Sony A900 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Sony Alpha DSLR-A900
Resolution: 24.60 Megapixels
Sensor size: 35mm
Kit Lens: n/a
Viewfinder: EVF / No LCD
ISO: 100-6400
Shutter: 30-1/8000
Max Aperture: n/a
Dimensions: 6.2 x 4.6 x 3.2 in.
(156 x 117 x 82 mm)
Weight: 33.1 oz (939 g)
includes batteries
MSRP: $3,000
Availability: 11/2008
Manufacturer: Sony
24.60
Megapixels
Sony Alpha (Minolta A) mount 35mm
size sensor
image of Sony Alpha DSLR-A900
Front side of Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 digital camera Back side of Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 digital camera Top side of Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 digital camera Left side of Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 digital camera Right side of Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 digital camera

Imaging Resource rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Sony A900 Overview

Review by Dave Etchells, Shawn Barnett, Zig Weidelich, and Stephanie Boozer

Overview by Mike Tomkins

Review Posted: 09/09/08
Update 09/22/08: Added dynamic range analysis from ACR 4.6 beta processed RAW file to Imatest Results. The Sony A900 did exceptionally well!
Update 12/11/08: Added RAW crops/files with no NR to Hi ISO NR page. You can also download the ISO 1600-6400 Still Life RAW files with NR turned Off from the thumbnails page.

The Sony A900 has to rank among the most anticipated digital SLRs in recent memory. The company first showed an early version of its upcoming flagship design at the Photo Marketing Association tradeshow in the spring of 2007, and at the following year's show Sony revealed a few more details about the image sensor and stabilization mechanism it would use. With the Alpha A900 featuring a full 35mm frame-sized image sensor, Sony has joined a rather exclusive club. To date only four companies have offered full-frame digital SLRs. Of these, two - Contax and Kodak - have since left the digital SLR market altogether.

That leaves Sony in a head-to-head battle with the two giants of the photographic industry - Canon and Nikon. Each rival offers two full-frame digital SLRs - a mid-range model at around $3000 MSRP, and a pro model for double to triple as much. Sony looks to have rather stirred up the status quo by pricing its flagship at around the same as its competitors' mid-range models, but offering a specification that seems to lie somewhere in between the competing mid-range and pro models -- and in some cases such as sensor resolution, actually leads the field. The Sony Alpha A900 has a whopping 24.6-megapixel resolution from its full-frame Exmor CMOS image sensor -- the highest sensor resolution of any 35mm digital SLR yet announced. To handle all the data produced by the high-resolution imager, the Sony DSLR-A900 uses dual Bionz image processors, and this allows for five frames-per-second shooting for up to 11 JPEG or 13 RAW frames.

The sensor is mounted on a moving platter that allows for in-camera image stabilization, branded as SteadyShot Inside. That's another world's first for a full-frame digital SLR, and it's no mean feat when you consider that the sensor shift mechanism has to deal with the extra weight of a full-frame sensor. The various DSLRs seen to date that feature sensor shift stabilization all have significantly smaller 1.6x crop sensors. Sony rose to the challenge by designing a new more powerful sensor shift mechanism, and rates the Alpha DSLR-A900 as good for a 2.5 to 4-stop improvement.

The Sony DSLR-A900's body is constructed from five main magnesium alloy sections, and includes sealing to reduce ingress of moisture between the body panels, as well as at the various control dials and buttons. The Sony A900 has a Sony Alpha lens mount that also accepts Konica and Konica Minolta glass. A large pentaprism sits above the lens mount, both dictating the camera body's workmanlike visual aesthetic, and providing a very large and bright TTL optical viewfinder with 0.74x magnification. The rear panel features a large 3-inch LCD display with 921,600 dot resolution, equating to VGA (640 x 480) pixel with three R, G and B dots per pixel. This is used solely for reviewing of images, as well as for menus and status display; the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 doesn't offer live view capability. There's also a small top-panel status LCD which indicates remaining shots and battery life, as well as the basic exposure variables.

