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Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2

Konica Minolta updates their top-end electronic SLR with a higher resolution sensor, much-improved electronic viewfinder, a faster 3D autofocusing system, and high-speed USB 2.0 connectivity, among other improvements.

Review First Posted: 07/13/2004




MSRP $890 US

 

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8.0-megapixel CCD delivers uninterpolated images as large as 3,264 x 2,448 pixels.
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Sharp 7x optical zoom lens covers a 28-200mm equivalent focus range.
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TFT LCD viewfinder offers extremely high resolution - or trades some resolution for an equally impressive refresh rate.
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Enhancements over the DiMAGE A1 include a higher resolution sensor, much-improved electronic viewfinder, a new 3D autofocusing system, and high-speed USB 2.0 connectivity.

 

Manufacturer Overview

The Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 is the latest in a family of DiMAGE electronic SLR-style models that stretches back to the original DiMAGE 7, the first five-megapixel prosumer camera, introduced over three years ago (early 2001). As you'll read below, the new DiMAGE A2 carries on the proud tradition of the line, with a host of innovations and improvements over the previous DiMAGE A1 flagship model.

In 2001, Minolta shook up the high end of the prosumer market, by beating everyone else to the punch with the first five-megapixel prosumer digital camera. And it wasn't just "any" five-megapixel model either, but the DiMAGE 7, an electronic SLR design with a remarkably high quality 7x optical zoom lens, a host of advanced image-control functions, and an all-new electronic viewfinder using ferroelectric LCD technology for impressive low light performance. Alongside the DiMAGE 7, Minolta offered the lower resolution (3 megapixel) DiMAGE 5, which was similar in most functions except those related to the differing sensor choice.

In 2002, Minolta upped the ante again first with the DiMAGE 7i, which added numerous features, and offered dramatically improved focusing speed and shutter response. They also announced the DiMAGE 7Hi, which added an external flash sync socket, higher-speed continuous shooting for full-resolution files, and an extra-fine JPEG image-quality setting. The DiMAGE 7 was an impressive camera when it was introduced, and Minolta's improvements implemented in the 7i version were well-considered, intelligent, and bountiful. With the 7Hi, they brought the camera fully into the photo studio, with the external flash sync connector, in addition to increasing continuous-mode speed, and offering an extra-fine JPEG mode as an alternative to TIFF or RAW files. Finally, the DiMAGE 7Hi offered several options for color space, including both normal and "vivid" sRGB options, and Adobe RGB.

In 2003 , Minolta updated the line once again with the DiMAGE A1, which added 14-bit A/D conversion, a tilting LCD monitor, blazingly fast 1/16,000 second maximum shutter speed, tracking autofocus, and a grip sensor that actually sensed when you had the camera in-hand, to save power in the continuous autofocus mode. In late 2003, Minolta Co. Ltd. merged with Konica Corp., creating the new Konica Minolta brand name, under which subsequent models will be sold.

Now, Konica Minolta improves on an already great camera model with the DiMAGE A2, which boasts the same 7x lens, tilting LCD, and grip sensor, exposure control, and tracking AF as its predecessor. In addition to all of the great features from the A1 model, there are quite a few important updates. The DiMAGE A2 offers a higher-resolution eight megapixel sensor yielding images up to 3,264 x 2,448 pixels. There's also a new electronic viewfinder which can either provide a whopping 640 x 480 pixels of resolution, or trade half of that resolution off for an impressive 60 frames per second refresh rate at 640 x 240 pixels. Autofocusing on the A2 also gets another update, with a faster 3D autofocusing algorithm that offer dramatically improved focusing speeds and better focus tracking. Given the larger maximum image size, an update to high-speed USB 2.0 connectivity is another welcome addition. Other changes include an improved 544 x 408 pixel movie mode at 30 frames per second up to the memory card's capacity, a new 3:2 aspect ratio setting that gives 35mm film proportions, and a new depth-of-field preview function. All in all, the A2 amounts to a pretty robust update on an already great camera. Read on for more details.

 

Highlights


Many of our readers will be familiar with the recent DiMAGE A1, so I put together the following major feature comparison between the DiMAGE A1 and the DiMAGE A2.

Feature DiMAGE A2 DiMAGE A1
Branding Konica Minolta Minolta
Sensor Type Interlaced RGBG CCD Progressive Scan RGBG CCD
Sensor Resolution (total pixels) 8.3 megapixel 5.3 megapixel
Sensor Resolution (effective) 8.0 megapixel 5.0 megapixel
Maximum Image Size 3,264 x 2,448 pixels 2,560 x 1,920 pixels
3:2 Image Size 3,264 x 2,176 pixels None
RAW + JPEG mode Yes No
A/D Conversion 12-bit 14-bit
Playback Zoom Up to 10.2x Up to 8.0x
Electronic Viewfinder Resolution
640 x 480 pixels x 3 colors
(Approx. 922,000 dots)
Approx. 320 x 240 pixels x 3 colors
Approx. 235,000 dots
Electronic Viewfinder Refresh Rate
640 x 480: 30 frames per second
640 x 240: 60 frames per second
Unknown, slower than DiMAGE A2
Electronic Viewfinder Diopter Control 3.5 ~ +1.5 m-1

5 ~ +2 m-1

Electronic Viewfinder Eye Relief 19.5 mm at -1 m-1 22 mm at -1 m-1
Connectivity
USB 2.0 High Speed
USB 1.1
ISO Sensitivity Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400, 800 Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800
Shutter Speed Range
30 - 1/4,000 second.
30 - 1/16,000 second.
Exposure Control Range (Program and Aperture Priority AE)
Wide: EV -1.7 ~ 20
Tele: EV -1.2 ~ 20.7
Wide: EV -1 ~ 20
Tele: EV -0.4 ~ 20.7
Exposure Control Range (Shutter Priority AE and Manual)
Wide: EV -2 ~ 19
Tele: EV -1.4 ~ 19
Wide: EV -2 ~ 21
Tele: EV -1.4 ~ 21
3D Predictive Autofocus System Speed Better Good
Movie Resolution
544 x 408 pixels
320 x 240 pixels
320 x 240 pixels
Movie Frame Rate 15 or 30 frames per second 24 frames per second
Depth of Field Preview Yes, Custom Function No
Standard Continuous Advance Mode Speed 1.8 frames per second
(Based on IR tests)
1.8 frames per second
(Based on IR tests)
High-Speed Continuous Advance Mode Speed 3.2 frames per second
(Based on IR tests)
2.9 frames per second
(Based on IR tests)
UHS Continuous Advance Mode Speed 7 frames per second (640 x 480 pixels) N/A
DPOF Date Printing Option Yes No
PictBridge compliant Yes No
DCF Compliant Yes, version 2.0 Yes, version 1.0
Exif Compliant Yes, version 2.21 Yes, version 2.2
Weight (with battery pack and memory card)
23.0 oz.
653 g
23.4 oz.
663 g
Included Memory None 16MB CF card
Included Lens Shade DLS-2 DLS-1
Other Gold detail around outside of lens zoom ring; silk-screening on left of camera reads "DiMAGE A2 SUPER FINE EVF"; badge on the front of the camera reads "AS ANTI-SHAKE 8.0M". Silver detail around front edge of lens zoom ring; silk-screening on left of camera reads "DiMAGE A1 5.0 MEGA PIXELS"; badge on the front of the camera reads "AS ANTI-SHAKE".

 


Executive Overview

The earlier Minolta DiMAGE 5, 7, 7i, 7Hi and A1 digicams have proved so successful among consumers, that the company apparently decided to keep a good thing going under their new Konica Minolta brand name. The new DiMAGE A2 offers most of the same exceptional features found on the previous models, with a few updates that further extend its capabilities. The A2 continues with the same sharp 7x optical zoom lens, and host of fine-grained user controls that contributed to the earlier models' popularity, but switches to a new 8.0-megapixel CCD, and adds a number of subtle but significant enhancements like a new (much) higher-resolution viewfinder, USB 2.0 connectivity, a depth-of-field preview function, and a faster 3D Autofocus system. There's also an improved movie mode that offers up to 544 x 408 pixels at 30 frames per second, a new Ultra-High-Speed Continuous Advance mode that captures VGA-resolution images at seven frames per second, and a new minimum ISO sensitivity rating of 64. Not all of the changes are upgrades though - a couple of points have been reverted to the DiMAGE 7Hi's specification, such as the 1/4,000 second fastest shutter speed (instead of 1/16,000 second on the DiMAGE A1), and the 12-bit A/D conversion (where the DiMAGE A1 was 14-bit). As with the DiMAGE A1, the DiMAGE A2 features extensive creative controls (including an option to use the Adobe RGB color space), sophisticated camera functions, and a user-friendly interface that make it appealing to advanced users, while its simple to use full "auto" mode lets you hand it to a novice with confidence. The camera's ergonomic design looks and feels a lot like a conventional 35mm SLR, with an elongated lens barrel and a lightweight magnesium alloy body with plastic outer panels hosting the numerous dials, switches, and buttons. Although the profusion of controls makes the camera appear complex, they're all logically arranged and actually fairly easy to learn. Konica Minolta has packed a lot of functions into a very workable layout, with a range of features normally found only on more expensive professional-level digital cameras.

A 2/3-inch interlaced primary-color CCD with 8.3 million pixels (8.0 million effective), provides a maximum resolution of 3,264 x 2,448 pixels, among the highest available in a consumer digital camera as of this writing in early May, 2004. The CCD's light sensitivity ranges from ISO 64 to 800, and may be automatically controlled by the camera or manually selected by the user. As with the A1, the DiMAGE A2's color space flexibility includes two sRGB options (Natural and Vivid color), in addition to standard and embedded-profile Adobe RGB options for professional use in a color-managed environment.

All that sensor resolution would be useless, however, if the lens couldn't resolve fine detail. The DiMAGE A2 appears to feature the same advanced apochromat 7x zoom GT Lens that was so impressive on previous models in the line. While this lens really stood alone in the earlier marketplace in which the A1 and other predecessors competed, other makers have now caught up with their optical designs, so the A2's lens is now less notable than it once was. (Still very good, it's just that the competition now equals or exceeds it in some respects.) Comprised of 16 glass elements in 13 groups, the GT lens has two anomalous dispersion (AD) and two aspheric glass elements for sharp, detailed images with minimal distortion and glare. The 7.2-50.8mm focal range (equivalent to a 28-200mm zoom in 35mm format) provides the flexibility for wide-angle interior and landscape shots, as well as close-up portraits and distant action in sports photography. The manual zoom ring is a pleasure to use, with a wide rubberized grip and smooth, mechanically-coupled lens action. A maximum aperture that ranges from f/2.8-f/3.5 (depending on the focal length setting) is fairly "fast," helpful for low-light and action photography. The Macro capability lets you capture subjects as close as 9.8 inches from the lens, which translates to a very small 1.5 x 2.0-inch minimum capture area. A host of focus controls provide a lot of flexibility, and on-demand manual focus lets you tweak the autofocus setting without switching from auto to manual focus mode.

