The Sony A57 delivers speed-demon burst shooting and better video than its rivals, partly because it isn't a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera at all. Instead of an opaque mirror that moves out of the way every time you snap a photo, the A57 uses a translucent mirror that stays in place. This speeds things up considerably, but it also has its drawbacks.
At this price range, the Canon EOS Rebel T4i (*Est. $850 with kit lens) with its easy-to-use touchscreen gets our Best Reviewed nod. For $100 less than the Sony A57, the A37 (*Est. $600 with kit lens) offers a lot of the same features, albeit with slower shooting speeds and a downgraded viewfinder and LCD screen. For $200 more, the Sony A65 (*Est. $900 with kit lens) lacks a few of the latest features but gets a 24.3-megapixel sensor and built-in GPS.
Electronic viewfinder and LCD screen frame shots nicely. The Sony A57 feels and looks like an ordinary DSLR until you raise it to your eye. Instead of an optical viewfinder that reflects the scene, Sony substitutes an electronic viewfinder that shows you a live video feed. It's not as clear and detailed as a mirror image, but testers agree that it's still very good. So is the bottom-hinged, swiveling, 3-inch LCD screen that helps you shoot at odd angles. Experts say both work equally well for framing your shot, and are better than the smaller, dimmer versions on the cheaper Sony A37.
Translucent-lens cameras like this are usually smaller and lighter than traditional DSLRs. DPReview.com's reviewers find that the A57 fits comfortably in the hand, and it's "light enough to carry around on your shoulder for a full day of shooting." Well-placed buttons and a shortcut menu for often-used settings help you avoid "trips to the more tedious-to-navigate main menu," which critics at TechRadar.com and WhatDigitalCamera.com agree could use an update.
Like all entry-level DSLRs, the Sony A57 offers preset shooting modes such as portrait, landscape and more, and a full-auto mode that lets the camera handle everything. Or if you want to explore, you can delve into the robust manual controls. "There's also a handy button labeled '?,' which calls up a built-in on-screen guide designed to help beginners master both basic and more advanced techniques," says Josie Reavely at TechRadar.com.
A quick shooter, but low-light images get mixed reviews. Rattling off 10 frames per second (fps) at full resolution of 16.1 megapixels or 12 fps at a reduced 8.4 megapixels, this is the fastest camera you can get at this price. That speed beats DSLRs in this price range, including the 5 fps Canon EOS Rebel T4i and 6 fps Pentax K-30 (*Est. $825 with kit lens). "If you regularly shoot fast-moving action, then the A57 could be ideal," says Matt Golowczynski at WhatDigitalCamera.com. Start-up, shot-to-shot times and autofocus are speedy, too.
Photo quality is also good, but just how good is up for debate. One source says the Sony A57 can't quite match its Canon and Nikon rivals, especially in low light. DPReview.com blames the Sony's JPEG processing; it churns out photos that are "slightly softer than we'd like and prone to artifacts" even in decent light. If you're willing to shoot raw files and process them later, you can get detailed, low-noise images "that meet and often exceed anything its competitors can offer," but not everyone wants to bother.
However, when TechReview.com's Reavely feeds dim-light photos into a computer to analyze the noise, the Sony A57 beats the Nikon D5100 (*Est. $650 with kit lens) and Canon EOS Rebel T3i (*Est. $695 with kit lens), both JPEG and raw. Golowczynski says it's better in low light than the 24.3-megapixel Sony A65, which sacrifices some dim-light capability in return for its monster megapixel count.
As for video, DPReview.com says the Sony A57 makes it easy to get "outstanding ... crisp, detailed footage" with quick autofocus and smooth transitions between really dark and really bright light. Yet another source notes that the audio quality is only fair, and if you zoom, the sound will show up on your video.
Battery life is rated at 590 shots if you frame with the LCD screen or 550 with the electronic viewfinder, both on par with rival DSLRs.