The Sony Alpha A900 offers ISO sensitivity from 200 to 3,200 equivalent, but is expandable to ISO 100 to 6,400 equivalent. Shutter speeds range from 30 to 1/8000 second, plus a bulb setting, and x-sync is 1/250 second (or 1/200 second when SteadyShot is enabled). Metering is achieved by a 40-segment honeycomb sensor, and you can also choose from center-weighted or spot metering modes. Focusing is achieved courtesy of a a nine-point phase detection autofocus system with f/2.8 dual center cross sensor, and there are also ten supplemental AF-assist points arranged adjacent to the main AF points. There's no built-in flash in the Sony A900, with the design instead offering a hot shoe and PC flash sync terminal to cater for external flash strobes and lighting setups.

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 has dual flash card slots, and hence can store images on either CompactFlash Type-I or Type-II cards (including Microdrives), or on Memory Stick Duo cards. The Sony A900 draws its power from a proprietary NP-FM500H InfoLithium rechargeable battery that's rated for about 880 shots per charge, to CIPA testing standards. Connectivity options include both USB 2.0 High Speed for computer connection, and both standard and high definition video. For standard-def, there's NTSC / PAL switchable composite video output, while high-def is achieved via an HDMI connection.

Sony A900 Pricing and Availability

Pricing for the Sony Alpha A900 is set at about US$3,000, with availability slated for November 2008. Pre-orders will be accepted online from September 10th. The product bundle includes the camera body, battery and charger, wireless remote commander, and eyepiece cup. There's also a range of software in the bundle: Image Data Converter SR, Image Data Lightbox SR, Remote Camera Control, and Picture Motion Browser. This last application is Windows-only, while the remainder are included in both Windows and MacOS versions.

 

Sony A900 User Report

by Shawn Barnett

It takes but a glance to see that the Sony Alpha A900 is unique among modern digital SLR cameras. The large, pyramidal shape behind the SONY logo suggests that a very large pentaprism glass element lies underneath. A quick glance through the viewfinder completes the impression: it's like a room in there, into which it seems you might fall if you're not careful. 35mm camera owners from the last century will find the Sony A900's viewfinder comforting, then quickly forget about it and begin composing with an impressive photographic tool.

Like its predecessor the Sony A700, the Sony Alpha A900 is big and boxy, not attempting to appear sleek, it looks more like a big industrial device, as cameras once did. Yet it fits well in the hand: a machine to the eye that is nevertheless well crafted for the human intended to use it.

Its weight is substantial, at 2.07 pounds (939g) without a lens, but with a battery and CF card (that's lighter than the Nikon D700 and just a little heavier than the Canon 5D); and it measures 6.1 x 4.6 x 3.2 inches (156 x 117 x 82mm). Add the Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lens and the Sony A900 really gets heavy, coming in at 4.17 pounds (1,894g).

The Sony A900's front panel looks a lot like the A700, though the handgrip bulges a bit more into the hand, and the Mode dial is positioned straight and level, while the A700's was mounted at a slant. Missing from the front of the grip is the Grip-sensor that was part of the Eye-start AF system.

Just under the bright orange Alpha logo is the PC flash sync terminal, covered with a rubber flap. Like all other rubber flaps on the Sony A900, this terminal cover swings open and stays open, as it's hinged to the camera, rather than the rubber itself serving as a hinge. That means you don't have to fight with it as you make your connection.

The Sony A900's grip has a comfortable finger groove for the middle finger, in which the infrared Remote Commander sensor is nestled. The inside of the grip is indented for a better finger grip, as is the front of the camera between the grip and lens, which is fairly obvious in the photo above: a very nice touch that those with long fingers will appreciate. Textured rubber surrounds the grip areas both left and right of the lens. The bottom of the body on the left (on the right side in this image) is tapered to allow a more comfortable fit into your palm as you reach your fingers around to the lens barrel.

The rear of the Sony A900 is laid out identically to the Sony A700. Positions are slightly different, with the LCD taking up less of the overall space, mostly because there's more width overall. The left side tapers away just left of the LCD, somewhat minimizing the bulk of the bulge at the left, giving your nose a little break as well, as you move your right eye up to the viewfinder.

Shutter. Just left of the optical viewfinder, you can barely see a latch for the viewfinder shutter, which is wise to close when shooting on a tripod.

