. This is a limitation the A65 shares with the A580 and it’s one of my biggest dissatisfactions with the A580, indeed with Sony. If you are not a professional photographer, you may not understand what I’m talking about, let alone care about it, so if you like the A65 in other respects, don’t let this put you off.

The A65 has one card slot (for either memory stick or SD card), where the A580 has two (one for memory stick, one for SD). You couldn’t configure the A580 to write to cards in both slots simultaneously, as you can on a Nikon D7000. Still, having the memory stick in the A580 in reserve, should the SD card fill up, is comforting. With the A65 I would be back to watching the frame count carefully as I work. This is a quibble that pro photographers will understand and amateurs won’t worry about. But again, the A65 does not pretend to be a pro camera (no grip, one card slot, one control dial).

The exterior of the A65 is a little less cluttered with buttons than that of the A580, not because functions have been moved into the menus, but because a couple of the A580’s buttons have been replaced by pushes on the control dial. A small plus for the A65. I confess I still get a bit lost with all those buttons on the top of the A580.

On the other hand, the A65’s mode dial is busier than the A580’s. I rather like the A580’s simple mode dial with just eight options (P/A/S/M, Sweep Panorama, SCN, no-flash Auto and regular Auto). To these, the A65 adds four more: 3D, Movie, Continuous Priority AE for shooting 10 FPS, and something called Auto+. I like the A580’s mode dial better but the changes aren’t a big deal. Not sure why there is a movie mode as there is a movie button on the back of the A65 just as there is on the A580.

The A65 has GPS built in. Nice for personal shots perhaps but not a big deal for my work.

Conclusion

The A65 is a camera for amateurs, hobbyists, photography and technology enthusiasts who get a kick out of having the latest gadget and who have large hard drives. Yes, it can take terrific pictures, it really can, so if you really are interested in taking photos, the A65 may serve you well. But the ability to take good photos doesn’t set the A65 apart from much. Almost any DSLR currently on the market can do that, including the first-generation much cheaper A35 and A55 DSLTs from Sony. And if you’re attracted to the A65 because of its novelty — and I admit I was to a degree — be warned that it’s also going to get old fast. The A55, Sony’s first generation DSLT, is not just old news, it’s old technology, because the finder in the A77/A65 is so much better. Meanwhile the Nikon D7000 and Canon 7D, both even older than the A55, hold up very well.

On a more positive note, while the photos the A65 takes aren’t any better than those taken by alternatives like the A580, A55, Nikon D7000 or D5100, etc., taking photos with the A65 is a different experience that may appeal strongly to many photographers. The EVF, notwithstanding its shortcomings, provides shooters with a new way to see what they’re shooting. It’s appealing not because (or not just because) it’s novel, but because it’s truly useful. To say that I’m still a little ambivalent about the EVF is to pay the EVF a compliment. I’ve seen a number of photographers in forums declaring they’ll never give up their OVF cameras for this new-fangled EVF thing. I am pretty sure almost none of them have ever used the A65 or A77 long enough to “get” it.

Addendum 1/21/12: good discussion of the EVF in the A77 (same as the A65) here. Balanced — but largely positive.

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3 comments on “Non-review of the Sony A65, with special reference to the Sony A580

  1. Glad you found it useful. I ended up returning the A65 — and getting the A77. Not sure this was the right decision or not. I doubt the A77’s photos are any better at all. But I wanted to be able to use the vertical grip, and the A65 doesn't support it. I also wanted to have flash ratio control. I like both cameras very much. Good luck with your decision.

  2. I've just bought an A65 and think it's absolutely brilliant. I must qualify that by saying I haven't done any real photography for years and my last SLR was a Minolta Dynax 7xi. My interest was rekindled by my daughter starting a digital imaging course for which I bought her a Canon 600D – a decision based on some inherited EF mount lenses. I also thought it probably better to go with the Canikon flow for educational purposes. In the interest of domestic harmony and not fighting over the 600D I thought it best that I get my own kit. I also have some old Minolta A mount lenses.As for relative costs, I paid just under AUD $1000 for the 600D (actually KISS branded) with Tamron f2.8 17-50 stabilized lens and AUD $830 for A65 with 18-55 kit lens. Costs including courier delivery from HK retailers. Pretty good deal on the A65, I think. As Willian says, the EVF is definitely not perfect but Wow! Picking up the 600D is like looking through a tunnel after the A65. For manual focus it must beat, hands down, any other DSLR that hasn't been fitted with a split or micro prism view finder and perhaps even those that have been.My eyesight is not what it once was, and the ability to do everything through the viewfinder (accessing all menus, reviewing shots etc) without resorting to the LCD for which I need glasses is a major convenience and speed factor. People who do wear reading glasses may like to take this into account.I have many old Kodachrome slides (read thousands) that I am going to attempt to digitize with the A65 and a Tamron 90mm macro lens. Initial experiments with the in camera auto HDR facility indicate substantial improvements in contrast and shadow detail. Of course you could do the same thing with RAW and computer processing, but anybody contemplating this for thousands of slides should seriously question their sanity. Quality looks quite good but with the known problem of scanned Kodachrome blue cast. Only way to fix this properly is probably to get an IT-8 Kodachrome calibration target and do proper colour management.I've tried (yet another) inherited lens on the A65 – an SMC Takumar f1.4 50mm screw mount – via a cheap $13 "electronic" adapter. The adapter tells the body it is an f1.7 50mm lens and the body is perfectly OK with that. Image stabilization should work. Turn off auto apperture on the lens and exposure looks spot on. It just misses infinity focus, which apparently can be remedied by slightly thinning these cheap adapters with wet and dry sandpaper. For anybody into using old manual lenses, the A65 (or 77) is a clear winner.What's lacking in the A65? No tethered shooting which seems a surprising omission. Low light noise reportedly inferior to Nikon and probably Canon. Auto exposure compensation range is just +/- 2/3 EV max (better on A77).Not much else I can add to William's good account, other to say that I can easily see why a pro would prefer the A77. For the more casual user, the A65 is quite a bit cheaper and an awful lot of camera for the money compared to other options in its price range.

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