Sony DSLR-A100 Overview
by Shawn Barnett
and Stephanie Boozer
Previewed on: 06/05/2006
Reviewed on: 09/05/2006
Sony, one of the first to come out with digital camera prototypes back when they were just an idea, has finally thrown its hat into the ring with the big boys. Their first SLR is from a collaboration with Konica Minolta that leverages on that company's 26-year-old MAXXUM/DYNAX line. Though Konica Minolta this year pulled out of cameras altogether, the collaboration continued with Sony taking over the Alpha name (a name used exclusively in Japan) and the lens and accessory lineup. The first camera in the Alpha line is the DSLR-A100, a 10.2 megapixel, three frame per second SLR based on the Konica Minolta MAXXUM 5D.
The new camera holds a lot more promise than its predecessor, but brings with it the benefit of the established Alpha system. We had the opportunity to look at a pre-release version of the camera, and ran it through some preliminary tests. We have a user report and our usual thorough coverage of design and function, as well as timing and detail down to the menus.
Sony A100 User Report
by Shawn Barnett
At first it was a little odd seeing the Sony logo across the front of a camera I immediately perceived as a Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D. It brought to mind Honda's first SUV, the Honda Passport, which I kept seeing as the then established Isuzu Rodeo. Honda had added Honda-like design accents, and probably modified the ride and sound characteristics, but to all automobile aficionados--Isuzu and Honda fans alike--the Passport was an Isuzu Rodeo with a Honda badge. It's not that there was anything wrong with the Honda Passport--nor the Isuzu Rodeo underneath--it just didn't feel like a Honda. I'm afraid many will get a similar impression from the the new Sony DSLR-A100 and miss out on a fine camera.
Since Sony had already announced their intention to partner with Konica Minolta on future SLRs, the resulting Alpha A100 is a little different, but camera buffs like myself will be expecting this to be more than a mere re-badge of a Konica Minolta camera.
After a few days of use I'm happy to say that my initial impression of borrowed design has melted away. The Sony Alpha A100 is Sony's first SLR, backed up by years of Minolta experience and Sony's reputation for design excellence. By naming it the Alpha--the name used for Minolta Maxxum cameras in Japan for years--Sony has signaled that they're not at all concerned about their new camera's association with the Konica Minolta line. Nor should they be.
Right up front, we should also get the names straight. Alpha is the name of the line, much as Canon has EOS and Minolta had Maxxum. The Sony A100 is a camera in the Alpha line. We will be referring to this camera primarily as the A100.
I should make it clear that the A100 draws nothing from recent high-end Sony offerings like the F828 or R1, save perhaps for the nice metallic dials on the top deck. The lack of that "Sony stamp" is probably what makes it look so un-Sony.
Sony fans looking for their next camera will have to toss out what they expect from high-end Sony digicams, including the LCD menu interface, external flash compatibility, and special night modes. The main menu is essentially the same as Konica Minolta's design, meaning anyone owning any Konica Minolta digital camera from the past four years will feel right at home; a fact Sony executives will not likely complain about. Sony flash owners will have to invest in a new Sony Alpha model with the proprietary KM hot shoe. Late model Konica Minolta flashes should work as well, though that remains to be seen. And there is no infrared night mode, nor the incredibly accurate laser-based AF assist that was on the F717 and F828.
Many expected Sony to be the second company to come out with an SLR that had full-time live LCD preview capability, a move telegraphed with the introduction of the Sony DSC-R1. Instead the DSLR-A100 leverages Konica Minolta's body-based anti-shake technology, which Sony calls Super SteadyShot. Though that's the same name Sony uses on all its stabilized digital cameras, Konica Minolta's system is not optical, but sensor-based: they move the image sensor in response to camera movement, rather than an element in the lens. This makes two major aspects of the Alpha system body-based: the AF engine and the anti-shake mechanism. It also means that all lenses that can be attached to an Alpha camera can benefit from image stabilization, whereas most others require the purchase of a special lens.