The Sony A900's LCD is the same resolution as was on the A700, with 921,600 pixels, and a transflective (both transmissive and reflective) design, meaning that in bright daylight you can still frame images. Checking exposure accurately is a little harder, but that's what histograms are for. Note that though it's a hot feature on many of the latest digital SLRs, the Sony A900 has no live view mode; however, there is a new Intelligent Preview mode that can serve on occasion, and do a few tricks. More on that later.

Note that though there are still infrared sensors beneath the optical viewfinder, these are only for turning off the LCD when you put the camera up to your eye; Eye-start AF is no longer a feature on the Sony A900.

The rear Status display also opens up the option to change many settings right on the screen. Just press the Fn (function) button and use the joystick above it to navigate around the screen. Pressing down on the joystick activates your selection, which you can modify with one or the other control wheel (the rear or front wheel). It'll take a little time to figure out which wheel is necessary for each item, unfortunately. Some use only the front, others use both.

Shown here with the big, beautiful Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 zoom lens, the Sony A900 has a fitting, if high-dollar, mate. We shot extensively with this lens, and found it to be better than satisfactory, worthy of the A900. It also balances out the A900's big body. See our review of this $1,800 lens on SLRgear.com.

Body. The Sony A900's body is magnesium alloy, with large openings for the LCD and lens mount, as well as a cutout for the card door. The battery grip is also magnesium alloy, as shown here. The overall feel is quite solid. The body is sealed against moisture, as are the buttons and dials.

Now's a good time to point out that there is no pop-up flash on the Sony A900, due partly to the very large pentaprism inside. I think many of the Sony A900's intermediate owners will miss the convenience of a pop-up flash, as an external flash unit significantly raises the weight of an already large and heavy camera.

The Mode dial on the left has only full Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual modes, plus three user-programmable Custom modes; there are no Scene modes. To the right there's a new top status display, one that's very simple compared to most high-end digital SLR cameras. It displays only numbers, usually the shutter speed and aperture values, along with remaining frames available.

Top buttons. Buttons for White balance and ISO are harder to reach with your hand on the grip.

Some settings like ISO and EV are easily readable via the top Status LCD, but items like Drive and WB can be cryptic, so it's better to use the rear Status display. An illumination button just right of the LCD turns on an orange light, which Sony representatives jokingly insist is the same cinnabar orange that adorns the Alpha logo, lens ring, and other assorted accent areas. We'll let you decide.

The other four buttons on the top control Exposure Compensation, Drive mode, White balance, and ISO, working in concert with the rear control dial. While the front buttons for Exposure compensation and Drive mode are easy to press, we found the other two a little harder, comfortable with neither the thumb nor forefinger without removing your hand from the grip.

Quality port doors.

The Sony A900's rubber doors are the best-behaved doors we've seen on any camera, swinging open and staying put, rather than flapping shut when you let them go. In clockwise order from the top left, they are Remote, HDMI, USB/Video out, and DC In.

Two card formats.

Sony A900 owners will have the option of using CompactFlash or Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo format. Unfortunately, switching between cards is not automatic when one fills up, as is common on other dual-card digital cameras; still, you can access it on the rear Status display, which turns into an onscreen menu when you press the Fn (Function) button.


Steady there, big boy. Though it's big, Sony managed to stabilize their 35.9 x 24mm, 24.6-megapixel imager. Click the icons in the lower left corner to see animation. Animation courtesy Sony Electronics.

SteadyShot INSIDE. Sony says many experts thought adding sensor-shift image stabilization to a full-frame digital SLR would be impossible, but they managed to get it done nevertheless. They're moving a very large sensor at high speeds, so it is quite an achievement. We haven't tested it in the SLRgear.com lab yet, but in casual shooting it seemed to work quite well. Sony expects it offer from 2.5 to 4 stops of exposure latitude.

Though all of us like seeing the stabilizing effects of Canon and Nikon's optical image stabilization through the viewfinder, we also like the five-bar meter that appears in the optical viewfinder to tell you just how much the SteadyShot system has to work.

The same mechanism activates at startup and shutdown to shake dust from the sensor, and a new anti-static coating has been applied to the outermost glass to reduce the amount of dust that can stick to the sensor.

