Introduction and features
Sony hasn’t produced a DSLR for almost six years now, and much of its focus has since shifted to its popular compact system cameras. It has, however, maintained its DSLR-like Single Lens Translucent (SLT) models for the benefit of those after an interchangeable-lens camera with a more traditional form factor.
The A68 is its latest addition to the SLT system, nestling between the junior A58 and the more advanced A77 II, and thus billed as a perfect partner for "demanding amateur photographers". Looking at its spec sheet you’d be forgiven for thinking it should command a higher price than it actually does, with a handful of features borrowed from the more advanced of its stablemates. As such, it holds plenty of appeal to those on a budget that require something more capable than the norm.
The A68 is built around the same Translucent Mirror construction as Sony’s previous models, with a non-moving mirror that passes some of the light through to the sensor and the electronic viewfinder and some to the separate phase detection autofocus sensor. This allows it to offer the same kind of form as a DSLR with the advantage of the aforementioned viewfinder, together with full-time live view and phase-detect autofocus, and also a burst rate that’s higher than expected from a more orthodox DSLR pitched at the same audience.
The sensor itself is a 24.2MP, APS-C-sized Exmor CMOS unit, and this records stills up to ISO 25,600 and full HD video at 50Mbps in the XAVC S format. This all works with the previously seen BIONZ X processor although, undoubtedly, the more exciting aspect of the camera’s spec sheet is its 4D Focus AF system.
This features 79 phase-detect AF points, with 15 of these being cross-type and sensitivity down to -2EV (this is most likely to be confined to only the central point, but means it should be more sensitive in darker conditions than would be otherwise the case). At the time of the camera’s announcement this represented the highest number of phase-detect points available on such a model, although this has since been bested by Nikon’s D5 and D500, as well as Sony’s own A6300.
Sony reckons the high number of focusing points and the system’s sensitivity make the camera a good choice for tracking moving subjects, something also credited to the AF algorithm used to do so, with full-time autofocus also present during video recording on account of the Translucent Mirror Technology.
The LCD screen also stands out from the camera’s spec sheet, although sadly for the opposite reason. At 2.7 inches in size it’s smaller than expected, while its 460k-dot resolution is also behind the times, with screens measuring three inches and with a minimum 921k-dot resolution now being the norm a this level. It’s not responsive to touch neither, although it is mounted on a hinge, which enables it to be tilted 35 degrees upwards and 55 degrees downwards.
The ‘Tru-Finder’ electronic viewfinder appears more impressive, with its 1.44million-dot OLED panel and the ability to preview shooting effects such as colour and white balance, together with manual-focus assistance and 100% coverage of the scene appearing to provide the user with everything they need to view the scene as clearly and accurately as possible.
The camera can also be programmed to fire at 8fps in the Tele-Zoom Continuous Advance Priority AE option, which crops into the centre of the frame and with AF tracking maintained throughout but exposure fixed to that of the first frame in the sequence and captures limited to JPEG. The camera does, however, offer a more standard 5fps option for those wanting to also use raw.
As we’d expect from Sony, Wi-Fi is on board to allow for wireless image sharing, and the camera accepts the SD family of memory cards in addition to Sony’s Memory Stick Pro Duo format. The SD slot is also helpfully positioned around the side of the camera rather than in the battery compartment, which means the card can be easily removed while the camera is mounted on a tripod.
Build quality and handling
DSLRs or DSLR-style cameras at this price tend to be relatively compact and lightweight, and for beginners or younger users this may be ideal. The A68, however, has a more substantial body akin to enthusiast DSLRs; closer examination of its spec sheet shows its dimensions to be exactly the same as those of the more advanced A77 II.
This may appeal to those with larger hands, who may find rival bodies too small for comfort, or those who may intend to use it with larger, heavier optics requiring a supportive host body (or indeed, those who fall into both camps). Even considering its target audience and price the body does feel somewhat plasticky, but then it doesn’t pretend to offer the kind of solid magnesium alloy construction of more advanced cameras.
Its grip is large and deep, and has clear indentations for the middle and ring fingers, with plenty of textured rubber around it for comfort. At first it appears as though this rubber extends all the way around the side and through to the back plate, but in actuality it stops at the side and what continues instead is a plastic that’s very similar in appearance but rougher to the touch, ostensibly to keep costs down. Still, even with this, the camera handles excellently and provides plenty of room to get good purchase.