Similarly to the A1, the DiMAGE A2 uses a conventional TFT LCD for its electronic viewfinder (EVF), rather than the unique reflective ferroelectric LCD that was used on the previous DiMAGE 5, 7, 7i and 7Hi models. Where the A1 had a viewfinder resolution of 235,000 dots (approximately 320 x 240 pixels with three dots per pixel - red, green and blue) though, the DiMAGE A2's new TFT LCD viewfinder has an astonishing resolution of 922,000 dots (640 x 480 pixels, each consisting of three dots). The additional resolution makes focusing manually a much easier task than with most EVF-based cameras, and the dramatically higher resolution just makes it a lot easier to see what's going on with your subject, but if you desire, you can trade off some of the increased resolution to improve another area some EVFs have an issue with - refresh rate. At its standard 640 x 480 pixel resolution, the DiMAGE A2's viewfinder offers some 30 frames per second - still as fast as most electronic viewfinders. At a resolution of 640 x 240 pixels, though, this doubles to an impressive 60 frames per second, for liquid-smooth panning - very useful when tracking fast-moving objects to frame the perfect shot. As with past Minolta SLR-style cameras, the DiMAGE A2's viewfinder does an excellent job in low light, and offers unique flexibility, with a variable position eyepiece that tilts up as much as 90 degrees. The camera's 1.8-inch LCD monitor also tilts downward about 20 degrees or upward 90 degrees, making it more convenient when shooting at high or low angles.

The DiMAGE A2's exposure system offers three metering options: 300-segment Multi-Segment, Center-Weighted, and Spot. The default Multi-Segment option divides the image into 300 separate areas, placing emphasis on the main subject, but integrating luminance values, color, and autofocus information from across the image to accurately calculate exposure. Like similar AE metering systems on other cameras, the Center-Weighted and Spot metering options place most of the exposure emphasis either on the central portion of the frame, or on a small spot at the very center of the frame, respectively. Exposure modes include Auto, Programmed AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual, plus four Digital Subject Programs specifically set up for Portrait, Sports, Night Portrait, and Sunset exposures. These presets use not only aperture and shutter speed settings to best capture the subjects, but also Konica Minolta's exclusive CxProcess II image processing to optimize color balance and skin tones.

On top of all these features, the DiMAGE A2 also provides a Digital Effects Control that can be used to adjust Color Saturation, Contrast, and Filter (hue). The Digital Effects adjustments are particularly notable for their fine gradations and wide range, allowing you to customize the camera's color and tonal response to precisely match your personal preferences. A Color Mode option offers special color effects and a black and white shooting mode, which can be adjusted via the Filter Effects setting. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments. A Digital Enhanced Bracketing option for taking three bracketed exposures of an image automatically, features two different values adjustable to either 1/3 or 1/2-stop increments. In addition to exposure, this feature can also bracket any of the Effects options, including contrast and saturation. A customizable AE Lock button can be set to lock only exposure, or both exposure and focus. White Balance is adjustable to one of six preset options (Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Shade, and Flash settings), along with Auto and Manual options. Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, with a Bulb setting that permits manual control of exposures as long as 30 seconds. Maximum lens apertures are f/2.8 at the wide-angle end and f/3.5 at telephoto. A real-time histogram display mode helps verify exposure before capturing the image. (There's a histogram display option in Playback mode as well.)

Autofocus performance is a key area where the DiMAGE A2 shines. Autofocus is powered by a Large Scale Integration (LSI) chip that rapidly processes image data through a high-speed 32-bit RISC processor. - That's a lot of jargon that simply explains why the A2's AF system is noticeably faster than average among high-end "prosumer" digicams. The autofocus system can determine focus in one of three ways: Wide Focus Area averages readings from a large area across the middle of the frame (indicated on the LCD by a set of widely spaced brackets); Spot Focus Point reads information from the very center of the LCD (indicated by a target cross-hair), and Flex Focus Point lets you move a target cross-hair to virtually any position within the viewfinder, so you can focus on off-center subjects without having to aim, lock focus, and then recompose the shot.

The built-in, pop-up flash offers two methods of flash metering. Advanced Distance Integration (ADI) bases its exposure on the lens aperture, feedback from the autofocus system (how far the subject is from the camera), as well as on a separate metering flash. Pre-Flash TTL (through the lens) uses a small metering flash prior to the main exposure to gauge how much light is reflected by the scene. The DiMAGE A2 also includes a top-mounted hot shoe for attaching Konica Minolta external flash units (and any compatible third-party units). An external flash sync terminal offers a standard "PC" style sync jack for connecting to studio strobes or other external flash devices. Flash modes include Fill-Flash, Red-Eye Reduction, and Rear Flash Sync, with Flash Compensation available from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. A Wireless flash mode lets the camera work with certain Konica Minolta-brand wireless flash units. A manual flash mode fires the onboard flash at full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 or 1/16 power. Since manual flash mode doesn't use a pre-flash, it's perfect for driving studio strobes via conventional slave triggers.

Additional DiMAGE A2 features include a Movie (with sound) mode with Night exposure option; Voice Memo mode; Standard, High Speed and Ultra-High Speed Continuous Advance modes; 2x Digital Zoom; Interval Recording of two to 240 frames in 30-second to 60-minute intervals; two- or 10-second Self-Timer; and three Sharpness settings. Five image quality levels include RAW and TIFF uncompressed files, and a choice of Extra Fine, Fine, or Standard JPEG compression settings. New to the DiMAGE A2 is a feature allowing both RAW and JPEG files to be recorded simultaneously for each image captured. Buffer memory permits up to 3 images maximum JPEG quality or RAW format images to be recorded quite quickly, but the RAW+JPEG option is unbuffered. Resolution options for still images include 3,264 x 2,448; 3,264 x 2,176; 2,560 x 1,920; 2,080 x 1,560; 1,600 x 1,200; and 640 x 480 pixels. Movie resolution options include 544 x 408, and 320 x 240 pixels, with frame rates of either 15 or 30 frames per second available at both resolutions, and recording times of up to 15 minutes per video segment possible, depending on resolution, frame rate, and memory card speed.

Not to be outdone on the output phase of digital imaging, Konica Minolta has incorporated Epson's PRINT Image Matching II technology, which ensures that DiMAGE A2 images captured in autoexposure mode and output on compatible Epson printers will be automatically color balanced to provide true-to-life hues and saturation. Newly added support for PictBridge technology allows the DiMAGE A2 to be connected directly to a wide range of PictBridge-compatible printers from a variety of manufacturers, allowing prints to be made without the need for a computer.

Powered by one NP-400 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (an optional AC power adapter is available), as well as an accessory hand grip that lets you power the camera from either six AA cells or two NP-400 packs, the DiMAGE A2 represents an amazingly versatile package for the serious amateur or prosumer photographer, and Konica Minolta's optional dual-head macro flash unit makes for one of the most capable solutions on the market for super-macro shooting. (I can imagine a lot of medical or scientific applications for the A2's combination of 8 megapixel resolution and exceptional macro capability.) USB and A/V cables also accompany the camera, for connection to a computer or television set. A selection of software including DiMAGE Viewer v2.3.2 for both Macintosh and Windows-based computers, and Ulead VideoStudio 7 SE VCD for Windows-based computers is provided by Minolta.

 

Design

Released as an update to last year's DiMAGE A1 model, the DiMAGE A2 shares an almost identical body with its predecessor, the only external differences being the new Konica Minolta branding, silk-screened wording on the left side of the camera, metal-effect badge on the front of the camera, and gold trim around the outside of the mechanical zoom ring instead of silver trim on the front of the zoom ring on the A1. All of the camera displays and controls are in identical locations to those of the original DiMAGE A1. The DiMAGE A2 features a true 8.0-megapixel (effective) CCD, sharp 7x optical zoom lens, fine-grained image controls, and optional fully manual exposure control, with a few minor improvements over the previous models. Updates include a higher resolution sensor, dramatically improved electronic viewfinder, a faster 3D autofocusing system, and high-speed USB 2.0 connectivity, among others.

The DiMAGE A2 is similar in design to a traditional 35mm SLR, but an elongated lens barrel on the left side of the camera gives the camera more of a "T" shape, extending behind and in front of the body slightly, with a hand grip on the right. Control layout is identical to the DiMAGE A1, and is logical and intuitive (once you get the gist of things). The DiMAGE A2's rather bulky body measures a substantial 4.61 x 3.34 x 4.46 inches (117 x 85.0 x 113.5 millimeters) with the lens at its shortest position, but the combination of magnesium alloy chassis and (mostly) plastic body panels make it relatively lightweight for its size (approximately 23.0 ounces, or 653 grams with an NP-400 battery and CompactFlash card loaded), but nonetheless a substantial handful. An accessory camera bag would certainly be the preferred method of carrying and storing the DiMAGE A2, but the positions of the eyelets for the included neck strap at least let the camera hang level when it's suspended from them. (This last being a detail I wish more camera manufacturers would pay attention to.)

The camera's front panel houses the Konica Minolta GT 7x Zoom lens, Self-Timer light, and the front of the pop-up flash compartment. Encircling the lens are two adjustment rings: a rubberized grip on the front end for actuating the zoom lens, and a ribbed Manual Focus ring at the base of the lens. A set of 49mm filter threads on the inside lip of the zoom lens accommodates filters and conversion kit accessories, but I'd caution readers to be careful how heavy a lens they attach there. Because the threads are on the lens barrel itself, the zoom mechanism must support any weight attached there. (At least the zoom lens is built around a manually-actuated mechanism, which strikes me as being a good bit more rugged than the electronically-actuated designs used on most digicams.) A pair of tabs on the outside edge of the lens serve as a mount for the accessory lens hood. Also visible from the front of the camera are the Shutter button and Front Control dial, located at the top of the hand grip. An indentation near the top of the hand grip comfortably cradles your middle finger as it curls around the grip. One of the more interesting features of the DiMAGE A2 is the grip sensor on the front of the hand grip, visible in this shot as a set of vertical metallic bars. When activated, the grip sensor actually senses the presence of your hand and only triggers the Full-time AF function (or optionally, the electronic viewfinder) whenever the camera is held, saving some battery power. (You can turn this feature off through the setup menu, for working on a tripod or when wearing gloves, which Konica Minolta states may decrease the effectiveness of the sensor. - It evidently detects skin-resistance.)

The right side of the camera holds the CompactFlash memory card slot, covered by a hinged plastic door. The A2 accommodates Type I or II CF memory cards, including MicroDrives. Just above the compartment door is the shared-use A/V Out / USB 2.0 jack for direct connection to a computer or television set. At the very top of the right panel is one of the two neck strap attachment eyelets.

The left side of the camera features a host of controls, including the Function dial, flash sync terminal, Digital Effects dial, Auto/Manual Focus switch, Custom White Balance button, speaker, and Macro switch (on the side of the lens). The Function dial, located at the top of the panel, controls the Memory settings, Custom Function settings, Metering mode, Drive mode (Self-Timer, Continuous Shooting, etc.), White Balance, and ISO. The Effects button lets you adjust Contrast, Color Saturation, and effects Filters across broad ranges of adjustment, in conveniently small increments. Both dials have buttons in the center that activate whatever function you've selected with that dial. The Focus button simply switches back and forth between Single AF, Continuous AF, and Manual focus modes. The Custom White Balance button manually adjusts the white balance setting, while the Macro switch on the lens barrel activates the Macro shooting mode, locking the lens into one of two zoom ranges appropriate for macro focusing. The second neck strap attachment eyelet is at the top, next to the Function dial. Also visible on this side, at the edge of the electronic viewfinder eyepiece, is the diopter adjustment dial, which adjusts the viewfinder display to accommodate eyeglass wearers.

