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Sony A100 review

Konica Minolta owners will be delighted. After Nikon, Canon and Pentax, their brand has now released a digital SLR that fits their collection of lenses. Except it is now called Sony.

When last year Konica Minolta ceased making film and photo paper and subsequently announced that they would stop manufacturing cameras altogether, Sony was quick to step in and bought the company's camera division. To further the partnership that had started some time earlier, Sony will continue to manufacture cameras compatible with Konica Minolta lenses.

frontal view of Sony A100 rear view of Sony A100

As a result of this they have now released the Sony Alpha 100, a 10.2 megapixel DSLR with full specs and more than a striking resemblance to the last Konica Minolta Dynax / Maxxum 5D. Apart from an advanced "anti-dust" system, Eye-start auto focus and Super SteadyShot feature, the camera uses Minolta's A-type bayonet mount - now called the "Alpha mount" - enabling a large back catalogue of existing Minolta lenses to be used.

Using the Sony A100

The sturdy polycarbonate body of the Sony A100 is molded around a metal frame with soft corners and sweeping lines. It has just the right size, with substantial dials and buttons for comfortable handling. On our usual trip around the camera, the first thing to notice is the comfortable chunky rubber handgrip, which provides a firm and balanced grip to the camera. The top of the body shows two large dials. The function dial on the left controls Metering, Flash, Dynamic Range, Focusing, ISO, Color settings and White Balance, whereas the program dial on the right houses the six Scene modes, Aperture and Shutter priority settings as well as Auto, Program and Manual modes. The flash on top of the camera doubles as an AF assist light in dark conditions but has to be raised manually. The hot shoe will only take dedicated Konica Minolta/Sony flashes, so no third party alternatives here. The shutter release is located where your index finger would rest naturally with a control dial for adjusting function parameters just in front of it and the drive mode button just behind it.

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The use of a secondary dial for much used functions such as WB, ISO and metering is a good idea, as it avoids having to consult the camera menu every time you want to change parameters. Some manufacturers have resolved this problem by using dedicated buttons on the camera back but we prefer that we can change all the camera features in one location, keeping things uncluttered and simple. We did notice however that the high gloss finish of these dials can make reading them rather difficult under certain lighting angles when they are highly reflective. The camera menu is clearly laid out with separate tabs for image related functions and camera settings that can be controlled by the 4-way switch.

The back of the camera houses a large 230,000 pixel LCD with four dedicated buttons for Menu, Display, Delete and Preview to the left and the familiar four way controller to the right. This doubles as navigator for the various menu functions and in preview mode shows recorded pictures, rotates an image or calls up a histogram and other image info. Under your thumb you will find two further buttons for exposure compensation over +/- 2 stops in 1/3EV increments and AE-lock. The on/off switch is located in the top left corner at the back while the Super SteadyShot function has a switch in the bottom right hand corner.

There is no separate LCD panel on the top plate of the camera but all info can be found on the large 2.5-inch LCD screen on the back. This has an anti-reflective coating and we had no trouble previewing images in direct light. In recording mode it shows all image information in large print and clear icons and this can be enlarged as well, which will be appreciated by people with less than perfect eyes. The viewfinder, which has a removable rubber eye cup and shows 95% of the image, comes with a dioptre adjustment of -2.5 to +1 and conveniently shows all exposure information along the bottom of the image. Just below the viewfinder eyepiece are the sensors for Eye-start auto focus.

In use the Sony A100 feels quick and power on time is almost instant, though not as fast as on some other DSLR cameras. Continuous shooting is almost 3fps and with a fast CF-card you can keep shooting an unlimited amount of JPEG images until the card is full. Write times to card are mighty quick as well. When switching off, the camera activates the anti-dust system by shaking the CCD quickly to knock off any dust on the sensor. In addition the sensor is protected with a low-pass filter coated with indium tin oxide - an anti-static coating that helps to repel dust. Note that Sony has opted to apply this function when switching off while Olympus E-series cameras use an ultrasonic system that comes into action when turning on the camera.