The inclusion of a top-plate LCD is a pleasant surprise as it’s usually confined to more advanced cameras. It’s also reasonably large in size, which means that it can display plenty of information, from the standard exposure parameters, battery life and shots remaining at current settings through to white balance, drive mode, ISO and so on. The small button at its side powers up an orange lamp and this evenly illuminates the display, making it easy to view in darker conditions.
The remainder of the top plate offers a rubbered command dial; while tactile and easy to turn, there is a minor lag between this being turned and the changes to be registered by the camera. There are also buttons for ISO, white balance, drive mode and exposure compensation, as well as a control to alternate between the EVF and the rear LCD. The position of the first four works particularly well as these can have their settings adjusted easily by the thumb’s rotation of the rear control wheel.
On the other side of the flash lies a tall, rubbered mode dial centred with a release button; this is tall enough to be comfortably operated, although the slope of the hump leading up to the hotshoe proves to be a less than ideal when turning.
The control wheel on the back turns very easily, making light work of menu navigation and control adjustment, although it doesn’t stand away from the back plate as far as expected. In practice, this means that getting a good grip and turning it without rubbing the body around it is tricky.
Otherwise, the controls on the rear are large, well spaced out and clearly marked, and all press into the camera well. Not only are two of these designed to be customisable too – marked C1 and C2 – but digging around the menu reveals that the majority of other buttons can also have their functions changed, from the often customisable AEL button and preview button on the front plate to the ISO and exposure compensation dial.
With regards to design, the camera’s main sore point is its shutter-release button. The issue here is twofold; not only does it lack of any discernible point between focus and shutter release, but the shutter is also released far sooner than expected. Admittedly, not all cameras have the former, but these tend to offer more travel in the focus region to make the separation clear. Here there is very little, and in practice this meant that I often ended up taking an image when I was simply trying to focus on a subject.
The LCD screen appears uninspiring on paper, with the advantage of being tiltable but its small size and low resolution look disappointing, so it comes as little surprise that its performance is also below par. With a border on the right hand side and shooting information across top and bottom borders, the actual preview occupies less of the display than is suggested by its size, and it lacks the contrast and bite expected when composing images, with the scene appearing somewhat washed out.
Its viewing angle and ability to deal with reflections is also poor, although being tiltable (if a little stiff) does allow the user to adjust this to a more convenient opposition where required. The menu system, however, is a pleasure to use, with a fine contrast, clear text and a colour-coded, tabbed structure. While a higher resolution would no doubt make the text a little crisp, in balanced conditions the screen’s shortcomings aren’t an issue here.
While the viewfinder doesn’t provide the kind of crispness and contrast of the 2,36 million dot screens we’re seeing on many compact system cameras, for a beginner-oriented model it performs very well. Its 1.44-million dot resolution displays details well and reasonably fluidly in good light, with just a slight lagging and increase in noise as light levels fall. Some may find the shooting information around it a little on the small side, but it’s good to see so much of this displayed for quick reference.
The camera’s start-up time is a little behind that of the average DSLR at this level, although the fast focusing system does at least allow you to bring a subject to focus quickly once the camera has started up. Likewise, although there is a slight delay when you raise the camera up to your face before the viewfinder is displayed, the focusing system gets to work instantly.
In many conditions I was impressed by just how quickly the camera was able to bring a subject to focus, whether the AF point had been pre-determined or whether this was left to the camera’s automatic focus point selection. The latter is partly down to the high saturation of AF points across the frame, meaning that the likelihood of a point covering the intended subject is high, but it’s also thanks to the fifteen cross-type points that are positioned within the central bank.
With the 18-55mm kit lens in place the camera focuses swiftly, although it’s not the quietest and this may prove to be a hindrance when shooting in certain conditions. Those wanting something a little more discreet should divert their attention to lenses equipped with the much quieter SSM system.
Sony has made much noise about the camera’s ability to track moving subjects, and testing validates claims of being able to do so to a better standard than the norm. I found the camera kept up well as it was tasked with tracking a variety of subjects, not flawlessly but particularly well when the subject was moving in a predictable manner (such as a jogger going in a single direction). Faster, less predictable subjects gave it more of a challenge, but this would be the case for any such system. In any case, the system’s small green boxes clearly showed its ability to move well with the subject, and my hit rate was very acceptable.
With a fast card in place, I managed to capture an average of 56 Fine and 37 Extra Fine JPEGs on the camera’s JPEG-only, Tele-Zoom Continuous Advance Priority AE 8fps option. This option crops into the centre of the frame and while it maintains AF tracking, exposure is fixed to that of the first frame. On the more standard 5fps burst mode, I achieved a rate of 21 Extra Fine frames and 33 Fine frames, but only around seven or eight raw or raw+JPEG images in one burst. So, the camera is clearly capable of capturing many images at a time at high speed, although if you want a continuous burst of raw images you’re a little more limited.