Now that the talk of expectations and first impressions is over, I can get into what makes the Sony A100 unique. First, its APS-C sized, 10.2 megapixel CCD sensor is the least expensive on the market. From our first experience, it's a pretty nice sensor, likely related, if not identical to the CCD in the Nikon D200.
That sensor is mounted, as I mentioned, on an improved anti-shake mechanism for from 2 to 3.5 stops of additional exposure "help" as you try to shoot in low light, countering every detected twitch. According to Sony materials, that means if you were shooting a 250mm lens, you'd normally be required to use a shutter speed of 1/250 to prevent motion blur. In theory, Super SteadyShot could keep the camera stable enough to get the same shot at 1/20 second. I can't vouch for that statistic, but I have captured some pretty impressive images in situations where I'd normally lose them to motion blur. I also find that the five bars in the viewfinder that indicate how much anti-shake latitude I have left help tell me just how shaky I can be. With a little concentration, I can bring those bars back down from three or four to one or two, where I'm better assured a stable shot.
With wider lenses, I've been able to get some impressive handheld shots at as low as 1/8 second at ISO 400. Now you're entering shots-of-the-baby-sleeping territory, where a good deal of Sony's target market for the A100 lives.
|Compatibility: The A100 has a solution for everyone, offering an adapter for existing Memory Stick Pro Duo owners and CF for everyone else. Our early tests indicate that CF cards are far faster than this combination.|
There's a new processor onboard the Sony A100, which Sony calls the Bionz processor (pronounced like "beyonds"--if that were a word). This is supposed to help enable a feature we haven't been able to see yet: Sony's hardware-based Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO). We've tested our pre-release sample with our standard dynamic range target, and haven't seen its effect. It could be that it's disabled on our units, so we'll have more when we do the full review. It's supposed to adjust an image's dynamic range to match the scene and rescue images that would otherwise be poorly exposed.
In addition to helping with sharpness and noise reduction, Bionz (honestly, I'd have preferred Beeonz; it doesn't look as nifty, but it at least follows a basic rule of pronunciation) also enables the potential of unlimited JPEG capture. In our testing, a very fast card was required, but it rings true even at three frames per second at the highest resolution, lowest compression.
Controls and feel
|Grip: Great for quick alignment and comfort, the A100's grip is superb. And Dave, who loves the grip of his Nikon D70, has actually declared a preference for the grip on the Sony A100.|
That grip is backed up by the wave we saw on the back of the Maxxum 5D, which offers an excellent purchase for your thumb. My thumb tends to ride up a bit into the area where KM put three buttons; but Sony has eliminated one of the buttons and left an open space right between the EV compensation and AE Lock buttons where my thumb can rest and do no harm. Right there, on the highest lip of that thumb riser, is an LED that reports card write status with a red flash right where I need it.
Back here also is a large 2.5 inch LCD with 230,000 pixels. Tap the shutter release and the status display lights up. It's similar to the KM status screen, with the additional accent of an orange glow across, emanating from behind a horizontal central band. Sony has used this glow in early promotional materials, appearing as an orange ring, just like the corona around the Sun during a total solar eclipse. This orange ring surrounds the company's new line of lenses, and appears in the function menus (but not the old Konica Minolta-inspired menus), and the orange color appears on many of the accessories and camera bags. (This accent color brings to mind the old Nikonos V underwater cameras, discontinued back in 2001.)
Getting back to the status display, it's offered in lieu of a separate status LCD, which has worked well for Olympus and Konica Minolta, both keeping the bill of materials down and making for a simpler interface. Rotate the camera, and the display rotates too, both left and right. It does not go upside down for obvious reasons.