The top panel accommodates the pop-up flash compartment, with two small tabs on either side to hook a fingernail under to open the flash, and an external flash hot shoe on top, protected by a sliding plastic cover that is completely removable from the camera body. The hot shoe employs a custom electrode setup and mounting bracket for Konica Minolta accessory flash units, and so isn't compatible with standard hot-shoe flashes. In addition, there are a number of controls that access various camera functions, including the Mode Dial, a Shutter button, a Selector wheel, and a small Data Panel display that shows battery status, camera settings, and the number of images remaining. The Information and Magnification buttons are just below the status display panel, on a bevelled panel angled down toward the rear of the camera. A tiny microphone in front of the Mode dial records sound when shooting movies or recording voice memos.

The remaining controls are on the camera's rear panel, along with the electronic viewfinder eyepiece, LCD monitor, and battery compartment. The DiMAGE A2's electronic viewfinder (EVF) now features a dramatically higher resolution TFT LCD with 922,000 dots. With a full 640 x 480 pixels in all three dot colors (red, green, and blue), the new display is exceptionally sharp and clear, with none of the motion-induced artifacts seen in models previous to the DiMAGE A1. Minolta's new viewfinder also offers the ability to address another complaint often levelled against electronic viewfinders, that thanks to poor refresh rates they can make it difficult to track fast-moving objects. The DiMAGE A2 allows you to trade off half of your vertical resolution in the viewfinder, doubling frame rates from 30 to a very respectable 60 frames per second at 640 x 240 pixels in the process. Combined with excellent low-light sensitivity, the net result is arguably the best EVF to be found on a digicam, at least as of this writing in June, 2004. The viewfinder also tilts upward 90 degrees, offering a variety of viewing angles. When the camera is set to the Auto Display mode, an infrared sensor on the right side of the viewfinder eyepiece senses when your eye is near the viewfinder and automatically activates the EVF display. Control buttons on the back panel include the Display Mode switch (tucked in a corner beside the LCD monitor), which lets you choose between EVF and LCD display, or Auto switching between the two. Also on the rear panel are the Power button, Mode switch, Rear Control dial, Menu button, Four-Way controller, Quickview / Delete button, Anti-Shake button, and AE lock button. At the bottom of the rear panel, a connector compartment houses the DC In and Remote connector terminals, and is protected by a flexible flap.

The camera's bottom panel is fairly flat, with a slightly textured grip pad surrounding the metal tripod mount. Also on the bottom panel is the camera's battery compartment, which features a locking, hinged door. The battery compartment is just far enough from the tripod mount to allow quick battery changes while working with a tripod, something I always look for in a digicam, given the amount of studio shooting I do.

An optional power/grip unit is available for the A2, adding a vertical grip handy for portrait-format shots, and allowing the camera to be powered by either two NP-400 batteries, or by conventional rechargeable AA cells. I really like the increased battery life the NP-400 provides for the base unit, but the power grip lets you have your cake and eat it too, powering the camera from less-expensive and widely available NiMH AA cells.

 

Viewfinder

The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is one area in which the DiMAGE A1 and A2 mark a significant departure from the direction set by the earlier 7, 7i, and 7Hi models. In the DiMAGE A1, Konica Minolta reverted to a more ordinary EVF design, based on conventional TFT LCD technology. With a normal LCD, there's none of the "crackled glass" look seen on the earlier cameras' reflective ferroelectric LCDs, regardless of any camera or subject movement. The DiMAGE A2 takes another step forward from the A1's viewfinder, greatly increasing resolution and offering the option to trade off some of this resolution for an extremely high frame rate.

To expand a bit on the subject of EVFs, let me note that I've long held a hearty dislike of them, for a variety of reasons. For one, resolution is often considerably less than on the rear-panel LCD, and the view doesn't remotely compare to that through a purely optical viewfinder. A bigger concern though, is that most EVF displays are woefully inadequate for low-light shooting. The high refresh rate required to provide a "live" view of the subject means that the CCD just can't collect enough light in each frame to make the EVF display usable. Time and again, I've seen EVF-equipped digicams that are capable of taking pictures in conditions far darker than levels at which you can see what you're shooting in the EVF. Without a low-light-capable viewfinder, you're reduced to guessing where your subject is in the viewfinder.

That said, Konica Minolta's EVFs have proven to be exceptions to my thinking. The DiMAGE A2's EVF works down to incredibly low light levels (it's usable at light levels even lower than the 1/16 foot-candle limit of my standard low-light test), and also has exceptionally high resolution under normal lighting. Below a certain light level, it switches from a color display to a monochrome one (although the final camera images are still captured in color), apparently as a way of increasing sensitivity and reducing image noise. The net result is that the EVF on the DiMAGE A2 is about as sensitive as my own eyes at ant given illumination level, making it eminently usable at any light level most users will care to shoot at. Given that the EVF is about as sensitive as the average eyeball, it's fair to say that a purely optical viewfinder wouldn't improve the A2's low-light capability a great deal.

As mentioned above, the DiMAGE A2's viewfinder is a pretty dramatic update over that in the DiMAGE A1. Where the previous camera offered a resolution of approximately 320 x 240 pixels (230,000 total dots in red, green and blue), the DiMAGE A2 bumps this up significantly to 640 x 480 pixels (922,000 RGB dots). As an added bonus, you can opt to sacrifice half of this resolution in order to double the refresh rate of the viewfinder, removing another bugaboo of EVF-based cameras - problems in tracking fast-moving objects through the viewfinder because of the low refresh rates. I don't have any exact specifications for the DiMAGE A1's refresh rate, but suffice to say that with the ability to double the refresh rate from 30 frames per second - easily as fast as most electronic viewfinders - to an impressive 60 frames per second, the DiMAGE A2 is a notable improvement, and should prove much easier to use in this regard. Certainly, in my own use of the camera, I had no trouble following fast action with it.

The DiMAGE A2's EVF also features the innovative auto-switching capability first seen in the original DiMAGE 7. You can choose to have the viewfinder display always appear on either the LCD or EVF, or switch between the two automatically. Inset behind a pair of vertical windows on the right side of the viewfinder, a set of infrared sensors detects your eye as it approaches the viewfinder, switching the view to the EVF and disabling the LCD monitor if you have the auto-switching option enabled. To save on battery power, you can optionally (through the Setup menu) set the Auto mode to simply turn the EVF on and off, keeping the LCD monitor disabled. To avoid a potential problem where the EVF eyepiece could press against your chest, triggering the infrared eyeball-detector circuit, a setup menu item also optionally couples the eyeball detector with the hand grip sensor. This allows you to set up the A2 so its EVF only turns on when you're looking through the EVF and your hand is on the handgrip.

As noted, the electronic viewfinder eyepiece tilts upward 90 degrees, offering a range of viewing angles. A Diopter Control dial adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers, across a range of -3.5 to +1.5 diopters. (This covers a wider range of eyesight than do many eyepiece adjustments, although it's a good bit less than the -5.0 to +2.0 range of the EVF on the A1. Regardless, the A2's dioptric adjustment just handled my own 20/200 vision, at the limit of its range in the "nearsighted" direction.) The viewfinder has a fairly high eyepoint, making it reasonably usable with eyeglasses, but the field of view is slightly restricted when your eye is further from the eyepiece. (Here again though, the eye relief of the A2's viewfinder represents a slight reduction in capability relative to that of the A2, as it's apparently about 2.5 mm less than that of the A1. You can still use the A2's EVF with eyeglasses, but you'll have to mash their lenses up against the bezel to see the full frame.)

The rear-panel, 1.8-inch, TFT color LCD monitor also offers a bright, clear image display. The LCD monitor lifts off of the rear panel, and can tilt upwards about 90 degrees, or downward by about 20 degrees. Like the electronic viewfinder, the LCD monitor displays a range of exposure and camera information in both Record and Playback modes, activated by the "i+" button. A Histogram setting displays a small "live" histogram overlaid on the viewfinder image, showing the distribution of tonal information in the image. This is a handy tool for determining any potential over or underexposure, before capturing an image.
I've often found digicam manual focus features of limited utility, largely because it can be so hard to tell when you've achieved proper focus. LCD screens just don't display enough image detail to be able to tell whether an image is exactly in focus or not. Some manufacturers offer modes in which the viewfinder image optionally can be magnified by 2x or 4x but even that often falls a little short. (2x is clearly inadequate in my view, 4x starts to be useful.) In the A1, Minolta offered viewfinder magnification of 2x or 8x to assist with manual focusing, and the 8x level worked quite well for determining critical focus. In the A2, this feature seems to have been replaced with a fixed magnification of 3.3x, falling somewhere into the middle ground - right on the verge of usefulness, but not as much so as the old 8x magnification was. That said, the exceptional resolution of the EVF display helps matters greatly, although there's a significant increase in the noise level of the viewfinder image when operating in the magnified view.


In Playback mode, the DiMAGE A2 optionally displays a fair amount of image information, which is again controlled by the i+ button. The same button also accesses an index display mode, which you can set via a menu option to show either four or nine thumbnail images to a page. Also, in playback mode, the Magnify button enlarges captured images (JPEG only, not RAW or TIFF formats), so that you can more closely check on fine details. The playback-mode magnification can be varied from 2.0 to 10.2x in steps of 0.2x. A histogram feature is also available in Playback mode, by pressing the up arrow key.


Optics

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Equipped with a 7.2-50.8mm, glass lens with multiple aspherical elements, the DiMAGE A2's lens is equivalent to a 28-200mm lens on a 35mm camera. This is a very nice range of focal lengths. The 28mm wide angle setting is particularly welcome, since most digicam lenses don't go that wide without accessory lens adapters. Likewise, 200mm is a good medium telephoto length, about as long as most folks can comfortably hand-hold without image stabilization, although Konica Minolta's Anti-Shake feature should greatly help out here. Unlike most digicams I've worked with, the lens zoom operates by rotating a collar around the lens barrel, coupled mechanically to the lens elements themselves. I like the precise control this gives, as opposed to the rocker switch controlled motor that most digital cameras use to rack the lens in or out. It definitely requires two hands, but the direct manual control will feel great to photographers accustomed to film-based SLRs. (I will say that the action of the zoom lens feels a little "cheap" though, with more of a plastic-on-plastic feel, rather than the smooth lubricated-metal feeling I'm accustomed to in higher-end removable SLR lenses.)

