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Sony Alpha A37 (SLT-A37) Review
This review focuses on the still photography aspects of the camera.
I recently had the opportunity to test the Sony Alpha A37 (SLT-A37) with the Sony 18-55mm lens. As an avid life-long Nikon Shooter, I welcomed the opportunity to try another “non-pro” brand, specifically the Sony Alpha series, which seems highly regarded by amateurs and even advanced amateurs. My review and rating of the A37 is based on the camera within its own class as opposed to an unfair comparison to a Nikon D300s or D800 for example, which are priced much higher and target a different shooter group with different needs. Please note Sony’s designation of SLT indicates replacement of the optical viewfinder with an electronic one and relies upon a translucent mirror. This is a major differentiation to DSLR’s.
The Sony Alpha A37 is best described as an advanced entry level DSLR camera. At $600 (I expect a minor 5% price drop in the future) with the Sony 18-55mm lens, it represents a great way for shooters to enter into the DSLR range or expand from lower ranked DSLR camera and is priced lowest in the Sony Alpha line. But, as with most brands, you are committing to specific branded lenses; in this case, Sony and Minolta “A-mount” lenses. This is not necessarily bad because you will save thousands of dollars when compared to Nikon or Canon. I am not aware of any converters allowing use of Nikon or Canon branded lenses. But, out of the box, you get everything you need including the 18-55mm lens, which would provide most people most of the focal length they need in day to day use, as well as on-camera flash, charger (wall type), battery, strap, and Sony Software. At the wide end of the included 18-55mm lens, the end most used by casual shooters, you have the ability to get creative out of the box- a big plus in today’s economy.
Highlights of the A-37 Feature Set
For prior Sony A35 shooters, Dpreview notes: “the changes are subtle - the A37 gains the A57's improved viewfinder optics, and it becomes the only SLT not to shoot 60p video - instead offering 60i and 24p as its highest frame rate options, both at 24Mbps. The A35's continuous shooting rates are unchanged, with the camera offering 7 frame-per-second bursts at reduced resolution (8.4MP) in a mainly automated mode.” I felt it important to include this information as I did not own any other Sony Alpha cameras for comparison.”
I tested the camera in controlled indoor conditions as I first test all my Nikon cameras prior to field use. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. I found the camera very ergonomic and well balanced, thus easy to hold at about a combined 25 ounces with the 18-55 attached. Of course, it does not have the build quality of a Nikon D300s or D700. But, that’s not the point at a $1,200 to $2,200 difference. Of particular note to existing Sony Alpha line shooters is the significant size difference between the much larger A57 ($800) and the A37. This lends the A37 more ergonomic to women with smaller hands. The manual controls on the camera, primarily within range of the right thumb when shooting, are mostly easily accessible and intuitive, providing a higher degree of non-menu driven manual exposure control.
Impressive with this camera is the 100% electronic viewfinder coverage at 1.09 magnification, a differentiation among pros-level cameras as I know very few serious shooters willing to shoot with less than 100% viewfinder coverage, myself included. Live-view (no virtual horizon on this model), available on the Sony A37, is a much hyped feature. However, as a portrait photographer, I never found practical use for it on any of my Nikons though landscape and macro shooters will undoubtedly use such a feature. The camera’s 15-point autofocus system is arranged towards the center in sharp comparison to my Nikon usage. The autofocus system can be set to single, continuous or automatic - a hybrid of the two that responds only when it senses subject movement. Thanks to the design focusing is very fast, especially for an entry level camera at this price point. On continuous autofocus, the A37 really shines. Image quality is superb with adequate detail in shadows. Of incredible importance, though understated in the literature is the RAW shooting ability of the camera that translates will with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) if needed. The A37’s ISO 100-16,000 equivalent range is exceptional at lower ISO settings and still good OK at ISO 1600. At ISO 6400 detail becomes smudged and process-sharpened edges show as artifacts. ISO 12,800-16,000 do not have practical use in my opinion except for emergency situations with no other alternative.
Another impressive feature that worked in my tests is the “Steady Shot INSIDE” (like Nikon VR or Canon IS on their respective lenses). Unlike the larger DLSR makers, Sony built stabilization inside the camera as opposed to lenses. This provides stabilization regardless of the lens type and ultimately at reduced cost. The A37 also incorporates Sony's proprietary Translucent Mirror Technology, eliminating the need to raise and lower the mirror, providing fast continuous shooting at speeds of up to 10 fps in Continuous Priority AE mode. This speed really pushes Sony out ahead in its class and price range.
Not impressive is the rear 2.7 inch screen at 230k resolution. While most pro’s don’t rely on the rear screen to check exposure, most amateurs do. Such a small screen at this resolution does not provide a good method in this regard. But to be honest, even checking a Nikon rear screen in broad daylight can be difficult. Also not impressive, though not unexpected, is Sony’s continued reliance on its proprietary hot shoe and memory cards. Not a big deal if you stay vested in the line/ brand.
In conclusion, the Sony A37 hits the mark for the intended audience. It will provide good performance in typical shooting scenarios of amateurs. However, as you move into the creative realm of photography (think fashion and fine art), you will encounter some difficulty pushing the gear envelope. At higher ISO’s you will experience significant noise and will need to move to prime or fast lenses and flash to get the ISO down. Frame rate bursts are reduced when shooting RAW and the rear screen leaves a lot to be desired in terms of resolution. The camera also tends to underexpose, which is no big deal really- except to die hard exposure fanatics. But once again, at this price point the camera is a very solid buy for amateurs and allows expansion into more advanced Sony Alpha cameras.