The 10-megapixel Alpha 100 is Sony's first digital SLR since the acquisition of Konica Minolta and features in-camera, CCD-based image stabilisation and compatibility with Konica Minolta lenses.
When Sony launched the Alpha system it also announced that it was to launch a range of 20 lenses during the year. The electronics giant also made a marketing statement of intent: Sony wanted 10% of the market in the first year, followed by the number-two position, before challenging Canon for the top spot in year three. Eveoin though that always sounded ambitious, just look at how Sony managed to capture the games market, displacing both Sega and Nintendo with its PlayStation brand.
Sony is a big player, with huge resources and a trusted brand name. It now also has Konica Minolta’s expertise and has added the respected Carl Zeiss brand to the name. Zeiss is one of the oldest German optical manufacturers, and has already worked with Sony designing the lenses for its Cyber-shot range of compacts.
It’s abundantly clear that Sony has a well-thought out and ambitious strategy, but does it have the product to match?
Featuring a Sony-manufactured 10MP CCD sensor, the A100 finds itself rubbing shoulders with the Nikon D200 and Pentax K10D. It’s worth mentioning, however, that Sony is the major supplier of CCDs to the DSLR market – in fact, most of the current mid-range DSLRs (including the Nikon D200), except Canon and Olympus, contain Sony chips.
In addition, the Alpha 100 benefits from Sony’s Super SteadyShot technology, which we previously knew as Konica Minolta’s AntiShake CCD. This image-stabilisation system moves the CCD instead of the optics to counteract camera shake. Sony has refined the system to offer slower shutter speeds of up to 31/2 stops slower than we’d normally achieve – useful for low light and/or long lenses. As a rule, the slowest shutter speed would traditionally have been set at around the same number of the lens focal length, ie 200mm lens and 1/250sec. With this system, it would be around 1/25sec. Of course, we need to allow for the equivalent focal length because of the smaller sensor; so if the lens is 300mm, the slowest recommended shutter would be about 1/40sec.
Expanded Dynamic Range
Another major feature of the camera is an expanded Dynamic Range (DR) feature, which maintains detail in shadows and highlights that would normally be lost in high-contrast conditions. For example, with a backlit subject, you’d usually spot-meter for it to preserve the detail, losing the background highlights that fall outside the sensor’s recording capability. The DR function is theoretically able to record some of that lost detail by isolating those pixels and amplifying or reducing the signal.
This is similar to the idea of ‘digital flash’ seen in compact cameras from Nikon and HP, as well as in many camera phones. There’s little reason, other than technological limitations, why all cameras could not adopt this by splitting a CCD into independent zones and adjusting exposure on a pixel-by-pixel basis, thus eradicating under- and overexposure and loss of image detail. One day, everyone will have photographs with perfect tonal ranges.
Like the Dynax 5D, Sony has kept the eye-start function: when you hold the camera to your eye, the LCD shuts off and the viewfinder information displays. A new addition is that the AF also kicks in at this point so the subject is in focus before your finger even touches the shutter-release button. Actually this is something that Konica Minolta had in the Nineties; Sony has just brought it back. Additionally, every time the camera is turned on, the CCD shakes to dislodge any dust that might have attached to it, which is also combined with a new anti-static filter over the sensor to discourage dust from landing in the first place.
Inside the camera is a new Bionz processor that Sony claims offers reduced noise, accurate colour, contrast and saturation to produce ‘vivid yet natural’ images. Sony has also brought its battery know-how to the table and the Alpha 100 comes with a long-life stamina battery, offering 750 shots per charge.
Finally on to the lenses. A few are available, including a 18-70mm kit lens (£699 for body and lens) and a 70-300mm available as part of a dual lens kit (£849). The year ahead should see a barrage of 20 lenses including those Carl Zeiss optics. Sony took over the Minolta lens factory, and all the lenses rebranded. The two Sony lines include the DT range and the premium G range – note that the lettering continues that of Konica Minolta lenses.
The Sony Alpha range uses the old Minolta AF mount, henceforth to be known as the Alpha mount. The good news is that the two are mutually compatible, so Konica Minolta users still have access to new objectives as and when they appear. Even better news for the Konica Minolta fan is that the new Carl Zeiss T* lenses will also be compatible, offering potentially world-beating German optics for the first time.
Similarities to Konica 5D
While the A100 draws heavily from the Konica Minolta Dynax 5D, Sony has modernised the body and added some Sony ‘style’. The body is more curvy and the body finish is an attractive matt, as opposed to the 5D’s rather plasticky looking semi-gloss finish. Curves aside, the cameras do share a verisimilitude, particularly on the back with an almost identical layout. The button layout is very clean and simple, with a sparseness that fails to intimidate. Sony has improved the buttons and dials, in particular the control pad and top-plate mode dials, which share the same shiny, high-quality milled look of cameras such as the F828
and R1, though these dials are formed from plastic.