The lens consists of 16 elements in 13 groups, including two AD (anomalous dispersion) glass elements and two aspheric surfaces. All that dispersion/aspheric mumbo-jumbo is by way of explaining that this is a very high quality lens. Way back when I first tested the original DiMAGE 7, I was amazed by how little distortion and corner softness it displayed, and as far as I can tell, the A2 still uses the same lens. Images are sharp corner to corner, with very little of the softness I've come to expect from digicam lenses in the corners of the frame, although the A2 is on the lower end of the sharpness scale overall, when compared to the rest of the 8-megapixel field. - Not to the extent that I'd say it constitutes a serious reason to pass over the camera in favor of one of the others, but the softness is visible enough that I felt I should mention it. Aperture control can be either manual or automatic, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/3.5 at telephoto. Focus ranges from 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) to infinity in normal mode. Activated by a small switch on the lens barrel, a Macro focusing mode focuses in on objects as close as about 5.25 inches (13.3 centimeters) from the lens surface in telephoto mode. (Konica Minolta follows the practice from film-based photography of specifying focusing distance from the "film" (CCD) plane of the camera, rather than the front element of the lens. This avoids confusion over distances as the length of the lens changes in response to zoom adjustments, but would lead one to expect that the A2's macro performance is less than it actually is.) In my tests, the A2 captured a minimum area of just 1.94 x 1.46 inches (49 x 37 millimeters), a very small area indeed. (This is essentially the identical minimum macro area as for the A1, based on my direct measurements, even though Konica Minolta actually lists a slightly larger minimum area in their specifications for the A2.) You can enter Macro mode in either maximum wide angle or a small range of telephoto lens positions, the greatest magnification being available with telephoto focal lengths. A plastic lens cap with spring-loaded catches hooks into the inside lip of the lens, protecting it from dirt and scratches. The lens cap has an eyelet for attaching a strap, to prevent it from being accidentally lost.

The DiMAGE A2 provides both manual and automatic focus control. The camera's specification sheet describes the autofocus system as a "Video AF system," which uses phase-detection focusing technology rather than the much more common contrast-detection system. The advantage is that the camera not only determines whether or not the lens is in focus, but also how far out of focus it is, and in which direction (near or far). With this information, the camera should be able to focus much more quickly, since it "knows" roughly how much, and in which direction, to adjust the focus, rather than having to "hunt" for the best focus at the outset. The AF system will still have to do some hunting for the best setting, but it should spend less time doing so than a contrast-based system. This system does seem to be pretty effective, as the A2 shows among the fastest shutter lag times I've seen for autofocus-equipped prosumer digicams. (A range from 0.39-0.45 seconds with autofocus operating.)

The DiMAGE A2's autofocus system offers both Single-Shot and Continuous AF settings. In Single-Shot AF, the camera only sets the focus when the Shutter button is halfway depressed. In Continuous AF mode, it adjusts focus at all times, continuously keeping the frame in focus. While this definitely demands more power from the battery, the grip sensors on the front of the hand grip tell the camera to focus only when being held, potentially saving a good bit of power. The DiMAGE A2 lets you determine the area of the image the camera uses to set the focus from, by selecting one of three autofocus options: Wide Focus Area, Spot Focus Point, and Flex Focus Point. The default option is Wide Focus area, indicated by a set of four widely-spaced brackets in the viewfinder image. By pressing and holding down the center of the Four-Way Arrow controller pad, you can switch between Wide Area and Spot Point autofocusing modes (the latter indicated by a target crosshair in the center of the viewfinder). If you release the controller pad when the Spot AF target is displayed, you can then use the four arrow buttons to move the target around the viewfinder area -- this is what Konica Minolta calls Flex Focus Point AF. Wide Area AF bases its focus on the most prominent subject detail in the portion of the image that falls within the AF brackets. Spot Focus bases its focus on the very center of the frame, where the target crosshairs reside. Finally, Flex Focus lets you move the focus point to anywhere within the frame, by manually moving the target crosshairs around the image area with the arrow buttons.

The Focus switch on the camera's left side toggles back and forth between Single AF, Continuous AF, and Manual focus modes. In Manual Focus mode, turning the ribbed ring around the base of the lens barrel adjusts focus. As you focus, a distance readout reports the current focal distance in meters or feet at the bottom of the LCD monitor (or EVF), under the MF icon. The Direct MF menu option lets you manually tweak the autofocus selection without explicitly switching over to MF mode. You simply halfway press the Shutter button (triggering the autofocus system) and then rotate the focus ring to fine-tune the focus. This is useful when the camera is having trouble focusing on a difficult subject, but isn't too far off the mark.

As mentioned earlier, Minolta implemented very handy 2x and 8x magnification options to assist with focusing in the A1. In the A2, this feature seems to have been replaced with a fixed magnification of 3.3x, falling somewhere into the middle ground. In my experience, 2x really isn't enough to determine fine focus using a camera's LCD screen, and 4x is a help, but only marginally adequate. The 8x option offered by the A1 was a revelation though, letting me set focus very precisely, shot after shot, on a wide variety of subjects. It is a shame to see this replaced with a more ordinary 3.3x magnification for the A2, which should just about be useful - but nowhere near as much so as the A1 was. - The good news though, is that the exceptional resolution of the EVF display does somewhat reduce the need for greater magnification. The manual-focus focus-assist magnification disappears as soon as you half-press the Shutter button, or press the magnify button a second time.

The AE Lock button, located in the upper right corner of the back panel (below the Mode dial), can optionally lock the focus for a specific portion of the subject without having to hold the Shutter button down halfway. Pressing this button can also lock exposure. You can configure this button in the settings menu to switch between AF/AE Hold, AF/AE Toggle, AE Hold, or AE Toggle functions.

In addition to the 7x optical zoom, the DiMAGE A2 offers 2x Digital zoom. By default, pressing the Magnification button on the top panel activates an instant 2x digital zoom. (Keep in mind that digital zoom simply enlarges the central portion of the CCD image digitally, rather than magnifying it optically and, as a result, image resolution decreases in direct proportion to the magnification achieved.)

A set of 49mm filter threads around the inside lip of the lens accommodates Konica Minolta's range of accessory filters and conversion lens kits. I really like having the fixed filter threads on the front element of the zoom lens, making it easy to attach auxiliary lenses and filters without any additional adapters or other gadgets. I do worry a little about the wisdom of hanging very much weight on the front of the telescoping lens assembly though. I guess it will be fine for relatively lightweight attachments such as macro adapters and filters, but I advise caution with any sort of larger accessory lens. (It does deserve noting though, that the manually-actuated zoom mechanism on the A2 is much more robust mechanically than are most electronically-actuated mechanisms on competing cameras, so it should be much more able to support accessory optics.)

"3D" Predictive Focus Control and Subject Tracking
Based on information from Konica Minolta, the DiMAGE A2 features a fairly sophisticated autofocus system. When it's running in Continuous Autofocus mode, the A2's AF system monitors the focusing distance, and projects it into the future. Using this information, it continues to adjust the focus during what would otherwise be the "dead" time between when the shutter button is fully pressed and when the camera actually snaps the picture. This "Predictive Focus Control" function could help focus accuracy for moving subjects significantly, particularly when using long telephoto focal lengths.

The A2 also incorporates Konica Minolta's Subject Tracking AF, which we saw one form of in their earlier F100 and F300 consumer cameras. If you put the camera in Continuous Autofocus mode and half-press and hold down the shutter button, the camera will lock on and track a moving subject across the frame, adjusting focus as appropriate. You need to initially have the subject under the active AF point, but from that point on, it will follow the subject around the frame. I really don't have an ability to evaluate capabilities like this quantitatively, but in playing with it a bit, the AF point did indeed track subjects fairly well, across perhaps 80% of the total frame area. I couldn't move the camera too rapidly, or it would lose the subject, sometimes hopping and re-locking on an adjacent object, but the capability still goes quite a bit beyond what's available in other cameras on the market.

Anti-Shake System
Introduced in the A1 and carried over to the A2 is Konica Minolta's very effective vibration-reduction system. Konica Minolta's anti-shake technology is unusual in that it actually moves the CCD assembly to counteract camera movement, rather than the more common approach of moving an optical element inside the lens. I didn't conduct any sort of a formal test with it, not having any quantitative way to measure its effects. I did find it very effective (surprisingly so). To see the effect "live," I ran the zoom all the way out to full telephoto, then turned on the 3.3x focus-assist magnification on the LCD. With Anti-Shake inactive, it was virtually impossible to keep the resulting LCD image stable when holding the camera by hand. When I turned Anti-Shake on, the results were immediate and dramatic. The image quieted down by what had to be a factor of four or more.

In my power testing, I found that Anti-Shake exacts a stiff price in terms of power consumption, increasing power drain by fully 70% over similar operating modes with Anti-Shake disabled. The A2 is very intelligent about when to turn on Anti-Shake though, by default only activating it when the shutter is half-pressed, or when the 3.3x viewfinder magnification mode is enabled. A menu option lets you further restrict Anti-Shake operation to the actual moment of exposure itself, reducing the power hit even more.

I don't know how much of a premium the Anti-Shake function adds to the cost of the A2, but hope it isn't too much. Optical stabilization makes a huge difference in usability of longer telephoto focal lengths, but is a feature that has found little support from a price standpoint in the past. (Other cameras incorporating optical stabilization have generally not fared well against cheaper competition lacking the feature.) I'm hopeful though, that the range of sophisticated user that the A2 is so obviously aimed at will understand and fully appreciate the value of Anti-Shake technology.

 

Exposure

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The DiMAGE A2 offers excellent exposure control, with very fine-grained adjustment of such image attributes as sharpness, contrast, and color saturation. While I found the camera's user interface a little confusing at first, with its myriad buttons, dials, and switches, I liked it a lot once I got the hang of it. (The combined use of functional dials, selection buttons, and the rotating command wheel is similar to the design of Minolta's film cameras, and very reminiscent of the earlier Sony DSC-D700, DSC-D770, and DKC-FP3, three closely-related cameras that developed a significant "cult" following. While something of a departure for the digicam market, this interface has proven very popular with users of both Minolta's film cameras, and the much earlier Sony models.)

The Mode switch on the rear panel selects the basic operating mode: Record, Playback, or Movie. Within Record mode, the Exposure Mode dial selects the camera's exposure mode. Choices are Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Program AE, Auto, Memory Recall, Portrait, Sports, Sunset, and Night Portrait modes.

In straight Auto mode, the camera controls everything about the exposure, except for flash, zoom, and focus. Program AE mode keeps the camera in charge of the exposure, while you have control over all other exposure options. While in Program AE mode, you can rotate either of the control dials to scroll between a range of equivalent exposure settings. Thus, you can bias your exposure toward a faster shutter speed or greater depth of field as circumstances dictate. Aperture Priority mode lets you select the lens aperture setting, from f/2.8 to f/11 depending on the zoom setting, while the camera selects the most appropriate corresponding shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode, the user selects the shutter speed, from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, while the camera chooses the best corresponding aperture setting. Switching to Manual mode gives you control over both shutter speed and aperture, with a Bulb setting available for longer exposures. Exposure time in Bulb mode is determined by how long you hold down the Shutter button, up to a maximum of 30 seconds. (I strongly recommend use of the optional wired remote in Bulb mode, as the pressure of your finger on the shutter button is bound to jiggle the camera somewhat, blurring the image. - Oddly, Konica Minolta implemented a true "time" exposure option (press the shutter button once to open the shutter, then again to close it) on their new Z2 long-zoom consumer camera, but not on the high-end A2, where you'd much more expect to see it.) A new function accessible via the Custom option of the Function dial, DOF Preview lets you view a scene through the electronic viewfinder or LCD with the aperture stopped down, giving you an idea of the depth of field available before actually capturing an image. This is a very welcome addition that gives you confidence that your subjects are within the field of focus, and is actually even more useful on an EVF camera than on traditional SLRs, since the sensitivity of the image sensor can be cranked up to give you enough light to determine focus (on a traditional SLR camera, closing the aperture down reduces the available light reaching the viewfinder, making it harder to see the viewfinder image).