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The A100 has all the conventional exposure modes. There is a full Auto mode where the camera takes over and makes all the important decisions for you. We find Program, Aperture and Shutter priority and full Manual. We noticed that when using the internal flash (GN12/ISO100), shutter speed is always set to a fixed 1/60s. To record an image with slow sync flash you should press and hold the AE-lock button which then sets a shutter speed according to available light. There is no easy way to use studio flash on the Alpha 100, but the intended user group will probably find no need for this as the Sony is meant to be an entry level DSLR. For those who would need this feature a separate hot shoe adapter is available. Scene modes include Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, NightPortrait and Sunset.

One of the advanced functions to be found on the Alpha 100 is Super SteadyShot. This enables you to use slower shutter speeds than you could on an unstabilized camera. Instead of being built into the lens as is customary with these systems, Sony has opted to implement it into the camera body, so nearly every lens used can benefit from this function. The Super SteadyShot function stabilizes the CCD by moving the sensor in reaction to movement of the camera body. Along the bottom of the viewfinder a five indicator bar graphically shows the amount of action needed by the SSS system to counteract camera movement. Sony claim an advantage of 3.5 stops over conventional cameras, but we found the gain to be nearer 2 stops, which is still worthwhile as it will allow you to use a slower ISO speed of 100 instead of 400 for higher image quality or a shutter speed of say 1/15 that delivers the same result as a shot taken at 1/60. Don't expect Super SteadyShot to perform miracles though as it can only deal with certain types of "shake" and for critical use we would still recommend a decent camera support such as a sturdy tripod or a shutter speed that matches the lenses focal length, so 1/300s or faster for a tele of 300mm (35mm eq.).

Another useful function is Dynamic Range Optimization. In Standard mode - which is the default camera setting incidentally - this system automatically adjusts brightness and contrast of the whole image. In Advanced mode the complete image is analyzed and certain image areas selectively adjusted - similar to digital dodging and burning - to bring shadow areas in line with the brighter parts of an image. The system works well in most image situations and offers quite an improvement over standard exposure modes. We feel however that the effect of Standard DRO is sometimes too small to make much difference whereas in other situations it could brighten image parts too much causing a burnt out sky for instance. Although Advanced DRO mode is the more worthwhile of the two it should not be applied to all images as it can sometimes produce a slightly overprocessed effect. Besides in certain lighting situations some shadow areas can be too dense for DR+ to have a noticeable effect. It should be mentioned that Dynamic Range Optimization cannot be used when shooting in RAW or RAW+JPEG, full Manual or while using centre-weighted or spot metering. In addition to this, ISO speeds should be between 100 and 400.


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The Alpha 100 comes with a useable ISO range of 100 to 1600 and besides this there are Hi200 and Lo80 settings. In line with the DRO function the Hi200 and Lo80 settings also control dynamic range of an image or Zone Matching as Sony prefer to call it. Put simply, the Lo80 setting is meant to keep low key images dark, but boosts shadow areas to emphasize detail there, while the Hi200 function keeps a high key image light while preserving highlight detail.

Shutter release pressure on the Sony appeared to be quite a bit more than we have seen on other cameras we tested in the past. While this makes the difference between focusing and actually capturing the image easier - there is no risk of firing the shutter by accident - the pressure required takes some getting used to in order to avoid camera shake in critical situations. Also we found the shutter and mirror quite noisy, as a distinct clunk can be heard when the mirror locks up and an image is captured.

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Focusing was quick and exceptionally accurate in most situations, but we found it to be a bit slower with the Anti-Shake function applied. The camera obviously needs some time to steady the sensor in relation to the camera's movement. At the same time we seemed to have an issue with locking the exposure. When half-pressing the shutter to focus you can expect exposure to be locked as well. In our case it mostly did, but then again sometimes it didn't. On some cameras this function is customizable in the menu, but even the printed manual did not clarify things for us here, as there was no mention of a customizable function of the shutter release. Naturally the AE-lock button can be customized to act as a hold or toggle switch, but we couldn't find anything about the shutter release in relation to this. This phenomenon seemed to occur rather erratically and rather puzzled us.

