I recently upgraded my DSLR to Sony’s new a65 (Alpha 65) translucent mirror camera (which technically makes it not a DSLR, but I’ll refer to it as one here). I’m coming from my old a300, so this is a pretty big step up. When I got the a300, I didn’t put much stock in the DSLR-as-video-camera option, since the 5D hadn’t yet come along to make anyone think of these as video cameras. This time around, though, I find myself making a lot more video and understanding more about how a DSLR works. I’ve been waiting for Sony to make a camera like this one for a while, since I’ve already invested in some Sony/Minolta glass, and I’d like to stay in the family. Until now, their cameras were lacking a few crucial features (24p comes to mind), but the a65 is pretty much the camera I was hoping they’d make.

I’m writing this coming from a video-centric perspective, since that’s what I expect to do most on this camera. I may do a follow-up on the stills this bad boy takes, but for now, let’s look at the video aspect.

The a65 is the little brother to Sony’s a77. They’ve got almost identical specs, aside from burst speed, autofocus points, and the physical construction. You can read more about the a65’s specs elsewhere, but here are the highlights: It’s got a 22MP sensor, 1080p video recording at both 24 and 60 fps, and a pelicle (translucent) mirror. The latter allows the camera to continuously auto-focus during video capture, since the light is being directed at both the sensor and the AF mechanism simultaneously. It works fairly well, with some major caveats (more on that in a minute).

I got the a65 kit, which comes with an 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. It does surprisingly well for a kit lens, but of course the variable aperture through the zoom is not ideal for video. Edges are uniformly crisp around the image, and I don’t detect much chromatic aberration. The other lens I used in my test is a standard Minolta 50mm f/1.8 lens. It’s actually not as sharp as the kit lens, as you’ll see in the sample, but it has a nice wide aperture for better depth-of-field. I’m glad I went with the kit, since these two lenses compliment each other well.

I spent a few hours wandering around New York with the camera and these two lenses, and this is the sample reel I came up with. Note that I did indeed grade this footage, since this will be how I ultimately use the camera. I wanted to see not just how it captured images, but how well the footage held up in grading. (This is in no way meant to tell any kind of story, or even make any visual/editorial sense. It’s just pretty much a dump of all the usable footage from the shoot.)

Here was the workflow: rewrap the a65’s native AVCHD footage into an H.264 .mov file, and then convert that to ProRes HQ using compressor. Bring it all into Final Cut Pro, and apply Magic Bullet Looks to the clips one at a time.

I’m pretty much pleased with the result. Looks worked as well on this footage as on the Canon 7D that I’m used to, and perhaps even better. The noise pattern on the a65 seems a little more “filmy” to my eye, which makes the stock emulations in Looks slightly more believable. There is definitely an element of CMOS jelly on all this footage, so I won’t be whipping the camera around very quickly. I’d say this effect is more present in the a65 than on any of the Canon DSLRs, which is unfortunate. It is, however, in the realm of what I’d call useable under normal shooting conditions.

One of the supposedly great things about Sony’s lens system is that SteadyShot, Sony’s image stabilization system, is built into the camera bodies instead of the lenses. This lowers the cost of lenses, and makes choosing them somewhat easier, since you don’t need to consider IS when picking lenses. It’s worked great for photography before, but it’s not quite as useful when shooting video. SteadyShot seems to work its magic in software, not hardware. I imagine this means the a65 is cropping the image slightly in order to pan around the frame based on a gyro/accelerometer combination of some sort. The problem is that it doesn’t do any of this quickly enough, especially on the kit lens. Starting a pan or tilt with SteadyShot turned on causes some ghosting in the image, since it takes a moment for the camera to realize that your motion is intentional, rather than just handheld shakiness. In relatively steady handheld shots (the purple flowers in my test video, for example), SteadyShot blurs the image slightly every time it kicks in. I haven’t tried this much, but I suspect that this effect is magnified when shooting in 24 fps, since more time passes between frames than at 60 fps. But the fact remains that SteadyShot isn’t quite the godsend I was hoping for. I expect I’ll be leaving it turned off for critical shots, and living with some shake.

Sony touts the a65’s ability to utilize autofocus while shooting video as revolutionary. In a sense, it is – this is the only DSLR-type camera I’ve seen that offers the feature at all. However, it is severely limited. Continuous autofocus only works when shooting in either Full Auto or Program mode. That means you sacrifice control over shutter speed and aperture when you want the camera to shoot with autofocus. This is pretty problematic for shooting anything beyond home videos. In Auto or Program, the a65 seems to prioritize shutter speed to limit light to the sensor, which results in a Saving Private Ryan look (at least in 24p). Granted, a good ND filter might alleviate some of this, but I think I’d prefer control over exposure over continuous AF. That said, the AF seems to work well in these situations, and the a65 can shoot in spot, center-weighted, or full-frame focus modes.

Even in full manual mode, though, the a65 offers some great assistance in focusing on the fly. The flip-out screen and the electronic viewfinder both feature a green box in the center of the frame which lights up when whatever is in that box comes into focus. It might not be true auto focus, but it is a heck of a lot better than hoping for the best on a 5D.

And finally, speaking of the electronic viewfinder, this thing is a beast. The first time I put it to my eye I was amazed that it wasn’t an optical viewfinder. It’s buttery smooth and vibrant, and sharper than my eye can actually see. On the a65, I’m never fully sure if the image is truly in focus, only because my eye isn’t good enough to see any actual pixels. Obviously, this is a ridiculous thing to criticize, and I’ve never been more happy with a camera’s viewfinder.

All in all, I’m happy with my purchase. For true run-and-gun jerky situations, I may be reluctant to turn to the a65 (or I may want to at least turn off SteadyShot), but as an everyday semi-pro alternative to Canon’s big boys, the a65 makes an excellent shooter for the price.