As described above, the DiMAGE A2 also offers four preset scene modes (referred to as Digital Subject Programs), accessed via the Exposure Mode dial. Portrait mode produces better-looking people shots by enhancing skin tones and decreasing the depth of field (to create a slightly blurred background). Sports mode provides faster shutter speeds to freeze action, and maintains focus on quickly moving subjects. In Sunset mode, the camera employs slightly slower shutter speeds to let in more of the ambient light, and lets you record the warm colors of the scene without compensating for them in the white balance system. In Night Portrait mode, the camera also uses a slower shutter speed to allow more ambient light into the image, however it also records true black values and preserves the bright colors of artificial lighting. The Exposure Mode dial also features a Memory Recall setting, which lets you save as many as five registers of settings. Selecting a setting automatically applies the settings to the camera, which can be recalled by turning the Exposure Mode dial to another position.

The DiMAGE A2's default metering mode is a 300-segment evaluative system, which takes readings throughout the image to determine exposure. Center-Weighted and Spot metering options are also available via the Function Dial. Spot metering is useful for high-contrast subjects, as it bases the exposure reading on the very center of the image, letting you set the exposure based on a small portion of your subject. Optionally, the Spot metering can be linked to the Flex Focus Point AF area with the "Spot AE Area" function, allowing you to meter from the same point as the camera is focusing on, wherever in the frame that may be. Center-Weighted metering also bases the exposure on the center of the image, but the camera takes its readings from a much larger area in the middle of the frame. You can also hold or lock the exposure reading for a particular part of the image by pressing the AE Lock button on the back panel. This button can be programmed to act as either a "hold" or "toggle" control. "Hold" mode does just that, it holds the current setting until you release the AE Lock button again. Toggle mode locks and releases the exposure/focus setting with successive actuations of the AE Lock button. Halfway pressing the Shutter button also locks exposure and focus, but only in autofocus mode.

The DiMAGE A2's light sensitivity can be set to Auto, or to ISO equivalents of 64, 100, 200, 400, or 800. As with other consumer and prosumer digicams that sport ISO 800 options though, I didn't find the ISO 800 setting to be particularly useful, because the image noise level was so high. A Noise Reduction option is available for longer exposures and higher ISO settings, and greatly reduces the amount of image noise that would otherwise result, but doesn't have any effect on shorter exposures at high ISO. Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments, and an auto-bracketing option can snap three shots in rapid succession, varying the exposure between each in steps of 0.3 or 0.5 EV units. Exposure compensation is adjusted using the Digital Effects dial, while auto bracketing is activated by rotating the Function Dial to the Drive position, pressing the center, and then rotating the Control dial until the auto bracketing icon appears in the LCD or EVF display. Exposure step size for auto bracketing is set through an option in the record-mode menu system.

Like the DiMAGE A1 before it, the DiMAGE A2 offers very flexible control over white balance, color rendition, and tonal range. Its white balance system offers a total of seven options, including Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Shade, and Custom, which is the manual setting. The Custom Set mode determines white balance by snapping a picture of a white card. The camera then adjusts its color balance to render the white card with a neutral hue, and saves the setting as the Custom option. As many as three Custom settings can be saved, very useful if you need to switch back and forth between different lighting conditions quickly.

Contrast and Color Saturation controls are adjustable in 11 steps across a fairly broad range of settings, using the Digital Effects dial on the camera's left side in conjunction with the Front Control dial next to the Shutter button. To make adjustments, you rotate the Digital Effects dial to either setting, press the button at its center, and then rotate the Control dial to choose the desired setting. The DiMAGE A2 also offers a Filter setting on the Digital Effects dial. Depending on the color mode selected through the Custom Settings menu, the Filter option adjusts the overall color cast of the image, again in 11 steps. The color range here varies from rather blue to rather yellow, exactly the color axis that you'd want to adjust to compensate for different color temperatures in your lighting. Positive adjustments warm the image, while negative adjustments produce a cooler color balance. In Black and White mode, the Filter effect tones the image from neutral to red, green, magenta, blue, and back to neutral (zero position).

The combination of fine steps and wide adjustment ranges in the Digital Effects controls mean you can really customize the A2 to exactly suit your preferences for color and tonality. Most cameras offering saturation, white point, and contrast variations treat them more as special effects, rather than as adjustments for fine-tuning camera response. We seem to be seeing more evidence of other manufacturers offering "fine tuning" options like this (Olympus prominent among them), but I'd really like to see it become even more widespread.

The Color Mode option of the Record menu offers Natural and Vivid sRGB color modes, as well as Adobe RGB, Embedded Adobe RGB, Black and White, and Solarization settings. Adobe RGB color space has a much broader gamut or range of reproducible colors than does sRGB, the color space used by most digital cameras and computer monitors. (The Embedded option simply means that the color space information is embedded in the image file.) Adobe RGB images will look rather dull when displayed on monitors tuned to the sRGB standard, but when used in a color-managed work environment, they can capture and reproduce a much greater range of colors. For its part, Solarization partially reverses the tones in an image, while the Exposure Compensation adjustment controls the intensity of the effect. The record menu also offers a Sharpness adjustment, for controlling the amount of in-camera sharpening applied to an image.

Continuous Modes
The DiMAGE A2 features a range of continuous shooting modes, accessed via the "Drive" setting on the left-side Function dial. In addition to the standard Continuous Advance mode, the DiMAGE A2 also offers Interval, High-Speed Continuous, Ultra High Speed Continuous, and Interval and Time-Lapse Movie modes. (Note that the Drive setting also access the Self-Timer and Auto Exposure Bracketing modes as well.) In standard Continuous Advance, the DiMAGE A2 captures approximately 1.8 frames per second, for the first three frames. Depending on the resolution and quality settings, as well as the amount of memory card space, the subsequent frame rate and maximum number of frames will vary. In my testing, I found Continuous mode cycle times slowed to approximately 6.4 seconds per frame for the fourth through the eighth frames when shooting at the highest resolution and lowest JPEG compression, recording to an 80x Lexar CF card. (With a 40x card, the first three frames shot at the same speed, but subsequent shots came at 8.6 second intervals.) When shooting at smaller image sizes, the camera seemed to quickly capture groups of three frames, with pauses of about 3.3 seconds between each group. The first three frames are caught at approximately 1.9 frames per second, and subsequent groups of three images are each at 0.66 frames per second, with pauses between groups of a bit over 3.4 seconds.

High-Speed Continuous mode captures a series of full-size images at approximately 2.7 frames per second. Behavior was otherwise very similar to that of normal Continuous mode.

Ultra High Speed Continuous mode captures a series of 640 x 480 pixel images at approximately seven frames per second. With a fast memory card, the run length in Ultra High Speed mode can be quite long - With an 80x Lexar CF card, I managed to capture 184 frames before the camera stopped, after which it took 70 seconds for it to process all the data and flush it to the card.

Interval mode captures a series of images at specific intervals over time, providing a built-in time-lapse capability. The DiMAGE A2 can capture up to 240 images in the sequence, with frame intervals ranging from 30 seconds to 60 minutes, and a delayed start time from 30 minutes to 24 hours.

Interval and Time-Lapse Movie modes both capture a series of images, at the Interval setting specified through the Record menu. Interval mode records the images as a series of still images, while Time-Lapse Movie mode assembles the individual images into a 640 x 480 movie clip.

As mentioned above, the Drive setting also accesses the Self-Timer and Auto Exposure Bracketing modes. The Self-Timer fires the shutter either two or ten seconds after the shutter button is pressed. (Select between the two delay options by using the rear-panel command dial.) The shorter delay is very handy when you need to prop the camera on something to take a photo in dim lighting, and don't want the pressure of your finger on the shutter button to jiggle the camera. The ten-second delay is long enough that you can run around to get into the photo yourself. An LED lamp on the front of the camera blinks and the camera beeps as the self timer is counting down, the blink and beeps becoming faster in the last few seconds.

Auto Exposure Bracketing mode captures a series of three images (one at the metered exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed). You can set the exposure variation between exposures to 0.3, or 0.5 EV. The A2's automatic bracketing options go beyond simple exposure bracketing though. Turning the Rear Control dial cycles through a range of bracketing options, including Continuous-Advance Bracket, Single-Frame Advance Bracket, and Digital Effect Bracket (which brackets either Filter, Contrast, or Color Saturation settings). The ability to bracket hue, contrast, and color saturation is really helpful for handling difficult subjects.

Movie and Sound Recording
The DiMAGE A2 has a Movie mode that records moving images with sound, for up to 15 minutes per clip. The amount of recording time appears in the LCD or EVF monitor display, and varies with the resolution and frame rate of the movie, the available CompactFlash card space, and the speed of the memory card. (The full 15 minutes of recording time will only be available at the highest resolution and frame rate if your memory card can support the data transfer rate.) Movies are recorded at 544 x 408, or 320 x 240-pixel resolution, with frame rates of approximately 15 or 30 frames per second. Through the Record menu, you can set the movie mode to Auto, Standard, or Night. Night mode records black and white movies in low lighting situations, and is far more effective in dim lighting than the vast majority of digicam movie options I've seen. The Auto setting tells the camera to automatically decide between Standard and Night modes, based on the exposure conditions.

One odd note about maximum movie clip length: When testing it, I initially used a 2GB 80x speed-rated Lexar card, to verify that maximum record time really was the 15 minutes shown on the camera's display. To my surprise, the camera stopped recording after about 5 minutes. Thinking that the A2's circuitry might somehow not be up to the extreme speed of the 80x card, I dropped back to a 1GB 40x card, and found that I could record movies for the full 15 minutes claimed. Realizing that I'd changed two variables though (card size as well as card speed), I next tried a 1GB 80x card. Voila, the camera again recorded for a full 15 minutes. As a double-check, I returned to the 2GB 80x card, and again found that recording time was limited to about 5 minutes. The conclusion? It seems that the A2 somehow gets bogged down with memory cards larger than 1GB! It still works fine, but can't seem to navigate the larger file system as quickly. - So, feel free to use very large memory cards with the A2, but stay below 1 GB if you need to record maximum-resolution movies for more than 5 minutes at a time. (Note though, that all movie settings other than the maximum size, 30 fps option will record to the full 15 minute limit. - 15 fps at maximum resolution , or either 15 or 30 fps at the lower resolution work just fine.)

A Voice Memo mode records 15 seconds of audio to accompany still images. This mode must be enabled before image capture. When enabled, a microphone icon appears in the LCD/EVF display, and the camera automatically begins recording audio for the specified amount of time immediately after image capture.

 

Flash

The DiMAGE A2 features a built-in, pop-up flash, which operates in either Fill-Flash, Red-Eye Reduction, Rear Flash sync, or Wireless modes. To release the flash from its compartment, pull on the two small tabs on either side of the casing and lift up the flash head. Close it again by simply pushing the flash head back down. The Flash mode is changed through the Record settings menu, or optionally through the Custom option of the Function dial. In Fill-Flash mode, the flash fires with every exposure, regardless of lighting conditions. Red-Eye Reduction fires a series of small pre-flashes before firing the flash at full power for the exposure itself. This makes your subjects' pupils contract and reduces the occurrence of the Red-Eye effect. The Rear Flash Sync mode fires the flash at the end of the shutter time, rather than the beginning. If you have moving objects in a relatively brightly lit environment, this will produce a sharp image of your subject, with a "motion trail" following behind it. The flash is in the Off position when it's closed. The Wireless mode lets the camera work with wireless remote flash units, with four channels available through the settings menu, so different camera/flash setups working in the same area won't interfere with each other. (Konica Minolta makes two flash units that support the DiMAGE A2's wireless capability, the Program Flash 5600HS [D] and 3600HS [D].)