Where I don't like it is when I'm not shooting. I tend to carry an SLR in my right hand. As the camera passes my leg while I walk, the AF system comes to life, adjusting focus with each stride. That can't be good for battery life. Likewise, when I hold the camera close to my body, the AF fires up. This would affect anyone carrying the Sony A100 with a camera strap. The good news is that I can turn off Eye-Start AF. The bad news is that I miss it when I do.
|Strong bezel: Made for heavier lenses, it also seems to give the body greater stiffness. Note the signature orange ring around the lens mount.|
Flash without pop
|Lift-up Flash: With no button or switch, the flash cannot be actuated by the system, it must be lifted into place. Flash Exposure compensation can be seen beneath EV compensation in the Status display, shown below. Note that it only appears when the flash is up.|
Flash exposure compensation is included, accessible via the Function button/dial combination on the left of the top deck. You can easily and graphically adjust the EV setting against the Flash EV because when you flip up the flash, both scales appear on the status display (though only the main EV can be adjusted until you go back to the function dial to adjust the flash compensation). Seems like a handy system.
It takes getting used to, but the Function dial system works fairly well for accessing commonly used settings. Just a press on the Function button brings up the display for the item currently selected on the dial. Turn the dial to change available functions. Metering mode, flash settings, AF settings, ISO settings, white balance, dynamic range, and color modes are changed on this dial, with a surprisingly straightforward and attractive interface.
The rest of the controls are typically well made. The four buttons down the left of the LCD are tight and responsive, as are all the others on the A100, including the depth-of-field preview button on the front. The only exception is the navigation dial, which appears to be eight-way rather than the traditional four-way. I'm hoping it's just because it's an early model, but frequently the wrong input is received by my presses, and the camera goes in an entirely different direction than I intended. It's just too sensitive. When scrolling within a zoomed image, it does appear to be able to move diagonally, so an eight-way controller it must be. The center button, incidentally, is marked AF, and it serves as both an AF lock button and an OK button for making final menu selections.
In use, I found the Sony A100 quite nice. The Eye Start AF, despite it's obvious foibles, made me feel like the camera was as into photography as I was. It seemed always ready to do my bidding, and followed focus as I moved the camera around a scene, maintaining focus all the way. That's a good experience. It handled inanimate objects very well, and helped getting shots of sitting children. But teach them to walk and it's all over. The A100 could not keep up where other cameras I've used can often track focus and stay on a swift toddler. I saw nothing like that in my early testing. In Continuous AF, it made some effort, but very stepwise; nothing like smooth motion. I'll have to test it more when the shipping version arrives.
Later I shot with the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens and was pretty impressed with what that could do as well. Where I was really surprised was with the performance of the 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 vacation lens. I got some shots in the middle of the range that really blew my mind. I didn't push it like we'll do when we test it on SLRgear.com, mostly because this is a pre-release camera, but I think I'd strongly consider a lens like this on an Alpha, where I don't think I would on other systems. That's based on a very quick look, however, so watch for the full review for more.
Finally, Sony has three Carl Zeiss optics planned for the Alpha system, two of which are expected to ship along with that 35mm f/1.4G in late September, just in time for Photokina. They are the 135mm f/1.8CZ and the 85mm f/1.4CZ, list priced at $1,399 and $1,299 each. Just a month later, just in time for the Holiday shopping season, the 16-80 f/3.5-4.5CZ will ship.
|Carl Zeiss Lineup: Three cool customers are expected to enhance the A100's optical prowess around late September 2006. The Sony/Zeiss relationship will take on a new dimension when these high-end beauties hit the market.|
This lens is significant not only because of its Carl Zeiss moniker, but because it is roughly equivalent to the lens on the Sony DSC-R1: a 24-120mm equivalent that Sony has touted as an ideal combination. It is significant in that it bests most other offerings at any price in terms of wide angle. Price will be $699.
There are bound to be limitations in an under-$1,000 camera, of course; but they are surprisingly few. First is the noise the camera makes. Not image noise, but audible noise. While I think they do an impressive job keeping the noise of the body-mounted AF motor in check, it can still make quite a racket if it's having trouble finding focus. When just looking through your camera can make a noise loud enough to turn all eyes on you, you might get some nice portraits (with often rude or quizzical expressions) but candid shots are out of the question. When you fire the shutter, you can hear the Super SteadyShot rattling around a bit too. I think this is mostly heard by the photographer, but it's another noise to contend with.