Improved EV bracketing. Recent Sony digital SLR cameras were limited to only two automatic bracketing settings: +/- 0.3 EV or +/- 0.7 EV. The Sony A900 allows a full spread of EV options, up to +/- 2.0 EV, a more useful spread.

Interchangeable screens. The Sony A900 comes with a Type G focusing screen, but two additional screens are available: Type M and Type L. Type M, called Super Spherical Acute Matte is superior for discriminating between in-focus and out-of-focus objects, but unfortunately it dims the view somewhat, enough that it's only usable with lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or more. Type L is the same as the very bright Type G, but with a grid for alignment or applying the rule of thirds. As with other digital SLRs that have interchangeable screens, the user has to set the type of screen in Settings menu 3.

Sensor. Sony's Exmor CMOS sensor is what gives the Sony A900 its magic. Above you can see how the A900's size compares to the Sony APS-C-sized sensor. Its pixels are actually larger than the Sony A700's 10-megapixel sensor, which should make for greater ISO sensitivity. The 24.6-megapixel sensor is more than just a sensor, however, as it includes the analog to digital (A/D) conversion circuitry right on board the chip. Over 6,000 A/D converters work in parallel to convert the image data before electronic noise can take hold. That makes for fast data acquisition too.

Processors. From there, the dual Bionz processors take the large files and crank them through fast enough to allow up to five frames per second capture, even in RAW + JPEG capture.

Power like that also allows for sophisticated functions like Peripheral Illumination correction, which fixes vignetting problems in many situations.

AF Sensor array. Blue points are the main AF points, oriented in the direction shown. The green blocks are the supplemental AF points.

AF system. The Sony A900 has a new autofocus system with nine primary autofocus points, and ten supplemental AF points. The user can select the nine AF points, but the ten additional points are used by the system to enhance the performance of the others when the Sony A900 is set to wide-area AF mode. A larger sensor in the center of the frame switches on when lenses of f/2.8 or larger are attached, allowing the system to take advantage of the larger aperture.

If you choose to use the Local AF mode, you can select from the nine AF points in the viewfinder with the joystick on the rear panel. Choose Wide, and the Sony A900 will choose for you. Choose Spot and the Sony A900 uses the more accurate center AF point. See the Optics section for a more detailed discussion of the Sony A900's AF system.

Lens compatibility. While the Sony A900 is compatible with the company's DT-series lenses, many of them, if not most, will vignette significantly with the full frame camera, since they were designed to deliver a smaller image circle to the company's APS-C format cameras. When a DT lens is mounted, the camera automatically captures an APS-C sized frame. Only four thin brackets inside the viewfinder indicate where the cropping will occur; it does not gray-out as seen on the Nikon D3. Incidentally, you can choose to shoot an APS-C sized image when a full-frame lens is mounted in Settings menu 4. The image captured is 11 megapixels maximum in that mode.

Storage and battery. The Sony A900 uses CompactFlash and MemoryStick Pro Duo cards, and the battery pack is the now-standard InfoLITHIUM NP-FM500H, a 7.2V 11.8Wh lithium-ion design.

An optional battery grip is available for the Sony A900, the Sony VG-C90AM, which is light in weight, but increases the height of the overall camera to exceed the height of the Canon 1D-series and Nikon D3.

Still, the battery grip has a few interesting features, including the full array of buttons on the rear that duplicate the controls accessible by the right hand on the camera itself. The Sony Alpha system also uniquely has the unusual second shutter release location that is positioned slightly down from the right corner of the grip, which changes the balance dynamic of the camera. It puts the lens in the same plane with the shutter whether you shoot vertically or horizontally, and does distribute the weight more evenly in both hands if you keep the camera upright and use a lighter lens. The downside is that with a heavy lens, like the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8, most of that weight rests in your left hand.

 

Physical Comparisons

Sony A900 vs Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

Pro configuration: If you're going to be shooting for long periods, a battery grip is a good idea, but it makes the A900 bigger than the comparable EOS 1Ds Mark III. Naturally, you don't have to use the battery grip to enjoy all the quality and speed that the A900 offers.


Sony A900 vs Canon EOS 5D

New vs Old: The Sony A900 is a little bigger than the original Canon EOS 5D, now three years old. Both are large and deliver excellent images, but the Sony Alpha A900 captures quite a bit more detail.