The DiMAGE A2 is also unusual in that it offers two methods of flash metering. Its default mode is called ADI, which stands for Advanced Distance Integration. In this mode, it bases its flash exposure on the lens aperture and distance feedback from the autofocus system, as well as on the light reflected back from a pre-flash. By determining how far away the target subject is, the camera knows how much flash power is required to illuminate it, and so is less likely to be fooled by subjects that are unusually light or dark overall. As a fallback, a Pre-Flash TTL (through the lens) method bases the exposure determination solely on a small metering flash before the main exposure. Used in conjunction with the spot autofocus option mentioned earlier, the ADI flash metering should be much more accurate with small subjects against a different colored background than the pre-flash method.

For use with studio strobes and conventional slave triggers, the DiMAGE A2 also has a manual flash power option. This lets you set the flash power to Full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, or 1/16 power manually. In this mode, the flash fires only once, at the moment of exposure. The single flash pulse prevents false triggering when working with conventional slave triggers.

The DiMAGE A2 also includes a top-mounted hot shoe for attaching an external flash unit. The shoe design and contact arrangement are set up for Konica Minolta's own dedicated flash units, but I imagine that compatible models are available from the major third-party flash manufacturers (Sunpak et. al.). Konica Minolta's own Program Flash models 2500(D), 3600HS(D), and 5600HS(D) work with the DiMAGE A2, and two macro flashes (Macro Twin Flash 2400 and Macro Ring Flash 1200) will work with an accessory macro flash controller.

An external flash sync terminal (the so-called "PC" style connector) accommodates just about any third-party flash unit. This makes the DiMAGE A2 much more appealing to photographers who already have an existing strobe system for the studio.

I had a chance to play a bit with a couple of Konica Minolta's dedicated flash units back when I tested the earlier DiMAGE 7Hi, and must say I was impressed. I only shot with the 5600 model (a conventional hot-shoe mounted unit, but with the added capability of wireless control) in a fairly small area, so didn't test the maximum range over which the wireless TTL control would function. (I'm sure it has some maximum range over which it's effective, but don't know what that is.) That said though, the camera/flash combination worked exceptionally well. Very slick, given that no extra controller or other hardware is needed to establish the wireless link between the flash and the camera. (This has to be one of the neatest flash arrangements I've seen yet on a digicam, the only equal I'm aware of being Nikon's advanced wireless system built around their SB-600 and SB-800 strobes, and supported by the D70 and D2H SLRs.)

For closeup work, the T2400 macro twin flash is a very capable setup too. - A large ring mounts to the front of the lens, and serves as a support mount for a pair of tiny flash heads. The little flash heads are powered by a flash controller that looks just like a normal hot-shoe flash unit, but has two sockets on its front instead of the flash tube. The ring has multiple mounting points around it for the little flash heads, so you can direct the light to come from top, bottom, or either side with equal ease. The flash controller also lets you set the power ratio between the two heads, so you can have a "main" and "fill" light on your macro subject. Very flexible, very slick (if not a little odd-looking). Highly recommended if you intend to do any really extensive macro work. (This should be a great solution for people selling tiny objects (coins, jewelry?) on eBay, looks like a sure winner for dentists looking to document their work, entomologists wanting really good bug pictures, etc, etc.)

Color Space
This is probably as good a place as any to talk about the DiMAGE A2's color space. The original DiMAGE 7 used a proprietary color space with a much wider color gamut than the sRGB space used by most digicams. (As well as by most computer monitors, consumer-grade printers, etc.) The result was that it could capture a much broader range of colors than other cameras, but this also meant that the raw JPEGs straight out of the camera looked rather flat and dull when viewed on a typical computer monitor. To get the full color to appear, you needed to run the image files through Minolta's DiMAGE Viewer software utility, and convert their color space back to sRGB. (Or whatever other working space you wanted to use. Many graphics professionals work in the so-called "Adobe RGB" space popularized by Photoshop(tm), which is supported by many graphics programs and printers, and also offers an expanded color gamut.)

While the expanded color gamut was a real boon to graphics professionals and others interested in breaking free of the constraints of sRGB, for the average amateur it amounted to just one more step to go through before they could fully enjoy their photos. Worse, if someone wasn't aware of the color space issue, they'd probably write off the DiMAGE 7 as having rather flat, undersaturated color.

With the DiMAGE 7i, Minolta stepped back closer to the mainstream in the color space department, adopting a color space that was much closer to sRGB, to the point that files from the 7i could be used in an sRGB environment without special processing. While there was still some undersaturation in parts of the spectrum, the 7i's unprocessed JPEG images were much more visually appealing than those from the original 7.

With the DiMAGE 7Hi, Minolta further moved to embrace standard color space definitions, but this time they also included an option for a space with a larger color gamut than that supported by sRGB. The 7Hi had three color space options (plus black & white and sepia), two based on sRGB, and two being the broader-gamut "Adobe RGB" space. The two sRGB spaces are the default one, with normal color rendering, and a "vivid" sRGB option, which boosts color saturation a fair bit. The two AdobeRGB spaces are identical with the exception of whether or not color space information is embedded in the image files. The DiMAGE A1 followed in the footsteps of the 7Hi in this regard, with the same color space options available, as does the A2.

This increased color-space flexibility will come as a welcome addition for many pros and advanced amateurs who want to use their cameras in a color-managed environment. The Adobe RGB space avoids many of the color limitations of the sRGB space, which are most evident in highly-saturated reds. Working in Adobe RGB lets you maintain detail in bright reds and greens that can't be properly represented in sRGB space. Switching to Adobe RGB for your photography does involve a fair degree of commitment though, as you'll need to set up your entire workflow to support it, including both screen rendering on your computer's CRT or LCD, and printing to your printer. Computer monitors are built to the sRGB standard, and require software support (as in Adobe Photoshop or other high-end image manipulation package) to portray Adobe RGB images properly. Likewise, most consumer-grade photo printers assume sRGB as the starting point, again needing color management to properly output Adobe RGB files. (Many professional photo printers are set up to work in Adobe RGB by default though, so check to see what your printer's default color space is.)

 

Shutter Lag/Cycle Times

When you press the shutter release on a digital camera, there's usually a delay or lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms to do their work and can amount to a significant delay in some situations. Likewise, the delay from shot to shot can vary greatly, and is also important to the picture-taking experience. Since these numbers are rarely reported by manufacturers or reviewers (and even more rarely, reported accuracy), I routinely measure both shutter lag and cycle times using an electronic test setup I designed and built for the purpose. (Crystal-controlled timing, with a resolution of 0.001 second.) Here are the numbers I collected for the DiMAGE A2:\

Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
2.5
No wait for lens to extend, so fairly fast.
Shutdown
1.8-70
No lens to retract, so time shown is that required for camera to finish writing data to the memory card. First time is for small data file, second is for full buffer (184 frames) of small images from Ultra High Speed Continuous mode on a fast card. (Lexar 80x WA.) Buffer-empty times for slow cards could be quite a bit longer. Fairly fast for a single file. Worst-case is a long time, but a buffer capacity of 184 low-res frames is a load of data to deal with.
Play to Record, first shot
1.4
Time until first shot is captured, from playback mode. Fairly fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
2.4/1.3
First number is for camera having just captured an image, second number is for camera having completed processing last image, in resting state in capture mode. Reasonably fast, probably about average for its class.
Shutter lag,
full autofocus
0.452/0.387
First number is for lens at wide-angle setting, second is for telephoto. Very fast (!), interesting in that tele time is slightly shorter than wide-angle: Usually, the opposite is the case.
Shutter lag,
continuous autofocus
0.734 As is usually the case with cameras I test, continuous autofocus doesn't result in faster shutter response, at least with stationary subjects. To the contrary, in the case of the A2, it actually significantly slows it. Continuous AF may very well improve results with moving subjects, but if your subject isn't moving toward or away from you, use single autofocus for significantly better results.
Shutter lag,
manual focus
0.100
Quite fast compared to other prosumer cameras in its class.
Shutter lag,
prefocus
0.082
Quite fast overall, faster than average relative to competing models.
Cycle Time,
Single Shot Mode
Large/Small JPEGs
1.13/1.60
(20)
First number is for large/fine files, second is for lowest resolution/quality. There seems to be a slight advantage to faster memory cards, even before the buffer fills, as I measured a 1.13 second cycle time for large/fine files with an 80x card, but 1.35 seconds with a 40x one. Small/basic files seemed to have the same cycle time, regardless of card speed. Buffer capacity in large/fine mode is 3 shots, after which the cycle time slows to 5.2 seconds with the fastest memory cards. (5.2 seconds with a Lexar 80x CF card, 7.8 seconds with a 40x one.) - Expect proportionately slower times with slower memory cards. (For the heck of it, I tried an old 1x CF card in the A2, and found that the post-buffer cycle time was an incredible 33.5 seconds/frame!) After capturing a long series of large/fine shots, the buffer clears in about 20 seconds with an 80x card, 24 seconds with a 40x one. (97 seconds with the 1x card mentioned above.) At the small/basic quality setting, there seems to be no limit to the number of shots that can be captured without slowing.
Cycle Time,
Single Shot Mode,
RAW files
1.14/10.9
(35)
First number is interval between shots for first 3 captured, then stretches to 10.9 seconds with a Lexar 40x card, 11.1 seconds with an 80x. (Yes, it's just a hair slower) . Buffer clears in 34 seconds with a fast card (same speed for 40x and 80x), likely longer with a slow one.
Cycle Time,
Single Shot Mode,
RAW+JPEG files
18.4 While the A2 will buffer either RAW or JPEG files, its RAW+JPEG mode is unbuffered, greatly reducing the usefulness. of this mode The time at right was recorded with a 80x Lexar card, a 40x card stretched the time per frame to 19.7 seconds.
Cycle Time,
Single Shot Mode,
TIFF files
25.3 On the A2, TIFF files aren't buffered at all, the camera must finish writing one image to the memory card before it can capture the next one. Time shown is with an 80x Lexar card, times with a 40x card were only slightly slower, at 26.9 second/frame. As with the large/fine buffer-clearing time mentioned above though, it's clear that the A2 does make good use of fast cards. For the heck of it, I stuck an old 1x CF card in the A2 and timed its TIFF cycle time at an astounding 155 seconds per frame. (!)
Cycle time,
Normal Continuous Mode, Large/Small JPEG
0.55/0.52
(20/5)
First number is for large/fine files, second is for smallest/basic setting. In large/fine mode, the camera captures three images at this speed, before slowing to about 6.4 seconds between frames for an 80x card, or 8.6 seconds with an 40x one. In small/basic quality, the camera captures bursts of three, with a pause to write data to the card between. The first three shots are about 0.53 seconds apart, subsequent groups of three are at about 1.5 seconds between shots. The pause between groups of shots is always about 3.4 seconds. The buffer clears in 20 seconds for large/fine files, 5 seconds for small/basic ones, with an 80x CF card.) Fairly fast overall, but the 3-shot buffer is a little limiting.
Cycle time,
Normal Continuous Mode,
RAW files
0.48/11.52
(33)
Grabs three shots, then slows to 11.8 seconds/frame with an 80x card, 12.5 seconds with a 40x one. Buffer clears in 33-34 seconds with either card.
Cycle time,
High Speed Continuous Mode, large JPEGs
0.37/6.23
(18)
Shoots at 0.37 seconds/frame for three shots, then slows to 6.23 seconds per shot with an 80x card. (Likely slower with slower cards, I didn't test though.) Buffer clears completely in 18 seconds with fast card, likely longer with slower one.
Cycle time,
High Speed Continuous Mode, small JPEGs
0.37
(4)
These are times for small/lowest-quality JPEG files. The camera shot the first three frames at intervals of 0.37 seconds, but after that the cycle time was very irregular, ranging from 0.36-4.49 second. Buffer cleared entirely in 4 seconds.
Cycle time,
High Speed Continuous Mode, RAW files
0.37/12.5
(34)
Captures three frames, then slows to 12.5 seconds/frame, very close to the same speed with either 40x or 80x cards. Buffer clears in 34 seconds.