The right-side mode dial has the usual array of M,A,S,P and scene modes, while the left-hand dial offers quick access to oft-used functions such as metering, flash, focus patterns, ISO, WB, Dynamic Range and digital controls. A central function button then displays the chosen function on the LCD, while the forward control dial on the right side allows you to make the appropriate setting within that function. This is one of the unique features of the Alpha’s design, and is a nice system to use, keeping the whole camera neat and manageable.
The 2.5-inch LCD monitor has an anti-reflection coating to aid viewing in bright light, and is made up of 230,000 pixels for sharp and bright image viewing. This is one of the best screens I’ve used for a while. Apart from image previews, of course, the LCD displays the menu, in this case almost identical to the Konica Minolta system, but surprisingly less bright, which I found a problem, especially in sunshine. It also displays all the shooting information, when the camera is away from the eye, with aperture, shutter, remaining shots, WB, battery, exposure compensation, and more displayed. Again, this is dimmer than the 5D,
but still shares the same clever auto-orientation system: when the camera is turned to portrait format, the LCD information also rotates to make it easier to read.
The first thing we noticed when we started to use the camera is the sound of the shutter: it’s not the quietest with a definite ‘ker-ching’ quality. In continuous drive mode at 3fps, it’s much noisier than many of its rivals are, so we wouldn’t want to use this camera if you want to be unobtrusive – during a wedding ceremony, say.
The continuous drive is, though, one of the camera’s strong points. We managed to rattle off a continuous burst for a full minute with no interruption at 3fps in highest quality JPEG on a SanDisk Extreme III card – no mean feat considering the file size. Even in RAW, the camera shoots at a reasonable pace over the minute, though it slows to around 2fps after the first 10 seconds or so. Again, this is impressive considering that the compressed RAW file is around 8-10MB in size.
AF and Eye-Start
Other departments turn out well, too. The AF is quick and responsive; only the usual flat, low-contrast subjects gave the AF any problems, when it began to hunt, as does almost every camera’s AF. What we like about the AF eye-start system is that as soon as the camera goes to the eye, the autofocus kicks in and the subject is in focus. What we don’t like is that if you have the camera on a strap over your shoulder or round your neck, and don’t turn it off, the camera keeps focusing as the sensors are activated. The only option is to turn the power off, or turn off the eye-start in the set-up menu – in which case why bother having it at all? Maybe an external button to turn it off would be good, but then that would also defeat the object.
We were reasonably pleased by the low level of image noise in the photographs we took. From ISO 100 to ISO 400 there’s little, though it begins to creep into the shadows as the gain is raised. ISO 800 is still perfectly usable, while ISO 1600 shows noticeable noise. The same sensor in the Nikon D200 seems to perform better too.
Tone and Contrast
JPEGS from the camera in daylight look bright and punchy with pleasant, warm tones. Skin tones are healthy and bright.
Colour and White Balance
Auto White Balance is less accurate in mixed lighting, for example daylight and tungsten, so we’d recommend using manual white balance in critical conditions. The camera has a tendency to increase warmth and saturation in JPEGs, with a 125% saturation figure, recording in our tests, which is on the slightly high side, but within acceptable limits to match consumer tastes. Raw files respond better, and any margins of error in white balance can be better corrected in the alpha RAW software. The camera also has a Vivid mode, which boosts saturation further, along with contrast, and slightly increases sharpness.
Value For Money
More for the Money
Like Konica Minolta cameras, the Sony Alpha 100 features more technology than most of its counterparts. At this moment in time, it stands head and shoulders above its nearest-priced competitors, most of which are 6MP or 8MP models. It also features built-in image stabilisation, which is sure to appeal to some people, and is certainly more cost-effective than buying expensive stabilised lenses.
Unfortunately the build quality, while good, fails to match that of the Nikon D70s or the Olympus E330, say – the problem is, it is essentially a mid-market model, in an entry-level body.
It’s always exciting to see the very first camera from a new (to this market) company. Sony’s reputation in consumer electronics whipped up a lot of hype in this camera, some of which is deserved, but generally overblown.
Yes, this is a lovely camera, and boasts more pixels per pound than anyone else. That will change by the end of 2008 though, and the same chip in another model may be more interesting. Sony has played it a little too safe by essentially relaunching the Dynax 5D with a new chip and some extra features. Maybe when it has time to stamp its own design ethos onto SLRs we’ll see something more impressive. A good start with more than reasonable results, though.