Sony A900 vs Canon Rebel XSi

Big vs Small: Just for good measure, I thought I'd throw in the A900 next to a popular small digital SLR. The Sony A900 is a lot larger than the Canon Rebel XSi.


Using the Sony A900

Though the Sony A900 is large and heavy with the Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 mounted, I quickly came to accept that burden and just enjoyed shooting with the camera. It's a little like moving from driving a nice car to driving a big truck. Handling is different, somewhat unfamiliar at first, even a little ungainly, but soon you're tooling along like you've been driving a big truck for years.

The big Carl Zeiss optic is beautiful, and both looks and feels terribly precise. Focus and zoom rings are tight and smooth. Even the metal and plastic lens shade is perfection. It mounts to the machined bayonet slot tighter than a piston ring and snaps briskly into place.

Its bulkiness almost makes the Sony A900 look a little more primitive, like some kind of early digital SLR design, or else a film camera from an earlier era. It certainly looks different from other cameras on the market, to be sure.

That big optical viewfinder is wonderful, and it does indeed seem to show 100 percent of the frame, to my surprise. Sometimes it was an unwelcome surprise, because I'm used to framing with tighter, less accurate viewfinders. Often when I thought I'd get away without stepping back to include just a little more of the subject's boundaries in a tight shot, I found that the Sony A900 was instead quite faithful to what I saw in the viewfinder. Gone was the slop I had come to count on from other digital SLRs, whose viewfinders seldom show more than 95 percent of the frame.

Controls. Most controls are well-placed, and the dials and wheels have the appropriate resistance. They're not too firm and not too light, and they don't feel cheap. The mode dial is also quite firm, locking into position well. Though I seldom expect much from joystick controls, the Sony A900's joystick is just right. You can toggle in four directions, and press down to activate many controls. It's especially useful for moving the focus point around in a hurry, as well as for navigating the Function menu.

Two controls are not perfectly placed, though. One is the Function button itself. It's a long reach from the joystick to the button, making the onscreen menu more difficult to use than it should be. Also vexing is how after making a change to a menu item, you're not returned to the Function menu display to make another selection; instead you're dropped back into the Status display. If you want to change more than one item, you'll have to make that reach to the Fn button again.

The other occasional problem control is the Depth-of-field preview button, which I have set to serve as the Intelligent Preview button. I too frequently press this button when shifting the heavy A900 from hand to hand, or while turning it to shoot in vertical format. Intelligent preview exposures take a few seconds to expose and appear, meaning that the camera is occupied for those seconds; more dangerous is that the camera will continue to display the image for some time, waiting for input, thus draining the battery without my knowledge.

Intelligent preview. Sony's innovative use of a limited RAW file to create the A900's Intelligent preview is useful in a number of ways. Though it's meant to be used to subtly tweak a sample image before making the real exposure, I found myself using it more often as a substitute for Live View mode when I couldn't get my eye to the viewfinder. I just pressed the Depth-of-field button to make sample exposure after sample exposure until it was framed just right, then pressed the shutter release. Intelligent preview is really better used for tripod work, where your framing is already set. It's designed to let you pick just the right white balance, exposure compensation, or DRO mode. If you're in Aperture priority mode, you can also adjust your aperture -- though you won't see a depth-of-field change; it's not that good. Similarly, you can adjust Shutter speed if in Shutter priority mode. Of course in Manual mode, you can adjust everything. Intelligent preview is pretty useful.

Many Sony A900 users will wonder why they can't just save the image they've tweaked, rather than take another exposure. The simple answer is that the A900 only captures a very limited-resolution RAW file to make quick, on-camera processing easier, thus delivering an adjusted image to the LCD as fast as you need it. If you accidentally captured that perfect smile when you pressed the Intelligent preview button, though, you'll just have to say goodbye to perfection and try again.

Small AF area.