The DiMAGE A2 is a very fast camera overall, and one of the only two 8 megapixel models currently on the market with usable speed when shooting in RAW mode. (The other being the Canon Pro1.) Its shot to shot cycle time in single-shot mode is the fastest of any of the 8-megapixel models currently on the market.) On the downside though, the A2's buffer capacity is a relatively modest (even paltry by current standards) 3 frames, and TIFF-mode files aren't buffered at all. Likewise, while RAW and JPEG files are both buffered, the RAW+JPEG mode isn't buffered, greatly reducing its usefulness. (Reduced buffer capacity and lack of buffering for TIFF images is an area in which functionality was unfortunately lost relative to the earlier A1 model, apparently a consequence of the increased size of the 8 megapixel images.)

I did most of my cycle time testing with fast 40x and 80x Lexar CF cards, and found relatively little difference in speed between the two, meaning that the A2's internal circuitry can't deliver the data much faster than a 40x rate. That said though, the A2 is very clearly able to take advantage of at least the 40x card speed, as I found astonishingly slow cycle times when I put an old 1x CF card into it. (Would you believe 155 seconds from shot to shot in TIFF mode?) I strongly recommend that you pay attention to card speed ratings when shopping for memory for the A2, look for something that's rated at least 40x to get the most out of the camera.

Autofocus speed and the resulting fast shutter response is an area of dramatic improvement over the A1 though, and one of the real strengths of the A2, making it an excellent camera for shooting sports and other fast-paced action. - With full-autofocus shutter lag of just 0.39 - 0.45 seconds, its one of the all-around fastest cameras on the market. (The Nikon 8700 is slightly faster across the board, if you wait for the camera to finish processing the previous image before you press the shutter button. (That is, if you don't make use of the 8700's buffer memory.) Shooting to the buffer, the A2 beats the 8700 handily. The Sony F828 is a fair bit faster when its lens is set to wide-angle, but is a fair bit slower at telephoto. The rest of the current crop of 8-megapixel cameras are all slower.) I'd like to see a deeper buffer memory, but apart from that, the A2 looks like an excellent choice for sports and other action photography.

 

Operation & User Interface

The DiMAGE A2's user interface is much more sophisticated than most digital cameras on the market, as it provides significant external control over commonly used settings. As a result, the DiMAGE A2 should be more intuitive for film-based photographers who are accustomed to the "tactile" interface of the traditional 35mm SLR. The difference is immediately apparent in the mechanically-coupled zoom lens control, which provides much more direct control than the motorized rocker switch zooms used by most other digital cameras. The rubber collar grip surrounding the lens barrel is clearly marked with corresponding focal lengths, so you know immediately the zoom setting at which you're operating. Manual focus is more of a "fly by the wire" adjustment, in which a ribbed focus ring at the base of the lens is used to control the internal motor that actually makes the adjustment. In my opinion, the zoom control is more important, however, given that the majority of users will spend more time in Auto Focus rather than Manual Focus mode.

You can control almost all of the essential camera functions without having to resort to the on-screen LCD menu system, although a couple of them are accessed via the Custom option of the Function dial - meaning you must choose the setting that's most important to you for quick access without entering the menu system. Most of the camera adjustments are made by rotating a dial, pressing a button, and turning one of the control dials. This may sound like a lot of steps, but in practice I've always found external mechanical controls like these much faster to navigate than LCD menu options. In addition to the Mode switch and Exposure Mode dial, the major interface elements include a pair of function dials on the left side of the camera, Front and Rear Control dials, and the top-panel LED data readout (or, you can refer to the LCD or electronic viewfinder displays.) Initially, I found it a little awkward to have to view the left side of the camera to select specific parameters, but after a few hours of using the camera, I found myself simply counting the clicks on the dials there to select the options I wanted. Bottom line, while they're rather unusual in the digicam world, the DiMAGE A2's controls lend themselves to quick, sure operation for experienced users in the heat of concentrated shooting sessions.

 

Control Enumeration


Shutter Button
: Located on the top right-hand side of the camera, this button sets exposure and focus (in autofocus mode) when half-pressed, and trips the shutter when fully pressed.


Front Control Dial
: This ridged wheel sits just behind the Shutter button, conveniently under your index finger. All of the most commonly used camera settings are adjusted by using this wheel in conjunction with one of the function dials on the left side of the camera. It also controls aperture and shutter speed in Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes and shutter speed in full-manual mode.


Exposure Mode Dial
: In the right rear corner of the top panel, this dial selects the camera's exposure mode. Options are Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Program AE, Auto, Memory Recall, Portrait, Sports, Sunset, and Night Portrait modes.


Information Button
: Angled down from the top panel, just off the lower left corner of the status display panel, this button controls the amount of information displayed on the EVF and LCD screens while in Record and Playback modes, and it activates the Index display in Playback mode.


Magnify Button
: To the right of the Information button, this button can be configured (via an LCD menu option) to either toggle the 2x digital zoom in Record mode, or to magnify the center of the image by 3.3x for manual focusing. In Playback mode, this button initially magnifies the image 2x, after which the up/down arrows on the Four-Way Controller increase or decrease magnification in steps of 0.2x, up to a maximum of 10.2x (depending on the image resolution).


Rear Control Dial
: Below the Exposure Mode dial on the camera's rear panel, this dial controls a variety of exposure settings when turned while pressing a control button or turning a function dial.


AE Lock Button
: On the back of the camera, just below the Rear Control dial, this button locks exposure and/or focus, depending on how you've set it up. An LCD menu option configures the button to match your shooting style. The button can be programmed to either toggle the lock on or off, or only hold the settings while depressed. It can also be configured to tie the AE Lock area to the spot metering point.


Mode Switch
: Just to the right of the EVF on the rear panel, this switch sets the camera's main operating mode to Record, Playback, or Movie.

Power Button: Located in the center of the Mode switch, this button turns the camera on and off.


Exposure /Flash Compensation Button
: Directly below the Mode switch, this button lets you adjust the overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments when pressed while turning the Front Control dial. Located right under your right thumb as you grip the camera, it's very easy to press this at the same time as turning the Control dial. (Much easier than I'd have expected, a very quick, intuitive adjustment.) This button also adjusts the flash exposure compensation, when pressed while turning the Rear Control dial. Adjusting the flash exposure is unfortunately a two-handed operation, but it's still nice not to have to enter the LCD menu system to make the setting change. If the flash control has been set to Manual, this adjustment controls the flash output directly, setting it to 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 or full power. (Overall, a very nice implementation of combined ambient/flash exposure adjustment.)


Display Mode Switch
: Below the Exposure Compensation button and tucked into the corner next to the LCD monitor, this switch controls the operation of the rear-panel LCD and the EVF displays. The top position enables the EVF only, while the bottom position enables only the LCD monitor. In the center Auto position, marked as "A," the camera decides which screen to activate, using a set of infrared sensors next to the EVF that tell when your eye is near the EVF.


Four-Way Controller and OK Button
: In the center of the rear panel, this rocker control steps through selections within the LCD menu system and interacts with various status messages or requests for confirmation that appear on the LCD screen. You navigate the menus by pressing one of the four arrows around the control's periphery, and confirm selections by pressing the OK button in the center of the control. In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images on the memory card, while the up arrow activates a histogram display. In Record mode, pressing and holding the center of the control switches the camera between Wide and Spot autofocus modes. Once in Spot AF, rocking the control moves the Spot crosshair around the frame, implementing Konica Minolta's Flex Focus Point mode.


QV/Delete Button
: Below the Four-Way Controller, the QuickView button lets you quickly switch from Record to a Quick View mode to view just-captured images. When viewing an image, pressing this button prompts the camera to ask if you want to delete it.


Menu Button
: While the DiMAGE A2 does make considerable use of external controls, it also has an extensive LCD menu system, with four screens of menus in both Record and Playback modes, with access to the Setup menus as well. Pressing the Menu button calls up the menu system, pressing it a second time dismisses it when you're done.


Anti-Shake Button
: To the right of the Menu button, this button toggles the camera's Anti-Shake System on and off. The button glows green when activated, and a blue "shaking hand" icon appears in the lower left corner of the LCD or EVF screen.


Function Dial
: Located at the top of the camera's left side panel, this dial is the primary interface for controlling the most frequently used camera settings. You change a setting by rotating the dial to the appropriate position, and then pressing the central button while rotating one of the ridged Control dials. When you press the center button, the corresponding camera option is displayed in isolation on either the LCD or EVF (whichever is in use), so you can see its current value as you rotate the Control dial. In some modes, rotating the front control dial selects the primary mode, while rotating the rear control dial selects a secondary or sub-mode. (An example would be the Drive Mode option, where the front dial selects between single shot, bracketing, continuous, interval, and self-timer modes. In most cases, the rear dial selects between sub-options, such as 2- or 10-second self-timer, etc.) Options here include the following:



Digital Effects Controller
: Below the Function Dial is the Digital Effects Controller, labeled "EFFECT." Its operation is very similar to that of the Function Dial, in that changes are made by rotating the dial to select a function, pressing the central button, and scrolling the Control dial. Options here include Contrast, Color Saturation, and Filter (a hue adjustment). Adjustments are very fine-grained yet cover a wide range, permitting subtle customization of the camera to your personal tastes or the needs of a particular subject.


Focus Switch
: Just below the Digital Effects Controller, this sliding switch controls the focus mode, selecting either Single AF, Continuous AF, or Manual modes.


Custom White Balance Button
: To the left of the Focus switch, this button sets the manual white balance when pressed in Custom white balance mode.


Manual Focus Ring
: Surrounding the base of the lens barrel, this ribbed ring controls focus when the camera is in Manual focus mode. This is a "fly by wire" control, in that it isn't directly (mechanically) connected to the optics, but rather commands an internal motor to move the lens elements. In "Direct Manual Focus" mode, the camera initially focuses automatically, then turns control over to the Focus Ring so you can fine-tune the focus manually.


Zoom Control Ring
: A rubberized ring around the middle of the lens barrel, this controls the optical zoom, moving the lens from wide angle to telephoto positions. Unlike the zoom controls on most digicams I've tested, this collar on the DiMAGE A2 is directly connected to the lens elements, providing very precise, sure-footed all-mechanical control.


Macro Focus Switch
: Located on the left side of the lens barrel, this control engages the macro focusing option. Macro focus may be enabled at either the wide-angle or at a short range of telephoto focal length settings of the zoom lens.