In the Sony A100 box

Well let's take a look at what you get for your money. First there is the Alpha 100 camera body bundled with the Sony f/3.5-5.6 18-70mm DT zoom lens. There is no memory card with the camera but you can use the familiar CF cards which can now be had for a song almost. To satisfy those dedicated Sony users who have made their entry into the DSLR world a CF adapter which holds a Memory Stick Duo or ProDuo card is included with the camera. Really thoughtful of Sony.

Power supply is by Sony's proprietary NP-FM55H 11.5Wh lithium-ion battery, which according to Sony should be good for about 750 shots between charges (CIPA std). We managed about 550 images before a recharge was needed, and the supplied charger then needs about 175 minutes to bring the battery back to normal power again. An extra battery grip will not be available for the Alpha 100.

The usual array of cables and connectors are included as well as an extensive printed user's guide which explains all the finer points of the camera in great detail. Connectivity is by USB 2.0 High Speed and transfer of images is quick and easy on Mac and PC platforms. Software includes Picture Motion Browser (PC only) which lets you catalogue images in folders and perform some basic photo editing like cropping, adjusting brightness, contrast or saturation. Then there is Image Data Converter SR. This is the program to use for converting RAW image data on Mac or Windows. Here it is possible to adjust virtually every RAW property you can think of, including WB, exposure, color and sharpness.

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A whole host of accessories can be had for the Sony Alpha 100. These range from proprietary camera cases, flash guns and flash accessories to remote control commanders, an angle finder and lenses. There are now 19 lenses available for the Alpha 100 and Sony are rebranding many popular Konica/Minolta lenses to form a complete Alpha system. They are also working with Carl Zeiss to produce three more high end lenses which will be available in the near future.

Image quality

The Sony A100 comes with a Sony DT f/3.5-5.6 18-70mm zoom lens, which produces nice results throughout its entire zoom range. There is some barrel distortion at the wide end and just a tiny bit of pincushioning at the tele end. There was no sign of vignetting or purple fringing in our test shots. Actually a very good performance for this kit lens. All images showed good sharpness and excellent color rendition. Sharpness, contrast and saturation can be beefed up or toned down over +/- two steps. Low ISO levels were virtually noise free and it was only at ISO 800 and above that noise became clearly evident. However we found even those images taken at ISO 1600 to be perfectly useable albeit with some loss of fine detail and color saturation (of the sample images of the group of sculptures above).

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Exposure was generally good with a nice balance between shadow and highlight detail. We did notice however that from time to time the metering was influenced by a smaller part of an image that was brighter than the rest, which confused the meter and led to under exposure. The effect was comparable to what we found on the Olympus E300 in our tests of February 2005. The effect seemed to manifest itself rather erratically and is clearly visible on the LCD screen, which gives you the opportunity to try again. This problem only occurred when using multi-segment metering mode and was absent with centre-weighted or spot metering.

The Sony A100 sports a complete set of White Balance settings. There are six presets; a full Manual setting from 2500 to 9900 degrees Kelvin and a custom setting to be used in combination with a white or grey card. WB worked perfectly in our tests shots and we never needed to use anything else but Auto. There is WB bracketing and each setting can be fine-tuned by +/- three steps to suit individual preferences.

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Conclusion

Seeing that this is Sony's first step into the digital SLR market, albeit with the help of Konica/Minolta technology, the Sony A100 is an excellent camera for those wanting to try their hands at DSLR photography. Of course if you already own Konica/Minolta lenses, buying an Alpha 100 would be your natural course of action as you can use most of your older lenses. However for other users we feel the Alpha 100 offers enough advanced features to satisfy both beginners and enthusiasts. You get the very useable Super SteadyShot feature, an advanced anti-dust system; the Handy Dynamic Range Optimizer and superb handling and control.

General camera performance is excellent with quick focusing and good color rendition. The few niggles we had with the Alpha 100 during our tests are really small beer and should not be serious enough to put you off buying one. However the competition is quite strong at the moment with entry level models available from most major manufacturers at very reasonable prices. Therefore we would advise you to try your hands at other models as well and see which one suits your needs best before you decide.


Additional information: Sony A100 product details and other reviews
September 17, 2006

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