Shooting. Despite its size, the Sony A900 is really fun to shoot. The big viewfinder makes looking around in your potential image more like detail work than a rough framing job, as it is with most digital SLRs. You can carefully consider what's in focus, and select another focus point by moving the joystick (provided you've chosen to use Local AF area mode) to another position. As with the Canon 5D, the diamond-shaped AF array is small for the overall viewfinder area, which isn't as good for portrait compositions as you'll find in the A700 or Canon 40D, for example, as it's harder to get an AF point close to one of the subject's eyes in a head-and-shoulders shot.

The shutter sound tells of a very large mirror, one moving as fast as its large size will allow. We're told that the mirror is extra large not just for the full frame, but also to deliver that 100% viewfinder area.

Mirror. The Sony A900's mirror lifts rather than swings up thanks to a special hinge. Click the small mirror icon in the lower left corner to see animation. Animation courtesy Sony Electronics.

The mirror lifts, rather than flips up. It's a pretty cool compromise, necessary to accommodate the large SteadyShot engine, we're told, while still allowing that large mirror. The sound is just a simple click-click, with no winding sound, so it feels nostalgic and does the job without a lot of fanfare. Viewfinder blackout time is supposed to be improved, but it's still a little slower than I like. Again, it's a big mirror.

The Sony A900 is also able to shoot up to five frames per second, quite a feat for a 24.6-megapixel camera with a full-frame sensor. Its 1/8,000 second shutter speed makes it an impressive action camera, rivaling its more expensive high-res competition, the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, which also captures five frames per second. The shutter mechanism is rated for 100,000 cycles.

Checking. Seeing whether you got the shot after capture is key, and of course the Sony A900's high-res 3-inch LCD really helps on that score. You always have to be careful with transflective displays, however, especially in sunlight. This can be complicated by using DRO modes, which, combined with the transflective display's metallic look, can make you think a shot is washed out more than it is. You can get used to this, and adjust accordingly, as I have, but checking the histogram is also a good habit, as is taking a few extra shots or shooting RAW when the work is critical.

Touching the Custom button (marked with a C) toggles on the Histogram screen, along with most of the exposure data. You get not just a luminance histogram, but red, green, and blue as well to help you gauge color casts.

You can zoom in by pressing the AF/MF button and turning the rear command dial. Zoom level starts at 1.2x and goes to 19x.

One disadvantage to the Playback system on a 24.6-megapixel camera is that it's very slow to bring an image up, especially if it's still writing to the card. I've pressed the Playback button a second time, and then a third, only to have the image finally flash to the screen after three seconds, then disappear for another two seconds, then reappear. Sometimes it gets even worse before I remember to just wait five or six seconds to see where the camera is in the cycle.

Once images are saved to the card, flipping between them is easy, and very fast. Just don't get stuck in Index mode, activated with the Display button. It takes some time to bring up those five thumbnails across the top. It's convenient if you have time, but not if you don't.

Tricked out. Thought I'd include a little eye candy, with the Sony A900 outfitted with a Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G, the Sony HVL-F58AM flash, and the VG-C90AM battery grip. With two batteries in the grip, the combination weighs 7.63 pounds (3,464g).

The function of the front and rear control dials varies from menu to menu, which can often leave you spinning the dial in vain waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it's one dial, sometimes it's the other, and sometimes it's both. In cases where only one dial controls a given function, it would make more sense for Sony to allow both dials to control the function.

Size has a price. There are those who go for the biggest and the best, and they're likely to slap down their largest credit card on the Sony A900 for 24.6 million little reasons. But while they're at it, I suggest they check their computer hardware and either upgrade or at least invest in redundant, multi-terabyte disks, because the Sony A900's files are huge. A typical outing for me is filling a 4GB card in a hot hurry. Some of that's shooting RAW, some of it is just the JPEGs I shoot, which average from 7 to 18MB each. Yes, I said 18MB.

Thankfully, Sony at least planned for the larger files and created a USB download pathway that is probably the fastest we've ever tested, moving 12,928KBytes per second. Still, when you take as many test shots as we do, it's a huge ordeal to move all these images around. The sample photos we've posted total almost 4GB of data.

Sony A900 Image Quality

I shot the Sony A900 for about two weeks, and some of that time I shot the Canon 1Ds Mark III, it's only resolution rival in this format, alongside. I don't need to tell those who've used a heavy pro camera what an investment that is in time and exertion. But I love cameras, so I'm not complaining.