Diopter Control Dial
: Practically hidden on the left side of the optical viewfinder, this tiny dial adjusts the viewfinder display to accommodate eyeglass wearers. It varies the eyepiece diopter setting over an broader-than-average range, albeit not nearly as broad as the control on the A1's EVF did.


Battery Compartment Latch
: Located in the center of the battery compartment door on the bottom of the camera, this latch unlocks and opens the battery compartment cover.

 

Camera Modes and Menus

Still Capture Mode: Accessed by turning the Mode switch to the red camera symbol, this is the mode for all still-image capture operations. (Auto, Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Memory Recall, Portrait, Sports, Sunset, and Night Portrait modes are set through the Exposure Mode dial.)

Playback Mode: Indicated by the green arrow symbol, enables playback of previously captured images and movies.

Movie Mode: Enables capture of movie sequences with sound.

Still Picture Shooting Menu Basic Options
The following four menu screens are available in Record mode by pressing the Menu button:

Movie Shooting Menu Options


Playback Menu Options
The Playback menu offers three pages of options, all accessed by pressing the Menu button.


Setup Menu Options -
The following menu options are available in any exposure mode, and are accessed through the Setup tab at the top of any menu screen.

Image Storage and Interface

The DiMAGE A2 uses CompactFlash Type I or Type II memory cards for image storage. The camera ships without a memory card, saving the cost of the essentially useless cards bundled by most manufacturers with their cameras, which often can only hold a couple of images at the cameras' maximum resolutions. (Just remember to have your own CF card on hand when your new camera arrives, to save frustration.) Third-party CF cards are available separately in memory capacities as high as six gigabytes, either in the form of conventional Flash Memory, or as a rotating disc, as in the MicroDrives available from several manufacturers. Thanks to its support of the FAT32 file system, the camera will be able to fully utilize these higher-capacity cards. The CompactFlash slot is on the right side of the camera, covered by a hinged plastic door that opens easily and snaps shut crisply. The card inserts with the connector edge going in first, and the rear of the card facing the back of the camera. A small button beside the slot ejects the card by popping it up slightly, letting you pull the card the rest of the way out (put the eject button into a vertical position first by pulling up on its bottom edge).

Although individual CompactFlash cards cannot be write-protected or locked against erasure or manipulation, the DiMAGE A2 lets you lock individual images or groups of images through the Playback menu. Once protected, images cannot be erased or manipulated in any way, except through card formatting. The Playback menu also lets you delete images shown in the LCD display, change the number of images in the Index display, create a custom slide show, set images up for printing on DPOF compliant printers, and copy images via camera memory to a new CF card.

Six image resolution settings are available: 3,264 x 2,448; 3,264 x 2,176 3:2; 2,560 x 1,920; 2,080 x 1,560; 1,600 x 1,200; and 640 x 480 pixels. Files may be saved in any one of three JPEG compression levels, as well as uncompressed TIFF (indicated on the camera LCD as "SuperFine"), and a compact RAW format. (By its nature, the RAW format only saves the full-resolution image size.) The DiMAGE A2 also allows you to simultaneously save images in both RAW and JPEG formats, allowing you to have the convenience of JPEG files but the security of a RAW copy of your images should you desire the maximum quality later. The number of remaining images that can be stored on the memory card appears in the lower right corner of the status display panel, in addition to the selected Resolution and Compression settings. (A minor quibble: With very large memory cards and the smallest image size/compression settings, the counter tops-out at 999, a minor annoyance.)

The table below summarizes the compression ratios and number of images that can be stored on a 128MB memory card (a common size that might typically be used with the camera), with each Resolution / Quality (JPEG Compression) combination. (Note the large size of the 640x480 files: If you're planning on shooting small images for the web or email, you'll definitely need to re-save these at a higher JPEG compression ratio.)

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
32 MB Memory Card
Fine Normal
Basic
RAW
TIFF
3,264 x 2,448 Images
(Avg size)
15
8.2 MB
31
4.1 MB
53
2.4 MB

10 12.2 MB

5
25.6 MB
Approx.
Compression
3:1 6:1 10:1 2:1 1:1
2,560 x 1,920 Images
(Avg size)
25
5.1 MB
49
2.6 MB
84
1.5 MB
- -
Approx.
Compression
3:1 6:1 10:1 - -
2,080 x 1,560 Images
(Avg size)
37
3.4 MB
73
1.7 MB
122
1.0 MB
- -
Approx.
Compression
3:1 6:1 9:1 - -
1,600x 1,200 Images
(Avg size)
62
2.0 MB
1.0 MB 191
670 KB
- -
Approx.
Compression
3:1 5:1 9:1 - -
640 x 480
Images
(Avg size)
298
429 KB
392
327 KB
499
256 KB
-
-
Approx.
Compression
2:1 3:1
4:1
-
-

 

A USB 2.0 High Speed cable and interface software accompany the DiMAGE A2 for quick connection and image downloading to a PC or Macintosh computer. It appears as a "storage class" USB device, meaning that no driver software is needed for Mac OS versions 8.6 or later or for Windows Me, 2000, and XP. Downloading files to my Sony desktop running Windows XP (Pentium IV, 2.4 GHz), I clocked it at 1265 KBytes/second, quite a bit faster than any camera with a v1.1 USB interface, and probably about in the middle of the pack among other cameras supporting the "full speed" variant of the USB 2.0 protocol. (Cameras with slow USB v1.1 interfaces run as low as 300 KB/s, cameras with fast v1.1 interfaces run as high as 600 KB/s. Cameras with USB v2.0 interfaces run as fast as several megabytes/second.)

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobodies immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

Video Out

The DiMAGE A2 provides a video output jack with an accompanying video cable. The signal timing can be set to NTSC or PAL via the Setup menu. The Video output duplicates the contents of the LCD in all modes, permitting it to be used as an auxiliary viewfinder.


Power

The DiMAGE A2 uses an NP-400 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack for power, or the optional AC adapter. The camera comes with a battery and charger and shows excellent battery life, but I highly recommend picking up a spare and keeping it freshly charged at all times.

Here are the power-consumption numbers I measured for the DiMAGE A2 in the lab, along with estimated run times, based on a single lithium-ion cell:

Operating Mode
Power
(mA @?v)
Est. Minutes
(One 1500mAh lithium-ion pack)
Capture Mode, w/LCD
650 mA
142
Capture Mode, w/EVF
483 mA
191
Capture Mode, EVF off
270 mA

342

Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
603.6 mA
153
Half-pressed w/EVF
719.1 mA
129
Memory Write (transient)
571 mA
n/a
Flash Recharge (transient)
1057 mA
n/a
Sleep
0.8 mA
(1800 hours)
Image Playback
425 mA
218

 

Overall, these are very good battery life numbers, although not as good as those of the previous DiMAGE A1 model. I do still highly recommend purchasing a second NP-400 battery pack, but the DiMAGE A2 has somewhat better than average battery life.

The A2 has an optional power grip available as an accessory, shown above. The grip accepts inserts holding either six AA cells or two NP-400 LiIon packs. The grip works with either ordinary alkaline AAs for emergency backup power, or NiMH AA cells for low-cost rechargeable operation. (Although it should be pointed out that a set of six high-capacity NiMH AAs only provides about 35% more power than does a single NP-400 carried inside the camera body itself. NiMH AAs might make sense as a backup solution, or as a cheaper, lower-performance alternative, but if you're really interested in maximum run times with the A2, think in terms of multiple NP-400 packs. They're very compact, and pack a load of power.) The shot above shows the earlier A1 perched atop the BP-400 battery grip. (The same grip fits both models.)

 

In the Box

The DiMAGE A2 ships with the following items:


Recommended Accessories

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the DiMAGE A2's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the A2's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the A2 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

 

Conclusion

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The Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 is the latest in a long line of impressive digicams from Minolta (now Konica Minolta, since last year's merger), and carries the tradition proudly in to the 8-megapixel arena. Minolta was the first manufacturer to break the 5-megapixel barrier, doing so in dramatic fashion with their original DiMAGE 7. They've made good use of their investment in the body and (excellent) optics developed for the DiMAGE 7, turning them into a complete line of cameras, including the 7, 7i, 7Hi, A1, and now the A2. The lens amazed me when it first came out, as nothing then on the market could touch it for corner to corner sharpness and low chromatic aberration. Now, some three years later, the competition has caught up somewhat, as several other 8-megapixel digicams now have excellent glass. That said, the lens on the A2 is still notable for how well it holds sharpness into the corners of the frame, across its full zoom range. Relative to other 8-megapixel contenders, the A2's images look a little softer overall, perhaps in some part a consequence of the lens design, but more likely the result of the camera's relatively strong anti-noise processing: The A2 shows some of the lowest image-noise figures of any of the current 8-megapixel models (only the Olympus C-8080 matches it), but this comes at the usual cost of some of the subtle detail in its images. - There's no free lunch: All the current 8MP cameras use the same sensor chip, so the fundamental noise levels are going to be the same. All the manufacturers can do is to attempt to reduce or otherwise "shape" the noise response with their image processing. Bottom line, with a given level of noise coming from the sensor, you can choose to emphasize image sharpness or reduce image noise, but not both.

While the competition has somewhat caught up with the capabilities of the A2's now three-year-old lens, there are a number of areas in which the A2 is unique or nearly so. One such area is speed: Its shutter lag is arguably the fastest on the market (see my comments above for the relevant qualifications and limitations on that statement), and its shot to shot cycle times are the fastest of any 8-megapixel prosumer camera, bar none. With the Canon PowerShot Pro1, it's also the only 8-megapixel prosumer camera that buffers RAW-mode files, meaning it's one of only two models that are actually usable in RAW mode for anything other than landscapes and still lifes. Its paltry 3-shot buffer is the only fly in the "speed" ointment, but if you can live with the constraint of 3-shot bursts, nothing matches the A2's raw speed at the 8-megapixel resolution level.

Another area in which the A2 rises above the competition is in its anti-shake image stabilization system. It's hard to overemphasize the benefit of image stabilization on a camera with a long-ratio zoom lens. A sharp lens and an 8-megapixel sensor are worthless if you can't hold the camera steady enough to take sharp photos. - And with 8 megapixels of resolution, it takes surprisingly little shake to produce visible blurring. I don't have any way of quantitatively evaluating the A2's anti-shake system, but my gut sense is that it provides about a three-stop advantage when it comes to handholding a camera. - That means you'll be able to get equally sharp images with the A2 as with a competing model, shooting at 8 times the shutter speed. (Sharp photos at 1/30 second at maximum telephoto, vs ~1/250 second without the A2's anti-shake.) That's a huge advantage that's hard to convey in mere words, but equally hard to overstate: Get out and shoot with/without anti-shake, and you'll quickly become a believer.

Finally, the A2 carries forward the long tradition of its forebears, offering unparalleled creative control, in the form of very fine-grained, broad-ranging adjustments for color saturation, contrast, hue, and image sharpening. This is a bit of a subtle point, but it means that you can really adjust the camera to uniquely suit your own photographic preferences.

Taken as a package, the Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 is tough to beat, and is clearly at or near the top of the heap relative to the other 8-megapixel "enthusiast" cameras on the market. A powerful photographic tool, and an easy choice as a "Dave's Pick." Highly recommended.

<<A2 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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