Though it's not obnoxiously loud, the shutter release sound is like sloshing a rake into a tubful of water. It's not a sound I associate with a precision tool. Some will like it, others will not. I do not, but it would not keep me from choosing the A100.
I do like that you don't have to fiddle with a flippy rubber door to connect the USB cable, but there's something I don't like about having to open the CF card door to make this common connection. The door just doesn't seem like it's made for a lot of wear, though I'd say it's the only piece of the A100 that seems a little weak.
I'd also wanted to shoot some test shots with my studio lighting, but right before getting the kids all dressed up, I realized that my infrared transmitter wouldn't work on the Alpha's proprietary hot shoe, and there was no x-sync to use either. This was really only a problem for me in particular, one that anyone interested in buying an A100 could easily overcome with the purchase of some relatively inexpensive cables and connectors that will become available as early as September of this year (I'm also guessing that they should be available under the Konica-Minolta brand already).
Shots from our test camera were pretty noisy at high ISO, and the camera took an aggressive move against that noise that is typical of Sony cameras. The resulting images have smooshed details and a watercolor appearance at ISO 800 and 1,600. That behavior can likely be dealt with by adjusting sharpness settings, and certainly by shooting RAW. We'll have to see how it looks when we get the full production sample. Still, most cameras don't do that well at high ISO, so it's nothing new. The Sony A100's images at low ISO are stunning.
Not just a camera
Sony's Alpha announcement isn't just about the A100, nor just a few special lenses. It's about Sony's new SLR camera system. Sony needed a bit of luck this year, and it appears it came in the form of Konica Minolta's giving up consumer photography altogether. They've inherited a system that goes back 26 years to the dawn of the first Maxxum cameras, and the new DSLR-A100 will work with all of those lenses, and many of those accessories. They have a clear map of lenses and accessories that they'll be rolling out this year, including those special Carl Zeiss optics, something Konica Minolta probably wouldn't have done.
|Alpha System: This Sony image shows most of the main elements of the Alpha System that will be available this year, including rapid chargers and flash system.|
One can only imagine that while Konica Minolta saw digital photography as too expensive to compete, the number two digital camera maker to the World now sees the existing A-mount system as a huge, affordable opportunity to hit the ground running and zip past Pentax and Olympus to take on Nikon and Canon from a more stable, better-established platform. That had been their intention all along, but now they won't have to compete with their former partner for customers.
There are a few inherent problems in the 26 year old system they inherit, most obviously the body-based AF system that's a little slower and louder than the competition's electronically-controlled, much quieter systems; but where Konica Minolta likely couldn't, Sony might be able to make the necessary changes with their engineering might and significant capital if they choose. After all, Nikon made the transition from body-based to electronic lens-based AF control while maintaining backward compatibility; surely Sony can handle it.
The stakes are high, and Canon and Nikon must be taking it seriously. This is the company that virtually owns the video imaging market, not to mention much of the content produced in movies and television around the world. In terms of cash flow, Nikon takes a distant third position behind the two mammoths of Sony and Canon. Add Matsushita (Panasonic), who just announced their digital SLR with Leica optics, and the battle's about to get very interesting.
But not yet.
Sony will make a lot of headway with the A100, but this mustn't be the only shot fired. The A100 is a good start, taking on the ever-popular Digital Rebel XT directly with more bullet points and higher resolution, but they must have a pro or semi-pro solution in the wings. Will it be a mod of the Maxxum 7D, or an all-Sony concoction that takes on the Canon 30D and Nikon D100 with sophisticated Sony design wizardry? Arguably in terms of resolution the A100 does make a play in that direction, but other semi-pro features are missing, as it that Sony mystique.
If they do come out with a semi-pro version, it needs to be an all-Sony design, in my opinion, because though I've changed my view after a few days of experience, first impressions take place at the camera counter and in the browser window, and what looks like a re-badged camera could sell fewer units. I'm amused with myself that I don't see it that way anymore, but I think many will.