- The camera’s DRO function is useful to keep on at all times as it helps to lift shadows and tame highlights where it deems necessary for a more pleasing result. Here it has brought up the shadows in both the sign and the background. Click here for a full size version.
- As with many kit lenses the DT 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM II has its weaknesses, such as softness at wider apertures. Stopped down to f/11 it maintains some softness in the corners of the frame although details in the centre are well defined. Click here for a full size version.
- The Creative Styles cover pretty much every eventuality, with a handful of more unique settings designed for specific situations. Here, the Autumn Leaves setting has intensified the yellows in these shells. Click here for a full size version.
The camera’s metering system fares well in a range of conditions, although it has a tendency to underexpose relatively easily in the presence of highlights (although it does well the other way round to keep things balanced when shooting shadowy scenes). The saving grace is the camera’s D-Range Optimizer function; although this doesn’t adjust exposure globally, it does a good job to light up shadowy areas and bring back highlights where required in more problematic situations, helping to create a more pleasing and balanced result.
Colours are generally faithful in the Standard Creative Style, and the Auto White Balance system is consistent, although some may prefer these images to have a little more life to them, particularly those captured under overcast or otherwise less-than-ideal conditions. Fortunately a wealth of other Creative Styles and the ability to adjust their parameters can help, and I found the Vivid option a good substitute for the Standard setting.
Images captured on lower sensitivities are nice and clean, with a fine – but not unpleasant – texture beginning at around ISO 400 in everyday images. Past this point noise begins to affect images, even those captured in good conditions, and also the ability to process their raw version. Results from around ISO 3200 onwards are usable at smaller sizes, but noise, noise reduction and the softness from the kit lens mars results on all but the lowest settings. A better quality optic and keeping an eye on ISO is the best course of action for getting the most out of what the camera can do.
- I used the camera’s continuous focus system together with the Lock-on AF mode to keep the camera focused on this squirrel, and close examination shows the key areas to be well defined. Click here for a full size version.
- While the image could benefit from around half a stop of positive exposure compensation, the Auto White balance system has done well to reproduce the tones in this image, which was captured during fading daylight. Click here for a full size version.
- The camera’s image stabilisation system proves to be useful. At an effective focal length of 270mm, I managed to capture acceptably sharp images at around 1/30sec, which is around three stops from what would normally be possible. The system does appear to flash its warning sign a little too easily, and there were a handful of occasions where I managed to produce the kind of results I, and I imagine many other people, would be perfectly happy with, despite being warned that the results may be compromised. Click here for a full size version.
Kit lenses are not exactly designed to impress, and the DT 18–55mm F3.5–5.6 SAM II is sadly testament to this, with a general lack of sharpness at wider apertures. Stopping the lens down to a mid-range aperture does improve things, however, and the camera’s JPEG processing does give images a decent spit and polish over corresponding raw files. Distortion at the wideangle end of the lens is about as noticeable as expected, although this can be easily rectified.
The camera can capture very pleasing videos, with footage displaying a good level of detail and a natural feel. Audio quality is also nice and clear, with sounds heard well over ambient noise in the scene, while the autofocus system, which can continue to operate while recording on account of the Translucent Mirror Technology, brings details to focus smoothly. Of course, you can use manual focus for more considered shooting, but for everyday footage I found leaving the camera to its own devices turned out perfectly good results.
Lab tests: Resolution
We run cameras through a whole series of lab tests designed to check their performance in controlled conditions. We then compare these results agains those from the camera’s chief rivals. The cameras we’ve chosen as rivals are:
Canon EOS 760D: This is the more advanced of Canon’s two new mid-range/enthusiast DSLRs. Like the Sony A68, it has a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, but a conventional DSLR design.
Nikon D5500: The D5500 is one step down from Nikon’s top enthusiast DSLRs, so it’s pitched at exacty the same kind of keen amateur as the A68.
Pentax K-S2: Never rule out Pentax in the DSLR market. The K-S2 is compact, rugged and powerful, and if you’re already thinking outside the box with the A68, you should consider this too.
We test resolution using an industry-standard ISO test chart across a wide ISO range and checking both JPEG and raw files. Resolution is measured in line widths/picture height, a new standard which automatically allows for differences in sensor size. You’ll find the A68’s results, along with those of its rivals, in the charts below.