Before I continue my simple analysis, which is bolstered by the other, more in-depth tabs to this review, remember that the Sony A900 is a $3,000 digital SLR intended for both pros and enthusiasts, while the Canon 1Ds Mark III is an $8,000 camera really only meant for pros.

First, the Sony A900's image quality is truly awe-inspiring. Opening a file in Photoshop and hitting Command + to get to 100% reminds me of that scene in Blade Runner when Deckard uses the Esper photoanalysis machine. If you know the film, you'll remember that he finds tremendous detail in the print photograph from the year 2019: "Enhance 57 to 19. Track 45 left. Stop. Enhance 15 to 23. Give me a hard copy right there." In the end, he's found a reflection in the mirror that gives him an important clue.

While I'm not doing my searching via voice command (that old technology that didn't take hold for most), it takes six enlargements to make it from 12.5 percent in portrait orientation to the 100 percent I need to check focus. The image is 4,032 x 6,048, for goodness sake.

Wide detail.

Most astonishing was to take a 24mm wide-angle photo of the World of Coke in Atlanta from across a large field and be able to almost recognize faces standing near the building. You'd actually be able to recognize them, I'm convinced, had I not focused on the buildings in the background. And look at the detail in those buildings! Take anything to 100 percent, and it doesn't seem like a big deal, of course, but start dragging around in the frame once you're there, and you start to appreciate just how much the Sony A900 has captured.

Now let's compare the Sony A900 to the Canon 1Ds Mark III. I shot both with a Sigma 70mm f/2.8, the lab lenses we use for SLRgear.com testing to get more reliable results. In terms of JPEG shots, the Sony produces larger images that are sharper, especially with the defaults from both cameras, but if you bring both to 100 percent and move around in the images, you'll find they're nearly the same. After all, it's only 3.5 million pixels between the two, and when you get out to 21 megapixels, adding a few more doesn't have that large of an effect. Detail is detail, though, and the Sony does appear to give you more at low ISOs. Some of the difference in the images below is in the sharpness, heavily dependent on the default sharpening, and the presence of luminance and red channel noise from the Sony A900, where the Canon 1Ds Mark III does a little better with those artifacts.

Here are a few samples to get you started, but be sure to explore the full test results on the other tabs, where we go into much greater depth.

Sony A900 Detail vs Canon 1Ds Mark III

The top three images are cropped from a single Sony A900 image, the bottom are from the Canon 1Ds Mark III (note that the sensor in our Mark III is tilted noticeably). Both shots are with a Sigma 70mm f/2.8. Note that the size of elements is larger due to the higher pixel count from the Sony A900. You can see a little more detail in the brick from the Sony images, and the grass is a bit sharper. Naturally you can get more detail from both cameras with RAW capture.

Sony A900 High-contrast detail vs Canon 1Ds Mark III

Here's another detail shot with a more high-contrast subject. You can see a little more texture in the rock from the Sony A900 image on top, and it appears that DRO is doing some work on the darker parts of the stone. Both have pretty strong detail at f/8, though.


Sony A900 ISO series vs Canon 1Ds Mark III

Lest you think the Sony A900 has completely bested the 1DS Mark III, here is a series from ISO 200 to 800 from both cameras, with the Sony at the top. You can see that the Sony loses a little more detail as it moves into ISO 800 than the Canon does. And remember, the Canon's lowest "approved" ISO setting is ISO 100. Still, considering the resolution, we're really pixel-peeping here, but that's the only way to compare two very high quality cameras like these. To see how both cameras perform at higher ISOs, see our High ISO NR page.

Analysis. Does the superior resolution of the A900 overcome some of the noise issues we see? Yes and no, but what makes a bigger difference is turning down the A900's sharpening all the way and sharpening later in Photoshop, where you have greater control, something the 1Ds's defaults are already tuned for. Of course, you can also shoot RAW and process those for greater quality from either camera.

ISO 800. To put the above shots in perspective, ISO 800 didn't hurt this shot much, taken handheld in low light. Had I not looked at the EXIF header, I wouldn't know it was ISO 800. Taken at 24mm f/2.8 at 1/30 second, it's also testament to the high quality of the Sony Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8.