I recommend resisting the impression that this is a re-badged Konica Minolta camera, especially if that carries a negative connotation for you. I liked both Konica Minolta digital SLRs for their build and utility, but their output wasn't as good as it could have been; certainly nowhere near as good as we're seeing from the A100 in pre-release form. Everything about the A100 seems improved: fit and finish, speed, resolution, and usability. With 19 lenses coming available (five at launch) in 2006, and 34 accessories coming by November, it's clear that Sony is serious about the Alpha camera system.
Look at the Sony DSLR-A100 as the first product of Sony's collaboration with Konica Minolta. Now that Sony has most of the relevant Konica Minolta folks onboard, there's no telling what direction the line will take. If the A100 is any indication, we stand to get some excellent cameras out of the deal, both from Sony and the competition as they join the battle.
- 10.2-megapixel CCD delivering resolutions as high as 3,872 x 2,592 pixels.
- Digital SLR design for a true optical viewfinder.
- 2.5-inch TFT color LCD monitor for image and menu review.
- Interchangeable bayonet lens mount.
- Auto and Manual focus options, with adjustable nine-point AF area, and Single and Continuous AF modes.
- Auto, Program AE (with Program Shift), Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual shooting modes.
- Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset, and Night Portrait exposure modes.
- Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, with a Bulb setting for manual control of long exposures.
- 14-segment honeycomb pattern metering, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering options, with AE Lock function.
- Adjustable ISO from 100 to 1,600 equivalents, with an Auto setting.
- Built-in, pop-up flash with four main operating modes and a Slow-Sync function.
- External, proprietary flash hot-shoe for Sony accessory flash units.
- Built-in support for wireless TTL flash exposure with certain Sony flashes.
- Contrast, saturation, and sharpness adjustments.
- Adjustable White Balance setting with a manual option and full range of Kelvin temperature settings.
- Color modes include Natural (sRGB), Portrait (sRGB), Landscape (sRGB), Sunset (sRGB), Night View (sRGB), Black & White (sRGB), and Adobe RGB.
- RAW and JPEG file formats.
- Images saved on CompactFlash Type I or II memory cards, Microdrive compatible.
- "Storage-Class" USB 2.0 High-Speed interface.
- USB 2.0 High-Speed cable and interface software for connecting to a computer and downloading images.
- NTSC or PAL selectable video output signal, with cable included.
- Power supplied by a single high-capacity lithium-ion battery pack or separate AC adapter (available as an accessory).
- Optional wired remote control accessories.
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format), Exif 2.2 and PictBridge compliant.
- Camera case
- Additional battery
- AC adapter
- External flash
- BIG Compact Flash memory card (512MB to 2GB or larger recommended)
The strength of Sony's initial foray into the DSLR market is testimony to the wisdom shown by Sony's management in partnering with Konica-Minolta and eventually taking over their DSLR operations. By any measure, the Sony A100 delivers strong functionality and represents an excellent value for the money. The sensor-based anti-shake system Sony inherited from Minolta is very capable, and has the usual sensor-based advantage of making all your lenses into image-stabilized ones. We think that the impact of anti-shake is generally underappreciated by the public: It can make a huge difference in the number of usable photos you come home with, and should be a key contributing factor in the selection of a camera/lens system to buy into. Having this capability built into the Sony A100's body is a fantastic user benefit. We were very impressed with other characteristics of the Sony A100 as well, including its excellent fit and finish, high resolution, good color rendition, very good battery life, and very responsive handling. The only weak points we found were its somewhat high noise levels at ISO 800 and 1600, and a tendency toward exposure variability, particularly when wide-area AF was combined with multi-segment metering. Read the full review for a deeper discussion of this: We suspect that novice photographers won't notice the fairly minor variations we observed, and more experienced users are likely to avoid the problem altogether by manually selecting their AF points. It is clearly a characteristic of the camera's exposure system though, so we feel obligated to point it out to our readers. At the end of the day though, the Sony DSLR-A100 proved to be a competent picture-taking tool, and one that offers really excellent value for the money. It's clear that Canon and Nikon have a new, strong competitor in the DSLR market: Bad news for them, but great news for the consumer!