JPEG resolution analysis: Its mediocre kit lens aside, the A68 shows itself to be capable of capturing very sharp JPEG images, beating its rivals by a small but significant margin right up to ISO 6,400.
Raw (converted to TIFF) resolution analysis: This pattern is repeated with the Sony’s raw files. Its rivals close the gap slightly, but the A68 still proves just that little bit sharper than the rest.
Lab tests: Dynamic range
Dynamic range is a measure of the camera’s ability to record a wide brightness range while still capturing detail in the shadows and highlights. It’s measured in EV (exposure values) and the higher the figure the better. We test dynamic range in laboratory conditions using DxO Analyzer hardware and software, and check both JPEG and raw files across a wide ISO range.
JPEG dynamic range analysis: The figures for all four cameras are very close here, right up to ISO 800, but from ISO 1,600 onwards the A68 does start to pull away from the rest.
Raw (converted to TIFF) dynamic range analysis: The raw files deliver a slightly different result and here the A68 holds its own from ISO 800 onwards but is beaten by the Nikon D5500 at lower ISOs.
Lab tests: Signal to noise ratio
The signal to noise ratio is a scientific measure of the amount of random noise in a digital image. The higher the number the better because this means the level of noise is relatively low. We measure signal to noise in laboratory conditions using DxO Analyzer.
JPEG signal to noise ratio analysis: Noise is well controlled in JPEGs, with results on a par with or just ahead of those from rivals at lower sensitivities and a generally good performance with increased sensitivity, but a sharp drop after ISO 6400.
Raw (converted to TIFF) signal to noise ratio analysis: The raw files tell a very different story. Here, the A68’s signal-to-noise ratio is consistently lower throughout the ISO range than the results from competing cameras.
The appeal of the A68 is obvious and it’s welcome to have such a unique proposition for the advanced beginner rather than just a model that aims to equal its peers.
Its fast and comprehensive AF system is great to see on a model pitched at a novice audience, as is the enthusiast-DSLR-like shooting experience provided by its design, while its price is also very reasonable when you consider what it offers. True, it’s not a camera for everyone, and high-ISO users or those who intend to compose images and videos with the LCD rather than the viewfinder may wish to look elsewhere, but its shortcomings are arguably compensated for elsewhere.
The kind of user Sony is targeting is also likely to be drawn to the slightly pricier Nikon D5500 and Canon EOS 760D. Both more or less match the A68 for pixel count and easily outgun its LCD with larger and higher-resolution alternatives, but both fall behind with their respective AF systems and burst-shooting frame rates, while also offering optical viewfinders with less-than-100% coverage.
The Pentax K-S2 is also very much worth considering. Its weather-resistant body and 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD screen give it an edge over the A68, while its optical viewfinder offers (approximately) 100% coverage. Again, its focusing system isn’t quite as advanced and its 5.4fps burst rate is slightly slower than the 8fps on the A68, but with its twin-lens-kit configuration at roughly the same price as the A68 body, it proves it’s not the only model offering great value for money. Sony’s own A6000 is also another viable alternative, with its 24.3MP sensor, 1.44million-dot LCD and competent AF system doing well to offer something similar, with the further advantage of a better LCD screen and 11fps burst shooting.
The AF system is the main focus of the A68’s marketing, and using it makes you appreciate why Sony is selling it from this angle; it’s fast and tracks moving subjects well, and has a range of options to allow you to focus in the manner of your choosing. Together with its fast burst rate and a great viewfinder, the A68 a pleasure to use, while the top-plate LCD provides a shooting experience more akin to that provided by more expensive models. It’s also great to see this all combined with a substantial but lightweight body, meaning that those with larger hands or simply preferring a larger body that’s comfortable to handle have an option at this price point.
The LCD screen is very much the sore point of the A68, with its lacklustre specs leading to a similarly unimpressive performance. The design of the shutter-release button is also less than ideal in use, while the build quality may also discourage some too.
The Sony A68 is an interesting and capable addition to the pool of beginner-friendly cameras, and a welcome change from the more obvious DSLR alternatives. Its focusing system is strong and means that it’s an obvious candidate for tracking moving subjects, with its form and excellent handling making it a great host body to use with telephoto lenses. It’s also a capable and affordable step up from older Alpha bodies, perhaps for those who have already invested in a handful of lenses and wish to continue using them. The low-resolution LCD and mediocre kit lens performance disappoint, but if you plan on largely using the electronic viewfinder and an alternative optic, it’s worth considering.