Sony Alpha 68: On Your Marks, Get, Set…
The Sony Alpha 68 may have the best autofocus system seen till date in an entry-level body, but it has an odd range of features, plusses and minuses. Raj Lalwani puts it to the test.
With the sheer number of new cameras and technologies that Sony has introduced for the E mount, especially in full frame, one may be forgiven for being skeptical about the future of the A mount, especially considering how quiet things were in A mount land. The Sony Alpha 68 comes at a welcome time, thus, as it not only inspires some confidence in the company’s commitment to the A mount, but also offers budget users a kind of focusing speed that is unparalleled at this price point.
Sony chooses to call this 4D focus, a technology that we had tested in the more expensive A77 II and the E mount A6000. With this technology, the A68 has 79 autofocus points, including 15 crosstype points, and also a dedicated f/2.8 AF sensor point to facilitate low light autofocus. The AF points are well distributed across the frame, and according to the company, 4D focus also enhances predictive tracking. In our previous tests, we had realised that while it does improve tracking to a large degree, the AF speed and maximum aperture of the lens being used are also crucial, and f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses aren’t the most ideal tools to track a moving subject.
Of course, this is not an SLR, it’s an SLT, which basically implies the company’s proprietary Translucent Mirror Technology, which enables 8fps continuous shooting (5fps in RAW). Other features include a 24MP sensor, in-built sensor-shift stabilisation and a mic input. For video, the camera uses the efficient XAVC S format, with bit rates up to 50Mbps.
The Alpha 68 is a mixed bag in terms of handling. First, considering it is an upper entry-level camera, it is a surprisingly large camera. Think almost A77 II or D7200 size, and not what you’d expect from a camera that’s taking on (in terms of price) cameras like the 760D and D5500. I don’t find this to be a problem at all. The grip is excellent, and the camera feels great to use, especially if you are someone like me, who has large hands. I also welcome the top LCD panel, which is large, detailed and extremely useful.
The A68 has two exposure dials, one at the front of the camera, and another rotating thumb dial. This is invaluable for a serious photographer, and makes the camera far more enjoyable to use, than competing cameras like the Canon 760D and Nikon D5500, both of which have one dial. There are dedicated buttons for ISO, WB, Drive modes and a large number of customisable buttons. If you take time out to choose the right functions for these buttons, you can erase the need to delve into the menus completely.
The shutter-release button of the camera is a little odd. There is no real tactile feedback when one tries to half press the button to focus. As someone who always keeps the AF confirmation sound off, I found the sensitivity of the shutterrelease button disconcerting. While using the focus-and-recompose technique, I often found that the camera would fire a frame before one would get a chance to recompose. The 1.44 million dot Electronic Viewfinder is decently usable, but the LCD, at 2.7 inches and 460k dots, is surprisingly archaic at a time when 920k dots is the norm even in compact cameras! Modernday LCDs allow you to confirm focus and sharpness quite accurately, but the A68 falls short in that regard. The visibility of the screen is also problematic in broad daylight The lens mount is made of plastic, sadly. Startup time is a little slow, definitely slower than a DSLR, but once it’s fired up, the operation is very fast.
Much like the Sony sensors that we are seeing in plenty of other APS-C cameras, this one, too, is excellent. Image quality when shooting RAW particularly is excellent, both in terms of dynamic range, across the ISO range, as well as the amount of headroom you have and how forgiving the files tend to be, even if you are making extravagant changes. The tonality in the JPEGs is excellent, but the competition does a better job in terms of sharpness and detail. The A68’s JPEGs do not do justice to the sensor’s capability, because of aggressive noise reduction and other artifacts. Moreover, if you are buying the A68 to make best use of its sensor, you may want to skip the kit lens and invest a little more in optics, instead. The kit lens doesn’t reach optimum sharpness in the corners until f/11, and this is a fantastic sensor that deserves more.
Autofocus performs as well as the on-paper specifications suggest. The lack of an AF-assist lamp, and the manner in which the flash fires a burst to focus, can be disconcerting for your subjects, but I was happy to see that the -2EV sensitivity of the camera’s AF ensured that one did not need the assist lamp or light anyway.
Focus tracking is excellent for subjects whose line of movement is linear and predictable. It falters a little with erratic movement, but I still got a good hit rate of in-focus shots. Excellent performance for an entry-level camera with its kit lens. Faster optics would make the autofocus experience even more refined.
The video performance is excellent. Of course, the footage isn’t as good as Sony’s full frame counterparts, but in good light, the video is crisp, smooth and professional looking. The only thing that takes away from the video experience is the size of the LCD and the inability to tap on the screen to focus.
Battery life is decent, allowing me at least 500 photos, with a liberal use of flash. That is the obvious advantage of using an A mount camera, over an E or an FE mount one.
If you are someone who photographs a lot of fast-moving subjects, and especially if you intend to invest in some telephoto optics, there is no doubt that the A68 is the best option at this price. For other users who are happy using a kit lens or restrict themselves to wide-angle or normal primes, there are a lot of other options in this price range. The similarly priced Nikon D5500 and Canon 760D may not have as refined an AF system and also suffer a little on ergonomics, but they offer superior build quality, touchscreens and optical viewfinders.
The latter could be a dealbreaker for some, either against the Sony or for, depending on whether you prefer the traditional choice of an optical finder, or enjoy the automation/preview of an EVF. The optical versus electronic debate is unending, and eventually about personal choice. The older Sony Alpha 6000, too, is an excellent alternative for street and travel photographers, with a size, weight and price advantage (the lenses in this system are more expensive, though).
It’s eventually the camera’s guts, its autofocus capabilities and its sensor, that make the A68 such an interesting camera, and its subpar LCD screen that dampens the spirit a bit—especially considering that this is an SLT camera, one that targets users who would want the same kind of AF speed and functionality while using Live View. The lack of a touchscreen reduces the video advantage, as well. If you are willing to overlook these negatives and want a DSLRshaped body with super-fast AF, the Alpha 68 is an excellent option.
4D autofocus, in-built sensor-shift stabilisation, phase-detect AF in video, no WiFi
Excellent sensor, inadequate kit lens, extremely fast autofocus
Plastic lens mount, liberal use of plastic in the outer chassis
Two exposure dials, large grip, low resolution LCD screen, sensitive shutter release
|Warranty & Support
One year warranty, limited service network
|VALUE FOR MONEY||3/5|
|Who should buy it?||Action and wildlife photographers who want a budget alternative to the A77 II.|
|Why?||The A68 has an excellent AF system, which despite
the camera’s ergonomic inconsistencies, makes it a joy to use.
Tags: Raj Lalwani, Camera, better photography, Sony, Camera review, Sony Alpha 68