We've done a more extensive analysis with comparison shots in the Exposure section, and delved deeper into the Sony A900's High ISO noise reduction versus that of the 1Ds under the sub-tab titled High ISO NR. Overall, the 1Ds comes out on top with greater detail, but it's darn close.

What's sure is that the Sony A900 is a fit rival for Canon's best camera, which costs $5,000 more. I had a great time shooting with the camera, and almost as fun looking at the images afterward. The Sony A900 is the current resolution leader in 35mm-equivalent digital SLR cameras, and it doesn't look like that's going to change soon. We'll have to see whether the competition has anything else up its sleeve to beat this. As the last set of pictures above shows, it's not all about resolution, but high ISO performance is a very important factor as well.

What will be interesting is seeing the photos people will be able to make with such a high resolution digital camera.

As I've said of other Sony digital SLRs, what's nice about them is that they're relatively easy to use, and simple to learn as well. A well designed menu system, along with the Quick Navi screen make tweaking settings fast and clear, and now the new Intelligent Preview mode makes short work of complicated shots, making it a little easier to pay attention to the small details as you set up a shot.

Shooting with the Sony Alpha A900 can be summed up in one word: Satisfying.

 

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Sony A900 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Extraordinary resolution, nothing touches it at its price point
  • Built-in SteadyShot image stabilization
  • Surprisingly fast, given the amount of data the camera is pushing around
  • Good color rendering: Natural without seeming flat
  • A lot of nice user interface touches, well thought out controls
  • Intelligent Preview feature is a real time-saver for determining best camera settings
  • +/- 2 EV steps on auto bracketing is nice for HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooters
  • Sony finally made their RAW files be truly RAW! (Able to turn off high-ISO noise reduction in the RAW files)
  • True 100% pentaprism viewfinder
  • Huge viewfinder image, really hearkens back to the days of film SLRs (in a good way)
  • User interchangeable focusing screens
  • Lighter than the only other full-frame in its resolution class (Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III)
  • Rugged magnesium alloy body
  • 3.0-inch, high-resolution LCD
  • Top panel LCD (albeit a small one)
  • Dramatically low price for a full-frame camera with this much resolution
  • HDMI output
  • Good battery life
  • Dual memory card formats
  • Some image noise even at ISO 200
  • At anything above ISO 200, noise limits maximum print size before resolution becomes an issue.
  • High-ISO performance doesn't match that of Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (Which is also 2.6x as expensive though)
  • Dynamic range of JPEGs less than that of many current models, though excellent dynamic range from RAW files
  • Noticeable delay when switching from record to playback mode is annoying
  • Despite being much lighter than its's only competitor, still a big, heavy hunk of metal and glass (not the camera's fault, just a fact of life with full-frame.)
  • No built-in flash (not unusual for a pro model though)
  • APS-C mode does not improve burst speed
  • Exposure accuracy may suffer with DT lenses in APS-C mode
  • No Live View mode

 

Sony started the year promising a lot for their flagship camera. We didn't have a name, nor a long list of features, but we did know that the sensor would be a 24.6-megapixel design that was expected to impress. It certainly has done that.

The Sony A900 is a formidable camera. It's big, which won't work for everyone, but I found it more than bearable with my medium-sized hands, and even my daughter had no trouble hefting the A900 with the 24-70mm f/2.8 attached and firing off a few frames.

If you want the most pixels in a small package, the Sony A900 is where you'll find it. It's bulky, but less so than the more expensive 1Ds Mark III, and that makes it easier to bring along. I enjoyed shooting with the 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss so much that I recommend it if you can afford it. I recently attached the 18-70mm kit lens that comes with the A200, and the A900 felt quite a bit more bearable, though I can only imagine that high-res sensor would reveal all the flaws in that less-expensive lens.

Image quality is Sony's best so far; not just in terms of resolution, but also in controlling their impulse to squelch all noise at the expense of detail. You can even turn off the high-ISO noise suppression that was once inaccessible.

Not only is the viewfinder so big and beautiful that you think you might fall in, the image quality has the same effect when you view the images on your computer. With the ability to capture full frame images at a high clip, the Sony A900 is one impressive image maker, and a certain Dave's Pick.

 

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