While Sony has been busy tinkering away on its full-frame cameras, its flagship APS-C model – the Sony A6500 – has been quietly overtaken by rivals like the Fujifilm X-T3. Its response? An upgraded successor called the Sony A6600.
On paper, the A6600 is the most powerful APS-C camera it’s ever made. The recipe is pretty simple: take the Sony A6400, which came out in February 2019, add in-built image stabilisation, a larger battery, a deeper grip, Real-time Eye AF for movies and a headphone jack, and you (theoretically) have the perfect, travel-friendly camera for both stills and video.
And yet, despite this roll call of snazzy features, the A6600 doesn’t feel like a huge leap forward from its three-year-old predecessor. Much of the hardware is unchanged – you get the same 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor, 11fps burst shooting, viewfinder and stabilisation as before – although the 4K video recording time is now unlimited.
So is the A6600 a big enough improvement to leapfrog its APS-C rivals? Or is it a rare example of Sony taking its foot off the photographic gas and letting others sneak in front? I took one around the sunny streets of Copenhagen for a few hours to find out.
Design – The Sony A6600’s bigger grip doubles its battery life, but it’s not a big design overhaul
It’s not often that you see tech get larger in the name of practicality these days, but that’s what’s happened to the Sony A6600’s grip – and it brings two big improvements.
One is better handling. Sony cameras aren’t exactly renowned for being ergonomic delights and its A6000 series can sometimes feel too small or imbalanced with longer lenses. But the A6600 now has a noticeably larger grip, which houses a Sony Z series battery.
These batteries are typically only found in Sony’s larger full-frame cameras, so it’s an exciting first for its APS-C range that delivers an 810-shot battery life, according to its conservative CIPA rating. To put that in perspective, the Fujifilm X-T3 (which is a similar size) can only manage 390 shots on a charge, so it’s a big difference and addresses one of the main criticisms of mirrorless cameras compared to DSLRs.
That is, though, pretty much it in terms of design changes from the Sony A6500. Open up its side panel and you’ll find one more new treat – a headphone jack for monitoring your audio when shooting videos, alongside its microphone port. The screen now also tilts upwards 180-degrees, rather than stopping at 90-degrees, which is handy for vlogging. But otherwise it’s much the same as its predecessor.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s still a pretty small camera when paired with a pancake lens, and feels more balanced than the A6100 with a longer lens like the new 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS I tried it with.
But it also feels a little strange that a flagship camera costing £1,450 has the same 2.359m-dot OLED viewfinder and 3-inch screen (with limited touchscreen controls) as the three-year-old model it’s replacing.
You still can’t, for example, tap any of its quick menu icons or pinch-to-zoom photo previews, which is baffling for a company that now has its Xperia phone and Alpha departments now working as one imaging team.
Sony has also removed the built-in flash, which isn’t a huge deal as you can add one via the hotshoe, though some might see that as a backwards step.
Specs and features – The A6600’s mix of Real-time AF tracking and IBIS is a fine street snapping combo
Aside from its bigger grip and battery, the Sony A6600’s main advantage over its siblings – and all other cameras of this size – is its in-built image stabilisation.
This is mostly beneficial for shooting video and stills in low light, so if that sounds like your photographic diet it could be the camera for you. The five-axis stabilisation protects the sensor from the effects of shaky hands, allowing you to shoot at longer shutter speeds and therefore lower ISO sensitivities to preserve image quality. That’s particularly useful in low light, but it also helps keep your shots sharp if you like to shoot handheld or don’t have a tripod.
Of course, many lenses have image stabilisation, so cameras that lack in-body IS aren’t exactly incapable of taking great handheld photos. Its presence in the A6600 is more a bonus extra for those more extreme shooting conditions, particularly given that only Olympus has previously managed to cram it into a camera this small.
So what else is new compared to the A6500? While the A6600 has the same 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor, 11fps burst shooting and 4K video recording as before, the other big benefit of the new model is that it inherits Sony’s excellent Real-Time Autofocus Tracking.
While Fujifilm’s X Series has made great strides in autofocus, this system is the best I’ve tried for its tenacity and ability to automatically switch between AF modes to keep your subject isolated from the background.
I found that this, plus the IBIS, made the Sony A6600 a great handheld street photography camera. I mostly stuck it in AF-C mode and picked the Flexible Spot M Focus AF mode, with Face and Eye tracking turned on. Once you half-press the shutter in this mode, it starts tracking a subject and doesn’t easily let go of them, even if the person turns their face away from you. With this setup, you can also track objects, even with people in the frame, which can cause AF confusion on other cameras.
This is the big new feature on the Sony A6600, but there are other tweaks including more contrast-detection AF points (up from 169 to 425), which now matches the number of phase detect points. You also get a boosted extended ISO range and, unlike other A6000 series cameras, Real-Time Eye AF for video, which is potentially handy if you do a lot of vlogging or people-based videos.
Image and video quality – A potential step up from the Sony A6500, with pro-friendly video features
While I haven’t spent long enough with the Sony A6600 to make any definitive statements about its stills or video quality, the early signs are good.
Like the Sony A6100, it benefits from Sony’s latest colour reproduction, and the out-of-camera JPEGs have rich, vibrant colours without going overboard. There’s also lots of detail at low ISOs and the white balance performed well, producing well-balanced shots.
I didn’t get to try the Sony A6600 in tougher conditions like low light, though, or have a look at its Raw files, so that’s something that’ll have to wait until the full review. But the combination of Real-Time Tracking Autofocus and in-built image stabilisation is a great one for handheld street shooting, giving you a good hit-rate and boosting your chances of capturing fleeting moments. You can see more sample images below.
It’s a similar story for video – I didn’t get a chance to try out its movie-based Eye AF, which is unique to the A6600 in Sony’s APS-C range, but the Full HD footage certainly looks to have plenty of detail, and there are a healthy range of pro-friendly options (S.Log profiles for colour grading, a new headphone jack alongside the microphone input) to keep more advanced videographers happy.
We’ll bring you a more complete verdict on the Sony A6600’s stills and video quality in our full review before it launches in October 2019.