- Review Date: 08/20/2012
- Bottom line: Sony's Alpha 57 digital SLR is capable of producing excellent images and video, but its EVF has some issues, and the camera is a little slow to start and shoot.
- Pros: Good high ISO performance. Quick burst shooting. Fast autofocus for stills and video. Seamless Live View experience. Good control layout. 1080p60 video support. Articulating rear LCD.
- Cons: Slow to start and shoot. EVF sluggish in low light. Only a single control dial.
The Sony Alpha 57 ($699.99 direct, body only) is one of four APS-C D-SLR cameras in Sony's current lineup. It's one step up from the entry-level Alpha 37, and like its siblings sports a fixed mirror design and an electronic viewfinder, a departure from classic SLR cameras that use a moving mirror and optical viewfinder for through-the-lens viewing. The 16-megapixel A57 is capable of producing some excellent images and delivers a superlative video recording experience, but its EVF is just not as good as the next model up in the Sony line, the Alpha 65, and the camera is a little slow to start and fire a shot. Nikon's more traditional D5100 remains our Editors' Choice for D-SLRs priced under $1,000.
Design and Features
At 3.9 by 5.25 by 3.25 inches and 1.4 pounds, the Alpha 57 is only slightly larger than the Nikon D3200, which measures 3.8 by 5 by 3.1 inches, but is lighter at one pound. Its sharp 3-inch 921k-dot rear LCD is hinged so you can view it from the side, the top, or slightly above your head. It's also possible to disable the screen by facing it toward the camera, which is handy if you prefer to use the eye-level finder. By default the camera automatically toggles between the EVF and the rear LCD as you place the camera to your eye or pull it away, but you can disable this functionality and opt to use the physical Finder/LCD button to switch between the two.
The viewfinder is one of the most important ergonomic components of any SLR, and the Alpha 57's is a bit lacking. Even though its 1.4-megapixel resolution sounds impressive, it's not nearly as sharp and lacks contrast when compared with the 2.5-megapixel OLED EVF found in Sony's Alpha 65, Alpha 77, and Alpha NEX-7 cameras. If you're shooting in low light, the typically fluid finder suffers from laggy, stuttering motion.
Sony clearly put some thought into the Alpha 57's control layout. The camera has a mode dial on its top left side, a front control dial, and Exposure Compensation and ISO buttons on the top of the grip, directly behind the shutter and On/Off switch. The rear of the camera features buttons to control the Drive mode, White Balance, and Exposure Lock, and to start Movie recording. An overlay menu, which gives you access to the rest of the shooting controls, is launched by pressing the Function button. There's no rear control dial, which makes it challenging for shooters who are used to a dual-dial camera like the Pentax K-30. Having a second dial available makes it easier to shoot in Manual mode, and to more quickly adjust a second shooting setting when using the camera in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode.
Performance and Conclusions
The last few Sony SLRs that we've tested have been speed demons. In terms of shot-to-shot time, the Alpha 57 fits that mold—it can capture a burst of 28 JPG or 22 Raw photos at a speedy 7.8 frames per second and records a shutter lag of less than 0.1 second. There's also a 12 fps mode, accessible via the mode dial, that shoots 8-megapixel JPG photos with a 1.4x digital crop. It's a good option for sports and wildlife, as it can capture a burst of 25 shots before slowing, although our tests showed that it's a bit shy of 12 frames per second—we clocked it at 11.2 fps.
Autofocus speed is quite good—it's nearly instantaneous in good light. In very dim light it can take a anywhere from 1.4 to 2.5 seconds to lock on to a subject and fire, regardless of whether you use the LCD or EVF for framing. Where the camera suffers is in its boot-and-shoot time. The A57 requires 2.7 seconds to start up and take a shot, which is downright slow for an SLR. The Pentax K-30 starts and shoots in 1.3 seconds, records 0.1-second of shutter lag, and manages to rattle off shots at a respectable 5.2 seconds. The K-30's autofocus is quick in good light as well if you use the optical finder, but slows to 0.8-second in Live View mode. In dim light it takes about 2 seconds using the viewfinder and a sluggish 4 seconds in Live View mode.
The camera is available as a body only, but can also be purchased in two kits—the lesser priced (about $800) is the SLT-A57K. This includes Sony's standard DT 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom Lens. That lens isn't a great performer, according to our test suite, Imatest. Its sharpness rating is 1,597 lines per picture height at its widest, 1,505 lines at 35mm, and 1,589 lines at 55mm—all shy of the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image—and it exhibits 3.5 percent barrel distortion at its widest setting. The 18-55mm lens sells for $220 on its own, but even at the lower bundled price, it's still unimpressive.
The second kit is the SLT-A57M. It sells for around $1,000, but the extra cash gets you a much better kit lens—it's bundled with the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom Lens. It shows a bit more distortion than the standard lens—4.5 percent at 18mm—but is noticeably sharper at all but its longest setting. At its widest it records 1,732 lines, increases to 1,904 at 50mm, but softens to 1,475 lines at 135mm.
Imatest also checks for noise, which can rob photos of detail when the camera's sensitivity to light, measured in ISO, is increased. The Alpha 57 keeps noise under the 1.5-percent noise threshold through ISO 3200, which will let you shoot in dim light with ease. More impressive is that there is very little evidence of detail loss at this setting. At ISO 6400 noise hits 1.6 percent, but detail loss is more noticeable, especially in JPG images—Raw files retain more detail at this setting, but are noticeably grainier. Our Editors' Choice Nikon D5100 does a slightly better job with noise, it keeps files clean through ISO 6400.
Video is recorded in AVCHD format, in your choice of 1080p60, 1080i60, or 1080p24 resolutions. Unlike traditional D-SLRs, which rely on slower contrast detect autofocus for video, the Alpha 57 always use phase detect focus. This allows the camera to adjust focus very quickly, allowing you to concentrate on framing when recording footage. The overall quality of the video is excellent—details are crisp, motion is smooth, and colors are accurate. You can hear the sound of the lens focusing during recording when using the built-in mic, but there is a standard 1/8-inch mic jack if you need better audio quality. There's also a mini HDMI output, mini USB port, remote control port, and a DC power input connector. Sony still uses the proprietary Minolta hot shoe, so you'll have to get an adapter in order to use standard shoe-mount accessories. In addition to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards, Sony's Memory Stick Duo media is supported.
Even if you've already bought into the Sony system, the Alpha 57 is a bit of a tough sell. It's more expensive than the entry-level Alpha 37, and aside from a few extra physical controls, is quite similar. If you're a more advanced Sony shooter, you'll likely be drawn to the Alpha 65 or Alpha 77, each of which feature more controls, GPS, and a superior OLED viewfinder. Even though the A57 is capable of capturing some excellent photos in varying light, its EVF is just not good enough to change the mind of traditional shooters who prefer an optical viewfinder. If that's the case, you'll be better served with a camera like the Pentax K-30, which has a best-in-class pentaprism finder.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.