Sturdy plastic body. Like all entry-level DSLRs, the Sony A57 uses a mostly plastic body to save weight and cost. Experts say this is fine. "We've yet to come across a Sony DSLR or DSLT [digital single-lens translucent] that skimps on build quality, and the Sony Alpha A57 is no different in this respect," says Reavely at TechRadar.com. It "feels well-balanced, robust and has a reassuring weight to it."
Although it's not weather-sealed like the similarly priced Pentax K-30 or the costlier, metal-bodied Sony A77 (*Est. $1,300 body only), "the solid plastic build of the Sony Alpha a57 still feels more than capable of coping with everyday use, and compares favorably to its similarly priced adversaries," Reavely writes.
Golowczynski at WhatDigitalCamera.com agrees. "The quality of the camera's construction is more than satisfactory, and in line with other cameras around this price point such as Nikon's D5100 and Canon's EOS [Rebel T3i]."
Creative shooting modes. The Sony A57 "boasts a feature set that rivals its stiffest DSLR competitors," says DPReview.com's Amadou Diallo, including a bunch of creative shooting modes you'll also find on the cheaper Sony A37.
Also found on Sony's point-and-shoot cameras, the Sweep Panorama feature is "just plain fun to use," Diallo adds. It snaps several photos as you sweep the camera from side to side or up and down, stitching them together to form a panoramic photograph. You can shoot Sweep Panorama in 3D, too, but you'll need a 3D HDTV and glasses to view it.
Auto Portrait Framing automatically picks a face out of a larger photo using Face Detection and crops a portrait of it, adding extra pixels to boost the crop back to a high resolution. It's "more than just marketing puffery," says Golowczynski at WhatDigitalCamera.com. As long as the face isn't too small in the original photo, you'll get "surprisingly good results."
Clear Image Zoom uses a high-quality digital zoom to double the reach of whatever lens you're using. It works, but the outcome is "notably inferior to results you get by optically zooming the lens," say DPReview.com testers, who post a clearer crop from a longer lens to prove it. Experts note, however, that you can use Clear Image Zoom, Auto Portrait Framing and some other features only if you're shooting JPEGs. They're not available in raw mode.
For video, Sony includes an on-board stereo microphone and an external mic jack. It also offers exposure bracketing, a helpful photo feature found on entry-level Canons but not the Nikon D3200.
Review Credibility: Very Good Few cameras win this website's Gold Award, but the Sony A57 makes the cut. After exhaustive testing, experts here conclude that it's an overall high-quality camera, and it does a better job with video than the traditional DSLRs it competes against.
Review: Sony SLT-A57 In-Depth Review, Amadou Diallo, September 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good The Sony A57 "can certainly hold its own" against rival DSLRs and even beats them in some ways, such as with its much faster burst shooting, Reavely says. The menu isn't quite as simple as its competitors', though, and some features won't work in raw+JPEG mode.
Review: Sony Alpha a57 Review, Josie Reavely, July 19, 2012
3. What Digital Camera
Review Credibility: Very Good This site names the Sony A57 as one of the best midpriced DSLRs, but Golowczynski advises that shoppers look closely at similarly priced Canon and Nikon cameras, too. He likes the Sony's fast burst rate, but also notes problems with the menu and features omitted in raw mode.
Review: Sony Alpha A57 Review, Matt Golowczynski, April 2, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Editors rank the Sony A57 against other DSLR and DSLR-like cameras based on their own testing. Each gets ratings for image quality, flash photos, video quality, viewfinder, LCD quality and ease of use, plus a write-up explaining why. Reviews here aren't as detailed as at the dedicated camera websites, but ConsumerReports.org's impeccable objectivity makes it a valuable source.
Review: Sony SLT-A57K, Editors of ConsumerReports.org, As of October 2012
Review Credibility: Fair More than 40 owners post feedback about the Sony A57, and only one rates it lower than 4 stars out of 5. That sole 3-star reviewer couldn't get the Auto mode to take good photos indoors. Other comments are more positive but still include criticism, and some are quite long and detailed.
Review: Sony Alpha SLT-A57 16.1 MP Exmor APS HD CMOS Sensor DSLR, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of November 2012